Posted Oct 27 2009 2:48PM
Buried in the firestorm that followed Isiah Thomas' excoriation of onetime blood-brother Magic Johnson was an anecdotal revelation that had me wistful for the NBA of my childhood. Contending squads viewed each other different in that '80s Golden Age. Isiah's statement about when and how his relationship changed with Magic was indicative of the good ol' days when rivals were enemies.
"When we got to the ['88] Finals, our relationship became very different,'' Thomas acknowledged to SI.com. "It was OK for us to be friends when we weren't competing with the Lakers, but when we started competing with the Lakers, our friendship changed. I remember my son was born in '88 during the NBA Finals and Magic wouldn't even come to the hospital." Now that's cold. And I love it.
Later in the series, after Isiah badly sprained his ankle, the Lakers wouldn't even let him use their facilities. "I tried calling [Magic] to see if he could talk to the trainer," Thomas said, "and he wouldn't pick up the phone.''
I always feel the best years come when the best teams both respect and dislike each other, the way a CIA agent would a KGB operative during the Cold War. Recently, it's hard to find anything other than a manufactured rivalry. Of the teams I deem contenders, none can claim that status for more than two seasons (even San Antonio was barely a contender last season). What made the '80s, '90s and even the early '00s so dramatic is that the elite teams had runs with the other elite squads, year after year. Magic's Lakers vs. Bird's Celtics and Isiah's Pistons. Isiah's Pistons against Jordan's Bulls. Jordan's Bulls and Pat Riley's Knicks. The Shaq and Kobe Lakers vs. the C-Webb Kings. Last year we didn't have anything close to those rivalries. Now, after last postseason, we might finally have some history to coax these teams into becoming rivals.
That's what I'm looking for when Boston and Cleveland lock horns Tuesday night. They played in the preseason and things got chippy between Boston's Shelden Williams and the Cavs' Mo Williams. The Pardon the Interruption guys asked Doc Rivers about it the next day. Rivers said that both teams know that they're probably going to have to beat the other or Orlando to get out of the East, so the turf-battling and posturing is starting early. Rarely can you consider a season-opener to be a message game, but the Cavs-Celts can set the season off right. I just hope it has the requisite ornery atmosphere.
Boston and Cleveland are two of the seven teams that I can realistically envision winning it all this year. Any time they play each other, the games should have a Cold War feel to them.
7) Denver -- My favorite college player from last year, Ty Lawson, gets to serve as Chauncey Billups' apprentice. Every rookie point guard should be so fortunate. That was really Denver's biggest addition/subtraction of the summer. Well, not really. Although I wouldn't call Dahntay Jones an impact player, he provided Denver the luxury of bringing loose cannon J.R. Smith off the bench. Smith's instant offense was an integral part of the Denver attack when they would bring him and Chris "Birdman" Andersen off the bench for a change of pace and shot of manic energy. Now Smith will have to coexist with the starters and I wonder if this new role will mesh well with his game. The fact remains that Denver has, arguably, the NBA's best leader (Billups), the league's most unguardable scorer (Carmelo Anthony) and a nasty trio of big men (Andersen/Nene/K-Mart). The Nuggets aren't exactly big or deep, so their margin for error is small, but this is basically the same squad that had everyone in the West (including the Lakers) scared in the '09 playoffs.
6) Dallas -- The Mavs are facing some health issues with Josh Howard and Tim Thomas, but, when healthy, this squad is loaded. MVP candidate Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Erick Dampier, Drew Gooden and Thomas up front. Howard, Sixth Man Jason Terry, tough defender Quinton Ross and Jose Juan Barea at the guards with Jason Kidd running the show. Kidd may not be a Top 10 player anymore, but the man can still run an offense with the best of them. Just watch, for instance, what he does to rejuvenate Marion. Sleep if you want to, but this team can beat anyone in the league.
5) Orlando -- Question: Why are we fine with parroting this malarkey about Orlando losing its matchup advantages with Hedo Turkoglu gone? I'm not saying that Vince Carter is as skilled of a facilitator that Turk is, but he's a darn good one. When Rashard Lewis gets back from his suspension, Orlando has one of the most versatile squads in the league. The Magic can play the "Howard and four shooters" lineup with Lewis, Vince, Pietrus and Jameer Nelson. And now they can also go big and smashmouth if they need to, bringing in newly-acquired Brandon Bass at the four, moving Lewis to small forward and letting Vince play his natural 2-guard spot. And this squad is deep. Matt Barnes is another athletic wing, Ryan Anderson is a poor man's Mehmet Okur and Marcin Gortat is more than an able backup. (Orlando sure thought so, giving the dude a $30-plus million contract.) Explain to me how this team is not significantly better than last year's Magic. I know Hedo was valuable, but it's not like they replaced him with Luke Walton. Maybe they don't win 59 games like last year, considering their division and conference is much tougher, but they're every bit the threat to return to the Finals. And, oh by the way, Howard is at that stage where things usually really click. He might actually have a post game by May.
4) Cleveland -- The wing additions of Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker will prove to be more crucial and effective than the Shaq trade. Shaq is basically Zydrunas Ilgauskas without the ability to knock down a 20-footer. Shaq might be better than Big Z, but not in any demonstrable defensive way. Big Z got slayed on pick-n-rolls. Shaq has been getting killed on pick-n-rolls for the past five seasons. Although Shaq can still dish out some punishment on the other end, if Boston wants to run a pick-n-roll with Paul Pierce and Rasheed Wallace or Orlando wants to milk a Jameer Nelson/Dwight Howard pick-n-roll, Shaq is the same kind of liability that Ilgauskas was. What the Cavs have now is a nice small-ball lineup with Anderson Varejao at center, LeBron at the four and then some combination of Moon, Parker, Mo' and Delonte West (if/when he gets his head together). Last season the Cavs didn't have the personnel to chase the Magic shooters because Wally Szczerbiak couldn't guard Chamique Holdsclaw. Now Cleveland has options. And I hope that Mike Brown finally realizes how much destruction LeBron can cause at the four. I'm not saying you play him there the whole game. I'm talking maybe 20 minutes tops. He's as big and strong as most fours on defense and then, other end ... I mean, it's unfair. That's what happens when a guy who was supposed to be the next Magic Johnson grows to become the same size as Karl Malone but keeps the Magic/MJ skill set.
3) San Antonio -- Every year, there's an offseason move that gets all the attention and it never materializes the way everyone expected. Remember 2005 when everyone touted Brent Barry's arrival in San Antonio like it was on the same level as Shaq-to-the-Heat the previous summer? At some point, you have to take a step back and really analyze things and make sure you're not overreacting. Is there any way that the Richard Jefferson trade was that move? I say no. It's hard for any reasonably skilled and talented player to not play his best basketball for the Greg Popovich/Tim Duncan Spurs. And when you combine Jefferson's arrival with the crafty Antonio McDyess pickup (the perfect kind of big man -- tough, smart and able to knock down 15-footers -- to work in tandem with Duncan), the ridiculous second round steal of DeJuan Blair and the health and freshness of Duncan and Manu Ginobili, we might be looking at the best Spurs team of the decade. Even if Duncan is on the downside of his prime, Tony Parker is peaking as an unstoppable scorer. This could be a 60-win team.
2) Boston -- The best Boston news just leaked this week. Apparently, Boston has finally gotten a clue and is actively trying to lock up Rajon Rondo before the deadline for extensions. About time. After his epic playoffs (nearly averaging a triple-double against the Bulls), the Celtics tried their best to antagonize the young dude, which is stupid, but even more dumb given that Rondo can be a bit of a hothead. But if Danny Ainge and Rondo can get the contract done and he's focused, I'd expect 16 ppg, 8 apg, 7 rpg, 3 spg and maybe a third team All-NBA out of the youngster. That means that Boston has a legitimate Big Four now. But now the Cs have Marquis Daniels backing up Rondo and Pierce and Big Baby fresh off a playoffs where he showed he can be a legitimate starter, except, with KG back, he doesn't have to be one. Pieces. The Cs have pieces. The 'Sheed' pickup was just a straight up coup. I love the stories coming out of Boston that have 'Sheed' already more familiar with the Boston playbook than some of the returning Celtics. Any concern about him messing with the Ubuntu is overblown. If any two players can tag-team 'Sheed', it's KG and Ray Allen.
1) The Lakers -- Andrew Bynum was really frisky during the preseason. It's not unfathomable that, if the young dude can finally get a 75 to 80-game regular season under his belt, he can be in All-Star conversations come February. Let's say the Lakers roll into the postseason with two double-double guys (Lamar Odom and Bynum), arguably the league's best player (Kobe), arguably the league's "best second-best" player (Pau Gasol) and the league's most skilled roughneck (Ron-Ron Artest). This Lakers team has a chance -- even with a shaky point guard rotation -- to be a juggernaut on par with the early decade Shaq/Kobe squads. They're my pick to win it all -- again.
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