Four Three’s- Lakers Dynasty and Phil’s Quest for Another Three-Peat in 2010-11

The other day, I looked at the NBA’s Eastern Conference and it’s relative lack of depth. Today, it’s the West and it’s over-abundance of good teams. In fact, there are only two teams out of 15 that I couldn’t conceive of any possible chance at making a playoff run. Every other team has either the pieces in place or the potential to get it done. Not that they all will, and there are a couple dominoes left to fall in terms of possible big-names on the trade market, but here is an early look at how I see the West shaping up.

15. New Orleans Hornets- This is a team that, if they keep Chris Paul and the young guys improve, could sneak into the lower area of the playoffs. They did a great job playing without Paul last season. But they have a rookie coach, a rookie GM, and the scuttlebutt is that Paul is fed up and wants out now. Either traded or disgruntled, without a top-flight Paul on the floor, these guys have no chance at the playoffs. I expect a bad trade that nets them very little in return for Paul, the young guys to regress a bit when faced with having to carry the franchise and things to get a whole lot worse in New Orleans before they get better.

14. Golden State Warriors- With Don Nelson still ruling the roost, these guys are going nowhere fast. Monta Ellis may soon find himself elsewhere, David Lee’s production is certain to fall off a bit, and the Warriors are pretty clearly going to be the worst team in the Conference’s worst division this year. Hopefully for them, another bad, directionless season might signal the end of Nellie.

13. Minnesota Timberwolves- This is the other team that has absolutely no possibility of seeing playoff basketball under any scenario. They’ve gone from a team that had little talent to one full of career underachievers, like Darko Milicic, Michael Beasley and Martell Webster. If guys like Kevin Love and Johnny Flynn continue to grow and one of the before-mentioned threesome decides to actually play up the their potential, and if Ricky Rubio come to the NBA next year, and if he is some sort of other-worldly immediate superstar, then they might be able to talk about being a .500 team in 2011-12. But this year, it’s another likely top five lottery pick.

12. Denver Nuggets- Has anyone noticed how old and mediocre this team really is? Without George Karl late last season, they went completely belly-up. If Karl either can’t go or has to step away again this year, these guys are toast. Melo is likely to want out with other high-profile superstars grouping in different places around the league. Billups is another one who could be traded to a contender. Everyone else on the roster is either a role-player or a major injury risk. This team could go south and get that way in a hurry. Still, the 12th spot out West is probably good for at least 40 wins, though.

11. Memphis Grizzlies- I’m just not sold on Memphis. Sure, they had a great first half last year and held it together enough to finish at .500, but really, can we expect Zack Randolph to get through another complete season looking and playing like an actual all-star? Rudy Gay is a solid player who was somewhat overpaid, but that is understandable. O.J. Mayo is 22 and still figuring it out, although he could be a big star in the next couple years. And I love Marc Gasol. An actual physical European center. They have a couple pieces that have solid future potential, but lightning doesn’t strike twice that often. Without another fast start, Memphis regresses a bit from last year. But just a bit.

10. Sacramento Kings- Go big, young man. If DeMarcus Cousins is for real–and in my eyes, all signs point toward yes, he is–then the Kings have a young inside/outside duo potentially better than anyone else in the league sooner than later. They drafted size, traded for size and seem to have a plan. Bang down low, do all of the dirty work and rely on a slashing guard who can do it all. Sounds good to me. They won’t get into the playoffs this year, but in three years time, OKC-Sacramento Western Conference Finals matchups could become a regular occurrence.

9. Portland Trailblazers- The last team out of the playoffs. Realistically, how many years is everyone going to keep saying, “this is the season Portland puts it all together.” Is Brandon Roy healthy and going to stay that way? Is Greg Oden a complete bust and will he ever stay on the floor for enough games for anyone to find out? Will Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum or Jerryd Bayless step up and fulfill predictions of greatness that guys like Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster before them were unable to? Why, again, did they sign Andre Miller, a complete mis-match as a point guard for this team? But the biggest questions of all are, now that GM whiz Kevin Pritchard is gone, who will be the first team to fleece the Blazers on the trade market, and is head coach Nate McMillan next out the door?

8. Los Angeles Clippers- That’s right, the Clippers who did nothing in free agency, are going to make the playoffs. If it hadn’t been for all of the roster upheaval due to free agency and the trade market, L.A.’s other team could well get some of the attention it’s going to deserve for being one of the league’s most improved teams. Plus, they still have all that cap space, and some interesting trade chips with guys like Paul and Melo going to be available sooner than later. Baron Davis has been somewhat on auto-pilot, but with all of the young talent all over the court, he may just wake up. Or he could find himself in the middle of some kind of multi-team trade that ends up bringing a Chris Paul or a Tony Parker to town. Whether or not they add a superstar, these guys, much like OKC last year, could get hot and not know any better, riding it into the last playoff position. How about a Lakers-Clippers 1st round matchup?

7. Utah Jazz- The Jazz look to be a mirror image of themselves, replacing Boozer with a lesser version of him in Al Jefferson, and Kyle Korver with a lesser version of himself in Gordon Hayward. AK47 and Mehmet Okur are another year older into their career downslopes. Deron Williams is a bonafide superstar, and he, along with the fact that even a moderately talented Jerry Sloan team will win lots of regular season games on fundamentals alone, should get them into the playoff tournament. But to me, they look even less suited for playoff success than last year.

6. Houston Rockets- If Yao Ming is back and healthy, the Rockets could climb way up the West standings. When, exactly, has that ever happened? They have some nice, versatile pieces in Luis Scola, Aaron Brooks, Kevin Martin, Shane Battier and Trevor Ariza, but without a close to 100% Yao, they are a bottom tier playoff team lacking enough inside punch to be a serious threat in the West.

5. San Antonio Spurs- Much has been written about the demise of the Spurs this season, with many people predicting their eventual fall right out of the playoffs. Well, hold on just a minute. They still have Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. They resigned Richard Jefferson. They have up-and-coming talent like DuJuan Blair and George Hill playing big, important minutes. And now, they’ve finally added the elusive 6′ 11″ European star-to-be Tiago Splitter. This is a bigger, better, deeper, more talented team that the one that knocked off The Mavs last year, and could conceivably be a major roadblock to any team with championship aspirations. If not for the injury risk to their big three, they’d be even higher. Plus, if Hill continues on the upswing, free-agent-to-be Parker becomes a great trade chip for filling needs later this season.

4. Phoenix Suns- The Suns are another team being written off by just about everyone after the loss of Amare Stoudemire. Again, not quite so fast. After adding Hedu Turkoglu and Josh Childress to an already deep roster, this team has the ability to score tons of points and create matchup nightmares against just about anyone. Add to that the fact that Goran Dragic has grown to the point that team icon Steve Nash won’t need to play 40 minutes a night, and the Suns most definitely haven’t set out West. By the end of this season, it’s far more likely that Stoudemire will miss Phoenix much more that they will miss him.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder- Usually, when a young team comes out of nowhere to suddenly make noise, I’m a little leery of whether they can back it up the next season. OKC is an exception. Kevin Durant is a legit MVP-caliber superstar, and this team is loaded with young, improving talent all over the court. And, unlike most young teams, they play hard defense with high energy. They are a serious threat to unseating the Lakers. Maybe they won’t get it done this season, but their day is most definitely coming.

2. Los Angeles Lakers- Okay, so I pick them second, that doesn’t mean they won’t come out of the West or win it all when all is said and done. What it means is that I think they’ll be a little complacent at times during the dog-days of the regular season. Plus, like it or not, Bryant, Artest, Bynum, Fisher, Gasol et al, aren’t getting any younger and it only makes sense to hold them back some when your real goal is to hoist the trophy at the end. They’re still the best team in the league. The only question is can they stay healthy and motivated enough to get it done?

1. Dallas Mavericks- Dallas had the best record in the league last season after the trade for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood. They’ve added size, strength and athleticism, particularly in the post, and they still have superstar Dirk Nowitzki along with Butler, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, etc, etc. Now, they can possibly score with the faster teams and match up with the stronger teams. I can easily see them getting the best record in the regular season. I can also see them getting beaten in the playoffs. But unlike the past couple years, whoever does beat them is going to earn it.

So if the playoffs were the top 16 teams in the entire league, it’s possible that the West could feature 10-12 of those teams. As it stands, the West will likely again be a conference 1-8 separated by less than five games. And whoever emerges at the end will head into the NBA Finals tested and ready, unlike the winner of the East, who likely will get to coast through a round or two.

Post Miami Apocalypse- The NBA East in 2010-11

So after free agency and more than a few trades, the NBA landscape has been reshaped dramatically. Today, I’ll run down how the new-look Eastern Conference will play out, and tomorrow, it’s a look at the West. There’s been much talk about the “improved” and “deeper” Eastern Conference since all of the transactions began. Really? Where, exactly, do you see that much improvement? Sure Miami and Chicago will be better and Milwaukee might be better, but Orlando, Boston and Atlanta will stay about the same (or regress), with Cleveland totally falling apart and Charlotte likely following. None of the non-playoff teams from last year improved significantly, either. There are possibly 12 or 13 teams in the West who could be legitimate playoff-caliber clubs. The East has 6. That’s some improvement, all right.

15. Toronto Raptors- Worst team in the league. They have absolutely nothing. Not even worth talking about. When Leandro Barbosa is your best player, get ready to start counting ping pong balls for the 2011 Harrison Barnes sweepstakes. Twenty wins would be an accomplishment.

14. Cleveland Cavaliers- A lot of people are being very generous with their assessments of the Cavs post-Lebron, some even going so far as to suggest possible playoff basketball. Sure, I feel for them, too, but let’s be real here. Without James, this team flat sucks. By the end of the season, they will have moved every tradeable piece on the roster (except J.J. Hickson) and will be praying for a dynamic high lottery pick. If they reach half of their win total from last season, Byron Scott should be Coach of the Year.

13. Charlotte Bobcats- Hope you enjoyed the playoffs, guys, ’cause it’s back to the lottery. Larry Brown will be out of town before mid-season, if not sooner. The team, meanwhile, has no scorers (other than Stephen Jackson), limited depth, no point guard and, basically, no chance.

12. Washington Wizards- John Wall looks to be really good and all, but one player, unless his name is Jordan, can’t turn this train-wreck of a roster around. Wait a minute, even Jordan couldn’t make the Wizards a winner. Maybe Yi Jianlian, Al Thornton and Andray Blatche all reach their potential in unison, Wall runs away with rookie of the year, Arenas comes back as a superstar and Washington finds the playoffs. Then again, maybe not.

11. Philadelphia 76ers- This is a mis-matched hodge-podge of a roster with borderline useless and virtually untradeble parts like Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand. And in case no one noticed, Mr. Can’t Miss rookie Evan Turner stunk it up in the summer league. I’d put the over-under at 30 wins.

10. New Jersey Nets- I actually considered making the Nets a playoff team, even though the 12-win franchise added nothing of consequence but a project power-forward in Derrick Favors and some actual good teams’ bench rejects like Jordan Farmar and Travis Outlaw. That is how bad the bottom 2/3 of the East is these days, this kind of off-season passes for positive progress. Still, they could win 15-20 more games than last season if for no other reason than a big chunk of the conference fell back to their sorry level.

9. Detroit Pistons- Fairly soon, Rip Hamilton and Tayshawn Prince will be goners, leaving Detroit bereft of anyone who even remotely knows about winning basketball games. Even so, they’re better than most of the trash making up the bulk of the East. 35 wins would be a great season. And it could net a playoff spot. That’s pretty sad.

8. Indiana Pacers- How is it that a team that won 32 games last season, and has added absolutely nothing in the off-season, can ascend to the playoffs? Do I have to say that the East is really, really lousy one more time? Indiana has the best player on any of the teams from 7-15 in Danny Granger. They have a couple serviceable parts around him, and as good a shot as anyone. The Hawks 2010 playoff record of getting beat by a combined 101 points in a four-game sweep could be in jeopardy.

7. New York Knicks- So the Knicks executed their plan after all, and it may well get them back into playoff basketball. With Amare Stoudemire, Anthony Randolph and Raymond Felton added to coach Mike D’antoni’s system, they will be exciting and score some points. The added benefit of all three of those guys no longer having to worry about defense helps, too. That, and the fact that not one of the teams below them look capable of even reaching 35 wins makes a playoff appearance not only possible, but even likely. Maybe we should just give the top two teams in the East a bye this season.

6. Boston Celtics- Sure, they’ll win the Atlantic Division, probably by a wide margin, but this team, over a long season, is another year older and more like the one that played .500 ball for the last 50 games or so last year. They may be able to upset someone when the playoffs roll around, if they have enough healthy pieces on the floor, but another title run? I don’t think so. Remember, they’ll have to play at least the first couple months with Jermaine O’Neal at center instead of Kendrick Perkins. That’ll work wonders for their toughness and rebounding.

5. Milwaukee Bucks- The sexy pick for an under-the-radar, up and coming team in the East. Why’s that? Because they over-paid for journeymen John Salmons and Drew Gooden and traded for Corey Maggette. Uh-huh. If Andrew Bogut comes back as the same player as last season and Brandon Jennings continues to progress, the Bucks could get home court in the first round. Otherwise, it’s likely a one-and-done playoff run.

4. Chicago Bulls- The Bulls have added Kyle Korver and Carlos Boozer. And the Jazz, both of their former team, spent about 15 seconds weeping their loss and replacing them. Joaquim Noah and Derrick Rose are both big stars, and that alone makes Chicago one of the better teams in the East and the likely replacement for Cleveland as central Division Champion. Taj Gibson has a nice upside, Luol Deng can score some when he’s actually healthy enough to play. The Bulls will be much better than last year, but they’re still a second or third tier contender that can’t beat the big boys.

3. Atlanta Hawks- Atlanta caught hell for massively over-paying for Joe Johnson. But that kept a team together that won 53 games and a first round series last year. Another season together could mean a few more wins before a second round stomping again. This is the very image of a good to great regular season team that doesn’t have what it takes to win when it counts most.

2. Miami Heat- After The Decision by Lebron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwayne Wade and a crew of over-rated or has-been veterans on the Heat, many people have been anointing the team as the winner of the next 5 or 6 championships. Well, the top-heavy talent notwithstanding, not so fast. First off, this is the season where Chris Bosh gets exposed as a fraud. He’s going to have to rely on the occasional scraps falling from ball-hogging Wade and James. When mid-season rolls around and Bosh is averaging about 15 or 16 ppg, let’s see how happy he is to have taken less money to end up in Miami. Bosh is a guy who has put up monster numbers for years on bad Toronto teams with no other viable scorers. CB4’s contract will go down as one of the worst of this free-agent season. Secondly, Mike Miller is nice and all but he really hasn’t been a relevant performer since winning sixth man for Memphis in 2006-07 season. Udonis Haslem was a great role player when the Heat won the title five years ago. Everyone else they’ve signed is a washed up vet. Thirdly, with Lebron and Wade’s propensity to pound the ball looking for their own glory, is there any chance that Miami will be able to run even the slightest semblance of an offense? They’ll win lots of games in the regular season on sheer talent, but when the playoffs roll around, that kind of basketball doesn’t win very often. Plus, if they struggle at any point this season, how quickly will the inevitable “fire Erik Spoelstra, Pat Riley’s taking over” media circus become deafening? By the end of this year, Riley could conceivably be saying about the “Miami Thrice” experiment, “well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

1. Orlando Magic- So does that mean that Orlando will get back to the Finals? Well, no. They still have the same problems as last year; Dwight Howard hasn’t matured or grown enough as a player, and they still have notorious shrinking violets Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter as key guys for a title run. Still, they have continuity on their side, unlike anyone but Atlanta in the East, will probably get near or above 60 wins again and lose somewhere along the way. Barring a major trade that reshapes these guys a bit, The Magic will disappear in the money season one more time.

So the East is pretty far from the beastly conference we’re being told it is. Barring Miami really getting things together quickly, and/or Orlando and Chicago adding another genuine prime time player via trade at some point, whoever comes out of the East this year will get soundly whipped by the West champion. The East is not, in fact, deeper or stronger than last season. It’s just the opposite; weaker overall and a far more shallow pool of really good teams. Don’t buy into the hype.

Lebron Abdicates Throne

We’ve been sold a bill of goods. From his time as the most hyped high school athlete in history, Lebron James has been packaged as someone on the track to become the greatest basketball player to ever lace ’em up. And for a while, it looked as though that hype would be justified. Then, after two playoff beat downs in consecutive seasons to Orlando and Boston, the only other viable contenders in Cleveland’s conference, Lebron’s veneer of supreme confidence cracked.

He quit on his team in the Boston series, he created a media frenzy designed and executed to be a month-long ego stroking, all the while jerking around the hometown Cleveland fans he professed to care so much about but had no intention of returning to. He even announced his decision on an hour-long special that suggests that he’s bigger than the game, and his choice is more important than any previous signing in history.

All of this effort to convince us that Lebron is bigger, better and generally superior to everyone else. And what was his choice? Where will Lebron create his new kingdom? Well, it turns out that the player we have been told is the greatest ever is throwing in the towel on his legacy, and choosing to be just a Lord, Duke or some other noblemen under a new king with his own court. King James is dead. Long live King Wade.

This decision is perhaps the single most cowardly choice I’ve ever witnessed from an elite athlete. Could you imagine Michael Jordan announcing on national television that the pressure of carrying the Bulls, and the league itself is just too much, so he’s going to sign with Utah to play shooting guard for Stockton and Malone? To be certain, the Jazz with Jordan would win a title or three, but is there any way he would be sitting atop the pantheon of the all-time best right now?

Let’s look at the choices Lebron passed up:

1. New York Knicks- the biggest stage on the planet, and an opportunity to build a champion for a long-suffering major market.

2. New Jersey Nets- chance to raise an historically bad franchise to the heights of champions, and you get to take over New York when they move to Brooklyn in a couple years.

3. Chicago Bulls- make a head-long challenge at Jordan’s formidable legacy.

4. L.A. Clippers- challenge the great Lakers for supremacy of Los Angeles and build a champion out of the worst franchise in all of professional sports.

5. Cleveland- stay true to your roots, despite the disadvantages and bring an end to the city’s championship dry spell.

All five of these options have one thing in common, they all represent a supreme challenge that, if met, would guarantee James a place among the best of the best. But instead, he took the easy way out. Instead of spearheading a team to greatness, Lebron will play second fiddle to another superstar, further increasing Dwayne Wade’s place in history while putting an effective ceiling on his own. Hell, this isn’t even his team and it never will be.

It has long been accepted in NBA circles for veteran stars on the downside of their career to sign on with a star-laden team in an attempt to get a ring, but other than Shaq, who very few would argue today was ever much more than an over-hyped mercenary, I have a hard time recalling any young superstar entering his prime willingly taking a back seat to another star. Even Shaq took control of L.A. from Kobe.

But perhaps worst of all is the absolute certainty that I have that this decision was made long ago. All of this hype and rumor-mongering about “The Decision” was an elaborate show designed to keep everyone guessing when the principles involved already knew the outcome. It definitely gives a new perspective to Lebron’s number change that was supposed to be in honor of Michael Jordan. In reality, Lebron likely knew he’d need to change from 23 because that number is one of four retired by the Heat. It also raises some disturbing questions about his playoff performance against Boston. Is is conceivable that Lebron actually quit on purpose? After all, if I’m right, he’d already bailed on Cleveland, we just didn’t know it yet.

This is a sad day for the NBA, and will be even sadder if the expected titles follow. Lebron has destroyed any chance of being the best ever, and three of the top 10 players in the league plus a legendary coach have shown nothing but disrespect to the rest of the league for executing this sham. If there’s any justice, these guys won’t be rewarded with a ring.

Published in: on July 10, 2010 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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