Why write a two-part NBA Preview when you can just make lists? For instance…
THREE GUYS WHO HAVE REACHED THE STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS ON EXCUSES
1. Yao Ming
After three straight years of playing for the Rockets and his Chinese team without a vacation, Yao took much of the summer off to recharge his batteries. I know this because I have read it in every single “Look out, here comes Yao!” piece written over the past six weeks, which is starting to sound like the “Look out, this could be the season that ‘Scrubs’ becomes a smash hit!” campaign.
So fine, his regular-season stats should climb this season … but does that mean he won’t disappear in the playoffs again? Personally, I think he’s too nice — Yao seems like the kind of guy who would take a cheap-shot elbow, then apologize for hitting the guy’s elbow with his teeth. Don’t you need a little bit of a mean streak to be a franchise center? Remember, even Kareem had a nasty side at times, and he was an absolute ninny. At the very least, couldn’t Yao grow a wispy fu manchu or something?
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2. Carmelo Anthony
Not only are LeBron and Wade leaving him in the dust, but even Darko Milicic is getting some “Leo the Late Bloomer” buzz lately in Detroit. Meanwhile, ‘Melo is the Marissa Cooper of that 2004 class — a strong first season with a ton of promise, followed by a disappointing second season when everything possible went wrong. Of course, Marissa took a major leap in Season 3 of “The OC,” suddenly started looking like a woman and seems headed for the Jaclyn Smith Hall of Fame for TV Babes. Good sign for ‘Melo. And yes, I think he springs for 25-plus a game this season.
3. Paul Pierce
Statistically, he had his best season since 2001 … although stats don’t reflect things like “Number of scowls,” “Number of times the coach was shown up” and “Number of legitimately bizarre decisions that made you question how late he stayed out the previous night.” This season? He seems healthy, he’s in shape, he’s in good spirits, and his first step has mysteriously returned from a two-year sabbatical. What happened to the black cloud that followed him around for the past two seasons? You got me. As the Sports Gal randomly said while watching two minutes of an exhibition game last week, “He seems happy, he looks like the old Pee-Pee again!”
(Yes, my wife calls the best player on the Celtics “Pee-Pee.” Don’t ask.)
FIVE YOUNG GUYS READY TO MAKE EITHER A LEAP OR A SEMI-LEAP
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1. Dwight Howard
Ever read those Greg Oden stories about how he’s the most important American center since David Robinson? First of all, Howard is eventually ending up as a center. Maybe it won’t happen on a full-time basis this season, but it’s going to happen — no center in the league will be able to handle him down low or keep him off the boards. Second, he isn’t going to become just an All-Star center some day. Looking at last season’s stats and factoring the sophomore bump (usually 25-30 percent), as well as a 10-12 percent improvement for every season after that, there’s a decent chance Howard could average 25-30 points and 17-18 rebounds a game within the next six years, just as there’s an excellent chance that LeBron will average a triple-double over that same stretch. And third, I haven’t seen enough of Oden to comment, but I find it impossible to believe that Oden’s Tremendous Upside Potential surpasses Dwight Howard’s Tremendous Upside Potential. I guess we’ll see.
(One other Howard note: Nobody in any sport needs a good nickname more than him. Too bad Shawn Kemp screwed up “The Man-Child.” What about something like “The Absolute Monster” or “The Freak of Nature?” Seriously, have you seen Dwight Howard this season? The guy makes the early-’90s David Robinson seem like he was built like Daniel LaRusso by comparison. This is crazy. Why isn’t anyone talking about him?)
2. Andre Iguodala
Seems poised for a Pippen-like career. Plus, he was my favorite guy on Spike TV’s “The Rookies” last season.
(And just for the record, I wouldn’t spend a top-10 pick on anyone without meeting his parents first. I enjoyed the Iguodalas. Sure, it’s not often you get to say things like “I enjoyed the Iguodalas” … but seriously, I enjoyed the Iguodalas.)
3. Al Harrington
Just a gut feeling on this one — contract year, better team, Joe Johnson and so on. All 7,000 Hawks fans are very excited.
4. Mike Sweetney
In the irony of ironies, Sweetney could become the best player from that Eddy Curry trade regardless of how the Eddy Curry Era turns out in New York. And no, you can’t write a sentence with a wider range of possibilities than “regardless of how the Eddy Curry Era turns out in New York,” with the possible exception of something like “So I show up at a party last night and Andy Dick was there… “
5. James Jones
I thought Phoenix screwed up royally with the Joe Johnson trade, but Jones was one of my favorite secret bench guys last season — 6-foot-8, runs the floor and strokes those open 3s. Perfect fit for Nash and the Suns. And he cost about a third as much as Brian Scalabrine!
(By the way, if you think that’s the last bitter Scalabrine reference of this preview, you obviously don’t know me well enough. I could spring for a double-double of Scalabrine-Dickau insults before everything’s said and done.)
THREE GUYS AT THE ABSOLUTE CROSSROADS OF THEIR CAREERS
1. Steve Francis
Shouldn’t he lose the nickname “Stevie Franchise” at this point? What about “Stevie Lottery Team” or “Stevie Trade Rumor?” Get ready for the Vince Carter Memorial Fire Sale in mid-December. Which raises the question … what happened if he went to a borderline contender with a superstar infrastructure in place (like Vince going to New Jersey) that’s also smart enough to use him like Philly uses Iverson (as a two-guard who defends points on the other end?) For instance, what if his stock plummeted to the point that Minnesota was able to get him for Wally Szczerbiak and The Artist Formerly Known As Michael Olowokandi, then played him at the two-guard with Marko Jaric at point? Couldn’t KG bring something extra out of him?
2. Chris Webber
As strange as this sounds, C-Webb needs two more quality seasons to make the Hall of Fame. On basketballreference.com right now, his “Similar Players (career)” list includes KG, Joe Barry Carroll, Marques Johnson, James Worthy, Derrick Coleman, Glenn Robinson and Vin Baker, and his “Hall of Fame Monitor” is 134 (with anything over 135 meaning that the player has an excellent chance of becoming a likely Hall of Famer). Does that sum everything up or what? Frustrating player, frustrating career.
One catch though: The fact that he roped the Maloofs into a $122 million contract with a bum knee remains one of the great achievements in the history of sports — something tells me both sides shook on that deal at about 4:30 a.m. in the hot tub of the “Real World” suite at the Palms, followed by everyone doing body shots off Trishelle Cannatella and Jenna Lewis. You gotta love the Maloofs. I’m convinced that I can talk them into hiring me as the new Kings GM if they read enough of these NBA columns, then I run into them in Vegas on the right night. Everyone has dreams, this is mine. Seriously, you couldn’t see Joe Maloof calling Gavin on a Sunday afternoon and having this exchange:
–Joe: “You awake?”
–Gavin: “Barely. It’s 12:30, why are you calling so early?”
–Joe: “You know that dude who writes for ESPN.com and cracks on Cuban all the time?”
–Gavin: “The Sports Dude?”
–Joe: “Yeah, something like that … I think we hired him as our new GM last night.”
–Gavin: “Really? [long pause] Wait, what happened last night?”
–Joe: “I don’t know, dude … right now I’m lying in a water bed with Dennis Rodman and the fat chick from ‘Boy Meets World.’ And I’m covered in broken glass. I’m freaked out.”
–Gavin [long pause]: “Wait, who’s our new GM again?”
3. Jerry West
He’s never been the same since the 2004 lottery, when the Grizzlies could have kept their No. 1 pick (and gotten LeBron) because the pick was top-1 protected … and then the lottery started … and they made it into the top two … and then, they drew the second pick (meaning they had to send it to Detroit). That may have been the greatest hit-or-miss moment in the history of sports — for about seven seconds, Jerry West was sitting there thinking, “Either I’m getting LeBron James or I’m getting nothing.” If there was ever a moment for an NBA GM to keel over on live TV, that was it.
Anyway, I think that moment crushed West much like the Bias draft crushed Red Auerbach — both of them were smart enough to know that those opportunities come along once every 10 to 15 years, and when they vanish into thin air, you can’t get them back. Maybe that’s why West did such a crummy job with the Grizzlies over the past two seasons. Or, he might just be really, really old. It’s one or the other. From their drafts (Troy Bell???) to their free-agent signings ($39 million for Brian Cardinal???) to their trades (Eddie Jones???) to their lack of rolling the dice with a flawed superstar and hoping he just needs a change of scenery (Vince Carter???) to continuing to invest in shaky character guys (why Damon Stoudamire after the Bonzi Wells experience???), there isn’t a single move The Logo made over the past 16 months that made sense. Not a one.
(Hey, speaking of shaky GMs…)
THE FIVE DUMBEST ISIAH THOMAS MOVES OF THE OFFSEASON (IN REVERSE ORDER)
5. Jerome James for $30 million
So predictable, I even predicted it. Maybe the first lucrative free-agent signing whose confidence was completely shot before the preseason even ended. On the bright side, at least he has a weight problem.
4. Larry Brown for $60-plus million
He’s one of the best five coaches of my lifetime. There’s no question. But Brown has clearly established himself as a certain type of coach — someone who takes over an underachieving team with quality veterans and teaches them how to win. He’s notoriously impatient with young players, whether it was Detroit (Darko and Carlos Delfino), Athens (Carmelo, Wade and LeBron), Philly (Larry Hughes) or even Indiana (Jalen Rose and Travis Best). Well, have you taken a look at the Knicks? Not exactly a veteran team — they’re mostly rookies, second-year guys and young players who have driven their coaches crazy. Why is this a good situation for him? What’s different between this situation and the ’97 and ’98 Philly teams that won a combined 60 games? Remember, those teams had Iverson, Hughes, Tim Thomas, Derrick Coleman, Theo Ratliff and others … it took Brown three years to turn things around and five to make the Finals.
(Side note: If you’re scoring at home, Larry Brown is 65 years old. When my father turns 65, I don’t even want him shoveling snow anymore, much less coaching guys like Crawford, Marbury, Richardson and Curry and dealing with 3 a.m. phone calls from Isiah like, “Good news, I just traded four first-rounders, Penny Hardaway and cash for Zack Randolph!”)
3. Kurt Thomas for Quentin Richardson and Nate Robinson
Classic “quarter for two dimes” trade. Everyone needs to settle down on Robinson, by the way. He’s 5-foot-7 and he’s not a point guard. That’s a problem. In the NFL, he would be one of those exciting kick returners who makes only two or three plays per year but seems 10 times more dangerous than he really is. Watching Nate run an offense is like watching Michael J. Fox run the show in the final game in “Teen Wolf,” only without the ridiculous edits. He’s a shooting guard trapped in a point guard’s body. On the right team, this could work. On a team with two other shoot-first point guards, it’s a mess.
2. Channing Frye with the 8th pick
I was lukewarm on this one when it happened … and then Isiah spent $90 million on two guys who play the exact same position as him. Four steps beyond completely illogical. That reminds me…
1. Eddy Curry
If it works out, Eddy gives you a low-post scorer who doesn’t rebound and peaks in the first quarter every game. If it doesn’t work out, he could die on the court and you’re stuck with his uninsured $60 million contract. There’s no in-between.
Actually, this wasn’t dumb; it was more creepy than anything. Let’s roll the dice with him … if it doesn’t work out, we’ll just clear him off the court and put in Jerome James. Unlike Tedy Bruschi, he wasn’t cleared by the Bulls to play and nobody really knows how bad his heart condition is — the whole situation is somewhat disturbing, if you ask me. There’s a reason they don’t show Hank Gathers’ final game on ESPN Classic.
EIGHT BLURBS FROM THE “ENEMY LINES” SECTION IN SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’S NORMALLY ASTUTE NBA PREVIEW THAT SOUNDED LIKE SOME INTERN MADE THEM UP OVER THESE COMMENTS ACTUALLY COMING FROM AN “ANONYMOUS” NBA SCOUT:
1. Kyle Korver’s first step is “quick enough to get him by a guy and create whatever he needs to do.”
(Well, except for the Pistons-Sixers playoff series when Korver scored 25 points total in five games because the Pistons decided to guard him. Other than that, this was dead-on.)
2. “I don’t buy the criticism that Jermaine O’Neal is too soft.”
(Wait, the same Jermaine O’Neal who punched out a Pistons fan and gutted through the 2005 playoffs with a bum shoulder? He’s soft? Who said that? This sounds like one of those Paul Maguire arguments where he makes up the argument with himself — “I’m gonna tell you right now, that was pass interference, that was definitely pass interference … watch this replay … wait, that was not pass interference!”)
3. “Brian Scalabrine is a high-energy guy who has a nose for the ball. He’s a vocal leader and a good passer.”
(They forgot to add, “Too bad he sucks.” Maybe it was accidentally deleted.)
4. “He was already highly touted, but Emeka Okafor turned out to be even better than expected. Still, he’s not a franchise player.”
(Um, Okafor was the No. 1 pick in a deep 2004 draft and averaged a 15-10 last season, which is exactly what everyone expected. So if he’s not a franchise player, and he’s better than everyone expected, and he was a No. 1 pick … wait, I’m confused.)
5. “Backup point guard Beno Udrih had a terrific rookie year.”
(So good that the Spurs benched him in the playoffs and had to drop to a seven-man rotation in the Finals, then signed Nick Van Exel this summer. A job well done.)
6. “Dirk Nowitzki tries defensively, but he’s just not very good.”
(Actually, he’s atrocious. He’s a train wreck. He couldn’t be worse. I’m getting angry.)
7. “Chemistry is going to be a big issue [with the Clippers]. Four of their starters — Maggette, Mobley, Cassell and Brand — are all looking to shoot it when they get it, so the ball isn’t circulating a lot.”
(Take it from someone who went to 35 Clippers games last year — there isn’t a more unselfish scorer in the league than Elton Brand. You don’t have to run any plays for him, and he has no low-post moves — all of his points come on fast breaks and wide-open jumpers in the flow of the offense. And do you really think Cassell will be hogging the ball in a contract year? Please. I am going to kill a small animal soon.)
8. “Wally Szczerbiak is still an excellent catch-and-shoot player who can hit big shots, but defensively, he’s a step slow.”
(This is like saying, “Brooke Burns is as beautiful as ever, but from an acting standpoint, she’s a step slow.” How does this stuff get printed? Let’s just move on before my editors take me down with a Taser like Michael Olowokandi.)
AND JUST TO BE FAIR, FOUR RIDICULOUS STATEMENTS FROM ESPN THE MAG’S PREVIEW
1. Manu Ginobili “should be in the LeBron/Wade conversation.” Um, let’s not have that conversation until Manu stops mailing in games and disappearing on the road. Cool?
2. Mark Blount getting ranked a 7 out of 10 by a scoring system that was apparently concocted by The Rick. Put it this way: Yao and Chris Bosh both received 8’s.
3. The proclamation that “Nate Robinson is the most exciting NY rook since Rod Strickland.” You mean, he’s more exciting than Jerrod Mustaf, Hubie Davis, Monty Williams, Charlie Ward, Greg Anthony, John Wallace, Walter McCarty, Dontae Jones, John Thomas, Fred Weis, Lavor Postell, Mike Sweetney, Maciej Lampe and Trevor Ariza? You really want to go out on a limb like that?
4. The prediction that, “if Grant Hill is pain-free and The Franchise is frown free, the Magic could be scary come spring.” Also, if you went to Vegas and put $50,000 down on the roulette number “15,” you could be a millionaire if that number came up. All right, the pilot just turned the “No snarkiness” sign back on. Back to the column.
FOUR UNDERRATED OFFSEASON MOVES THAT DIDN’T RECEIVE NEARLY ENOUGH PRAISE
1. Washington’s de facto swap of Larry Hughes and Kwame Brown for Caron Butler, Antonio Daniels and Chucky Atkins
See, these are the moves I would make if I were running a team. For half the price of Hughes and Kwame, the Wiz landed three proven veterans with playoff experience, including a potential wingman for Arenas (Butler, who was coming into his own in Miami before the Shaq trade). Those moves were Billy Beane-esque. I loved them. I almost want to send Ernie Grunfeld an e-mail just to congratulate him for not being a moron like pretty much every other NBA GM.
2. Sam Cassell to the Clips
Contract year, Livingston insurance, someone who loves taking big shots. Remember, this was a team that lost, like, 25 games in the final minute last season … and this is a guy who makes 3-pointers in the playoffs, then hops around the court mimicking a giant set of testicles. Let’s just say he fills a void. Plus, he looks like “E.T.” Huge thumbs-up all around.
3. The Charlie Villanueva pick
Here’s where Rob Babcock hits a Forrest Gump-level stroke of luck. We all know there’s no way Charlie should have gone seventh in that draft, but in a weird way, the adverse reaction was probably the best thing that ever could have happened to Charlie’s career — always an iffy effort guy in college, now he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder every night, and he looked like one of the best rookies in the preseason. The postdraft ridicule gave him an unforeseen sense of purpose. You have to love sports sometimes.
4. Milwaukee getting Jamaal Magloire for Desmond Mason and a No. 1
First, I don’t care if the Hornets needed to sell tickets in Oklahoma City — if I were an NBA GM, I would have protested that trade. There are 35 to 40 guys in the league like Mason and only eight solid centers like Magloire. That’s outrageous. Second, the Bucks were already a potential playoff team with my brother Bobby and T.J. Ford’s improbable comeback, and that was before they settled the Redd-Simmons-Mason logjam and added a borderline All-Star center. Third, Magloire removes the pressure from Bogut (who looked decent in the preseason), who can now develop at his own pace. And fourth, on the heels of GM Larry Harris’ legendary freeze on camera during the NBA lottery, I’m rooting for any scenario that could potentially lead to his being handed an NBA championship trophy by David Stern.
(That’s right, from the man who gave you the 2005 Chicago Bears Playoff Bandwagon, I give you … the 2006 Milwaukee Bucks Playoff Bandwagon! And I’ll go this far: They could possibly climb to as high as No. 5. You’re looking at this year’s Chicago. Just wait.)
FIVE ANGLES THAT PEOPLE AREN’T DISCUSSING NEARLY ENOUGH
1. Reggie Miller, Ewing Theory Candidate
Shades of Don Mattingly and the ’96 Yankees, no?
(While we’re here, does anyone else think Reggie is secretly banking on another meltdown from Ron Artest or Stephen Jackson so he can make a dramatic, “Well, I didn’t want to come back — really, I didn’t — but the team needs me right now, and I love this franchise too much to not help them” comeback? When they’re 42-15 in February, you know he’ll be sitting at home hoping for one of those, “You’re not going to believe this, but Stephen Jackson got into a fight with a cigarette machine last night, he’s out for the season with a broken hand, we need you to come back” phone calls. Mark my words, this isn’t over.)
2. Oklahoma City, NBA Team
Excuse me, the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets? Why hasn’t more been made out of this? We have an NBA team playing in Oklahoma City right now! What’s the record for “Most combined hours a visiting NBA team spent stuck in their hotel room playing video games because there was absolutely nothing else for them to do?” And why wasn’t Vegas involved as a temporary home? Why does the commish keep fighting this? The NBA players want Vegas, the fans want Vegas, Vegas wants Vegas, the groupies want Vegas … who’s against Vegas? Seriously, is there one person? They couldn’t have given Vegas a clandestine test run with the 2006 Hornets? Really?
3. Rob Babcock, Horror Show (ongoing)
Now that John Weisbrod is out of the league, Babcock is the runaway winner of this year’s “If That Guy Gets To Run A Team, Why Can’t I Run A Team?” award. I mean, when Jalen Rose is complaining that you don’t care — and he’s right — you know you’re doing a bad job.
(Note: When he finally gets fired, I want somebody to give Babcock his own reality-TV show where he just takes over businesses, stores, companies or whatever and runs them into the ground — it could be like a cross between “Wife Swap” and “30 Days.” For instance, in one episode, he could take over a popular Starbucks and immediately fire the most popular barista, raise the prices of Rice Krispies treats and trade the store’s only espresso machine for a six-month supply of soy milk. The following week, he could become a casino pit boss in Vegas and immediately raise every blackjack table to $25, ban smoking, get rid of every American-born blackjack dealer and force the waitresses to wear more clothes. On and on it would go.)
4. Kwame Brown, X-Factor
My friend Shek pointed this out and I agree with him: When certain guys get traded, they seem like completely different people in their new uniforms, to the point that it renders every past memory moot. In Kwame’s case, suddenly he looks like another Jermaine O’Neal in that yellow Lakers uniform, only there’s no rational reason for it. His arms look bigger, he’s more imposing, he carries himself differently … it just seems like Kwame should be an All-Star. And nothing has changed for him other than that jersey. You figure it out.
(Does this mean anything in the big scheme of things? Of course not. But if the Lakers get 15 points, 9 rebounds and some decent defense from Kwame every night, they’re a mortal lock for the playoffs. Anything less and they’re out.)
5. Shaun Livingston, American Tragedy In Progress
This could happen only to the Clippers, and I can’t say that strongly enough, so I’m saying it again: This could happen only to the Clippers.
Anyway, they draft a teenage prodigy who sees the floor like no rookie since Jason Kidd — seriously, it’s the most important pick in the 21-year history of the L.A. franchise — and just as he’s starting to get crunch-time minutes, in a 10-month span, he breaks his kneecap, injures his shoulder fighting through a pick, then suffers a “stress tension” in his lower back. The kid isn’t even 20 yet and he’s damaged goods — it’s almost like becoming a Clipper can single-handedly alter your genetic destiny. Imagine if LeBron ended up on the Clippers two years ago? He would be missing two ACLs and a kidney by now. If the priest from “Amityville Horror” ever came into the Staples Center to perform an exorcism on the Clips, 100,000 mosquitoes would come flying out of nowhere as some scary voice screamed, “Get out! Get out!” Ladies and gentleman, your 2005-06 Los Angeles Clippers!
(Note: Remind me of this paragraph next summer when I’m debating whether to renew my season tickets or not.)
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available right now on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.