NBA Preview: Part I
16. The feel-bad Sixers
I have them penciled in for "worst team in the East" status, and not just because they'll be dealing Iverson within the next four months and everyone in Philly is more depressed than Robert Smith when he was writing the "Disintegration" album. Consider the following things ...
A. They're stuck paying Iverson and C-Webb a combined $81 million over the next two seasons.
B. They're paying $21 million in dead salary money this season to Todd MacCulloch, Jamal Mashburn and Greg Buckner.
C. They owe Sam Dalembert and Kyle Korver another $79 million over the next five seasons.
D. Their starting point guard is Kevin Ollie, the NBA equivalent of kicking off an NFL season with Sage Rosenfels and Aaron Brooks.
E. According to the Indy Star, Embattled GM Billy King (that's officially his name now) spent $1,600 to attend Coach K's leadership conference two weeks ago.
F. Points A-thru-D and point E are probably related.
G. Philly reader Rob B. sums everything up: "I'm a Sixers season-ticket holder, which probably tells you everything you need to know about my psyche. The Sixers send you an e-mail at some point each offseason where they lay out what their new ad campaign is this year. They've had doozies in the past, including one campaign that said 'This place is fun!' This year, the slogan is 'It's a Philly thing.' (Go to Sixers.com, it's plastered all over there. And you get to see Mo Cheeks say 'It's a Philly thing' in a really awkward manner.) My friends and I have been pondering for months now what exactly 'it' is? Losing? Mediocrity? Overpaying crappy players? Disappointment?"
17. Pau Gasol's broken foot
Note to every NBA owner: You might want to rethink the whole, "Sure, I'll let my best player play for free on his national team this summer ... what's the worst thing that could happen?" logic. No other business loans out $100 million assets for free. Why? Because it's bad business. Earlier this summer, Cuban had a great rant about this on his blog. ... You know, back when he used to write about stuff other than the YouTube-Google merger.
18. Grant Hill
Did you know his contract finally expires this season? Doesn't it feel like he signed that thing back in 1983? Anyway, I can't wait for the Magic to make a big deal about finally having cap space next summer, followed by their panicking when Vince Carter's agent hardballs them and eventually overpaying Eddie Jones and Kurt Thomas for a combined $95 million. That's gonna be great. I love the NBA.
19. A possible HGH scandal
I'm just throwing it out there: Out of all the major sports, wouldn't HGH and steroids help basketball players the most? They improve strength and conditioning, help your body recover from injuries (an invaluable edge during an 82-game season), improve your eyesight, give you more of an angry edge ... I mean, what's the downside for a mediocre center or power forward here? You know, other than a bulky forehead, an extra chin, shrunken testicles and possible organ damage? For instance, let's say you're Kurt Thomas right now. You're in a contract year, you're going to be banging bodies in the West all season ... wouldn't an HGH cycle from February to June get you twice as much money in July?
(Note: Right now Tim Thomas is reading this and saying, "Um, could you shut up? Could you shut the hell up, please? I mean it ... SHUT UP!" Just kidding. Although, you have to admit, it was a little strange that a skinny 6-foot-10 perimeter player who was renowned for being soft could suddenly defend power forwards like Lamar Odom, Elton Brand and Dirk Nowitzki in the playoffs. If there was a dramatic shift like that with somebody's baseball career -- you know, like Kenny Rogers suddenly throwing in the low 90s and screaming like a maniac after every strikeout -- we immediately assume that something's up, right? Well, why don't we do the same thing with NBA players? I'm just curious.)
Anyway, I'm predicting that 2006-07 will be the season when the NBA joins the fun and has its first steroids scandal. It's inevitable. And I can only hope and pray that Brian Scalabrine is somehow involved.
20. The Greg Oden Sweepstakes
If you thought the tanking was bad last April, wait until you see what happens this spring. You'll see players reenacting Tony's performance from the fixed game in "Blue Chips." By the way, do we have a birth certificate on this kid yet? We're sure he's not 29 years old, right? I keep waiting for somebody to doctor an Internet photo of Oden and Freddy Adu attending a Wu Tang Clan concert together in 1995.
21. Nellie and the Warriors
Two of the more rational writers on this Web site, as well as two people who were too cool for the letter "K" -- Marc Stein and Ric Bucher -- predicted the Warriors would make the playoffs with Troy Murphy playing center, Mike Dunleavy Jr. playing point forward and Baron Davis being Baron Davis. And I tried to see it from their side. Really, I did. I know it's fun to play the whole "everyone in the NBA is playing NellieBall now, who could do it better than Nellie himself?" angle. I just have one question ...
How can NellieBall work with the wrong players? Didn't we already go down this road when he bombed with the '96 Knicks in half a season? You need a great point guard, you need a scoring forward on the low post, and you need multiple shooters ... and Nellie has only one of those three things (the shooters, and even they aren't that good). And if that's not enough, the Warriors are the Arizona Cardinals of the NBA -- every season, they suck their fans in to thinking they'll be good, and every season something goes terribly wrong and their fans delve into the "Woe is us" routine, and with reason, because no NBA team has had it worse over the past 30 years.
Do I think Nellie would have a ball coaching in the NBA right now? Absolutely. It's a league that revolves around penetrators and shooters, two of his favorite things. Do I think he could turn the Celtics into a possible 50-win team just by switching places with Doc Rivers in the next two minutes? No question about it. But expecting Nellie to salvage the careers of limited guys like Dunleavy and Murphy and convince Baron Davis that he's the new Tim Hardaway ... I mean, it's completely insane. There's no way. You'd have a better chance to seeing him turn around "Saturday Night Live." And if that's not bad enough, the man has a history of belittling and undermining his players; right now, the only guy with the balls to stand up to him on that entire roster is Jason Richardson. I see them winning 35 games, I see them making multiple trades, and I see myself sending multiple taunting e-mails to Bucher and Stein. This is going to be fun.
While we're here, I see four other teams falling short of expectations this season:
Milwaukee: Who decided it would be a good idea to saddle a crappy coach with a couple of head cases (it's one thing to roll the dice with Charlie Villanueva, but Ruben Patterson?????) and a shoot-first point guard in a contract year (Mo Williams, the runaway favorite to win the Mike James Award for "best stats on a bad team")? A recipe for disaster.
New Orleans: People underestimate the boost from those Oklahoma City crowds last season. That was a lottery team that ended up winning an extra 8-10 games and gaining confidence simply because of their fans. That's not happening again. Although I did like the Peja/Chandler moves.
Indiana: Saw Larry Legend on TV talking about Red over the weekend ... he looked like he's aged 10 years in the past two. They need to blow that thing up and start over. We can't be messing with the Legend's twilight years.
Chicago: Lemme get this straight ... they won 47 games two seasons ago because of their defense and fourth-quarter scoring ... then they dropped to 41 wins because the rules changed and they couldn't match baskets with better offensive teams ... so the solution was to trade for P.J. Brown (complete non-factor on the offensive end), spend $60 million on Ben Wallace (ditto) and draft Ty Thomas (another rebounder/leaper) with the No. 2 pick? Who the hell is scoring on this team???? Why am I the only person who seems to be wondering about this? Hey, if they can contend for the 2007 title with a team built for 2003 rules, God bless 'em. I'm just not seeing it.
1. New Jersey: 53-29
2. Cleveland: 52-30
3. Washington: 49-33
4. Miami: 47-35
5. Detroit: 46-36
6. Chicago: 45-37
7. Boston: 43-39
8. Orlando: 41-41
9. Indiana: 40-42
10. Toronto: 36-46
11. Milwaukee: 35-47
12. Philly: 33-49
13. Charlotte: 31-51
14. Atlanta: 30-52
15. New York: 19-63
First round: Cleveland over Boston; Chicago over Washington; Miami over Detroit; N.J. over Orlando.
Second round: Miami over N.J.; Cleveland over Chicago.
East finals: Cleveland over Miami.
22. Isiah Thomas, head coach
We mentioned how the same guy who once squandered a playoff series in which his team had 10 of the best 12 players (2003, Boston vs. Indiana) is back coaching again, right? This is like Sofia Coppola casting herself as Marie Antoinette.
(Important note: Thanks to the ongoing miracle at MSG, Doc Rivers isn't even the worst coach in his own division any more. You really have to see Isiah sitting on the sidelines, completely motionless, an indescribable smile on his face, watching a perpetual car crash happen on the court. ... I mean, at least Doc stands up and smiles every once in awhile.)
23. Amare and the Suns
Um ... shouldn't that knee be healthy by now? And why does everyone keep penciling these guys down for 55 wins when we have no idea about Amare's knee, and if that's not bad enough, they lost Tim Thomas (their toughest guy last season), gave away the 21st pick in last year's draft when they could have just picked Rondo or Williams (both of whom would have been perfect for them), then overpaid a shaky character guy (Marcus Banks). Not the best offseason. On the bright side, it led to Amare revealing that he draws inspiration for his comeback from Tupac Shakur and Bruce Lee. I'm feeling a fantastic tattoo in his future. Unfortunately for the Suns, I'm not feeling a 25-12 every game.
But here's a team in the West that I DO like ...
24. The Rockets
Mmmmmmm ... can you smell that? It's the smell of common sense. The eighth pick dealt away for a proven Glue Guy (Shane Battier). A mid-level exemption spread around on multiple guys, including a proven playoff scorer with a terrible agent (Bonzi Wells). Underrated role players with specific qualities that work for winning teams, like rookie Steve Novak (a freakishly good 3-point shooter), Chuck Hayes (one of those bangers who always rates high on Hollinger's PER reports) and Vassilis Spanoulis (a shifty Greek guard who definitely needs a nickname like "Kojak"). And if that's not enough, they have two of the best 12 players in the league in Yao and T-Mac. There are eight teams that could win the NBA title next spring. This is one of them.
25. Jorge Garbajosa
Spanish forward on the Raptors. Looks like he should be wearing a linen suit and trying to shoot Crockett and Tubbs. It's hard to tell if he showers or not. But you know what? He does a ton of "those things" (gets garbage layups, makes open 3s, ticks people off in the low post, knows how to execute the roll on a pick-and-roll) and looks like the odds-on favorite to win the 2007 Andres Nocioni Memorial "I Don't Know Who That Foreign Dude Is, But He's Pretty Good" Award. One potential threat: Yakhouba Diawara has been making a late run in Denver, with the added bonus that Marv Albert might actually scream the words, "Yak-houb-ah Di-ah-WARE-ah!" this season. Keep an eye on this one.
(One other random foreign guy I like: the Swedish dude on Chicago. He can shoot. By January, I'll even be able to pronounce his name.)
26. Legitimate rivalries
Bron-Bron vs. Wade. Kobe vs. Raja. San Antonio vs. Dallas. Cuban vs. Stern. KG vs. Duncan vs. Brand vs. Nowitzki. Nellie vs. Avery. Vince vs. Toronto. Wallace vs. the Pistons. K-Mart vs. Karl. Arenas vs. the entire league. The T-Wolves vs. the Minneapolis police. Artest vs. his inner demons. Nash vs. his barber. Greg Anthony vs. Isiah. Curry & Richardson vs. the salad bar in the Knicks' player's lounge. Hubie Brown vs. the second-person. The Hawks owners vs. each other. Peter Vecsey vs. everybody.
(Translation: This could be the feistiest NBA season yet! And we haven't even address my brewing feud with celebrity fantasy league punching bag Kenny Smith. Let's save that for another time.)
27. Mike Breen and Mark Jackson
Finally, a No. 1 announcing team I can fully support. This is the first time the Finals has been in good hands since Marv and the Czar were together on NBC, right? Actually, I don't want to jinx this. Forget I said anything.
(Three other random moves I enjoyed: Austin Croshere to the Mavs; Josh Powell to the Pacers; Speedy Claxton to the Hawks. I like all of those guys. And the thought of Jalen Rose signing with Miami has me all giddy inside -- sure, he's washed up, but the comedic potential of Jalen, White Chocolate and Shaq on the same team simply cannot be calibrated. They might replace the Wayans Brothers before everything's said and done. On the flip side&)
28. Front office idiocy
Check it out, I can zoom through this in one paragraph ...
We already covered the Knicks. The Cavs decided to go to war with Snow, Damon Jones and David Wesley as their point guards (so much for taking advantage of the new rules). Denver dropped $60 million on Nene, who has a knee and wasn't even that good in the first place. (Sorry, I went Al Michaels on you there.) Phoenix and Sacramento splurged a combined $45 million on two stiffs (John Salmons and Marcus Banks). Portland botched the LaMarcus Aldridge pick when it should have just taken Morrison and made its fans happy. Atlanta passed on Brandon Roy because it made a promise at No. 5 to someone who wasn't a top-five pick. The Lakers added another soft perimeter player (Vlad Radmanovic, who I actually like, but not on this team) on a team filled with soft perimeter players. (Kobe is going to flip out by January.) Toronto willingly traded for Rasho Nesterovic, while Milwaukee gave away Jamaal Magliore for no real reason. Philly failed to trade Iverson while it could still get 80 cents on the dollar for him; same for Minnesota with KG. The Pacers downgraded from Ron Artest to Peja Stojakovic to Al Harrington in the span of six months, while Detroit parlayed Darko, Carlos Arroyo and Ben Wallace into Nazr Mohammed and a No. 1 pick in the same time span.
(See? Told you we could cover that in one paragraph. By the way, we just mentioned 14 teams. That's half the league.)
29. DerMarr Johnson's hair
Who knows if he'll keep it going ... but on Friday night, he had the right side of his head braided in cornrows, but the left side of his head was a mini-afro with no cornrows. I feel like you need to know these things.
(Note: This also led to a moment in the third quarter when Sam Cassell started busting DerMarr's chops in front of the Nuggets' bench, then cracked a joke that left the entire Nuggets bench doubled over and convulsing for about 15 seconds, followed by DerMarr walking away with one of those, "Damn, I thought you guys were my teammates" looks on his face. And you wonder why I go to exhibition games.)
Random prediction: I just feel like he's going off this season. Pencil him in for between 29-31 a night and official Evolutionary Bernard status. And while we're here, get ready for career years from Chris Bosh, Parker, Randolph, Arenas and Chauncey Billups (contract year), as well as making-the-leap years from Caron Butler, Ray Felton, Deron Williams, Jameer Nelson and Josh Smith and out-of-nowhere years from Jamaal Tinsley, Nick Collison, Hakim Warrick, Mo Peterson and David Lee (if Isiah plays him, which he should), as well as a two-man race for "Rookie of the Year" between Brandon Roy and Rajon Rondo that leaves everyone wondering, "Wait, where's everyone else?"
31. Front office savvy
Other than the Rockets, Clippers and Nets, I liked what three teams did this summer:
San Antonio: The Spurs didn't panic. Duncan was hurt all season and the Mavs caught every break in the semis. It just wasn't their season. They knew it. So they made some minor moves. They dumped Rasho for Matt Bonner (an intriguing piece for this team, shades of Danny Ferry's one good season for them), took fliers on Francisco Elson (kind of a stiff, but no worse than Rasho) and Jackie Butler (my favorite move of the summer) and called it a day. Plus, they have the flexibility to move three appealing contracts (Eric Williams, Bruce Bowen and Brent Barry) for an impact player making max money near the deadline. You know, if they need to go that route. Every move was smart and logical. And it's sad that I felt obligated to mention this.
Washington: I just enjoyed that they allowed Jared Jeffries to leave for $30 million, then replaced him with DeShawn Stevenson for 1/30th of the price ... even though Stevenson is probably 9/10th's as good a player as Jeffries. That's always fun. People are underestimating these guys, by the way.
Boston: They didn't have a true point guard on the roster, so every half-court possession was practically a chore. So Ainge goes out and gets Telfair (who will evolve into a Barbosa-like scorer once the coach who replaces Doc Rivers in 10 weeks starts bringing him off the bench) and Rondo (a truly special talent). Problem solved. Suddenly they're one of the fastest teams in the league, and if you don't think Pierce and Szczerbiak are going off with all the wide-open outside jumpers and layups they'll be getting, you're crazy. This team would win 45-50 games with Mike D'Antoni or Nelson coaching them. I really believe that.
(One more note on Doc: Along with Sam Mitchell, he was the co-leader in the "first coach to be fired" sweepstakes even before he botched the Telfair debacle two weeks ago and dropped that historic "I'm not going to form a rotation just because people say you should have a 10-man rotation" quote last week. You can't even say he's on thin ice anymore; we're at the point where he fell through the ice and he's breathing through one of those tiny air pockets waiting for rescuers to pull him out before he freezes to death. If he's still playing 11 guys on a below-.500 team past Thanksgiving, TNT may as well get Doc's measurements and start ordering his TNT blazers.)
1. San Antonio: 63-19
2. Dallas: 60-22
3. L.A. Clippers: 56-26
4. Denver: 44-38
5. Phoenix: 54-28
6. Houston; 49-33
7. Utah: 41-41
8. L.A. Lakers: 40-42
9. Sacramento: 39-43
10. Minnesota: 37-45
11. New Orleans: 36-46
12. Golden State: 33-49
13. Seattle: 30-52
14. Memphis: 28-54
15. Portland: 20-62
1st round: Phoenix over Denver; Clippers over Houston; Dallas over Utah; San Antonio over Lakers.
2nd round: LAC over Dallas; S.A. over Phoenix.
West finals: S.A. over LAC.
32. Bron-Bron and D-Wade
Everything's been said at this point. Well, almost everything. Because there's a hidden subtext to this entire season: Wade won a title last June, LeBron spent the entire summer pretending he was happy for him when you know he was thinking, "Dammit, he got there first!" ... and now we get to see LeBron's official response, immediately followed by Wade's response to LeBron's response, then LeBron's counter-response. ... It's going to be like a game of chicken. True rivalries only work when it's clear that each guy needs the other guy to reach his full potential as a player, so we stumbled into the perfect scenario here: Two precociously talented superduperstars constantly striving for the upper hand and raising each other's games in the process. It's almost too good to be true. These are the days when I miss Ralph Wiley.
33. Tim Duncan
I told you we'd come back to him. As I mentioned earlier, only eight teams can win the NBA title this season as presently constructed. Here they are.
New Jersey: It all depends on Vince. You can understand why I'm dubious.
Houston: Would you bet on Yao and T-Mac holding up through June? Probably not. But at 18-to-1, they're the best longshot bet on the board. By far. You can go to war with Yao, T-Mac, Bonzi and Battier in May and June.
Phoenix: We've been here before with the Suns. They need the 2004 Amare to even consider making a run ... and even then, I don't see them defending anyone when it matters. They're like the Colts of the NBA.
Cleveland: Put it this way: With that subpar supporting cast, they need an absolutely superhuman effort from LeBron. He'd have to blow some of those MJ years in the late-'80s out of the water. It's just too improbable. Of course, if the Cavs can somehow sneak into the Finals in a subpar conference, and he's getting every call like Wade did last June ...
Miami: A slightly better version of the previous paragraph (and with a better coach).
L.A. Clippers: I have a terrible feeling that they'll be one of those teams that COULD win the title but ends up blowing a series where they have the lead in three of their four losses in the final minute. You know, kinda like last year.
Dallas: Can't shake the notion that they blew their chance last June. I mean, they had it. It was right there. Up by 13, six minutes to go, headed for a sweep. That was their moment. I can't see them being any better or closer to winning. In fact, I see them further away. And why?
San Antonio: Because Dallas would have lost to the Spurs if Ginobili didn't stupidly foul Dirk on that three-point play in Game 7. And that wasn't a great Spurs team -- poor Duncan was hobbling around on one foot. Now he's healthy, he's in great shape, and he's ticked off. And that's all I need to know.
The Pick: San Antonio over Cleveland.
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.