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Quarterly Report: Ragged play of lockout ball pervades season

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Mike Brown isn't living up to expectations as the best coach for the Lakers following Phil Jackson. (Getty Images)  
Mike Brown isn't living up to expectations as the best coach for the Lakers following Phil Jackson. (Getty Images)  

The first quarter of this NBA-season-we-never-thought-we'd-have has been, um, interesting to say the least. Interesting for some good reasons, some surprising ones and, yes, some that are quite unsightly.

Have you seen some of these games? The Lakers' dramatic victory over the defending champion Mavericks a week ago was the perfect example. All anyone will remember is Derek Fisher's tiebreaking 3-pointer with 3.1 seconds left. But the first 47 minutes, 56.9 seconds? Brutal. Two of the supposed elite teams in the league barely broke 70 points, and neither shot better than 40 percent.

Welcome to lockout ball, an alternative universe where drama and cohesion have been trumped by ragged play and, worse, injuries. The schedule of 66 games crammed into 124 days -- with back-to-back-to-backs, five games in six nights, and upside-down travel itineraries -- already is taking its toll.

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As expected, the teams with young legs, depth and a history together are faring fine. (Note the Bulls, Heat, 76ers and Pacers in the East and the Thunder and Nuggets in the West). Older teams (Boston) or teams with little depth or continuity (Knicks, Lakers) are probably beginning to wish that divisive union attorney Jeffrey Kessler had attended that final bargaining session on Nov. 26, which might have led to a canceled season.

As it is, the 149-day lockout will wind up being longer than the season itself, and no team will be immune to the hangover effects.

Already stars like Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade have missed significant time with injuries, while the contending Hawks lost Al Horford for 3-4 months with a torn pectoral muscle. Chris Paul is in and out of the lineup; Dirk Nowitzki is taking some time to rest his aching knee and find his conditioning; the Thunder lost backup point guard Eric Maynor to a season-ending knee injury; and Carmelo Anthony is hobbled by a sore wrist and ankle that may force him to the bench for a much-needed rest. (Melo, who is questioning his shot selection, is 35-for-105 from the field while dealing with those injuries.) The Spurs are without Manu Ginobili, though his broken shooting hand was more of a freak injury that could've happened regardless of the circumstances.

"Once we get through this year, we get back to a normal schedule," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "But I don't want anyone to get hurt. Right now, except for Al Horford, they're not injuries [so much as] strains and pulls. Those are livable injuries. What I'm always concerned with is later, when the fatigue part of it comes in. And those type of injuries scare me."

Whether the schedule will have a cumulative effect on the health of the players and the quality of the playoffs when they begin in late April is something that coaches are forced to consider. And with the games coming so quickly, there will be more after-effects of the compressed schedule as teams fall out of contention. Some, like the Celtics and Lakers, may be forced to make hasty moves at the March 15 trade deadline to either find a spark or pack it in for the future. Some team executives are wondering if, with an unusually strong draft approaching, teams that fall out of contention will rest their stars in a blatant effort to blow off the shortened season and tank for a chance at higher draft picks.

So at the quarter pole of this 66-game sprint, there has been some good, some bad and plenty of ugly. Here's the way I see it in my first quarterly report of the 2011-12 season, the season that almost wasn't.

MVP: LeBron James, Heat. Someone put it best the other day when they said basically this: Playing without Dwyane Wade makes LeBron James better, but doesn't necessarily make the Heat better. Once again, this is a dynamic Miami is going to have to smooth over once Wade is back in the lineup consistently. But in the meantime, we've once again been fortunate enough to glimpse James' full array of gifts with him as the lone dominant force on the floor. Ah, memories ...

MVP dark horse: Dwight Howard, Magic. The man has 11 double-doubles in 15 games, including five 20-point, 20-rebound games and a 45-point, 23-rebound performance against Golden State. He frightens me.

Best rookie: Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers. The No. 1 pick has been consistently good, scoring in double figures in 14 straight games -- 10 of those on the road.

Rookie dark horse: MarShon Brooks, Nets. The young fella isn't much for defense or passing yet, but he's putting on quite a show as the Nets' second-leading scorer (15.4 points per game) behind Deron Williams. Also, we can't overlook the electrifying Ricky Rubio, even though he probably won't be consistent enough to steal the hardware from Kyrie Irving. (Rubio went 2-for-19 over a two-game stretch last week.)

Biggest surprise: Utah Jazz. Like the Nuggets, the Jazz are demonstrating that you can trade your superstar and not only be competitive, but in the hunt for the playoffs. Tyrone Corbin has extended the culture created by Jerry Sloan, and while the defensive consistency isn't there yet, Utah is 11th in offensive efficiency with 102.3 points per 100 possessions.

Biggest letdown: New York Knicks. At the other end of that surprise spectrum is the Knicks, whose teaming of Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler has been disastrous so far. The Knicks can only hope Baron Davis comes back soon and can actually figure out how to make this dysfunctional engine run.

Best overall performance: Orlando Magic. While contenders like the Lakers, Mavericks and especially Celtics have their issues, the Magic continue to thrive. Despite the obvious distraction hanging over the organization where Dwight Howard's future is concerned, the Magic just play their style, ride Howard and hope it all works out for the best.

Ticking time bomb: Boston Celtics. With Paul Pierce finally showing signs of snapping out of his slump, better days could be ahead for the Celtics. Rival GMs remain wary of their experience and guile and still don't believe Boston will be an easy out in the playoffs once they gather themselves. But if things don't turn around soon or if a can't-miss opportunity to reload for the future comes across Danny Ainge's desk, the Big Three era in Boston could go kaboom.

Best coaching job: Gregg Popovich, Spurs. Pop has the Spurs hanging in there without Ginobili, and his attention to detail and willingness to trust his young players should only underscore why he's been so good at his job for so long.

Worst coaching job: Mike Brown, Lakers. Mike Brown is a good coach. But Mike Brown may not have been the best coach for the Lakers. Given the departure of Zen Master Phil Jackson, the surprising salary dump of Lamar Odom and Kobe Bryant's relentless hunger for a sixth title, this was an impossible job that was cut out for someone who doesn't exist. Scrapping the triangle and installing a more traditional offense has resulted in Bryant's shots and scoring going up, and the Lakers' productivity falling off a cliff. L.A. is averaging 99.4 points per 100 possessions, 17th in the NBA and 8.5 fewer points than last season. They're allowing 4.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than last season, and Brown is hoping defense will be the Lakers' calling card come playoff time. With an offense like this, and with Bryant's minutes through the roof, it better be.

Lamest duck: Mike D'Antoni, Knicks. Few coaches are as polarizing as D'Antoni, whose style continues to come under fire -- especially given the awful results so far. It would be insanity to blame D'Antoni for this, because his offense is predicated on having at least a serviceable point guard and shot-makers, and the Knicks have none of the above. They also have two of the biggest stars in the league and can't get out of their own way. Also keep in mind: Everyone at Madison Square Garden is on the last year of their contracts, except, of course, MSG chairman James Dolan and the players.

Biggest trade chip: Steve Nash, Suns. Phoenix has to figure out which direction it's going, and whether Nash -- a free agent after the season -- is going with them. What a difference Nash would make to the Magic in solidifying Orlando as a legitimate title contender, or dare I say, the Lakers. The Knicks would trade anything for Nash, except they already traded everything to Denver for Anthony.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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