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Sam Smith: I’m Back

Prominent and longtime Chicago sports journalist Sam Smith's weekly columns on the NBA have returned just in time for the 2008-09 season.
Sam Smith at Bulls.com

Sam Smith: I'm Back


LeBron James "It's all about stars, and the Cavs have the East's biggest," writes Smith of LeBron James.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

I'm back! No, not him.

I'm back and so are the Bulls, who should win their seventh NBA championship this season. Bet you think the Bulls made me say that. Nah, just wanting to see who's paying attention. You should because Monday again will be the best day to read about the NBA, at least here.

As for the Bulls, let's say my prediction of a top two finish in the Eastern Conference last season was a bit off. At least I didn't have Scott Skiles as coach of the year. Though I did pick the Boston Celtics to win the East. Whew on that one. I'm not as sanguine on the Celtics this season. Nor, certainly, the Bulls, who have a shot at eighth in the East, though it may be a long one.

I've got six Eastern locks for the playoffs: Boston, Detroit, Cleveland and Orlando, my top four, followed by Philadelphia and Toronto. Atlanta should get No. 7, though that's hardly a guarantee with their karma. And then the Bulls, Bucks and Heat figure to have a shot at that last spot. You'd give it to the Wizards, though without Brendan Haywood all season and Gilbert Arenas for about half the season, it's difficult to see them hanging in.

In the West, I'm looking for someone to take out the Lakers, but can't seem to find anyone.

So I'm saying Lakers, Hornets, Jazz and Rockets in the top four with the Spurs, Mavs, Suns and Clippers figuring out the final four playoff spots.

The Finals? Lakers and Bulls. Just making sure you're still reading. Nah, not this year. Or next. Or the one after that?

I actually think the Cavs have a shot again as it's Michael Jordan time for LeBron James. In his sixth season, he's looking ready to take over and carry a team like Jordan did with the Bulls. It's time for that first MVP award. Or perhaps it will be the Pistons, who-and I shudder to say this-appear to have the most stable team. Yes, that being the team with Rasheed Wallace. Yes, I really wrote that. Though it is the internet and they say you can get away with saying anything there.

The Celtics? Oh, yeah, big three. I know Kevin Garnett will never back off and Paul Pierce seems to care more when things are going well. But they're all into their early 30's with lots of minutes piled up and Ray Allen seeming to slide with last season's playoff run. Did they really win a championship playing Big Baby Davis and Leon Powe? Their bench seems a mess and they'll miss James Posey. Hey, but they got one title, and who figured that was possible?

So make it Lakers over the Cavs. A classic: Radmanovic over Ilgauskas. OK, OK, Kobe over LeBron. Good stuff.

Here's a look at how they should finish this season. I could be wrong, but I'll explain that later, and I'm quite sure it won't be my fault.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Cavaliers.

Mo Williams is not Scottie Pippen, and Anderson Varejao isn't Horace Grant. But I can see Varejao in the googles. But this James guy really is good, and I think finally, truly ready. There's never been anything like him. He's maybe an inch shorter, maybe, and 10 pounds lighter than Karl Malone. They're using James some at power forward this season, which is a terrific idea making him an amazing fast break not needing an outlet pass. He's the most unstoppable player ever in the open court. It's all about stars, and the Cavs have the East's biggest.

2. Pistons.

Flip Saunders is a good coach, but this, tough veteran group walked all over him and when they needed to they couldn't get serious enough. It won't happen with Michael Curry even in his first job. They're moving in good young players like Rodney Stuckey, Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell to complement the vets. And general manager Joe Dumars usually has a good move in him. Don't be surprised if the big trading deadline prize this season is Rasheed Wallace. He's run his course in Detroit and someone close will see him as the final piece.

3. Magic.

My Magic kingdom for a point guard? They'd be a championship contender if they had one. Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis is the conference's best front line. They're hoping Mickeal Pietrus from Golden State can be a backcourt defensive stopper, but it's not a good sign that J.J. Redick is playing more. They'll win their division, the league's worst, easily.

4. Celtics.

They lost more than they got in James Posey and P.J. Brown with Patrick O'Bryant and Bill Walker coming in. Tony Allen back from injury will help some. But champions need to evolve. Kevin Garnett won't let them get lazy, like Shaq did in Miami. But I don't see the plus 30's big three, all perimeter players basically, holding up again like they did.

Boston Celtics "Kevin Garnett won't let them get lazy, like Shaq did in Miami. But I don't see the plus 30's big three, all perimeter players basically, holding up again like they did," predicts Smith.
(Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images)

5. 76ers.

This is the intriguing team, coming from nowhere last season to steal a few playoff games from the Pistons and then stealing Elton Brand from the Clippers. If they had some perimeter shooting—other than Donyell Marshall and Kareem Rush, who won't play much—they could crack the top four. Their rise was from playing fast, but now they'll want to drop it into Brand and their spacing will look like rush hour on the El. And Brand, really, needs to step back and shoot his jumper because of his size.

6. Raptors.

Having a potential All Star high low game with Chris Bosh and Jose Calderon gives them a chance. I don't see Jermaine O'Neal giving them much and Andrea Bargnani remains a mystery to what he is. If the three big guys could play, they might have something. Though the most interesting dynamic remains the relentless friction between coach Sam Mitchell and GM Bryan Colangelo.

7. Hawks.

They have Mike Bibby for the whole season, Joe Johnson would be a huge star if not in NBA witness protection there and Al Horford is the kind of role playing star everyone loves. Though they still wait for Marvin Williams' potential and Josh Smith's maturity, neither of which is likely ever to appear.

8. Heat.

You've got to give it to them because of Wade, who seems healthy again. If he's back to star status, they could make a jump. They have Shawn Marion on his final contract season and high scoring and apparently still wacky rookie Michael Beasley. In the new mini basketball, they can get away with Udonis Haslem at center. Shaun Livingston is starting to play again and if he can hold up they might have enough to keep Wade from thinking there's no way he can play with that goofy Beasley.

9. Bulls.

Derrick Rose. Derrick Rose. Derrick Rose. He's the best rookie I've seen this season. Sorry, Greg Oden. Look, this is the roster that was in the second round two seasons ago and without Ben Wallace, which can only help. But Ben Gordon is in a pout and there's too many guards and nobody in the post and Rose doesn't even know how to play yet. But there is something there.

10. Bucks.

This will be the ultimate test for Scott Skiles. He makes teams better. He's proven that, especially on defense. But he really has some historically bad defensive players, like Andrew Bogut, Luke Ridnour, Michael Redd and Charlie Villanueva, which, oops, happens to be 80 percent of his starting lineup.

11. Knicks.

They'll be better because Mike D'Antoni thinks differently. Everyone in the NBA basically tries to do what everyone else does as a way of keeping their jobs. There always are a few who'll try it differently, and D'Antoni will. He's not unlike Don Nelson in some ways, putting players in different positions and getting the defense to react. He's already not being fooled into thinking Eddy Curry will try, so give him that.

12. Wizards.

The injuries will be too much. What, don't they have doctors there. How do you pay Arenas more than $100 million and lose him to surgery again? There are way too many perimeter players, anyway, for them to really be taken seriously even when healthy.

13. Pacers.

They're going to be bad. OK, that's the down side. But their players aren't going to be arrested. It's something. Like with Portland and its so called Jailblazers, you have to start somewhere, so they offloaded the problem guys and told Jamaal Tinsley to take the year off with play. They're hoping, as we all are, that T.J. Ford can remain healthy.

14. Nets.

Vince Carter is the only player on the roster with a career scoring average in double figures. They held onto Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson too long and didn't get enough. Now they've got a pile of big guys to sort out, though hardly anyone came to watch them when they were good, so why bother?

15. Bobcats.

What a way for Larry Brown to end his career. The Knicks and now this, though it all paid well. They have a mess of a roster, an absentee owner and general manager and why the heck did they draft another small guard? Hello, is anyone home?

WESTERN CONFERENCE:

1. Lakers.

Remember, they went to the Finals without Andrew Bynum, and he looks to be all the way back. Their problem, if you can call it that, is Lamar Odom. They probably could use a true small forward instead of now using Vladimir Radmanovic, and figure Odom in his final contract season will be trade bait for one in midseason. Maybe Memphis hands them Rudy Gay since the Grizzlies are now believed to be an official Lakers' farm team after the Pau Gasol trade.

2. Hornets.

They're the trendy pick for the Finals or a championship this season with a so called big three of Chris Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler. Yes, our Tyson. A big three guy? Well, he says he can make a shot now, so we'll see. He led the league in lob dunks from his point guard last season, and that someone keeps track of that lets us know the game is headed the wrong way. But Paul shows an organization what having a great point guard can mean.

3. Jazz.

The other point guard. That's Deron Williams. He's got an inside guy in Carlos Boozer, whom I don't see leaving after this season. His supposed stop, Miami, is filled with undersized big guys. I like them moving Andrei Kirilenko to power forward, his real position, so he'll play off the bench. I love this stat: Jerry Sloan teams have had a losing preseason record once in the last 18 years. Yeah, they guy doesn't want to lose at anything, and his teams have to play like that.

4. Rockets.

I'm buying in, but just a little. How's this for a big three: Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming and Ron Artest combined have been out of the first round of the playoffs once in their careers. And that was Artest with the Pacers, when he melted down and began skipping practices and team flights when the pressure rose. Ron doesn't deal well with stress. But he seems to be comfortable with Rick Adelman and they've got a terrific bench of workers.

5. Spurs.

It's not Tim Duncan. We still think he's great. But Manu Ginobili is out perhaps two months with that ankle surgery after reinjuring it in the Olympics. He remains the poster child for what international offseason play can do to a team. They could even end up farther down than this and looking at a really bad first round playoff matchup. Their time is coming to an end, as happens with everyone.

6. Mavs.

This will be the great test case. You've got to let Jason Kidd go. Or let him go. Kidd is useless if a team doesn’t play high tempo. Rick Carlisle not only likes to call every play, but when to drink water and dry yourself with a towel. If he can relax off the break, they could be interesting with a team that's been together.

7. Clippers.

Here's another hands on coach in Mike Dunleavy who needs to let go. If he does and Baron Davis remain healthy—yes, big ifs—they have something with Marcus Camby, Chris Kamen, Al Thornton and rookie Eric Gordon.

8. Suns.

There's usually nothing as difficult as managing an aging superstar. And now the Suns want to direct more of the offense to and through Shaquille O'Neal and start giving Steve Nash games off to rest without a legitimate backup. They wanted to be under the radar some, but this probably isn't what they had in mind.

9. Trail Blazers.

So I'm not convinced yet. Greg Oden hasn't struck me yet as ready for the NBA and there isn't a point guard there. They are the young roster that is the envy of the league, and they are inching up on getting in the mix. But they still continue to work in too many new and young pieces to be consistent enough.

10. Nuggets.

Coach George Karl says he's not taking any guff this time. Really. No, really. But he's still got Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson and Kenyon Martin. Good luck. Iverson is in his final contract season and will be a prime trade candidate shortly. Expect Karl to yell at J.R. Smith a lot since he's scared of the rest of the team.

11. Warriors.

And there goes your backcourt: Baron Davis to the Clippers as a free agent after Warriors management blew the negotiation by circumventing GM Chris Mullin and Monta Ellis driving badly on a scooter. What, I thought all the kids used skateboards. So they've got a bunch of head down shooters with Corey Maggette on board and will run around and score, like usual. They do have two good looking young big men in Brandan Wright and Anthony Randolph whom Don Nelson won't use.

12. Kings.

Reggie Theus is proving himself a good coach and got a lot more out of that group than expected. The backcourt isn't bad with Kevin Martin and Beno Udrih and they have a bunch of big guys wandering around. They're not going anywhere, though the owner probably would like to take them to Las Vegas.

13. Timberwolves.

Could Kevin McHale actually have been paying attention? Nah. Kevin Love is looking a bit like someone only a coach can love. But Mike Miller's a good addition, Randy Foye seems back from injury, and they offloaded a bunch of bad contracts, including Antoine Walker. And, by the way, that Al Jefferson can play.

14. Grizzlies.

They should get some entertainment from a perimeter of Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay, but there's nothing inside and if you think the Bulls have too many guards, they may be lending their point guards out to Dancing with the Stars. That's right, they'll be the ones looking for stars to be with.

15. Thunder.

Huh? Oh, yeah, Oklahoma City. All of us who traveled around the NBA will miss the Seattle waterfront. This is way worse than New Orleans going to Salt Lake City. It's a mess of a team, but it's doubtful the fans will care much. Heck, it's almost time for spring football practice. Kevin Durant is good and Russell Westbrook should be.

-- That injury to Larry Hughes was unfortunate. Of course, the joke going around with the Bulls crowded backcourt is the unfortunate part is it wasn't longer. But it may have been unfortunate for a bigger reason. I heard the Washington Wizards, with Gilbert Arenas out probably half the season, have been looking for ways to hold it together until then and have interest in Hughes. There supposedly were some talks with Etan Thomas (scheduled to start the opener as a showcase?) leaving Washington. There'll still be $6 million for the Wizards to make up, and perhaps that would include Darius Songaila, whom the Bulls liked when they had him. I heard the Bulls had talks this summer for the Wizards' Oleksiy Pecherov in a multi-team transition, but that faded. This one makes some sense for both teams and might be workable if Hughes can return from his shoulder injury quickly. He has his beat seasons in Washington and remains close with Arenas. The Bulls desperately need to unclog their guard logjam to give Derrick Rose more opportunities. Thomas never has worked out in Washington and rookie JaVale McGee, the Chicagoan, has been a pleasant surprise for the Wizards.

-- So is Greg Oden washed up? Hey, it's never to soon to try to wreck a guy's career. That's what they mean about the pros being a tougher world. The Next Great Big Man has come under some critical scrutiny—even in loving Portland—with some very uninspired play in the preseason. He hasn't played for a year, so we have to give the kid a break. He's averaged 11.5 points and 7.8 assists in 23.7 minutes in the preseason. Which is OK, but not Russell, Chamberlain, Hakeem and Shaq, who he was supposed to be. To be fair, he never said that. He's got two blocks in six games. His offense basically is getting the ball deep and dunking. But even the writer who follows the team used words like "awkward," "nondescript" and "lumbered." Brandon Roy and coach Nate McMillan were quoted saying Oden is just too tight and tense.

But people close to Oden know what's wrong. Generally, big men, despite their menacing demeanor, tend to be the most sensitive NBA players. Remember Wilt saying, "Nobody loves Goliath." Oden isn't a natural leader; just a natural talent. He needs support. He needs Mike Conley, his old running buddy and the son of his agent.

Conley, of course, is the Memphis Grizzlies' starting point guard, though one of four point guards they have and hardly irreplaceable on a contending team. The Trailblazers, without a point guard, are dying to get Conley. So far the price has been LaMarcus Aldridge. Too high for Portland.

But at some point, if it's going to mean the development and happiness of the Next Great Thing, they may have to. This is also something to watch. Rudy Fernandez looks like he could be a star, and Memphis is trying to collect them. The Trailblazers appear to have some great young talent in reserve, like Nicholas Batum, who looks like he's being showcased, and Jerryd Bayless. And if they were willing to take Darko off the hands of the Grizzlies, who knows. Maybe even Antoine Walker. There could be something there, and I have the feeling Oden may not be all he can be without Conley.

-- So the Bulls need a big man in the middle, a post presence who can draw a double team and just over a season ago was averaging about 20 points per game. Well, Eddy Curry can be had. Been there, endured that. The former Bull has been banished by new coach Mike D'Antoni, and few survive those banishments. One of D'Antoni's major issues leading to leaving the Suns was his refusal to play much more than an eight-play rotation. Once he settles, he's pretty much done. So Curry is. Plus, D'Antoni likes Jared Jeffries, injured again, and when he returns he'll get the D'Antoni treatment by playing inside as D'Antoni enjoys showing his critics, who say he'll never win, they don't know what the heck they are doing as he believes Jeffries always played out of position on the perimeter.

Curry, surprise, surprise, hasn't been well conditioned. The story going around the league is Curry sat on a medicine ball in camp and it exploded. I'm not sure I believe that. But I'm not saying it couldn't happen, either.

-- Is that Nellie's knife sticking out of Chris Mullin's back. He wouldn't be the first. I vastly enjoy Nelson's coaching style, but the reason he's not in the Hall of Fame as he moves to become the winningest NBA coach of all time is the way he's undermined his sponsors. Early advovates Wayne Embry and Norm Sonju don't speak to him anymore. He's been in lawsuits with virtually all his bosses, the latest Mark Cuban. It was Warriors general manager Mullin who brought Nelson back despite a previous ugly dispute and suit with Warriors owner Chris Cohan. Mullin has done amagnificent job in bringing back the Warriors and making going to their games one of the league's best experiences. But now team president Robert Rowell, seemingly with Nelson's support as Nelson now has an extension and Mullin doesn't, has taken more control. And already making a mess of things. Baron Davis tells friends he had agreed to a three-year deal with Mullin when Rowell interfered and Davis opted for the Clippers. Now Rowell has the team in a dispute with Monta Ellis after his moped accident, which he stupidly lied to the team about. Mullin urged compromise while Rowell sought punishment as Rowell also reupped Stephen Jackson to make him the team leader (what?) without involving Mullin. If they don't keep Mullin to reign in Nelson, it will be a disaster for the Warriors and Nelson will walk away with his money as he's always done and another organization in tatters.

--Michael Beasley looks like he'll be good. But he may not be that classic postup threat. Beasley is telling South Florida media he prefers face up play because of the size of NBA power forwards. "Most of our offense has me in the 15-foot area," Beasley said. "Playing against guys that are huge, I would rather face 'em up." But he really can score…Boston rookie Bill Walker is making a name for himself—in the wrong way—with shots, cheap say the victims, with Yao Ming and LeBron James…Ron Artest says he picked his new No. 96 because it looks closest to the letters "q" and "b" for his Queensbridge area in New York where he is from….the Grizzlies have told Antoine Walker he won't play but won't be released unless he settles for a buyout and less than his entire contract. Walker said he won't…the Nuggets have formerly substance-banned Chris Andersen in their rotation, and the amusing part is he seems perhaps the most reliable…the Bobcats probably would be releasing Sean May because of injuries and poor conditioning if he wasn't on a guaranteed deal. And they'd absoluately love to be rid of Adam Morrison, the two big collegiate stars from the 2005-06 college season along with J.J. Redick, likely to barely have NBA career. Once again, Larry Brown is raving over role players like Andre Brown and you think, Jackie Butler. But it could be worse, and it has been. The rumor is the players last season were in such a war with coach Sam Vincent they locked him out of the locker room at halftime several times.

-- Last season, Chris Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler combined to average 53.5 points, 24.6 rebounds and 14.9 assists. Those figures compare favorably to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen at 55.8 points, 18 rebounds and 11 assists, and Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker at 57.6 points, 19.3 rebounds and 13.3 assists. "We are starting to rise to the top of the league, as you say, the big three, and one of the best big-three talents," Chandler told New Orleans media…….this can't be good. With injuries, the Kings recruited assistant coach Randy Brown to play in practice. Though he's an idea. The Kings have a glut of (not exactly great) big man, and young ones. I can see Mikki Moore becoming available and he might be a nice pickup….good for Carlos Boozer, who wore a Scooby-Doo bandage over a cut on his face. "My little man picked out the bandage," Boozer explained to Utah media. Having watched the shows (just for research, of course), we know Boozer to be tougher and less hungrier for snacks.

-- So there is a Barney Fife. That would be Harrison (N.Y.) police chief David Hall. I don't know what happened in the overdose at Isiah Thomas' house. I don't know if it was Thomas or his daughter, as Thomas told the New York Post. What I do know is the family deserves privacy in such a circumstance and not some bumpkin cop telling New York tabloids Thomas is a liar and how his highly trained force knows the difference between a 47-year-old man and young woman. OK, Thomas wasn't a winning coach or general manager in New York. But he wasn't a criminal. He did charity work in the city. He never personally embarrassed the organization. No one deserved the ugly chanting and hysterical media coverage he received. He's quietly remained in the background and done nothing to embarrass the organization since being replaced. Someone in his family may be suffering, whether he or someone else. You may not expect compassion from the media there. But at least a public servant can show some modicum of decency and not engage in a tabloid debate. It's hardly the business or the role of the people paid to protect you. You wonder if they even gave that guy Hall a bullet for his holster. You hope they didn't.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors.