Sam Smith's 'amazing' moments from the NBA this season

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Shaq and LeBron

"I was sure Shaq was going to mess them up, and maybe he would have if he didn’t take off the last month or so," writes Sam Smith. "I’ve got the Cavs winning the title now."

(Kent Smith/NBAE/Getty Images)

How’s that slogan go? Where amazing happens?

Amazing is generally defined as inspiring awe or astonishment, though we in sports define it as what either comes as a surprise to us or what we didn’t expect to happen. Because, of course, if we didn’t make the prediction, it had to be amazing.

It snowed Saturday in Chicago on the first day of spring. Now, that’s not amazing.

But here are some things that have been thus far this season:

The Bucks: As Scott Skiles says, it’s not exactly like they’re playing for first. But they may have started the season with the least talented roster in the East. Certainly Brook Lopez, Devin Harris and Courtney Lee was as good a core as the Bucks had. They’ve been as hot as anyone in the NBA since the All-Star break, won in Denver Saturday in the second of a back to back after a double overtime game, and win 45 games with a 7-7 finish. I’ve checked and have yet to find one preseason playoff prediction.

Ben Gordon: We didn’t think the Pistons would be much with Gordon and Charlie Villanueva as their free agents. We know the game has moved to the perimeter, but not exactly to dancing without touching. We know Ben can be streaky and starts seasons slowly, but he still can’t make shots and he was always one of the league’s best with the Bulls. He’s shot 50 percent once in Detroit’s last 14 games and still is shooting 30.5 percent on threes compared with 40.5 percent for his career.

Cavs: This would be me. I was sure Shaq was going to mess them up, and maybe he would have if he didn’t take off the last month or so. I thought Boston would come back, but Garnett, Pierce and Allen apparently applied for Social Security before it runs dry. I thought maybe the Celtics would learn about being humbled if you are losing, but I forgot Rasheed Wallace was there, who, by the way, looks like he’s on Glen Davis’ diet. I’ve got the Cavs winning the title now.

Greg Oden: I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise given he’s basically been hurt every time we’ve watched him play any meaningful games including at Ohio State. You know he’ll have to be a head case the rest of his career worrying about injury. How could he not be?

Wizards: I have to admit I wasn’t that surprised and didn’t have them as a playoff team, though most everyone else did. I didn’t because I thought Arenas was a knucklehead. I had no idea. The guy destroyed a franchise like few ever have, and now they have to make nice because they’re stuck with him after they chased out their best players, Jamison and Butler. Latrell Sprewell lends his support, though.

Brandon Jennings: Yeah, that would work. The guy was ripping Ricky Rubio and then doing a vulgar video with a rap buddy. And going to play for Scott Skiles after skipping college all together to sit on the bench in Europe for a year. But he’s run the team from Day 1, had a 55-point game, a midseason slump and been in the heat of a playoff race, all with Skiles’ constant support. Maybe Skiles is the one we should be surprised about.

Nets: We thought they would be bad. I had them last in the East. But all-time loss record bad? You didn’t think that was possible anymore with so many bad teams and so many teams playing for cap room instead of wins. But they have to play better than they have all season now just to reach the all-time worst nine wins. And then we sold the team to a Russian. No wonder people hate Americans.

Taj Gibson: Wasn’t even a first rounder on most teams’ draft boards last June. I called a GM with a team in the lottery last June after the Bulls picked him and he said he’d never heard of him. So he became a starter, really kept Tyrus Thomas on the bench on merit, has played with pain for months and been a relentless competitor.

Blake Griffin: You can’t account for major injuries, but I was sure—and so was everyone else—he was by far better than any rookie. I thought he was enough to make the Clippers a playoff team, and with Camby, Kaman having a near All-Star season and Baron Davis occasionally realizing the court extends beyond the two circles, which is the distance he usually runs.

Grizzlies: Allen Iverson to join Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo, who counted the times last season they stole the ball from one another. Nice plan. They got rid of Iverson quickly enough and Zach Randolph became the responsible voice of reason and most reliable and an All-Star.

Chris Bosh: You’d think in two years he could get a team over .500. He’s supposed to be this final piece, one of the elite players of his era headed to the Hall of Fame someday. So his team, which aren’t exactly without depth, keep losing and again is struggling to even just make the playoffs. In seven seasons in the NBA, Bosh’s teams are a combined 63 games under .500 with one winning season and this season one game over .500. Yes, folks, that’s what is supposed to be worth a maximum salary in the NBA today. And will get one.

Josh Smith and J.R. Smith becoming reliable contributors: OK, more so Josh. But these two wild Smiths—and if you’re a Smith, you generally are one wild and crazy guy—have become the X-factors on their teams. Josh probably was the team’s most important player the first half.

Steve Nash: At his age, even in Arizona, they usually don’t let you drive. But he’s still driving to the basket and at a near MVP level again six years after Mark Cuban refused to give him a five year deal because he said Nash had three years left and Cuban signed Erick Dampier instead. And that guy is a billionaire and you aren’t.

Thunder: I guess, but it was more because everyone was afraid to pick them because they never had. But you could see it coming. Durant’s an MVP candidate, Westbrook already was an Olympic team tryout last summer. Bigs who aren’t much, like Krstic and Collison, were starters. Maybe winning as many as they have, but we all know better to tell you why it happened after it did than what is going to happen.

Gerald Wallace: I remember when he was a low first round pick by the Kings and even made fun of them for having zero game but dunking. He’s been a double/double guy from Day 1 leading the Bobcats—now Mikecats—to the playoffs for the first time and Larry Brown not even trying to trade him once. Now talk about your surprises.

Rajon Rondo: He still can’t shoot and no one can keep him from getting to the basket. The Celtics talked about trading him last summer before extending him because, so the story went, he didn’t like the idea of a Big Three without him. Who do these kids think they are? He’s now the best player on the Celtics and even more annoying than Kevin Garnett.

Andrew Bogut: No longer a No. 1 pick bust. He was heading toward Michael Olowakandi land and worse, being quoted in Australia a few years back—can’t complain lost in translation, mate—about “bling bling” and the ills of American culture, sitting out a lot without surgeries and complaining about not being rewarded with an extension quickly enough. And you think Skiles didn’t like Tyrus Thomas. But, lo and behold, Bogut gets it, becomes an actual center and the first Australian big man in the NBA who actually wants to play basketball.

Brook Lopez: Storming out of practice last week. What took him so long?

Coaching carousel keeps spinning

-- So just where are all these coaches going to come from? The 76ers’ Eddie Jordan, in his first season, got the Vinny Del Negro treatment a few weeks ago of breathless reports he would be fired any day now unless he wasn’t. It seems likely, though, he will be let go in that if-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire thing. Fair? Of course not. Everyone knows he’s a system coach who likes the read-and-react Princeton game. So they hire him and let go the only point guard they had, Andre Miller. And then just over a month into the season they make him take a washed up, angry, troubled Allen Iverson. And the team is not winning? Must be his fault. I figure there could be as many as 10 teams looking for coaches after this season. And there’s always a surprise or two on top of that.

76ers: Jordan seems out and perhaps GM Ed Stefanski, who hired him, brought back Iverson, let go Miller and spent his big free agent money on Elton Brand.

Clippers: Already fired Mike Dunleavy and using an interim, whomever that is, as the players say. Larry Brown put out feelers when it seemed unlikely Michael Jordan would by the Bobcats. Jordan has since said he’d let Brown go if he wanted to. The GM job is open as well, and Brown could slip into the dual role with Neil Olshey. Former ‘Blazers GM Bob Whitsitt could be a good GM fit as well.

Nets: They fired Lawrence Frank earlier this season and Kiki Vandeweghe is finishing the season with a new owner soon to take over and presumably change things.

Warriors: They’d love to be done with Don Nelson, who needs five more wins to reach Lenny Wilkens’ all-time coaching record. It seems unlikely he’ll get it. Would you waste another season so Nelson can get a record the community couldn’t care less about?

Raptors: Jay Triano is in his first full season, though he coached most of last season as well. Despite having Chris Bosh, the team competes sporadically, always is having player meetings and is on the verge of missing the playoffs again if the Bulls could get it together. GM Bryan Colangelo has said it’s not the talent, so it must be something else.

Pacers: The community has pretty much tuned out the team in Jim O’Brien’s third season. He’s a professional NBA coach, but they’ve had a constant churning of lineups and seem primed for a change.

Hornets: GM Jeff Bower has been interim with Tim Floyd helping out as assistant. It was assumed Bower would return to the front office, and why not as the team tumbles, though they haven’t had injured Chris Paul. Would Floyd get another shot? Does he want it? Some say Bower wants to stay. But it’s not like they compete much.

Heat: Eric Spoelstra has done a good job and is a demanding, defensive guy. But you hear talk he’s an A to B guy and now they want a B to C guy to take the next step with the big free agent they expect to bring in with Dwyane Wade.

Atlanta: Mike Woodson has won more games every season, but he didn’t get an extension and his contract concludes this season. If he gets bounced early in the playoffs amidst talk Joe Johnson wants to leave they’ll make a move.

Bulls: Del Negro still is here and the Bulls did trade better talent to get salary cap room and have been devastated by major injuries. But life and NBA coaching aren’t fair, as Eddie Jordan will tell you. There’s always a chance he makes it, but the Bulls better make the playoffs.

Salmons gives Bucks a boost

-- I’m not a huge esoteric stat guy. But I was looking over some of the numbers since the trading deadline deals. It’s clear John Salmons has been huge for the Bucks, who have been terrific. It was much the way Salmons fueled the Bulls stretch run last season, and I’ve noticed Scott Skiles has Salmons playing more small forward, where he was best for the Bulls last season with Luol Deng out. Once again, Deng is missing the final part of the season, though it didn’t seem like that around trade time with Deng playing the most minutes on the team and having a comeback season. Thomas’ numbers have been about the same with Charlotte as they were with the Bulls as he was zero for three shooting and his minutes reduced in Saturday’s loss in Miami. It was laughable to hear Thomas rave about how Larry Brown is teaching him for the first time as I witnessed Bulls coaches spending hours with Thomas for years and management working with him more than anyone given the investment in him. Anyway, I took a look back at the player efficiency ratings of Flip Murray since being a Bull and Salmons this season while he was with the Bulls and Hakim Warrick since he’s been a Bull and Thomas this season with the Bulls. And they both were almost exactly the same with Warrick actually slightly higher than Thomas’ and Murray slightly below Salmons’. Oh, that’s right, it was losing Joakim Noah for a month—and Derrick Rose for about 10 days—which may have had something to do with the way the season has turned down.

Bosh, Wade and free agency

-- Interesting reaction from Bosh noted by a Toronto Star writer after fans rose to give Bosh a standing ovation after Bosh scored his 10,000th point as a Raptor. Bosh didn’t acknowledge the crowd and the newspaper said he was “stone faced” and didn’t raise a hand or nod. Not even to say goodbye? There’s all kinds of reading of tea leaves and body language. And stats, as Bosh is averaging about two fewer points and rebounds since the All-Star break. He’s the biggest mystery free agent, saying at times a team should build around him and also playing with what seems the least competitive team among the top free agents and lashing out against his team recently, thus seemingly giving him potentially the biggest reason to leave. … Speaking of free agents, welcome to spring in Chicago. Actually, it’s not supposed to be bad this week as the Bulls’ recruiting of Dwyane Wade begins. Well, maybe the city’s. The Heat plays in New Jersey Monday and then heads to Chicago and waits for Thursday’s TNT game, which the TNT studio crew with Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson, the latter being the smart one. So that’s almost three full days in Chicago for Wade. He’s still free agent target 1 or 1a, and you have to consider the Bulls in the ballpark. They have a better nucleus than Miami with a center in Joakim Noah and point guard in fellow Chicagoan Derrick Rose, neither of which the Heat has. Wade’s family remains in Chicago since his divorce, and he is close with his mother, for whom he bought a church. He bought a house in Chicago last summer downtown by the Chicago River and Kirk Hinrich won’t guard him anymore. OK, that’s not a big deal. But it should be an intriguing rematch as the last time the teams played with Rose out after being mugged by Dwight Howard, Hinrich frustrated Wade into what Taj Gibson, who rarely says much, says was dirty play. Wade failed to shoot at least 50 percent against the Bulls for the 17th time in 22 career games. Of course, Hinrich got even more frustrated and got himself suspended for a game. Which showed Wade, at least, the Bulls would fight and compete. And wouldn’t it be nice to play with a point guard who needs a double and is only too happy to defer to you? And a center who just wants to play harder than anyone else? And who has to know as many party spots as in all of South Beach?

T-Mac’s payback… sort of

-- It was payback time, allegedly, Sunday when the Rockets went to play New York and Tracy McGrady. McGrady had 15 points, but clanked all three shots in the fourth when he was scoreless. He is averaging 10.6 points and shooting 39.7 percent and 28 percent on threes and plays basically stationary with bad knees for all those fans who wanted the team to trade for McGrady. McGrady said he was bitter toward the Rockets because they wouldn’t play him and coach Rick Adelman said it was simply McGrady wasn’t ready. But did anyone else think it was a coincidence McGrady played in six games for Houston and five were for eight minutes and one for seven? Follow the money. I heard Adelman was on an eight-minute max for McGrady to keep going insurance money to the club until they could dump his contract. The only thing I will agree on the college ball being better than pros showed in that Knicks game when Toney Douglas, having a good game but blowing it with three turnovers in the last couple of minutes, hit his sixth three and had to make that “three” signal going back on defense. So the Rockets blew out for a basket as the Knicks had to switch because Douglas was being so proud he could count to three. Enough with the posing. … Now how bad is this? Nets players were complaining to the Newark Star Ledge last week about not being able to watch film. "I've suggested it to the coaches," said Jarvis Hayes. "Because you have to see what you're doing wrong. But we haven't watched much lately. To me, it's a lot different seeing it than talking about it." Added Courtney Lee: "We need to watch it a lot more, and go over those plays we're messing up at the end. We watch film briefly, but we need to sit down and watch to see what people aren't doing on tape. That's the only way to correct this." Said Brook Lopez: “I can’t remember (the last time as a team).” The Bulls have games left with the Nets March 27 at home and April 9 in New Jersey, and you now don’t want to be the team they beat to get to nine or 10 wins. … With Michael Finley signed, Tony Allen dropped out of the Celts’ rotation and acknowledged his future is elsewhere, hopefully, I’d say. Finley is averaging 6.1 points and shooting 51.2 percent in about 15 minutes per game with Boston. … When the Bucks beat the Celtics in a run of consecutive home wins over Boston, Cleveland and Utah, Kendrick Perkins said playing Andrew Bogut was “the toughest matchup I’ve had all season.” Which would include Dwight Howard. … Tyreke Evans is the favorite for rookie of the year, but Brandon Jennings outplayed him in the Bucks double overtime win last week in which Evans was injured. Said Bogut: “To me, if he’s playing for Golden State, he’s averaging 25 points a game. He’s in a team that plays defense and he’s leading our team to a playoff run.”… Surprisingly no furor like with Ilgauskas as Brian Cardinal came back to the Timberwolves after being traded.

NBA news and notes

-- LeBron James is playing great, though he hardly needs help. He’s not nearly the team’s best defender, which is easily Anderson Varejao, though with all his highlight come-from-behind dunks James gets on TV and, stunningly, made all-defense first team last season. What a joke. Though the coaches and not media vote for that, which shows they only watch ESPN. Now, James gets huge latitude on those blocks as even he admitted a turning point one in the last minute against the Pistons last week was a goal tend that was allowed as a block. But, like with Michael Jordan, players are beginning to just accept the greatness. Said Jonas Jerebko: "That was definitely goaltending. The refs said the same thing after. It happens." … Is Vince Carter that guy? The Orlando Sentinel was moaning once again about the lack of regard for Dwight Howard as Scottie Pippen happened by and observed of Howard: “He’s a very special player, but I don’t think he’s going to win a championship until he gets another superstar to play alongside of him. I don’t think that he can carry a team to a championship. He’s not that great of a scorer, he’s not a good shooter and he’s not a good foul shooter. So in the latter parts of the game, as big as he is and as much athleticism as he has, that becomes very small when the game gets into crunch time. He’s not the type of player that can dominate a game in the fourth quarter.” Pippen, as we know, isn’t afraid of whom he offends, though he’s often right, if not politically correct. They do a lot of “poor us, where’s the respect” whining in Orlando. But Rashard Lewis has been like a totem pole this season standing around watching Carter, and there have been few softer in big moments than Carter, who going into this season, his 12th, had never been with a team that had won 50 games and never past the second round of the playoffs.

-- Michael Jordan is now Jerry Reinsdorf’s partner. Some others’ as well. Yes, he’s Donald Sterling’s partner, too. It is the price of majority ownership of an NBA team, Jordan being the first former player to do so. And I think it’s the right spot for Jordan, if not necessarily the right time with a tough economy and a tough, small market team. But two traits stand out about Jordan that should make him a good owner. He doesn’t care what you think about him. Actually, if anything, it will drive him. And he is very careful with his money. Which was why Jordan didn’t fall into the trap of promising too much when he met reporters after being approved as majority owner last week. Asked about paying luxury tax to enhance the team’s prospects, Jordan didn’t hesitate: “No. I’m not sure we need to take that risk at this time. If we become a perennial playoff team, then it may make sense to exceed the luxury tax, but it will depend on the situation. We’re not going to exceed the luxury tax just for the sake of it. But if there's a player who can make a real difference for us and that puts us into luxury tax territory, then it’s something we might consider.” Which is how it should be. It’s mostly the reporters upset lately about paying $6 for press room food who demand spending more all the time. Though Jordan has been criticized for draft picks like Kwame Brown and Adam Morrison, everyone had them listed high, and everyone has made huge draft mistakes. Before allowing his vanity to drive him back to playing, Jordan had cleared out Juwan Howard’s monster contract everyone said couldn’t be dealt in an era when going for cap space wasn’t so celebrated. He hired a great coach who has produced results and made some good, albeit risky, moves with Stephen Jackson, Tyson Chandler and Tyrus Thomas. He said he’d live in Chicago, which is understandable with a child in high school. But he’s been visible, perhaps too much so in a Cuban-esque end of the bench spot, and traveled with the team this weekend. And being Michael we know he’s strong enough to eschew the unnecessary, like when a sports columnist upon Jordan’s approval wrote that one of his first priorities should be helping save the Charlotte public libraries, which are facing cuts. Good luck, Mike. It’s your home state.

-- Well, that looks like the end for the Oklahoma Thunder. It was a great run. Jeff Green, supposedly one of the Big Three of the team yet to play in a playoff game, told the Oklahoman newspaper he’d like to sign an extension this summer. What, you say, Oklahoma City? Lots of players all of sudden are falling in love with where they are because of the pending 2011 new labor deal which could mean shorter term and smaller contracts. So there’s a rush to get in under the deadline. The Thunder, obviously, need to resign Kevin Durant and likely Russell Westbrook. This is the issue that has faced all teams building through the draft, and which broke the Bulls. You cannot pay them all. And they better all understand a pecking order. As we found out with the Bulls when the team, essentially, broke itself up when Deng and Gordon were upset about who got paid more and then what Hinrich was making even though they turned down more. It’s why you might want to take a look at trading for Green this summer. The Thunder hasn’t suggested or intimated the least interest in trading Green. But at some point it’s going to occur to them they can’t pay them all, and someone’s not going to accept being the least. Better to do it sooner than later. Hey, it was fun while it lasted.

-- Look, they can’t go on forever. For the second consecutive season, basically reversing a career long trend, Tim Duncan’s production has declined since the All-Star break as he’s averaged about 15 points on 43 percent shooting, down about four points and nine percentage points. Though he did have a big game in Sunday’s loss to Atlanta. Manu Ginobili, though, seems to have regained his health and has been carrying the Spurs with Tony Parker hurt. … The Warriors waived Raja Bell, who cannot play from wrist surgery, but he remains one of the few players who still wants to play for Don Nelson and could return. … Tyreke Evans remains on pace to join LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the only NBA rookies to average 20 points, five rebounds and five assists. … Luis Scola had a quiet Sunday in Houston’s win in New York after playing at least 40 minutes the last eight games and averaging 23.9 points and 13 rebounds with a 44-point game and a 25 and 21 effort. He’s a restricted free agent and intriguing third tier power forward even at 30. … The best of all the potential free agents the second half of the season could be Amar’e Stoudemire, averaging just under 30 points and 10 rebounds since the end of February with six of the last nine games at least 30 points and twice over 40, and even long critical teammate Steve Nash praising him for his defense. “He's playing with so much heart and passion for the game,” said Nash. Stoudemire was physical in scoring 44 in a win over the Jazz and told the Arizona Republic: "I play bully ball at times, where I try to outpower guys and jump over the top and finish at the basket. That seems to get the crowd riled up. That seems to get my teammates riled up at times. There's definitely a need for bully ball.” Did he say Bulls Ball? … Is it coming to the end for the Lakers? Derek Fisher is shooting 38 percent the last two months and Jordan Farmar was benched for Sasha Vujacic with the backcourt in shambles after the Lakers decided to stand pat at the trade deadline despite cracks in the backcourt. Plus, Andrew Bynum suffered his annual late season injury and is out at least two weeks. And we know how badly Kobe Bryant has been beat up this season. The door may be opening a crack for the likes of Denver, Dallas, Utah and the Spurs, assuming, of course, the Spurs make the playoffs with games this week against the Thunder, Lakers, Cavs and Celtics. With still the Lakers, Magic, Suns, Denver and Dallas to come.

Follow Sam Smith on Twitter at SamSmithHoops.

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