Ok, so that title is just one of those sports blogging/journalism (can’t we just make it one word at this point) traditions, like a monkey throwing shit at a wall… it’s unanswerable, ridiculous, and I have no interest in doing the massive amount of research necessary to find out if a case could even be made… let’s call it The Mariotti Gambit. However, it will probably get more Google hits than what the title of this post should be:
This NBA season has been incredibly fucking awesome, and we haven’t even gotten started yet!!!
The NFL is pissing all of us off… the beginning of the turgid MLB season is right around the corner (wake me in September, but please don’t tell me how far back the Cubs are)… I hear there’s still something called hockey. But today marks the four-weeks-to-go regular-season mark in the NBA, with blissful months of playoff basketball to follow. Thus far, the season has unfolded at a furious rate (seriously, anybody who claims that NBA players don’t try until the last two minutes hasn’t watched a game in at least five years… and should see somebody about their racist tendencies).
So, while the masses who enjoy the flashing lights and loud sounds of slot machines spend the next two weeks obsessing over which slow, untalented white boy will hit three cherries, those of us who appreciate a night of poker tense in anticipation of the Turn, with three face cards already up (another sports journalism tradition… the confusing metaphor… part of The Reilly Rules).
There are plenty of intriguing storylines that have yet to resolve themselves, but since basketball is a team game (yes, especially the NBA, you racist fuck… jesus), let’s examine today’s standings through the pop music of the ’80s (a.k.a. The Simmons Scheme… also see: the next 3,000 words):
The Legit Contenders
Don’t You (Forget About Me)
All of the talk coming into the season was about Kobe (will he get his sixth ring?) and LeBron (will he get his first ring?)… however, there was another superstar lurking that nobody was talking about. Not that this is unusual, because the best power forward ever (another unprovable statement, but there aren’t many serious arguments) is also probably the most boring basketball star ever. Tim Duncan is basically the NBA’s Pete Sampras. He’s a winner, he’s consistent, he’s one of the best ever… and if every player was as bland as he is, the NBA would essentially cease to exist in a matter of months (see: tennis pre-Federer/Nadal). He proves that whatever the answer to the question of whether a basketball player is an athlete or an entertainer, it can’t be 100% either way – just as Jason Williams and Rick Fox proved the opposite.
But don’t look now – the San Antonio Spurs have dominated this NBA regular season… they have won over 80% of their games, they lead the West by more than 6 games, they haven’t had a serious slide all season. Kobe might be chasing MJ, but Duncan is chasing Kobe… a win this year gives him 5 rings, which is also the same number Magic has. It ties Greg Popovich with Pat Riley for the most coaching rings for anybody not named Red or Phil. It would also be a fourth ring for the Duncan/Parker/Ginobili trio, one of the most underrated NBA cores in history.
Playoff Outlook: They’ll blow past Memphis in the first round, and should also make easy work of the winner of OKC/Denver. Then it gets tough as they’ll face either L.A. or Dallas in the conference finals. Their biggest problems are Center and depth… DeJuan Blair has been a nice infusion of youth for an aging team (Duncan is 34, Ginobili 33, Parker 28 – not that it’s slowed him down in the banging-teammates’-wives dept.) But he’s not a player that’s going to have Pau Gasol or even Brendan Haywood quaking in their Nikes. Richard Jefferson, George Hill and Gary Neal have recently shown signs of slowing down. The Spurs may be a case of a team that peaked at the wrong time. Unlike…
The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades
Co-leading the East with the second-best record in the NBA (despite their second- and third-best players making only 60% of their possible starts due to injuries), featuring a star who’s the odds-on favorite to become the youngest MVP in NBA history and a first-year Coach of the Year candidate. Hold on for a sec…
One more… I’m not quite finished…
Fuck, I needed a squeegee for that one.
He may be the brother of the worst NBA general manager ever not named Baylor or Wallace, but John Paxson deserves some serious consideration for Executive of the Year. True, his job was saved by the Bulls hitting the 1.7% odds of getting 2008’s #1 pick and hometown boy Derrick Rose, but since then he’s shown some of the balls that made his clutch shooting such a key part of the first Jordan three-peat. He waited for the Celtics to finish the Finals in order to get his man in Tom Thibodeau. He passed on Carmelo Anthony, a 26-year-old superstar, in order to keep Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. He didn’t panic when Dwayne Wade stabbed Chicago in the back, moving on to Plan B with Carlos Boozer (although getting rid of a defender as good as Kirk Hinrich for a pipe dream wasn’t his wisest move, and choosing to leave $2.9 million in cap space on the table rather than filling their biggest need at SG with O.J. Mayo, etc. is a bit suspect, especially after giving up on last year’s first-rounder James Johnson to clear the room).
I would be lying if I said that I felt this at the time of The Decision, but as a Bulls fan, I’m ecstatic that things happened the way that they did during this off-season. Derrick Rose’s Leap has been the most enjoyable Chicago sports story in years (although Blackhawks fans would obviously feel differently). If the Bulls had gotten Wade or LeBron, they would have gotten the credit for Rose’s development and his talent would have been obscured/diminished. Getting rid of Noah would have been a disaster… he’s Chicago’s Captain Intangible and the heart of the team. Believe me, I understand why he makes people want to purchase a gun, but if he’s on your team, you love him (see: A.J. Pierzynski). Boozer has provided some nice front-line help, as has the adorable, young Muresan-esque Omer Asik and the underrated Taj Gibson. And watching Deng blossom this year has been a revelation, especially defensively. As somebody who watched the rise of the Jordan dynasty, and then lived through the Brent Barry/Jay Williams/Eddy Curry, etc. years, watching this homegrown team explode has reminded me why following sports is sometimes worth it. I haven’t felt this much affection for a sports team since the ’03 Cubs (and that turned out OK as I recall).
Playoff Outlook: Right now, the Bulls are fighting it out with the Celtics for the top spot in the East. If they win the division, it’s Indiana/Charlotte in the first round and Orlando/Atlanta in the second; if they don’t, it’ll be Philly/NY, followed by Miami/NY. This is the definition of be-careful-what-you-wish-for, but I would slightly prefer the second-place scenario. The first round will be a cakewalk either way, and as much firepower as the Heat and Knicks have, the Bulls have nobody to tangle with Dwight Howard and the Hawks match up nicely against them (especially since getting the aforementioned Hinrich).
My heart tells me that the Bulls have enough talent/chemistry to shoot for the stars this year. However, my head responds that isn’t how the NBA works. Unlike the crapshoot of March Madness (changing metaphors mid-column is also part of The Reilly Rules), the NBA has a progression, a logic that unfolds over the long term (unless a team lands a free-agent windfall, a la the ’08 Celtics or ’11 Heat). The Jordan era went through three first-round exits, one second-round departure, and two Conference Final losses before the first Championship. For the Rose era to go from two first-round exits to a championship is too much to expect… a strong Conference Finals showing should be considered a successful season.
That said, Los Bulls probably have about a 15% chance to win it all… that’s enough to keep my heart palpitating for a while.
Love Will Tear Us Apart
In 2007, the Boston Celtics came in last in the Eastern Conference… that offseason they traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce. Since then, they’ve won the Championship, lost in the second round in seven games with Garnett out, and lost in the Finals in seven games to the Lakers.
All this despite heading into each season with questions about how much their Big Three had left in the tank (Jesus is 35, Garnett 34 and Pierce 33). However, the Celtics have always shown up to play and play deep. Without Garnett’s ’09 injury, it’s probable they’d be looking for their fourth straight Finals appearance against L.A. Most importantly, Pierce and Garnett have played well enough to give me and The Lanky Hippy a narrow lead over The Dilemma in fantasy basketball.
That said, they’re not getting any younger. Their young point guard, Rajon Rondo, is a great floor leader and a triple-double machine. However, he’s shown some effects getting trounced in the Eastern Conference PGs-of-the-future battle by Rose (starting with losing out to him for a spot on last summer’s World Championship team) and turns into a complete pussy at the end of games (he’s afraid to touch the ball lest he be forced into making a clutch free throw or shot). And the fifth member of their post-’07 starting lineup… well, he’s no longer a Celtic.
This isn’t to oversell Kendrick Perkins… he’s not a great center by any stretch and was the least valuable member of the Celtics core. And there may have been good salary cap/contract reasons to move him. But the Celtics are a team on the clock, and may have given up their chance at another championship with the trade for Jeff Green (who’s 24 and talented, but has been horrible since the move). Perkins is a fearless banger down low and that gave the Celtics a huge advantage in the East, with the Bulls starting Noah and the Heat starting… hold on… Erick Dampier? It leaves the Celtics’ center position in the hands of 39-year-old Shaq and Friends (Shaq going for his Kobe-tying 5th ring is another interesting postseason storyline).
They have the same playoff scenario as the Bulls, who they will probably meet in the Conference Finals. They have to be considered the favorite in the East, but they’re an old-man injury from that changing in a hurry.
The Magic Number
The Lakers are so immersed in the Rule of Three that they may as well be speechwriters. Kobe is going for his second three-peat (as is Derek Fisher), which would tie him with MJ and Kareem. Phil Jackson is going for his fourth(!) and presumably final three-peat (although he’s had a Favrean number of “retirements”). The Lakers’ Big Three of Kobe/Pau/Lamar are looking to put themselves historically with MJ/Scottie/Dennis, Larry/McHale/Chief and Magic/Kareem/Worthy.
The Lakers haven’t had their smoothest regular season, going through serious stretches of listless play. But they’re a veteran team looking to get to their fourth straight NBA Finals. There’s no reason to believe they won’t turn it on during the Playoffs, especially with their leader, the most cutthroat basketball player since Jordan, smelling historical blood.
Although it may have some entertaining moments, their first-round series with Portland/N.O. will be a cakewalk. Getting beaten out for the first seed by the Spurs means they’ll have to face Dallas in the second round, followed by San Antonio, followed by the Eastern Conference champion. Conceivably, they could lose any of these matchups… Andrew Bynum could get injured, Odom could disappear, Ron Artest could go postal. In reality? One word – Kobe.
Not that you needed another reason to hate Dwayne Wade, but the only reason he has a ring is that he was the recipient of some of the most blatantly one-sided NBA officiating in history (and that’s saying something… for example, in Game Five of the ’06 Finals, Wade shot as many free throws as the Mavs total). The victim of this largesse? Germany’s own Dirk Nowitzki (although I was in Germany during those Finals, and believe me when I say nobody gave a scheisse). Now he has his best shot at a second-chance, as do Jason Kidd (two straight Finals losses) and Peja Stojakovic (whose Kings lost the ’02 Western Conference in Game Seven to the Lakers, a series that Tim Donaghy has alleged in court was fixed by the refs… and absolutely nobody who watched it was surprised). Add to them 8+ year ringless vets Brendan Haywood, Tyson Chandler, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion and Caron Butler, and you’ve got this postseason’s feel-good Redeem Team.
On paper, Dallas is a serious darkhorse… they have no gaping holes and a good amount of depth. They certainly aren’t scared of either the Lakers or the Spurs, who they’ve matched up well with all season. And they seem to be gelling at the right time.
The problem, though, is the other issue that caused them to lose that Finals to the Heat… who is going to take over games at the end, when push comes to shove? Dirk may be the best European NBA player ever (not many arguments there), but he doesn’t exactly have a legendary killer instinct. I just don’t see them getting past Kobe and the Lakers in the second round. If they do pull the upset, though, they could easily win it all.
Union of the Snake
Everybody knows about all the overkill, all the hype, all the epic douchebaggery. After the breathless ups-and-downs, though, the Miami Heat are going to win their division and head into the playoffs as the 3-seed. Where, if there is a god, they will lose in heartbreaking or embarrassing fashion.
Hopefully, the Knicks will hold on to the 6-seed, which would set up a first-round battle of paper tiger hype nearly unprecedented in sports history… LeBron/Wade/bosh (there has to be some visual way to represent how far below the other two he is, and how ridiculous that he makes the same money) vs. Melo/Amare/Chauncey would be an epic start to the playoffs – and one I think the Heat would lose. The Heat don’t have a floor leader like Billups, Amare would eat up Bosh like he was matzo, and Melo is far better in the final minutes than Bron-Bron, who is too talented to consistently give up the ball late to the more clutch Wade.
The series would feature the most stars in the most flawed product since Mars Attacks. If David Stern isn’t insisting his refs make this happen, he’s not the commissioner I think he is.
If the Heat avoids/gets past the Knicks, they’ll probably lose to either the Celtics or the Bulls… they just don’t have the depth/chemistry/defense to match up (at least this year… I have no illusions that they won’t make a run sometime in the next 5 years, unless they opt-out after 3 that is). Best case scenario – they meet the Celtics, so LeBron can shrink like last year in the face of his mom’s tales about Delonte West’s ginormous cock. Either way, there’ll be a lot of tears.
Six Months In A Leaky Boat
The Oklahoma City Thunder were a trendy dark-horse pick at the beginning of the year… they haven’t exactly fallen apart (they’ll win their division and be the 4-seed), but haven’t set the world on fire either. Kevin Durant will win his second straight scoring title at the age of 22. Russell Westbrook has made The Leap to superstar status.
It will be interesting how this team known for its closeness and collegial atmosphere will react to the trading of their third-best player, Jeff Green, to the Celtics for center Kendrick Perkins. On one hand, it fills a gaping hole down low… on the other, it was a jarring reminder to one of the league’s youngest teams about the business end of the NBA. They could make some entertaining noise in the playoffs, but nobody’s talking about them as a darkhorse in the West anymore.
Dancing With Myself
The Orlando Magic are a flawed, boring team with the most annoying coach in the NBA. Why are they still relevant? They have Dwight Howard, the only superstar center in the East, who at 25 will win his third-straight Defensive Player of the Year Award. Now that Dwight has started to show some signs of a killer instinct (any signs from the most affable player in the NBA are a revelation), his playoff potential has become much more interesting. His supporting cast is too weak to make a serious run, but he could tear through a stronger team’s front court enough to cause an upset.
With Or Without You
Say this about Carmelo Anthony… at least he didn’t leave the Denver Nuggets empty-handed. Raymond Felton and Danilo Gallinari are already starters, and Timofey Mozgov has the most fun name to say in the NBA (and that’s saying something). While Denver hasn’t had much time to gel, the Nuggets/Thunder series will only trail Heat/Knicks (please, Mr. Stern) for first-round entertainment value.
Girls, Girls, Girls
There’s absolutely nothing interesting about the Hawks, except that Joe Johnson is somehow the highest paid player in the NBA, and their hometown is renowned for having the best strip clubs for U.S. cities not named Las Vegas. Of course, now they’ll blow through the Magic on their way to beating the Bulls in the second round.
Didn’t We Almost Have It All
The New Orleans Hornets’ Chris Paul is 25 years old, the best PG in the NBA, and has no cartilage left in his knees. There hasn’t been a sadder story since Bobby and Whitney ended the greatest love affair since Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.
King Of Wishful Thinking
New York, the capital of media hype, finally has a Knicks team to get excited about. The threesome of Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups are formidable… however, last time I checked there are five starters on a basketball team. Anytime you have two of the top 10 players in the NBA you have a chance, though, and Billups has lead unlikely teams on a run in both Denver and Detroit (the latter the only NBA team in my lifetime to win the Championship without a superstar). It would be hard for them to make the Conference Finals this year, but that doesn’t matter as long as they take out the Heat. Go Knicks (I’ll have to leave that for The Dilemma… even writing it takes too much out of me).