That Wacky NBA
Posted by Ross
Imagine a baseball season where the New York Yankees are languishing 5 games below .500, where the Boston Red Sox fans have been saying "wait til next year" midway through May, and where the haplesss Devil Rays are the class of the division.
Okay, so that scenario will likely not be played out this baseball season, but a similar one is playing out in the wild NBA this season.
I'm an Oregonian, and have been a Trail Blazers fan as long as I've been a basketball fan. Watched those great Clyde Drexler-led, Adelman-coached Blazers teams of the early 90s make the finals twice. Then, later on, watched the Dunleavy-coached, Rasheed Wallace-led Blazers push the mighty Lakers to the fourth quarter of a game 7 conference finals, before LA went on to beat the Pacers in the first of their "three-peat."
Until last season, the Blazers had had an NBA-record run of 22 consecutive playtoff seasons snapped when they finished with a 41-41 record, in ninth place. Hell, this season, we WISH the Blazers were that good. Right now they're 24-44, with the only thing Blazers fans can be hopeful for is a high lottery pick that yields a dominant center.
Living in LA, I've not forsaken the Blazers as my favorite team, but I've definitely grown to love the Lakers. It wasn't too hard with the Shaq quotables and Zen-master Phil Jackson at the helm, with Malone and Payton, and even troubled Kobe leading the charge last season.
There was a point this season when the Lakers, led by Kobe, the only Laker star left standing after they were stunned by the Pistons in last year's finals, looked like they were a lock for one of the four bottom playoff spots in the Western Conference.
What a difference a seven-game losing streak makes. Now the Lakers find themselves with an abysmal 32-36 record, in tenth place in the division, six-games back of eight seed Denver, and 3 games back of 9th place Minnesota.
Did somebody say "9th place Minnesota"? Believe it or not, former powerhouse Minnesota has been sucking some serious balls this season, even with MVP Kevin Garnett having his usual stellar season. And these guys don't even have the excuse of having lost Shaq.
But going back to the Lakers' monumental collapse. This is reminiscent of what happened to the Jordan-Pippen-Jackson-led Bulls after they won their sixth championship in eight years, in which, great as they were, with no signs of dropping off (should personel stay in place), they just got dismantled. Almost as if the owners, players and coaching staff all reached this silent agreement (with the fans outta the loop, of course) in which they would all move on.
In the 90s, there was much symmetry in the NBA. The Pistons won their second championship in as many years over the Blazers. Then the Bulls went on to win three straight. Jordan retired just when Hakeem Olajuwon was the best player in the world, leading the Rockets to two straight championships. Jordon comes back, leads the Bulls to another three-peat. Then he retires, the Bulls break up and drop like an anvil, while the Spurs emerge as champs in the strike-shortened '99 season. Then it's three-straight for the Lakers, bookeneded, a year later by the Spurs. Then the Pistons.
It's been like a book, and, perhaps, with the Pistons winning their third championship to end this cycle, it's time for a new book to be written.
First of all, don't look now, but the Eastern Conference, finally proving it's no slouch with the Pistons' trouncing of my Lakers last June, sees Shaq's new team the Miami Heat with the league's second-best record.
Also, those zany Washington Wizards, the team that not even the great Michael Jordan himself could bring back to playoff life, is the number three seed (yes, they are only seven games over .500, but it's still quite an accomplishment).
Also, you gotta be interested in the Celtics (4th seed and rising), who've gotten Antoine Walker back in the trading deadline's shrewdest transaction.
Last season, as the Lakers were voluntarily dismantling itself, they traded a very unhappy Gary Payton to the Celtics. GP was furious, feeling disrespected after signing, just a year prior, a contract well-below his worth to play PG for Phil Jackson, to play alongside Shaq and Kobe and Malone, to win that championship that had been denied him while with Seattle, when Jackson and Jordan beat the crap outta the Sonics in the '96 NBA finals.
But Celtics' coach Doc Rivers, a great PG in his day, implored Payton to stay with the Celtics. And then, before the trade deadline, the Celtics traded GP and others to the Hawks for Walker and others. GP refused to report to the lowly Hawks (a league-worse 11-58... ouch!), his contract was nullified, and he re-signed with the Celtics.
So, like Shaq, GP definitely gets the last laugh on the Lakers.
So the NBA east, though still boasting heavyweights like Miami and Detroit, is still the weaker conference in all, with its current number eight seed Philadelphia at .500, as opposed to the West, where their number eight seed Denver (re-animated and lethal once more after George Karl took the helm) is at .559.
In the West, it's been a competitive free-for-all for years, where you may have a .600 winning percentage, and still be a six or seven seed. This year, the six seed, Sacramento, has a .606 winning percentage.
But kicking some serious ass this season is number one seed Phoenix, resurgent after missing the playoffs last season, with former Suns draft pick Steve Nash back from Dallas at the point, and emerging, and undersized, superstars Shawn Marion at power forward, and Amare Stoudamire, at 6'10", plugging the middle.
Also, Seattle has somehow continued to win. The Sonics are the three seed in the west, .706, in spite of a roster that, though balanced and fast and talented and built in the image of its coach Nate McMillan, doesn't boast the same kind of star power as Phoenix.
Yes, it's a new world. Remember perennial playoff contender Utah? No Stockton, no Malone, and they're in second-to-last place, .319. Remember perennial playoff contender New Orleans (once the Charlotte Hornets)? They moved to the western conference this season, and, now they're even worse than Utah, last place, .232.
Remember the woeful Vancouver Grizzlies, that miserable franchise that signed Big Country Reeves to a tragically fat contract that seemed more indicative of the center's girth than his quickly declining skills. Well, they moved to Memphis, and now they're about to make their second consecutive (and second overall) playoff berth, as the number seven seed out west.
I could keep going, but Raznor ain't payin' for this revolutionary sports analysis, so I can just up and stop writing at any