All the rage: Let the playoffs begin
Then again, anger can get you deep into the NBA playoffs. Of all the emotions that emerge in the postseason, a controlled anger can be the most valuable. Ask the 2004 Detroit Pistons. There's never been a team with more reason to be mad than that collection of castoffs, cobbled together from other teams and low draft picks, a group that took its spiritual guidance from the volatile Rasheed Wallace and filled digital recorders with rationales for his numerous technical fouls.
The single angriest playoff performance I've ever seen came from Michael Jordan in Game 4 of the 1993 NBA Finals. Fed up with a postseason lowlighted by a book detailing his high-stakes golf bets, a news report and subsequent criticism for his late-night trip to Atlantic City during the conference finals, and the insinuation that Phoenix's Kevin Johnson had gotten the best of him in Game 3, Jordan went off for 55 points, nostrils a-flarin'.
In 2010 you won't find an angrier team than the Orlando Magic. Dwight Howard leads the league in technical fouls. He leads the league in rebounds and blocked shots -- again -- and can't get any serious run for MVP. He had to watch the Lakers celebrate their championship last year in his house.
Coach Stan Van Gundy's past three playoff appearances read: conference finals, conference semis, NBA Finals. He's won 18 playoff games in the past four years. And yet the only moniker bestowed upon him was Shaq's label "the master of panic." No coach out there faces a bigger fight for respect.
But the essential anger influx came from Matt Barnes, a bargain free-agent signee who gives the Magic an edge in addition to 8.8 points and 5.5 boards a game, all for the price of $1.6 million. Which is another reason for him to be angry. He thought he'd cash in on the Golden State Warriors' upset of the Dallas Mavericks in 2007. Instead he signed for $3 million in 2007-08, a one-year deal for $927,000 in Phoenix last season, now this.
The Magic contain enough anger to make up for the impassive Vince Carter. That's why they led off our list of superlative squads -- the extreme teams -- that define the most intriguing categories of the 2010 playoffs. On to the other nominees:
THE TEAM WITH THE BIGGEST QUESTION MARKS: The Lakers
For months, it seems, we've been wondering if the Lakers will turn it up for the playoffs. Time to put that question to bed. The bigger questions are whether we've seen the last of Kobe Bryant as a game dominator, and whether we're about to see the last of Phil Jackson as the Lakers' coach.
It could be that all Bryant needs is some extended time on a Mediterranean beach after two trips to the NBA Finals and two summers with the U.S. national team in the previous two years. Or maybe this goes beyond swapping out the spark plugs and there's extensive wear and tear, possibly even structural damage. If Bryant can't get it done this postseason, at least he'll have four more chances to get it right, thanks to the three-year extension tacked onto the final year of his contract.
Jackson is heading into this summer as the coaching equivalent of LeBron James. Scratch that -- at least LeBron knows a maximum contract offer is coming from his current team. After winning four championships with the Lakers, the team is sending signals that the best Jackson could expect is a pay cut from this year's $12 million. That's if the team doesn't decide to go in a different direction. Failing to reach the NBA Finals could be fatal for Jackson's chances. No sense in keeping Jackson around at Nordstrom prices if the results are a TJ Maxx product. For months, the Lakers have been a team that lacked urgency. Maybe the prospect of losing the most successful coach in NBA history will change that.
NOW-OR-NEVER TEAM: The Dallas Mavericks
Owner Mark Cuban was ahead of the curve on the Internet streaming and HDTV, but he's based his NBA ownership on the questionable premise that a team can win a championship with Dirk Nowitzki as its best player.
Maybe, as is usually the case, Cuban knows more than the rest of us. This is the last chance to prove it. Nowitzki has his best supporting cast with Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood aboard. Jason Kidd is still a great quarterback for this squad (Cuban deserves more credit for making that move after getting blasted during Devin Harris' lone All-Star season in New Jersey. Do we even need to ask which team is better off two years after the trade?). But after this season, Kidd will be another year older, and the Mavericks will have their Stetsons full fending off the likes of the Thunder. If Nowitzki can't bring home a title this season, he'll never be able to do it.
One thing Nowitzki doesn't get enough credit for: putting on one of the great playoff performances under duress that we've ever seen. During the Denver series last year, his fiancée was arrested and found to have more personas than Leo DiCaprio in "Catch Me If You Can" -- and Nowitzki responded with games of 35, 33, 44 and 32 points. He shot 53 percent for the series. We know he's tough enough. Now we need to find out if he's elite enough, if he merits mention alongside Hakeem Olajuwon or Dwyane Wade. You could argue that Nowitzki's buddy Steve Nash has as much to prove as Nowitzki and even less time to accomplish it (age 36 to Dirk's 31). But with two MVP awards, I'd say Nash has already overachieved. Nowitzki still has a chance to take that necessary final step for unqualified acclaim. That's a chance, as in singular.
TRAPPED TEAM: Atlanta Hawks
For a while, I thought the Atlanta Hawks were ready to make the natural progression from their first-round loss to the Celtics two years ago to last year's second-round loss to the Cavaliers and advance to the conference finals this season. But it's impossible to envision the Hawks' beating Cleveland or Orlando. It doesn't seem fair that a team that has come so far so fast has already reached it limit, but sometimes these things happen. Ask the Bucks or Nuggets of the '80s or the Cleveland Cavaliers of the '90s or the Sacramento Kings of the 2000s.
The Hawks could lose Joe Johnson to free agency, but that shouldn't be envisioned as the worst-case scenario. The worst case might be bringing him back and paying full scale for a player who hasn't shown he can carry a team to the conference finals. At least Johnson has good company. Dominique Wilkins never got the Hawks to the conference finals. Neither did Pete Maravich. Sometimes franchises just have a ceiling. Atlanta's is in the second round.
SCARIEST TEAM: San Antonio Spurs
Put it this way: They even had the Suns wondering if they might be better off losing their final game of the regular season to avoid any possibility of facing the Spurs in a potential 3-6 matchup. After all, these are the Spurs that sent the Suns home in the 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2008 playoffs.
Record since Dec. 15: 38-20.
And now, with Ginobili's extension locked up, the Spurs enter the playoffs distraction-free. Not that they've traditionally been an easily distracted group. The last time they had issues looming, with David Robinson's pending retirement and the possibility of Jason Kidd replacing Tony Parker at point guard, the Spurs won a championship.
MOST READY TO BE EUTHANIZED AND EULOGIZED: Boston Celtics
The only case for extending their season into the second round of the playoffs is to see them go against the Cavaliers, based on all the vitriol that emanated from their last meeting. Otherwise, they've passed their expiration date.
The Celtics took the right approach. In 2007, they threw a group of accomplished but unsatisfied veterans together and hoped they could win a championship. Last summer, they tried to extend the window by bringing in another veteran with championship experience, Rasheed Wallace. They went 1-1.
The surprise is how meekly they've gone down. They lost 16 home games this season, four more than the previous two seasons combined. They've lost nine games by double digits, matching their total from 2007-2009.
As disappointing as this season has been, it hasn't been so bad they're going to take down the 2008 banner. The strategy was worth it. I wish more teams would go all-in for a shot at a championship.
But they need to get this over with as quickly as possible because there won't be any gallant last stand. They don't have the same ferocious defense or unmistakable camaraderie. Now there are reports that coach Doc Rivers is ready to leave. Rivers called it "old news." He called it "a nonissue, for me, right now." He didn't call it "untrue."
He should move on. Everyone who can should. Call in the crew that handled the old Boston Garden demolition and let them take this roster apart. The painful part is that Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace still have two years remaining on their contracts, worth almost half the salary cap between them. This won't be enjoyable to watch. Hopefully, there's as little programming as possible.
QUIRKIEST TEAM: Denver Nuggets.
Back in November, they loomed as the biggest threat in the West to the Lakers, and Carmelo Anthony was a legitimate MVP candidate. The Nuggets almost wound up in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff order, and Anthony will be lucky to end up in the top three of anyone's MVP ballot.
The reasons vary, from the unfortunate cancer affliction that forced coach George Karl away from the sideline to the untimely injury to Kenyon Martin to their inexplicable pattern of going away from Anthony in fourth quarters. But now they find themselves starting the playoffs as the No. 4 seed and could get the Lakers if they advance to the second round.
But there's a number that's in their favor. While working on last year's look at the book "Outliers" and the Boston Celtics, I found that first-time championship units over the past 20 years had an average age of 28.1 for their top six players. The 2009 Nuggets checked in at 28.2 -- and they wound up posing a serious threat to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
A year later, with primarily the same squad, the average age of the Nuggets' top six actually dipped, to 27.5, thanks to 24-year-old Arron Afflalo's getting minutes. They're the closest to 28.1 ... narrowly ahead of the Magic at 28.8.
THE BEST TEAM: Cleveland Cavaliers
The size to match up with the Magic and Lakers, and the LeBron that no team has an answer for. They could possibly end up with the payback slate of Boston (2008 playoffs) and Orlando (2009 playoffs) after an appetizer of Chicago (cue the Michael Jordan over Craig Ehlo and Gerald Wilkins clips).
More important, there's acceptance of roles. Shaquille O'Neal called himself a "high-level role player," an admission he wouldn't have made as recently as last season even if it were true. Zydrunas Ilgauskas lost his starting spot to O'Neal and then was traded to the Washington Wizards, and still was willing to come back after a 30-day furlough for less money than he could have made elsewhere. Antawn Jamison was rescued from the sinking HMS Washington Wizards. The team is filled with players who accept their positions and want to be there -- for now, in LeBron's case. Just kidding, Clevelanders.