Now that All-Star Weekend has ended — and everyone’s eyes have adjusted to the odd-looking sleeve jerseys LeBron James, Kevin Durant and others sported Sunday night at Smoothie King Center in New Orleans — it’s time for NBA junkies to turn their attention to the spring. And the playoffs. Before the two-month postseason starts, though, staff writer Matt Daniels breaks down how the first half has treated two former Illini, Deron Williams of the Brooklyn Nets and Meyers Leonard of the Portland Trail Blazers. He also got input from former Unity standout and 2011 NBA champion Brian Cardinal about his former employer.
By the numbers: 13.3 points, 6.6 assists while averaging 30.9 minutes in 35 games
Highlights: The point guard returned to the Nets’ lineup on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and has helped Brooklyn post an 8-5 record in that span. Nothing too glitzy, but good enough to put the Nets back in the playoff mix despite a sub-.500 record. Adding pieces in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett hasn’t exactly made the Nets into world-beaters like some thought would happen. Williams has scored 20-plus points in five games this season, featuring a season-high 29 points during a Jan. 2 win at Oklahoma City. Brooklynites are probably hoping he continues to produce points in bunches. The Nets are 4-1 when he goes off for at least 20 points.
Lowlights: Talk in the offseason centered around how well new coach Jason Kidd could help elevate Williams’ game. That hasn’t exactly happened. At least not as well as some had envisioned. The ninth-year pro is on pace to have his lowest scoring output since his rookie season in 2005-06. His assist totals are more than two below his career average, and Williams has not scored in double figures during 12 of the games he has played in so far. Ankle injuries have robbed Williams of 16 games this season. Williams staying healthy is a key component to whether Brooklyn can sneak into a playoff spot in the East.
By the numbers: 2.7 points, 3.0 rebounds while averaging 9.1 minutes in 21 games
Highlights: There haven’t been many. The 21-year-old, who would be a senior this season if he decided to stay all four seasons at Illinois, has not registered a double-figure scoring output so far. He is coming off a solid eight-point, four-rebound effort against the Los Angeles Clippers last Wednesday in the final game before the break, logging 14 minutes with backup center Joel Freeland out with a knee injury. Could see more time, too, because Freeland is out four to six weeks, but he will need to provide consistency when he’s on the court. The opportunity is there for Leonard to spell Brook Lopez and keep Portland’s steady play going down the stretch.
Lowlights: Not playing in more than half of Portland’s 53 games is certainly one of them. Getting suspended for a game is another. Leonard and Philadelphia 76ers center Daniel Orton were ejected Dec. 14 for their roles in an altercation on the court. Leonard essentially performed a takedown that pro wrestling might have approved, but not the NBA. That’s about the most news Leonard has made this season, never a good sign. He just hasn’t managed to produce well enough for Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts to consistently put Leonard on the floor as Portland, fifth in the Western Conference, vies for a playoff berth.
Brian Cardinal retired after winning his lone NBA title with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011. The 36-year-old — who is now helping his alma mater Purdue in a fundraising role — weighs in on a variety of NBA topics:
Hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June is ... “I’m obviously hoping my Mavs make it happen, but, realistically, I’m liking the Pacers. They’ve got a heck of a shot. They’ve got a lot of solid players, and they have role players who can step up. Paul George, George Hill, David West, Luis Scola and Roy Hibbert are a handful. They’ve got a whole slew of guys that they can throw at you. That can make it difficult for any team.”
So, no three-peat for Miami is what you’re saying ... “I think I’m kind of in the camp that (Dwyane) Wade is struggling, which will hurt them. He just doesn’t look like he used to. I just don’t see them repeating.”
All right. Indiana out of the East. That means ... “I like Oklahoma City in the West. They’re pretty talented. I’m pulling for OKC or Portland. I played for Portland’s coach, Terry Stotts, when he was an assistant with Dallas. He’s a good man. LaMarcus Aldridge is a stud. Wes Matthews is solid. They’ve got a good group of guys who play hard and can put the ball in the hoop, but I think the Thunder are too talented.”
Knocking LeBron James from winning his third straight MVP is ... “I’m going with Kevin Durant. I’d like to go with Tim Duncan because he’s old and frail and still putting up big numbers, but I’m going to have to go with Durant.”