You couldn’t even call the Eastern Conference an apocalypse — it’s more like a poopocalypse. Consider the following things:
A. We’re hitting December in two days and the Orlando Magic are leading the East by two games. You heard me. The Orlando Magic. The Magic of Orlando.
B. Eleven of the 15 teams in the East are at least two games under .500.
C. The Celtics are leading the Atlantic Division even though they’re 5-8 and came within one second-half comeback of canning their coach last weekend.
D. The five Atlantic teams have a combined record of 25-46.
E. If the season ended today, the Atlanta Hawks would be a 7-seed with Ty Lue as their starting point guard.
F. The 5-11 Knicks are only one game out of the last playoff spot.
You get the picture. It’s not pretty. And since we’re looking at a potentially historic situation, I couldn’t resist the chance to delve into the Eastern abyss, from worst to first:
The big problems: The Raptors have the worst collection of perimeter guys in the league, which is kind of a problem when you’re playing up-tempo basketball and trying to outscore other teams. (It’s just too bad they couldn’t have moved up last June to take Adam Morrison. Oh, wait, they had the No. 1 pick. Scratch that.) And poor Sam Mitchell wore out his welcome about two years ago. He’s like the Artie Lange of NBA coaches; every day that he beats the odds and makes it another day feels like a miracle.
Most interesting subplot: Poor Chris Bosh busting his butt every night and looking like the poor man’s KG — not his play as much as the weird look on his face that’s a cross between “I hate losing” and “I might punch one of my teammates in the locker room after the game.” He even makes the weird face that KG makes right after sinking a big shot (the one when he bulges his eyes, sticks his chin out and looks like he’s battling severe constipation). You know what? I think Bosh is actually trying to become the left-handed KG. We’re coming very close to a trademark suit here.
Random thought: Anthony Parker gets my vote for the MMP Award (Most Mediocre Player): 30 minutes a game, 10-11 points a night, gets you three rebounds, two assists and a steal, plays OK defense, and you forget he’s out there at least five times per game. He’s perfectly average.
Worst-case scenario: They finish with the worst record in the East, lose out on a top-three pick, then use their 2007 cap space to bring Vince Carter home. Imagine the Raps re-signing Vince, then Vince not living up to the max contract and killing them again? Has a fan base ever hated a player two times over before? Does it make me a bad person that I’m rooting for this?
Prognosis: Factoring in the inevitable T.J. Ford injury, 22 wins.
The big problem: It’s admirable to see a team build a young foundation and wait for the perfect summer to strike with free agency. At the same time, the Bobcats need to spend another $1.7 million just to reach the NBA’s salary cap minimum this season. If the Bobcats don’t spend that money, my ESPN.com home slice Marc Stein reports that the $1.7 million would be divvied up among the current Bobcat players, almost like an extended family dividing up the contents of a will. How ridiculous is that? On the other hand, there’s a chance the Bobcats franchise was created solely to make all the other teams feel dumb. I mean, they’re no better or worse than 10-12 other teams in the league (including the Raptors and the next 6-8 on this list). How many teams would trade rosters and cap situations with them in a millisecond? Fifteen? Twenty? By not doing anything other than drafting players every year, they’re better off than two-thirds of the league.
(The NBA … it’s fannnnnnnn-tastic! I love this game!)
Most interesting subplot: Between golf vacations, all-night poker affairs and corporate meetings for Nike and Jump 23, Michael Jordan apparently runs this team or something.
Random thought: If you made the All-“Player Who Keeps Recklessly Driving to the Basket And Could End Up Suffering a Horrific Injury Some Day” team, Gerald Wallace would have to be the MVP. The dude has no fear. It’s like he’s waiting and waiting for someone to play the McHale to his Rambis.
Silver linings: Okafor and Morrison — two blue-chippers with competitive streaks. You could do a lot worse. By the way, Morrison’s NBA career has been a tour de force so far: He’s one of the best streak shooters in the league; his fist-pump/screaming routine is already as good as anything that Derrick from the “Real World/Road Rules Challenge” ever pulled off; he’s already caught fire down the stretch in road wins against San Antonio and New Jersey; and his hair/mustache combo, for all the jokes we’ve made over the years, remains one of those sports gifts that keeps on giving. Just a delightful draft pick. You can’t tell me the Blazers and Raptors’ fans aren’t jealous right now.
Worst-case scenario: Not sure there is one. They’re about two years away from being interesting. I just hope we’re not still saying that two years from now.
Prognosis: 26 wins and the Rookie of the Year Award for Morrison.
13. NEW YORK
The big problems: Well, Isiah Thomas is the Knicks’ coach … they’re an atrocious home team with the fans booing them so vociferously … Isiah Thomas is their GM … they have four point guards on the roster, but all four of them are shoot-first point guards … Isiah Thomas is their coach/GM … they’re in Salary Cap Hell through 2009 … Isiah Thomas makes all major decisions … their owner looks and dresses like he’s about to accept an AVN Award for Best Gonzo Director … if they’re not making their jumpers, they can lose by 25 to anyone in the league, as well as some NBDL teams and possibly Florida and Kansas.
Most interesting subplot No. 1: The Curry trade might not haunt them as much as everyone feared because (A) they might not be the worst team in the league, and (B) Chicago is struggling more than anyone thought (even me). Does this mean it was a good idea to sacrifice a lottery pick and $60 million for a center who doesn’t rebound, takes nights off and has a life-threatening heart condition? Of course not. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “short-sighted” and 10 being “apocalpyptic,” the Curry trade looked like a 9.5 heading into the season … but now we’re nestled more in the 7.5-range.
Most interesting subplot No. 2: The simultaneous fall of Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury from “All-Star caliber guys” to “complete stiffs.” Shades of Bob McAdoo’s career suddenly falling apart 30 years ago.
Most interesting subplot No. 3: Not only is there a good chance that no Knicks player will finish with more than four assists a game, but two of the biggest ball hogs in recent NBA history (Nate Robinson and Jamal Crawford) might crack a combined 4,500 minutes this season without notching 350 assists combined. Did you know Robinson has played 16 games and 343 minutes and dished out 24 assists total? He’s a point guard! He’s 5-foot-7!!!! How is this possible????? And where is John Hollinger during all of this? Couldn’t he break down the biggest ball hogs of all time with a convoluted minute/assist/field goal attempt/turnover ratio statistical amalgam?
(Paging John Hollinger … John Hollinger, please report to the ESPN front desk … )
Random thought No. 1: It shouldn’t have taken a Channing Frye injury for David Lee to start playing more than 25 minutes a game. No, really. Now that Ben Wallace is ramming his back into a fork at warp speed, Lee is the third-best rebounder alive behind Dwight Howard and KG. There hasn’t been a white guy who rebounded like this since Dave Cowens. Seriously. You can look it up. Please don’t bring this up to Michael Irvin.
Random thought No. 2: I have been watching basketball for something like 30 years. Never in my life have I seen a coaching matchup like Isiah-Doc at MSG on Nov. 18 … it was like Bizarro Bobby Fischer taking on Bizarro Garry Kasparov, just an ugly game with two terrible coaches. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, Isiah got himself kicked out with two technicals with two minutes to play, even though his team was down by six and had the ball. I’m telling you, this was one for the ages. Er, anti-ages.
Worst-case scenario: They miss the lottery but finish right behind the Bulls (something like No. 8 to Chicago’s No. 9) as all the Knicks fans exhale in delight … and then Chicago lands the No. 1 pick. It would be just like the Ewing Lottery, only the exact opposite.
Prognosis: 27 wins, with 23 of them coming on the road.
Pick for Thursday night’s game:
CINCY (-3) over Baltimore.
The big problem: Hey, speaking of terrible coaches, it’s Terry Stotts! Is there an inordinate number of inept coaches this season or is it just me? Things are so bad that the Clips just gave Mike Dunleavy a $21 million extension even though he blew the Suns series last season and is currently treading water at .500 with one of the deepest teams in the league. No wonder Don Nelson came back — even in his mid-60s, he was probably watching the NBA package on his satellite in Maui last winter and thinking to himself, “Wait a second, I could still outcoach 80 percent of these guys, what am I doing here?”
Most interesting subplot: Ray Allen handing the Karl Malone Memorial Torch to Michael Redd as “the best player under 30 to start going suddenly and inexplicably bald.” And in the same season when he submitted the incredible 57-point, 0-assist game! Big year for Michael Redd.
Random thought: Not only is Ruben Patterson playing for the Bucks now, he’s actually playing pretty well. To answer your question, yes, it’s a contract season. But here’s a question you didn’t ask: With Patterson living in the same city as the one and only Latrell Sprewell, how long before they’re partying on Spree’s yacht and something horrible happens that requires an extensive Milwaukee police report? Should The Smoking Gun just start building the page with the picture of Spree’s yacht and the inset photo of Patterson right now to save time? I say yes.
Worst-case scenario: Everyone in Milwaukee turns their attention to Marquette’s hoops season and forgets they have an NBA team. Whoops, that already happened.
Prognosis: I see the Bucks making a second-half jump after Stotts gets fired, Villaneuva and Simmons come back and Patterson leaves the team to play himself in the pilot episode of “CSI: Milwaukee.” Let’s give them 31 wins.
The big problem: A dreadful defensive team that gets routinely creamed on the road. On the bright side, we’re in the middle of an unbelievably dramatic “First Coach Fired?” race between Rivers, Isiah, Mitchell, Stotts and Eddie Jordan, who might get fired in time to make the first day of filming for “Hustle and Flow 2” if everything works out right. But you know what? For once, I’m not blaming the coach. How can you play good team defense when your best two players (Arenas and Jamison) can’t play defense and your centers are Etan Thomas and Brendan Haywood? Plus, is it Jordan’s fault that Arenas’ home scoring average nearly doubles his road scoring average (35.2 to 18.7), or that he’s shooting an impossible 29 percent on the road? I thought Arenas would become a top-10 NBA player this season — instead, he’s going the other way. I can’t believe David Thorpe hasn’t completely overreacted to this yet.
Most interesting subplot: The Wizards are wasting a career season from Caron Butler, who spent the summer working out, shed some weight and even hired a personal chef to cook correctly for him; now he’s a potential All-Star forward. Wouldn’t it be weird if both Butler and Odom made the All-Star team next February? So much for those idiots who argued that the Lakers gave away Shaq.
(Wait, I just remembered that I was one of those idiots. Let’s just move on.)
Random thought: Choosing between Michael Ruffin and Shelden Williams for the starting power forward spot on the All-Ugly Team is going to be like choosing Bird or Magic for the ’87 MVP. This could keep me awake at nights.
Worst-case scenario: Well, they started out 4-9, their best player is floundering, their centers are fighting in the locker room, and they broke out the worst home unis in the history of mankind two weekends ago (those hideous gold ones that looked like rejected WNBA uniforms). Let’s hope we already hit rock bottom.
The big problem: For the 37th straight year, the only good player on the team is Allen Iverson. Fortunately for Sixers fans, the Sixers never change and the East keeps getting worse and worse. By 2011, they could be in the Finals again.
Most interesting subplot: An unhappy Chris Webber getting benched in crunch time for two straight weeks and going public with his unhappiness, followed by the Sixers basically telling him, “Look, we can’t trade you, you make $20 million a year and you run with a limp, even Isiah won’t return our calls for God’s sake,” followed by C-Webb coming down with a mystery injury and disappearing into thin air. And if that’s not enough, Shavlik Randolph took his job and even happens to be playing pretty well. Did you ever think in a kajillion years that C-Webb, one of the 10 greatest power forwards of all time, would lose his job to Shavlik Freaking Randolph? Meanwhile, Juwan Howard is a contract albatross in Houston, Jalen Rose can’t get any minutes in Phoenix, and I think Jimmy King made me an Animal-style burger at In-N-Out last night. So much for the Fab Five.
Random story: During the Clips-Sixers game two weeks ago, the stoned guy behind me started screaming “Ashton! Ashton!” every time Kyle Korver ended up near our section. Of course, I felt obligated to join in. As did one or two others. So for the next 90 minutes, every time there was a dead ball with Korver anywhere near us, we unleashed an “Ashton!” cacophony while Korver pretended not to hear us. And you wonder why I have Clippers season tickets.
Random thought: Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are the co-captains of the “We Aren’t Even One Iota Better Than We Were Two Years Ago” team. Screw it, I’m keeping the faith. These guys could be in their mid-30s and I’d still be waiting for them to make the leap.
Worst-case scenario: Other than Billy King getting bored and talking himself into a C-Webb/Steve Francis trade? Probably Iverson getting frustrated and demanding a trade within the next two months, followed by the self-loathing Philly fans taking Iverson’s side and saying, “Just trade him, throw him a bone, we’re not good enough to deserve him, let the Sixers rot to death like our other teams,” and then King dealing him for 40 cents on the dollar and all the Philly fans heading outdoors and angrily whipping snowballs at one another.
The big problem: The Celtics are playing just hard enough that it doesn’t make sense to fire the coach, but not nearly consistently/coherently/decently enough that it would be smart to keep that same coach. It’s extremely frustrating. For instance, on Saturday night, as the crows were circling after an embarrassing 24-point home loss to the Knicks (replete with “Fi-re Doc!” chants and the C’s being flummoxed by a basic 2-3 zone), the Doc Era was on life support with the team trailing by 14 at halftime in Milwaukee. Of course, Pierce went bonkers in the second half, they played their best team defense of the season and Boston ended up cruising to a comeback win, and I called my half-asleep father just to scream, “He won’t diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiie!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Not a fun first month for the current Atlantic Division leaders.
Most interesting subplot: Rumors of a possible Pau Gasol trade (with Gerald Green and Al Jefferson as the bait), which would go a long way toward solving the whole “we have too many young guys” problem but raises another issue … namely, can you really give up on Green this early? I attended almost every home game during Joe Johnson’s only Boston season, when poor Joe looked like a scared puppy for 50 straight games. When they finally traded him for bench help, my father and I were both on board with the deal. We never thought Johnson would make it — he seemed like one of those guys who drifted through games and never did anything. Five years later, he’s a top-20 guy and even plays the role of Peter Lawford in LeBron and Wade’s NBA Rat Pack.
Here’s the point: You never know with young guys. Green might have a low hoops IQ, but he’s an A-plus athlete and a good kid with an absolutely breathtaking jumper (especially coming off screens). Seriously, we’re talking Mike Miller Territory here. Will he disappear from the league five years from now like Kedrick Brown did? I don’t know. Will he turn into a top-20 guy like Johnson some day? I don’t know. The point is … I don’t know. And neither does Danny Ainge. I bet the Celtics end up keeping him. And you know what? I can’t wait to flip-flop on the Gerald Green Era another 20 times over the next three years. He’s going to take about nine months off my life before everything’s said and done.
Random revelation: I like Bassy Telfair. There. I said it. At some point, he’s going to cross paths with a coach who realizes that he should be running high screens for him, and that’s when his career will take off like Monta Ellis’ career took off this month.
Worst-case scenario: Win two, lose two, win two, lose three (blood pressure rising), win one, lose two, win two (blood pressure rising), lose one, win two, lose three (blood pressure rising) …
Prognosis: Somewhere between 28 and 47 wins.
The big problem: And the hits just keep on comin’. As if the Chris Paul/Marvin Williams debacle wasn’t bad enough, Deron Williams dropped 15 pounds and emerged as an MVP candidate on a 12-2 Jazz team. If I were a Hawks fan watching Ty Lue taking crunch-time jumpers every night, I don’t think I’d ever be able to get past this. Seriously. It would be a deal breaker for me. Like dating a girl that smoked or something.
Most interesting subplot: Here’s the logical team for Gasol — they could offer Zaza Pachulia (solid young center), Williams, Lorenzen Wright and a future No. 1 pick for Gasol, Brian Cardinal’s contract and a year’s supply of Propecia. Atlanta gets a legitimate one-two punch (Joe Johnson and Gasol), while the new Memphis owners dump two of their two biggest contracts and firmly position themselves as the leaders for the Oden/Durant Sweepstakes. Just throwing it out there.
Random tip: The Hawks have one of my favorite NBA beat writers: Sekou Smith of the Atlanta J-C. He always breaks a sweat, does a good job breaking games down, passes along a steady stream of inside gossip/anecdotes and strikes a nice balance with his newspaper stuff and blogging. While we’re here, I also like Brian Windhorst of the Akron Beacon-Journal, Ivan Carter and Michael Lee from the Washington Post, Jason Quick from the Oregonian and Howard Beck of the New York Times. All of those guys do an excellent job. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.
Worst-case scenario: Come on, how can you think “worst-case scenario” when the Hawks are eighth on this list right now? This is a victory for the dozens of Hawks fans everywhere!
The big problem: Wait a second … so it was a bad idea to devote $24 million of this season’s cap to acquire two big guys who can’t score when your main problem last season was that you couldn’t score? Really? I can’t believe it! Who would have seen this coming???? And wait … it might have been a mistake to hand out $60 million to a past-his-prime, mercurial, 34-year-old rebounder/defender who can’t score, hadn’t been an impact player since the defensive rules changed and had just about no chance of getting along with a control freak like Scott Skiles??? You’re kidding me? This is a major shock! I’m in disbelief right now!
Most interesting subplot: You mean, other than the fact that we’re not even through the first month of Ben Wallace’s four-year contract and the Bulls are already wishing they had a mulligan on it?
Random question: You realize they basically traded Tyson Chandler and J.R. Smith for P.J. Brown and two No. 2’s this summer, right? I know they needed Brown’s contract for trading purposes — you know, assuming they can pull off a trade — but with that said, are we sure the Paxson brothers haven’t been secretly switched? How many times can they trade someone or give someone away because they didn’t “mesh” with Skiles before they think to themselves, “Hey, maybe we should stop blaming the players here?” And why aren’t the Bulls players allowed to wear headbands? What’s happening to this country? The Bulls have me brimming with questions.
Worst-case scenario: The Lakers trump them with a Bynum/Odom offer for KG; Indiana, Philly and Boston decide to hold onto O’Neal/Iverson/Pierce because the East is so crappy; and Seattle decides against trading Ray Allen (the guy who makes more sense for them than anyone else). So if they want to deal P.J. Brown’s contract, that means they would be stuck either overpaying for Gasol (a very good player but another second banana going to a team filled with second bananas), or waiting until this summer to make a run at VC (knowing all along that Vince and Skiles would be a worse couple than Kid Rock and Pam Anderson).
Prognosis: Tough to say because (A) they might have a trade coming and (B) Skiles and Wallace might end up fighting to the death. Let’s give them 37 wins to be safe.
THE (GULP) CONTENDERS
6. NEW JERSEY
The big problem: You got me. Why wouldn’t the Nets be as good as they were last season? They brought everyone back. The conference is worse. And yet, they lost to Charlotte on Tuesday night. It’s inexplicable. I don’t get it. Ric Bucher says they’re too slow on the perimeter. Maybe. My head hurts.
Most interesting subplot: Should they think about making a move? For instance, Vince is in a contract season and might not return, and the Clippers desperately need a go-to guy, even someone who’s secretly slipping a little like Vince. Well, what about Maggette, Mobley and James Singleton for Vince? Who doesn’t make that one? Or what if the Nets preyed on Isiah’s love for VC and dangled him for Crawford, Quentin Richardson and David Lee? What about Vince to the Bulls for P.J. Brown’s contract, Ben Gordon and Ty Thomas? I feel like there’s something here, right?
Random thought: Marcus Williams seems poised to re-enact Jamaal Tinsley’s entire career, right down to the draft slide for character reasons, the in-your-face rookie season, the inevitable weight problems, a free agent contract that his team instantly regrets and everything else. I’m excited for this.
Best-case scenario: Just when we’re writing them off, they roll off one of those trademark 11-game winning streaks and everyone says, “Oh, yeah, the Nets have Kidd, Jefferson and Carter, I forgot …”
Prognosis: Come on, how could these guys win fewer than 39 games? It’s impossible. I refuse to believe it.
The big problem: The Heat are like a group of women who went out for somebody’s birthday, ordered food and wine and spent the next three hours talking and eating and drinking and having a grand old time. And then the check comes and they’re completely floored by the total. Wait, it’s how much??? So they spend the next 25 minutes figuring out who owes what, and there are always 2-3 people who didn’t bring enough cash, so somebody has to cover them (and they’re pissed off about it), and then there’s a girl who left early because she has a kid, and she left only $40 when it’s $75 per person (so everyone’s pissed off about that), and then there’s the one slutty friend who got housed and wants to stick around because she thinks she might have a chance to knock boots with one of the waiters, so one of the other girls has to stay to keep an eye on her and make sure the bus boy doesn’t get involved, and there’s so much drama going on that everyone ends up leaving with a bad taste in their mouth and forgetting that they had a barrel of fun for the first three hours.
(Translation: The Heat mortgaged the second half of the decade to win one championship. And they did. Now they’re looking at the check and saying, “Wait, it’s how much?”)
Most interesting subplot: Did you know that Shaq makes $20 million this season … and another $60 million over the next three? Every Miami fan just threw up on their creepy all-white T-shirt.
Random question No. 1: Did they have the funeral for Antoine Walker’s career yet? Thirty minutes a game, 39 percent shooting, 10 points, four rebounds … and he even got benched for Jason Kapono last weekend. The young guys from the mid-1990s draft classes have NOT been aging well. I mean, he’s only 30 years old, right? There’s no way anyone should be washed up at 30, right? Then you remember he played 800 combined regular-season and playoff games and logged nearly 30,000 minutes over the past 10 years. And it all makes sense.
Random question No. 2: Does Pat Riley wake up every morning and think to himself, “Why the $%#& didn’t I retire last summer?” I sure would.
Worst-case scenario: Missing the playoffs with the exact same cast that won a championship one year earlier. That would be downright humiliating. In fact, that hasn’t happened since the 1956 Syracuse Nationals did it. And yes, I just spent 20 minutes looking that up.
Best-case scenario: A one-man team (Miami and Wade) takes on another one-man team (LeBron and the Cavs) in the first-ever one-on-one conference finals.
Prognosis: Riley + Wade + 45 games of Shaq has to equal 42 wins. They just need to get into the playoffs and see what happens from there. Nothing else matters.
The big problem: Now that the Jail Blazers have been disbanded, this is the signature Shaky Chemistry Franchise in basketball. After watching the Celtics blow out the Pacers two weeks ago, my dad called me afterward just to say, “What a crazy team that was!” and “What’s up with that Stephen Jackson, he’s like a lunatic out there!” and even, “Maybe we don’t have a great team, but at least we have good guys and we play hard … I couldn’t watch a team like the Pacers for 82 games, I’d give up my tickets!” You can only imagine how poor Rick Carlisle and the Legend feel. And this is the fourth-best team in the conference right now? Unbelievable. My head is throbbing.
Most interesting subplot: Jermaine O’Neal’s determined quest to become the most overrated player in the league. I mean, if you’re paying your big guy $18 million a season (and ohbytheway, the Pacers are on the hook for $64 million for the next three for him), and he’s giving you 38 minutes, 18 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks, 45 percent shooting and about 35 scowls a game … I mean, does that sound like something you’d be interested in? Me neither. What happened to this guy? I want the old Jermaine O’Neal back.
Random thought: Marquis Daniels gets my vote for “the player who most looks like he could play a character from ‘The Wire.'” Couldn’t you see him playing Marlo Stanfield’s monosyllabic brother and quietly listening to instructions for a counterattack on Omar? And while we’re here, I hate to keep asking this, but when is someone casting Chris Kaman as the killer in a horror movie? He lives in L.A.! It’s a no-brainer! Throw some fake blood on him, give him a chainsaw and some college girls and turn the cameras on. It’s that easy.
Worst-case scenario: I’m not sure how they top starting the season with three guys getting arrested outside a strip club and one of them firing shots in the air after getting run over by a car. But let’s see how it plays out.
Best-case scenario: Ditto.
Prognosis: Probably a 43-win team. Whatever.
On Thursday afternoon at 4 ET, I’ll be chatting about the Clippers on Clippers.com.
Think of it this way — now you won’t be subjected to a Clippers column!
The big problem: The Magic are doing well because of a stifling defense, a deep bench, the best rebounder in the league (Dwight Howard), an underrated point guard combo (Jameer Nelson and Carlos Arroyo, averaging a combined 25/8 every night), an effective center combo that protects the rim (Battie and Darko), and the veteran leadership and all-around play of the great Grant Hill. Unfortunately, the words “Grant” and “Hill” are in this paragraph. He played 135 games in the previous six seasons and cracked the 30-game mark only once (two seasons ago). I hate to be a party pooper, but, well …
Most interesting subplot: If Hill ends up going down, they could easily flip his expiring contract ($16.9 million) with Darko for an impact player on a team looking to dump salary. If he stays healthy, they have another $11 million in expiring deals (Battie, Bo Outlaw and Pat Garrity) to move. And they still have a major trading chess piece with the rights to Fran Vazquez. All right, that’s not true. But everything else is. Lots of roster flexibility here. That’s a good thing for a potential 50-win team. Why not make a run right now?
(By the way, there should be a mandate that every positive article written about the Magic this season includes a reference to Isiah single-handedly turning their fortunes around by taking Steve Francis off their hands. I’d even consider voting him “Executive of the Year” if the Magic gets a top-three seed. Seriously, what exec had a bigger impact on a team than Isiah had on the Orlando Magic? Can you name one? Didn’t think so.)
Random thought: The only thing keeping Dwight Howard from becoming the next Moses Malone — and there’s a 80/20 chance it’s happening — will be a lack of a mean streak. He’s just too nice a guy. Ever seen him interviewed? He makes Mario Lopez seem hostile and combative. Just a little too much David Robinson in him right now.
Worst-case scenario: When they’re playing in the playoffs this spring, Hill is working for ABC’s studio crew.
Best-case scenario: When they’re playing in the playoffs this spring, Hill is working for ABC’s studio crew with Doc Rivers.
Prognosis: Impossible to say because of Hill’s health and the trading possibilities … but let’s give them 47 wins to be safe. I like this team. They play well together.
The big problem: Now here’s the team that should be kicking itself, between passing on Melo and Bosh, giving away Arroyo and Darko, screwing up the Wallace situation and everything else. The Pistons are headed nowhere fast. In fact, just two weeks ago, I was exchanging e-mails with my friend Mike Mandt (diehard Pistons fan) and having the requisite “should the Pistons blow everything up, trade Billups and Rasheed and start over?” conversation after a depressing home loss to the Hornets … and Mike was saying that he’d do it. Now they’re probably a 2-seed in the screwed up East if they can stay healthy. Go figure.
Most interesting subplot: Sheed getting whistled for four technicals in the first four games because of the Rasheed Wallace Rule, then making it through the next 10 games (and counting) without a single technical. Screw Brett Favre — that’s the most amazing streak in sports right now.
Random thought: I’ll turn this over to Manhattan Beach, Calif., reader Michael Hunter, who writes, “Could you please create the Ben Wallace Award for the free agent who kills his original team with his departure and manages to make his new team worse as well? Also, can’t Ben be credited with destroying the Pacers as well by instigating the Palace Brawl? That’s three franchises destroyed in a career, incredible! Here’s hoping he becomes a GM.”
Worst-case scenario: They lose in the second round, Billups leaves after the season, Melo wins the MVP and Pistons fans still refuse to admit that Joe Dumars screwed this entire decade up for them.
Best-case scenario: A relatively harmless exit in the Eastern finals that’s punctuated by lots of weird facial ticks from Flip Saunders.
Prognosis: 49 business-like wins.
The big problem: Hey, speaking of GMs who screwed up the decade for their teams … it’s Danny Ferry! When you’re trying to make the Finals with Eric Snow and David Wesley on pace for a combined 2,500 minutes, you know you’ve really accomplished something substantially crappy. What a shame. It’s like the NBA decided to give LeBron a degree of difficulty to become the greatest player of all time. Here’s how bad the situation is: Unless Larry Hughes can stay healthy (apparently an impossibility at this point), the Cavs’ best five is Damon Jones, LeBron, Sasha Pavlovic, Anderson Varejao and Drew Gooden. Does that sound like the starting lineup of an NBA Finals team to you? Didn’t think so.
Most interesting subplot: My buddy House went to a Cavs-Wiz game two Saturdays ago and reported that LeBron submitted one of those full-fledged “no matter how this game turns out, I really don’t give a crap either way” performances out of the VC Playbook. Can’t remember MJ ever having one of those.
Random fact No. 1: LeBron takes a four-hour nap after the team’s shootaround on game days, explaining, “If anything’s going on that’s important between 12 and 4, I probably missed it.”
Random fact No. 2: Cavs coach Mike Brown owns 22 different pairs of glasses that are color coordinated to his suits.
Random Fact No. 3: I didn’t make either of the last two facts up.
Random prediction: Somebody is going to get into a fantastic brawl with Anderson Varejao this season. Mark my words. He’s like the Daniel LaRusso of the NBA — he has a natural instinct for pissing people off. You watch.
Worst-case scenario: Can you have a worst-case scenario when LeBron is involved? I say no.
Best-case scenario: One of the top seeds and at least one shady trade ordered by the Commish so that the 2007 Finals maintains a semblance of competitiveness. Did you ever think the Cavs could get Sam Dalembert, Kyle Korver and Andre Iguodala from the Sixers for Ilgauskas, Ira Newble and Eric Snow? Well, it’s about to happen!
Prognosis: 52-55 wins and the title “Winner of the worst conference in the history of professional sports.”
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available in paperback.