Sprint to the Finish
Post All-Star thoughts on the Eastern Conference
By Adam Hoff
While the All-Star game was boring and the halftime show apocalyptic, my mind was still churning and my heart fluttering for the full three hours. Maybe I just love the NBA at an unhealthy level, maybe it was watching LeBron effortlessly eclipse every player on the floor, or maybe it was AI and Shaq ensuring an Eastern Conference victory and chalking one up for the veterans … whatever the reason, I’ve got NBA on the brain. And that’s with spring training starting!
So, despite knowing full well that many of you hate the NBA and despise basketball-related columns, I give you “10 things to keep an eye on” in the East from here on out. Why the Eastern Conference? For starters, they won the All-Star Game and since the NBA doesn’t award home court advantage in the Finals to winner, I felt like it was appropriate to give them something. The other reason is because I can! I mean, seriously, did you ever think that the East would have enough going on to warrant its own column? The Leastern Conference has come a long way.
AI For MVP? The last time Allen Iverson won the MVP award was in 2001. That was also the last year he had won the All-Star game MVP award until he snagged the hardware on Sunday. Of course, that was also when the Sixers were the best team in the Eastern Conference. Nevertheless, it would be unwise to rule AI out of what should be a fantastic MVP race. To me, it’s LeBron’s award to lose and as long as he finishes at 25-7-7 and the Cavs get a top-five seed in the East, he’s the MVP. However, should LeBron tire or the Cavs slip in the standings, there will be a host of players bearing down on King James. Steve Nash has a lot of support in the media, Tim Duncan is the centerpiece of the league’s best team, Dirk Nowitski is having a career year, and Kevin Garnett is always looming should the Wolves get their act together. In fact, if KG leads Minnesota to a great second half while playing on those aching knees, he might have the best case of all.
The thing is, I’ve heard all of these names mentioned ad naseum. Yet no one talks about Iverson in the context of the MVP award. I know the Sixers are in the woeful Atlantic Division, but they are still battling for the playoffs all because of one guy. Jim O’Brien has been a mess with his rotations, young players are struggling to find consistency (namely Samuel Dalembert and Willie Green) and their second and third best players are a guy that only shoots threes (Kyle Korver) and a rookie that never shoots at all (Andre Igoudala). Iverson has put that team on his back. He’s raised his shooting percentage, taken over the point guard duties, and is quite possibly having the best year of his incredible career. You want scoring? How about 60 points in a game and a league-leading 29.9 per. You want passing? Fourth in the league at 7.6 assists a night. Defense? Third in the NBA with 2.1 steals a game. Add in his toughness, stamina (second in minutes), and newfound leadership skills and you are looking at the epitome of an MVP.
(Quick comment on Nash. Despite the fact that he’s one of the worst defensive players in the league, experts are negating that by citing the miserable play of the Suns while Nash was out with an injury. What they fail to realize is that backup point guard Leandro Barbosa was also out at the time. Nash missed Wednesday night’s game, but Barbosa had 22 points, 6 assists, and 3 steals in leading Phoenix to a 118-94 victory. So maybe, just maybe, it was the fact that Phoenix was on a brutal road trip with NO POINT GUARD WHATSOEVER that led to the five-game losing streak. Not only that, but if how your team fares without you is the best indicator of an MVP, then the award should go to Bobby Sura anyway. The Rockets seemingly never lose when he’s in the lineup and the opposite is true when he’s out. You’re trying to tell me that Sura is the MVP? Bottom line: yes, part of being the MVP is considering the performance of your team without you, but an equally big part is simply how good and dominant you are on both ends of the court. Of all the players mentioned above, Nash is at the bottom of the list.)
Beware the Pistons. I know this isn’t exactly a groundbreaking observation, but Detroit is running on all cylinders again. Ben Wallace seems to be getting back into the groove, Sheed is asserting himself a little more, and Hamilton and Billups are playing well in the backcourt. However, the real difference-maker once again is Tayshaun Prince. Ever since a guy got ripped in one of my fantasy leagues after he traded for Prince, Tayshaun has been on fire. His D has always been top notch, but now he’s grabbing boards and putting up 15-20 points a night. Throw in the amazingly-still-healthy Antonio McDyess and the recently acquired Carlos Arroyo and they suddenly have depth again as well. The Heat are going to make things tough, with Shaq and Wade emerging as the new elite tandem in the NBA and guys like Damon Jones and Udonis Haslem serving as perfect role players, but Detroit is the defending champs. Plus, they know how to guard Shaq. The big question is whether Tayshaun can control Wade the way he handled Kobe. (I don’t think he can, personally.) With the West starting to look like a runaway thanks to the Spurs and their 24-1 home record, the Eastern Conference Finals might be taking over the mantle of Must See TV.
Skip Bayless is a Lunatic. Does anyone else just want this guy to go away? I won’t comment on the atrocious “First and 10” or discuss how he nearly ruined PTI last summer, but I just can’t let his recent column slide. The title: “Slamming on LeBron.” The Subtitle: “How King James let down the NBA.” The message: LeBron is the most awful human being alive because he didn’t participate in the dunk contest. Are you kidding me? First of all, he can dunk if he wants to. He’s only 20 years old, yet he’s the best player in the league, is conducting himself with more maturity than 99% of the athletes on the planet, and is carrying an entire city on his back. In fact, he’s pretty much hauling the whole league around while he’s at it. (I know at least five people who are refusing to give up on the NBA simply because of LeBron). What more do you want? But beyond mere perogative and the burden of ridiculous expectations, James wasn’t even healthy! He’d been very sick all week with a flu and is playing on a badly sprained ankle. Yeah, the same injury that caused Kobe to miss 14 games. Where were you with the scathing column on Bryant? Oh wait, that’s no fun, because everyone is doing it. See, writers like Bayless are all about being controversial. They take an extreme stance just to get attention … and then write articles chastising athletes for doing the very same thing.
This has been going on for a while now, but at least before it dealt with characters like Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Ron Artest … athletes who have opened themselves up to criticism through their actions on and/or off the field. But LeBron’s done nothing wrong. Check that – he’s done everything right. Yet his decision to rest his drained body and aching joints and skip a dunk contest warrants 1,500 words? The irony here is almost mind-boggling. This is the same guy that called Owens selfish for wanting to return from injury to play in the Super Bowl. The same guy that says dunking is ruining the game of basketball. And then he turns around and rips the NBA’s model citizen and new icon for not wanting to dunk on an injured ankle. You try to make sense of it.
(By the way, I have about 74 other media-related critiques I’d love to rant about. However, I usually try to lay off of other writers. You know, the whole don’t throw stones if you live in a glass house thing. So for me to call out Bayless like this, well, that just tells you how bad it was.)
Steve Kerr is Awesome! You have to say that like Will Ferrell in Old School. Seriously, chalk me up is the #1 member of the Steve Kerr fan club. He’s smart, funny, and knows when to talk and when to defer. He’s the perfect analyst. (And yes, I did want to counter the Bayless rant with some positive vibes about a member of the sports media.)
Random Reality Television Observation. I’m pretty sure I witnessed the best Real World line ever when I caught a rerun of last week’s episode. I had pretty much given up on this Philadelphia season when I stumbled upon a scene in which Karamo is trying to find out why Landon hadn’t been talking to him lately, and what he thought of him.
Landon: “You just kind of act weird.”
Karamo (after a beat): “Give me one example.”
Landon: “Well, like at the going-away dinner when you said you wanted to slit my throat. You said it three times.”
I think that speaks for itself.
Ben Gordon is the Next Great Fourth Quarter Player. He’s like Bobby Jackson but twice as good. He’s fearless, he can shoot from anywhere on the court (including one of the sweetest floaters in the league), and he’s quick, strong, and athletic. Plus, he has some serious handles. Take a look at this guy handling the ball in warm-ups sometime … unbelievable skills. After a slow start to his rookie season, Gordon is now one of the favorites to win both the Rookie of the Year and the Sixth Man of the Year awards. He’s earned the faith of his teammates and coaches and is already the go-to guy for the most surprising team in the Eastern Conference. Just two nights ago he went for 20 points in the fourth quarter and overtime against the first place Heat, hitting a half-dozen HUGE shots to lead to the Bulls to the win. He finished with 29 points, six threes, six boards, four assists, and two steals in a mere 24 minutes. Every time I tune into a Bulls game it seems like Gordon is lighting somebody up the waning moments. Against the Heat, the Bulls were down by four with under two minutes to go and I just knew Gordon was about to go off. Three triples later and Miami was fortunate just to get it to OT … where he promptly outplayed Dwayne Wade and outscored the entire Heat team 9-6. In fact, Gordon leads the entire league in 10-point fourth quarters with 16. Impressive stuff.
Toronto is the Most Interesting Bad Team in Recent Memory. Seriously, these guys are a train wreck. Rafer Alston alternates daily from being the biggest fantasy steal of the 2004-2005 season and a perfect imitation of Shorty Do-Wop from “Sunset Park,” complete with the shaved head, pull-up threes in transition, headband, and whiney expressions. I’ve never seen a more unstable and emotional player. Oh wait, never mind. Make that: outside of Ron Artest and Rasheed Wallace, I’ve never seen a more unstable and emotional player. Alston has already threatened to retire after one game this season and he left crying after halftime during another. Mixed in with his combustible personality you’ve got Sam Mitchell, a coach who either thinks he’s a drill sergeant in the army or coaching a high school JV team. Then there’s Jalen Rose and his enormous contract, Donyell Marshall, who should have been traded and is just going to walk after the season, and Rob Babcock, the GM who is absolutely paralyzed right now after getting robbed blind on the Vince Carter deal. Despite all of this, the Raptors actually have a bright future thanks to one Chris Bosh. My pick to make the biggest leap between now and the end of the season, you have to believe the 26 and 14 Bosh threw up in the Rookie Challenge is only the beginning. It’s unlikely that the Raptors will get things together this year, but they are still worth keeping an eye on. Anything could happen here.
“Please, Somebody Help Me! Isaiah’s Gone Crazy!” Sorry to borrow from Eminem there, but someone needs to check Isaiah Thomas’ head. His trade with the Rockets wasn’t too bad, because he at least got a serviceable player in Mo Taylor for the horrible Vin Baker and the irrelevant Moochie Norris. I’m sure New Yorkers will miss Moochie’s afro, but other than that, they probably did alright here … if you don’t mind losing yet another $10 million in cap space. (They are probably about $65 million over the cap now.) The other trade is the real mindbender. They dealt their only true center, Nazr Mohammed, for one of the most untradeable guys in the league, Malik Rose. Mohammed has been having a breakout year, he has a manageable contract, and he’s a good center. So it makes perfect sense that Isaiah would trade him. And not just trade him, send him to the Spurs, the best team in the league (I’m sure everyone is really happy with Thomas right now). And not just trade him to the best team in the league, but also do that team a favor by taking their only horrible contract off their hands! What year is this? You know how you are supposed to take the keys from a drunk driver? Well, somebody needs to take the keys to the New York Knicks away from Isaiah Thomas. ASAP.
Josh Smith is More Than Just Highlight Dunks. Just check out his first game after the break: the kid goes for 19 and 10 with 4 assists and 4 blocks. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that he’s the best shot blocking small forward this side of AK-47. He’s averaging 1.88 blocks per game in only 23.9 minutes, so once Atlanta starts getting him on the floor for 35-40 minutes a game, look for Smith’s game to take off.
May Vince Carter go 0-for-his-next-90. I don’t care how many 40-point games he throws up or off-the-backboard dunks he steals from T-Mac. Vince Carter is D-U-N, done in my book. I know some of you are with me … right, city of Toronto? (It doesn’t appear that Stan Van Dundy is very enamored with Carter’s admission of guilt either. Nobody talked about it, but he benched VC for the final 18 minutes of the game in favor of his boy Wade. I loved it.)
Big Z Making Waves. Although Detroit and Miami are the clear favorites in the East, the Cavs are suddenly a legit contender to reach the NBA Finals. Most of the credit goes to LeBron of course, but the x-factor is the play of Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the paint. He’s always been a good shooter and decent rebounder, but now he’s adding two significant elements to his game: 1) he’s blocking shots, and 2) he’s attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line. With LeBron destroying defenses and Z becoming so consistent in the post, the Cavs suddenly have the offense production necessary to win playoff games. If only they had Michael Redd to knock down threes … oh well, he’ll be around next year after Larry Harris foolishly keeps him in Milwaukee and then can’t re-sign him.
C-Webb in Philly. If you read the Iverson bit above, then you know this was added to the column after the fact. Still, it has to be discussed. I guess, as they say in Spinal Tap, “this one goes to 11.” The odd thing about the Webber trade is that the analysts are taking the extreme position in regards to both Sacramento and Philly. Oh wait, that’s not weird, that’s normal. My bad. The point is that it’s not doomsday in Sac-Town and it’s necessarily the new golden age for the 76ers. The Kings needed to move Webber because they want to get back to the Bibby-Peja-Miller trio that was so awesome last year. The thinking is that Webber’s skill set actually detracts from what the other guys bring to the table. So it’s almost addition by subtraction. And whether it’s Kenny Thomas or Darius Songaila at the power forward spot, they are going to get more of an enforcer and a roll player type of guy. So they are actually better now, I don’t care what anyone says. (Although they took on some ghastly contracts in the process, which is the real reason why they were the loser in this trade.) As for the Sixers, people seem to think they are suddenly going to win 85% of their games. Doubtful. In fact, I think they will struggle a bit the rest of the year to get a feel for the new-look squad. However, where the Webber trade really helps is in the playoffs. Now they can actually win a series or two. Plus, Webber and Iverson will form a nucleus that can bring the young trio of Korver-Igoudala-Dalembert along and be a serious contender in the coming years. So, yes, it was a great trade for the 76ers, but I don’t think the immediate returns will be out of this world.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by sitemail at adamo112.