Thursday March 6th, 2008

Spring is in the air -- well, I say that as I'm airborne from the East Coast to Los Angeles -- and with that feeling of rebirth comes the desire to unburden my soul. It's time to look at some of the stupid things I've written in this space and own up to them.

Having to alter predictions doesn't necessarily mean they were stupid. For example, I predicted before the season that the Mavericks would beat the Celtics in the NBA Finals. Though I would back off that now (the Spurs, Lakers and Hornets are much better positioned than the Mavs), it's not overly stupid. I also predicted that LeBron James would be the MVP. At this point I would probably vote for Kobe Bryant with James and Chris Paul fighting it out for second, but that wasn't overly stupid, either.

Listed below are my wrongheaded predictions in descending order of wrongheadedness. Honestly, I'd rank only the first two as truly stupid.

1. My overly harsh analysis of the Rockets.

After watching Houston in a December game in Toronto, I wrote off the Rockets, saying that a team with Tracy McGrady at the helm would ultimately fail, not because McGrady is not a marvelously talented player but mostly because he is. His teammates can't read him, I wrote. He's not selfish in that strict sense of the word, but he's difficult to play with, I wrote.

Well, over the last two months, the Rockets have played as well as anyone in the league. Always battling injuries, Houston has hung tough and wormed its way into that crowded scrum of elite teams in the Western Conference. After Yao Ming went down with season-ending foot surgery, they still persevered, and were riding a 16-game winning streak after beating the Pacers on Wednesday.

Logic says that they will eventually fall out of the playoff picture without Yao, but I wouldn't bet on it. They deserve a lot of credit, and I can only hope that the snakebitten Yao makes it back strong so they can make a run next season.

2. My overly generous evaluation of the Bulls.

I'm not alone here. Still, it stings to read this sentence that I wrote about the Bulls in the preseason: "They will make it to the Eastern finals without a certified superstar."

Well, one part of it was right -- they don't have a certified superstar. But the sentence should've read, They will possibly sneak into eighth place. Along those same lines, I also predicted big things for Bulls forward Luol Deng, who hasn't been a breakout star.

3. My overly generous evaluation of the Hawks.

I predicted that the Hawks would be the league's most improved team. It looked like a good bet early in the season -- almost as good a bet as the Trail Blazers -- but Atlanta (24-35 after Wednesday's loss to New Orleans) has tailed off and is now ninth in the conference. Barring a complete collapse, which I'm not ruling out, the Hawks should win about four or five more games than the 30 they won last year. But any team battling just to make the postseason in the decrepit East cannot be called "improved."

4. My overly generous evaluation of the Grizzlies.

In a late-January column that compared NBA teams to stock-market companies, I urged that buyers hold off on selling Grizzlies stock and talked up the possibility that they would improve. They haven't. Sitting at 15 wins, they should've been a strong sell.

5. My overly generous evluation of a Bucks free-agent acquisition.

Here's a snippet from a preseason column: "The one signing that didn't get enough attention was Desmond Mason, a former Slam Dunk champion, returning to Milwaukee. I'm not suggesting it's a balance-of-power-changer in the East, but swingman Mason is a proven double-figure scorer who had his best pro season in Milwaukee in 2004-05 when he averaged 17.2 points per game."

Well, at least I qualified it by saying that it wasn't "a balance-of-power changer." Mason missed six weeks with a thumb injury, but when he's been healthy, he hasn't done anything to make the Bucks better. Nobody has, including the splendid Michael Redd. The Bucks remain one of the most confounding teams in the league.

6. My proclaiming Utah's Deron Williams as the player who would make "The Leap," i.e., ascend to superstar status in one dazzling season.

Williams wasn't a bad selection. Clearly, though, his 2005 draft-pick rival, the Hornets' Paul, is the choice in this category.

And while on the subject of New Orleans, I picked the Hornets to finish eighth in the West. That's not too stupid, considering that a few losses in a row could put them there. But clearly I underrated them, as did most other prognosticators.

All in all, not an incredibly stupid year. But with postseason predictions not far away, there's plenty of time to look stupid again.

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