Grantland logo

NBA Playoffs Preview

The Sports Guy’s most interesting storylines of the postseason.

LeBron James

With apologies to People magazine (and the lead to this 2007 column), I thought I’d bang out a “25 Most Intriguing People of the 2012 NBA Playoffs” column. That’s right, I’m ripping off ideas I’ve already ripped off. Before you make the obligatory Dwight Howard joke, just know that Dwight would have stopped typing after 800 words and tried to get someone fired, then changed his mind. I kept going for 5,600 words, mainly because I can’t fire myself.

And for the record, the “8” key and the “u” key on my laptop stopped working about halfway through this column — I had to pound them like a judge pounding a gavel to get them to spell. It’s the writer’s equivalent of playing with Joel Anthony and Ronny Turiaf. I gutted through it. We’ll see if LeBron can do the same. Anyway, here we go.

25. Joe Johnson

Known for being totally overpaid and totally overrated, which, of course, now makes him underrated. He’s probably the league’s fourth-best starting 2-guard behind Wade and Kobe (unless you wanted to talk me into Arron Afflalo, a much better defender); he’s extremely comfortable in crunch time and because of his size (right around 6-foot-7), he can shoot over any undersize defender (Avery Bradley, Randy Foye, Lou Williams, whoever). Of course, it’s difficult to concentrate on these things when Atlanta owes Johnson $107,333,589 over this season and the next four — repeat: one hundred and seven million, three hundred and thirty-three thousand, five hundred and eighty-nine dollars — and when you throw in Johnson’s lack of charisma (I’m being kind), that’s the biggest reason why Games 1 and 2 of the Atlanta-Boston series will have about 4,000 Celtics fans in the stands. Atlanta fans should appreciate Johnson a little more. He’s really good.

(By the way, when I mentioned this to Atlanta’s own Rembert Browne, he snickered and said, “Nah, Joe Johnson ruined professional basketball in Atlanta.” Well, then.)

24. Steve Novak

Random guarantee: A Novak/J.R. Smith shooting barrage will swing one of the Knicks-Heat games. And you know Carmelo is winning one (at least) by himself. That means the series is going six games … at least. (We’ll see if I have the balls to pick New York by the end of this column. Don’t think I’m not considering it.) By the way, the dorkiest moment in NBA history is a 75-way tie between every big Novak 3 when he gave himself the Aaron Rodgers belt this season.

23. Zach Randolph

Remember when Z-Bo improbably became one of the six dominant players in last year’s playoffs and torched double teams for a solid month, accompanied by a slew of, (Jim Ross voice) “Good God, what the hell is that? My God, that’s Zach Randolph’s music!!!!!” stories? This spring, those headlines became, “Can Memphis reintegrate Randolph in time?,” and, “Good news: Randolph played in practice without a knee brace today.”

Here’s the problem: Z-Bo’s low-post brilliance was the biggest reason Memphis nearly made the Finals last year. Unfortunately, their best lineup this season has been Gasol-Gay-Mayo-Allen-Conley, a vicious small-ball group that defends the perimeter like pit bulls defending some rich guy’s fence. Now here’s where you say, “They can go big with Z-Bo AND small with the other lineup! I’m so excited, I wish I could give Roger Goodell a six-second full-body hug!” Not exactly. See, Z-Bo would have to buy into that idea … and I’m not sure he’s that much of a team player. Z-Bo wants to be The Man. Z-Bo loved what happened last year. Z-Bo loved banging bodies with Gasol and dominating the paint. Still, that’s what makes the Grizzlies so freaking interesting — if they can ever juggle those two mind-sets (small and big), they’re suddenly the best team in either conference. You heard me. To be continued.

22. Vinny Del Negro

Here’s the best-case scenario for a Vinny-Popovich matchup in Round 2.

21. Kenneth Faried, Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson

Look, it’s not like you had to talk me into the nickname “The Manimal.” But I couldn’t be happier that it went to a legitimate NBA player — in this case, Faried, who was billed as a relentless rebounder/energy guy heading into last year’s draft and exceeded that tag. He’s Ben Wallace 2.0. If you’re thinking about picking a Denver upset in Round 1, your three best reasons are Lawson (twice as fast as any Laker, and playing really well right now), Afflalo (the best two-way 2-guard right now other than Wade and Kobe) and the Manimal (a scary matchup for L.A.’s sometimes-lethargic frontline).

In theory, Lawson runs the Slowtime Lakers into the ground; Afflalo locks down Kobe; the Manimal eats up L.A.’s frontline; Denver’s perimeter guys hit their 3s; the Nuggets’ depth combined with the altitude wears down the Lakers; and suddenly we’re looking at a first-round shocker (which is exactly what Barkley picked last night). Even if this looks good on paper, I can’t see it happening — the Lakers dug out too many tight games and HTFDTWTO1 games this season. This has all the makings of one of those “Denver loses in six even though they led all six games in the fourth quarter” series. God, I hate the Lakers.

20. Dirk Nowitzki


The acronym for “How the fuck did they win that one????????????”

“OK, Dirk, here’s the plan.”

“I’m listening.”

“We’re throwing away our title defense. We’re just going to put it in a Dumpster and smear it with dog feces. By the end of the regular season, Delonte West will be our third-best player, we’ll be relying on an overweight Vince Carter, we’ll have turned Tyson Chandler into a three-headed dose of mediocrity called Brendian Haywonimight, and unless Jason Terry is feeling it, you’ll have to shoot every single time in the fourth quarter of every playoff game.”

“Got it.”

“We might win one game against Oklahoma City, that’s it. Then you’ll have the spring and summer off.”

“Sounds good. One question: Why would we do this?”

“Because we want to sign Deron Williams this summer. This was the only way.”

“Deron Williams … the guy who acted like such a dick in Utah that they flipped him into two top-three lottery picks and never looked back and since then he’s been playing for a lottery team?”

“Yeah, that Deron Williams. Also, we have a 2.2 percent chance of getting Dwight Howard, too.”

“Dwight Howard … the guy who’s three months away from quitting on his team and needs season-ending back surgery?”

“Seriously? That’s going to happen? How do you know this?”

“I just do.”


“Any chance we can come up with another plan?”

(Dead silence.)

19. Andrew Bynum

For the Lakers to make the Finals, Bynum needs to rip through JaVale McGee and Kosta Koufos in Round 1 (a mortal lock), the Kendrick Perkins–Serge Ibaka–Nick Collison troika in Round 2 (much tougher), then either Marc Gasol (tough) or Tim Duncan–Tiago Splitter–Boris Diaw (easy) in Round 3. Does he have it in him? Shouldn’t it mean something that he’s shooting an astonishing 82 percent in crunch time this season? Eighty-two percent???? Why does it seem like he can get five-footers more easily than any center in recent memory? Why don’t I totally trust him?

Quick tangent: More than any postseason in recent memory, these specific NBA playoffs have an inordinate number of legacies at stake. In other words, we’ll feel differently about various players and teams by the end of June than we do now. Not that this doesn’t happen every spring, but this time around, there’s legitimate historical implications for Kobe and the Lakers, the Popovich-Duncan era, the KG-Pierce-Allen era, LeBron and Wade … it just keeps going and going. In Bynum’s case, he’s the most logical piece for a Dwight Howard trade (and has been for some time). He can end those rumors by leading the Lakers to the Finals and making it impossible to trade him. Does he like Los Angeles? Does he realize that playing for a forgettable Orlando team would suck? How much does he care? (See, it’s intriguing.)

18. Derek Fisher

Has a more washed-up player ever been involved in more NBA playoff storylines? Let’s see … Fisher and Billy Hunter have launched a Dueling Media Smear Campaign that’s threatening to rival anything we’ve seen in recent sports history2 … Oklahoma City is inexplicably relying on Fisher for their “veteran guard who bangs home 3s and HAS BEEN THERE BEFORE!!!” spot even though he lost all basketball competency a good 18 months ago … and if that’s not enough, his new team and his old team are destined for a second-round war, which means we’ll have to endure 3,500 “What’s it like to go against your old team, Derek?” stories and features that round. I will be ignoring all of them.


I always feel like I need to pick sides with these things, but in this case, the league (and the Players Association) would be better off if this ended nuclear-war style with both sides losing. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that the profoundly screwed-up Fisher-Hunter dynamic was the biggest reason we lost 16 games this season and nearly had a canceled season. Hang it up, guys. Do the right thing.

(True story: I was so inspired by Clay Davis — er, Billy Hunter putting his kids on the Players Association’s payroll that I tried to hire my own kids as Grantland interns for a combined $135,000 this summer. I even split up the money so my older daughter made more than her little brother. That just seemed like the fair way to do it. Sadly, Disney’s HR vetoed this idea.)

17. Derrick Rose

Ever hear of that TV show with the guy who’s living two different realities and never knows which one is real at any time? It’s one of those critically acclaimed shows that nobody actually watches. Anyway, they could have made it about this year’s Bulls season — somehow they won 50 games juggling the “Here’s How We Look With Derrick Rose” identity and the “Look How Well Everyone Bands Together When Rose Is Injured” identity, only those two realities never meshed, and now we’re in the playoffs, and I have to be honest, I don’t know what the hell to make of the Bulls. You know it’s a kooky season when we have a 1-seed with two different identities and a relevant starter on a contender with two different identities. Hey, that reminds me …

16. Ronmetta Artestpeace

Sorry, I can’t call someone “World Peace” after he concusses James Harden and his beard with a deliberate/intentional/vicious elbow. You could tell the difference between “people who have never played basketball” and “people who actually play basketball” by the way they reacted to this story — if your argument was, “He didn’t see Harden, he didn’t realize what happened,” then you’ve never played basketball. There are no accidents on a basketball court, save for two guys colliding because they were looking up at a rebound or something. It’s not hockey. You know where you are and what you’re doing pretty much all the time. If a normal person accidentally ripped an elbow into someone’s head and knocked him out on a basketball court, he would immediately stop running, feel horrified, hope the injured guy got up, then crouch over him to make sure he was OK. This would happen every time — repeat: every time — unless either (a) the guy totally meant to throw that elbow, and (b) the guy was a full-fledged fucking lunatic. In that case, the guy would glance at the victim’s fallen body in disdain and keep running the other way, then raise his hands to fight whoever came charging at him. That’s exactly what Ronmetta did. Which means he should have been suspended for 15 games, not seven.

And before you throw the whole “of course you’re saying that, you hate the Lakers” line at me, please understand, I’m delighted that Ronmetta came back early. Here’s the thing about Ronmetta: He’s only good when he’s playing physical, hard-nosed, passionate, occasionally insane basketball. He struggled early this season (and all of last season) because he was playing, for lack of a better word, soft. Kobe kept working on him and working on him, and finally, the old Artest came back during a game in Boston. Gradually, he played himself into shape and found the right physical/passionate/crazy balance; by April, he had evolved into a genuine asset. But that’s the thing … he only got there by unleashing Artest and turning his back on World Peace, which is what eventually led to the indefensible Harden elbow (and his even more indefensible reaction afterward).

You know what it reminds me of, actually? Mike Tyson. Iron Mike needed to embrace his inner crazy to succeed at boxing. That inner crazy eventually led to jail time and part of Evander Holyfield’s ear being bitten off, followed by Tyson overmedicating himself with pills and pot just to feel like a decent human being again. Even if it murdered his boxing career, he didn’t care. He didn’t want to see Iron Mike unleashed any more. My prediction is that the Harden elbow pushed Ronmetta to the same point. If he comes back in these playoffs, he’s going to play soft and end up being more of a liability than anything — that’s worse for the Lakers than suspending him for an extra eight games. If anyone can play them out of a Finals spot, it’s an overly tentative Ronmetta Artestpeace.

15. Danny Granger

I normally avoid looking at a player’s numbers in wins and losses because those statistics can be deceiving — for instance, Rajon Rondo’s scoring numbers always look better when the Celtics lose. But in Granger’s case? I watched them all season thinking he was Indiana’s one-man litmus test — in other words, when he plays well, they look like a legitimate contender, and when he sucks, they don’t. So I couldn’t resist looking up his scoring numbers.

Wins: 20.5 PPG, 43.6 percent shooting, 43.9 percent for 3s.
Losses: 15.2 PPG, 37.2 percent shooting, 27.0 percent for 3s.

Hmmmmmmm. Could it really be that simple? The bigger question: Can you really compete for an NBA title when someone of Granger’s caliber is your best guy? Technically, yes … if it were a 2004 Pistons/2000 Blazers/1998 Pacers–type situation, in which a contender had enough depth, veteran know-how and big/small flexbility that their lack of a true alpha dog didn’t totally submarine them. The Pacers have depth and big/small flexibility, but veteran know-how? No way. I can’t take the Pacers seriously. Sorry. In fact …

14. Patrick Ewing

If Ewing wasn’t coaching in Orlando, you could have talked me into the Howard-less Magic potentially pulling off a Ewing Theory run and shocking the Pacers. Wouldn’t Ewing’s presence reverse the effects of the Ewing Theory? It’s like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters. As much as I want to pick an emotional “Eff You, Dwight!” upset by the Magic in which they start raining 3s for two straight weeks, this whole Ewing/Ewing thing scares me off. It hurts my head.

13. Amar’e Stoudemire

Let’s say Carmelo plays LeBron to a draw. Let’s say Iman Shumpert slows down Wade. Let’s say Chandler executes his 2011 Finals defensive know-how and throttles Miami around the rim. Let’s say a delirious MSG crowd wins Game 3, ‘Melo wins one game, and they win one game on the road because Novak and J.R. Smith started draining 3s as if it were a pop-a-shot game. That makes it a seven-game series, which means that the Knicks only need ONE monster throwback Amar’e game to pull off one of the great upsets in the history of the franchise.

(Hold on, there’s a gigantic “but” coming …)

(Seriously, it’s a really, really big one …)

But …

Here’s the problem: As any Knicks fan will tell you, Amar’e hasn’t looked the same since the Knicks traded for Carmelo in February 2011. Actually, he started sliding sooner than that: Mike D’Antoni ran him into the ground during the first 12 weeks of that season. In December 2010, Amar’e averaged 39.5 minutes, 29.8 points and 22.4 field goal attempts on knees that were so shaky, the Knicks couldn’t even get insurance on them. He’s never really recovered from that month. First his legs started going on him, then his back, and about halfway through this shortened season, he started to look like one of those banged-up mini-vans that a family is just trying to keep on four wheels until their lease expires … only in this case, Stoudemire’s lease runs through 2015 (for another $65 million after this season). They rested him for a month; he came back last week and looked decent (last 4 games: 56% FG). Could he swing Round 1 with one vintage Amar’e game? Doe’s he hav’e it in hi’m?

12. Shaquille O’Neal

Hate to keep belaboring this … but can TNT trade Shaq before the playoffs so we can enjoy Inside the NBA in peace? Can they send him to the NBC Sports Network for Mike Milbury? What about Shaq to ESPN along with two no. 1 picks, $2 million, and the rights to Season 4 of Franklin & Bash for Stephen A. Smith? Can they just amnesty him? Did TNT get an amnesty clause in the new labor agreement? Why isn’t this a bigger deal? IT’S THE PLAYOFFS! I NEED ME SOME CHUCK AND I NEED ME SOME KENNY! WE WERE DOING FINE! WE WERE DOING FINE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

11. Blake Griffin

Boy, we sure spend a ton of time picking nits with a 23-year-old kid who’s only played 148 career games, averaged a 21-11 and shot 55 percent this season, plays his ass off EVERY game, absorbs an absolutely insane pounding (and at least one borderline cheap shot) night after night after night, truly gives a shit, spent three full years in the league without ever having any semblance of a coaching advantage, and gave us so many YouTube highlights the past two years that you can practically choke on them. Yeah, that hitch on his jumper is annoying. Yeah, everyone knows the spin move is coming at this point. Yeah, he struggles in crunch time and struggles from the line. Yeah, he should cool it with the incessant eyeballing of officials, and he should probably stop staring down opposing players and opposing benches after he dunks on somebody — that’s the real reason people keep clotheslining him.

But that’s all petty, fixable stuff, and again, a quality coach and/or a quality organization would have thrown its body in front of half of that crap. (The Clippers are asleep at the wheel. You knew this already.) Just look at the big picture here: He’s a work in progress, he knows this better than anyone, and he’s going to make the playoffs more fun. Anyone who doesn’t devour every minute of Grizzlies-Clippers doesn’t truly love the NBA. It’s true.

Anyway, I felt obligated to mention some nice things about Blake for this reason: If the Clippers get bounced in Round 1 (and I think they’re going down in five or six), that’s going to mean Blake disappeared in crunch time, missed a bunch of free throws, missed his outside shots and couldn’t handle Z-Bo on the low-post, followed by a summer barrage of “Can you win with Blake or is he just a fun guy to have on YouTube?” stories. Sadly, that’s the way these things work. Maybe it will make him better, maybe not. But we’re probably headed that way unless Chris Paul goes Keyser Söze in Round 1. More on that later.

10. Al Jefferson

On Tuesday night, Utah beat Phoenix on national TV to make the playoffs. Big Al took over in the fourth, making four straight shots to clinch the game. My wife happened to be reading a magazine as I watched this happen — she noticed me smiling and asked why.

“Because I love Big Al,” I said.

“Who’s Big Al?” she said.

Here’s what I wanted to say: “He used to play for the Celtics. Even as a rookie, it quickly became clear that he could score on anyone, at any time, in any situation — even if you blindfolded him, spun him around and shot paintballs at him while blaring Linkin Park. We fully expected him to be Our Next Great Guy, only every time he started gaining momentum, he’d sprain a knee or twist an ankle. Nobody had worse luck. When the team went in the tank, he developed some bad habits and eventually became the centerpiece of that KG deal. Great, more losing for Big Al. That cloud kept following him. He blew out his knee in February ’09 right when he was playing his best basketball ever. He came back the following year and got Kahnrambised, followed by Utah stealing him in the summer of 2010 for Kosta Koufos and two non-lottery picks … and two years later, we’re here. He’s finally on a good team. I’m happy for him. I feel like hugging my television right now.”

I didn’t say any of that. You know what actually happened? She made me On-Demand The Client List. I wish I were making that up.3 By the way, this won’t be a token four-and-out for the precocious Jazz — that Jefferson-Millsap-Favors frontline is a nightmare for a finesse Spurs team that has trouble protecting the paint, and in case you didn’t notice, Devin Harris and Gordon Hayward are playing out of their minds right now. There’s no way in hell San Antonio is losing to an 8-seed for a second straight year, but it’s going six games … at least. I really like this Jazz team. If something ever happens to me, you have my permission to make Kevin O’Connor the new VP of Common Sense.

9. Chris Bosh


I can’t even pretend to be upset about this. There’s a new ceiling for comedy, my friends … and it’s every scene when J-Love has to rub someone down but they can’t show the happy ending, so they go with J-Love rubbing chests and legs as the camera cuts in various directions and sexy music plays. It’s just incredible. They should call this show The Pole Whisperer.

What happens if Miami falls short for a second straight season? Cue up the great Lee Majors!!!

Crap, that didn’t work — the words “Fall Guy” don’t actually appear in that song. But you get the idea. As I wrote two months ago, Someone Who Knows Things told me that Miami wouldn’t even discuss trading Bosh for Dwight Howard last summer; my theory was that you can’t trade a player who knows where you buried all the bodies, and in this case, those bodies form 11 letters: “The Decision.” The difference this time around: Bosh would probably rather play somewhere else over wearing the (scape)goat horns for Miami’s failures, wilting under the spotlight and listening to Two and a Half Men jokes for the next three years. If he found out Miami could flip him to Orlando (with something else for Howard) or Houston (for Kyle Lowry, Luis Scola and Houston’s lottery pick), maybe he’d jump at a fresh start.

(Of course, he could extinguish this scenario by helping Miami win the 2012 title. There’s always that.)

8. Tony Allen

For Memphis to make the Finals, Trick or Treat Tony needs to unleash the full-fledged Trick or Treat Tony defensive experience on Chris Paul, Manu Ginobili and either Kobe Bryant or Russell Westbrook. And you know what? I think it happens. I believe in the power of full-fledged Trick or Treat Tony. Belatedly … but still.

7. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook

Unpopular opinion alert: I still don’t think these guys are ready. They’re still in that cuddly ’80 Celtics/’87 Pistons/’90 Bulls/’99 Lakers stage when you have enough talent to win, only you’re not quite sure what it takes yet. The Zombies look invincible when they’re running the floor and swishing jumpers … and totally vincible when everything slows down and those jumpers stop going in. What happens when those jumpers stop going in? They keep shooting and shooting and shooting. There’s no Plan B. You can’t win 16 playoff games that way.4


Again, I don’t trust wins/losses that much … but it’s not surprising that Durant and Westbrook shot 50 percent combined in OKC’s 47 wins and 43 percent combined in the team’s 19 losses.

Here’s a good litmus test for any basketball situation: WWLBD. You know what Bird did when his jumpers weren’t falling? He’d start getting to the stripe. He’d meander down low and start grabbing rebounds. He’d feed his teammates. He’d do whatever it took to have an impact on the game. The bad news: Westbrook and Durant just aren’t there yet. The good news: They’re a combined 46 years old. Anyway, that’s why I have them annihilating Dallas before blowing one of those textbook “How the hell did we lose???” series to the Lakers in Round 2.

6. Carmelo Anthony

Kenny Smith made the key point last night on TNT: Carmelo, LeBron and Wade came into the NBA together. Carmelo considers himself their equals. You aren’t beating Miami without one guy on the other team who says to himself, “Screw those guys, I’m as good as both of them” and carries himself accordingly. Dirk did it last June; Carmelo can absolutely do it in Round 1. Even better, he’s going to be defending LeBron (and vice versa) the entire time. When was the last time two superstars just went at it in a playoff series? What’s the ceiling here?

Could there be some Larry-Dominique or Larry-Bernard potential here, when both guys just keep upping the stakes on each other? Could it head toward an MJ-Drexler or Hakeem-Robinson direction, with one guy grabbing the upper hand and inadvertently sending the other into a career tailspin? What about an MJ-Barkley direction, with one playing as well as he can possibly play and the other (in this case, it would have to be LeBron) saying, “Watch this,” and going a level higher? I’m prepared for anything. Just know that the surest wager of all time is Carmelo Anthony showing up for Round 1 this season. He’s ready. You can see it. Over everything else, it’s the best subplot of Round 1. Hands down.

(And just wait until the MSG fans get involved …)

5. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen

You already know my thoughts on Boston’s title chances. My friend Grande called it first back in February: Even then, before Boston’s improbable resurgence, it made the most sense for Boston and Chicago to battle in the 2012 playoffs in one of those classic, “Once upon a time, you were the teacher and I was the pupil, only now, the pupil is all growns up!” series that would feature tons of highlights from their unforgettable 2009 clash that spawned not one but two columns from me (and served as Derrick Rose’s unofficial breakout party, as well as Joe Dumars’s break-out-the-wallet-to-overpay-Ben-Gordon party).

It sounds silly, but sometimes things are just destined to happen … and that’s why I can’t take Atlanta seriously. The Celtics are meant to play Chicago in Round 2. You have the Chicago ties with KG and Doc; you have the Boston ties with Thibodeau and Scalabrine. You have the fantastically underrated Rose-Rondo rivalry (which started in 2009 and blossomed at the USA Basketball tryouts), as well as Avery Bradley (my favorite Celtic in eons) ready to lock Rose down and put himself on the map. You have Noah and Garnett doing their whole passive-aggressive, fake tough-guy agitation routines. You have a really good Pierce-Deng chess match, as well as Chicago killer Ray Allen lurking. You have the seeds for an epic Stiemsma-Asik battle. You have Doc and Thibodeau … and let there be no mistake, Doc would love nothing more than outwitting Thibs in a playoff series and putting the whole “You’ve never been the same without Thibs” narrative to rest once and for all. It’s going to be an absolute classic. You know, assuming both teams get there. I think they will, and I think it’s meant to be.

Speaking of destiny … the odds of a Lakers-Celtics Finals are 50-to-1. Just throwing it out there. (Waiting.) Why are you laughing?

4. Chris Paul

I already made the case for his runner-up MVP season here and here, as well as the case that Paul shifts gears like the driver of a Formula 1 car depending on the game, the quarter or even the moment … and under that analogy, you’d think he’s saving a little extra something for the playoffs, a little like how Dom Toretto always saves that one last nitrous oxide blast for the biggest moment. Just one problem: I hate the Memphis matchup for him. They can contain Paul with Tony Allen and Mike Conley (a quality defender); as we learned all season, the Clippers’ crunch-time offense is basically, “Go ahead, Chris, do something.” Again, Memphis is constructed to shut down teams like that. So either Paul clicks that nitrous blast, goes to another level and cements his status as “the best pure point guard ever,” or the Clippers are going down … hard. I’m betting on the latter.

(Important note: None of this will matter next season, when the Clips are contending as Vinny Del Negro works the weekday midnight shift with a demoted Shaq on NBA TV.)

3. Kobe Bryant
2. Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich
1. LeBron James

Lumping the last three together because, from a legacy standpoint, they have the most at stake. If the Lakers win the title, “Kobe vs. Jordan” becomes a legitimate conversation to the chagrin of everyone who believes Jordan was the greatest basketball player who ever lived who ever lived and that we’re never seeing another MJ. You know I’m in that camp, but at some point, the sheer girth of Kobe’s résumé is going to outlive every reverential Jordan story. With a sixth ring, Kobe only has to break the scoring record and become the owner of an NBA team that disgraces itself by finishing 5-77 to truly threaten Jordan’s throne.

As for Duncan and Popovich, they have a chance to win titles 13 seasons apart — something that’s never even come close to happening in the NBA. Riley and Magic-Kareem won titles six seasons apart. Auerbach and Russell won titles nine seasons apart. But 13??? Will we ever see that again? And also, a fifth Spurs title would propel them into the “Greatest Runs Ever” discussion along with Russell’s Celtics (13 years, 11 titles), MJ’s Bulls (eight years, six titles), Mikan’s Minneapolis teams (six years, five titles) and Kahn’s Timberwolves (just kidding). Throw in Duncan’s legacy, Parker’s Hall of Fame candidacy, Ginobili’s Hall of Fame candidacy and the thought of Stephen Jackson, Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw and Boris Diaw’s boobs hugging at midcourt in the single strangest basketball moment of all time and, other than that, there’s nothing at stake here.

And by the way, the Spurs should win the title — they have the deepest team, multiple crunch-time scorers, killer outside shooting, some much-needed swagger (thanks to Captain Jack’s emotional return), the best coach and the best identity (at this point, they know EXACTLY what they are). Maybe if Ginobili weren’t playing hurt and they hadn’t run into the Z-Bo Chainsaw, it would have been them instead of Dallas last year. Regardless, they have one really good crack at history here. Will they do it? I felt so unsure of my pick that I didn’t even have the heart to stick it in the column — I relegated it to the footnotes.5


So what about a Finals pick? I’m instituting a new rule this year … “Once you make a prediction for a season, you can’t change it during the season.” Back in December, I picked Miami over Memphis in the Finals so I’m stuck with it. That means …

ROUND ONE: Bulls over Sixers in four … Heat over Knicks in seven … Pacers over Magic in six … Celtics over Hawks in six … Spurs over Jazz in six … OKC over Dallas in five … Lakers over Denver in six … Grizzlies over Clippers in five.
ROUND TWO: Bulls over Celtics in seven … Heat over Pacers in six … Grizzlies over Spurs in seven … OKC over Lakers in seven.
ROUND THREE: Heat over Bulls in seven … Grizzlies over OKC in six.
FINALS: Heat over Grizzlies in six.

And then, there’s LeBron James … who’s about two weeks away from joining the following group (presented in alphabetical order).

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Larry Bird
Wilt Chamberlain
Magic Johnson
Michael Jordan
Moses Malone
Bill Russell

That’s the complete list of everyone who won three or more NBA MVP trophies. You know what else? In my 700-page monolith of an NBA book, I ranked those guys, minus Moses, as the six best players of all time. (I had Moses at no. 12.) They won a combined 33 titles between them. LeBron, as you know, has none. So yeah, he can keep giving those Sports Illustrated interviews and talking about how he finally gets it and all that crap, but really, he’s halfway through one of the most confusing athletic careers we’ve ever witnessed. How can someone leave such a memorable, indelible, remarkable regular-season basketball legacy while simultaneously leaving us so unsure of his postseason prowess? Now that’s intriguing.