Here's the monthly look at the NBA's "Big Picture," where we count down all 30 teams from "worst chance of winning the title" to "best chance of winning the title." For the March edition, we're brushing over the non-contenders and concentrating on teams with a legitimate chance of winning the 2006 championship. As an added wrinkle, I'm going to see if I can make it through this column without cracking an Isiah Thomas joke. Let's see how this turns out ...
THE RUDY GAY SWEEPSTAKES
30. New York
Well, it's official: The escalating Marbury-Brown feud has Sprewell/Carlesimo potential. I'm giddy. And didn't you love it when Marbury pulled the "I've gotta go back to being Starbury" routine? It's one thing to refer to yourself in the third person, it's another thing to refer to yourself in the fourth person (as your nickname). Just a tour de force all the way around.
(By the way, you can't do a worse job coaching an NBA team than Larry Brown did with the Knicks this year. It's impossible. Condescending, inexplicable, unfriendly, haphazard, rambling, incoherent, unprepared, overcritical, self-defeating, depressing, unrealistic ... really, pick any negative word or phrase for a coach and it probably fits. This current Knicks team was poorly conceived, but it also wasn't a 20-win team. Brown botched the 2004 Olympics beyond belief, he screwed up the 2005 Pistons with all the Cleveland rumors, and he's destroyed the 2006 Knicks to the point it's turning into a "24" episode. These are the facts.
Put it this way: Even James Caan's legs in "Misery" healed faster than Emeka Okafor's sprained ankle has this season.
I know there's still six weeks left in the season, but Sebastian Telfair's arrest for trying to get through an airport metal detector with his girlfriend's gun just about locked up the Qyntel Woods Memorial "Greatest Trail Blazer Off-Court Scandal of the Year" Award. The rest of the season almost feels anticlimactic.
HOPE IS A GOOD THING
All right, I'll ask: How did the Hawks misjudge Boris Diaw that badly before he landed with the Suns this season? What would possibly make them think that he's a point guard? Nobody ever thought, "Wow, it's a little unorthodox, but maybe we should play him at power forward or center?" Not one person suggested this?
I was going to call it a resurgence, but it's more of a surgence. Anyway, what about Darko's surgence! I keep picturing Chad Ford logging on to some 28K modem in Hawaii to calculate Darko's latest per-minute stats, weeping in delight, then dressing up like Magnum P.I. and heading out on the town for a celebratory drink.
FYI: New Hampshire's own Matt Bonner has quietly usurped Mark Madsen's longtime stranglehold as the "Best Token Goofy White Guy In The League" with 21 minutes, seven points and three boards a game, tons of fist pumps and awkward high-fives, goofy red hair, and even some occasional crunch-time appearances.
STUCK IN QUICKSAND
24. Golden State
You can feel the Baron Davis-for-Marbury trade coming this summer, can't you? I'm even going to predict the day: June 26.
(By the way, I can't believe the Mike Montgomery Era isn't working out. Wait, you mean a college coach came to the NBA and had trouble adjusting to the league and relating to his players? Unbelievable! That never happens!)
Random prediction: When Dave Cowens took a leave of absence for 40 games during the 1976-77 season and drove a cab around Boston, I always thought that was the watershed "NBA superstar who ended up burning himself out because he was way too intense all the time" moment. Now I'm wondering what KG has up his sleeve: He's about three or four more crushing T-Wolves defeats away from pulling a Private Pyle. You should have seen him during the Clips game on Monday night -- at one point, it looked like he was going to start pulling a Kermit Washington in the huddle and decking his teammates one by one. This is going to end badly.
POISED FOR A SUMMER DEAL
Sonics free-agent pickup Marcus Fizer on what he learned in the D-League this season: "I'm a lot smarter now. I thought I had all the answers. I had much success in college and, of course, being an instant millionaire you are going to think you have all the answers. ... I have an 8-year-old, a 7-year-old, 5-year-old and 2-year-old. Family values are important to me. You know what's not as important though? Condoms."
(All right, I made that last part up. But he really did say everything else. See, the D-League can do some good: Marcus Fizer is a lot smarter now!)
So much for the miraculous playoff run. By the way, Al Jefferson is coming dangerously close to getting the Vito Corleone/Johnny Fontaine "You can act like a man!" speech from me. Enough is enough. Stop babying the ankle. You're working my last nerve.
Now here's a coach I love: Scott Skiles. When the Bulls beat the Clips in L.A. last month and Skiles worked Dunleavy like a speed bag -- it was the best coaching job I've seen in two years. Seriously, look at that Bulls team. They don't have a single top-15 player at any of the five positions except for Kirk Hinrich. Their two best scorers are 40 percent shooters. They have no size at all except for Tyson Chandler (the very poor man's Marcus Camby) and Mike Sweetney (who's eating himself out of the league). And yet they have an outside chance for the eighth seed, which would give them consecutive playoff appearances if that happened. Imagine what Skiles could do with a real team?
RUNNING ON FUMES
19. NO/OK Hornets
Caught Chris Paul in person a few weeks ago: What a pleasure to see an old-school point guard born after 1984 who knows how to run a basketball team, I can't even tell you. I almost started bawling. OK, that's a lie. But it was very enjoyable. And speaking of enjoyable ...
How do you write, "That's it, I'm tired of being pushed around and dunked on, I'm tired of having my manhood questioned, I'm tired of having my coach shake his head at me ... I'm declaring war on this entire freaking league!" in Chinese?
(On the flip side, T-Mac's career is officially starting to mirror Junior Griffey's career. If he blows out a hammie rounding third in a celebrity softball game, it's going to be officially creepy.)
Here's the difference between Andrei Kirilenko's situation and Mike Greenberg's situation: When Kirilenko's wife gives him a yearly freebie, he's choosing between elite NBA groupies, Salt Lake City blondes and every smoking-hot chick from Russia who hasn't put on 20 pounds from drinking weight yet. If Greenberg got a yearly freebie, he's relegated to driving to downtown Hartford, hanging out at the 2 a.m. hot dog trucks and trying to find the best-looking drunk chick who might not be so drunk that she'll throw up in his Miata on the way to the hotel. So I don't think you can really compare. Sorry, Mike. Enjoyed the column though.
FIRST ROUND FODDER
16. L.A. Lakers
Interesting work from 82games.com last month, which kept track of everyone's stats in game-winning situations (24 seconds or less: tie game, down by one, down by two) for the past two-plus seasons. Carmelo had the best numbers -- 8-for-14, and that was before he made two more game-winners in the past three weeks. One of the worst guys? Kobe Bryant ... 6-for-25. You read that correctly.
(You know what that means, right? I can dump him from my 2008 Dream Team because it turns out that he ISN'T that clutch! Good times!)
Before I anointed the Bucks as my sleeper for the second half, I probably should have monitored their coach for a few games. Good golly. If Terry Stotts ever helms another NBA team after this season, that's going to be a bigger upset than Anne Hathaway getting naked in consecutive movies.
Couple of intriguing subplots here ...
A) C-Webb has played in 60 of a possible 63 games. To put this in perspective, the most games he ever played in a season before: 76. And that was his rookie year.
B) Over the past five seasons, C-Webb and Iverson have missed a combined 218 games. This season? Eight.
(I guess what I'm trying to say is this: Don't pencil Philly into that eighth playoff spot quite yet.)
Ever make a fantasy trade with a friend that turns out to be so wildly one-sided, it's actually awkward the next time you run into him? Ernie Grunfeld and Mitch Kupchak reached that point about eight weeks ago.
(Speaking of Washington, is there a Bullets fan from the '80s who didn't throw up in his mouth when he saw Jeff Ruland on Iona's bench yesterday? Man, it sucks getting old. I still remember his middle part and Brooklyn mustache like it was yesterday.)
As well as Pau Gasol has been playing this season, I can't take this team seriously when Jake Tsakalidis and Chucky Atkins are prominently involved. By the way, when is someone creating the "Greatest Mike Fratello Hairdos" Web site? How has that not happened yet? I want to be able to vote on this and everything.
11. New Jersey
I was re-reading "Tall Tales" by Terry Pluto this week -- really good oral history of the NBA's early years. Anyway, there's a section in there about Oscar Robertson and some of his quirks, including how he used to call rebounds "ballboards." Classic phrase. And that's the problem with the Nets: They can't protect the rim and they can't get ballboards. You need to do both in the playoffs. So don't expect much from them.
(Programming moment of the season: During the Clips-Suns game on Wednesday night, ESPN showed back-to-back Vince Carter commercials: One for Nike, one for T-Mobile. Sadly, they forgot to run his Massengill ad for the trifecta.)
In the last edition of "Big Picture," I thought the Cavs were one of the seven teams with a realistic chance of winning the title because of LeBron's Tremendous Upside Potential. Then I watched them play a few more times ... it's just a poorly conceived, poorly coached team, and LeBron isn't ready to carry them on a night-to-night basis against good teams (especially at crunch-time). So I'm sticking them here. We'll know they're ready for primetime when LeBron stops chewing his nails like a little kid during fourth quarter timeouts. And not one second before.
Ever since the Artest Melee, it's been one setback after another for the Pacers. Even when someone like Fred Jones starts playing well, you can always count on him to get hurt almost immediately ... like poor Danny Granger, who's probably one more double-double away from getting accidentally electrocuted in the team shower. No team in the league has worse luck.
And then there's this: As you well know, I love studying the body language and chemistry of teams during games, and they have the weirdest collective vibe going in the league -- it's not that they don't get along, or that they aren't pulling for one another, but that they've been battling against the odds and dealing with drama for so long, they just seem worn down to me. Even when they're winning, it never seems like they're enjoying themselves, and poor Rick Carlisle always has a look on his face like he just went through a nine-hour colonoscopy. Just a weird team. I feel like too much has happened to them.
(And with all of that said, I wouldn't want any part of them in the second round if I were Detroit or Miami.)
You can't make the Finals without a single player who can stretch the defense and make a three. Not in this day and age. In the playoffs, teams are going to double Carmelo and force someone -- anyone -- to beat them with open jumpers. And the Nuggets don't have a single guy who can do it.
So I'm writing them off for this season. But I did want to mention two things:
• I loved the Evans/Patterson deal -- any time you can land two rotation guys without touching your nucleus OR giving up draft picks, that's a fantastic trade. To put it in perspective, the Celtics made a similar deal during the 2002 season, picking up two bench guys (Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers) for the stretch run, and they gave up a young Joe Johnson and a 2002 No. 1 pick. Denver gave up their third-best point guard. Well done.
• It's funny how the 2003 draft is working out: LeBron receives the most attention, and with reason ... but Wade is the best all-around player in the league, and Carmelo is better than anyone in the final 20 seconds of a game. He's an absolute assassin. That's why I'm not willing to totally write off the Nuggets: Is there anyone in the West who's more unstoppable than 'Melo in a close game?
Very, very, very, very, VERY intriguing. Artest completes them in many ways: gives them defense, gives them toughness, gives them swagger, gives them that extra ooooooomph that they needed for the last few years. You think Dallas wants any part of these guys in Round 1, especially when the Kings could just throw Artest on Nowitzki? No way. And with the way Bibby is playing right now, I think they would potentially be favorites in Round 1 against Denver because of the Artest-Anthony matchup.
(Of course, since Artest is involved, the previous paragraph could look phenomenally ridiculous in three weeks considering he's the one NBA player in the Mike Tyson Zone -- in other words, he could do just about anything and it wouldn't be surprising, with the possibilities ranging from "I can't believe Ron Artest punched out a referee!" to "I can't believe Ron Artest tried to kill the Maloof brothers!")
6. L.A. Clippers
What's to like: An exceptionally deep rotation featuring an MVP candidate (Brand); a real center (Kaman); outside shooters (Radmanovic and Mobley); a slasher (Maggette); a stopper (Ross); a cagey veteran who makes big shots (Cassell); and a young creator off the bench (Livingston). Not a weak link in the bunch.
What's not to like: Kaman, Cassell and Radmanovic are all below-average defensive players. I'm being kind. Of course, this could easily be rectified with the right coach -- like someone who wouldn't have Kaman guarding Dirk Nowitzki or Brad Miller, or someone who would say, "You know what? Sam Cassell doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of staying with Steve Nash, maybe I should try someone else." Sometimes during Clippers home games, I keep expecting him to pull a Scooby Doo and rip off his Dunleavy mask ... revealing that he's really Doc Rivers.
Mitigating factor: For some crazy reason, they match up exceptionally well against the Spurs. Conceivably, they could topple the Spurs, outlast Dallas, then hope that Denver or Sacramento beats Phoenix. And yes, these are the scenarios you envision as you mail in a non-refundable $2,000 check for the first installment of your 2006 Clippers playoff tickets.
What's to like: Great chemistry, undeniably fun to watch, impeccably coached. It's great to see an NBA team say, "Hey, we're going to play a certain way and proactively find players who can fit that style" ... and then they actually pull it off. Basically, it's the complete opposite of what Isiah Thomas did.
(Damn! I knew I couldn't make it!)
What's not to like: At this point, they're better off preparing for a Stoudamire-less playoffs than worrying about how to integrate a somewhat-tentative-and-afraid-to-reinjure-his-knee Stoudamire into the lineup -- I can't see how he can possibly come back at a high level this season. So what's left? A terrific offensive team that gives up almost as many points on the other end. Sounds like last year.
Mitigating factor: Normally the whole "terrific offensive team that plays no defense whatsoever" is a recipe for disaster in the playoffs, but this Suns team might be able to score better than anyone else does anything. On the other hand, people have used this same logic to explain why Manning and the Colts would win the Super Bowl the past four seasons. And you know how that turned out.
(As for the Steve Nash thing: I don't think he's the MVP this season -- more on this in a second --- but the cumulative effect of the past two seasons has insured that he's going down as one of the 10 best point guards of the first 60 years, along with Magic, Isiah, Cousy, Oscar, Stockton, Tiny, KJ, Kidd and Frazier. So that's pretty cool. Plus, he found time to record that "Beautiful" song. Fantastic season all around.)
What's to like: Good defensive team with two reliable crunch-time guys: Nowitzki and Jason Terry (who's surprisingly effective at the end of games). And Avery Johnson deserves "Coach of the Year" just for coaxing 13 rebounds and three blocks a night from the Diop-Dampier combination. From a talent standpoint, the pieces fit for the Mavs -- nobody fights over shots, they always get a lift from someone off the bench, and the right guys get the ball when it matters. I like watching them.
What's not to like: This Mavs team could have a little Tony LaRussa in them, where they're built for a great regular season, only they can't find an extra gear in the playoffs because they were already giving everything they had. For instance, they played two must-win games on national TV since the All-Star Break, one against San Antonio, the other against Phoenix ... and lost them both. (Not a good sign.)
Mitigating factor: For the most part, Nowitzki has solved the whole "Let's guard him with a smaller guy!" idea, which started with T-Mac and the Rockets last spring. He's been routinely killing anyone who tried this gimmick, with one exception: Bruce Bowen dismantled him two weeks ago, leading to Barkley saying, "You have to take a little man to the low post!" 530 times over the course of 10 minutes in TNT's postgame show. But overall? He's a worthy MVP candidate. I have him ranked third right now, one behind Nash, one ahead of Elton Brand and 700 spots ahead of Jerome James.
3. San Antonio
What's to like: The Spurs are the champs. And they OWN Phoenix.
What's not to like: In order ...
A) I watched Duncan heroically limping around against the Clips two weeks ago -- it's much more damaging to see in person, when you can pick up the little grimaces and self-conscious glances toward his bum foot. He's just not the same guy. The incredible thing is that Duncan can still control the game on one leg, and when they truly need him and his adrenaline starts going, he can have little spurts when it seems like he's fine. But the injury kills him defensively (he doesn't have the same lateral movement) and robs him of his lift for putbacks. I would guess that he's playing at around 70 percent. And considering that they barely won the title last season, that's not cutting it.
B) Stick a fork in Nick Van Exel. He's done. Same for Michael Finley. Brent Barry was never good for them in the first place. Neither was Rasho Nesterovic. Beno Udrih stinks. And Big Shot Rob is on cruise control until May, as always ... one of these years, he's not going to have anything left in the tank. By the way, I just listed six of their 10 best guys.
C) At halftime of the Clips game, I wandered down to the court to talk to my friend Strik, and we ended up watching the Spurs warming up for the second half ... the players were just going about their business in silence, like 12 businessmen quietly filing through an airport on their way to baggage claim or something. Watching them interact (or not interact), I said to Strik, "Look at that, they're like an old married couple." Strik joked, "You can't blame 'em, these guys speak like nine different languages."
But their whole season has been like that: They seem tired of each other, tired of their coach, tired of playing these 110-game seasons. Poor Duncan looks like he just wants to climb into a jacuzzi and disappear for about 10 months. Even when they rally to the occasion, like with the Dallas game a couple of weeks ago, you never get the sense that they're having that much fun. It's just a grim team. You can win one playoff series like that, and maybe even two, but not four. At some point, somebody else will have too much energy for you. I bet this is Popovich's last season. Just a gut feeling.
Mitigating factor: Did I mention that Tim Duncan is on this team?
What's to like: The Heat are getting better as the season goes along ... no NBA team has anything even remotely approaching the Shaq-Mourning combo at center ... Riley knows what he's doing ... for the most part, Jason Williams has been surprisingly effective for them ... from a team chemistry standpoint, they're an A-plus ... they've shown a knack for battling back from big deficits (like last night against the Celts) ... and they have the best player in the league (more on this in a second).
What's not to like: I've seen them play too many games already that came down to Shaq shooting free throws, and/or either GP, Walker, Haslem or Posey trying to make a wide-open 3. (It's scary to think that their entire season could come down to one of those aforementioned four guys being forced to make a 25-foot shot.) And their home crowd is awful. Just abysmal. They're better off playing a Game 7 on the road.
Mitigating factor: John Hollinger stole my thunder here. Originally I wrote a longer section in this spot about how Dwyane Wade was the 2006 MVP -- how it wasn't even really that close, how he's the best two-way player in the league; how he's been scoring 33 a game and shooting 56 percent from the field for the past two months; how he's the one star in the league who can completely turn a game around in about 90 seconds; how he got over an early season funk of taking bad shots and makes the right decisions nearly all the time; how he's probably the toughest two-guard since the late-'90s MJ; how he's the most efficient superstar since the early-'90s MJ; how he's been on a mission since he didn't win the MVP at the All-Star Game; how he has a knack for raising his game when it matters -- and then Hollinger blew this same premise into an entire column. Beat me by one day. If it happens again, I'm going to have him killed.
Here's the point: Miami is 20-4 over its past 24 games, mainly because of Dwyane Wade. I see them continuing to get better and better. Why? Because he keeps getting better and better. After MJ retired, did you ever think you would see another guard average 30-35 points a night, rack up another six rebounds and six assists per game, play world-class defense and shoot 55 percent from the field? Well, it's happening.
What's to like: Best starting five alive ... playoff experience ... built for the spring ... great fans ... two of the best crunch-time guys in the business (Billups and Hamilton) ... swagger galore in big games ... a healthy amount of luck that ranges from "the best player on the other team gets hurt with their team leading 3-2 in the conference finals" to "the best player on one of our biggest rivals gets suspended for an entire season and the ensuing fallout destroys our heated rival."
What's not to like: First, their bench is even worse than last year's bench (and that's saying something). Second, they have had a remarkable run of luck in the injury department -- three seasons and counting without anything as much as a badly sprained ankle. How long can that continue? Third, I miss Darko and his brooding, Macaulay Culkin-like presence during timeouts.
Mitigating factor: When the worst thing you can say about them is, "They're overdue for some bad luck," that's pretty good. As far as I'm concerned, they're still the favorites, bad bench and all. Until next month.
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.