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8. MIAMI HEAT
Preseason prediction: 43 wins (fourth)
Revised prediction: 40 wins
|A trade that would send Shaq back to the Lakers? That would make entirely too much sense.|
Of course, only one thing could ignite Shaq's career at this point: The Lakers appeasing Kobe by making a panic offer for Shaq (Andrew Bynum, Vlad Radmanovic and Kwame Brown's expiring contract), followed by Shaq and Kobe joining forces again on a suddenly intriguing Lakers team.
Now that would be a riveting sports story. In all seriousness, which team wouldn't make that trade? If you were the Lakers, why wouldn't you roll the dice with a Shaq-Kobe reunion that would become the dominant L.A. sports story over trading Kobe for 60 cents on the dollar and starting over? And wouldn't Miami jump at the chance to crawl out from under Shaq's contract when Alonzo Mourning and Mark Blount are waiting to take his place? Hmmmmmmm. Unfortunately, Wade's imminent return means Miami will stand pat, climb back into the playoff race and eventually lose in the first or second round after Davis goes 3-for-23 in a deciding game.
Reason No. 12,357 why I love the NBA: The improbable Penny Hardaway comeback. Did you ever think Shaq and Penny would be reunited after Shaq unleashed that transcendent Corleone analogy where he compared Kobe to Sonny, Wade to Michael and Penny to Fredo? Now they're back! Water under the bridge! More importantly, where is Matt Nover during all of this? The Heat couldn't have signed him as a 15th man?
7. NEW JERSEY NETS
Preseason prediction: 45 wins (fifth)
Revised prediction: 41 wins
|Surprise: He has a hefty contract, yet he seems sluggish and disinterested.|
From what I've seen so far, Williams is clearly the most talented rookie other than Kevin Durant, Al Horford and Greg Oden (in absentia). He's a game-changer. He's also someone who had the most character red flags of any potential lottery pick since Eddie Griffin and, um, Eddie Griffin is dead. There's no way anyone can predict how this could play out. I could see Williams averaging a double-double from December through April. I could see him failing a drug test (like he did back in college in 2005) even as I'm typing this paragraph. I could see him getting a triple-double with points, rebounds and blocks. I could see him showing up on Season 5 of "The Wire" and shooting Snoop or Marlo. I am prepared for ANYTHING from the Sean Williams Era. But at long as he's getting minutes and staying out of trouble, the Nets are a top-six team in the East whether Vince Carter is interested or not.
Reason No. 12,358 why I love the NBA: Sean Williams' alma mater? Boston College.
6. CHICAGO BULLS
Preseason prediction: 56 wins (first)
Revised prediction: 42 wins
|Luol Deng is a nice player, but if you have a chance to go get Kobe Bryant don't you go get Kobe Bryant?|
Here's the short answer: Scott Skiles has done a dreadful job of coaching them so far. Let's see, Gordon is the best sixth man in the league, Ty Thomas provides instant energy off the bench and Skiles is starting both of them??? Whaaaaaaat??? I'm with Sam Smith here -- why not start Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Andres Nocioni, Deng and Kirk Hinrich, then bring the energy/pace-changing guys (Gordon, Thomas, Thabo Sefolosha and Jo Noah) off the bench? Or would that make too much sense? Once Skiles figures out the minutes, they'll be fine. If he can't figure it out, he'll be gone.
Here's the long answer: Paxson should have kept Tyson Chandler instead of signing Wallace; he should have made sure they had enough contracts to make a run at Kevin Garnett if he ever became available (seriously, how did the Bulls screw that up???); and he never should have even returned Mitch Kupchak's phone calls if he honestly felt Deng was untouchable. How the hell are you getting Kobe without giving up Deng? You think Lakers fans would be excited to pay $500 a ticket to see Gordon and Thomas? More importantly, how is Deng untouchable? What am I missing here? He's a very good young player. I like him a lot but Kobe Bryant is on the table!!!! He's the best player in the league! I can't stop using exclamation points!!!!
Reason No. 12,359 why I love the NBA: Seeing how the Chandler/Wallace thing worked out. To be honest, I just love being right. It happens so rarely. We've reached the point where Joe Dumars should send Christmas gifts to the Paxson family every year with a card that reads, "Thank you for having two sons who allowed me to control the Central Division for most of this decade."
5. TORONTO RAPTORS
Preseason prediction: 39 wins (ninth)
Revised prediction: 43 wins
|Toronto swingman Jamario Moon has been one of this season's early surprises.|
Reason No. 12,360 why I love the NBA: When he's not sending Christmas gifts to the Paxson family, Dumars is watching Delfino thrive in Toronto and Darko thrive in Memphis with the same look on his face that Norv Turner had during the second half of the Chargers-Colts game.
Reason No. 12,361 why I love the NBA: The Raptors fans are like overbearing Little League parents, only in this case, they're passionate about an NBA team instead of a Little League son. What do you mean my kid isn't good enough??? He's one of the best hitters on this team! You just don't like him, that's the real problem here! And by the way, that's not a knock. If every city cared about its team as much as the Toronto cares about the Raps, the NBA would be a much better place.
4. ORLANDO MAGIC
Preseason prediction: 36 wins (13th)
Revised prediction: 44 wins
|Rashard Lewis can absolutely rebound when he feels like it.|
Agent: "Sure thing, we were hoping you guys would call. I'm listening."
Otis: "What about five years, $55 million?"
Agent: "Hmmmm what about six years, $330 million?"
Otis: "Done! I'll have our lawyers draw up a contract!"
So why put them fourth? Because they stumbled into a definitive identity: Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu handle the scoring, Dwight Howard handles the boards, Jameer Nelson and Arroyo handle the ball and everyone else is just happy to be there. It's a simple basketball team with a smart coach and an efficient goal. Our best three guys are going to score 60 points and make half their shots, and maybe we aren't the greatest defensive team, but if we're playing a close game, we have two solid scoring options and a big guy who protects the rim and grabs every rebound. By contrast, Washington's big three scores 60 a game while missing three of every five shots, and the Wizards can't rebound, play defense or protect the rim. Which team would you rather have?
Reason No. 12,362 why I love the NBA: During a 120-minute stretch of basketball last week, Lewis grabbed seven rebounds total against the Knicks, T-Wolves and Raptors. During his revenge win over the Sonics on Tuesday, he grabbed six rebounds in 30 minutes. So if you're scoring at home, Rashard Lewis doesn't mind grabbing a few rebounds, but he has to be properly motivated. By the way, he's on the books for $23.7 million for the 2012-13 season.
Reason No. 12,363 why I love the NBA: The thought of Larry Bird drunk-dialing Otis Smith and asking, "Hey, Otis, I wanted to see if you guys had any interest in trading me the rights to Fran Vazquez for Danny Granger" before giggling and hanging up.
3. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
Preseason prediction: 39 wins (ninth)
Revised prediction: 45 wins
|LeBron won't accept the Cavs taking a gigantic step backward but that's where they're headed.|
So yeah, the Cavs are making the playoffs. I don't know what I was thinking. As long as they're getting 78-80 games from LeBron, they're finishing .500 even if he's surrounded by the NBA Supporting Cast Pu Pu Platter which Danny Ferry tried to give him and nearly succeeded if not for the occasional Drew Gooden double-double and Zydrunas Ilgauskas' improbable resurgence. Big Z!!! Who knew??? Did he lose weight? Did he come up with a foot remedy that we don't know about? How long can this last? He hasn't moved this well in five years; it's completely inexplicable. I mean, if Big Z can hook himself up to the Juvenation Machine, maybe Larry Hughes will remember how to shoot, dribble, pass and play defense again. Anything's possible.
(On second thought nahhhhhhh.)
Now, the bad news. I had seats behind the visitor's bench for Sunday's Cavs-Clippers game, which was perfect because I love keeping track of all the bench guys who watch the Jumbotron, don't listen to their coach, search the crowd for girls and crack jokes during 25-point blowouts, and I love the player-coach interactions and even hearing the coaches yell at players and referees if it's quiet enough. You just get a great feel for the general mood and spirit of the visiting team (good or bad). During the third quarter, LeBron drove toward the foul line and made a beautiful dish to Gooden, who didn't gather himself for the pass in time. As the ball bounced out of bounds, a frustrated LeBron jogged back up the court staring at the coaches with one of those, "Did you see that? You saw that, right?" looks on his face. And that would have been fine if it ended right there. After all, we get it -- he's great, the rest of his team sucks, and occasionally, it's going to be a little exasperating.
Well, LeBron wasn't done. He glanced back disdainfully at Gooden again, then back to the bench for an extended pseudo-glare. Reading between the lines, I interpreted the glare to mean either, "Take him out of the game before I punch him in the face" or "If that happens again, I'm running straight into the locker room, getting my stuff and chartering my own jet home." At this point, Gooden was running back upcourt and watching the whole thing -- he was officially getting shown up in front of 15,000 people. LeBron shook his head and glanced at Gooden one more time, then back at the bench for a third time, just in case they missed the message the other two times. What a bizarre sequence to watch from 20 feet away. After tasting the Finals and earning some well-deserved media hype last spring, it's pretty clear LeBron won't accept the Cavs taking a gigantic step backward and becoming a non-contender again. But that's where they're headed. Stay tuned.
Reason No. 12,364 why I love the NBA: The Cavs are paying $30 million this season for Larry Hughes, Damon Jones, Eric Snow, Donyell Marshall and Ira Newble.
2. DETROIT PISTONS
Preseason prediction: 50 wins (second)
Revised prediction: 52 wins
|Wouldn't you love to see head coach Rasheed Wallace prowling the sidelines for years to come?|
So let's save some time and ask one simple question about the '08 Pistons: If they didn't have enough last year, why would anyone think they have enough this year? Over the summer, they drafted Rodney Stuckey, signed Jarvis Hayes and planned to lean on Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell a little more. Other than that? Status quo. I mean, it's one thing to bring everyone back when you're a title contender, but did anyone feel like last year's Pistons team could have hung with the Spurs? So why press the RESET button and start another season like nothing ever happened? I don't get it.
Reason No. 12,365 why I love the NBA: A Detroit News article this week described the high basketball IQ of an NBA player who can run every play in his team's playbook from all five positions. That player? Rasheed Wallace. This floored me for some reason. Does this mean we could be headed for head coach Rasheed Wallace some day? What's the record for most ejections of a coach in a single season?
1. BOSTON CELTICS
Preseason prediction: 49 wins (third)
Revised prediction: 62 wins
|We're not sure that KG couldn't match William Wallace in pure, unadulterated fury.|
But here's what we do know: Defensively, they have a chance to become as good as San Antonio. Offensively, they have a big man who draws double-teams and two perimeter guys who can create quality shots whenever they want. And they're nearly impossible to beat at home because of the reborn crowd and KG's ongoing William Wallace impression. The first half of the Denver game was the single greatest display of basketball by a Celtics team since January 4, 1991, and that team could have won the title if Larry Bird's back never went out. For all the die-hard Celtics fans who spent the next 16 years wondering if their team would ever matter again, watching the Nuggets get eviscerated was like watching a beloved relative emerge from a coma or something. It's one thing to have a good team; it's another thing to have a great team. These guys didn't want to just beat Denver, they wanted to break the Nuggets' will. And they did. This team will win 60 games if it stays healthy. At least.
(As for the Fat Dickie's reference when I was in college, every once in a while, my buddy House and I would get tired of campus food and drive to a barbecue place called Fat Dickie's. Then we'd order an obscene amount of food and chow down -- we wouldn't even talk; we'd just be intensely plowing through the barbecue and occasionally nodding at one another. That's what Pierce, Allen and KG have been like all season. They're Fat Dickie's Hungry. It's a whole other level.)
Reason No. 12,366 why I love the NBA: You can't even imagine KG's crazed demeanor during these home games in Boston with a great crowd pumping him up. He looks like Jonathan Papelbon coming out of the bullpen with a one-run lead, only he stays like that for two and a half solid hours. It's incredible. His teammates are alternately enthralled and terrified by him, and honestly, so are the fans. He's a man on a mission. He's possessed. He's a borderline lunatic. Remember when Ronnie Lott had half of a broken pinky amputated so he wouldn't miss the '85 playoffs? You get the feeling that KG would do the same so he wouldn't miss a mid-January home game against the Hornets. And after admiring him in person for five games, my delighted father (a 34-year season ticket holder) revised his "Favorite Celtics Ever" list, bumped Dave Cowens down a spot and named Kevin Garnett "1B" behind Larry Bird's "1A." Five games! That's all it took. I'm going out on a limb and saying this was a good trade.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column -- as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more -- check out the revamped Sports Guy's World.