I waited too long to post Part Two of my NBA Mega-Power Poll. Since we posted Part One last Friday, Detroit turned on Charlie Sheen, women’s college basketball caught up to men’s college basketball, the Reelz Network became the first-ever cable channel to have 15 minutes of fame (and then use them up), Pia was tragically voted off “American Idol” about six weeks too early, and Red Sox fans broke the record for “Earliest Pressing of the Panic Button Ever.” The whole world feels different. Also, I’m down two remote controls, three knuckles and four bottles of whiskey. Really, the Red Sox season had to be over before Tax Day? I hate everything.
Fortunately, the NBA playoffs can distract me as the Red Sox make their bid for 0-162. In Part Two of Power Poll, you get my MVP pick, my Finals pick and eight ounces of my blood. In descending order …
14. New Orleans Hornets
I watched less Hornets basketball than any other 2011 playoff team because of Chris Paul: Every time I watched him, I found myself thinking about Tim Hardaway, Andrew Toney, Sidney Moncrief and any other potential great from my lifetime whose Hall of Fame pass got swiped by an injury. His first step was gone; now he was picking his spots like a savvy veteran, which would be fine if he wasn’t 25. I couldn’t handle it. Then I got roped into Wednesday’s Rockets-Hornets game and, much to my surprise, Paul looked like the old CP3 again. Now I don’t know what to think. Was he terrified of reinjuring his knee and just taking it slowly? Does he plan on cranking it up a notch in the playoffs? Was it a one-night thing where his knee felt good and he cut loose? I’m riveted, suddenly.
The other fascinating Hornets subplot: David West was crushing his contract year. If you’re scoring at home, he was totally underrated, then overrated for being underrated, then just overrated, then properly rated, and this year, he somehow became underrated again. The Nyets were a mortal lock to overpay West this summer, this fall, this winter, or whenever the lockout was settled … until he blew out his ACL last month. Even though that injury killed the Hornets’ season, West’s injury was somehow fortuitous. Why? They have a chance to keep him now! Instead of getting Outlawed (a new term that means “getting insanely overpaid by Mikhail Prokhorov”), I could see West exercising his player option for the 2011-12 season ($7.5 million), followed by a two-month lockout (he’ll be rehabbing anyway), then a shortened season (an audition for his Summer of 2012 Suitors). Guess what? That’s great for the Hornets because it might be (A) their last Chris Paul season, and (B) their last chance to save basketball in New Orleans. If he wants to sign an extension for less money than he would have gotten pre-ACL surgery, even better. Only West got screwed in the whole thing. Too bad for him.
Last Hornets thought: How would you describe Emeka Okafor as a draft pick? We have draft terms like “sleeper,” “stud,” “late bloomer” and “bust” but not something to cover the Okafor types — top-5 picks who carried high expectations, never met them but weren’t disappointments, either. I suggest “Knish” after Knish from “Rounders,” who kept grinding out those pots once an hour, earned a solid living but never had a story as good as Mike McD bluffing Johnny Chan. Your Knish All-Stars: Okafor, Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo, Jeff Green and Drew Gooden (starters), then Mike Miller, Mike Dunleavy and Randy Foye (bench). And yes, we’re saving a spot for you, James Harden. And you too, Wesley Johnson.
13. Atlanta Hawks
Six reasons we need a lockout …
That’s what Atlanta owes Joe Johnson, by year, through 2016. You know, because any time you can totally overpay someone hitting his 30s who isn’t one of the best 15 players in the league, you have to do it. To be fair, at least Johnson played the best basketball of his career once he locked that money do- … oh, wait, that’s not what happened at all. He had his worst season in six years. These things can’t happen anymore. Once the owners blow up the system and pass the “no contracts can last longer than four years” rule, we will never see another contract like that one. Joe Johnson, you made history. Anyway, here’s how the next three months will play out for Hawks fans …
APRIL: The Hawks get crushed by Orlando in Round 1, a sweep highlighted by Zaza Pachulia starting three “someone hold me back, could someone hold me back so I look tough, HOLD ME BACK!” altercations with Dwight Howard, as well as 7,300 Hawks fans showing up for Game 4 and Charles Barkley saying, “The Hawks were turrrrrr-able … . They were turr-able. Number one, Joe Johnson, if you wanna be paid like a franchise player, you gotta play like one. Second of all, Atlanta needs to blow things up, Ernie. And number three, that’s why we havin’ a lockout, because Atlanta had to overpay their best player to keep him, and Ernie, he ain’t that great.”
MAY: With Atlanta desperately needing to cut payroll ($65.7 million guaranteed to eight players next year), the Josh Smith trade rumors kick into 19th gear. NBA reporters are faced with a dilemma: should they tweet every single rumor they hear, or should they just pass along stuff that they know is true? Naturally, they choose to tweet every single rumor they hear. Josh Smith trends for the next six weeks straight, to the point that non-NBA fans wonder, “Who is Josh Smith? Is he trapped in a well or something?”
EARLY-JUNE: Fresh off the success of “The Heat Index,” ESPN.com launches “Just Joshing,” an entire site devoted to totally unsubstantiated Josh Smith trade rumors that will never happen. Yahoo responds by announcing that, every day until Smith gets traded, Adrian Wojnarowski will write a scathing column blaming Atlanta’s increasingly dire situation on Worldwide Wes and LeBron James.
LATE-JUNE: The Hawks finally make their move: a three-teamer that sends Smith and Pachulia to the Clippers, Chris Kaman to Cleveland (absorbed by their trade exception for LeBron James), and Al-Farouq Aminu to Atlanta. The deal saves the Hawks a whopping $30 million over the next two seasons but locks them into 42-45 wins for the rest of eternity. And you wonder why we need a lockout.
THE FEEL-GOOD STORIES
12. Philadelphia 76ers
We’re immersed in a memorable battle between Scott Skiles and Doug Collins for the career lead in, “Most Times A New Coach Has Gotten a Team To Overachieve, Been Anointed as Their Savior, Then Eventually Burned Them Out Because He’s Too Intense.” (Note: It’s a “Best of 7” series and they’re tied at three apiece — Vegas has Skiles as a heavy favorite because he’ll probably get fired a year before Collins does.) Hiring either of these guys is like submitting your beaten-down car to “Pimp My Ride” — they’re going to restore it and it will look fantastic, and you’ll get to know what it’s like to drive a car that has a 40-inch plasma, a fishtank and wheels with 45-inch rims, but within a year, you’re going to be putting that thing on eBay and taking any price you can get.
Here’s my suggestion: Collins and Skiles should just embrace their inner Winston Wolf and switch teams every year. Why not? How many teams need a temporary coaching savior every summer? Five? Six? You’re telling me Pistons fans, Kings fans or Clippers fans couldn’t use a year of the Collins/Skiles Pimp My Ride experience? It won’t play out that way, but it should. Two more Sixers thoughts …
• Andre Iguodala finally tapped into his inner Pippen and became a destructive perimeter defender; add him to the list of Team USA players whose careers were transformed by the experience. He won’t win Defensive Player of the Year because of Dwight Howard, but in 2011, Iguodala had a tougher job: night after night after night, he had to shut down the other team’s best perimeter player during a year when we were overloaded with terrific perimeter scorers. He’d get my vote if I had one. He’s a classic “Stay Your Lane” example: in 2008, he averaged 15.6 field goals per game and had a usage rate of 23.8 percent. That’s a little too much Andre Iguodala for anyone’s liking. This year? He dropped to 11.3 field goals and a 19.1 percent usage rate (sixth on the team). Perfect. That’s exactly how you want to use him.
• Poor Evan Turner might be the latest to get nailed by the Curse of Sam Bowie. Since Portland stupidly passed on MJ for Bowie with the second pick in 1984, we’ve seen the following calamities at No. 2: Steve Stipanovich, Len Bias (RIP), Armen Gilliam, Danny Ferry, Shawn Bradley, Stromile Swift, Jason “Not White Chocolate Or The Guy Accused of Killing His Chaffeur, But The One From Duke” Williams, Darko Milicic, Marvin Williams, Michael Beasley (even if he’s rejuvenated, we have to call him a “bust” because Miami gave him away), Hasheem Thabeet, and now, potentially, Turner (who can’t be officially called a bust yet, and actually, I kind of like him, but it can’t be a good sign that Collins pushed out of his nine-man rotation). That’s 12 of the last 26 picks … nearly 50 percent!
Even weirder, 12 other No. 2 picks that either worked out or kind of worked out (Kenny Anderson, Alonzo Mourning, Jason Kidd, Keith Van Horn, Antonio McDyess, Marcus Camby, Mike Bibby, Steve Francis, Tyson Chandler, Okafor, LaMarcus Aldridge) were traded by the teams that picked them either during the draft, right after the draft or sometime within the next four years. Only Kevin Durant and Gary Payton ended up becoming franchise players for the teams that drafted them … and yes, they were both drafted by a franchise that no longer exists.
So if you’re counting Seattle’s murdered franchise, we somehow went 0 for 26 in the “pick him second, pencil him as your franchise guy for the next 12-15 years, retire his jersey” department. How is that possible??? It’s the second pick in the whole draft!!!!! Maybe Philly was doomed no matter who they picked — had it been DeMarcus Cousins (who would make them so much more imposing on paper), he might be serving a 20-game suspension right now. There’s a reason they call that pick “Number Two.”
11. Memphis Grizzlies
This year’s Bizarro Good Management Team. They have an actual identity: a feisty team with size and toughness that defends the perimeter and are just crazy enough to think they can beat anyone. So how did they get here? Well, they did the Clippers a solid by trading Quentin Richardson’s expiring contract for the Then-Completely Insane Zach Randolph, a deal that saved the Clips something like $500 million. (And, of course, Z-Bo settled down into becoming a beast on the low-post.) They did the Lakers a solid by trading their best player (Pau Gasol) for the proverbial pu-pu platter (a whole bunch of nothing), with Pau’s brother (practically a throw-in) miraculously losing 35 pounds and turning into a quality center. They overpaid Rudy Gay (transformed by his Team USA experience just a month later, although they couldn’t have known that when they paid him) and Mike Conley (the dumbest premature extension of the last few years, but he’s been solid for them).
Hold on, I’m not done. They signed Trick or Treat Tony Allen, the guy who terrified Celtics fans for seven solid years … and he only became the single best bargain of 2010 free agency. They blew the No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft (Thabeet), had to package him with another No. 1 just to dump him, but the deal landed them Shane Battier, who joined forces with Allen and turned them into a bitch defensively. They tried to deal Mayo to Indiana at the deadline, failed to call in the deal in time — no really, THEY FAILED TO CALL IN THE DEAL IN TIME — and somehow, this worked out and Mayo has given them quality minutes with Gay sidelined. They spent a first-round pick on someone (Darrell Arthur) who everyone else avoided because there were bad rumors about his kidneys; naturally, he’s turned into an excellent bench player. And for the stretch run they picked up someone with no ACLs who hadn’t had a relevant NBA moment in three years (Leon Powe); it goes without saying that he’s reinvented himself as a banger off the bench.
It’s perplexing, all of it. But you know what? I loved watching the 2011 Grizzlies even before they grew those awesome playoff beards. Trick or Treat Tony epitomizes everything: It makes absolutely no sense that he’s the best defensive guard in basketball right now, that he can suddenly make layups, that you can run plays for him in crunch-time. Sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders and enjoy the ride. I would not want to play Memphis in Round 1. At all.
10. Dallas Mavericks
If players were forced to argue their own MVP cases, here’s what I would write for Dirk to say (add your own German hip-hop accent):
“Um, have you ever watched us? We were playing three-on-five offensively in crunch-time when Caron Butler was healthy. In every close game, we run every play for me. No, really. Watch us some time. According to 82games.com, I’m the league’s best clutch scorer: in crunch-time, I make 49.5 percent of my field goals, get to the line more than anyone else and make 89 percent of my free throws. I have chunks of Kobe’s crunch-time prowess in my stool. And that’s playing with Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion (who couldn’t create shots for themselves if they were posting up Yi Jianlian’s old chair from the 2007 draft) and Jason Kidd, who’s only been decomposing since the All-Star Break. When I got injured in December, we went 2-8 while I was out, then 1-2 as I eased my way back into shape. We’re 50-15 when I’m healthy even though Jason Terry is my second-best teammate — he’d be the fifth-best Bull, fifth-best Celtic, sixth-best Laker and the fifth-best Blazer (a team that we’re playing in Round 1).
“I thought for sure we’d make a deadline deal to help me. We didn’t have much to trade because everyone on our team is between two and 12 years past his prime except Roddy Beaubois. Our front office decided Roddy was untradeable, which sounded good on paper when he was injured, but then he came back and started playing, and now it’s just plain awkward. So far he’s looked like either a poor man’s Tony Parker or a homeless man’s Tony Parker. The Dallas employee who decided Roddy was untradeable must have been the same guy who guaranteed those 1,400 temporary seats would be done for Super Bowl XLV. To be honest, I have no idea how we ended up with a 3-seed. We’re going to lose in Round 1 or Round 2. Crap. Anyway, um … vote for Dirk for MVP!”
9. Denver Nuggets
Four MAJOR karmic forces in their favor: George Karl’s inspiring recovery (and “inspiring” is an understatement); the Ewing Theory (can never be discounted); a fan base that handled the Melo-Drama before/during/after with as much class/enthusiasm/devotion as you could ever expect (seriously, nobody came out of the Melo saga better than Denver fans); and Danilo Gallinari’s defeating post-coital depression after spending the past three years hooking up with every hot model and actress in Manhattan.
They’ve also captured the attention of NBA fans for two other reasons …
A. The Nuggets finally stumbled into the high-flying, up-tempo team they always should have had: an athletic, relentless buzz saw built to run opponents off the court and take advantage of Denver’s high altitude. Every player in their top nine makes complete sense for that specific purpose, especially the Felton/Lawson combo at point. It’s like watching the greatest Rucker League team ever assembled; I wish they could play outdoors without nets.
B. Because of their phenomenal collection of tattoos, no team has ever been more fascinating to watch in HD — which makes it doubly funny that they play in Denver, the one city in which people would absolutely get stoned and watch a basketball game just to marvel at tattoos in HD for 150 minutes. I’m telling you, there is MAJOR karma going on here.
Now here’s where it gets sad: Unless Dallas can keep collapsing, it looks like Denver will draw Oklahoma City in Round 1, an awful matchup because it won’t be able to wear down the young Zombies, and also, OKC has two legitimate crunch-time scorers and Denver has a bullpen-by-committee of “We hope one of these guys gets hot” scorers (always dicey). They now need someone who can score in crunch-time as well as Carmelo Anthony did. That’s either ironic or coincidental. Either way, what a shame that Denver couldn’t have played San Antonio or Dallas in Round 1. And yes, I wrote that before George Karl came out and basically admitted the same thing.
Speaking of teams that would rather play the Mavericks …
8. Portland Trail Blazers
Quite a top-eight on paper: LaMarcus Aldridge, Marcus Camby, Gerald Wallace, Andre Miller, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Rudy Fernandez and whatever Brandon Roy has left. At 75-to-1, they’re one of the most intriguing longshot title bets I can remember: they could absolutely beat Dallas in Round 1 (could that be a better matchup for them???), and if anyone has the right personnel to bother the Lakers in Round 2 (lanky defenders for Kobe, quality offensive rebounders, size to throw at Bynum and Gasol, etc.), it’s the Blazers. Of course, with Portland’s luck, the Zombies will climb to a No. 3 seed and Rip City will have to play them and rehash the Durant/Oden fiasco all over again.
Let’s talk about something more uplifting: Aldridge’s quest to go from “Hall of Fame All-Star Snub” to “All-NBA” in the span of 10 weeks. My All-NBA teams look like this …
First team: Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki. Not sure how anyone can make a case for Kobe over Wade: Wade is a more efficient scorer, he’s a better defender, he carried a bigger load from night to night, he rated better with any advance metric you can name (PER, win shares, whatever), and he was playing three-on-five every night. It’s no contest. Props to Kobe for gutting it through the season on achy knees without practicing, but if he switched places with Wade this season, the Lakers may have been even better, but there’s no way in hell that Miami would have been as good. Period. Your only case for Kobe over Wade is this YouTube clip. That’s it.
Second team: Amare Stoudemire, Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Pau Gasol. Tough call between Kevin Garnett (the league’s best defensive big man other than Howard) and Gasol (the league’s most efficient low-post player). I went with Gasol because I’d rather have Gasol for 37 minutes a game than Garnett for 31 (that’s what they average this season), and because any Lakers fan who just emailed me to complain about Kobe/Wade now feels stupid for calling me a Laker hater.
Third team: Al Horford, Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Chris Paul and … Zach Randolph? Paul Pierce? Carmelo Anthony? Blake Griffin? Aldridge was the best of the bunch. The Blazers had every right to pack it in after Oden and Roy went down; Aldridge wouldn’t let them.
Seventy-Fifth team: I really think they should add this one. Who were the five worst players who played at least 700 minutes this season? My picks …
• Jonny Flynn: Ranks seventh from the bottom with Hollinger’s PER and can’t guard anybody. But hey, at least that draft pick made no sense.
• Rasual Butler: I watched him for a year and a half — he doesn’t possess a single average basketball skill. He’s a 3-point shooter who can’t make wide-open 3s. I think the Bulls acquired him so their fans would feel better about Keith Bogans.
• Yi Jianlian: I have no idea what he does or why he’s in the league. You know what really scares me? Danny Ainge was ready to take him fifth in 2007 if the Ray Allen trade fell through. Yikes. I’d be talking about my dad in the past tense.
• Juwan Howard: Because he looks the same, it’s almost like Miami is trying to pull a Jedi Mind Trick on opponents. Look, it’s Juwan Howard! That guy scored 20 a game not too long ago! I wouldn’t leave him open if I were you …
• Travis Outlaw: A one-dimensional player who lost that dimension (making just 29 percent of his 3s this season) just one year into a five-year, $35 million deal. Anytime you’re a wealthier, cap-killing Rasual Butler, you’re my Least Valuable Player. I’m glad we settled this.
Kudos to Howard for getting about 11.27 percent better this season. He’s an MVP candidate because Orlando finished fifth for defensive field goal percentage and second for rebound differential … and he’s the Magic’s only rebounder and above-average defender. That’s pretty amazing when you consider Orlando leads the league in “Guys Even Spectators Feel Like They Could Take Off The Dribble Or Post Up” (seven by my count). He also makes 60 percent of his shots and seems like a good enough teammate. So there’s something here.
I can’t give him my MVP vote for one simple reason: he leaves something on the table every night. Dwight Howard should be the league’s most dominant player. Physically, there’s nobody remotely like him. True story: I was watching SportsCenter the other night. My wife noticed Howard on TV and gasped, “Oh my God, who’s that?” the same way you’d comment on the 12-year-old in Little League who’s six inches taller than everyone else and has the makings of a mustache already. When I told her it was Howard, she said, “Just looking at him, it seems like he should be the best player, right?” Exactly. Howard has the same advantages that Wilt, Kareem, Robinson and Shaq had once upon a time … if anything, it’s a bigger advantage now because the center position died and turned into something else.
Remember when an in-shape Shaq ripped the NBA apart during Phil Jackson’s first Lakers season (79 games, 29.7 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 40.0 MPG, 18.6 win shares, 30.6 PER) and everyone said, “HA! That’s the Shaq we were waiting for! I knew he had that extra gear!” That’s how I feel about Dwight Howard right now. Hakeem averaged a 24-14 with 4.6 blocks and 2.1 steals in 1990 and it wasn’t even one of the best three seasons of his career. Robinson’s 1994 season was an advanced metrics orgasm: a 30-11-5 with a 30.7 PER and 20.0 win shares. Shaq averaged a 30-15 in 58 playoff games during L.A.’s three-peat. You’re telling me Howard’s 23.1 points, 14.1 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 26.1 PER is the best he can do? No way.
That’s when you ask, “Wait, why does it matter? If it was better than anyone else’s best season, who cares if he peaked as a player? It’s still the best season!”
And that’s where you would be wrong. The reason basketball isn’t baseball — and advanced metrics should be used to accentuate opinions we’re already leaning towards having, instead of forming and shaping those same opinions — is because basketball players directly affect their teammates and opponents at all times. If Howard is Orlando’s best player, and he’s holding something back every night how can you say that doesn’t affect the Magic? He’s their best guy! Your best guy leads! Your best guy sets the tone for everyone else! When Howard cruises through quarters, picks up dumb fouls, earns even dumber technicals and disappears in crunch-time (he doesn’t even rank in the top 125 for crunch-time field goal attempts this season), you don’t think that has anything to do with Orlando’s uneven season? Doesn’t it bother you that Serge Ibaka plays harder than Howard every night? Doesn’t it bother you that Celtics fans watch Orlando and think, “That team is soft … I hope we can play them in the playoffs?” Doesn’t it bother you that Howard still defers to Jameer Nelson down the stretch?
Look, I’m a basketball fan — I want Dwight Howard to get there. I want to watch as many great players as possible. But he’s not there yet. I have NBA season tickets and didn’t care if I saw Dwight Howard in person this season. That’s your MVP? Please.
YOUNG & HUNGRY
6. Oklahoma City
A few weeks ago, Kendrick Perkins said something interesting: he believed you need two quality big guys if you really want a good defensive team. His reasoning was that one guy alone couldn’t protect the rim, defend the low-post and jump out on high screens. With two big guys, everything falls into place. Before Thursday’s Bulls-Celtics game, Tom Thibodeau made a similar point: he said that, defensively, it didn’t get any better than the Perkins-Garnett duo.
Now, I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about this — not just what Perkins said, but defense and what makes it work — because the Celtics have unraveled over these last few weeks, and also because Perkins transformed Oklahoma City and unleashed Ibaka (who no longer has to defend everyone else’s best low-post guy) as a devastating weak side shot blocker and general menace. The Thunder can go to war with anyone now. Two weeks ago, I spent some time with Phil Jackson and Game 7 of the 2010 Finals happened to come up, mainly because I felt like torturing myself. That game was decided within the six feet around both baskets. A turf war, if you will. The Lakers were a little tougher, a little bigger and a little deeper on that specific night. That’s why they won. Twelve years earlier, Jackson’s Bulls played another one of those turf war games in a Game 7 against Indiana. Jordan and Pippen (neither taller than 6-foot-7) somehow controlled the turf. Chicago prevailed.
I asked Jackson if the two games reminded him of each other. He couldn’t have agreed fast enough. For whatever reason, he gravitated towards the 1998 game, which he clearly relished winning even all these years later. (“Michael and Scottie, they just wanted it so badly,” he said. “They just wouldn’t let us lose.”) But also, Indiana couldn’t protect that six feet. The Pacers got outrebounded by 16 by a smaller team. They weren’t tough enough. The 2011 Bulls are built to protect that six feet — in Thursday’s game, they manhandled the Celtics, intimidated them and shoved them around like a weak offensive line — as are the 2011 Lakers and 2011 Zombies, and maybe even the Heat if LeBron and Wade pull a 1998 Pippen/MJ against a softer team.
Anyway, it’s easy to concentrate on the trade’s watershed effect on Boston — in retrospect, Danny Ainge should have just flown the whole team to Dallas, crammed the players into a limo, had them do the turn around Dealey Plaza and just started shooting at them from the Grassy Knoll — and inadvertently skip over how brilliant it was for Oklahoma City. Their team makes sense now. Jeff Green’s minutes were redistributed to Perkins, Ibaka and James Harden. Durant gets to play more small forward, where he can shoot over anyone. Suddenly their swing guy is Russell Westbrook (slightly miscast as a point guard/decision maker) and his ability to coexist with Durant every night (who’s just a better offensive player). What’s weird is that they’re best friends, and yet they can’t totally figure out how to play together — it’s like watching two hip-hop artists awkwardly team up for a song and just take turns shouting. Lately they’ve been running more high screens together; either Westbrook goes hard to the hoop, they get a switch and Durant gets to shoot over a point guard, or both guys go to Westbrook and Durant gets to shoot a 3. It’s mildly unstoppable.
Here’s the point: The Zombies are 18-to-1 to win the title right now. It’s the one bargain out there. They can defend, rebound and score at the end of games. More importantly, they can protect that six feet. Thanks to Danny Ainge. But still.
THE OLD GUARD
This could be 450 words or 45,000. I will spare you — we’ll go for 450. Just know that I can’t remember another deadline deal knocking a team from “favorites” to “also-rans.” There’s no historical precedent. The trade undermined everything the Celtics were about: size, toughness, togetherness, chemistry, friendship, relationships … it erased their identity Jason Bourne-style. Whether it was true or not, this particular Celtics team really did believe in the whole “nobody has ever beaten us in a series when we had our starting five” mantra, just like they believed in “ubuntu” and their ability to protect that aforementioned six feet at all times. Well, how do you preach “ubuntu” after you just blindsided one of your core guys in a trade that didn’t totally need to happen? So it’s conditional ubuntu?
The more I watch this Celtics team, the more I realized that they were overachieving those first 3½ months because of chemistry and swagger. Watching Chicago rough them up Thursday was pretty depressing. Keith Bogans pushed Ray Allen around like a rag doll. Kurt Thomas and Glen Davis fell into a heap, then Thomas jumped up and stood over Davis like he had just tripped him in a prison cafeteria and wanted to send him a message before they both got sent to the hole. Joakim Noah pranced around and did Noah things knowing that everyone had his back. With 20 seconds left in a blowout, Carlos Boozer got tangled with Nenad Krstic and decided to shove him six feet, got called for a foul, then stared him down before sauntering back to his bench and being greeted by smiling teammates. Honestly, it was like watching a deleted Cobra Kai scene. The trade was bad enough — watching my team get punked out on national TV was something else. That game made me ill. So does the trade. I don’t know what the Celtics are anymore, and neither do they.
One more thing: Every Celtics fan is in “last year, we wrote them off and we made the Finals” mode. Which is fine. That’s what you do when you’re grieving. You make excuses. Just know that …
A. The 2011 Bulls are better than any 2010 Eastern team. There’s no comparison, actually. All season long I’ve been watching them with the same frightened look that Mickey had during Clubber Lang’s fights in the beginning if “Rocky 3.”
B. The odds of the 2011 Celtics getting a gift on the level of WTHHTLBJBG3G6 (Whatever The Hell Happened To LeBron James Between Game 3 and Game 6) are about 100-to-1. Miracles don’t happen twice.
4. San Antonio
Another team that can’t protect that six feet. And the Spurs know it.
For the record, Gregg Popovich gets the “Coach of the Year” vote that I don’t have. That’s a pretty quirky Spurs roster. A few years ago, I gave Steve Nash my 2007 MVP vote because that Suns roster was specifically tailored to him: it was an exquisite, ridiculously powerful race car that only one driver could have handled. This Spurs team was more like a beautiful, slightly broken-down sailboat sailing across the Atlantic — it needed a skipper who had done the trip a few times, understood his boat completely, could make a few on-the-fly fixes if anything happened, clicked with his crew completely, and wouldn’t panic if water ever started spurting from the deck. The way Popp managed everyone’s minutes, juggled his rotation, coaxed a decent season from an aging Duncan, quelled the Tony Parker/Brent Barry fiasco, worked in his young guys, landed that 1-seed and kept his team intact for the playoffs was nothing short of spectacular. I just don’t think they can beat the Lakers or Bulls.
(But if Oklahoma City can beat the Lakers, and one of the Eastern contenders can take down the Bulls … )
I know computer programs are spitting out LeBron’s numbers as evidence that he’s the leading MVP candidate, but how can anyone watch Miami for six straight months and come to the conclusion that LeBron was even 0.00000000001 percent more important to Miami than Wade? I wrote about their Michael Eisner/Frank Wells conundrum after Game 2, and really, they never settled it. They turned into Franchel Wellsner. LeBron has been a little more consistent; Wade has been a little more of a leader; and during crunch-time, they still haven’t totally figured out anything beyond the Dueling Banjos routine. If you want to argue for co-MVPs, I’m fine with that — that’s what probably should have happened in 1970 (Reed and Frazier), 1972 (West and Wilt) and 2006 (Shaq and Wade). These guys are playing three-on-five every night and it’s been kind of amazing to watch: when you factor in Haslem’s injury, Mike Miller’s ongoing struggles and the other jabronies, there’s simply no way the Heat should have won more than 55 games with that pulsating bull’s eye on their backs every night. I don’t know how they stayed healthy. I don’t know how they didn’t implode. I don’t know how Wade and LeBron stayed so patient with Bosh, who just wasn’t ready for any of this. So it WAS an achievement, and if we were allowed to pick co-MVPs, I would. But picking one of them? Come on.
One more thing: I was looking forward to a Celtics-Heat playoff series for so many reasons, but mainly because it was a battle for everything I ever believed about basketball. Hell, it was the premise of my entire NBA book: that there was more to basketball than just a bunch of individually talented dudes playing together, that the concept of “team” mattered, that structure beat chaos, that there were ways to evaluate players beyond statistics, that there was a “secret” to all of this. Miami tried to cheat that structure and my Celtics were going to make them pay.
Then, the Perkins trade happened. If the Celtics can’t fend off the Heat, it’s up to …
2. Chicago Bulls
… a team that’s been practicing that secret all season. Guys like Luol Deng and Joakim Noah might not be able to sell tickets, but you can win titles with them because they don’t care about anything other than doing what it takes to win. Someone like Brian Scalabrine might not matter historically, but he’s one of the greatest, most supportive guys you could ever have on your bench. Someone like Thomas might seem like a journeyman center, but he’d fight anyone who messed with any of his teammates. Someone like Boozer might not be worth $70 million, but it’s hard to find guys who can grind out 20-10s every night and not take it personally if they don’t touch the ball in the final three minutes of close games. Someone like Rose might not seem any more or less special statistically than the other MVP candidates, but when your best player buys into everything your coach is selling, plays hard for every minute of every game, doesn’t care about his own numbers, stays humble and does whatever it takes to win from night to night, how could he not be considered “valuable?”
To be honest, this is probably one of those years when there wasn’t totally a most valuable player (like 2005 and 2007, actually). Sadly, we can’t roll the trophy over like it’s a skins match and make next year’s award count for two. We have to hand it out. The case against Rose is twofold:
A. Chicago’s MVP has been its tenacious defense (not Rose). That’s fine except for the part that every true contender assumes the personality of its best player. Russell’s Celtics won 11 of 13 titles because he cared about winning more than anyone ever … until Jordan, whose teams won six titles because he cared about winning more than anyone other than Russell. Bird’s Celtics teams assumed his personality; they were all terrified of letting him down. Magic’s Lakers teams assumed his personality; carefree in those early years, then more and more hardcore as the years passed. Duncan’s Spurs teams reflected him and his coach: cerebral, classy, competitive in the cleanest way. Kobe’s best quality these past three years has been that he’s gotten Gasol, Bynum and Odom (three guys who, mentally, could have gone either way) to care about competing as much as he does. This is what great players do.
So for anyone to say that Rose — who’s stuck in fifth gear for every minute of every game, to the point that Chicago’s biggest concern might be that he doesn’t have an extra gear for the playoffs — doesn’t directly affect Chicago’s defense is insane. Have you ever been to an NBA practice? Earlier this year, I went to an Oklahoma City practice and was stunned to see Durant and Westbrook going full-speed through every drill like it was Game 7 of the playoffs. I asked Scotty Brooks about it afterward; he smiled and said something like, “When your best players care that much, everything else falls into place.” That’s what happened in Chicago with Rose. He sets the tone day after day after day; everyone else eventually fell into place. When your best player cares that much, it’s contagious.
B. Speaking of advanced metrics, if you’re using them to make the case against Rose, I submit the following two lines:
Player A: 27.2 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 4.2 APG, 54% FG, 76% FT, 28.4 PER, 16.6 WS, 60% TS%, 1st-team All-Defense.
Player B: 29.2 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 3.8 APG, 48% FG, 81% FT, 26.3 PER, 17.1 WS, 55% TS%, 1st-team All-Defense.
Who was better? It’s close, but you picked Player A, right? Well … those were the combined numbers for Karl Malone and Michael Jordan during the 1997 and 1998 regular seasons. You just picked Malone. Thank you and please drive through.
Anyway, advanced metrics weaken Rose’s MVP case but don’t murder it. Unlike LeBron the past two years, he isn’t a sure thing. That’s fine. Just consider these other two points …
• Rose carries his team’s offense more than anyone else carries their team’s offense. He’s the Bulls’ only player who can create his own shot, and he’s their only player who can create shots for others. Night after night after night, he walked onto the court knowing that Chicago’s entire offense hinged on how he played. His usage (32.4 percent) and assist (39.4 percent) rates tell some of the story; in crunch-time per 48 minutes, he’s averaged the second-most field goal attempts, the eighth-most free throw attempts and the ninth-highest assists (nobody else made the top-15 for all three categories, much less the top-10). The dude does everything for Chicago offensively, a little like Iverson on the 2001 Sixers (the year he finished with the sixth-highest usage rate ever and Philly somehow made the Finals, anyway). In my opinion, when you’re doing everything, you should get a little statistical slack. You might have to take one or two shots per half that you shouldn’t take, just because nobody else will take them. In crunch-time, the degree of difficulty ratchets up because the other team knows it’s up to you, and you alone. You have to account for these things. That’s why I love basketball so much: it’s objective and subjective.
• Rose keeping the Bulls in contention for three-plus months when Boozer and Noah missed significant time was the most impressive thing I witnessed this season. Their quest for a No. 1 seed should have derailed in November, when Boozer missed a brutal seven-game Western road swing (including Dallas, San Antonio, Phoenix and Los Angeles) plus games in Boston and Oklahoma City … and yet, they emerged from a potential disaster at 9-6 (with Rose averaging a 28-8-5). Just when they were coming together, their defensive anchor (Noah) went down for two months … Rose kept everything humming. (As a Celtics fan, I kept looking at the standings every morning thinking, “Jeez, they won’t go away … .”) They finally had a full team when they were 35-14; they’re 23-6 since. A one-seed. Phenomenal.
I will remember the 2010-11 season for LeBron and Wade, for Blake Griffin, for the dumb Celtics trade, and for how hard Derrick Rose played every night. He willed the Bulls to a No. 1 seed. Unfortunately, we don’t have an advanced metric to quantify that specific achievement — just a primitive, overrated statistic called “wins.” I guess we’ll have to make due. Derrick Rose, you’re my 2010-11 MVP.
Last note: On paper, the Bulls are the best team right now. They proved it Thursday night — that was a final exam and they aced it. Just don’t forget the lessons of the 1990 Bulls, 2000 Lakers, 2008 Celtics and every other team that looked great heading into April, then found out that winning in the playoffs was a slightly different animal. The energy is different. The crowds are louder. The media ten-tuples in size. The pressure can suffocate the weaker links on the team, and sometimes, even the best guys. The games come one after another, and if you get into the wrong groove, you can’t get out of it. You get tight. You question who you are. You hit a couple of low points, then glance around wondering who might step up and not totally knowing if anyone will. The playoffs exacerbate every quality you have, good and bad. You just never know how a team will respond until they’re responding. I believe in this Bulls team … but it’s the playoffs, and you just never know.
1. L.A. Lakers
The favorites until someone takes them down. Obviously. But one thing has been lost in the shuffle because there was so much else going on: if the Lakers win three in a row, that puts them on a whole other level historically. Here are all the NBA teams that won three straight:
LA Lakers: 2000-02
That’s a pretty insane list. Minneapolis had Mikan, the first great center. Boston had Russell, Auerbach and the greatest collection of talent ever assembled on one team. The 1991-93 Bulls had the greatest player ever at the peak of his powers; the 1996-98 Bulls had Jordan and Pippen dominating an expansion-diluted league. And the 2000-02 Lakers had Shaq (the dominant center of his era) and Kobe (who would eventually become one of the 10 best players ever).
It’s really, really, REALLY hard for me to believe that the 2009-11 Lakers are 16 wins away from joining that group. But I think they will. L.A. over Chicago in six. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go wander into traffic.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times No. 1 best-seller “The Book of Basketball,” now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy’s World or the BS Report page. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.