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Wednesday, November 30, 2005
The NBA's Big Picture Show

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

In Marc Stein's weekly Power Rankings, he pegged Miami as the 16th-best team in the league this week. In other words, maybe there aren't 15 better teams than Miami, but 15 teams are playing better right now. Which is fine. But if we're running Power Polls from that perspective, shouldn't we also be running an occasional power poll devoted to which teams have the best ongoing chance to win the title? After all, only eight teams have a realistic chance of winning the NBA title ... and Miami is one of them. Shouldn't they be rewarded for that somehow?

Along those lines, I'm introducing the "Big Picture." Every six weeks during the season, I will separate everyone into groups and count down the teams with the best chance of winning the NBA title (from No. 30 to No. 1). With comments, of course. Here's the Big Picture through November ...

THE RUDY GAY SWEEPSTAKES

30. Toronto
You might want to add Raptors games to your TiVo Season Pass, just for the night when Sam Mitchell flips during a timeout and starts decking his own players like Rambo in the shaving/shower scene from "First Blood." That's going to be fantastic.

(Silver lining: As predicted in this space last month, Charlie Villanueva took such a beating after the draft that it probably turned his career around -- now he's playing with a chip on his shoulder and looking like the next Terry Cummings, right down to his actual looks. You have to love when it takes a few barbs from columnists and broadcasters -- and not the lure of $50-70 million down the road -- to get a guy to start playing hard every night.)

29. Atlanta
Is there a Hawks fan who wouldn't trade Marvin Williams for Chris Paul right now? The NBA drives me crazy. I swear to God. The Hawks desperately need a point guard, there's a future All-Star sitting there ... and they take Williams over Paul when they already have two wing guys. How does this happen? It was astonishing at the time, it's astonishing now, and I'm not sure what else to say.

(Silver lining: The Zaza Pachulia signing -- $16 million over four years for a 21-year old center with borderline All-Star potential. Imagine if they were starting Zaza, Josh Smith, Al Harrington, Joe Johnson and Paul right now, with Josh Childress as the sixth man? That's a legitimate foundation for something. Then again, we wouldn't have NBA fans staring at Tyronn Lue before a tipoff and saying, "Wait a second, the ball boy is starting for them?" So maybe this worked out for the best.)

28. Charlotte
A fascinating case study: As an expansion team, the Bobcats' cap space was restricted for the first two seasons, so they're at only $33.5 million this season (with $21.7 million on the hook for next season). They spent that time searching for bargain basement guys, avoiding those Scalabrine-type signings that could clog their cap, and importing as many Tar Heels as possible to distract the fans. Now they're looking at $25 million to spend next summer and a solid group of young talent on the roster. It's that easy.

(Mitigating factor: They'll probably blow that same cap space by spending $86 million on Joel Przybilla and another $60 million on Vlad Radmanovic next summer. The NBA ... it's FANNNNNNNNN-tastic!)

27. New York
I am not even remotely surprised with anything that's happening to this team.

(Silver lining: Maybe Isiah makes indefensible trades, and maybe his free agent signings are routinely ludicrous, but you have to hand it to his drafting abilities. His last four lottery picks were Damon Stoudamire [Raptors, '95], Marcus Camby [Raptors, '96], T-Mac [Raptors, '97] and Channing Frye [Knicks, '05], who's legitimately good, much to my surprise. In other words, 4-for-4. And none of them were easy picks, except Camby. You throw in some patience, some savvy and a rudimentary understanding of the salary cap and he'd be right back in that thing.)

26. Boston
They have Paul Pierce and Ricky Davis playing the best ball of their respective careers, they're finishing up a November stretch that included 10 home games and four road games ... and if they lose tonight, they'll be 5-9. Yikes. You might not see them win again until Christmas week -- just wait until Pierce gets frustrated and stops playing as hard. Let's just say that I'm not happy. At all. Unless Al Jefferson emerges as a legitimate low-post threat over the next few weeks, there's a chance this could become the second-worst team in franchise history. I will now perform a prostate exam on myself.

(Silver lining: When Scalabrine entered the Rockets game two weeks ago, the Sports Gal looked up from a magazine and said, "Hey, it's the guy from 'Beautiful Girls!'" She was serious.)

THE JABRONIE DIVISION

25. LA Lakers
Next time you watch "Scarface," look for the disturbing parallels between Tony Montana's career and Kobe's career. It's borderline startling -- the meteoric rise of two superstars, followed by embarrassing trials, a healthy dose of egomania and paranoia, soul-selling turns for the worse (Manny's shocking death and the shocking Shaq trade), and the crazy symmetry of Tony's taking on an entire army of Sosa's soldiers by himself and Mamba's taking 40-45 shots a game for the 2005-06 Lakers with the worst supporting cast in the league. Is it too late to build a giant water fountain at the Staples Center for Kobe to fall into headfirst?

(Mitigating Factor: For five months, I've been racking my brain trying to figure out why Phil Jackson would take this job for any reason other than "He's whipped by his girlfriend" or "Maybe this is the NBA coaching equivalent of Dennis Miller's pocketing $5 million for 'Bordello of Blood.'" But what if he's secretly sitting on a giant book contract about this season, and he's been secretly taking copious notes the entire time? So he makes $10 million from the Lakers and another $5 million from the best-selling book, tentatively titled, "Mamba and Me: My Season Coaching a Guy Who Nicknamed Himself After A Deadly Python." And then he's out the door on July 1 and living in Malibu in a much bigger house, along with his butler, Charley Rosen. I think this could have some legs.)

24. Seattle
Looking like the Year-After Team in the West. It happens. Fortunately, if they fire new coach Bob Weiss within the next five weeks, they can bring him back to Best Buy for a full refund.

(Fun Internet fact of the week: If you click on Robert Swift's 2005-06 game log on ESPN.com, a page comes up that says, "PAGE NOT FOUND." Not even the Frederic Weis Era contained this little excitement.)

23. NOOC Hornets
Hey, at least they're playing hard.

(Mitigating Factor: We're coming up on the one-year anniversary of the immortal words, "It's time for the Birdman to fly.")

22. Portland
On the right night, you can catch these guys and think, "Wait a second, why aren't they a contender in the West?"

(Mitigating Factor: On other nights, you find yourself saying things like, "Now I know what it would look like if Joel Przybilla was sentenced to play on one of those crazy 'And 1' teams" and "Uh-oh, why does it look like Ruben Patterson might take a swing at his own coach?")

DEATH BY INJURY BUG

21. Utah
Even though they should have taken Chris Paul, I like the Okur-Kirilenko-Williams foundation. And by the way, if you're a Pistons fan, does Okur's "Leo the Late Bloomer" routine make you more angry at Okur or the Pistons for giving up on him? It's not like you can blame Joe Dumars for that one, right? Okur always looked like Chris Noth after an all-night drinking binge when he played for Detroit. Now he's the greatest Euro center since Arvydas Sabonis. Go figure.

(Random note: Ever notice how Carlos Boozer's life has been in shambles ever since he stabbed a benevolent blind guy in the back? First, Athens ... then last year's Jazz team stunk ... then the fans turned on him ... then David Stern's new dress code meant he couldn't show off his chest hair on the bench ... and now he can't get off the injured list. He might have to hire Earl Hickey as his karma consultant.)

20. Houston
Yao Ming, Complementary Player. It's official.

(Random thought: Imagine being Houston GM Carroll Dawson right now? Not only did he get fleeced in the Rafer Alston-Mike James trade, he got fleeced by Rob Babcock. Shouldn't you automatically resign when that happens? How can you show up at work every day? That's like being a professional poker player and losing a celebrity tournament to Gary Busey.)

19. New Jersey
Haven't seen anything to make me waver from my "They're a three-man team, they can't afford the inevitable injury that's coming, they aren't even that good to begin with" prediction. Although the Vince-Kobe catfight on Sunday night was fantastic -- like watching Star Jones exchange shoves with Melissa Rivers on the red carpet or something. I need a few more of those moments before I believe in the Nets.

(Random historical note: Did you know that there has been a forward named Cliff Robinson in the NBA for 26 straight seasons? Original Cliff played during 1979-1989, with Current Cliff joining the league the following season. As far as I can tell, that's the longest run for one name in the history of the league. Even stranger, they had similar careers -- Original Cliff's career stats were a little better, but Current Cliff lasted longer and even made the '94 All-Star team. According to basketballreference.com's rating system for potential Hall of Famers, with anyone scoring over 135 being a likely Hall of Famer, Original Cliff scored an 80, and Current Cliff scores a 90. By the way, I spent the last 25 minutes researching this paragraph. So humor me.)

NO MAN'S LAND

18. Orlando
I just love the fact that Brian Hill is coaching this team -- the NBA coaching situation is so abysmal, teams are rehiring guys they already fired. Seriously, has anything like that happened before, in any walk of life? That would be like CBS announcing in 2013 that they've decided to give Craig Kilborn his own late night show. What a league. And the crazy thing is, Hill's doing a good job -- statistically, they're the best defensive team in the league, and he actually has Steve Francis playing hard. They need to trade him now before he flakes out again.

(Random prediction: Dwight Howard has a 30-30 game this season.)

17. Sacramento
Put it this way: If you were Mark Cuban and you knew the struggling Kings might be ready to shake things up, wouldn't you fly to Vegas for a few days, go partying with the Maloofs and pull the Shawn Sullivan Memorial "Fake Shots" trick on them -- just keep ordering tequila shots, only tip the bartender to put water in your glass -- until they eventually traded you Peja Stojakovic for a package like "Marquis Daniels, DJ Mbenga, two second-round picks and the rights to Pavel Podkolzin's inevitable WWE career?" This stuff used to happen all the time in the old days -- heck, the Yankees and Red Sox almost traded Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio once when their owners got drunk together. So why wouldn't it happen now? Or does it just happen in fantasy leagues?

(Random question: If Shareef Abdur-Rahim bought Google stock, would it immediately drop under $100 a share? If he joined the cast of "Lost," would the show immediately start sucking? What are the limits of his powers? I really want to know.)

16. Washington
Just one month ago, I was convinced these guys would surprise people in the East. Now I'm wavering a little bit, and here's why: Would YOU have fun playing with Gilbert Arenas? Me neither. That's a problem.

(Completely unrelated note: You know how steroids testing affected the performances of certain major leaguers this season, although we're not supposed to point fingers even when guys who normally hit 25-30 homers suddenly hit just eight? Well, the opposite seems to be happening with random drug testing in the NBA -- players who would normally be toking it up five nights a week are apparently cutting back. You never know when you have to pee in a cup. So if your favorite NBA player has an extra hop in his step this year and doesn't look like he just emerged from a dark basement or just suffered a mild concussion ... well, now you know why.)

15. Chicago
Everyone keeps talking about these guys as a potential KG destination ... I mean, I know Kevin McHale has made some dumb moves recently, but is there a conceivable trade involving Chicago that would possibly make sense? So you get Tyson Chandler, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Tim Thomas' contract for him. Big deal. How does that help Minnesota? They just traded a dollar for three quarters. Congratulations. Only one KG trade possibly makes sense: KG to the Pacers for Jermaine O'Neal, Austin Croshere and Danny Granger. That's it. If you're trading KG, you need to get a top-20 guy back, a rotation guy AND a good young player, and KG needs to go to a contender that would jump a level with him aboard. Or else it's not worth it.

(Here's another fake trade: Luol Deng, Tim Thomas' contract and a No. 1 pick for Peja and Corliss Williamson's contract. Who doesn't make that one?)

THE FISHMONGERS

14. Golden State
I hate the way these guys play -- they launch bad 3s like a 12-seed in the NCAA Tournament hoping to get lucky against UNC or Duke. Can you really expect to advance in the playoffs taking 25 3s a game? They don't even have a good 3-point shooter other than Derek Fisher -- Baron Davis and Mike Dunleavy Jr. are a combined 34-for-154 right now. That's atrocious. Why play like that when you have a good point guard and so many good athletes? More importantly, how are they 9-6? I'm perplexed.

(Speaking of perplexing: Three years ago, I wrote about the time Kevin Ollie signed for $15 million, when I called my buddy House to have him guess how much Ollie signed for, and House just kept throwing out numbers like "Two million for two years? Two point five for two years?" while I kept saying, "Nope, higher ... nope, keep going up." And we were on the phone for about 30 minutes until he nailed the contract number, followed by House passing out on the phone. Well, let's just say that moment was recreated last month after the Warriors signed Dunleavy to a $44 million extension. House's first guess was $19 million off. I'm not kidding.)

13. Philly
There's an astonishing Iverson season in the works, and it's not getting nearly enough attention: Through 15 games, he's averaging 33.6 points and a jaw-dropping 43.9 minutes per game, 7.9 assists and only 2.9 turnovers, and shooting 46% from the field. C-Webb's addition has pushed Iverson to another level -- he's getting easy baskets, doesn't have to handle the ball as much, seems like he's enjoying himself and everything else. Amazing player, amazing career. Too bad I don't feel as good about his team.

(Historical footnote: A.I. definitely cracks the starting five of my "We'll Never See Another Player Quite Like This Again" Team, along with McHale, Barkley, Magic and Gervin. Those have to be the five most unique players of all time. Even with Larry Bird, there were parts of his game that reminded people of Rick Barry. There is simply no historical precedent for McHale, Barkley, Iverson, Magic and Gervin. They made AND broke the mold.)

12. Denver
I'm not sure what to make of these guys, frankly. But they need to make a move fast: After the Nene/K-Mart injuries, Marcus Camby started playing 40 minutes a night, which never, ever, ever, EVER ends well - he's the human equivalent of Fred Taylor's groin. They'll do something. And soon.

(Fake e-mail from Danny Ainge to Kiki Vandeweghe: "Hey, Kiki, any interest in Mark Blount? Any at all? Seven-foot centers with reliable 16-foot jumpers aren't exactly growing on trees. You will love this guy, he lights up a locker room. And what about Raef LaFrentz? His knees haven't felt this good in years! Would you like to see a tape of his 7-for-7 3-point game against the Rockets? I can FedEx it to you overnight. Did you know he went third in the 1998 Draft? It's true. Lemme know if you want the tape of that game -- it's a shooting display for the ages. Hope all is well.")

11. Memphis
Believe me, I love that Pau Gasol pulled a Jake Plummer and grew a beard that pushed his game to another level. Now he's even producing at crunch time! It's incredible what facial hair can do for some people -- heck, it even worked for Brian Austin Green. In Gasol's case, he went from "Spanish metrosexual center" to "rugged big man you could see chopping wood in one of those plaid winter jackets" in no time whatsoever. Brilliant move. Suddenly he's a 20-10 guy. I'm just not sold on his supporting cast.

Bill Simmons
When the Sports Guy goes with the beard, he has to register every time he leaves the state.
(Important note: The facial hair gimmick doesn't necessarily work for everyone. For instance, Matt Clement had a great beard going during the 2005 season, but that didn't stop him from self-destructing down the stretch. It didn't work for Neil O'Donnell or Kurt Warner. It certainly didn't work for Dan Fouts and Dennis Miller on "Monday Night Football." And it failed for me in Jacksonville, Fla., when I was covering last year's Super Bowl -- seriously, look at the thing. Even the 2005 Astros had better facial hair.)

POTENTIALLY INTRIGUING

10. Minnesota
Only because of KG. And because they're one of the few teams that can shift gears and get stops when they need them. You never know.

(Random 2005-06 Clippers highlight: Right when everyone quieted down before the national anthem for the Clips-Minnesota game, there were a few seconds when the place went dark, while we were waiting for the singers to get ready ... and someone screamed out, "Hey Marko, you suck!" That was quickly followed by someone else screaming, "Kandi, you suck!" Yes, it's always fun when the ex-Clippers return home. You can feel the love.)

9. Milwaukee
The Bucks just finished the best 7-6 month in recent memory -- road games at Philly, New Jersey, Golden State, Sacramento, Utah, Minnesota and the LA Clippers, home games against Miami, Golden State, Indiana, Philly, Detroit and Dallas. That's a whopping 13 games in four weeks without a break (and they were getting used to Magloire at center, no less). Watch what happens in December when their schedule calms down. They're for real.

(Random note: Not only does TJ Ford look exactly like Tiger Woods, he may have replaced Mike Vick as the athlete who makes you hold your breath every time he's hurtling himself into a group of players at breakneck speed. When the Bucks played the Clippers two weeks ago, I cringed every time he drove the lane -- you can only imagine how the coaching staff feels. And while we're here, he's right up there with Josh Smith, Andrei Kirilenko, Chris Andersen and Earl Boykins on the short list of "Random NBA Players Who Are 10 Times More Exciting In Person Than You Thought They Would Be.")

THE SLEEPERS

8. LA Clippers
You know those good March Madness teams that have two polished senior guards, one quality inside player who's definitely a lottery pick, one good slasher, a clumsy-but-effective white guy playing center and a decent bench? And they take smart shots, make big 3s, play solid defense, finish their fast breaks and make all their free throws at the end of games? Well, that's the 2005-06 Clippers in a nutshell ... and that's why they're headed for 50-plus wins and a No. 3 seed.

(More to come in my first Clippers column ... which I've been afraid to write because I don't want to jinx what's happening. Last season, as I was writing my first "Here come the Clippers" column, I think the sound of my fingers hitting the laptop actually broke Shaun Livingston's kneecap. So I'm being much more careful this time. Just watch one of their games. You'll understand.)

7. Phoenix
Everything's going according to plan: The Suns are treading water, acclimating the new guys and biding their time until Stoudemire comes back. By the way, did you ever think in a million years that Boris Diaw would be doing a reasonably decent Joe Johnson impersonation? Boris Diaw??? Hey, maybe Steve Nash IS the best player in the league -- somehow he's managed to turn Boris Diaw's career around, and I didn't even know there was a career to be turned.

(Random suggestion: Just to be sure Nash is this great, I think the Suns should trade for Brian Scalabrine next week. Let's put his powers to the ultimate test. Please. I'm begging you.)

FATALLY FLAWED

6. Cleveland
They remind me of MJ's Bulls teams in the late-'80s -- because LeBron has reached a certain level, they're always going to win 50 games, kill any bad/mediocre/decent teams at home, and look fantastic on certain nights. But when a game comes along like that Thanksgiving game against Indiana, and suddenly they have to play defense, and somebody's actually guarding LeBron, and they're settling for jumpers and one-on-one plays over good shots ... that's when they get exposed. Let the record show that the Spurs beat them by 26 and Indy handled them by 18. Wasn't a coincidence.

(Saddest ongoing subplot: The erosion of LeBron's passing skills. Here's a guy who sees the court like Magic and used to delight in setting up his teammates ... now he's hoisting up 29 shots in some games? What happened to the guy who made everyone else better? Remember the days when we wondered whether he would average a triple-double for a season? Long gone. Honestly, I liked watching him more as a rookie. This is right up there with Lindsay Lohan losing her boobs in my book -- it's a borderline national tragedy. I can't talk about this anymore, I'm getting upset.)

5. Miami
Just a bewildering roster. Really, the Heat didn't know that GP was washed up? That Antoine Walker would never accept being a complementary player? That White Chocolate's confidence would be shaken by the fact that Dwyane Wade needs the ball in his hands? I have no idea what they were thinking. And now Wade is developing bad habits -- launching bad 3s, driving into double-teams, pretending not to notice wide-open teammates and so on. Bad times all around. Hey, at least Shaq isn't hurt.

(Strangest ongoing subplot: Alonzo Mourning's career was slowing down five years ago, then he had a major kidney transplant, tried to come back, had to take another year off, made one last comeback ... and now he's having 21-rebound games and nine-block games and would probably make the Eastern All-Star team if they held the voting today. And nobody seems remotely shocked by any of this? How is this not a humongous story?)

4. Dallas
They beat Detroit and San Antonio by a combined 56 points this month ... and I'm still not sold on them. They seem soft to me. I guess we'll see.

(Most fascinating ongoing subplot: The Mavs have two expiring contracts for big bucks on the team -- Van Horn at $15 million, Jason Terry at $7.5 million (who's playing extremely well) -- and there could be a bunch of big chips moving around, starting on Dec. 15. For instance, what if the Kings decided to dump salary and offered them Brad Miller, Kenny Thomas and Corliss Williamson for Van Horn and DeSagana Diop? What if the Magic offered them Steve Francis and Grant Hill for Terry and Van Horn? What if the Celtics offered them LaFrentz, Scalabrine and Dan Dickau for Van Horn, as well as the chance to break the "Most white guys in one trade" record? Keep an eye on this one.)

THE POWDER KEG

3. Indiana
I caught them in person Sunday at the Staples Center -- great team, great coach, great balance, great everything. And they're flexible as hell. Near the end of the game, Carlisle brought in Danny Granger but kept Jackson and Artest in the game, then stuck Artest on Elton Brand (who had been killing them all game). Are you kidding me? How many teams could even think of trying something like that? I don't care if a crazy guy is their best player -- I wouldn't want any part of them in a seven-game series. Of course, I wouldn't wager on them, either.

(Highlight of my Clippers season so far: During a stoppage in the second half, Ron Artest was standing right near us by the 3-point line, with the name of his record album carved in the back of his head, of course. So somebody screamed out, "Hey Ron, I bought your album ... IT [STUNK]!!!!!" First, everyone giggled. Then we quickly realized that he might charge into the stands and inexplicably beat the hell out of one of us. So Ron turns around, searches the faces to see who yelled at him, finally finds the guy ... and gives him a big wink. High comedy. I like Ron Artest. He's my favorite NBA player who was ever suspended for a season for attacking a fan.)

THE CONTENDERS

2. Detroit
Classic moment in the second game of the season: Blount makes a jumper with 0.8 seconds remaining to put the Celtics up by one. The crowd goes crazy. Pierce jumps on Blount, knocks him over and then everyone else pig piles on them. Meanwhile, the Pistons are watching this whole thing unfold and thinking, "Um, we still have one second left and Rip Hamilton's on our team." So they call timeout, set up the picket-fence play for Rip -- somewhere, Dennis Hopper was smiling -- and Rip curls around the double screen and sinks a wide-open jumper. Ball game. And then he did the thing where he skips around holding the letters of his jersey out.

(The lesson, as always: Don't pull that crap with the Detroit Pistons.)

1. San Antonio
Every year, Duncan and the Spurs fly to Boston and beat the absolute crap out of the Celtics. And every year, my Dad comes home from the game, calls me and says, "They toyed with us, they absolutely toyed with us. What a great team. I remember when we used to toy with teams like that."

(Granted, that was 20 years ago. But he's right.)

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.