Where An Amazing Four-Part Preview Happens

Learning about sports from a 2½-year-old

A new look at how the West will be won

Bill Simmons wraps up his preview of the NBA season by taking on the Western Conference. Story

We already covered the Eastern Conference in Part 1 and Part 2 of my Four-Part Retroactive NBA Preview. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I was able to cram all my Western Conference thoughts into one column, forcing us to revise the title to the “Four-Part Retroactive NBA Preview That Actually Ended Up Being Three Parts.”

One other note: To clarify the concerns of a few confused readers, revised predictions from the FPRNPTAEUBTP don’t count as real predictions, just predictions that I wish I had made after watching a couple weeks of games. For on-the-record purposes, I’m still stuck with the ones from my Quick-Hit NBA Preview. So, yes, I’m on the record as saying the Bulls would win 56 games and make the Finals. Believe me, I know. Well aware. Hearing you loud and clear.

Anyway …


Simmons (74-77-9): Packers (-3) over LIONS; Jets (+14) over COWBOYS; Colts (-12) over FALCONS.

Sports Gal (83-68-8): Packers (-3); Jets +14; Colts -12.

Preseason prediction: 17 wins (15th)
Revised prediction: 14 wins

I wrote it last summer, and I’ll write it again: Other than KG, the only other pieces worth a damn in that Boston-Minny trade were Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes (a mortal lock for free agency) and the rights to Minny’s future No. 1 from the Szczerbiak/Davis trade. That was the best offer for one of the 30 greatest players ever? Tuesday’s Boston Globe reported that Kevin McHale turned down Golden’s State’s draft-day offer of Al Harrington, Monta Ellis, Andris Biedrins and the No. 18 pick, a better haul than Boston’s offer. Could the Wolves have gotten Amare Stoudemire if the Suns threw in Raja Bell and Marcus Banks for cap purposes? Could they have gotten Elton Brand AND Chris Kaman from the Clippers? Could they have gotten Ben Wallace, Luol Deng and the No. 9 pick from Chicago? What about Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown’s expiring contract and the No. 19 pick from the Lakers?

Believe me, I’m not arguing with how it turned out. But what happened with the KG Sweepstakes — McHale giving a discount deal to one of his best friends and helping his old team — was a complete betrayal of every Minnesota fan who loved KG and supported that team. How could they support the franchise after that? Shouldn’t they be organizing boycotts of the games? Check out these four e-mails I received after writing about KG’s impact on the Celtics and tell me that (A) this wasn’t one of the cruelest trades ever inflicted on a fan base, and (B) the owner shouldn’t sell the franchise and give those die-hard Minnesota fans a fresh start. All 790 of them.

Reason No. 12,804 why I love the NBA: Antoine Walker getting traded from a potential playoff team in sunny Miami to a potential 15-win team in freezing Minneapolis. Ouch. That might be the only sports trade with a chance to crack the “Levels of Losing” scale. The good news for Antoine was he had already packed on his extra winter weight.

Reason No. 12,805 why I love the NBA: My ongoing quest to get ESPN.com to change Theo Ratliff’s player card so it reads “Theo Ratliff’s Expiring Contract” instead of “Theo Ratliff.” Don’t count me out. I might have the juice to pull this off.

Preseason prediction: 25 wins (14th)
Revised prediction: 18 wins
Kevin Durant
Speaking of depressed fans, here are the Sonics! They could be watching Kevin Durant learn the ropes from Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis right now — instead, he’s the overmatched crunch-time scorer for a rebuilding young team that’s bolting within the next three years. You have to feel for Seattle fans, who want nothing more than to drink a celebratory triple, nonfat, soy latte while wearing their new $100 Durant jersey that they’re terrified to buy until somebody announces the team is staying. On a personal note, I don’t believe any former NBA champion should ever be allowed to move. This should be in the NBA bylaws and everything. You win a title, you stay in that city forever. Done and done.

Anyway, here’s what I don’t get: The best five Sonics are Durant, Chris Wilcox, Jeff Green, Damien Wilkins and Delonte West, an athletic unit that would work for SmallBall because Wilkins, Green and West rebound better than their sizes. According to 82games.com, they’ve played only nine minutes together this season. Whaaaaaaaat??? This team is crying out for SmallBall! Why play Durant at 2-guard when you could force mismatches by playing him at the 4 against everyone but the Knicks? It’s not like the other guys give them a better chance to rebound and defend. For instance, they played a conventional lineup in Charlotte last weekend, lost by 16 points and got outrebounded 60-38. What do they have to lose? I wish Don Nelson could take this team over for two weeks.

Reason No. 12,806 why I love the NBA: Watching Durant drain a buzzer-beating, off-balance 3 in double-OT to beat Atlanta on Friday. It wasn’t just that Durant came through in his ninth NBA game, it was how easy he made it look — in end-of-the-game situations, he’ll always be able to shoot over his defender because of his … (hold on, give me a chance to sedate Jay Bilas) … (wait, just another second) … (OK, we’re good, he’s down) … incomparable length. We haven’t seen the last of the Durant buzzer-beaters this season. I’m predicting a 30-footer with a hand in his face by March 15.

Preseason prediction: 28 wins (12th)
Revised prediction: 25 wins

Was anyone else disappointed the Kings didn’t move their home games to one of those undersized TV gyms like the one Reggie Theus’ team used in “Hang Time”? Anyway, I’m more excited to play around with them on ESPN.com’s Trade Machine than I am to watch them play; with Mike Bibby (scheduled for a February return), Ron Artest (playing out of his mind right now) and Brad Miller (slightly rejuvenated), it feels like they’re a mega-deal waiting to happen. I’m hoping they rope the Knicks into a nine-player panic trade where the Kings essentially give up two starters (Bibby and Artest), get back David Lee (the best bargain in the league at $990,000 per season), save $3 million, create cap space galore after 2009 and roll the dice that Stephon Marbury salvages his career. It’s a thing of beauty. I’m the Picasso of the Trade Machine.

Reason No. 12,807 why I love the NBA: Kevin Martin has the single ugliest game of anyone with a chance to average 27 points for a season. I watched him drop 45 on the Knicks last Friday (the greatest TV night of the season, by the way) while thinking things like, “How does he even get that slingshot off?” and “If I were five steps faster and three inches taller, I could have been Kevin Martin!”

Preseason prediction: 40 wins (9th)
Revised prediction: 30 wins

If not for Mr. McHale (as described above), they’re trotting out a nucleus of KG, Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, Stephen Jackson, Matt Barnes, Mickael Pietrus and Kelenna Azubuike right now, and we’re not getting to this paragraph for another 2,500 words. Instead, they went in another direction with the curious Richardson trade, which looked shrewd on paper (after all, Jackson, Barnes, Pietrus and Azubuike could cover Richardson’s stats, and Brandan Wright makes five times less money) but ended up killing their season (because they made the fatal mistake of shaking up a hard-to-figure chemistry that was working for whatever reason). Ironically, the Warriors made the exact same mistake in 1991, when they broke up the immensely entertaining “TMC” team by swapping Mitch Richmond for the rights to Billy Owens.

Here’s what I don’t get: That Richardson trade landed them a whopping $10 million trade exception that could be used to acquire any player. Once it became clear in late July that Garnett was ready to bolt, couldn’t the Warriors have offered Harrington, Ellis, Wright, Marco Belinelli AND offered to absorb Mark Blount’s killer contract with that trade exception? That offer dwarfed Boston’s offer, right? Did they make it? We’ll have to wait for all the facts to come out after the T-Wolves fans file the class action suit against McHale and Glen Taylor this winter. I just hope I’m called in as a background witness. I’ll wear a double-breasted suit and everything.

Reason No. 12,808 why I love the NBA: Before double-checking it online, I spelled Azubuike’s name “Kelannie Azabukie.” Off by only six letters.

Reason No. 12,809 why I love the NBA: The “When Will Don Nelson Flee For Hawaii” office pool that everyone in the Bay Area should be starting right now. Go with Feb. 19, when they’re eight games under .500 at the break and Baron Davis announces he’s missing the All-Star Game because he’s getting his knee scoped. Aloha, Hawaii! I’m back, baby! Somebody make me a piña colada!

Preseason prediction: 24 wins (13th)
Revised prediction: 32 wins

Kudos to the Blazers for turning themselves into the only lottery team in either conference with a specific identity: Everyone’s playing hard for Nate McMillan; the home crowds have been great; and there isn’t a single unlikable player on the roster. (Well, until Darius Miles shows up like Ryan’s loser brother in “The OC” and turns everything upside down.). For their first home game, they had Greg Oden introduce the roster to the sellout crowd and it didn’t seem corny at all; if anything, it was one of the neatest moments of the season. Back in mid-September, I wrote that Oden’s knee surgery had the potential to crush this franchise. Instead, the injury brought everyone closer together and made them tougher to beat at home, where the fans carried them to four straight wins over Detroit, Dallas, Memphis and New Orleans. At the very least, nobody will see “at Portland” on the schedule this season and think, “We got that one.”

Now the bad news: Not only will Oden miss the season after microfracture surgery, but Brandon Roy slipped in the 2006 draft specifically because teams were terrified of his right knee (not the red flags from two surgeries as much as all the cartilage Roy was apparently missing). I hate to be a party pooper, but isn’t this the elephant in the room here, that Portland built around the young nucleus of Oden, Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge and two of them already have knee problems? I can’t stop thinking about this every time I watch them play.

Reason No. 12,809 why I love the NBA: The thought of John Paxson thumbing through the USA Today in his office, stumbling across Portland’s latest box score and seeing Aldridge dropped 30 on somebody, closing his eyes in pain for a few seconds, quietly folding the paper and placing it on his desk, opening the bottom drawer of that same desk, pulling out a flask of whiskey, taking a big swig, then firing the flask across the room and shattering a framed photo of the ’92 Bulls team.

Reason No. 12,810 why I love the NBA: Portland has four guys whose last names could be first names (Roy, Blake, Jack and Webster). You’d think this would be the highest number in the league, right? Well, Chicago has a whopping SEVEN guys that qualify: Gordon, Thomas, Wallace, Gray, Noah, Griffin and Curry. That’s why I make the big bucks, for crucial information like that.

Preseason prediction: 42 wins (seventh)
Revised prediction: 35 wins
Mike Conley
The best collection of “guys who you’d like on their own, just not on this particular team.” I’m not kidding, I like every player on their roster right down to Brian Cardinal and Casey Jacobsen and Tarence Kinsey. They don’t have a single stiff from 1 through 15, and the only overpaid guy on the roster is Cardinal (handed a lucrative contract by a temporarily senile Jerry West, who mistakenly confused the balding Cardinal with Bob Pettit).

So what do they need? First, they need to deal Damon Stoudamire so Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley Jr. can play. (Note: I’d call them the best pair of young point guards in the league, but I don’t feel like sifting through 2,500 e-mails from the crazy Raptor Truthers. So let’s just call them “very promising.”) Second, they should deal Stro Swift’s expiring contract in that same Stoudamire deal so Hakim Warrick can play. (Wouldn’t an Orlando trade work with Stoudamire and Swift for expiring contracts and a lottery-protected pick?) And third, they should do NOTHING else unless they can somehow acquire Jorge Garbajosa to watch Univision with Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro. Treat this roster like it’s a frozen pizza — in other words, don’t pull it out of the oven until the crust is nice and crispy and the cheese has some dark-brown splotches on it.

Reason No. 12,811 why I love the NBA: Lowry. I just love him. You’ll see him on a great team at some point — we’re about two or three years away from the Spurs sneaking him onto their roster somehow.

Reason No. 12,812 why I love the NBA: Navarro’s streaky shooting and exceedingly punchable face — he might have the best I’m-better-than-you sourpuss since Bill Laimbeer. Keep an eye on him because this team needs someone with the balls to take and make shots in big games, and I’d rather go to Navarro than Mike Miller. Can Miller really be considered a go-to guy when he’s wearing one of Hannah Storm’s old NBC hairdos right now? I say no.

Preseason prediction: 40 wins (ninth)
Revised prediction: 38 wins

As always, they’re one All-Star away and don’t seem that interested in finding him. Where were the Clips during the KG Sweepstakes and the Iverson Sweepstakes? They have the right mix of expiring deals and young players to make a run at Jason Kidd right now … have they even called New Jersey? Is there a plan here? Is this team trying to rebuild or contend for a title? Are they trying to win 41 games exactly? Why the hell did I renew my tickets again? The only silver linings for season-ticket holders:

A. Chris Kaman’s improbable emergence as the poor man’s Moses Malone, only if Moses was white and hadn’t washed his hair in three years.

B. He used to just look like James Gandolfini. Now, Mike Dunleavy has BECOME James Gandolfini. They’re dead ringers. It’s not quite Omar Epps/Mike Tomlin, but it’s close enough that the Clippers PA guy should blare “Don’t Stop Believing” every time Dunleavy walks out before a home game.

C. Watching Tim Thomas for the first few minutes of a home game and trying to decide if he brought a 41-cent stamp with him or not.

D. The game in March or April after they buy out Sam Cassell (and you know it’s coming), followed by Sam returning with his new team, dropping 25 on the Clips and performing the Testicle Dance for the crowd.

Reason No. 12,814 why I love the NBA: I took my daughter to the Cavs-Clippers game two weeks ago and she sat on my lap for the first three quarters. When Ruben Patterson entered the game, I found myself holding onto her even more tightly than usual. Let’s make sure we add this to the next round of “Where Amazing Happens” commercials. “Where the chance to root for a registered sex offender happens.”

That reminds me, my buddy House and I were on the phone last week trying to come up with the funniest images that could ever appear in a YouTube parody of the “Where Amazing Happens” commercial. We didn’t realize that some YouTubers had already taken the concept and run with it, but here’s the 30-second parody that I would have spliced together if I had the technological savvy:

(Start on a picture of Tim Donaghy.)

“Where crooked referees happen.”

(A picture of Jerome James on the Knicks bench.)

“Where stealing money happens.”

(A picture of the Artest Melee.)

“Where paying spectators getting punched happens.”

(A picture of Stephon Marbury’s SUV.)

“Where a truck party happens.”

(A picture of Brad Miller wearing cornrows.)

“Where white guys who think they’re black happens.”

(A picture of Dwyane Wade not getting fouled by a Dallas player.)

“Where referees deciding a championship happens.”

(A picture of Vince Carter sullenly sitting on the Raptors’ bench.)

“Where quitting on your team happens.”

(Finally, a picture of the NBA logo.)

“Where Amazing Happens.”

Preseason prediction: 37 wins (11th)
Revised prediction: 43 wins

See, Kobe never actually wanted to be traded — he just wanted to show his teammates some tough love! Just kidding. In a roundabout way, the “tough love” approach worked; Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar (a hidden gem), Luke Walton, Ronny Turiaf and Vlad Radmanovic are playing every game like it’s the seventh game of the NBA Finals. And when you think about it, didn’t they HAVE to respond that way? When somebody tells you, “You guys are beneath me. I need to play somewhere else,” there’s no acceptable response other than, “Oh yeah? Watch this, we’re gonna shove it in your face!”

Now things are going so well that Kobe broke a sweat against the Pacers on Tuesday night. For the previous three weeks, he was on business-like cruise control (for him), only he’s so damned good, you couldn’t even tell unless you were watching closely. For instance, they played a guaranteed loss in San Antonio last week in which Kobe attempted zero free throws. Translation: I don’t want to get tripped by Bruce Bowen and screw up a potential trade, so I’m just shooting 20-footers tonight. In retrospect, this was Vince Carter’s biggest mistake — not being good enough to mail it in. Kobe doesn’t have the same problem. And if I’m the Lakers, I’m not even thinking about a trade until January. See what happens over these next few weeks and see if Kobe becomes sufficiently engaged. He’s too competitive to remain on cruise control as long as they’re winning.

By the way, somebody needs to point out to Kobe that his current group of teammates might be better than MJ’s supporting cast in the ’98 playoffs: Scottie Pippen battling a bad back; Toni Kukoc and Steve Kerr; a semi-washed-up Dennis Rodman and a washed-up Ron Harper; Bill Wennington, Luc Longley, Randy Brown and Jason Caffey. Would you rather have that motley crew, or would you rather have a healthy Lamar Odom, Bynum’s young legs, Radmanovic’s shooting, Fisher’s experience, Farmar’s floormanship, Turiaf’s guts, Walton’s savvy and whatever the hell Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm bring to the table? At the very least, it’s debatable, right? Suck it up, Kobe. You proved your point.

Reason No. 12,815 why I love the NBA: Phil Jackson’s body. Remember the old Seinfeld joke about how Rodney Dangerfield wore every routine he ever did on his face? I think Jackson’s body is wearing every game he ever coached. Suddenly it seems like he’s 75 years old and his arms have been turned backward. Maybe that’s what coaching Kobe for a few years does to you — after enough time, you turn into Martin Landau.

Preseason prediction: 48 wins (fifth)
Revised prediction: 46 wins
Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady
I was lukewarm on Houston heading into the season; now I’m lukecold. The Rockets couldn’t get past Utah, then the summer rolled around and they made multiple cosmetic changes — Mike James! Steve Francis! Aaron Brooks! Luis Scola! Rick Adelman! — and everyone got excited, only they have those same five guys who couldn’t beat Utah (Yao, T-Mac, Battier, Alston and Hayes). So really, what’s different about them? Their big guy is still an enormous defensive liability (especially against quicker teams like Phoenix); their best player is still a questionable Big-Game Guy (and that’s being kind); they can’t match up with quick point guards; and they don’t have one of those Dennis Johnson/Manu Ginobili-type playoff guards who can carry them when their top two disappear.

They remain intriguing only because they match up with San Antonio better than anyone except Dallas. I just wish I felt better about Yao, a gifted offensive player who kills them on the defensive end (the real reason they lost to Utah). Protecting a one-point lead on Charlotte’s final possession two weeks ago, they removed Yao from the game for defensive reasons. He’s 7-foot-6! They can’t even trust him to protect the rim? He’s turning into the NBA version of a designated hitter. (A DH with monster numbers … but still, a DH.) They would never shop him in a million years, but if they DID shop him, it would be fascinating to see what they could get for someone who can’t guard Carlos Boozer, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki. Hmmmmm.

Reason No. 12,816 why I love the NBA: Houston GM Daryl Morey somehow trades a washed-up Juwan Howard to Minnesota for Mike James (a valuable guard on a good team), then the T-Wolves decide to trade KG and start over, so they buy out Howard’s contract (don’t you just love Kevin McHale?) and Howard gets signed by one of Houston’s division rivals (Dallas), only this isn’t a bad thing because, again, Juwan Howard is washed up. You know it’s a great trade when it helps your team two times over. More importantly, did I mention his name is Daryl Morey! And he’s white? That’s right, the Reggie Cleveland All-Stars finally have a GM!!! I couldn’t be happier.

Preseason prediction: 43 wins (sixth)

Revised prediction: 48 wins

Here’s how good Chris Paul is: He’s so ridiculously good the Hornets would be a dark-horse title contender if they had their Oklahoma City home crowds (sold out and crazed) and not their New Orleans home crowds (alarmingly bad, as detailed in this Times-Picayune piece). It’s admirable that the NBA stuck with New Orleans, and it was unquestionably the right thing to do … but still, you have to feel for the Hornets’ players and coaches here. You can’t compete for a title without a home-court advantage.

Back to Paul: Dating back 30 years, the only point guards who were beating guys off the dribble this easily and this destructively were Kevin Johnson (early ’90s), Tim Hardaway (early ’90s) and Isiah Thomas (early/mid-’80s). That’s the list. Before he sprained his ankle last weekend, Paul was going wherever he wanted to go; the defenses were like props to him. It was incredible to watch. He had the position completely mastered from a physical standpoint. That’s why, through three weeks, the three most important NBA stories were the rebirth of the Celtics and the dual emergences of Paul and Dwight Howard as “Franchise Players Who Are Good Enough To Compete for a Title Right Now.” The more good teams, the merrier.

Reason No. 12,817 why I love the NBA: The sound of Atlanta fans slamming their heads against their desks right now.

Preseason prediction: 56 wins (third)
Revised prediction: 50 wins

They’ve been everything we expected: High-scoring, competitive, entertaining, practically unstoppable with a 10-point cushion … and during their one true test (the back-to-back in New York and Boston), they folded in the first game and completely rolled over in the second. Can they claw out close games against good teams? Are they tough enough? Can they raise their shoddy defense to a C-plus at the very least? Is George Karl a good enough coach to keep everyone on the same page? Will they start pointing fingers after the first four-game losing streak? There’s a combustible energy about this team, only I’m not sure if it’s a bad thing or a good thing.

Had to mention one thing while we’re here. My favorite quirk about this season has been the number of likable veteran stars and former stars who finally landed in a good situation: Garnett, Allen, Pierce, Iverson, McGrady, Grant Hill, even Baron Davis. It was like messing around with a Rubik’s Cube for the last few years and finally figuring out one of the sides. Now we just have to save Jason Kidd and our work is complete, at least until we send the Marines to Cleveland to save LeBron within the next 18 months. Anyway, seeing Iverson killing himself for a good team has been one of the hidden pleasures of the season so far.

Reason No. 12,818 why I love the NBA: The slight chance Jermaine O’Neal is reading this column, caught that last paragraph and thought, “Wait, what about me???” Sorry, Jermaine. Wipe that sour look off your face for a few games and we’ll talk.

Reason No. 12,819 why I love the NBA: The remote chance of Celtics broadcaster Bob Cousy saying the name “Von Wafer.”

(Speaking of names, did you know that one of the lead characters in “Gossip Girl” is a preppie Manhattan high schooler named Nate Archibald? It’s true. Let’s hope he never starts dating a student named Mo Cheeks or Bobbie Jones. Because that would be weird.)

Preseason prediction: 41 wins (eighth)
Revised prediction: 50 wins
Carlos Boozer
I had them sliding a little this year and didn’t bank on three things: Andrei Kirilenko hooking his chin up to the Juvenation Machine; Ronnie Brewer giving them a legitimate all-around 2-guard; and Jerry Sloan opening things up and allowing his younger players to flourish. Did you ever think you’d see the day when Sloan had the second-highest scoring team in the league? Not only was it the smartest decision for this particular group of guys (particularly Brewer, Kirilenko and Deron Williams), but only a superior coach could change his team’s style of play on the fly that way. Sloan’s seamless adjustment to a faster league has proven that (A) he’s the greatest NBA coach who has never won a title, and (B) there’s a reason his winning percentage is over .600. In a related story, this is one of four Western teams that can definitely win the 2008 title.

One more thing: Everyone blames Danny Ferry and Jim Paxson for screwing up LeBron’s supporting cast with a laundry list of bad signings and bad trades, but nobody ever mentions how Carlos Boozer took advantage of a benevolent blind guy, stabbed the Cavs in the back, signed with Utah and transformed into an elite frontcourt player. If Boozer had re-signed with Cleveland, the Cavs wouldn’t have had cap space to blow on Larry Hughes a year later (so it was almost a double whammy). Would Boozer have been as good playing with LeBron as he has been with an unselfish playmaker like Deron Williams? Tough to say. Either way, Boozer’s departure did as much damage as Paxson and Ferry.

Reason No. 12,820 why I love the NBA: The return of the undersized power forward! Paul Millsap, Jason Maxiell, Brandon Bass, Craig Smith, Chuck Hayes, Big Baby Davis … I just feel bad for Clarence Weatherspoon, Gary Trent and Corliss Williamson, who were clearly just a little ahead of their time (the Pixies, Sonic Youth and Jane’s Addiction of undersized power forwards).

Preseason prediction: 57 wins (second)
Revised prediction: 54 wins

If this was being written last week, I would have done my routine about Dirk’s bizarre summer in Australia (why didn’t we make a bigger deal about the battle-worn MVP fleeing to another continent and possibly having a Chappelle-like breakdown?) and Dallas’ stubborn refusal to overhaul a 64-win team that flopped so memorably against an eighth-seed. But after watching them for a third week, I think they’re OK. The thing is, they DID tweak the team, only the changes were subtle: Jason Terry comes off the bench now (where he has been thriving); DeSagana Diop plays more minutes; and the valuable Brandon Bass gives them much-needed flexibility against quicker lineups.

(Quick aside on Bass: I’ll never forgive Marc Stein for not warning me before the season that the Mavs had a young forward who solved most of their matchup problems from the G-State series. Steiny Mo lives in Dallas, he’s hooked in with the team, he has access to every one of Cuban’s 35 e-mail addresses … and he couldn’t have sent me a courtesy heads-up about their sleeper newcomer? So that’s how it works?)

The question remains: Can you win a title when Dirk is your best player? Probably not. But they match up beautifully with Duncan and the Spurs, and if they can just make it through the first two rounds without playing the Suns, and if they can play the Spurs in the Western finals …

Reason No. 12,821 why I love the NBA: Every Golden State-Dallas game. Have you noticed the number of hyper-competitive regular-season games seems to be increasing? Mavs-Warriors, Lakers-Suns, Spurs-Suns, Cavs-Pistons, Mavs-Suns, Spurs-Mavs, Cavs-Heat, Suns-Warriors, every relatively important Celtics game (they played two ferocious contests against Miami and Orlando just last weekend). … At least two or three times a week, I’ve been watching an NBA game and thinking, “Man, those guys are playing HARD” instead of things like “Wow, these guys are mailing it in” and “Wait, is he stoned???” I think we’re moving in the right direction.

Preseason prediction: 56 wins (fourth)
Revised prediction: 56 wins

I made their case four weeks ago and nothing has changed. They have the best playoff team. That’s all that matters.

Reason No. 12,822 why I love the NBA: I’ve spent some time lately thinking about the Celtics’ resurgence and all the fun things that could happen with them over the next eight months, then I spend some more time wondering why I live 3,000 miles away. (The answer, of course, is I never planned on the Celtics being good again.) But of all the fascinating scenarios that could happen next spring, what would be more absorbing than a Celtics-Spurs Finals so Duncan and KG could decide the “Who’s better?” argument once and for all? From a historical standpoint, you’d have to travel back to the famous Spurs-Rockets series in ’95 (when Hakeem destroyed David Robinson) to find a playoff matchup where two stars battled for something that transcended the series itself.

Of course, they wouldn’t paint it that way — they’d do the whole, “It’s not about Duncan and KG, it’s about the Celtics and the Spurs” routine — but we’d know differently. As far as I’m concerned, Duncan is the greatest power forward ever and the most underappreciated superstar since Moses Malone. But what if KG rolls over him in the NBA Finals? What then? Doesn’t that open the door for a lifetime of, “Yeah, Duncan was good, but if KG had his supporting cast, he would have won seven titles!” arguments? Just the chance that we might settle this once and for all makes me happy. I love when things get settled. You know, kinda like how the “Brady vs. Manning” argument was settled over these past 11 weeks.

Preseason prediction: 64 wins (first)
Revised prediction: Same

The Suns would have clinched the title by pulling off mega-deals for KG (didn’t happen) or Kobe (not happening). So what’s left? They failed to fix two glaring holes (reliable backups for Nash and Stoudemire) or light a fire under Boris Diaw (who can’t seem to recapture his 2005 magic for whatever reason), and Grant Hill’s inability to make 3s nudges them in a slightly less efficient direction. On the flip side, their chemistry is much improved (especially with the bench guys) and Hill helped them in a variety of those Grant Hill ways. It’s a great regular-season team and a dubious playoff contender — the league keeps getting better and they keep going sideways because they’ve been so desperate to avoid the luxury tax and keep selling off draft picks.

Here’s what worries me about them other than Amare’s knee problems: With the exception of Nash (who remains as brilliant as ever), there’s a grimness to them that I don’t remember seeing before. It’s not that they’re dogging it or anything — they’re playing just as hard as always — more like their spirit has been compromised a little. Even their fans don’t seem as happy as they did the previous few seasons. Just last week, Mike D’Antoni called out a lackluster home crowd after their win over the Knicks and demanded they step it for the Bulls two days later. It’s clear there was residual damage from last spring’s discouraging playoff exit that was hastened by the Amare/Diaw suspensions and a sketchy officiating crew for Game 3 that featured You Know Who. Whether the Suns can shed this damage remains to be seen.

Regardless, they’ll have the same puncher’s chance in the 2008 playoffs that they had in the 2007 playoffs. Which is fine. Just remember, the Spurs have a really good chin.

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.

Bill Simmons is the founding editor 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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