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Where An Amazing Four-Part Preview Happens

Part 2: Top grade now goes to the C’s

The season is two weeks old, but it's not too late for Bill Simmons to serve up his biggest NBA preview ever.

If you missed Part 1 of the retroactive Eastern Conference preview, click here. Here’s a look at the revamped list of playoff teams:

8. MIAMI HEAT
Preseason prediction: 43 wins (fourth)
Revised prediction: 40 wins

Shaquille O'NealPoor Shaq. In the past few months, he suffered an ugly and unexpected split with his wife, Shaunie. Then Dwyane Wade’s return got pushed back a few weeks. Then his team traded for Mark Blount and Ricky Davis, two guys who could lower your white blood cell count just by staring at you long enough. Then Detroit chose to single him on opening night with Rasheed Wallace — like he was Joel Przybilla or something — and even worse, he couldn’t make them pay for it. Then he had to endure a week of “Shaq’s washed up!” stories, like this idea came out of nowhere or something (didn’t anyone see the Bulls series last year?). Come on, he’s 36 years old. He has been in the league for 16 seasons. You were really expecting a 25-12 every night from Shaq at this point?

Of course, only one thing could ignite Shaq’s career at this point: The Lakers appeasing Kobe by making a panic offer for Shaq (Andrew Bynum, Vlad Radmanovic and Kwame Brown’s expiring contract), followed by Shaq and Kobe joining forces again on a suddenly intriguing Lakers team.

Now that would be a riveting sports story. In all seriousness, which team wouldn’t make that trade? If you were the Lakers, why wouldn’t you roll the dice with a Shaq-Kobe reunion that would become the dominant L.A. sports story over trading Kobe for 60 cents on the dollar and starting over? And wouldn’t Miami jump at the chance to crawl out from under Shaq’s contract when Alonzo Mourning and Mark Blount are waiting to take his place? Hmmmmmmm. Unfortunately, Wade’s imminent return means Miami will stand pat, climb back into the playoff race and eventually lose in the first or second round after Davis goes 3-for-23 in a deciding game.

Reason No. 12,357 why I love the NBA: The improbable Penny Hardaway comeback. Did you ever think Shaq and Penny would be reunited after Shaq unleashed that transcendent Corleone analogy where he compared Kobe to Sonny, Wade to Michael and Penny to Fredo? Now they’re back! Water under the bridge! More importantly, where is Matt Nover during all of this? The Heat couldn’t have signed him as a 15th man?

7. NEW JERSEY NETS
Preseason prediction: 45 wins (fifth)
Revised prediction: 41 wins

Vince CarterYou’re not going to believe this, but Vince Carter signed a mammoth contract extension last summer, looked sluggish and disinterested during the first few games, then suffered an ankle injury and looks like he’s headed to the injured list. Who could have seen that coming? Oh, wait, everyone who follows the league. I forgot. Anyway, I don’t know what to make of the Nets. They’re getting a career year from Richard Jefferson, and Jason Kidd is still Jason Kidd, but Nenad Krstic looks shaky after knee surgery and nobody else on the roster is worth a damn except Sean Williams, the electric rookie who fell to the Nets because of some, um, character issues. Even if the Nets extract two quality years from Williams before he self-destructs (shades of Richard Dumas and the Suns), that’s an unexpected boost from a monster shot-blocker/rebounder who gives them something they haven’t had since Kenyon Martin left. To land someone that talented with the 19th pick is just crazy.

From what I’ve seen so far, Williams is clearly the most talented rookie other than Kevin Durant, Al Horford and Greg Oden (in absentia). He’s a game-changer. He’s also someone who had the most character red flags of any potential lottery pick since Eddie Griffin … and, um, Eddie Griffin is dead. There’s no way anyone can predict how this could play out. I could see Williams averaging a double-double from December through April. I could see him failing a drug test (like he did back in college in 2005) even as I’m typing this paragraph. I could see him getting a triple-double with points, rebounds and blocks. I could see him showing up on Season 5 of “The Wire” and shooting Snoop or Marlo. I am prepared for ANYTHING from the Sean Williams Era. But at long as he’s getting minutes and staying out of trouble, the Nets are a top-six team in the East whether Vince Carter is interested or not.

Reason No. 12,358 why I love the NBA: Sean Williams’ alma mater? Boston College.

6. CHICAGO BULLS
Preseason prediction: 56 wins (first)
Revised prediction: 42 wins

Luol DengMaybe we should have foreseen a mini-collapse because the formula of “young players + swirling trade rumors” is a recipe for disaster. (Note: I’m one of the idiots who ignored this possibility and picked the Bulls to sneak into the Finals, although I didn’t anticipate Luol Deng and Ben Gordon consulting with Emeka Okafor before passing up lucrative extensions, causing much of the uncertainty we’re seeing right now.) But nobody could have predicted the Bulls would implode this quickly, or that Chicago’s fans would chant Kobe’s name during home games and destroy the team’s collective confidence in the process. If you watched the blowout loss to Toronto, then you know how dangerous this situation has become. The Bulls had about as much energy and vigor as the bank hostages right after they were released in “Inside Man.” By the third quarter, the Chicago crowd was chanting for Kobe — shades of the Hickory High crowd chanting for Jimmy Chitwood, only GM John Paxson never grabbed a microphone and yelled, “This is your team!” After the game, T.J. Ford even asked a reporter, “What’s going on with that team?”

Here’s the short answer: Scott Skiles has done a dreadful job of coaching them so far. Let’s see, Gordon is the best sixth man in the league, Ty Thomas provides instant energy off the bench … and Skiles is starting both of them??? Whaaaaaaat??? I’m with Sam Smith here — why not start Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Andres Nocioni, Deng and Kirk Hinrich, then bring the energy/pace-changing guys (Gordon, Thomas, Thabo Sefolosha and Jo Noah) off the bench? Or would that make too much sense? Once Skiles figures out the minutes, they’ll be fine. If he can’t figure it out, he’ll be gone.

Here’s the long answer: Paxson should have kept Tyson Chandler instead of signing Wallace; he should have made sure they had enough contracts to make a run at Kevin Garnett if he ever became available (seriously, how did the Bulls screw that up???); and he never should have even returned Mitch Kupchak’s phone calls if he honestly felt Deng was untouchable. How the hell are you getting Kobe without giving up Deng? You think Lakers fans would be excited to pay $500 a ticket to see Gordon and Thomas? More importantly, how is Deng untouchable? What am I missing here? He’s a very good young player. I like him a lot … but Kobe Bryant is on the table!!!! He’s the best player in the league! I can’t stop using exclamation points!!!!

Reason No. 12,359 why I love the NBA: Seeing how the Chandler/Wallace thing worked out. To be honest, I just love being right. It happens so rarely. We’ve reached the point where Joe Dumars should send Christmas gifts to the Paxson family every year with a card that reads, “Thank you for having two sons who allowed me to control the Central Division for most of this decade.”

5. TORONTO RAPTORS
Preseason prediction: 39 wins (ninth)
Revised prediction: 43 wins

Jamario MoonThe crazed Raptors fans might be the single craziest group of fanatics on the Web other than the 9/11 Truthers. You should have seen my e-mail inbox after I had the gall to pick Toronto to miss the playoffs for some very sane reasons — namely, that Chris Bosh was having knee problems, they have four key guys who are below-average defenders (Andrea Bargnani, Ford, Jason Kapono and Jose Calderon), and they overachieved in a weaker conference last season. Of course, I wasn’t counting on Carlos Delfino and Jamario Moon emerging from nowhere to give them defense and athleticism from the swingman spots. Carlos Delfino and Jamario Moon??? Really? I was supposed to see that one coming? I didn’t see how they could match up against the LeBrons, Wades and Pierce/Allen combos, but Delfino’s emergence alone has been intriguing enough that I had to bump them up four wins.

Reason No. 12,360 why I love the NBA: When he’s not sending Christmas gifts to the Paxson family, Dumars is watching Delfino thrive in Toronto and Darko thrive in Memphis with the same look on his face that Norv Turner had during the second half of the Chargers-Colts game.

Reason No. 12,361 why I love the NBA: The Raptors fans are like overbearing Little League parents, only in this case, they’re passionate about an NBA team instead of a Little League son. What do you mean my kid isn’t good enough??? He’s one of the best hitters on this team! You just don’t like him, that’s the real problem here! And by the way, that’s not a knock. If every city cared about its team as much as the Toronto cares about the Raps, the NBA would be a much better place.

4. ORLANDO MAGIC
Preseason prediction: 36 wins (13th)
Revised prediction: 44 wins

Rashard LewisI still think Vegas’ over/under for Orlando (46.5) was too high. I still think the Magic paid about $50 million too much for Rashard Lewis considering nobody else was bidding for him. I still can’t understand why they renounced Darko’s rights to find extra money for Lewis’ offer that didn’t need to be found. I still like exactly four guys on their roster, and I still don’t think they make a 2008 run without packaging their expiring contracts (Carlos Arroyo, Keyon Dooling, Keith Bogans and/or Pat Garrity) for one more high-salaried veteran … which wouldn’t make sense because they have enough cap space for one more marquee free-agent signing, potentially leading to the following phone call between Magic GM Otis Smith and Corey Maggette’s agent on July 1:

    Otis: “Hey, we’d really love to make an offer for Corey.”

    Agent: “Sure thing, we were hoping you guys would call. I’m listening.”

    Otis: “What about five years, $55 million?”

    Agent: “Hmmmm … what about six years, $330 million?”

    Otis: “Done! I’ll have our lawyers draw up a contract!”

So why put them fourth? Because they stumbled into a definitive identity: Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu handle the scoring, Dwight Howard handles the boards, Jameer Nelson and Arroyo handle the ball and everyone else is just happy to be there. It’s a simple basketball team with a smart coach and an efficient goal. Our best three guys are going to score 60 points and make half their shots, and maybe we aren’t the greatest defensive team, but if we’re playing a close game, we have two solid scoring options and a big guy who protects the rim and grabs every rebound. By contrast, Washington’s big three scores 60 a game while missing three of every five shots, and the Wizards can’t rebound, play defense or protect the rim. Which team would you rather have?

Reason No. 12,362 why I love the NBA: During a 120-minute stretch of basketball last week, Lewis grabbed seven rebounds total against the Knicks, T-Wolves and Raptors. During his revenge win over the Sonics on Tuesday, he grabbed six rebounds in 30 minutes. So if you’re scoring at home, Rashard Lewis doesn’t mind grabbing a few rebounds, but he has to be properly motivated. By the way, he’s on the books for $23.7 million for the 2012-13 season.

Reason No. 12,363 why I love the NBA: The thought of Larry Bird drunk-dialing Otis Smith and asking, “Hey, Otis, I wanted to see if you guys had any interest in trading me the rights to Fran Vazquez for Danny Granger” before giggling and hanging up.

3. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
Preseason prediction: 39 wins (ninth)
Revised prediction: 45 wins

LeBron JamesI picked the Cavs to miss the playoffs for a variety of reasons (better conference, lousy supporting players, year-after hangover, the holdouts by Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic), but mainly because LeBron seemed like such a strong candidate to break down after a 100-game season and the Olympic Trials. Then I was sitting in the crowd last weekend as LeBron was pulling a Bo Jackson against the Clippers, eventually deciding, “What was I thinking? He’s a force of nature; he’s never breaking down.” You could swing a five-wood into his legs as he’s driving to the basket and he wouldn’t notice, for God’s sake. He’s ridiculous. He even added a new wrinkle to his game this season — suddenly, he gives a crap about playing defense, and it’s not uncommon to see him jumping into passing lanes for steals like Scottie Pippen and unleashing Kirilenko-style blocks from the weak side. MJ affected games on both ends; LeBron is starting to follow suit.

So yeah, the Cavs are making the playoffs. I don’t know what I was thinking. As long as they’re getting 78-80 games from LeBron, they’re finishing .500 even if he’s surrounded by the NBA Supporting Cast Pu Pu Platter … which Danny Ferry tried to give him and nearly succeeded if not for the occasional Drew Gooden double-double and Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ improbable resurgence. Big Z!!! Who knew??? Did he lose weight? Did he come up with a foot remedy that we don’t know about? How long can this last? He hasn’t moved this well in five years; it’s completely inexplicable. I mean, if Big Z can hook himself up to the Juvenation Machine, maybe Larry Hughes will remember how to shoot, dribble, pass and play defense again. Anything’s possible.

(On second thought … nahhhhhhh.)

Now, the bad news. I had seats behind the visitor’s bench for Sunday’s Cavs-Clippers game, which was perfect because I love keeping track of all the bench guys who watch the Jumbotron, don’t listen to their coach, search the crowd for girls and crack jokes during 25-point blowouts, and I love the player-coach interactions and even hearing the coaches yell at players and referees if it’s quiet enough. You just get a great feel for the general mood and spirit of the visiting team (good or bad). During the third quarter, LeBron drove toward the foul line and made a beautiful dish to Gooden, who didn’t gather himself for the pass in time. As the ball bounced out of bounds, a frustrated LeBron jogged back up the court staring at the coaches with one of those, “Did you see that? You saw that, right?” looks on his face. And that would have been fine if it ended right there. After all, we get it — he’s great, the rest of his team sucks, and occasionally, it’s going to be a little exasperating.

Well, LeBron wasn’t done. He glanced back disdainfully at Gooden again, then back to the bench for an extended pseudo-glare. Reading between the lines, I interpreted the glare to mean either, “Take him out of the game before I punch him in the face” or “If that happens again, I’m running straight into the locker room, getting my stuff and chartering my own jet home.” At this point, Gooden was running back upcourt and watching the whole thing — he was officially getting shown up in front of 15,000 people. LeBron shook his head and glanced at Gooden one more time, then back at the bench for a third time, just in case they missed the message the other two times. What a bizarre sequence to watch from 20 feet away. After tasting the Finals and earning some well-deserved media hype last spring, it’s pretty clear LeBron won’t accept the Cavs taking a gigantic step backward and becoming a non-contender again. But that’s where they’re headed. Stay tuned.

Reason No. 12,364 why I love the NBA: The Cavs are paying $30 million this season for Larry Hughes, Damon Jones, Eric Snow, Donyell Marshall and Ira Newble.

2. DETROIT PISTONS
Preseason prediction: 50 wins (second)
Revised prediction: 52 wins

Rasheed WallaceI wrote this section five different ways and each section was more boring than the last one, mainly because we’ve been watching this Pistons nucleus for so long I’ve run out of things to say about them. They’re like the “ER” of NBA teams — I know people are watching, I know the ratings are fine, but it feels like they’ve exhausted every possible story line and it might be time to wrap it up.

So let’s save some time and ask one simple question about the ’08 Pistons: If they didn’t have enough last year, why would anyone think they have enough this year? Over the summer, they drafted Rodney Stuckey, signed Jarvis Hayes and planned to lean on Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell a little more. Other than that? Status quo. I mean, it’s one thing to bring everyone back when you’re a title contender, but did anyone feel like last year’s Pistons team could have hung with the Spurs? So why press the RESET button and start another season like nothing ever happened? I don’t get it.

Reason No. 12,365 why I love the NBA: A Detroit News article this week described the high basketball IQ of an NBA player who can run every play in his team’s playbook from all five positions. That player? Rasheed Wallace. This floored me for some reason. Does this mean we could be headed for head coach Rasheed Wallace some day? What’s the record for most ejections of a coach in a single season?

1. BOSTON CELTICS
Preseason prediction: 49 wins (third)
Revised prediction: 62 wins

Kevin GarnettThere’s no comparable situation in sports history to Pierce, Allen and KG finding each other at the same exact, “I don’t care about stats, I don’t care about credit, I just want to win” point of their careers. These guys aren’t just hungry, they’re Fat Dickie’s Hungry. (I’ll explain in a second.) They’ve played six straight games like they were playoff games, and even when they were winning by 35 against Denver last week, none of those three guys wanted to let up. It’s like they were avenging every blowout loss that happened to every crappy team they played on these last three years. Can they maintain that passion for nine straight months? Frankly, I don’t know.

But here’s what we do know: Defensively, they have a chance to become as good as San Antonio. Offensively, they have a big man who draws double-teams and two perimeter guys who can create quality shots whenever they want. And they’re nearly impossible to beat at home because of the reborn crowd and KG’s ongoing William Wallace impression. The first half of the Denver game was the single greatest display of basketball by a Celtics team since January 4, 1991, and that team could have won the title if Larry Bird’s back never went out. For all the die-hard Celtics fans who spent the next 16 years wondering if their team would ever matter again, watching the Nuggets get eviscerated was like watching a beloved relative emerge from a coma or something. It’s one thing to have a good team; it’s another thing to have a great team. These guys didn’t want to just beat Denver, they wanted to break the Nuggets’ will. And they did. This team will win 60 games if it stays healthy. At least.

(As for the Fat Dickie’s reference … when I was in college, every once in a while, my buddy House and I would get tired of campus food and drive to a barbecue place called Fat Dickie’s. Then we’d order an obscene amount of food and chow down — we wouldn’t even talk; we’d just be intensely plowing through the barbecue and occasionally nodding at one another. That’s what Pierce, Allen and KG have been like all season. They’re Fat Dickie’s Hungry. It’s a whole other level.)

Reason No. 12,366 why I love the NBA: You can’t even imagine KG’s crazed demeanor during these home games in Boston with a great crowd pumping him up. He looks like Jonathan Papelbon coming out of the bullpen with a one-run lead, only he stays like that for two and a half solid hours. It’s incredible. His teammates are alternately enthralled and terrified by him, and honestly, so are the fans. He’s a man on a mission. He’s possessed. He’s a borderline lunatic. Remember when Ronnie Lott had half of a broken pinky amputated so he wouldn’t miss the ’85 playoffs? You get the feeling that KG would do the same so he wouldn’t miss a mid-January home game against the Hornets. And after admiring him in person for five games, my delighted father (a 34-year season ticket holder) revised his “Favorite Celtics Ever” list, bumped Dave Cowens down a spot and named Kevin Garnett “1B” behind Larry Bird’s “1A.” Five games! That’s all it took. I’m going out on a limb and saying this was a good trade.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column — as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more — check out the revamped Sports Guy’s World.

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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