“This is how we do it in Orange County!”
Part II of an NBA Preview
By Adam Hoff
Last time out we broke down 15 of the NBA’s 30 teams, putting them in various groups based on Fox TV shows. And now that the Red Sox have dispatched the Yankees and the curse on their way to winning the World Series and mercifully put an end to Fox’s baseball telecasts, nothing looms larger than the network’s fall lineup … nothing that is, except for the NBA season. So we’re back to pair the two up again!
The North Shore Group (four teams that aren’t quite there).
The North Shore has all the makings of a classic over-the-top drama that takes itself too seriously. It’s got location, debauchery, attractive actors, ridiculous plots, and a built-in fan base thanks to The OC. Unfortunately though, it just doesn’t work. I don’t know if it’s the acting, the writing, or what, but the show just doesn’t have “it.” Similarly, these NBA teams all seem to have the right pieces in place, but they lack that extra ingredient needed to compete for a title.
Houston Rockets – People are ready to anoint the Rockets as the newest Western Conference superpower, but I’m not buying it. Yao Ming is already one of the best big men in the game, but his stamina is an issue. He has yet to show he can log more than 32-35 minutes a night and still be effective. That’s not good, because it means 16 minutes of Dekembe Mutombo every night. Tracy McGrady is also a wonderful player, but he’s about to enter the NBA’s version of Death Valley for guards. The Jeff Van Gundy Zone is not a fun place to be if you are a perimeter player that needs the ball in your hands. So simply pairing up Yao and T-Mac doesn’t do a whole lot for me. Then there’s the biggest issue of all: the fact that Charlie Ward is masquerading as a starting point guard. The Rockets are going to pay dearly for failing to acquire a legit floor leader this offseason. Unless Bobby Sura can get healthy and somehow fill the void, Houston will be missing “it” all season long.
Boston Celtics – It is very easy to talk yourself into this team. When you consider the conference, the new life, and the depth, you can build a case for a deep playoff run. However – once again – something is missing. They’ve got a real point guard for the first time in years, but Gary Payton will have to play with the world’s biggest chip residing squarely on this shoulder. He can’t play defense, he has to have the ball all the time to be effective, and frankly he has a serious attitude problem It’s hard to imagine him being the leader the C’s need so badly. Paul Pierce looks like he’s getting back to his 2001-2002 form, so he’s money in the bank. Rookies Delonte West and Tony Allen both look terrific. Ricky Davis is obviously insane but can be very valuable because of his ability to provide instant offense off the bench and play multiple positions. Jiri Welsch can do a little bit of everything. So despite Payton’s issues, the Celtics are loaded in the backcourt.
It is a different story down low. Mark Blount is solid but doesn’t block enough shots at center. Al Jefferson is going to be incredible, but he’s not ready to carry a heavy load. Then there’s Raef LaFrentz. If he gets back to the form he showed while playing in Denver and gives Boston 12 and 10 and a couple of blocks every night, this is the #5 team in the East and a threat to make a postseason run. But we’re talking about Raef here, so that’s a mighty big if.
Sacramento Kings – Almost every pundit and expert has tabbed the Kings to win the Pacific. Not this guy. In fact, I think they’ll finish third behind the Lakers and Suns. There are just so many issues here. Webber can still hardly move and has completely alienated Peja, who does absolutely nothing every May. Bobby Jackson and Doug Christie are running on fumes. The bench is completely depleted. The only two guys on this team that I’d trust in a tough playoff series against a team like the Spurs would be Mike Bibby and Brad Miller. It’s a far cry from the Kings team that was oh so close in 2001. I’ve backed them long enough – now I’m taking them behind the bar and dumping them in the Mystic River.
Los Angeles Lakers – Don’t take this the wrong way. I actually think the Lakers will be the #3 seed in the West and be better than most analysts think. However, there’s no denying that they’ve taken a big step back. These things tend to happen when you trade the best center from the past 20 years. Kobe has been exposed as pure evil, but he’s probably going to score 32 points a game this year and fill up the stat sheet. Lamar Odom will have to stave off his LA demons and weed dealers, but he seems to be on the cusp of stardom. Vlade Divac and Brian Grant will provide leadership in the paint. Chucky Atkins and Kareem Rush will hit threes. Chris Mihm offers some athleticism and size. Caron Butler has worlds of potential. So there’s definitely talent here. Enough, in fact, to win 50-55 games. However, teams built around a high volume perimeter shooter tend to struggle in the postseason. The exception, of course, was MJ and the Bulls. The differences between Chicago and LA are: 1) Kobe is no MJ. 2) Odom is no Pippen. 3) The Lakers play almost no defense, while the Bulls were one of the greatest defensive teams of all time. So yeah, once the postseason rolls around, Kobe and the gang are done.
The Swan group (three teams trying to transform themselves).
The Swan is a deplorable show, but it certainly describes these three teams. So we’ll roll with it.
Philadelphia 76ers – New coach, a bunch of new players … new results? I think so. Iverson will get the green light from Jim O’Brien and for once in his life he’ll be surrounded by some guys that can actually shoot. Willie Green is a gunner coming off the bench. Kyle Korver is a three-point specialist. Andre Igoudala has some range. Even Aaron McKie seems to be finding the stroke this year. That gives the Sixers four options on the perimeter after AI drives the lane, which is a lot better than the zero they had last year. Defensively, they have a new attitude and athletic guys like Igoudala and Samuel Dalembert. Toss in the steady play and relentless rebounding of Kenny Thomas, the low post scoring of Marc Jackson, and the toughness of Brian Skinner, and you are looking at a decent team. At the very least, they’ll make the playoffs. If things go well and they win the Atlantic, they could earn home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Cleveland Cavaliers – The transformation really began the day LeBron came to town, but this could be the biggest season in the history of the franchise. If Big Z can stay healthy and Drew Gooden can adequately replace Carlos Boozer, the Cavs will be able to ride LeBron to a top five showing in the East. Anything else will be a letdown. I have a bad feeling that it could be the latter. For starters, Jeff McInnis is a bad fit for this team. After he was dealt from Portland last year, the Cavs went like 14-6 or something like that. From that stretch, McInnis was made out to be the next John Stockton. Well, I have news for you: he’s not. He’s a gunner with limited range and hall handling ability, and a guy that will complain if things don’t go his way. There’s a reason he couldn’t supplant Damon Stoudemire. So that’s mistake #1 for the Cavs. The second problem is that they are hamstringing themselves by keeping their pure shooters on the bench. They dealt for deadeye Alexander Pavlovic and drafted Luke Jackson. So why not play one of them? Do you really want Eric Snow at the 2? Or Lucious Harris? Please. I’d be willing to wager that by the All-Star break, Snow is the new point guard (since he’ll actually pass the ball to Z and LBJ, instead of trying to lead the team in FGA’s), LeBron is playing the two, and Pavlovic is in the starting lineup. Then a team playing under .500 and freaking out its fan base can really take off.
Phoenix Suns – This will be the most exciting team to watch in the entire NBA, so they’ve got that going for them. Even better, they could vault into the upper echelon of the West. They’ve got Steve Nash. Q will bring his rebounding and range off the bench. Marion showed a lot of heart in the Olympics and will continue to the be the best player in the NBA that doesn’t get plays run for him. Joe Johnson is solid. Most importantly, Amare Stoudemire is about to become a monster. I’m looking for 22-11-3 every night. The Suns will go small nearly every game and will probably lead the league in scoring. I, for one, am hoping that it works, because anything that starts a trend of running and gunning is a great thing for the fans.
The Arrested Development group (four emerging teams).
When Seinfeld went off the air way back in 1998, I literally cried. It was devastating. And in the six years since that tragic day, I’ve been searching for a sitcom to take its place. Sports Night was pretty good for a while, but eventually the coke-induced, rapid fire dialogue got old. Plus, the show got canned. Scrubs is good, but not good enough. Friends was wildly overrated. Curb Your Enthusiasm is awesome but I only get HBO in every other apartment I move into. I mean, what has there been to get excited about? Then along came Arrested Development. Great characters, great writing, and plenty of Jason Bateman … pure genius. The only problem is that I never knew about it last year so I’ve been spending the past week getting caught up by way of the First Season DVD. Which brings us to the NBA tie in. These four teams are quality squads with a legit chance to compete for the title … but I have a feeling they are going to be playing catch-up all season long.
Dallas Mavericks – Interesting summer for the Mavs. I don’t know if Mark Cuban was too busy filming the worst reality show in television history or what, but somewhere along the line he gave a combined $100 million to Marquis Daniels (good decision) and Erick Dampier (bad decision) while refusing to pony up the cash for Steve Nash. Sort of odd. All told, the Mavs lost Antawn Jamison, Antoine Walker, and Nash (three players that all were fourth round fantasy picks at worst this year) and brought in Devin Harris, Dampier, Jason Terry, and Jerry Stackhouse (four guys that clearly weren’t). Doesn’t look too good on paper. But the weird thing is, I think this team is going to be a lot better and have a much better chance at success in the playoffs. I have little to no faith in Erick “Contract Year” Dampier, but as long as he’s on the court for 30 minutes a game, that means that Dirk is not playing center. And that means that Diggler will be going wild. Expect him to have perhaps the greatest season of his career.
In the backcourt, things might work out okay for the Mavs as well. Harris is a lightening quick point guard that provides great defense and energy, while Terry gives them a scoring guard and deep range. Stackhouse gives them a player that can run isolation plays and get to the line – something that is incredibly valuable come playoff time. Michael Finley is always sold. Josh Howard is young, athletic, and terrific defensively and on the glass. He’s like the anti-Maverick. Finally, Marquis Daniels is a triple double waiting to happen every time he plays more than 30 minutes. There’s a ton of talent here. More to the point, it’s diverse talent. Unlike Mavericks teams of the past that were filled with gunners, these guys can do different things. They can go Terry-Stackhouse-Finley-Howard-Dirk and run and gun. They can go big and physical and control the glass with Dampier-Alan Henderson-Dirk-Finley-Daniels. They can put out a terrific defensive unit (in Dallas?) with Harris-Daniels-Finley-Howard-Dampier. The possibilities are endless and they can get all that with just eight or nine players, so they maintain cohesiveness. Something just feels right about the Mavs this year.
Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets could have been the third best team in the West this year, had they made one critical move. Think about it, after the Spurs and the Wolves, is there anybody making a case for the #3 spot? It’s wide open. I like the Mavs or the Jazz for that slot, but Denver could have been that team. All they had to do was get a legit shooting guard. Quentin Richardson was available. Jamal Crawford could have been had. Most importantly, the Nuggets had a shot at Manu Ginobili. They gave K-Mart money to come throw down dunks and toss elbows, but Kiki refused to open up the checkbook for a scoring guard. And honestly, it’s inexcusable. They were one piece away and they didn’t go get it. With Ginobili, they are a Finals contender. With Q or Crawford, they are the third best team in the West. With DeMarr Johnson or Greg Buckner (even with Lenard), they won’t have a shot at home court advantage. It’s as simple as that. When Manu finishes the year with 17-5-5 and is making all the big shots for the Spurs in the playoffs, the Nuggets will be regretting the fact that they didn’t max out one of the rising stars in the game. Live and learn.
Miami Heat – Last year the Heat were an exciting team with no size. Not anymore. Shaq is in town, D-Wade is ready for a huge year, and the supporting cast is inching into place. No doubt, the Heat will be a tough, tough out in the playoffs. How tough depends entirely on guys like Rasual Butler, Udonis Haslem, and Damon Jones. If those guys can join Eddie Jones in providing consistent support for the Big Two, Miami could make a run for the title ahead of schedule.
Utah Jazz – Could you have imagined this two years ago? It’s hard to believe, but the Jazz have completely reinvented themselves and are back among the top 10 teams in the NBA. Remarkable. They feature three guys that can bang down low and give them different things. Jarron Collins is smart and a good rebounder. Mehmet Okur has a lot of potential and can score in the low post. And Curtis Borchardt can block a few shots and use up some fouls. They have two legit point guards in Carlos Arroyo and Raul Lopez. There is some athleticism and defense coming off the bench in Kirk Snyder and Raja Bell. Matt Harpring is a pure shooter that will challenge for Sixth Man of the Year honors. Gordon Giricek is a pure shooter. And then there’s the forward combo of Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer. AK-47 is the most underrated player in professional sports and a marvel to watch. Boozer is a steady player that hits the glass on every play. Add in the coaching of Jerry Sloan, their track record in the Delta Center, and the fact that foreign players seem to equal success these days and you have to like the Jazz. Maybe I just love Kirilenko too much, but I’m on board the Utah bandwagon.
The OC Group (the NBA’s four elite teams) .
This show gives you everything you could hope for from a ridiculous prime time extravaganza. It’s the best, it really is. And these four teams are the best the NBA has to offer.
Detroit Pistons – It’s hard to argue with what Detroit is doing. They re-signed Sheed to bring back the Wallace Brothers in the paint. They added Antonio McDyess for more interior firepower. They bring back the Billups-Rip-Tayshaun trio that is defining “knowing your role” on the perimeter. Lindsay Hunter and Derrick Coleman will do “Pistons things” off the bench. And they have young talents like Darko and Carlos Delfino waiting in the wings. Not bad. However, there are a few things that prevent me from picking them as a repeat champ: 1) Injuries. The Pistons somehow made it through an entire season without a single injury to a key player. It’s hard to imagine that happening again. 2) Larry Brown. He got his title last year and has a perfect team for his coaching style, yet his brutal performance in the Olympics was a nice reminder that he is a stubborn bastard that will never yield, regardless of what is happening to his team. If someone like Rip goes down and Detroit can’t score in the half court anymore, what do you think Brown is going to do? Go out and get another scorer? Dream on. He’ll just keep imploring his team to “play the right way” and yell at them when they don’t. And then he’ll bench LeBron James. Oh wait, wrong team, sorry about that.
Minnesota Timberwolves – When the curtain went down on the T-Wolves in the Western Conference Finals, it felt like they were destined to be back the following year. The Lakers were imploding, the East was still considered to be a garbage heap, and only the Spurs loomed as an elite team for the near future. Unfortunately, the landscape looks very different on the eve of the season. The Spurs are probably even better than they were a year ago. And the East has the defending champs in Detroit and two legit contenders in Miami and Indiana. The road to greatness got a little jammed over the summer.
There are plenty of things to like about the T-Wolves including their confidence, the return of Troy Hudson, the health of Wally Z, and, of course, the mere presence of Kevin Garnett. However, there are some things that raise red flags as well. Michael Olowokandi is the starting center, which is never good. Sprewell and Cassell are both turning 80 this year. Wally should have been dealt for a low post threat. The list goes on. Throw in the whining by Sprewell and Cassell about their contract extensions and you’ve got a lot more problems than a year ago. I don’t trust them.
Before we move on, I just want to post my annual “Spree List” that points out why Latrell Sprewell is arguably the most entertaining player in the league that nobody talks about. Check it out:
- When he first came into the league, he couldn’t hit a jump shot. His entire game was slashing to the rim, kind of like Darius Miles. Okay, maybe not that bad. But the point is that now he almost exclusively shoots jumpers. Three’s, mid range J’s, pull up jump shots in traffic, if you can think of a version of jump shot, Spree is bringing it. He might have fewer dunks than Madsen this season.
- He choked his coach. Does anyone even remember this? The guy was suspended from basketball for an entire year. This is rarely referenced anymore. Bonus fun: There’s a Michelin commercial featuring a guy that looks exactly like Sprewell and in this commercial, the man is trying to get his Michelin Man bobblehead doll to shake around on the dashboard. Of course, the tires are too good and the ride is too smooth. So what does this Sprewell look-alike do? He chokes the doll! Amazing.
- While in New York he broke his hand while punching someone or something on the yacht he has just purchased. Classic.
- He played an integral role in the invention and implementation of “spinners.” You know what I’m talking about, the rims that spin even when the vehicle is stationary. You can spot these in most major cities or in any G-Unit video. They are taking the urban world by storm and are on par with deep dish Dayton’s, hydraulics, and low profile tires when it comes to wheel innovation. And Sprewell played a major role in this whole thing. Depending upon who you talk to you, he either invented them, financed the first line of production, or just entered them into the mainstream with his company. Either way, that’s pretty awesome. Plus, he’s got spinners on his shoes, which is even more awesome.
- His voice. Spree is one of the most thuggish players in the league, yet he talks like a Wall Street investor. Have you ever heard this guy in an interview? Hilarious. The only thing I can compare it to is the old Eddie Murphy SNL skit in which he dresses up as a white guy fittingly named Mr. White and goes around to see how different the world is. It’s a funny concept, but the skit is carried by Murphy’s “white” voice. “I’m buying this newspaper.” Legendary comedy.
- His hair. One word: Predator.
- And just to keep us honest, Spree has demanded an extension on his contract calling for $14 mil per and has recently accused a police officer of mistreating him. It’s good to see that he’s still brining plenty of drama on and off the court.
Indiana Pacers – The Pacers are my jam this year. The day they traded Al Harrington for Stephen Jackson was the day I knew Indiana was for real this season. Harrington is a nice player and will be a good fit for the Hawks, but he never really had a position in Indiana. He sat behind Ron Artest and Jermaine O’Neal and never really had a chance to shine. If he could have played the shooting guard position things might have been different. But he couldn’t and they weren’t. But Stephen Jackson can play the shooting guard position and he’s going to make all the difference in the world. People seem to think that he’s just a gunner who likes to jack up shots, but you’ve got to erase his season in Atlanta last year (although it was great for my fantasy team) and think back to the 2003 Playoffs. Who was the guy bringing perimeter toughness and clutch shooting for the Spurs? (Well, besides Steve Kerr.) That’s right, it was Stephen Jackson. He forced things at times and never showed the greatest handles, but when they didn’t bring him back last year, they realized how valuable he had truly been. Now he brings all those steals and threes and rebounds to Indiana, where he will take over for Reggie Miller and bring a title to Indiana. Who knows, if that happens, he could become one of those Robert Horry role player extraordinaire/good luck charm types.
I will say one thing about Indiana: no matter what they do this year, they will have a shot. But if they make just one deal, they can vault to the top of the contenders list. The move is so simple it almost boggles the mind. Move Jonathon Bender to Portland for Shareef Abdur-Rahim. The Blazers have committed to Zach Randolph at power forward and really have no place for Reef. Meanwhile, the Pacers are probably to loathe an up-and-coming player like Bender, but being a pro sports team is about competing for titles. If they can get Rahim now and add a second low post scorer to an already stacked lineup, they become nearly unstoppable. The best part is that they can use the Sheed Strategy employed by Detroit last year and keep Rahim’s numbers down so that they can lock him up next summer for a lower price. It’s perfect. The Blazers are basically the farm system of champions.
San Antonio Spurs – The defending champs come back with a new look. But are they better than last year? It might not matter. Even if the Spurs are exactly the same as last year’s version, they should be the frontrunner in the West. From there it will depend on matchups in the NBA Finals. I felt that Tim Duncan was exposed in the playoffs and Olympics a little bit, but he should be fired up and considered a front runner for another MVP award. Tony Parker and Emanuel Ginobilli just keep getting better and give the Spurs an effective and explosive backcourt. Bruce Bowen is a terrific cheater and therefore, a good defender. Brent Barry is a nice upgrade over Hedo Turkaglu. Rasho Nesterovich played surprisingly well down the stretch. And on and on. The Spurs are clearly the class of the West.
There you have it, 30 teams in all. Now for the predictions.
Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions:
#1 Detroit Pistons over #8 Orlando Magic in 5. The Pistons will win at least 60 games this year and cruise comfortably into the playoffs as the top seed. The Magic have no chance here.
# 2 Miami Heat over #7 Toronto Raptor in 5. When you are hot you’re hot, when you’re not, well, you are Chris Bosh trying to stop Shaquille O’Neal in a playoff series. The Heat are the beneficiaries of the new alignment and seeding rules as they get the #2 seed despite the Pacers posting the second best record in the East.
#6 Cleveland Cavaliers over #3 Philadelphia 76ers in 7. The Cavs have Snow at point and Pavlovic stroking threes at this point, so despite a 10-16 start, LeBron outguns AI in a first round thriller.
#4 Indiana Pacers over #5 Boston Celtics in 6. Despite winning 60 games, the Pacers lose the Central title to the Pistons and drop to the #4 seed. They take care of Pierce and the C’s, setting up a titanic clash in round two.
#4 Indiana over #1 Detroit in 7. I feel crazy picking against the Pistons, but it’s hard to imagine them going through another full season with no injuries whatsoever. Meanwhile, Jermaine should be fresh at the end, Artest will continue maturing, and Jackson will be the difference. A classic series with a new challenger coming out of the East.
#2 Miami over #6 Cleveland in 7. After an amazing second season, LeBron cements his legend as he goes 29-8-8 for the series and almost pulls off the upset. However, Shaq and Wade march on as the American Airlines arena “surges toward the court” in Game Seven.
Eastern Conference Finals
#4 Indiana over #2 Miami in 6. It’s the Pacers turn. They have size, depth, shooting, toughness, and a resolved situation at point guard.
Western Conference Play-off Predictions:
#1 Minnesota Timberwolves over #8 Denver Nuggets in 7. The Nuggets get healthy and on the same page for the first time all season, but it’s still not enough as KG wills the Wolves past their new blood rivals to avoid the upset.
#2 San Antonio Spurs over #7 Houston Rockets in 5. An up-and-down year for the Rockets ends badly. Everyone wishes that the Kings would have made the playoffs instead.
#6 Phoenix Suns over #3 Los Angeles Lakers in 6. The Suns edge the Lakers and provide fans with some exciting basketball in the process. Despite winning the fairly weak Pacific division, the Kobe Plan proves unsuccessful in the postseason.
#4 Dallas Mavericks over #5 Utah Jazz in 7. After a terrific year featuring 55 wins, the Jazz get a tough draw against the versatile Mavs and succumb in the first round. Hope abounds for 2005-2006.
#4 Dallas over #1 Minnesota in 6. The new-look Mavs keep rolling.
#2 San Antonio over #6 Phoenix in 5. The fun ends for the Suns as they run into a horrible matchup. The legend of Manu grows ever larger.
Western Conference Finals
#2 San Antonio over #4 Dallas in 6. The Mavs play tough all the way to the end as everyone praises Cuban for his “gutsy” (read: lucky) offseason moves that turned a circus on wheels into a legitimate title contender. Meanwhile the Spurs methodically (read: incredible boring) roll back into the Finals.
NBA Finals Prediction:
Indiana over San Antonio in 7. The all ABA matchup. The Spurs come in as the favorites but the Pacers, bursting with confidence after dispatching of the defending champs, manage to win a thriller.
And – because we’re really on a roll here - let’s hand out some awards:
Rookie of the Year
Dwight Howard, Orlando. People have really bailed on Okafor, but I think he’ll have a great year as well. But Howard is just going to be fantastic. I’m looking for 14-9-2. Okafor, Deng, Nocioni, and Igoudala will be in the hunt.
Defensive Player of the Year
Andre Kirilenko, Utah. It shouldn’t even be close. No offense to Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Theo Ratliff, or anyone else that could make a claim, but AK-47 is a freak on the defensive end. Last year he was the first player since David Robinson in 1990-1991 to rank in the top five in both steals and blocks.
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers. Bombs away.
Kevin Garnett. How can you pick anyone else?
Jamaal Tinsley, Indiana. Now that he’s got his contract extension and doesn’t have to look over his shoulder, Tinsley should go crazy and edge out Marbury for the assist title.
Blocked Shots Leader
Andrei Kirilenko, Utah. If Ratliff stays healthy, it will probably be him. But I’m going with AK-47 yet again.
Allen Iverson, Philly. If plays the full season, he’ll be the guy. Baron Davis, Kirilenko, and Wade should challenge.
Comeback Player of the Year
Grant Hill, Orlando. Count me among the few that think Hill’s ankle will hold up.
Most Improved Player
Chris Bosh, Toronto. His rapid development will be breathtaking to observe.
Coach of the Year
Jim O’Brien, Philly. The Sixers play a new brand of ball and O’Brien is lauded for bringing out the best in Iverson.
Kevin Garnett, Minnesota. All the talk of Shaq and Kobe is expected, but I’m picking KG until someone can unseat him. Nobody brings it like Garnett, night after night after night. Kobe will score more points and the Heat will make the biggest strides from a year ago, but Garnett is the NBA’s best player on one of the best teams. Case closed.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of The Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at email@example.com or by sitemail at adamo112.