NBA Preview: Part II
At the Nuggets-Clippers preseason game on Friday night, there was a level of serenity that I hadn't remembered. Both teams were just playing ball. So I'm watching and watching and thinking to myself, "All right, what's different about this game?"
Then I figured it out: Thanks to the new "Rasheed Wallace" rule, players weren't bitching and moaning after every foul call.
By coming up with this wrinkle, was David Stern hoping to divert attention away from the fallout from last season's playoffs, when the brutal officiating brought back memories of the Allies-Nazis game in "Victory"? Yeah, probably. Still, you have to admit, players were whining and fussing in epidemic proportions. Nobody believed he could actually commit a foul. Even some of the better character guys (like Tim Duncan and Tayshaun Prince, to name two) were reacting after fouls like somebody had just stuck a parking ticket on their car. It was a disgrace. It seemed like they felt obligated to protest every call, like the one moment during the Spurs-Mavs series when Brent Barry was whistled for a foul and ran a few steps in disbelief, but you could tell his heart wasn't really in it, like he was doing it on autopilot.
Watching old games on NBA TV this summer, well before this rule was announced, I found myself admiring a random Portland-Philly game from the '77 Finals: Not the quality of play as much as its businesslike nature. Players were just playing hard and doing their jobs. It was a revelation. So that got me thinking, "When did this crap start? Who's to blame?"
For the rest of the summer, I kept an eye on the player-referee interactions as much as the old games. Rick Barry and Dave Cowens were famous for complaining about calls in the '70s, but much to my horror, two members of my beloved Celtics made bitching an art form in the mid-'80s: Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale. If you want to blame anyone, blame them. Barkley took it to another level, followed by Chuck Daly and the Bad Boy Pistons, Gary Payton and Sam Cassell and, ultimately, Rasheed and Antoine Walker in the mid-'90s (the Pacino and De Niro of this discussion). By the middle of this decade, thanks to everyone in this paragraph, everyone felt obligated to protest every whistle. The incessant complaining looked bad on TV and even worse in person -- just play after play of guys getting called for fouls, hopping around like little kids, then debating with the referees like an attorney haggling with a judge. Like everyone else, I hated watching it.
Now? The refs have been given authority to whistle technicals on anyone who pulls that crap. The league will be better for it. You will see. Maybe the level of officiating will even be better for it. If last season's performance was a collective D-plus -- and that's being kind -- we might end up with a C-plus this season simply because the refs won't have to worry about being shown up every other play. And if that's not enough, watching 'Sheed and 'Toine internalizing their emotions could end up being the funniest ongoing subplot of the 2006-07 season. Well, other than the Knicks.
So that's just the first of 33 reasons you should be intrigued by the upcoming season. Here's every other absorbing subplot to get you ready for the next nine months.
Time for a new feature with my annual NBA preview: Over/under picks for team victories! Please note that each over/under comes with a money line, with everything based on $100 -- so if the line reads -130, that means you'd wager $130 to win $100, and if it reads +120 that means you'd wager $100 to win $120. Ten picks for the upcoming season:
Boston -- Over 36.5 (-115)
2. Tim Duncan
Healthy, happy and hungry. Everything you need to know about the season starts here. We'll come back to him.
3. Kevin Garnett and Allen Iverson
Just as healthy, just as hungry, not nearly as happy. Hence, we could be headed for the most fascinating trade deadline in years: Two of the best 30 players OF ALL-TIME available at the tail ends of their primes, along with the usual suspects (Jermaine O'Neal, Zach Randolph, Carlos Boozer, Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Kenyon Martin, Wally Szczerbiak, and if that's not enough, a number of teams (the Bulls, Clippers, Hawks, Magic and Celtics, to name five) with the right mix of picks, young players and contracts to accommodate a major deal.
That's why it's almost useless to write an NBA preview this season -- it's like writing a fall TV preview and predicting "Friday Night Lights" will be a hit without knowing if NBC would be dumb enough to schedule it against the baseball playoffs and Monday Night Football. (Note: Yes, it was dumb enough.) We know the landscape will look decidedly different in February than it does now. I could see KG wearing a Bulls uniform. I could see Iverson wearing a Clippers uniform. I could see Stephen Jackson wearing a prison uniform. ...
4. Quentin Richardson and Eddy Curry
If you're trying to figure out how the Knicks season could possibly be more entertaining than it was last season, well, here's how: More fat guys! Move over from the buffet table, Jerome James, Q and Eddy are coming in for seconds! If they ever start the same game, the PA announcer should announce them with their combined weight, like they're a wrestling tag-team or something.
I can't believe what a disaster this Knicks team is. OK, maybe I can. But will there ever be a more inexplicable move than the Knicks spending $30 million on the insanely mediocre Jared Jeffries (really $60 million since they have to pay double for the luxury tax), than allowing the Spurs to steal Jackie Butler (a legitimate sleeper at center) away for $7 million because they were worried about the luxury tax ramifications? What about the illogical Jalen Rose buyout, whose $16.9 million salary could have been used for a deadline deal in a few months? What about the season-ticket holders fleeing in droves? What about Isiah being forced to coach this mess? My head is spinning.
(Note: I maintained from Day 1 that Isiah would be an unequivocal disaster in New York, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine he could cost the Knicks hundreds of millions of dollars. That's not a misprint. He has cost the Knicks hundreds of millions of dollars. This was one of those rare sports stories that somehow went underreported for whatever reason, like everyone backed off because he's been so incompetent, it wasn't even that interesting to discuss. Well, think of all the attention T.O. received over the past few years, or Barry Bonds or even A-Rod, ... how could anything be a bigger story than Isiah Thomas single-handedly destroying the NBA's marquee franchise? You'll understand in two years when you're watching Spike Lee's documentary about the Isiah era: "When Eddy Curry's Levi's Broke.")
5. Robert Swift's ACL
You saw him in the preseason, right? He looked like a cross between Chris Andersen, Ronald McDonald and the guy who screamed "You s--- on my house!" at Patrick Dempsey in "Can't Buy Me Love." (Check out this story for pictures and details.) And wouldn't you know it? Right after they hand him the starting center job, he blows out his knee just as we're recalibrating the Unintentional Comedy Scale for him. Just devastating. I'm almost inconsolable about this. Biggest bummer of the season.
6. Revenge of the young point guards
You can pencil the following 25-and-under players as starters or solid rotation guys at the very least: Chris Paul; Shaun Livingston; Rajon Rondo and Bassy Telfair; T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon; Ray Felton; Deron Williams; Jarrett Jack; Tony Parker (you forget, he's only 24); Mo Williams and Leandro Barbosa (two hybrid guards, but whatever); Devin Harris; Jameer Nelson; Kirk Hinrich; Vassilis Spanoulis; Luke Ridnour; Marcus Williams (yes, the Laptop Guy); and possibly, Jordan Farmar (let's throw him in here because he'll be stealing Smush Parker's job before Christmas). That's a whopping 19 young point guards who look exceedingly competent -- at worst -- heading into the upcoming season.
So not only is the game becoming faster and more fan-friendly, but there's a sudden abundance of young guards ready to help push that evolution along. It's like the perfect storm. Five years from now, you will never, ever, EVER see the likes of Kevin Ollie or Eric Snow starting in this league. There's no way a team could afford to take the offensive hit. This is a good thing. Andohbytheway, the adage that you shouldn't trade big for small has taken a major hit over the past two seasons. If you don't have one of these guards who can get into the paint, you're missing out. It's the single best way to take advantage of the new rules.
(Important note No. 1: This doesn't mean you should trade Charlie Villanueva for T.J. Ford, then pick Andrea Bargnani over Brandon Roy and Adam Morrison. That's still dumb, no matter what the rules are.)
(Important note No. 2: I will now be incorporating "andohbytheway" into my columns as mandated by the new company-wide policy that all ESPN personalities must say the phrase "andohbytheway" as much as possible. Andohbytheway, I'm not a big fan of this policy.)
7. The new basketballs
Yet another ingenious Stern move: Make a completely random change for no real reason at all (the dress code last year, the basketballs this year), get everyone complaining about the change and, eventually, steal some headlines from the NFL and playoff baseball in October. He's the best. I can't wait until next year's random new rule, which will definitely be something like "No chewing gum during games because it doesn't look classy" or "You have to wear NBA-approved bulletproof vests when you go to a club."
8. Vince Carter in a contract year
Here's why I can't understand why people are doubting the 2006-07 Nets: VINCE CARTER IS IN A CONTRACT YEAR. The guy with the most famous on/off switch in the league will have that baby pressed to "ON" from November through June, right? And since he's one of the 10 most talented players alive when he wants to be, doesn't this make the Nets a legitimate threat this season? Throw in Kidd, Jefferson, Krstic (a perfectly good big man for the new era of basketball) and a much-improved bench (they went from an F-minus to a C-plus with the wildly underrated Mikki Moore, Marcus Williams, Eddie House and others), as well as a crappy conference, and this looks like a 50-55 win team to me. People are sleeping on these guys.
Speaking of Williams, let's just hand him the 2006 Charlie Villanueva Award right now. Every June, there's one shaky guy in the draft who either goes way too early (and takes enough grief about it that the negative comments gives him a sense of purpose) or way too late (and takes it personally enough that the slight ends up turning his career around). If Williams went in the top 10, he probably would have been a bust. Instead, he went 22nd, lucked out by landing on a veteran team with J-Kidd, and now he looks like a potential game-changer coming off the bench. And if that's not enough, it will be fun to watch every reporter at courtside instinctively grab for their laptops every time Williams comes to the scorer's table to check into a game. Good times all around.
9. Gilbert Arenas, lunatic
Although I'm convinced he's doing this because he loves seeing himself in the NBA blogs. I bet he has a member of his entourage whose specific duty is to determine how many days have passed since the last time he was mentioned on True Hoop and Free Darko, then tells him, "Yo, Gilbert, you need to say something crazy after practice today, it's been six days ... "
10. Josh Smith vs. Andrei Kirilenko
The battle for the No. 1 spot on the "Guys Who Are Much More Exciting to See In Person Than They Are On TV" team is on. And you know what? As long as the Jazz keep playing Kirilenko out of position at small forward, I'm giving the edge to Smith. Plus, playing with two talented guards like Chris Paul and Brandon Roy would make any forward better. Oh, wait -- that's the backcourt Smith COULD have had. My bad.
(Note to Billy Knight. Just resign. Seriously. Hang it up. You passed on consecutive Rookie of the Year Award winners for no good reason. These are the facts.)
11. The Bizarro Clippers
Hanging out with some Clippers employees after Friday night's game, I worried aloud that the Clippers had too many quality guys. How would they juggle minutes for Brand, Kaman, Mobley, Cassell, Livingston, Thomas, Ross and Maggette, all of whom would be getting major time for any other team in the league? Could the vets check their egos at the door? Who would emerge as the crunch-time scorer? How would they integrate promising young players like James Singleton, Daniel Ewing and Paul Davis (a second-round steal last June)? Would those guys even get off the bench? And was Mike Dunleavy a good enough coach to pull the right strings and find all the right matchups? He certainly couldn't pull it off last spring, right? Sometimes it can be dangerous to have too many players -- it's almost like what happened to "Lost" in Season 3, when they've added so many new characters that they've stopped spending enough time with the ones that mattered. Over the past 20 years, only Isiah's Detroit teams managed to win a title with nine quality players and multiple crunch-time lineups, while dozens of other teams have tried and failed. It's like a parent not sticking with a set bedtime for their child every night -- sure, they can do it, but eventually there's going to be ramifications.
Anyway, I'm describing my "too many guys" theory, and one of the Clipper guys (Christian, in his 16th year with the Clips) interrupts me just to say, "Wow ... too many good guys? Now there's a problem we've never had before."
(An excellent point. My apologies, Clippers fans. You have the right to be excited about having too many good players. Hell, you have the right to be excited about any good players. But it's going to be interesting to see how this plays out. I still think they're an Iverson trade waiting to happen. It's the logical move.)
12. A full season of Mr. Ron Artest
This e-mail from Ludlum in Columbus, Ohio, sums everything up: "Just read a headline on ESPN.com that said, '[Police] arrest made in connection with Berbick slaying.' I read it fast and mistakenly thought it said 'Artest made in connection with Berbick slaying' and my first thought was 'Hmm, really ...' (like it wasn't surprising at all). My second thought was that Artest is without a doubt on Mike Tyson's level of insanity, if a reasonably sane person like myself can make that Freudian slip and not be shocked."
(Ladies and gentleman, Mr. Ron Artest!)
13. The least inspiring title defense since the '99 Bulls
Note to anyone picking Miami to run away with the East: You need to consider the following things:
A. For this team to win 50-plus games, Wade needs to play between 42-45 minutes a night ... and he's coming off a 100-game NBA season, a World Championships stint and about 730 hard fouls over the past 12 months. You really think Riley will be cracking the whip here?
B. This team is older than Al Davis. Alonzo and GP are on their last legs. 'Toine has bad knees. Shaq has accomplished everything he ever wanted and probably spent the last few months auditioning rap artists and reading movie scripts. They have no young players other than Udonis Haslem, no young legs to carry them on back-to-backs, and if that's not bad enough, everyone will be gunning for them as the defending champs. Also, they had multiple players swallow their pride and accept less shots/minutes for the greater good -- and even then, they never truly came together as a team until Games 5 and 6 of the Finals. Now they all have their rings. You really think 'Toine and White Chocolate will be passing up wide-open 3-pointers again so they can keep getting Shaq and Wade involved? Come on.
C. During a preseason game against Houston last week, one of the ESPN announcers casually remarked that Riley said his goal for the upcoming season was to finish as one of the top-four seeds. This way, they won't have to potentially play four Game 7s on the road. I'm not saying that this isn't smart -- actually, it's the perfect way to approach things, and there's a history of older teams playing it successfully this way (like the '68, '69 and '76 Celtics, for example). But if you think Miami will be steamrolling through the league for the next six months, you're kidding yourself. I see them finishing between 44 and 50 wins. That won't be enough.
MVP: LeBron James
ROY: Brandon Roy
Comeback: Kenyon Martin
Most Improved: Sebastian Telfair
Sixth Man: Alonzo Mourning
Defense: Raja Bell
Coach: Lawrence Frank
GM: Carroll Dawson
Comedy: Chris Kaman/Gilbert Arenas
Tyson Zone: Eddie Griffin
First Team All-NBA: Duncan, Nowitzki, Nash, James, Wade.
Second Team All-NBA: Yao, Brand, Arenas, Kobe, Carter.
Third Team All-NBA: Howard, Pierce, Anthony, Paul, McGrady.
14. Reggie Evans
But seriously ... can you put a price on seeing the Nuggets this season and sitting in a section with 30-40 fans screaming "Nut grabber!!!!" every time Evans comes into the game? I feel like this should be part of his name now, like the announcer should say, "Now entering the game for Denver, the Nut Grabber, Reggie Evans!" The lesson, as always: Don't grab somebody else's nuts during an NBA game.
15. The feel-good Trail Blazers
If you're scoring at home, they performed a basketball exorcism over the past two summers, building the team around likable young players (Brandon Roy, Martell Webster, Jarrett Jack, LaMarcus Aldridge) and nonthreatening white guys (Joel Przybilla, Dan Dickau, Raef LaFrentz). Only two bad apples remain: Darius Miles (M.I.A. and mulling microfracture surgery) and Zach Randolph (improbably rejuvenated). In fact, I think that should have been their 2007 marketing campaign: "The 2007 Blazers: Only two bad apples remain!"
But here's the thing, Blazers fans: You're going to miss the dysfunction. You're going to miss having an identity, even if that identity was a running joke that included the word "jail." You're going to miss waking up and reading stories like "One of our guys was berating people at a charity car wash yesterday," or having a buddy call you just to ask, "Guess who just got arrested with pot in his car?" You're going to miss wondering if two teammates are about to come to blows in the huddle, and you're definitely going to miss those wacky stories about pit-bull fights and guys trying to sneak marijuana through an airport security. Now you're just a fan of another NBA lottery team. You're nothing special. That's why you feel hollow inside. You're like Red after he gets out in "Shawshank" -- you can't make it on the outside. By December, you'll be rooting for Randolph to rob a gas station or something. Just remember we had this conversation.
NBA Preview: Part II
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.