Posted Apr 12 2010 7:40AM
It is late autumn in the NBA season, when the leaves have fallen and we know, more or less, what is what. It is late autumn in the NBA season, and it is time to make our choices for the best of the best in a regular season that is almost done. It is late autumn in the NBA season. The playoffs are upon us. We must choose.
There are, as always, several legitimate candidates for all of the league's superlatives. To pick one does not mean you are dissing the others. Everything gets factored in. Numbers matter. Performance in big games matters. Winning and losing matters. The names in each category appear in order of votes received. And, thanks -- seriously -- to the PR staffs around the league that made their cases for their respective guys. I wasn't ignoring you, but at some point you can't be spun anymore. It makes you dizzy.
As always, my yearly caveat: These awards have to make sense only to me, not you. It's my ballot. When and if you get a ballot, you can pick who you like, and I'll have to accept it. Please, don't send me some algorthim that "proves" Serge Ibaka is a better center than Dwight Howard. But, feel free to present your own choices for any of these awards, and your reasons why, to email@example.com.
THE WINNER: LeBron James, Cavaliers.
THE RUNNERS-UP: Dwight Howard, Magic; Kobe Bryant, Lakers; Kevin Durant, Thunder; Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks.
THE REASON: The logical place to start, it seems, would be to ask why wouldn't you give the MVP to James? In what way has he not proven himself superior to the league's elite? Do you really think he couldn't overtake Durant for the scoring title if that was important to him? Haven't his Cavs swept Kobe's Lakers? He's sixth in the league in assists. Let that sink in as it is repeated: James is sixth in the league in assists. Sixth. He's averaging more dimes per game than the following very good point guards: Russell Westbrook, Baron Davis, Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans, Devin Harris, Chauncey Billups, Brandon Jennings, Andre Miller and Aaron Brooks. All of them. (The next-highest forward on the assists per game list, Philly's Andre Iguodala, averages almost three fewer per game.)
He leads the league this season in triple doubles (five).
He is ranked as the league's most efficient player: the good stuff minus the bad stuff. OK, here's the formula: ((points+rebounds+assists+steals+blocks) - ((field goal attempts-field goals made) + (free throw attempts-free throws made) + turnovers)). James's 32.4 efficiency rating is almost five points greater than second-place Kevin Durant's.
No, James is not a better defensive player than Howard, but they have a perfectly good award for the top defensive player, and Howard will certainly get it. But James isn't a bad defender, not anymore.
No, James hasn't made as many game-winning shots this season as Kobe. But the Cavs haven't had to win as many games at the buzzer as the Lakers, with a point differential almost two points greater than L.A.'s. LeBron has usually been on the bench dancing when Bryant has had to bail the Lakers out.
As ever, the notion of "valuable" means different things to different people; to me, it isn't just talent, or intellligence, or toughness, or leadership. It's all of those things. Do you ever think the Cavs are out of a game when James is in the game? Do you think the Cavs can even contend for a championship without him? How many games would Cleveland win without James? A lot less, it says here, than the Lakers would without Kobe, or the Magic would without Howard, or the Nuggets would without Melo. His detractors will say that LBJ is all media and league hype. They're allowed to believe that. I'll stick with my lying eyes.
THE WINNER: Tyreke Evans, Sacramento.
THE RUNNERS-UP: Stephen Curry, Golden State; Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee; Darren Collison, New Orleans; DeJuan Blair, San Antonio.
THE REASON: A close call. Really close. Jennings scored 55 the second week of the season, but he went into a shooting tailspin that he's only come out of in the last month. He's been terrific running the Bucks, but they've won not only because of him, obviously, but because they had Andrew Bogut and John Salmons as well.
Evans came on strong in December and January, bringing his 6-foot-6 frame into the paint night after night, getting to the rim with impunity and keeping the young Kings on the periphery of the playoffs for a couple of months. He played great with Beno Udrih, on the ball, off the ball, whatever Paul Westphal needed. By the All-Star break, Evans looked like a ROY shoo-in. Then Curry went crazy, posting five 30-point, 10-assist games, becoming just the third rookie to do so; the others were, um, Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan. His shooting percentage, from the floor and the line, is still at historic highs for a rookie.
But the Kings and Warriors are losing at about the same clip. A big clip. Neither is impacting his team in the wins category. Curry's better at assists, but not by much; Evans is better at scoring; he leads all rookies at better than 20 points per game. Curry is better in steals; he's actually fourth overall, behind Rajon Rondo, teammate Monta Ellis and Chris Paul; Evans is better in rebounds.
The pick here is Evans, by a hair. If the Warriors were better, the guess here is that Curry wouldn't have been asked to do as much. If the Kings were better, the guess here is that Evans would be just as integral to the team as he is now. It's a feeling, not pythagorean theory. You want to pick Curry, that's fine.
THE WINNER: Jamal Crawford, Hawks
THE RUNNERS-UP: Jason Terry, Dallas; J.R. Smith, Denver; Anderson Varejao, Cleveland.
THE REASON: Crawford has been as important to the Hawks this season as any of their starters. He's the top-scoring reserve in the league at 18 a game, the highest average off the bench for someone who didn't start a single game since Ricky Pierce's 23 a game in 1989-90. At the end of games, it's Crawford with the ball in his hands just as much as Joe Johnson or Mike Bibby, and the fact that the Hawks stole him fair and square from Golden State makes his production all that much more impressive and important.
Terry hasn't been quite as good this season as last in Dallas, when he won the Sixth; he's almost three points a game off from last year's 19.6 (though his assists are up). The Mavericks weren't exactly on fire when they pulled off the league's best deal, getting Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson from the Wizards. Part of the reason they struggled is they couldn't get consistent play at the two guard spot, where Terry had been starting earlier. Smith has become more than a productive reserve for the Nuggets; he's hardwired into Denver's DNA now, Denver couldn't win without him if it tried. He will never be a high-percentage shooter; Smith is feast or famine every night, capable of shooting Denver in or out.
Varejao is the best big men not starting in the league at the moment. He's still one of the league's best low-post defenders and he's almost always on the floor at crunch time because of it, and he's become a very efficient offensive player, no longer someone the Cavs avoid throwing the ball to when it matters.
But Crawford, who's posted double figures off the bench in 24 straight games and 73 out of 79 games so far, for a team that's won 50 games for the first time in 12 years, has to be the winner.
THE WINNER: Dwight Howard, Orlando
THE RUNNERS-UP: Josh Smith, Atlanta; Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee; Anderson Varejao, Cleveland, Brendan Haywood, Dallas.
THE REASON: Howard leads the league in rebounding, by a lot (13.2 boards, almost one and a half ahead of the next closest, Memphis' Zach Randolph). Howard leads the league in defensive rebounds, by a lot (778, 70 more than New York's David Lee). Howard leads the league in blocks, by a lot (2.75, with Bogut's 2.54 next). Howard literally ends possessions, where men end possessions -- in the paint -- and who knows how many more he ends in the minds of those who don't challenge Orlando in the middle, who settle for perimeter jumpers, all because Superman is patrolling the lawn?
"There's some really, really good perimeter defenders in the league, who definitely deserve consideration," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said last month. "I just don't think, because of their position, that they can impact as any plays at the defensive end of the floor as he can. He can impact virtually every play that happens at that end. You combine that with his rebounding, and not giving people second chances. Matt Barnes is a good rebounder. Jameer (Nelson) is a good rebounder for his size, but really, other than that, he's the only other guy we put out there that you would even call a good rebounder, and we're first in the league (now tied, with Cleveland) in defensive rebound percentage. Why? Because of one guy."
No argument here. And that's why Howard is the easy call here, despite Smith's incredible versatility (third in the league in blocks, yet more than capable of snuffing out your team's best perimeter option), Bogut's improved mobility and range, which, along with Jennings' ballhawking out front, was key to Milwaukee's much improved team D, and Varejao, who really gives his teammates the freedom to freelance because of his still-imposing abilities in the paint. You could add Dallas' Shawn Marion, who's had a great season locking up the west's best, Utah's Andrei Kirilenko, out of his basketball coma, Boston's Rajon Rondo and L.A.'s Ron Artest, who can still get just about everyone off their game with his upper body strength.
THE WINNER: Aaron Brooks, Houston
THE RUNNERS-UP: Joakim Noah, Chicago, Marc Gasol, Memphis, Gerald Wallace, Charlotte.
THE REASON: Brooks has dramatically raised his game in his third season, increasing his scoring by more than eight points a game, improving his shooting both inside and beyond the 3-point line, raising his assists by a lot and his rebounds by a little. And he did most of this heavy lifting before the Rockets picked up Kevin Martin at the trade deadline, without a healthy Yao Ming or Tracy McGrady, and with non-offensive offensive options throughout the roster.
I say this all the time -- a player shouldn't get Most Improved just because circumstances have increased that players' minutes. The guy who's Most Improved should actually be a better basketball player from one season to the next. That's what Noah and Gasol did in getting in better shape, which led to both of them being able to stay on the floor longer and produce more. Wallace has become a more consistent player at both ends of the floor, leading the Bobcats' perimeter defense while still putting up numbers at the other end, which led to a much-deserved All-Star appearance.
Nor can someone be MIP who was expected to be good in the first place. The Bucks took Bogut first overall in 2007 because he was supposed to eventually be a great player, which he was this year. Ditto Durant, who was the second pick after Greg Oden because the Thunder saw him as a potential franchise player. Which is exactly what he's become. People will vote for him for MIP. They will be wrong.
THE WINNER: Jerry Sloan, Utah
THE RUNNERS-UP: Scott Skiles, Milwaukee; Mike Woodson, Atlanta, Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City, Nate McMillan, Portland, Alvin Gentry, Phoenix.
THE REASON: This category may have the most number of deserving candidates. A legit case can be made for Skiles, who has piloted the Bucks back to the playoffs; for Woodson, who has guided the Hawks to their best record in a dozen years despite inexplicably being left to dangle in a lame duck year; for Brooks, who has surrounded Durant with defensive principles and responsibilities, and got a young team to almost never play young; for McMillan, who has continued to get maximum effort and production from player after player despite a rasher of injuries to every center walking, and a midseason trade for Marcus Camby; and for Gentry, who has coaxed a 50-win season out of a Suns team no one thought would come close to anything like that.
But the pick here, again, is Sloan. It has been Sloan many times over the years, for he has, incredibly and ridiculously, never been given the award. It is Sloan this year because, dealt an incredibly difficult hand -- like coaching Carlos Boozer, who didn't especially want to be in Utah playing for the Jazz, who didn't especially want him -- did what may be his best job in 22 seasons. He told Boozer, I'll coach, you play. We'll have no problems.
They've had no problems -- not that we'd know about it, anyway, such is the juice that Sloan still has, with general manager Kevin O'Connor solidly behind him, just as Utah's ownership is solidly behind O'Connor. Sloan-O'Connor-Greg Miller, no space between them. That allows Sloan to coach his team. It allows him to continue to seek a simple truth for his players: compete to the best of your ability. If you win, that's great. If you lose, that's acceptable, if the other team is better and you did your best. The Jazz always seem to compete against the game of basketball as much as their opponents. And so Sloan overcomes injuries, and trades, and Andrei Kirilenko figures out a way to play for him again, and the Jazz win 50 again, like that happens every season.
Which it usually does, under
G: Dwyane Wade, Miami
G: Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
F: LeBron James, Cleveland
F: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
C: Dwight Howard, Orlando
G: Deron Williams, Utah
G: Steve Nash, Phoenix
F: Carmelo Anthony, Denver
F: Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas
C: Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee
G: Jason Kidd, Dallas
G: Joe Johnson, Atlanta
F: Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix
F: Pau Gasol, L.A. Lakers
C: Tim Duncan, San Antonio
Could Charlotte's Wallace made one of these teams? Sure. So could have Atlanta center Al Horford, and his teammate, Smith, and Boston's Paul Pierce, and Utah's Boozer, and Denver's Chauncey Billups, and Portland's Brandon Roy. There are always more guys than spots. That's what keeps talk radio, and the comment boards on every hoop website, and bartenders from South Beach to South Cen
Players who flew under the radar! (Okay, under the sonar! Go with the joke, will you?)
In other words, they were good; their teams stunk, and they'd never get any recognition otherwise:
G: Monta Ellis, Golden State
G: Chris Paul, New Orleans
F: Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia
F: Danny Granger, Indiana
C: David Lee, New York
After Muhammad Ali regained the world heavyweight title for a second time, he fought Earnie Shavers, an aging but still dangerous guy with a big right hand, in 1977. By this time, Ali was far removed from his days as the Impossible Target, too fleet of foot to be hit, too quick with his hands to be threatened. By the time he fought Shavers, Ali had been a pro for 16 years, had been in a couple dozen huge fights, and had begun to win with guile and smarts instead of great skill.
In the second round, Shavers came over the top with one of those big rights, and caught Ali flush against the head. Ali was knocked woozy. But he had enough remaining functioning brain cells to lay it on thick, wobbling back to his corner as if exaggerating the impact of the punch. Shavers hesitated; was Ali really hurt, or playing possum? Those few seconds gave Ali enough time to clear his head and get out of the round safely; he eventually tricked and conned his way into the 15th round, when he threw together enough punches from memory to win the decision.
My eyes tell me the Lakers are Ali, circa 1977, a champion that's not firing on all cylinders, pretending to be better than they really are entering the playoffs.
Are my eyes deceiving me? Are the Lakers playing possum?
"I think we're aware," Pau Gasol said to me last week, "of our potential, our experience and our quality. So it's on us to be out there and compete and give our very best. And I think we'll be capable of delivering at the right time. Once we get going and once we feel the spotlight, the lights are on, it's gonna be a little different. We believe in ourselves. We believe in our chance. We're going to pursue it as hard as possible."
I know what these Lakers, with or without Andrew Bynum, are capable of. Without Bynum or Kobe Bryant, sitting out the first of consecutive games for playoff maintenance, they looked awful in the first half Thursday against the Nuggets, a team that has no fear going elbow to elbow with Los Angeles. And then, like the proverbial light came on, the Lakers roared back, erasing a 15-point deficit like that and almost pulling out the road win.
This was about 12 hours after Bryant, at shootaround, had said that he wasn't surprised that the team's focus had come and gone recently -- even though these Lakers are a veteran bunch.
"I think it's because it's a veteran group that it hasn't been there," Bryant said. "I've been on teams that had a great deal of veterans -- myself, Brian (Shaw), Rick Fox, Shaq, Robert Horry. I mean, it was worse than this group. It really was. Because you have so much experience, you've been through so many wars, you've been through so many battles, and you know what the pressure cooker is really like. So I think if you look at young teams -- Oklahoma (City) and all these teams -- these boys are up and ready to go every single day. The older you get, you tend to step in and out of that zone more often."
So, maybe, the Lakers have just been bored down the stretch, realizing they weren't going to catch Cleveland for the top record, and have just been in cruise control.
"All season, it's been about repeating as champions," Derek Fisher said. "As the season has shortened, it doesn't seem like we've kept an ability to find a purpose for today, to play a certain way. That does require you to be more efficient in terms of your execution, offensively and defensively, because at times the natural adrenaline that comes from playing in big games, the passion and certain things that kind of comes naturally, hasn't been there, I think, in a lot of situations for us."
Two things give you pause before accepting that version of reality, though.
One, from yapping around, there seems to be a little uncertainty that this group is listening to Phil Jackson as strongly as some of his other championship incarnations. (Indeed, if you watched Thursday on TNT, you heard those exact words -- "you're not listening to me!" -- come out of Phil's mouth during a timeout.) Given that Bryant, Derek Fisher, Gasol and Lamar Odom would have no reason to doubt Jackson's word, that leads a reasonable person to wonder if everything is jake with Ron Artest. Defensively, he looks fine. But is he that "flow guy" in the triangle that Trevor Ariza became in the playoffs last season?
Fisher said that the Lakers, nearing Game 80, still had no discernable identity this season.
"It's a little more frustrating for us, because of what we've experienced and what we've been through," he said. "Sometimes it puts a little more of a rigidity on our perspective. Often times we have to remember that we're a team full of guys that haven't been here before, don't quite know what it takes to be the best again and again and again. A hundred times in a season, you've got to figure out how to be the best. That's a difficult thing to do. We still have a relatively young team in terms of age and championship experience."
If you look at the Lakers' roster, 11 of 12 players were on the team last season -- the team that beat Orlando 4-1 to win the title. D.J. Mbenga was on that team. Adam Morrison was on that team. Josh Powell was on that team. Luke Walton and Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar were on that team. The only player who wasn't on that team was Ron Artest. I don't know if that's who Fisher was talking about, but there isn't anybody else who doesn't hasn't been there before.
Two, it doesn't sound like the Lakers are expecting Bynum back any time soon. Two MRIs have shown no tear in Bynum's strained Achilles', but Jackson said there is no timetable for Bynum's return (and my NBA-TV colleague Kevin McHale, having limped through much of the second half of his career on bad wheels, isn't very optimistic that Bynum will be able to get back in the flow at any time the rest of this season).
Can the Lakers win without Bynum? Sure. Did they get throttled in the Finals two years ago by the more physical Celtics without Bynum? Have the Cavs and Magic loaded up on seemingly every big man east of the Mississippi so that they'd have an armada of bigs to bang, and bang, and bang with the Lakers? Same answers.
Given all this, and given that Kobe still has a jacked up finger and knee, I asked Gasol, would you ever go to Jackson and ask that the ball come through you more in the playoffs?
And Gasol looked like he'd been asked if he'd sample a lye chaser.
"I wouldn't say that," Gasol said. "Kobe has had to play through a lot of stuff this year. He has done a tremendous job on just toughing it out and just being out there, being a leader for us. So you've got to give him a lot of credit. He's still, every single game, he's out there and he takes up that role. We have a great coaching staff and they recognize what's going on, and they make the right decisions for us."
It is about now that a smart person would point out that the Lakers entered last postseason with a lot of these same questions, and went through most of their conference semifinal against Houston, and half of the Western finals against Denver, looking like they were ready to be had -- only to storm back strong in the games that mattered, and win the west, then bamboozled the Magic in five. Bryant is still a killer; he hasn't forgotten how to dominate. Fisher and Bynum and Odom have been through a lot of wars. Jackson is an absurd 209-91 (.697) in the postseason. Maybe the 7-foot-1 Bynum will come back and provide the Lakers with the post presence that, along with the 7-foot Gasol and the 6-11 Odom, makes them impossible to match up with.
They are the Lakers, after all.
(Last week's ranking in brackets)
1) Cleveland  (61-20): Gearing down during final week of regular season is understandable ... as long as it works.
2) Orlando  (57-23): This just may be the team to beat in either conference.
3) L.A. Lakers  (56-24): Either they know something we don't know, or they look very, very vulnerable.
4) Phoenix  (52-28): Home-court in first round is for the taking: Beat Denver at home Tuesday and the Jazz in SLC Wednesday.
5) Utah  (52-28): Haven't had a winning record on the road since 2001.
6) Denver  (52-28): KMart back, but how effective will he be for playoffs?
7) Atlanta  (51-29): Think it's safe to say Jamal Crawford is a shoo-in for Sixth Man.
8) Dallas  (53-27): Mavs will need a healthy Shawn Marion (strained oblique) if they want to handle the Melos and B Roys of the west in the playoffs.
9) Oklahoma City  (49-31): Does Russell Westbrook look a little run down to you?
10) Boston  (50-30): May be the worst-looking 50-win team going into the playoffs in history.
11) San Antonio  (49-31): Getting Ginobili extension another feather in owner Peter Holt's cap, which is full of feathers, if you didn't know already.
12) Portland  (49-31): Oh, boy: Roy says after game Sunday that knee "didn't feel right at all." Not good. Not good at all.
13) Milwaukee  (45-35): Hoping Chicago doesn't make playoffs; Bucks own Bulls' first-rounder, protected through 10.
14) Miami  (45-35): Riles says on the TV Friday that "we're going to try" to add free agents to surround Wade. Try? That's comforting.
15) Charlotte  (43-37): Jax said he wanted to come to town and lead Bobcats to playoffs. He, and Larry Brown, have done just that.
Dallas (3-0): Righting the ship just in time after a rough patch. Mavs have won six of eight and have their fate in their own hands after locking up the Southwest Division title with a win in Portland on Friday.
New Orleans (0-2): Losers of five straight overall, and out of the playoffs, this is a franchise with a lot of decisions to make in the offseason: who will be making the decisions in ownership, who will be the coach, who will be the GM, how much money can be spent acquiring players and how to improve the talent level around Chris Paul.
Did I really miss anything by not going to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament this year?
I usually try to get down to Portsmouth for a couple of days of the tournament, which used to unearth gems like Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, and still gave guys like Sacramento's Jon Brockman and Memphis' DeMarre Carroll their days in the sun last year. But the PIT annually struggles to get top college senior talent to play, and this year, well, stuff got in the way. So I have to rely on the kindness of crusty personnel types I trust to give me the skinny.
University of California guard Jerome Randle, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, won tournament MVP honors with 41 points and 26 assists in three games. He "can really play," one of the guys texted, "but he's tiny."
Rider guard Ryan Thompson, the younger brother of Kings forward Jason Thompson, had a huge first game with 37 points, and, for what it's worth, shot 57 percent from the floor in three games. "He played better than he did when I saw him during the year," one veteran scout texted. "But no Scottie Pippens discovered!"
Several of the scouts independently offered that there may have been one potential first-rounder in the pack: Alabama guard Mikhail Torrance, who averaged 17.3 points in three games and may have elevated his draft status with solid performances. "Mikhail Torrance is VERY, VERY good," texted a personnel boss. "Might be their first 1st rounder in a damn long time." (The last one, as far as I could tell, was Gerald Wallace, in 2001.)
Among the others who may have helped themselves, according to the scouts, were Texas A&M guard Donald Sloan, Louisiana-Lafayette forward Tyren Johnson, Western Kentucky guard A.J. Slaughter, Iowa State swingman Marquis Gilstrap, Michigan State swingman Raymar Morgan,Tulsa guard Ben Uzoh, North Carolina forward Deon Thompson and California small forward Patrick Christopher.
Busy week for the personnel types, who had to shuttle back between Virginia and Portland (no easy connection between the two, trust me), where the Nike Hoops Summit took place on Saturday. And, no, can't give you a report, as the Summit is comprised of U.S. and international players that are college-bound. One of them, though, will be the first pick in the 2011 Draft. I suspect you already probably know who that is.
You goin' to the Hall? Take the A Train. From Ollie Illacotti:
Dennis Rodman in the HOF is an interesting debate. However, not mentioning Artis Gilmore as yet another year goes by of him getting snubbed is disappointing to say the least. As a prominent member of the basketball media and potential voter you have the power to change this. Does Artis Gilmore have to die tragically like DJ to get into the HOF? Artis Gilmore's stats far surpass those who have been elected ahead of him. Is he constantly ignored because his best years were in the ABA? It sure doesn't seem to hurt those whose main accomplishments were in NCAA, WNBA, and overseas.
I agree with you, Ollie. So does my colleague Steve Aschburner, who penned this great piece asking that same question a couple of months ago. As Steve wrote, Gilmore is the only player in the top 35 in scoring in league history who isn't (or won't eventually be) in the Hall at the moment. The Train got Jacksonville University to the 1971 NCAA title game, led the Kentucky Colonels to the 1974-75 ABA title and to the '73 Finals, led the ABA in rebounds in each of his five seasons in that league, and was the anchor of several outstanding Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs teams in the late 1970s and early '80s after the merger. And he was a six-time NBA All-Star, too.
A Las Vegas expansion team would please me. From Isaac Bond:
With all this 2010 free-agency hoopla that will likely sputter save perhaps a few flares, it seems every fan is hyped on getting LeBron, Wade, and or Bosh on their squad. But I read journalists talking about what kind of moves would be best for the game, which presumably is best for the fans. These three players, along with the other talent in the free-agent pool, have helped the NBA recover from its dip in popularity since the player who still doesn't appear in video games retired. I know I'd love to see Bosh in Miami with Wade, even though I'm a Raptors fan, but my question is this: where do you think all these elite free agents should go if they based their decisions solely on what would generate and please fans?
I'm not sure there's a monolithic "fan" point of view, Isaac. You may not mind Bosh going to the Heat, but I suspect a lot of Raptors fans would. So it's a hard question to answer. Both big- and small-market cities need playoff contenders. In my opinion, it would be good for the league if most of the free agents, including LeBron, stayed where they are. They've built up brand identification and loyalty in those cities. But the NBA also needs representative teams in New York, Philly, Chicago and D.C. A perfect match: most, if not all, of the free agents stay put, and a bunch of big-market teams make some blockbusters. Maybe the Knicks could do a sign-and-trade with the Lakers for David Lee (Andrew Bynum?) and sign Carlos Boozer. Would the bargain-hunting Hornets give up young Darren Collison to the Wizards for high-scoring, low-salaried Andray Blatche? And if the Timberwolves can get an Evan Turner to shore up their nucleus, and the Nets can start their rebuilding in earnest with the first pick? That would be fine, too.
He's a little left (coast) leaning. From Michael Bergmann:
I've been following the NBA for about five years now and I've got trouble understanding the playoff rankings. Why does the NBA not simply put the best 16 teams on the court and lets them play each other. To put the best eight teams out of each conference into the playoffs doesn't improve the quality and the only reason that I can see is that there would be a higher chance of derbys (The reason that the teams would have to travel too much doesn't count anymore). If this rule would have been there (lastseason): Phoenix (46 wins) would have been in the playoffs and not Chicago (41) or Detroit (39). The same thing this year. Memphis and Houston are both better than Toronto and Chicago. So why is the NBA not changing this rule?
Many share your view, Michael. I'm afraid I don't. Awarding playoff spots strictly based on record would create logistical issues, even if you don't believe it. Under your scenario, you'd have to get rid of divisions (and conferences, for that matter); otherwise you'd have an imbalanced seeding format, with nine Western Conference teams making the playoffs, but only seven Eastern Conference teams. And that wouldn't work. So, under the "Top 16" format, Cleveland (the top seed) would play Houston (No. 16) in the first round. And the Lakers (No. 2) would play ... Charlotte (No. 15). Now, it's true that the first round is spread out, and everybody charters these days, so, no, travel would not be punitive. But it still wouldn't be fair for some teams to have to fly all the way across the country that early in the playoffs, while others didn't. Not to mention very expensive. All you're asking a team to do in the current system is be one of the top eight teams in a 15-team conference. No question, that's harder out West. But that's the cost of doing business in the big city.
LeBron James (19 ppg, 6 rpg, 13 apg, .385 FG, .900 FT): Played in only one game this week; after the Cavs had clinched home-court throughout the playoffs,coach Mike Brown opted to rest James the rest of the regular season. Understandable; "rest vs. rust" would not seem to be much of an argument here.
Dwight Howard (21.3 ppg, 12 rpg, 3.3 rpg): Stan Van Gundy thinks the "national media" is too hard on Superman. Maybe there have been critiques here and there, but not aware of any conspiracy among us NMs against Howard, considering he's going to get plenty of MVP votes and is a mortal lock for all-NBA first team, all-NBA first defensive team and a second straight Defensive Player of the Year award --honors all selected by the Notorious NM.
Kobe Bryant (20 ppg, 4 apg, 2 apg, .348 FG, .333 FT): Also played in just one game this week, with his finger and knee giving him problems. Which begs the question(s): given his injuries, and that he can't grip the ball the way he'd like, don't you have to make Kobe beat you from the field if you're playing the Lakers in the playoffs? Shouldn't the game plan to keep him off the line and stay at home as much as possible on the other Lakers, taking away his ability to impact the game with double-digit assists?
Kevin Durant (38.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, .450 FG, .944 FT): However this turns out for OKC, Durant is going to get a lot of attention in the next week -- from Ron Artest, or Shawn Marion, or Kenyon Martin -- on the biggest stage there is.
Dirk Nowtizki (33.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 0.67 apg, .552 FG, 1,000 FT): The Diggler is finishing with a flourish: 40 and 39 points on back-to-back nights at Portland and Sacramento, as the Mavs go to the whip hand in trying to secure second place. And he hasn't missed a free throw in two weeks, working on a streak of 68 consecutive free throws, breaking his own team record.
Dropped out: Carmelo Anthony.
21 -- Points per game for Chicago Stags guard Max Zaslofsky in the 1947-48 season, when Zaslofsky led the NBA in scoring average at the age of 22 years, 105 days. Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, 21 years and 195 days old this morning, would become, according to the league, the youngest player in league history to lead the league in scoring if he maintains his current edge (30.1 ppg to 29.7) over LeBron James.
34 -- Victories needed by Houston's Rick Adelman to break into the top 10 all-time in coaching victories. Adelman became the 11th coach in league history to win 900 games last week, and will likely pass Dick Motta (935 career wins) to get into the top 10 next season.
105 -- Career triple-doubles for Jason Kidd after Saturday's 11 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds against the Kings. At this pace, it would take Kidd another three seasons or so before he threatened Magic Johnson's 138 career triple-doubles, second on the all-time list to Oscar Robertson's 181.
1) Good for the league for admitting its officials missed a last-second foul by Utah's C.J. Miles on the Thunder's Kevin Durant at the end of Utah's 140-139 overtime win on Wednesday. No one expects perfection; only an acknowledgement of an obvious mistake. That was an obvious mistake.
2) Conversely, credit to ref Zach Zarba for not swallowing the whistle Sunday when Kobe clearly fouled Martell Webster in the final seconds of a tie game at Staples, giving Webster three free throws with 3.1 to play. Conspiracy believers, please take note: Kobe was called for a game-losing foul. At home.
3) Give the Bulls credit for not folding after a brutal loss Friday to the Nets, in which there was "miscommunication" about how much playing time the still-recovering Joakim Noah could have, and winning the game they had to have in convincing fashion Sunday in Toronto.
4) Excuse me for a minute.
John Wall, John Wall, John Wall, John Wall. Evan Turner, Evan Turner, Evan Turner, Evan Turner. DeMarcus Cousins, DeMarcus Cousins, DeMarcus Cousins, DeMarcus Cousins. Derrick Favors, Derrick Favors, Derrick Favors, Derrick Favors.
Now that each of those talented underclassmen has officially declared for the Draft, I can finally type their names in this space. Welcome, fellas. Enjoy the top five.
5) Praying for you, George Karl. Glad to hear you're done with chemo and radiation.
6) I have had many issues with Hornets owner George Shinn over the years, dating to his dealings with Charlotte before he moved the Hornets to the Big Easy. But when he could have tried to weasel his way out of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Shinn did the right thing and brought the Hornets back to their (new) hometown. He is continuing to do the right thing by selling the majority of the team to Gary Chouest, a local businessman who appears ready to do what it takes to keep the Hornets in New Orleans, while Shinn continues battling prostate cancer. All the best to him and his family.
1) Mamba, missing two at the line? In crunch? Seriously?
2) Nuggets lost their composure Saturday night against the Spurs. They've got to adjust to what they consider poor officiating and physical play. The playoffs will likely have a little of both. Somebody -- I'm looking at you, Chauncey Billups -- needs to get the guys in line before the weekend. (In a related story, after J.R. Smith drove around the prostrate body of teammate Carmelo Anthony, seemingly oblivious in his hunt for two more points, Chauncey Billups asked him the only possible question worth asking: "What were you thinking?")
3) Ah, Thunder. You finally played young on Sunday night, at the worst possible time, in losing to the Warriors. That might be costly, unless you come right back Monday night in Portland and take care of business.
4) Prayers to all the people of Poland, who lost their president, Lech Kaczynski, and 96 others when the president's plane crashed in western Russia on Saturday. Orlando's Marcin Gortat, a Pole, sent heartfelt Tweets out all weekend to his countrymen.
5) Um, if true, this doesn't sound good.
6) I'm TiVoing "Basketball Wives," Shaunie O'Neal's new reality show. I don't feel good about this, 'cause I like Shaunie and Shaq. But I will watch.
7) Did you get the feeling, watching Tiger's post-Masters interview on CBS, that he hasn't really changed much at all, despite pleading to the world over the last month that he was a new, and improved man, who had rearranged his priorities, and that winning or losing one golf tournament wasn't going to define him anymore?
Enjoying a laugh wit 1 of the most powerful Man in the world. Not bad 4 a kid from Robbins.
--Miami's Dwyane Wade (@dwadeofficial), Saturday, 11 a.m., detailing a moment with President Obama during a recent visit to D.C.
"I think he knows where his body is right now and where he should take it. You can't say. We're all hoping it could happen."
-- Kim Van Deraa, George Karl's life partner, on the increasingly unlikely chance that Karl will be healthy enough to return to the bench during the playoffs. Karl completed his chemotherapy treatments for neck and throat cancer last week, but faces weeks of recovery to let his body heal before doctors can determine how effective the radiation and chemo were in reducing or eliminating the tumor on his neck.
"They're grown men. They have to make their own decisions. They have to listen to what their bodies are telling them and make that call. But it's something I won't talk to them about."
-- Kobe Bryant, saying he's okay if LeBron James and Dwyane Wade decide not to play on the U.S. team at the World Championships in Turkey in late August.
"As an athlete, everyone always holds your hand. Nobody has been holding my hand the last few years. I do for myself. I challenged myself. I did something. I do the bills now. I wash dishes. Laundry. I'm the nanny."
-- Former player Kenny Anderson, in a very good read in the Miami Herald, discussing both how he burned through a fortune as a player, but how he is hanging in there, well enough to graduate at the end of this month with his college degree, at age 39.
Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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