First, I have a scoop for you: A well-placed source tells me that Isiah Thomas is prepared to trade Channing Frye and Penny Hardaway to Denver for Kenyon Martin and Earl Watson, but only if Martin agrees to an MRI on his surgically repaired knee. If Martin's knee is in good shape, the Knicks are calling off the deal. If the knee is in rough shape, the deal is on. If the knee is in such terrible shape that the doctor says something like, "Wow, there's a good chance K-Mart might walk with a limp for the rest of his life," the Knicks will throw in an unconditional No. 1 in 2009 as well as Nate Robinson and $3 million dollars. So stay tuned.
In the meantime, here's another look at the NBA's "Big Picture," where I count down all 30 teams from "worst chance of winning the title" to "best chance of winning the title." I'll even separate them into categories for you. Without further ado...
THE ADAM MORRISON SWEEPSTAKES
29. New York
The Bobcats have 13 wins and the Knicks have 14 wins. According to hoopshype.com, Charlotte's 2005-06 payroll is $33.4 million, while New York's payroll is $125.9 million. Not including team options on younger players, Charlotte has $21.8 million in guaranteed salaries committed for 2007; $14.2 million committed in 2008; and $0.0 million in 2009. New York's guaranteed money looks like this: $110.3 million (2007); $49 million (2008); and $45 million (2009). Also, the Bobcats kept all their first-round picks through the decade, while New York gives Chicago its 2006 lottery pick and switches first-rounders with the Bulls in 2007 (with the Knicks getting the lower pick).
To recap: For that one extra win, the Knicks spent four times as much money, killed their cap flexibility through 2009 and gave away any chance of having a top-five pick in the next two years. On the bright side, Eddy Curry has gained enough weight this season that he might start wearing jackets to cover his rear end during games, kinda like how Oprah dresses when she's in the middle of one of her eating binges. So that will be fun.
(God bless the Isiah Era. We'll be talking about this for decades. I really believe that.)
Things I would do if I were Hornets GM Jeff Bower: Bring everyone into my office, call Atlanta GM Billy Knight on my speaker phone, pretend I was just checking in to say hello, then deadpan the requisite, "Hey, you aren't interested in trading Marvin Williams for Chris Paul, are you?" joke ... followed by one of those "Bwaaaaaah haaaaaa haaaaaaa!" laughs as everyone in the office cracks up.
(See, this is why I could never be an NBA GM. Also, I wouldn't make dumb trades and overpay for mediocre players. That's another reason.)
After reading that Wally Szczerbiak was complaining about his knee this week, I had the following exchange with my buddy Bug:
Me: "If you could sum up this Celtics season with a word, phrase or story, what would it be?"
Bug (without missing a beat): "Poop on a stick."
26. Toronto Removing Rob Babcock from Toronto was like removing Saddam Hussein from Iraq -- maybe he's finally gone, but it's going to take years for the region to recover.
(All right, everyone remembers how Joe Dumars passed on Wade and Carmelo for Darko. But imagine if the Pistons had taken Bosh over Darko? What if he were their sixth man right now? Would that make them a 75-win team? Would it screw them up a little? Not since Lenny Bias has a single draft pick led to this many "What ifs?")
Just like Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis seems like one of those guys who changes teams, gets his act together for a few months and eventually wears out his welcome. So what would happen if the Knicks and Magic traded Marbury for Francis ... and then, three months later, they swapped them again? And this just kept happening every three months? In other words, you would be getting only the "getting his act together" part of the Marbury/Francis package without dealing with the "wearing out his welcome" side effects. I really think this could work.
(My favorite guy on the Magic: Mario Kasun, a more-tattooed, less-coordinated version of Joel Przybilla. He's not half-bad. Plus, I remember attending a Magic-Clips game last year when Mary Carey was sitting behind the Magic bench screaming "Mario! Mario!" and waving to him during the timeouts, as he smiled back sheepishly with a "Maybe it was a mistake to hook up with a porn star and give her my complimentary tickets, and maybe the guys on the team are making fun of me right now, but I'm still going back for seconds tonight!" look on his face. Needless to say, I've been rooting for him ever since. If you're looking for someone to fill Chris Andersen's void over the next two years, start right here.)
RUNNING TO STAND STILL
Hey, look who's playing for the Sonics ... it's Robert Swift! And he's not half-bad! If he dyed his hair jet black, covered his arms in tattoos, grew a Fu Manchu and started calling himself "Bobby," you would watch these Sonics games and say to yourself, "Wow, who's that Bobby Swift guy, he's pretty good for a young kid!" Instead, you say things like, "I didn't know Brian Scalabrine has an illegitimate kid in the NBA!" But he's not half-bad, I'm telling you. When he goes head-to-head with Mario Kasun on Feb. 24, it could end up being the Not Half-Bad All-Star Game. Get the TiVo ready.
(As for the Bob Weiss Era, I think we all learned a valuable lesson here: If you're promoting an assistant to head coach, before you make the move, it's probably a good idea to check basketballreference.com and make sure he doesn't have a career record of 210-282 with three different teams. Might want to have an intern research that baby.)
23. Golden State
If one more media person claims that Baron Davis is a "tough omission" from the 2006 All-Star team, I'm going to throw up all over my Zarko Cabarkapa. Watch G-State some time -- they have some nice pieces (Murphy, Biedrins, Richardson, Fisher, Pietrus, Diogu), but there's Baron dribbling the ball for 20 seconds, hoisting bad 3s and single-handedly killing them in close games. It's like somebody shrunk Antoine Walker and gave him his own team. If you're wondering why the Warriors went 8-19 before winning their last two games, look no further. I'd rather have Speedy Claxton for one-fourth the price.
(While we're here, congrats to the Warriors for giving Mike Dunleavy Jr. an inexplicable $45 million contract extension that doesn't kick in until next July ... and then watching him stink the joint out so violently that they had to bench him last week. Now that's comedy. The thing is, Isiah Thomas and Rob Babcock knocked our "Wow, what a terrible GM!" senses so out of whack that the Dunleavy extension doesn't seem so bad by comparison. But it was mind-blowingly bad. You have to believe me.)
Here's one of the underrated sports stories of 2006: What about the Bulls' acquiring Tim Thomas, burying him on the bench, then telling him to just go home while they try to trade him ... even though he's making $14 million this season. Has anyone ever made more money for doing nothing? Shouldn't magazines be assigning writers to hang out with him, just to see what he does every day? If he's making $14 million, that means he's getting a check for about $525,000 every two weeks (minus taxes). Would you even work out if you were him?
(Note: I would go back to Villanova, start taking second-semester classes, join a frat and throw lavish keg parties every weekend. In fact, why couldn't they remake "Back to School" about an NBA player making $14 million a year who gets buried by his team, then decides to go back to college to finish his degree? Somebody get Omar Epps on the phone!)
TRAPPED IN THE WRONG CONFERENCE
Between Yao's toe infection, McGrady's back and Pat Riley pulling an Iago on his brother, this has been such a traumatic season for Jeff Van Gundy, he lost those lovable hairs that he used to comb across his head. You know, the ones that prevented him from being Ed Harris-level bald. Sad to see.
(Random theory on McGrady's back: Did you ever notice how many good young players played with Grant Hill and ended up having recurring medical problems later in their careers? Allan Houston. Theo Ratliff. Aaron McKie. Jerome Williams. Loy Vaught. Jerry Stackhouse. T-Mac. He even played with Bison Dele and Malik Sealy in 1998. The Magic should trade Hill before he accidentally brushes against Dwight Howard.)
Not only do the Blazers lead the league in "Most random guys who could definitely play 15-20 minutes a game off the bench for the Pistons," but Zach Randolph played well enough this season that they might be able to dump his contract on the Knicks with just a little more patience and prayer. Stay tuned.
(My favorite running Blazers subplot that doesn't involve anything Ruben Patterson says or does: Joel Przybilla became the "first mediocre center about to be wildly overpaid" to screw up his timing and go into his post-contract free fall during his contract push. It's like his agent explained the concept to him wrong. No, no, Joel ... you have to wait until you sign the contract. I thought I made that clear! Now go out there and grab 17 rebounds tonight!)
Here's why the NBA drives me crazy: Nobody loves pick-and-rolls more than Jerry Sloan. That's his bread-and-butter. And if that's the case, why not draft Paul (who was born for the pick-and-roll) over Deron Williams (who executes it like a drunk girl trying to find the ladies room on a crowded dance floor). I saw the Jazz in person a few weeks ago and couldn't believe how wrong Williams was for them. How did they not know this? I bet Williams ends up getting moved within the next 24 months. Guaranteed.
(Random question: Did Carlos Boozer buy Ken Griffey's hamstrings on eBay last year? What the hell happened to that guy? Are his hamstrings made out of papier-mâché? What would happen if you put Boozer's hamstrings, Fred Taylor's groin and Ronald Curry's Achilles tendons on the same person? Would their legs just fall off their bodies like a leper?)
The Damon Stoudamire injury killed them. Too bad. Don't be surprised if they fall out of the playoffs after the inevitable Bobby Jackson injury when something goes flying off his body.
(Hey, remember my old joke about how every fantasy league should merge Lorenzen Wright and Stro Swift into one uber-center named Stromenzen Wrift? Have you noticed that both guys have gone into the tank when they were split up? It's like each of them needed the comfort of knowing that the other guy was holding them back. You have to love the NBA sometimes.)
I'm prepared for anything from these guys: A 12-game winning streak, a 20-game losing streak, KG punching out Mark Blount during a timeout, Marcus Banks putting up nine straight triple-doubles, Mark Madsen coming out for a home game dressed like Janet Reno, you name it. Crazy team.
(And did you notice that the Wolves have already given up on Marko Jaric? In case you forgot, I called this back in August after they made the Cassell trade. And no, I'm not telling you that to toot my own horn: Dig through my archives and you'll find hundreds of dumb predictions over the years. But after watching Jaric play 30-35 times in person, I knew his game well enough to state the anti-Jaric case about as emphatically as I could. I knew I was right. Which raises the question: How could the Timberwolves not know? Didn't they have scouts? And how could they underestimate Sam I Am in a contract year that badly? One of the dumbest trades of the decade.)
Same strategy as last year: "Let's outscore everyone with our best three guys, we won't worry about defense, and hopefully Gilbert can win any close game for us."
(One problem: Caron Butler is a good all-around player, but he isn't the same scorer that Larry Hughes was. So they're one scorer short, only they're still not playing defense. And you wonder why they're playing .500 ball in a crap conference. By the way, they have played the easiest schedule in the league this season -- their opponents have a .475 winning percentage thus far. Watch for them to sink like a stone on their West Coast trip in March.)
A tentative ranking: I want to watch them with Peja for a few weeks. Indiana might be the one team that can redeem him ... ever since he fell apart in the 2004 playoffs, he had been slowly morphing into the Yugoslavian Matt Bullard for 18 months and nobody realized it. This Pacers situation feels right for him. I'm sufficiently intrigued.
(On the flip side, Danny Granger's falling to No. 17 would have been the Draft Gift of the Decade if Dwyane Wade hadn't fallen to Miami at No. 5. And you thought the Basketball Gods still didn't keep Larry Legend in their thoughts.)
Another tentative ranking: Even though they're 20-27, once they get everyone healthy, would you want any part of these guys in a short series this spring? Oh, wait, the NBA dumped the five-game series in Round One; the concept was too exciting. I forgot.
(And just for the record, I first pushed for the Peja-Artest trade in my annual "Top 40 NBA Trade Value" column from 2004, a good four months before Chad Ford pushed for the same trade. So I get ESPN.com bragging rights on this one.
Anyway, I liked the deal more for the Kings: Artest gives them the best defensive stopper in the conference, someone who can cover everyone from Kobe to Ginobili to Brand. They had a "first round and out" ceiling before the trade; now they have an "anything's possible" ceiling. And I mean, anything. Right down to Artest fighting the Maloof Brothers to the death in the old "Real World" suite at the Palms.)
Only Billy King could build a team around two great defenders (Andre Iguodala and Sam Dalembert), two atrocious ones (C-Webb and Kyle Korver), and a guy who stopped breaking a sweat on defense about two years ago (Iverson). Offensively, they have one guy who monopolizes the ball (Iverson) and one high-post player who thrives in a passing offense (C-Webb). And their bench is so woeful, Shavlik Randolph is getting minutes for them. It's just a crazy combination of guys -- like a baseball GM acquiring five sinkerball pitchers, then playing four terrible infielders behind him. Completely illogical on every level.
(In a related story, I found myself checking the Suns-Sixers game last week just to see whether Phoenix could break 150 points and 65 percent from the field. The Suns ended up shooting 58.1 percent and scoring just 123 points. It's almost like they had an off night.)
12. Oklahoma City
Here's why they're over .500: An excellent rookie point guard, good coaching, good role players, one shrewd trade (the Baron Davis dump) and a great crowd that influences every home game. Did you ever think Oklahoma City would turn out to be a rocking NBA city? Me neither. Feel-good story all the way around here. Well, except for the Chris Andersen suspension.
(And yes, I'm still getting "It was time for the Birdman to fly" e-mails three weeks later. But here's my question: When are we finding out what drug got him in trouble? And how can I wager on this? Did you see the list of drugs that earn you a two-year suspension? Cocaine, LSD, opiates, heroin, meth, morphine, PCP ... there's just a ton of stuff in play. So which was it? Why wasn't this a poll on ESPN.com at the very least?)
MILDLY INTRIGUING, ULTIMATELY HARMLESS
11. New Jersey
Two weeks ago, I attended a Clips-Nets game two days after Vince Carter tweaked his back in Utah. Knowing Vince would play, knowing the Clips would stick Quentin Ross (aka, "Bruce Bowen 2.0") on him, knowing that Vince would probably struggle, I almost felt like starting a "When will Vince pull and Exit Stage Right during the game?" pool in my section. He came out firing (the back looked fine, by the way) before realizing that Ross would be hounding him all game. Eventually, he stopped going within 20 feet of the basket.
So I'm sitting there waiting for him to start stretching, wincing and doing all the other stuff that Vince does when he wants the crowd to know that he's thinking about packing it in for the night. At the end of the first half, he had one point. Midway through the third, he had 3 points and the Nets were down by 20. Then there was a 2-on-1 with Kidd when Vince stepped on someone's foot, landed a little awkwardly, waved to his bench as the whistle was blown, then kept right on jogging ... right into the runway and into the locker room. We never saw him again. Even better, we knew right away that he wasn't coming back. I just hope I get a chance to tell this story on "SportsCentury And Beyond: Vince Carter" some day.
(Note: I would give VC's All-Star spot to Michael Redd, someone who actually plays hard every night and respects the fans who supported him from day one. Novel concept. And while we're on the subject, the Pistons are only two games ahead of the Spurs and Mavs right now -- anyone who claims that they deserve more than three guys on the All-Star team needs to settle down. Give spots to Billups, Hamilton and Rasheed, make sure Pierce, Redd and Arenas are on the team, and stick Chris Bosh in there at the backup center. There's your 12. And after that's settled, I would name VC as Jermaine O'Neal's injury replacement -- he deserves to be on the team, so the least we could do is taint the honor for him. As for my West Coast reserves, any list that doesn't include Nowitzki, Carmelo, Marion, Parker, Gasol, Brand and Paul is simply unacceptable and deserves to be mocked. Back to the column.)
10. L.A. Lakers
You have to respect anyone (in this case, Phil Jackson) who can convince this group of schleps to keep killing themselves for someone like Kobe. Maybe his greatest coaching job ever. A masterpiece, even.
(And by the way, if you're wondering how a one-man team can double as the 10th-best team in the league, keep two things in mind: First, everyone else sucks. And second, Kobe could catch fire in a series against anyone. That makes the Lakers an X factor with a gigantic X. Would you want to play Kobe and Phil in a seven-game series?)
Yo, Kiki Vandeweghe: Nobody wants Earl Watson and his ridiculous contract. Nobody wants Nene and his bum knee. Nobody wants Kenyon Martin when he's a shell of his former self and making $14 million a year. The only way you're improving this team is by trading Andre Miller or Earl Boykins for a swingman. Stop screwing around. You have three point guards, five small forwards and four power forwards. It's a mess. It's been a mess all season. During the back-to-back Clippers blowouts two weeks ago, George Karl looked like was going to pull out a liquor bottle, cover it with a paper bag and start drinking in front of the scorer's table at the Staples Center. For his sake, you have to make a move. Just do something. I can't read another unsubstantiated Nuggets trade rumor on the Internet that has no chance of happening. You're killing me.
(One of the lost stories of the 2005-06 season: Carmelo Anthony making The Leap in Season 3. On a banged-up team with some serious structural problems, no less. For anyone under 25, watch Carmelo on one of those nights when he has it going and doing the inside-outside routine -- reminiscent of Bernard King running amok in the mid-'80s. Good times all around.)
My dark horse to make The Mini-Leap over these next 10 weeks. Keep the following things in mind...
A. Maybe they're only 24-23, but they're also the only Eastern team to crack the top-10 in Strength of Schedule. Not to turn into Statty McStatstein here, but out of their last 35 games, only six are against the seven elite teams (Cleveland, Phoenix, Dallas, the Clips, Miami, San Antonio and Detroit). It's a cream-puff schedule the rest of the way.
B. They spent the first half of the season learning a new coach's system and learning how to play with two new big men (Jamaal Magloire and Andrew Bogut), both of whom are playing better as the season drags along.
C. They have a crunch-time scorer (Redd), ballhandling guards who can make plays (T.J. Ford and Mo Williams) and scorers who can make free throws (Redd, Simmons and Williams are all over 80 percent). That's why they're so good in close games (9-3 in games decided by three points or less).
D. Every season around the All-Star Break, somebody jumps a level. Last year, it was the Nuggets. This year? The Bucks. Wait and see.
As for the aforementioned top-seven...
5. L.A. Clippers
3. San Antonio
...the teams in that group deserve their own column.
(And they will get one. I promise.)
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day, Monday through Friday. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.