The beginning of the new NBA
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Well, my preseason Finals teams are out. I think I had the Lakers and Magic or Celtics. The Celtics are hanging in, but who knows about Rajon Rondo after that horrific elbow injury. The question now, to paraphrase Casey Stengel, is can anybody here win a championship?
That is not to say whomever wins the title will be not deserving. Getting through two months and four playoff rounds produces the best team because it is so difficult. But this officially is the beginning of the new NBA. So let’s take a look at who can or cannot win.
-- Boston: They got off the canvas with the Game 3 win, but Rondo is hurt along with Delonte West. Kevin Garnett had a throwback game and scared the heck out of Chris Bosh. But they’re also vulnerable, in part, to what helped beat the Lakers, the stress of multiple long playoff runs with an old team. They don’t have home court advantage, which thwarted them last year against the Lakers, and did you see Shaq? It was sad. He looked 380 and could barely move. Quietly, and without the appropriate farewell for one of the greats of all-time, this probably is the end of O’Neal’s glorious career. It’s difficult to imagine him helping anyone again.
-- Miami: They look great. Until they don’t, like in Game 3. I know they have two of the top five or six players in the league, but they seem easy to game plan to me and help out opponents. If they push the ball they look unbeatable because if you don’t set your defense LeBron and Wade will shoot 15 free throws a game. Everyone screamed about LeBron not doing that in Cleveland. So they walk the ball up and have no identifiable offense other than multiple isolations for Wade and LeBron. The starting lineup gets outscored about every game until Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony come in and Mike Bibby keeps turning down threes to pass back to Wade or LeBron. Get back in transition and don’t turn over the ball and they can’t score 90 points, I don’t think.
-- Hawks: No, c’mon. But they’re already six wins past where I thought they might be. They set a season record for most blowout losses for a team with a winning record. And, yes, folks, they are among the last eight and tied 2-2 and saying why not us, even though their home fans boo one of their best players every time he shoots. No, really.
-- Mavs: They took out the two-time champs, and in a shocking sweep. They made them lose their composure and give up. Right, with maybe the worst starting lineup in the league. I know Dirk is a Hall of Famer. But Jason Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson, Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler? We’ve wondered all season if the Bulls could score enough with two scoring holes in the starting lineup in Keith Bogans and Joakim Noah. How about four? Yes, Kidd can make threes now, but no one is throwing him the ball.
--Thunder: The joke going around the NBA how is there is going to be a change in Defensive Player of the Year. It has to go to Russell Westbrook the way he is stopping Kevin Durant. The Thunder virtually ignore everyone else, and you can’t tell me you can’t run some stuff for Durant to get him shots just because Tony Allen is guarding him. But they couldn’t. Westbrook also is channeling the worst of Dwyane Wade lobbing for every foul call and rarely running back on defense in order to inform the officials of their mistakes.
-- Grizzlies: They have an impressive interior with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, now the best of the Gasols. Are the Lakers being haunted by having traded the right to Marc for Pau? Not to say this team was doubted, but owner Michael Heisley before the season predicted the team would make the playoffs. And was ridiculed. Yes, the goal was to be eighth.
The point is it’s now wide open. The teams that have dominated the last decade are either out or on the verge of being out. This is the first season of the new NBA, and just about anyone can win and needn’t apologize. When the former champion goes down, there’s always room for someone new whether expected or not. It’s time for them to begin creating their own history.
Was Atlanta really the best fit for Johnson?
-- Here’s a new feature I’ve been thinking about, the question of the week. This one would be: Who’s crazy? Joe Johnson or me? Johnson was supposed to be a Bull last summer, to some (me) the prime free agency target. I didn’t happen to believe the Bulls had any chance for LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. I generally bet place and show. I agree the Bulls had to take the shot, and the community certainly was behind that. Not that I believed Derrick Rose would be this season’s MVP (I did not). But I believed he was the star you could build around. I felt Johnson was the perfect complement, a legitimate All-Star who would spread the court for Rose. And you still could have added someone like Carlos Boozer or made due with Taj Gibson. I’m not saying the Bulls were wrong because they won 62 games and could still win the NBA title this season. It’s Johnson who made, in my view, the error of a lifetime.
Johnson again Sunday before Game 4 addressed the issue of re-signing with the Hawks instead of signing with the Bulls. “I wasn't really torn," Johnson told reporters. "I just took my time, weighed my options and figured out what I really wanted to do. Obviously, I thought (Chicago) was a good fit. There were a few places I thought was a good fit. I thought (Atlanta) was the best fit for me.”
This, of course, is a lie. Atlanta for Johnson was the “best fit” because they would pay him $30 million more over the life of his contract under NBA rules. My question is whether $30 million extra is reason. I mention this often around the NBA, and most seem to agree with Johnson. Johnson, at 29, could have signed a five-year deal with the Bulls worth about $95 million, but went for $126 million for six years with Atlanta. I always wonder what can you buy with that extra $30 million you can’t with a $95 million deal. I hear that taking care of your family thing, but unless they are the Saudi royal family, who, exactly, are we talking about?
Johnson had been telling friends around the NBA last season he wanted to join Rose, as they also share the same representation. He even was shocked when the Hawks, a franchise in financial trouble, came up with the biggest package for any free agent. I credit the Hawks. They kept their best player and made a commitment to the community to try to win. But the community still barely shows up for games and left so many open seats for Bulls fans that the MVP chants for Rose have drawn out cheers for the home team.
Frankly, the Hawks are going nowhere. Jamal Crawford likely will leave as a free agent and Kirk Hinrich will follow next summer. They have long contracts for underachievers like Marvin Williams and Josh Smith and no center. Frankly, Johnson would in my view have been ideal for the Bulls and filled out the team with another scorer to start, a deep shooter to spread the court and still with Joakim Noah. Your pro career is so relatively short isn’t being part of a great group what really matters and what you’ll treasure most? You can see how detached Johnson is just watching the Hawks. He hung out with several Bulls over the weekend in Atlanta. He’s with a franchise seemingly going nowhere and basically playing out his career for numbers. He chose the number $30 million. I’d say, sure, take the money and run if you don’t have any. But the alternative was $95 million after the $50 million contract he was finishing. Your career should be the best time in your life. It never will be better than being on a great team doing great things. Anyone who has been on a team like that at any level treasures those memories the rest of their life. Everyone always says you cannot turn down the money if it’s that big. I ask why not? Who’s dumber, Joe or I? Of course, if the Hawks beat the Bulls, we’d surely have that answer, I guess.
Lakers' Jackson swept away in career finale
-- Yes, it was an unpleasant conclusion for the apparent end of Phil Jackson’s magnificent coaching career with the Lakers, being swept and Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum losing their composure and going out, as one fan wrote me, in a way that only the 1991 Pistons would admire. We, of course, could all see this coming in retrospect, which is when we are the best analysts. I had the Lakers as favorites this season even as I knew the issues they faced and brought them down. It’s tough to pick against the team that has done the most. But as I saw vividly with the Bulls’ three-peats of the 1990s and Michael Jordan understood better than all of us: You go to the Finals three straight seasons, as the Lakers did, and it’s mentally and physically debilitating, one reason Jordan left after both times. Plus, playing in the summers for USA Basketball or their national team, like several Lakers did.
Also, with success comes distraction, especially in L.A., and the Lakers fell victim. Odom clearly undermined the team with the reality show with wife Khloé Kardashian. It was shocking to read these comments in the L.A. Times last week from Kardashian: "We literally film our shows seven days a week for 12 to 18 hours a day. They want you to be at your wit's end and tired. I think he thought we could send the cameras away whenever you want, but you can't.” Odom did ask for some accommodations, but it’s still a fulltime other job. "By the third or fourth day, I realized how tough and demanding it was going to be. I was like, 'I don't think I could do this,'" Odom said. "But we worked through it. What I do is, like, usually on a game day, I won't film, because I have to have my mind in a certain place and I have to rest my body."
Then there was Ron Artest with his new mental health awareness gig and beginning to predictably melt down under the pressure, as he did the second year in Indiana as well, and was suspended during the series. What I saw was a team that was done and only Kobe Bryant, maybe Derek Fisher, and certainly Phil who basically cared anymore. When Jackson popped Pau Gasol to get his attention you saw the competitor in Phil that most make light of given his detached aura. But as a player for championship teams and coach who came up the dues paying way Phil went down proud in doing everything he could, trying to push his team and truly caring when so many around him did not. Jackson always was a fierce competitor, though he diverted attention from it, I always felt, because losing was so painful. It was something of his defense mechanism. But I’d hear stories from his family of brutal board games played like the seventh game of the Finals. Remember, Phil played for great Knicks champions of the early ‘70s, and his elbows were as feared as any weapon of the era. I do believe Jackson won’t be a head coach in the NBA again as I know the travel and routine have worn badly on him. But he’s a lifer in the game and I cannot imagine him not being around in some way.
As for the Lakers, I’m sure the community just assumes Dwight Howard is on the way. But for all those teams like the Knicks also thinking they are luring stars I believe that era will be over. More than half the teams in the league are going into this labor fight committed to have some sort of severe penalty for the stars to dump teams, like a max deal of maybe $100 million if you stay and $50 million if you go. It’s one thing binding the small market teams and big markets that have stars already but who aren’t signed to long term deals yet. Though most around the NBA still predict Howard will leave Orlando, I believe that changes after the labor deal.
The Lakers really need some rest. They’re still going to be good with the team they have and I doubt they’ll make major changes. Yes, I know they brought in 10 new players and a new coach, including trading Shaquille O’Neal, when they lost to the Pistons in 2004. But with their $90 million plus payroll they could be one of the teams hurt the most coming out of the labor deal with little way to add players. Gasol and Bynum’s value is at a low point with Bynum’s injury history and Gasol’s declining play late. I’ve heard rumors about LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden for Howard and Gasol and Bynum for Howard with the idea being the Magic can get two big men in an East essentially without them and dump Howard on a Lakers’ team in decline as Kobe ages. I think the dynasty era of the NBA is over and the league and the new labor agreement is going to do a lot more to level the playing field NFL style. All good things, as they say. The Lakers are nearing the end and the Celtics had almost 20 years of bad teams. It comes for everyone and it will come for the Lakers as Bryant continues his decline.
NBA news and notes
-- The draft lottery is coming up next week and it sounds like Kyrie Irving and Derrick Williams are one-two with international big men like Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas, Jan Vesely and Bismack Biyombo and collegians Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker, Tristan Thompson and Alec Burks in the lottery and Jimmer Fredette on the fringe. The predraft camp is in Chicago again starting May 18. … In the Sporting News executive of the year award vote, Pat Riley was first with 14 votes and the Bulls Gar Forman second with 11, pretty remarkable given the consensus coming into the season. … We’ve seen this dynamic all season with Chris Bosh as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade do basically all their interviews, even shootaround now, together, as well as postgame, with Chris Bosh alone. Bosh told the South Florida Sun Sentinel last week it’s fine with him. "I like to get dressed faster," Bosh said. "They [James and Wade] sit around and talk, they ice their knees, they chill, get treatment. They're slowly getting dressed, and I'm like, 'I'm outta here. My reservations are at 10:45. I'm hungry.' For me, I'm not afraid to dance to the beat of my own drum. There are things I like to do on my own. When it's time to come together as a unit, we come together as a unit." Bosh says he’s comfortable, and if the Heat win the title or get to the Finals his decision would seem justified. But it doesn’t exactly seem like a great team experience.
-- I, frankly, cannot see it. But Ray Allen has a $10 million option with the Celtics. He can opt out, and you’d love to have a threat like him, but not too many teams are going to have $10 million to spend. You assume he plays it out with Boston, though few expect Doc Rivers to return. The latest speculation has Rivers going to the Knicks after sitting out a season and watching his likely future No. 1 overall pick son at Duke. The top free agents whose teams cannot match given opt outs as well include Tim Duncan (no one believes he’d leave), Nene, David West (coming off knee surgery and probably opting in), Tyson Chandler (nice timing), Kris Humphries, Tayshaun Prince, Jason Richardson, Shane Battier, Jamal Crawford, Carl Landry, Marcus Thornton, Kenyon Martin, Glen Davis, Willie Green, Andrei Kirilenko, Caron Butler and Yao Ming. … Russell Westbrook was one of seven with five turnovers in the fourth quarter and overtime of the Thunder’s Game 3 loss and facing the most scrutiny of his young career. It was especially embarrassing as earlier in the game he was miming holstering a pistol after making shots and striking poses after scoring. You wonder if the Thunder would want to trade him for more of a playmaking guard as it seems clear Westbrook would like to be the No. 1 guy on his team. … Ever wonder about turf toe? I do. Now. Or what those trainers and team doctors do when players are rushed off the court and seemingly miraculously return? Bulls team physician Dr. Brian Cole with Steve Kashul will be answering those and a bunch more questions in a new radio show starting May 14 on WMVP-1000. It’s Sports Medicine Weekly and an interesting concept given all the medical mumbo jumbo we try to sort through with injuries and even injury reports for your fantasy leagues.
-- Sometimes in retrospect, things don’t look as bad. Bernie Bickerstaff finished off 33-39 for the Bobcats, Larry Brown was 35-47 and Paul Silas was 34-48 in the season picking up for Brown. The Bobcats made the playoffs just one season under Brown, 2009-10. So Sam Vincent’s 32-50 wasn’t all that unexceptional in comparison. I caught up with Vincent lately as he’s trying to get back into the NBA as an assistant while running a retired players chapter in Orlando. “I was able to feel better about the job we did,” said Vincent. “I felt bad about letting Michael down, but it would have been great to have a chance to what we were building on.”… Also looking for another round in the NBA is former Bulls assistant general manager Jim Stack who was last with the Timberwolves. Stack is doing commentary now for the Big 10 network. Stack, as Jerry Krause’s top talent advisor, helped Krause assemble the pieces to complement Michael Jordan and lead to the Bulls’ six championships. But Stack says no one realizes how close that team was to being broken up and heading who knows where. “It was very fragile,” recalls Stack, who was instrumental in the Kevin Love acquisition in Minnesota as assistant to Kevin McHale. “Michael publicly said a lot of things about the Oakley trade. He and Bill (Cartwright) did not coexist until we won that first championship. Michael was politicking hard for Walter Davis. Jerry sent me to watch him and I felt Walter was done defensively. He was an undersized three. So we signed Cliff (Levingston). Detroit was pummeling us, but that was adding the physical dimension. Cleveland also had that big lineup with Nance, Williams and Daughtery Walter couldn’t play against. MJ publicly called everyone out. Cliff did not have the skills for the triangle, but he was a banger and runner. He brought us energy and toughness and that elevated everyone else. But if we had stubbed our toe that (1990-91) season that would have been a long summer. Michael said we weren’t good enough and then we didn’t make moves at the trading deadline. But after that Cliff started to earn the trust and we played better. Cliff helped us match up physically with those guys’ second units. Scottie and Horace had the athletic talent, but were not enforcers. We needed some guys like Cliff and Scott Williams, the kinds of guys when you walk into an alley you want to walk next to. We had a finesse team. Getting those two guys, the skills didn’t translate in the triangle, but we got the toughness and rebounding and defensive ability. It made Scottie and Horace feel tougher. Detroit had been punking us. We didn’t have the toughness and maturity to stand toe to toe. But we addressed the physical game and everything went from there.”