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Sports’ two most intriguing words: What if?

The horror, the horror: Pistons-Spurs II looming?

Bill Simmons tackles an entire mailbag of basketball letters ... except the real letters were so bad he had to make up his own. Story

We have a little wrinkle for the Basketball Bag this week: Since I didn’t like the available batch of reader e-mails that much, instead of using real e-mails from actual readers, I’m pulling a Scott Templeton and making up every e-mail myself. And you know what? The whole experience was strangely liberating. Let’s get to the fake e-mails. …

Q: Why does everyone keep saying I’m definitely coming back next month, and why does everyone keep assuming I’ll be the same rebounding/shotblocking force I was in November and December? Do you realize I’m only 21 and coming off a dislocated kneecap? Do you realize the only exercise I’ve gotten in the past seven weeks has been lightly jogging in a therapeutic pool? Also, how do you know I’m not 320 pounds right now? How do you know I’m not spending more time at Roscoe’s Chicken N’ Waffles than Roscoe does? What makes you think I’ll be good right away when I have to play myself back into shape? What makes you think I’ll have 100 percent confidence in my knee right away?

Remember, I already tore an ACL back in high school, making this my second serious knee injury and until this season, everyone thought I was an underachieving wuss (including the best guy on my team). Sorry to sound like I’m complaining, but all this “And when they get Bynum back, they’ll be even better!” talk is starting to make me legitimately uncomfortable. I don’t want to be blamed if we fall short in the playoffs. Honestly, I don’t even care about the playoffs — I’ll just be excited if I can run up and down a basketball floor without limping. No offense. Whoops, I have to go, the guy just rang the doorbell with my Pizza Hut delivery.
–Andrew B., Los Angeles

SG: All great points. If I’m a Lakers fan, I’m terrified by three things right now:

1. Bynum’s knee injury happened on Jan. 13 and the Lakers claimed he would return within two months. Um, it’s March 5. Where is he? Here’s the last public quote we’ve heard from him, courtesy of an L.A. Times story on Feb. 29: “If I’m able to run in the pool with no pain, then we’ll start building my leg up more and more. I’m making progress and I’m excited to actually run in the pool, but I’m still not back.” Does that sounds encouraging? I say no.

Andrew Bynum2. The Lakers can’t beat San Antonio in a series with Pau Gasol, Ronnie Turiaf and D.J. Mbenga defending Tim Duncan. It’s not happening. They need Bynum — a healthy Bynum.

3. Removing Bynum from the picture makes Lamar Odom their third-best guy. He’s a wonderfully talented forward and a nice guy by all accounts, but if you’re counting on him in a big moment, he’s going to let you down. He will. I remember attending a Clippers-Lakers game three years ago when Odom came to the line in a big moment, and the guy sitting next to me (a season-ticket holder since ’84) muttered confidently something like, “Watch this, he’ll miss the first one, we watched him do this for years.” And he did. And the guy giggled happily. (Every Clippers fan thinks Odom is a choke artist. Warrants mentioning.) Then he signed with Miami, and if you remember, they made the second round in Wade’s rookie season and had the Pacers tied at 2-2 before Odom went 11-for-32 in Games 5 and 6 (both losses). In the first round in 2006, when Kobe and the Lakers dragged Phoenix to a seventh game, Odom and Smush Parker stunk out the joint so badly that Kobe infamously refused to shoot in the second half.

Now he’s the third-best guy on a team that’s favored to win the 2008 title. Can he step up when he’s never shown that ability over the course of his career? In Sunday’s ABC game against Dallas, Odom (who only scored six points in 48 minutes) was fouled with a one-point lead and six seconds to play in regulation … and promptly bricked both free throws. It’s not that he missed the free throws as much as anyone who’s followed his career even a little knew that he’d miss the first free throw and possibly both. As it turned out, L.A. needed a superhuman performance from Kobe (52 points, 22 in the fourth quarter) to hold off Dallas in overtime. That’s the thing everyone seems to be missing about the Lakers — yeah, they have Kobe and Gasol, but they still need Odom to come through on a big stage, they need their young guards to come through for three straight series (in that Dallas game, Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic shot 4-for-18), and they need Bynum to return to form. Anything less and they’re not making the Finals unless Kobe has a neverending supply of 22-point fourth quarters in reserve.

(And by the way, I’m not necessarily ruling that out. Kobe can smell a title now. You can see it. He knows better than anyone that a championship would push him up a level historically and put him alongside the all-time great NBA guards: Oscar, Cousy, West, Magic and MJ. Those are the stakes. Ever since he heard the words, “We got Gasol,” he took it to another level. More on this in a little bit.)

Q: You made fun of my appearance on ESPN’s “Trade Deadline” show — did you know that I’m appearing regularly on NBA TV now? Say what you want, but I like being a media person, it just feels right. Hey, how do you launch a blog? I think that’s my next step.
–Billy K., Philly

SG: Billy, I say you dump the NBA and become a Hollywood executive. I’d love to be reading Variety and see news stories like, “New Line executive Billy King announced today that he’s signed Wilmer Valderrama to a four-movie deal worth $65 million” or “Disney’s Billy King announced today that he sold the Hannah Montana franchise to Fox for the rights to ‘American Dad’ and cash.”

Q: I just spent the last few years standing at the 3-point line watching Iverson and Iguodala dribble into three guys while 8,500 fans looked on. Now I’m playing for a title contender in the loudest arena in the league, I have a great point guard who gets me the ball every time I’m open, and we even have a big guy who commands a double team and knows how to kick it out. All I do is shoot wide-open jumpers, which is ironic because that’s the No. 1 reason I’m in the league. And if that’s not enough, every girl in Utah loves me because I look like Ashton Kutcher. Could you pinch me? I just want to make sure I’m awake right now.
–K. Korver, Salt Lake City

SG: You’re awake. In the words of Penny Lane, it’s all happening.

Q: Are you crazy? Seriously, are you crazy? Did you just advocate in a column on the biggest sports Web site that Seattle fans should pick a home game, then agree collectively to walk onto the court in a nonviolent, nonaggressive protest between the third and fourth quarters? Do you realize that one drunk fan could start a riot by shoving a security guard or something? Do you realize how scared the players would be? Do you realize how much security we’d need to have there? Call this off or I’m sending Bennett Salvatore and Bob Delaney to your house to rough you up. I mean it. Call it off. Don’t test me unless you want to wake up with Rajon Rondo’s head in your bed.
–D.S., New York City

SG: In all seriousness, the more I’m thinking about it, too many things could go wrong with hundreds of Sonics fans walking onto the court during an NBA game. Even if one fan screwed the whole thing up, that would defeat the purpose of the protest and potentially hurt the cause. It’s just too risky. That leaves one of three options:

1. A boycott before a nationally televised game (like that March 24 game against Washington). As I wrote last week, I don’t think boycotts work because there always will be fans saying, “Screw you guys, I paid good money for those seats, I’m going in.”

2. For that 3/24 game, everyone sitting on the side of the court that’s shown by the camera gets up and moves to the other side of the arena. Again, a little tough to pull off because of the “Screw you guys, I paid good money for those seats” factor … but if there were only 8,000 people at the game, couldn’t everyone just move to one side? That way, it would LOOK like everyone boycotted the game because of all the empty seats. Or, it would look like your average Miami Heat home game. Either way, it would be effective.

3. You know how those WWE events start with everyone holding up signs, and the beginning always looks cool because the whole arena is covered with signs? What if everyone brought signs for that 3/24 game like “Save Our Sonics” and “Stern + Bennett = Seattle Screwed” and held them up throughout the game? It’s certainly never been done before. The good thing about this idea is that, even if only half the crowd is participating, it would still seem like everyone’s involved.

Anyway, my advice would be a combination of Nos. 2 and 3 — everyone moves to one side of the arena on 3/24, and everyone brings a sign. It’s a safer solution than 4,000 fans potentially cramming onto a basketball court in a nonviolent protest, as great and as cool as that sounds on paper. But if anyone has a better suggestion, e-mail it to me.

Q: Have you seen our team right now? We have 12 quality guys! I’m going to start KG, Perk, Pierce, Ray and Rondo, and I’m going to bring P.J., Sam, Eddie, Posey and Big Baby off the bench, but I’m going to find minutes for Tony and Powe, too. Everyone’s minutes will be determined on a game-by-game basis at my whim. I couldn’t be happier. Has a team ever won the NBA title with a 12-man rotation?
–Doc R., Boston

SG: (Gulping.)

Q: Did you notice that we did it again? We mailed in November, December and January more egregiously than Forest Whitaker mailed in “Vantage Point” — in fact, we would have mailed in February as well if the West didn’t catch fire like it did. Now we’re the favorites again. Tell your boys in Boston that the first three months of the NBA season don’t mean squat. I’d have more to say but I have to go to the post office to mail another fruit basket to Sam Presti. See you in June. You’re not getting rid of us. You’re never getting rid of us.
–G. Popovich, San Antonio

Manu GinobiliSG: That clubbing sound you just heard was the sound of every ABC and ESPN executive punching themselves in the face. How does “Pistons-Spurs II: The Rematch” sound, fellas? Not quite as enticing as “Celtics-Lakers: The Next Generation” or “Kobe! LeBron! It’s the NBA Finals on ABC!!!!” Right? Do you think the NBA has considered giving Tim Donaghy a new jersey number, a wig and a fake mustache and assigning him to every Spurs game in the Western finals?

Q: When I announced my presidential “candidacy” last year, nearly 1.5 million people signed up for my Facebook group within a week. When you announced your “candidacy” to become the Milwaukee Bucks GM, your Facebook group barely topped 2,700 people in four days. I don’t even have a question. You suck.

–S. Colbert, New York City

SG: In my defense, my Facebook group is approaching the number of Bucks season-ticket holders. So, um, I have that going for me.

(Come on, people of Milwaukee! Aren’t you tired of losing? Aren’t you tired of being irrelevant? Isn’t it time for a change? You lost Brett Favre, Prince Fielder just became a vegetarian and the Bucks are headed for the lottery again. Name me one thing that has you excited about sports right now. You can’t. I might have to change my campaign slogan from “YES WE CAN!” to “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU HAVE TO LOSE?”)

Q: If the Lakers win the title, do I get a championship ring?
–C. Wallace, Memphis

SG: I mean, you’d certainly deserve one more than Coby Karl, right? I say yes.

Q: Why is everyone handing Kobe the MVP and counting me out? I’m carrying a lousy team and averaging nearly a triple-double every night. I play hard every game. I’ve become a really good rebounder and weak-side shotblocker at crunch time. I lift my offensive game at the end of every game and score with 2-3 guys guarding me. When I drive to the basket, I can go left or right and guys bounce off me like superballs. I always make the right pass. I always make the right play. Every time I’m on national TV, I put on a show. Basically, I became who you wanted me to be … and if that’s not enough, I’m only 23. Do you realize I’m the same age as MJ during the 63-point game at the Garden? That’s right, I’M THE EXACT SAME AGE AS MJ DURING THE 63-POINT GAME!!!!!!! And you’re all taking me for granted already??? Yeeeesh. No wonder MJ played baseball for two years.
–LeBron J., Cleveland

SG: Let’s get one thing straight: MJ played baseball for two years because David Stern secretly suspended him for 18 months for gambling and told him to come back for the ’95 playoffs. Get your facts straight. As for your other points, you’re right — you and Chris Paul are the leaders for MVP at the three-fourths mark because you’re both having superlative seasons, as is Kobe, with the difference being that neither of you has Phil Jackson or a great bench, and in your case, you don’t have even a borderline All-Star on your team. It’s you and 11 role players. Switch you and Kobe and you’d be doing just as well, but he’d be gritting his way through every Cavs game on cruise control and leaking fake trade rumors through his agent. I also can’t forgive Kobe for what happened during the first 15 games, when he moped around and pushed for a trade. Does someone do that during an MVP season? I say no.

–S.A.S., New York City

SG: Um … OK.

Q: Do you realize that, according to John Hollinger’s PER rankings, I’m the 12th-best player in the NBA right now on a per-minute basis? I’m better than Al Jefferson, Carlos Boozer, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Deron Williams, Brandon Roy, Allen Iverson, David West, Paul Pierce, Monta Ellis and Baron Davis!
–C. Landry, Houston

SG: Wait, why haven’t they asked you to be on the Dream Team yet? Is it too late to make a roster change? Boozer, you’re not going to Beijing! You’ve been bumped by Carl Landry!

Q: Seriously, if they did the draft over again … I mean, you have to admit, I’d go in the top 10, right? I was the hidden gem of the 2007 draft. Everyone thought I was 6-foot-7 when I’m really 6-foot-9. Everyone was worried about my torn ACL in college when my knee was fine. Everyone called me an undersized power forward when I was really the only true power forward in that entire draft. Even your boy Chad Ford gave the Rockets a D-plus after last year’s draft. Now I’m the X-factor for the Rockets as we make our push to replace the Giants as the latest Ewing Theory team. So where would I go if they did the draft over again?
–C. Landry, Houston

SG: That’s an excellent question. Oden, Durant, Horford and Conley would be the first four in some order. (After Oden’s knee injury, would Portland still take him first and wait a year for him? Hard to say.) After that, it gets sketchy. Jeff Green hasn’t exactly lit the NBA on fire, but Seattle still takes him at No. 5 because he’s a character/intangibles guy and fills a specific need for them. At No. 6, there’s no way in hell that Milwaukee takes Yi with the intention of keeping him — he’s just not good enough, and if he’s really 23, we’re looking at some Tskitishvili potential here. I see them taking Brandan Wright instead; he’s looked good in short spurts lately and might be looming as an X-factor for the playoffs because of his ability to score down low. Minnesota would follow with Al Thornton at No. 7 — he’ll never be an All-Star, and he’s almost definitely one of those “good stats on bad teams” guys, but he can score in bunches and would be a nice fit with Al Jefferson. At No. 8, unquestionably, the Warriors would take Rudy Fernandez because he has more value than anyone left on the board (and they’d just wait a year for him).

Carl Landry That brings us to Chicago at No. 9. Joakim Noah’s been OK, but he’s an energy/intangibles guy and they already have plenty of those. You know what, Carl Landry? I think you go right here. The Bulls need a true power forward and you have a higher ceiling than Noah does. I’d have Noah dropping to 10 (the Kings), followed by Rodney Stuckey (who’s as good as advertised) to Atlanta, Thaddeus Young (coming on like a freight train) to Philly, and then Big Baby (New Orleans), Javaris Crittenton (Clips), Corey Brewer (Pistons), Spencer Hawes (Wiz) and Jared Dudley (Jersey) rounding out the top 17.

One last thing: The No. 18 pick would be fascinating because the Warriors would be choosing between Sean Williams (an athletic rebounder/shotblocker who fits perfectly for them, right down to his potential as a head case) and Chairman Yi (possibly a bust, but a savvy pick because of the Bay Area’s gigantic Asian community). Frankly, I don’t know what they’d do.

Anyway, if you’re scoring at home, the three “climbers” in the ’07 draft would be Fernandez, Big Baby and Landry, and the four “droppers” would be Yi, Hawes, Brewer and Acie Law (although none of them would drop that far). Unlike our friends at Draft Express, I believe this will eventually end up being considered a good draft because of three potential franchise guys (the top-three … and, yes, Horford is that good), two more potential All-Stars (Conley and, surprisingly, Thaddeus Young) and a slew of potential starters and quality role players. We will see. I’m just excited that we have a guy named “Thaddeus” in the NBA who might be really good.

Q: Hey, I drafted Thaddeus Young! Don’t I get credit for this?
–Billy K., Philly

SG: Absolutely. That pick raised your batting average to .185 with the Sixers. You’re almost at the Mendoza Line.

Q: Do you have any idea why me and every other starter on my team feels nauseous? We’re lethargic, we can’t sleep, we’re having trouble peeing and we’re worried something’s seriously wrong with us. The team was so concerned that they checked our locker room for mold and it came up negative. We all received complete physicals and we’re fine. What’s wrong with us?

–C. Paul, New Orleans

SG: Don’t worry, these are common reactions after Bonzi Wells becomes your teammate. I wouldn’t say you’re fine, but it’s definitely treatable. My advice would be to drink plenty of water, get plenty of sleep, try not to interact with him and, if possible, don’t high-five him, touch him or even accidentally brush against him.

Q: You think you have a great life? I’m getting paid $20 million this year and $20 million next year to hang with my boys, play video games and watch TV. Top that, motha******.
–S. Marbury, New York

SG: Wait, shouldn’t you be filming “Truck Party 2” with Mr. Marcus, Julian St. Croix, Jada Fire, Cherokee and a very special appearance by Kathleen Decker?

Q: (Dead silence, sound of crickets chirping)
–Dallas, Texas

SG: Wait, nobody from Dallas is e-mailing me this week to tell me that I’m a moron for not liking the Jason Kidd trade? What happened? Was it the consecutive road losses to San Antonio, Dallas and Utah that cooled you off? Did you realize after Deron Williams’ 17-20 that Kidd can’t defend quick point guards anymore? Are you concerned after the displicable end-of-the-game benching in San Antonio that the OverCoacher (aka, Avery Johnson) and the Coach On the Floor (Kidd) might not be the greatest match? (By the way, I just made up the word “displicable” — it’s for anything that’s one step beyond inexplicable.) Are you worried that your team’s immediate future hinges on Erick Dampier playing hard for four months in a row, or that you don’t have a bench, or that you have to work really, really, really superduperhard against good teams to get quality shots in the final five minutes of a game, or that you’re not getting stops when it matters? Or did the Internet go down in Texas this weekend?

One other thought: After watching three nationally televised Mavs games in the past week, I was amazed that every announcer and studio analyst raved about Kidd and everything he “does” for a basketball team without ever mentioning his flaws. It’s like he was a Republican getting broken down on Fox News. We get it, he makes everyone better and runs the hell out of a fast break. But what about the fact that he can’t shoot? Or that he can’t guard any penetrating guard? Or that, when things slow down in the last four minutes of a game and everyone stops running, he’s just not as effective? I didn’t hear one TV person mention this over the past week. Not one. Now I’m wondering if the G.P. Corollary applies to Kidd here — in other words, because he looks exactly like he did during his apex, it’s throwing everyone off (even someone astute like Kenny Smith or Jeff Van Gundy) and they’re treating him like he’s In-His-Prime J-Kidd instead of Guy-With-1,100-Games-On-His-Odometer J-Kidd. It’s bizarre.

Q: Wait, you’re criticizing me? We’re giving you the best three-man booth for a basketball game in three decades and you’re taking shots at me? You’re an ungrateful ^#%@%!%.
–J. Van Gundy, Houston

SG: You’re right, that was a bad job by me. And you’re right, Mike Breen-Mark Jackson-Van Gundy is the greatest three-man basketball booth since Dick Enberg, Al McGuire and a pre-curmudgeon Billy Packer. Their performance during the Mavs-Lakers game was simply remarkable, highlighted by Van Gundy mentioning before Odom’s second key free throw in the Mavs game that Kobe Bryant was one of the best free-throw rebounders in the league and he wouldn’t have an inexperienced guy like Brandon Bass boxing him out ?and even as the words were hanging in the air, Kobe put 17 different fakes on Bass and grabbed the rebound. Even better, Van Gundy didn’t ram the moment in our faces, and within a few seconds, Jackson was making “even a broken clock is right twice a day” jokes while Breen played the straight man. This was the defining sequence for a team that’s every bit as good as TNT’s “Inside the NBA” studio team.

ABC NBA ESPN CrewThree notable things here. First, I never imagined (and neither did you) that Van Gundy would be this good and this funny as a lead network TV analyst; I remember enjoying him on TNT during his earlier stint, never thinking he would become the best in the business. Now you could argue that he’s the single best guy for any sport, college or pro (in fact, I just did), and his give-and-take with Jackson and Breen proves once again that sports announcing is about chemistry and not just throwing two or three big names together and hoping they click. Second, I can’t believe that the greatest NBA three-man booth ever doesn’t have Marv Albert on it; for whatever reason, he’s never had the best possible partners at the same time. On the other hand, even Marv would admit that Breen is the best possible fit for this particular crew, as well as the most underrated play-by-play guy in any sport. (I’ve written this before, but his performance during Game 4 of the Nets-Celtics series, when Boston came back from 27, remains one of the all-time classic play-by-play jobs.) And third? …

Actually, this deserves its own paragraph: After watching the Breen-Jax-JVG team a few times, I’m more convinced than ever that every No. 1 announcing team should have at least one analyst who recently coached or played. (We’ll define “recently” as “within the last 4-5 years.”) Some of Van Gundy’s points and predictions — like what happened with the aforementioned Kobe play, for example — are things that someone couldn’t know unless he recently played or coached. You’re just not going to learn things like “Kobe is the best rebounder in the league off missed free throws” from someone who’s been out of the league for 20 years, shows up 24 hours before the game and gets his tidbits from talking to the coaches on both teams. You’re not. Ideally, the perfect three-man team would have a quality announcer, a personality who’s been out of the game for a few years but still does homework and watches tapes (like Jackson, Ron Jaworski or Kenny Smith), and then, a former player or coach who left the league within the last four years ? and then, after you have all of those things, you still have to cross your fingers and hope they click and have the right blend of humor, intelligence and chemistry. And you wondered why it’s only happened twice in basketball.

Q: Why do I have the feeling that I’m about six weeks away from wandering the streets of San Diego wearing a Ron Burgundy beard and drinking hot milk out of a carton?
–S. Kerr, Phoenix

SG: Settle down, it’s only been two weeks! You can’t expect the guys to adjust to Shaq that quickly, and you knew you’d miss Marion a little defensively. Give it some time. You won in Portland Tuesday night, right?

Q: I don’t get it. We run the high screen, I get into the paint, I’m going for a layup and then Shaq’s guy comes over and I end up throwing the ball off someone’s face. Next time down, we run the high screen, I feed Amare for one of his runaway train dunks, and then Shaq’s guy comes over and takes the charge. Then we move Shaq 15 feet away from the basket to give us space, but his guy realizes immediately that Shaq can’t shoot, so he just stands under the rim and gets in our way. What the hell do we do? How do we solve this? My head hurts.
–S. Nash, Phoenix

SG: (Scratching my head, unable to come up with a response.)

Q: I’ll ask you again: Why do I have the feeling that I’m about six weeks away from wandering the streets of San Diego wearing a Ron Burgundy beard and drinking hot milk out of a carton?
–S. Kerr, Phoenix

SG: (Wincing.)

Q: Here’s my impression of your life as an NBA GM. Pretend you just called me to discuss a trade right near the deadline.

–My assistant: “Chris, Bill Simmons is on the line. He has a trade offer for you.”

–Me: “Tell him that I’m out to lunch and I’ll call him back in an hour. Then call him back in an hour and tell him I said to **** off.”

How does that sound, Mr. Bridge Burner? Huh? HOW DOES THAT SOUND?
–C. Wallace, Memphis

SG: It sounds like a great story for the best-selling book I’d be writing about becoming the Bucks GM if I ever got the job! Look, I can’t lose no matter how this plays out. Well, except for my trial separation and possible divorce after the Sports Gal refuses to move to Milwaukee. It’s going to play out just like Gabe Kaplan’s relationship with his estranged wife in “Fast Break” after he left for Nevada to coach Cadwallader State — she’ll be a wet blanket for 80 percent of the movie (in this case, my tenure as Bucks GM) and then, after we turn things around and the Bucks become an elite NBA franchise again, she’ll show up like nothing ever happened and our love will be rekindled because, after all, no woman can turn down a guy who’s a winner. That was the enduring lesson of “Fast Break” and, really, of life in general.

(Of course, it could go the other way — I’d struggle to turn around the Bucks and end up dating a 37-year-old, 190-pound, chain-smoking divorcee from Appleton named Betty who’s coming off her first angioplasty and wears a Brett Favre jersey to bed every night. That’s the worst-case scenario here. Either way, it would be fun to see how it played out, wouldn’t it? You’re lying if you claim you wouldn’t be interested. Which reminds me …? YES WE CAN!)

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. You can check out his “Sports Guy’s World” site here.

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

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