Kobe Bryant and the Lakers still the team to beat
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It is now time to take a look at the NBA and the strength of teams. The trading deadline—one of the most active ever—has passed and there isn’t likely to be any major changes in landscape after potential buyouts this week. As the NBA turns into the home stretch, here is a look at how it might look when the 2010-11 season and playoffs come to a conclusion.
1. Lakers: I still believe they are the team to beat. Sure, they’ve stumbled at times, but no team is in better position to turn it up after coasting through a season riding two championships. They have the three big men and Kobe, and that’s tough to counter.
2. Celtics: I’m hesitant after the Kendrick Perkins trade. I thought their edge was their size and physical play inside, and if they think they can play small with fake tough guy Kevin Garnett at center, forget it. And Shaq at center for more than 18 minutes? But they do have Pierce, Allen, Rondo and KG. Still, they are more vulnerable than a week ago.
3. Spurs: Just a solid team, strong coaching, disciplined with offensive talent and depth. I’m not sure they have the interior size and physical play to stand up in the end counting too much on DeJuan Blair. But they’re going to give anyone a series with Ginobili and Parker healthier than in years.
4. Bulls: The surprise of the Big Four, if that’s what you can call it. This suggests a conference finals appearance, though it’s tough to extrapolate that far for a team that’s never been out of the first round as comprised. They are built for the playoffs with defense and an offensive star and have size with Omer Asik and Taj Gibson off the bench. They’ll scare teams.
5. Thunder: Obviously, this depends on Kendrick Perkins returning to full health to give them the missing big man to throw at the Lakers and Spurs with a more traditional lineup with Serge Ibaka at power forward. They have the finishers with Durant and Westbrook, and they’ll finish with shooter James Harden to balance the offense.
6. Mavericks: It just seems Dirk never is going to get back to the Finals. Can Caron Butler get back? Their fate probably depends on that after not being able to do anything at the deadline, though the way they talk about Roddy Beaubois, you assume Jordan will soon admit he’s no longer the best ever.
7. Heat: They’re not built for playoff basketball with not enough size and no real guard to direct the offense unless they can pick up someone on a buyout this week. They’re best in transition, and you get fewer such opportunities in the playoffs. They shoot way too many isolation jumpers and threes.
8. Magic: And poof, there goes a window of opportunity. What do you know, Dwight Howard does learn a shot, and now no one else can make one. It’s a dangerously unathletic team relying way too much on jump shooting, and we know that grave. They’ll need Gilbert Arenas to make a miracle recovery, which seems past. But they have tried.
That, by the way, ends the list of teams that seem to have even the remotest chance of making it to the NBA Finals.
9. Hornets: They made one of the better deadline moves in picking up the tough Carl Landry, much misused with the Kings. They get Okafor back and if Chris Paul’s knee gets better they can get back to the second round, perhaps. But they don’t seem built for going very far, other than out of Louisiana.
10. Hawks: Made a good deadline week move for Kirk Hinrich, who isn’t the classic point. But he’ll supply some toughness they lack other than Al Horford and might be able to help on the guy who keeps getting by Jamal Crawford. They still play too much AAU style ball: Great when hitting; bored when missing.
11. Grizzlies: I liked the solidifying move with Shane Battier. Faced with losing Zach Randolph, they kept their core and even still have O.J. Mayo despite their best intentions. They’ve played way below their talent all season and if Rudy Gay can come back strong they could give someone first round nightmares. Assuming, of course, Rudy and Zach actually pass to one another at least once.
12. Suns: Another good deadline move for the unhappy—it’s winter; lots of people are—point guard, Aaron Brooks. Gives them some thrust with the ageless Grant Hill and Steve Nash. What a delight to watch those two. And with Gortat they even get some rebounds.
13. Trail Blazers: They added some talent with Gerald Wallace, though all those falls over the years are breaking him down. Hard to say how much they can get from Brandon Roy, but by holding onto Andre Miller they decided to do as much as they can for this season, which will only be so much.
14. Knicks: I don’t think it’s going to work, even with Sunday’s excellent win in Miami as you’ve got a fast break coach with half court players. That aside, I don’t see where they can add another top player, let alone Chris Paul. The Knicks have two huge contracts in Stoudemire and Anthony under the old rules, meaning about $40 million annually. With the cap going down to maybe $53 million or $54 million in a new deal, it seems unlikely they can add another high salaried player. Plus, the more Anthony dominates the ball, the less Stoudemire likely will enjoy things. It’s the great experiment.
15. 76ers: A dangerous team, as they are starting to believe. Their defense has moved into the top 10 and they’ve come off likely the most devastating last second losses early in the season to be able to finish games. They learned more than any you don’t die with a bad loss.
16. Jazz: They took the advice of Branch Rickey, which few do, of better to trade a year too soon than a year too late. They’d peaked with Deron Williams, who had checked out on the organization. He’d been telling friends around the league he was done with the team after they let Boozer, Korver, Matthews and Brewer go. So the Jazz got some future possibilities and a better present atmosphere.
17. Nuggets: They created the flexibility to have perhaps a better future than Anthony. Though their hand was forced, they got enough plays and future cap space to continue making moves, and Gallinari is very underrated.
18. Rockets: They are the ultimate big dreamer going nowhere. They’ve got a mess of a mediocre roster filled with duplication. Sure, you lose Yao and it takes time to recover, but you figure Rick Adelman has had enough and they keep promising more than they’re capable of doing. They’re in the worst possible place: Stuck in mediocrity.
19. Pacers: They got the 10-game boost from changing coaches, and now they have started to lose at home. But they do take baby steps and have some good pieces and upcoming cap room. They have a chance to get into the mix in the bottom of the East, at least.
20. Bucks: It’s a lost season as Bogut never has been able to come back. When he plays he’s a top five center who impacts the game, but he needs surgery again. They are stuck with a bunch of bad, long contracts for guys who have a history of injury and no one to backstop Brandon Jennings as he needs supervision.
21. Warriors: You sense they’ve still got a big move in them involving Monta Ellis. They can score with anyone, but retain that same, old formula of undisciplined, non physical play. They’ve got enough talent to change that and take a step.
22. Clippers: If Eric Gordon hadn’t been hurt, they had a chance at a playoff run. They dumped Baron to make sure he doesn’t interfere with Blake Griffin and they’ll move Chris Kaman this summer and get something and finally, it seems, they are operating with some vision and a plan.
23. Nets: I do believe Williams stays in the end. The NBA is going to do something in the labor agreement to make it tough to leave or for big market teams to keep loading up. Plus with a new arena in Brooklyn by the time his deal is up, the Nets won’t be such a forlorn place. And teams are going to approach Williams with caution after he dumped on a Hall of Fame coach the way he did with Jerry Sloan.
24. Raptors: Not necessarily going anywhere with a limited roster, though they are accumulating with the addition of James Johnson some intriguing athletes. Still, you hear more players complain about just having to go to Canada with the increased security that they have almost no chance to ever attract any top line talent other than from Europe.
25. Timberwolves: All those statistics have to eventually get Kevin Love some wins. He’s terrific to watch with his relentless play, but you’ve got to impact winning. Their bet is on Ricky Rubio, and current management’s future probably is in his hands.
26. Bobcats: Actually, I like what Jordan did in the Wallace deal. They were stuck in the middle as a playoff possibility, the worst place to be. Jordan did learn from Jerry Krause that you either want to be very good or very bad. This should also help the Bulls with the pick the Bobcats owe them, though they got one to with similar terms to replace it. Do players want to play for Michael Jordan? That will be the question.
27. Pistons: They’ll finally get sold, though this latest mutiny can’t help the sale price. They’ll move some of the angry, old veterans and they have some good young talent with Greg Monroe, Jonas Jerebko returning and Ben Gordon if he’s used well. They’ll begin climbing back once they’re done being Ripped off.
28. Wizards: John Wall, welcome to the NBA. If he’d known this he may have stayed in college. Flip Saunders was hired to coach veterans and then pre-school showed up. They’ve got a mischievous, immature, out of control core they’ve got to break up before they can build with Wall.
29. Cavs: They aren’t that bad. They miss Varejao, and he’s basically missed the season. I’m not sure what Baron Davis means, though you figure once he gets a look around it will be a near fatal hamstring strain. Perhaps they get something for Jamison and just start again.
30. Kings: It looks like they’re moving to Anaheim, which should give DeMarcus Cousins plenty of places to get in trouble. They’ve got some young talent, but it seems at odds all the time and unreliable. And Casspi thought it was confusing back in the Middle East.
Is Bosh what LeBron’s Heat really needs?
-- This is what Miami may be figuring out: With the new labor agreement, it’s quite possible they won’t be able to, like the Knicks, add anyone substantial to complement LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. So how do you improve, especially if you are sorely lacking a point guard and a center? If the Heat don’t at least make the NBA Finals, the rumors have been Doc Rivers could be their new coach. And how about having to trade Bosh? There were a lot of raised eyebrows around the NBA Thursday when the Bulls played the Heat. Not because the Bulls won, but, first, as Bosh said he’d vote for Derrick Rose for MVP if he could (Wade said he’d support James) and then after Bosh was one-of-18, James made a point in pointing at Bosh and saying there was no way they could overcome play like that. Sure sounds like good teammates. Bosh doesn’t say much, but you rarely hear James talk of a Big Three, rather it is of he and Wade. You know James has to be thinking now he could get 65 wins playing with nobody. So now he’s got Wade, who, curiously, by the way rarely seems to get last shots. Guess James hasn’t given Spoelstra that play. Why the heck does he need Bosh? What he really needs, even if it’s unclear if he’d ever let anyone else be one, is a point guard and a center. How about Ray Felton and Nene for Bosh? With the pieces the Nuggets got from the Knicks that could be a great fit and fill out the Nuggets starting five to make them a contending team. After all is done, the Nuggets could be the big winner in that deal. Luke Ridnour and Kevin Love? Samuel Dalembert and Beno Udrih? Greg Oden and Andre Miller? Kirk Hinrich and Zaza Pachulia. Brendan Haywood and Rodrique Beaubois? Devin Harris and Al Jefferson? Kaman and… somebody? The point, which likely has occurred to James, is Bosh isn’t much of a defensive or physical player and they have enough jump shooters. Many in the NBA would not be surprised if Bosh is on the move again. Do you think if he had to do it again he’d tag along with James and Wade?
Pistons reminiscent of the Black Sox
-- That Richard Hamilton led mutiny last week in Detroit has been described as everything from an overblown media perfect storm to a palace revolt. There probably were some legitimate excuses of guys late, like Austin Daye. But there clearly was an uprising of some sort, which is the NBA’s version of the Black Sox to me. The NBA is severely limited in the labor agreement on what it can do about practice violations. But by conspiring to miss practice, which every player knows gets you a benching, the Pistons’ violators—basically Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Chris Wilcox, Ben Wallace and Tracy McGrady—were causing the game that night against the 76ers to be thrown by their absence.
What kind of message was that to fans who paid upwards of $100 a ticket? Everyone should get a refund for that game. It’s a horrific violation of what sports and professional leagues are about, the promise of the best competition in the world. I doubt the NBA can do it, but Hamilton should have been suspended without pay for at least the rest of the season. Look, he led a player revolt that tried to influence the outcome of a game. How can that be tolerated? This dysfunction has gone on all season with the Pistons, caused primarily by the aging veterans who cannot accept the Pistons transition to the future. You’ll notice half the team ignored Hamilton. It gives you additional respect for Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Jason Maxiell, DaJuan Summers, Will Bynum and Greg Monroe. And then to see clowns like Wallace and McGrady laughing on TV as Kuester was ejected fighting for his team. McGrady of all people, who gets a last chance to remain in the league from the Pistons. His career has to be over. Same with Hamilton. How could you ever bring him on your team and not be sure he won’t organize another boycott if things went badly for him? Plus every coach in the NBA knows there’s nothing worse than having a fading star on your team to destroy cohesion. It’s why you want Kurt Thomas over Shaq.
Look, this is nothing new with that bunch of Pistons anarchists. They weren’t the noted Bad Boys of the 1980s, but it was not unusual to see them blow off any of their coaches in the huddle and gather together after that and decide what play they’d run. Their talent was high level and they had a real leader in Chauncey Billups that made a difference. But they got old and were broken up. No one likes to be ignored and rejected after long service to your organization. Lots of workers in the last few years have gone through that, and I’m among them. But if you have any professionalism you understand the institution transcends any individual grievance. The NBA is what matters in this case because it’s not about any one person, and the Pistons did a vile disservice to the league as well as themselves. Kuester is a good man trying to do a job. So maybe he’s not the best. But he’s not the worst and doesn’t deserve what he got. You will notice how much better the Pistons have played since Hamilton was benched, and then with their young players since the walkout. And you never once heard Kuester single out a player for criticism. He should finish out the season with his head high. But the NBA needs to remove the virus and send Hamilton home for the season and then consider whether he should be allowed to play this great game again.
Bulls have to add player, could it be Butler?
-- The Bulls roster is at 12 and the league minimum is 13, so the Bulls have to add a player. They have two weeks to do so under league rules and will consider players who receive buyouts this week. If they cannot add someone that way, and likely it would be a perimeter scorer, they will have to add someone from the D-League to be a practice player. I’ve been advocating for Tayshaun Prince, whom the Pistons last week were telling teams they would not consider a buyout. Though perhaps that changes with Prince one of the Detroit Gang of Five (Hamilton, Prince, McGrady, Chris Wilcox and Wallace) to lead the mutiny against coach John Kuester, management, the city and the NBA. … Perhaps the top shooting guard who’ll get a buyout is the Clippers’ Rasual Butler, who hasn’t played much this season, as management told coach Vinny Del Negro to basically go with youth. Butler long has been among those the Bulls are interested in and he could be a top target if let go, though a half dozen teams likely will be interested. … Deron Williams became the surprise trade deadline move until the Celtics traded Kendrick Perkins. Williams was non-committal about remaining with the Nets, but the odds may favor it. One of the big concerns around the NBA after last week and last summer’s LeBron James’ “Decision” was the effective elimination of league-wide competition with the smaller markets. There’s no way to end free agency, but you can be sure what will come out of collective bargaining is a huge difference in money to stay with your own team. What’s happened is the money has gotten so big, the two percent annual difference and extra year on the contract wasn’t enough. Most expect the league to go for a massive pay difference to stay with your own team or leave. Thus you can leave as a free agent and still be rich. Or stay and be maybe three times richer.
NBA losing some of its top officials
-- The veteran official turnover continues as Bob Delaney, who did the All-Star game, is in his final season. Though he’s hardly retiring. He has his second book coming out, this one on post traumatic stress, which he dealt with as a onetime undercover New Jersey state trooper who infiltrated organized crime and wrote a book about it. He’s involved with veterans’ organization and putting together a march to Washington later this year on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. … Referees say they are amazed how well Steve Javie has done returning from serious knee problems, though his schedule has been lightened and he could leave soon as well. It’s not a great time for NBA officiating losing so many top officials. … It’s a tough season for the Bucks, as the Bulls witnessed Saturday. Injuries have decimated them and they probably need to consider soon whether to shut down Andrew Bogut for surgery given he clearly cannot play on offense given the after effects of his serious elbow injury last season. Maybe just get ready for next season. Brandon Jennings complained to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after the game, "It ain't like last year. I'm not the go-to guy like I was last year. When I get the ball, I guess I've got to do something with it, because I know I probably won't get it back. Last year things were running more through me and things like that. This year, I have to wait and if it comes back to me, it comes back to me. If not, then hey, it is what it is." Jennings may be what he is as well. Little noted is the way coach Scott Skiles deftly used Luke Ridnour last season when Jennings went out of control. There’s been no such backstop this season and too many selfish scorers, like Corey Maggette, John Salmons and Drew Gooden, though Skiles seems to have been positive and encouraging and the Bucks can get back into playoff contention with a healthy Bogut.
NBA news and notes
-- So Baron Davis to Cleveland (who will owner Donald Sterling heckle now?), Mike Bibby to Washington and Deron Williams to New Jersey. Gotcha! You figure the Pistons were trying to figure how to trade Hamilton to Libya. Anyway, a lot of guys who’ve been complaining about how bad things were may be rethinking. Bibby immediately talked of a buyout even though his contract is not expiring. Rumors were he’d go to Miami. Williams said he was shocked. This coming from the guy who basically ran out Jerry Sloan with his complaining, complained this season of teammates not running the plays effectively, regularly acknowledged he could get more attention in a larger market and last summer implied if the Jazz didn't get the right talent to surround him, he didn't want to be in Utah. Shocked, I tell you. Shocked.
-- George Karl and Carmelo Anthony had a little back and forth last week as Karl brought up Anthony’s lack of interest in defense and Anthony suggested Karl just dumped on everyone. It also was no surprise to hear Karl offer his best wishes to Billups, Anthony Carter and maybe he just forgot Melo. Anthony tweeted Karl was a ”snake.” Anthony had been at odds with Karl for some time, one reason Karl has been virtually exulting since the trade. Early in the process, teams were hearing Anthony would not return to play for Karl, which might have been the reason Karl’s extension wasn’t seriously considered until recently. … Anthony said he wanted No. 15, which is the retired number of Earl Monroe. Thankfully, the Knicks had some sense of history, as weak as theirs is, and refused. Anthony is wearing No. 7. … Not that anyone is expecting another Pistons like incident, but opposing coaches say they’ve been mortified with the language to the coaching staff of many of the Wizards’ young players when they come out of games. And I heard that before JaVale McGee last week got into a sideline shouting match with assistant Randy Wittman and coach Flip Saunders and rookie John Wall said the team lacked heart. … You hear Dwight Howard as one of the next big free agents to escape in 2012, and then you hear that if the Magic sense that maybe they do a peremptory strike like the Jazz and move Howard. And where else can you get a center but, say, Chicago with the University of Florida’s Joakim Noah? Howard to the Bulls? Never happen, I assume. It’s always why Michael Jordan didn’t want to play with a player like that. Derrick Rose’s strength is driving to the basket. Howard lives at the rim and plays mostly postup. It’s one reason the Magic have difficultly. Of course, Howard is better than Noah, but you need pieces that fit together, and I’d be surprised if the Bulls ever wanted to put a player like Howard with Rose. The Bulls get another look at the Magic Friday in the big weekend with Miami Sunday. More statements? Actually, it’s the most enjoyable regular season with meaningful games since perhaps the beginning of the Bulls run in the early 1990s. … The Bulls face old buddy Kirk Hinrich in Atlanta Wednesday as Hinrich gratefully got his parole from the Wizards. The Hawks had tried to get Devin Harris or Ray Felton, but were happy with Hinrich to move in at point guard with tougher defense for a mentally soft team. And Hinrich was thrilled after losing his job to No. 1 overall pick point guards. Hinrich told the Atlanta Constitution: “The mentoring thing, I wasn’t thrilled about it and I was still playing a lot of minutes. I was just trying to be a pro. They are young guys, good kids, and I appreciated my time with Derrick and John. They have great years ahead of them and I just tried to help them out and be a pro.”
-- The Rockets always talk a lot, but never seem to get much significant done. Players seemed furious about the deals that brought “big man” Hasheem Thabeet and already Kyle Lowry was lobbying for free agent Shane Battier to return. Though I’ve questioned it, on second thought I can see Battier being the Bulls answer at shooting guard given his defense is good enough to play Kobe Bryant and he’s one of the best teammates in the league. Meanwhile, longtime speculated Bulls target Courtney Lee told the Houston Post he’s relieved he wasn’t traded to the Bulls, “You see Chicago make a play for you. They added another draft pick to the equation so I felt like it was going to happen. It says a lot to me (to stay). It tells you you’re valued where you’re at.” … I liked Denver GM Masai Ujiri saying, "We feel we got killed in the trade because we lost a couple of pretty good players. Obviously, Carmelo Anthony. I feel sad for the city of Denver. I feel bad that this was done on my watch. To lose a guy like that. And to lose a guy like Chauncey Billups. But I think we had to do it.'' Given Denver was going to buy out Billups, I think with the flexibility and chances to deal the Nuggets will be in better shape than the Knicks in three years. … You knew this issue had to come up. The Hornets spent almost $1 million extra in the trade for Carl Landry at a time other teams are cutting expenses. Yes, the Hornets are now owned by the other 29 teams. Dallas’ Mark Cuban praised the move when it was announced in December. But his Mavs are in competition with New Orleans. He now condemned the trade last week, telling Dallas media: "All I know is that if most of the owners in this league can't take back salary in a deal, then the Hornets shouldn't be allowed to, either. We've allowed a team that's basically losing its (assets) to take on salary. I'm not saying anybody did something underhanded. I'm just saying that when we wrote the rules, somebody forgot the loopholes.'' Phil Jackson, likewise, wondered how the Hornets could add salary that others have to pay. “If New Orleans happens to win the championship, does everybody get a trophy in the NBA?,” Jackson wondered. Smirking, I assume. But a valid point. What if that deal helps cost you a playoff series? How is that supposed to make sense? … And we were worried about Nate Robinson in Oklahoma City? It is the national headquarters for the Sonic drive-in burger chain, which Robinson said is his favorite meal. Robinson said he’s already discovered the location of all the Sonics in Oklahoma City. Should have plenty of time on the bench to memorize.