Trending player: Chris Paul, PG, New Orleans Hornets
The Western Conference's starting point guard entered the All-Star break playing at something less than his typically high level of play. In the month of February, Paul's per-game averages have dropped to 14.0 points and 9.0 assists, while his shooting percentage has sunk to 42.6 percent. That can be traced almost entirely to the past five games, which have been Paul's worst stretch of the season by an enormous margin. In terms of John Hollinger's Game Score, it's the first time all season that Paul has been below a total of 60 over a five-game span. Paul's past five games haven't come close to that total.
Paul's shot simply hasn't been falling. He has not made more than 40 percent of his attempts in any of the past five games. Before then, Paul had been held under 40 percent in consecutive games only once all season. But his issues go beyond that. Paul hasn't been dishing out assists as frequently, averaging 7.8 over the past five games, one of his lowest five-game totals of the season.
In Wednesday's first-half finale at Portland, Paul was essentially invisible, finishing with eight points and five assists. As the Portland Trail Blazers came from behind to knock off the Hornets, Paul was scoreless and had more turnovers (three) than assists (one) in the fourth quarter.
Playing without center Emeka Okafor, the team's defensive anchor, New Orleans has needed more from Paul. The Hornets lost four of their past five games and seven out of eight overall heading to the break. Instead of eying home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, New Orleans must worry about simply making the playoffs. Just a game and a half separates the Hornets from Memphis and Utah, who are tied for the eighth spot in the West postseason.
Okafor should be back soon, but will we see the old Paul? Most likely, though the possibility that Paul is wearing down does have to worry Hornets fans. Paul's minutes per game (35.7) aren't excessive, but he has played in every single one of the team's league-high 58 games. As a result, Paul is in the NBA's top 10 in total minutes a year after arthroscopic knee surgery that has left him sporting an unwieldy brace on his left knee.
Trending team: Chicago Bulls
By beating the San Antonio Spurs on national TV on Thursday, the Bulls served notice to the NBA that they must be taken seriously as contenders. While Chicago did not previously have that kind of statement win, the Bulls have truthfully been playing at a high level for some time despite the absence of starting center Joakim Noah.
As my colleague Bradford Doolittle noted last week, Chicago has the league's best point differential since Noah had hand surgery in mid-December, outscoring opponents by 7.6 points per game. (The runner-up might be even more surprising: the Orlando Magic, at plus-7.1.) That raises an important question: With Noah due to return at some point soon, just how good might the Bulls be at full strength?
A handful of factors help explain why Chicago has gotten better over the past two months. The Bulls have been able to integrate Carlos Boozer into the lineup after the high-scoring forward played just nine games alongside Noah, due to a broken bone in his right hand. Meanwhile, Derrick Rose has steadily improved over the course of the season. It also hasn't hurt that Chicago has played 17 of the 30 games Noah has missed at home after the annual Circus Road Trip kept them away from the United Center in the early going.
The most interesting aspect of how the Bulls have played without Noah is that their defense has actually improved without their 7-foot center. Chicago allowed 102.5 points per 100 possessions through Dec. 15 but has cut that to a 100.6 Defensive Rating since then, emerging as the league's toughest D. Kurt Thomas, the veteran who has replaced Noah in the starting lineup, deserves much of the credit. Thomas is always in the right place defensively and has more than held his own. Noah, however, is the superior shot-blocker and offers more length. If the Bulls' defense has improved because of the team's growing familiarity with first-year coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive schemes, Noah's return might just make Chicago even stingier at the defensive end.
League trend: The meaning of the All-Star Game
Unlike in Major League Baseball, the NBA's All-Star Game has never counted for anything more than bragging rights. At the same time, it can tell us something about the respective talent of the two conferences. Dating back to 1990, the same conference that won the All-Star Game has gone on to win the NBA championship 13 out of 20 times. That's a good omen for Western Conference teams after yesterday's 148-143 victory.
Recently, the All-Star Game served as an accurate predictor four consecutive seasons from 2006 through 2009. That came to an end last year, when the East was victorious in Dallas but the Boston Celtics fell in seven games to the Los Angeles Lakers.
What is odd is that the All-Star Game has been less telling when it comes to determining which conference is stronger from top to bottom. Over that same span, the conference with the superior record in interconference matchups has been as likely to lose the All-Star Game as to win. The one time in the 2000s the East had the upper hand over the course of the regular season, the West came up victorious in the All-Star Game in 2009 in Phoenix.
In case you were curious whether there is a home-court advantage in the All-Star Game, the evidence has been mixed. Sunday's win was the 12th in the past 21 games for the host conference, counting the West as host for the 2007 game played in neutral Las Vegas. However, the West went just 4-4 during an eight-year run as host that now comes to an end. The game will move back to the East when the Amway Center in Orlando plays host to the 2012 All-Star Game--assuming, of course, there is an All-Star Game next season.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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