Friday November 16th, 2007

Taking a spin around the league ...

Will the Miami Heat make the playoffs?

Yes.

Have you looked at the standings lately? You do know they're on the verge of going 1-8 Friday night at Boston?

Yes and yes.

And yes, I know they're last in the East after losing to Charlotte and Seattle by a combined 24, with Wednesday's 104-95 shocker at home to the Sonics happening despite Dwyane Wade's 24-minute season debut in his return from shoulder and knee surgeries.

I know Shaquille O'Neal is averaging a modest 14.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 29.1 minutes. "His ability to affect the game is happening in shorter spurts,'' an NBA scout said. "He gets tired easily. Where his spurts used to go six to seven minutes, they're now three to four minutes.''

I know the supporting cast is neither supportive nor well cast. "If you believe in the good-guy theory, then this is not your team,'' the scout said. "Smush Parker is a selfish person, Ricky Davis is selfish. They didn't add positive factors to the team. They've spent so much money on Shaq and Wade, and after that it's like they're just grabbing at people. They're old, and then a guy like Mark Blount, who may be able to help them, isn't playing as many minutes as you'd think he would. But that's how it is with Pat Riley: If you don't buy into his system, you won't play.''

So when do you get to the part where you start convincing us they'll make the playoffs?

I feel silly expending more energy to defend them than they appear to be showing on the court some nights.

But Wade is going to make a 180-degree difference as soon as he gets his legs under him and his wrists above the rim. Some people will say it's naïve to think that one player can alter a team that's played as pathetically as Miami, but he will help the Heat climb out of the league cellar in scoring (currently 84.8 ppg) while cementing their defense, which ranks a highly respectable fourth in points allowed (91.1) and ninth in opponents' field goal percentage (43.2).

Jason Williams (who is playing for a new contract), Davis and Dorell Wright will be more useful as complementary scorers. And Shaq will play better in the second half of the season, which is a trend you can trace back to Los Angeles.

Think about this: Where would Cleveland be right now if LeBron James had missed seven and a half of its first eight games? I'm thinking the Cavaliers would be 1-7 too -- and they're the reigning conference champions. On Wednesday, LeBron put together the best all-around game the league has seen since 1968 -- 39 points, 14 assists and 13 rebounds, an achievement last matched by Wilt Chamberlain -- and the NBA finalists still lost at home to Orlando. Without LeBron, they would be playing good defense, but they wouldn't score enough to win. He means everything to his team, much as Wade means everything to the Heat. It's not asking too much of Wade to get them back on a .500 plane over the next few weeks, and then to put together a short winning streak before Christmas that leaves them in the large mix of teams competing for the final playoff spots. And then they'll still have four months left to keep improving.

"When I was watching them, my thought was this is a team going nowhere,'' the scout said. "But their coaching staff doesn't look panicked. They're working their asses off and they're frustrated and mad, but they're not panicked. So they must know something I don't know.''

In fact, we all know what they know: that Wade is one of the top 10 players in the league, a truth of which he'll be reminding us very soon.

Was Suns coach Mike D'Antoni over the top in criticizing his own fans for not being passionate enough?

A dynamic often ignored in the NBA -- I know I'm guilty of this -- is emotion. I remember being surprised a couple of years ago when D'Antoni was listing the ways the Suns missed Amaré Stoudemire during his 2005-06 rehab from knee surgery. When Stoudemire would finish in transition like a Mack semi launched at Lamborghini speed, it would light up his teammates and the crowd, with a discouraging impact on the opponents.

If Amaré cuts down a tree and there are 18,000 people there to see it, it ought to make a sound.

I always assumed that emotion had more influence in the NCAA than in this league. But even millionaires need motivation, especially when the season is up to seven-and-a-half months long. If they're planning to outplay the teams from Texas on their way to the NBA Finals, the Suns are going to need as much help of a home-court advantage as their fans can manage. This might be their last shot at a championship with this team.

What is the most important trend so far this season?

It has to be the absence of easy wins in the league. There are only four teams that most opponents feel they should beat -- Seattle, Minnesota, Sacramento and Philadelphia, which is probably the best of them. It remains to be seen whether Charlotte lapses into that grouping. As for the other big losers -- Chicago, Golden State and Miami -- they figure to improve sharply over the next month or two.

In most years, there have been more easy opponents on the schedule, but all of a sudden the Hawks are no longer in that category, as aren't the Grizzlies, Bucks, Knicks (though many will argue with me) or Celtics, obviously. What this means is that it will be harder for middle-of-the-pack teams to run off a string of wins.

The West may have the majority of potential champions, but the East has the most playoff contenders. There are going to be a lot of Eastern teams hovering a few games north or south of .500 this season.

How has Portland, with neither Zach Randolph nor Greg Oden, been able to go 4-0 at home with impressive wins over New Orleans, Dallas and Detroit?

"They've bought into [coach] Nate McMillan's ideas,'' said a rival personnel man who has been watching the Blazers closely, "and the final part of that was getting rid of Zach Randolph. They got rid of the last remaining guy who wouldn't listen to Nate. So now they're unified, they believe in Nate, and because it's his third year, there's a consistency to the way they're teaching and playing hard.

"They've never had Oden, so they don't know what they're missing with him. As good as Randolph was, he was stunting their growth. He had to play those big minutes and it limited the growth of the team. Not only do the coaches want to prove they can win without Randolph, but I'm sure the players want to show they don't need him either. When you get your people to buy in and one guy doesn't buy in, I promise you that the rest of the guys on that team couldn't wait to ship him out.''

What will become of Stephon Marbury?

He's going to have to act a lot worse to persuade the Knicks to pay off his remaining $40 million. Next season Marbury could be a huge asset should they want to trade his expiring $20.8 million salary at the deadline. If it takes one argument on a plane -- Marbury reportedly learned of his benching from coach Isiah Thomas en route to Phoenix -- to convince the team to pay a player to not play, if that's the new threshold for contract buyouts, then you're going to see a lot more insurrection on charter aircraft in the future.

Is Phil Jackson yearning to be the next Jay Leno or David Letterman?

Jackson is to be credited with trying to entertain himself as well as the rest of us. So he bombed in an offensive way. Who hasn't? He put a conclusion to the short era of Brokeback Mountain references in postgame analyses. We won't be hearing any more of those, but I personally would like to see him go Don Rickles once in a while on everybody -- just a long, outrageous rant against his own team, the other team, the referees, dancers, writers, everybody -- and then to wash it all away, he only has to clap his hands and say, "But I love everybody, all peoples, really I do. Thanks very much for coming out, thank you,'' as he waves to the press room while hobbling away.

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