Friday February 29th, 2008

Also in this column: HOF case for an ex-international star More debate on European expansion

By this time usually there aren't more than three or four serious contenders for the championship. But this year is different.

"There are what, seven, eight, nine teams that could win this thing?'' said San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, who is one of three active coaches with a championship ring. "It's incredible, it's great.''

I can't imagine he truly thinks it's great. Great for us maybe, but not for him. As close as the West playoff race is, his Spurs were one game out of the conference lead through Thursday -- and three games the other way from dropping into seventh place.

The rankings below aren't based on my preseason pick, to which I remain clung despite all reason -- Dallas over Detroit in the NBA Finals. Please consider what follows as an up-to-date appraisal that I'm sure will elicit much dissent. Which, of course, is why I'm doing it.

5. Phoenix Suns. There is plenty of reason to doubt the Suns since their trade of Shawn Marion for Shaquille O'Neal. For example:

"I'm a little worried about them,'' an advance scout for an Eastern Conference team said. "Teams that have competed with Phoenix by running back at them are going to be successful now because the Suns have a guy that can't run now. If you have a mobile center, the Suns are going to be in trouble.''

"I didn't think they would ever do that,'' a Western Conference scout said of the Suns' trade for Shaq. "I don't think it helped them. They can't go to him in the last five minutes, because you're going to foul him. Also, teams are going to pick-and-roll them to death, and now they can't switch that stuff like they used to when they were going small. [Steve] Nash was a bad pick-and-roll defender to begin with, so now they've got a bad pick-and-roll defender on the ball and a bad pick-and-roll defender on the screener [in Shaq]. They're more conventional now.''

Yet I maintain (stubbornly, I admit) that the Suns will look better in the grind of the playoffs than in the regular season. Yes, their ups and downs are disturbing in comparison to the high standard they've established in seasons past. But think ahead to the playoffs when the games slow down and they'll have to tough it out in the half court. They'll be tougher in those games, Amaré Stoudemire will be better, their locker room will be happier, and don't you think Nash will eventually figure out how to make sense of their new lineup?

Defense has always been a concern in Phoenix. But those worries are more than offset by a lineup of Stoudemire, Shaq, Grant Hill, Leandro Barbosa and Boris Diaw on the same team with Nash. That grouping should have a fighter's chance of reaching the NBA Finals. (The Suns, however, will regret their failure to sign Brent Barry this week. That may turn out to be a tipping point against Phoenix.)

4. Boston Celtics. They launched this trend of franchise reinvention last summer by trading future assets for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Now that Sam Cassell appears headed to Boston, the Celtics will have filled their biggest pothole: a point guard behind starter Rajon Rondo.

"It would be hard for them if their backup plan was to use Eddie House at point guard,'' the West scout said. "He's not going to be able to survive pressure in a playoff series.''

So long as players such as Cassell and center Kendrick Perkins remain healthy throughout the playoffs, the Celtics' threesome of Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce is more than capable of winning the whole thing. The Celtics have been the hardest-playing team all year, especially at the defensive end, with all three behaving like humble role players away from the ball.

"They aren't as deep offensively as some of these other teams,'' the East scout said. "If Ray Allen isn't on, then they're in a little bit of trouble, because he gets a lot of buckets in transition. Rondo won't be the worst point guard ever in the playoffs; he'll be OK. But they need that backup there ...''

That statement was made before Cassell was waived by the Clippers. Now it's a matter of achieving good health and peaking in time for the playoffs.

3. Detroit Pistons. Perhaps you've forgotten them? They've spent this season running lap after lap behind the Celtics, drafting them like a 10K Olympian content to remain in second place heading into the final turn.

They are the one team in the East with a chance to win the matchups against Boston. Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and Richard Hamilton can nullify Garnett, Pierce and Allen, respectively, leaving Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess to outperform Rondo and Perkins. Then there is the energy supplied by the Pistons' bench, though the reserves still have much to prove.

"When things get tight in the playoffs, who knows if the pressure gets to [rookie guard Rodney] Stuckey?'' the East scout said. "They [the reserves] have been able to get by because they're good defensively and at scoring off their defense, and that's bailing them out from having to execute on the offensive end. When they come in, they pressure the ball and force turnovers and then they're running. If they can do that in the playoffs, then they'll be fine. But when you get into a slower-paced game and you're trying to execute your offense in the half court, I don't know if they're going to be that successful.''

But this scout nonetheless rates Detroit as the likely winner in the East -- indeed, the Pistons are his favorites to beat San Antonio in the NBA Finals. The Pistons claim to be building toward the playoffs as they failed to do the previous few years, and their anger from those postseason losses is simmering.

2. Los Angeles Lakers. They have the NBA's best player, who also happens to be the league's hungriest star, and a coach with as much championship success as the rest of the league altogether.

With the exception of Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson (and of course Derek Fisher), there isn't a lot of winning playoff experience on this team. Is this a year for the Lakers to get close, to position themselves for a run at the championship next year? Or does Kobe push them over the top with the help of the best cast of teammates he's had since the divorce from Shaq?

"You can't say they were overhauled -- they got somebody in [Pau] Gasol who's going to fall in place, and everybody else has been there a few years in that system,'' the East scout said. "Gasol slides in there perfectly as a supporting star.''

The Lakers have been competing for the West's No. 1 seed while awaiting the return of center Andrew Bynum and versatile sub Trevor Ariza. Plug in Bynum's rebounding and shot-blocking alongside Gasol up front, with Lamar Odom and Fisher and what's-his-name with the torn ligament in his pinkie.

"Their bench has been coming on,'' the scout added. "[Jordan] Farmar and [Sasha] Vujacic are deadeye shooters, and [Luke] Walton is a pretty good player. They're deep, strong and they've got the star at the end of games to win it for you.''

This has the makings of an extraordinary sequel. "L.A. and Boston, that would be the dream Finals,'' the West scout said.

What a story that would be. One year ago, few personnel bosses were as vulnerable or second-guessed as Danny Ainge and Mitch Kupchak. Now they are the front-runners for Executive of the Year.

1. San Antonio Spurs. Both scouts see San Antonio as the favorite in the West.

"It's too close to not give them the benefit of the doubt in a seven-game series,'' the West scout said. "It's not only their experience but all of the time they've been playing together. I don't think they're too old. They've got two guys [in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili] to push it up the floor and give them the easy baskets they need, and then they can grind it out in the half court like they always do.''

"Ginobili is playing at top form right now,'' the East scout said. "They execute so well in the playoffs, and Duncan is just so good.''

The only question here is whether you think the Spurs are too gray. But note that their rivals -- including Phoenix, Dallas and Boston -- made trades to get older. It used to be that teams would acquire size in hopes of matching up against Shaq; now they trade for experience in to order to execute at the Spurs' level.

These teams are in the second tier of contention ...

4. New Orleans Hornets. They have to be included because Chris Paul is an MVP candidate and their starting five has been strong for two-thirds of the season. Though they lack playoff experience and they're desperate for newcomers Bonzi Wells and Mike James to elevate their bench, Paul's leadership puts New Orleans ahead of the remaining fringe contenders in the West.

3. Utah Jazz. They've gone 21-5 since trading for shooter Kyle Korver (though he's on the bench for more than half of each game). They may not be playing much defense, but they'll aim to outscore teams in a big way. The Jazz also carry the experience of winning two playoff rounds last year.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers. If Kobe is behaving like Michael Jordan, then LeBron James is doing his best impression yet of Oscar Robertson. He's more than capable of pulling together his new teammates, and Ben Wallace will enhance the Cavs' defense. They should enter the playoffs with a more talented team than last year's NBA finalist -- though Detroit and Boston are superior to any of last year's East teams too.

1. Dallas Mavericks. I chose the Mavericks to win the championship in the preseason, and while I'm not running away from that pick, I'm also not going to plead that they should be anyone's favorite right now. They made the Jason Kidd move to hop out of their rut. While it's obvious I think highly of coach Avery Johnson, I do wish he would stop outsmarting himself (I mean, wouldn't you like Kidd on the floor in the last half minute of that tight game at San Antonio on Thursday night -- if only to help forge your new lineup under pressure?).

"[Dirk] Nowitzki has to get easier shots instead of being in isos most of the time,'' the East scout said. "They needed somebody to drive and kick to get some easier scores, and maybe Kidd can do that for them. They really have been an iso team with [Josh] Howard and [Jerry] Stackhouse, and they win a lot of games with it, but in the playoffs it's a different story -- which showed up last year.''

"The Kidd trade will help Dirk and [Jason] Terry get open jump shots,'' the West scout said. "Dirk was having a good year, but he was making a lot of plays for the other guys. Kidd will open up the pick-and-roll game that is so important in the NBA. He's not a great shooter but he's really good on the pick-and-roll, and that's going to make things a lot easier for those other guys.''

The Mavs sacrificed depth in the Kidd trade, and they'll miss the defense of Devin Harris and DeSagana Diop. On the other hand, they'll benefit from more easy baskets in transition and an improvement in the production of Nowitzki, who will have somebody to help him create mismatches and bring order to the offense. Despite their struggles, they were an impressive 35-18 before trading for Kidd. If they were on pace to win 54 games at that point, then his arrival could boost them back into contention now.

3. He is the best player in the history of South America. His full name was Maciel Pereira, but he went by the nickname of Ubiratan. He died in 2002 at age 58. Ubiratan, a finalist for Hall of Fame election this year, was a 6-foot-8 lefty with a vertical leap that would make him relevant in the NBA today.

"Unbelievable elevation -- I mean Julius Erving elevation,'' said Dan Peterson, an expatriate American in Italy who coached against Ubiratan numerous times. "Great physique, long arms. Not a big scorer but he could score.''

"O'Rei'' -- the King, as he was also known in his native São Paolo, Brazil -- exerted his talents in all phases of the game.

"Blocked shots, boards, screens, passes -- not unlike [former Italian star] Dino Meneghin,'' Peterson said. "His name just inspired awe and fear in South America. I [coached] Chile in the 1973 South American [championships], won by Brazil. We actually gave them a game, down three with 10 [minutes] to go. I told 19-year-old Raimundo Schmidt he'd start against Brazil and would guard Ubiratan. The kid just broke down and cried. It was the sum of the emotions: fear, awe, honor, challenge, name. It hit him hard.

"He changed the shape of any game he played in. You could not drive on him or he'd block the shot. If you went to the offensive board, he'd take the rebound and outlet it and you'd be outnumbered. Coaching against guys like that is a nightmare.''

I've talked to Sandro Gamba, a Hall of Fame coach who confirmed Peterson's account and said that Ubiratan belongs in the Hall.

I have the sense that voters are waiting for the modern Brazilian star, Oscar Schmidt, to be nominated to the Hall of Fame. Peterson said it would be a huge mistake to elect Schmidt instead of Ubiratan, who helped Brazil win five medals in the World Championships and Olympics from 1963-78.

"The guy won,'' Peterson said of Ubiratan. "They talk about Oscar Schmidt. Please. Great shooter, great scorer, beat the U.S. in Indy [at the Pan American Games] in '87. That's about it. My comparison is this: Oscar scores 45 in a big game but loses; Ubiratan scores 12 in a big game but wins.''

2. There are no South American male players in the Hall of Fame. How can so important a continent not have one male player in the Hall of Fame? This reflects more poorly on the Hall than it does upon basketball in South America.

To become a truly international Hall of Fame, a player like Ubiratan must be recognized. His legend tells the story of how Brazil grew as a basketball nation capable of producing Schmidt as well as current NBA players Leandro Barbosa, Nenê and Anderson Varejao. Ubiratan is their founding father.

1. There are more international men's coaches (seven) in the Hall of Fame than there are international players (five). This is another unfortunate imbalance. It has developed because the coaches have simple won-lost records that spell out their greatness regardless of era or nationality. But few compelling statistics exist for elder players like Ubiratan. Brazil didn't keep track of scoring and rebounding numbers in his day.

"The guy was so good he played two years in Venice in Italy's Series A,'' Peterson said. "Back then, every single 'foreign' player, with few exceptions, was an American. He was one of the few exceptions.'' According to Peterson, Ubiratan averaged 18.9 points and 17.2 rebounds over those two seasons in Italy.

The Hall is serious about becoming a unifying force for world basketball. That is why it must double its efforts by recognizing historical giants like Ubiratan.

2. Your logic fails. Foreign players aren't forced to play in America if they want to play in the Euroleague. However, guys who want to play in the American NBA league would be forced to play overseas. They're not the same thing. -- Chad, Austin, Texas

Two words for you, Ian: Steve Francis. If a top American draft pick lacks enough character to show up in a city as nice as VANCOUVER, then, yeah, I think they'll balk at Moscow or Tel Aviv. -- Steven, Burnaby, British Columbia

Chad was referring to the argument I made last week in reference to the idea of NBA overseas expansion: It's OK for a teenager from Serbia, Italy or France to travel here to play professionally, but it's asking too much for young Americans to move abroad in pursuit of their career?

Of course there are going to be problems if the NBA places franchise in Europe. Many American players will complain about playing overseas, but that doesn't mean they'll be in the right. The day will come when playing for the NBA is going to be an international experience, and it will go forward regardless of how some players feel about it.

I must disagree with Chad. Look at the rosters of the Euroleague clubs: Greeks are playing in Russia, Croats are playing in Spain and Americans are playing everywhere. The last 50 years of international basketball have proved that American players can adapt to any culture or environment.

The bigger issue is the dream of playing basketball at the highest level. If a player wants to achieve that dream, then crossing borders is going to be part of the mission regardless of whether the player comes from Italy or the United States. Some players aren't going to like it, but as always they'll be well-compensated for their trouble.

1. I suggest you spend some more time learning about NBA contracts and the lengths of them. The Cavs did not increase their financial commitments with the trade. In fact, Ben Wallace for Larry Hughes is about a salary wash because Wallace's salary will decrease the next two years while Hughes' will increase. Meanwhile, Wally Szczerbiak's contract expires after next year and he's making $13 million, so the Cavs are in great shape as far as expiring contracts and draft picks to make another huge trade this summer or next year. It amazes me how you NBA reporters do not understand the salary structure of the NBA and how different players' contracts work. -- Nick, Canton, Ohio

According to Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert, this trade will cost the Cavs an additional $6 million in salaries and luxury taxes this season and more than $4 million next season. In total, the trade will cost Cleveland in excess of $10 million through 2008-09. May I suggest, Nick, that you are the amazing one.

The owners negotiate the CBA to keep costs down, while the union negotiates to maximize salaries for active players. So how is it that this thick rule book compelled a salary of $4.3 million to be invented on behalf of a semiretired player like Keith Van Horn? The affluence of the NBA is, to put it kindly, grotesque.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.