Friday May 2nd, 2008

5. Washington Wizards. Their stubbornness in refusing to yield to Cleveland outweighs the knuckleheadedness of some decisions their players have made recently. The offseason will center on whether to re-sign Gilbert Arenas (who can opt out of his contract) and Antawn Jamison. In both cases, the answer is yes. Arenas can't (and won't, unless the condition of his surgically repaired knee changes horribly) be allowed to walk, because second-team All-NBA guards are almost impossible to replace. The Wizards hope to reach a compromise on a new contract for the 31-year-old Jamison, who has established himself as an All-Star and leader in Washington.

Coach Eddie Jordan appeared in danger at the start of the year, but he strengthened the defense while keeping the team relevant despite the injuries. The Wizards would like to see what they could accomplish with one full year of health.

4. Toronto Raptors. They must re-sign restricted free agent Jose Calderon while gauging the value of fellow point guard T.J. Ford, who has another three years coming at $26 million. Coach Sam Mitchell succeeded in keeping his team together despite myriad health problems; the question going forward is whether he can develop Andrea Bargnani's low-post game. Not that he'll ever be dominant down low, but he needs to have those skills to become an All-Star complement to Chris Bosh. If Bargnani doesn't fulfill that potential, then Toronto president Bryan Colangelo will have made a mistake in selecting him ahead of No. 2 pick LaMarcus Aldridge of Portland in the 2006 draft. As Bargnani improves, so improve the Raptors.

3. Denver Nuggets. Owner Stan Kroenke spent $83 million on the league's third-highest payroll for a team that has won four playoff games over the last five seasons. A short-term goal would be to restore Nenê's value in order to move his contract (worth $43 million over the next four years). Unless they can trade Allen Iverson or Marcus Camby to a team with cap space, the Nuggets must endure another heavy luxury-tax bill next season. Otherwise, expect Iverson to become a free agent in 2009 as the Nuggets allow his $20.8 million to expire from the books. Restricted free agent J.R. Smith probably can be re-signed below the mid-level range. Coach George Karl appears safe for next season, but everything could change if the Knicks hire his chief ally, Nuggets vice president Mark Warkentien, as general manager, in which case a wholesale cleansing of Denver's front office may be in the works.

2. Dallas Mavericks. Their payroll drops from a league-leading $105 million to $83 million as the phantom contracts of Michael Finley and Shawn Bradley expire this summer. But they have no first-round pick, Devean George is their biggest free agent and they're committed to five players at a combined $70 million next season, so it will be difficult to undergo a comprehensive makeover of a team whose spirit appears broken after successive first-round playoff losses. Jason Kidd's $21.4 million expiring salary may be movable next season, but in this case the cliché is true about it being easier to fire the coach than to trade the players.

Who should be hired to replace Avery Johnson? The Mavs decided that Don Nelson's emphasis on offense couldn't win a championship, and unhappiness with Johnson's structure convinced them of the need for Kidd's unpredictability and the easy baskets he creates in transition. It's hard to envision the next phase for this team.

1. Phoenix Suns. The rest of the league is hoping that they fire coach Mike D'Antoni, as it would put one of the best coaches on the market while ending the Suns' run of contention. It's probably not a good idea to hire someone new to coach a lineup with a current 25-year-old in Amaré Stoudemire and four others who will average 35 years at this time next season. A new coach is going to teach Steve Nash and Shaquille O'Neal how to improve their pick-and-roll defense? It's not happening.

Nash has excelled for two up-tempo coaches throughout his career -- Nelson and D'Antoni -- and to insist on a different style of play, as any defensive-minded coach would do, would likely diminish Nash's strengths. I don't see these guys taking well to longer practices, either.

Let's be honest: If the Suns want to become more of a defensive team, then they need to overhaul their roster, because a simple coaching change is not going to bring out new qualities in All-Stars with 10 or more years of mileage. Before starting over again, they may want to review how things have been going in Sacramento since its high-scoring team bottomed out a few years ago. To change the way they play, the Suns will have to change the players, and that is going to be painful. Wouldn't it make more sense to see if they can contend for one or more years with Shaq, Nash and Stoudemire in training camp with D'Antoni?

No team has won a championship in modern times by playing to the high-scoring style of Rick Adelman in Sacramento or D'Antoni in Phoenix, but both could have won championships if not for Robert Horry, who made the outrageous three-pointer to kill the Kings years before his infamous hip-check of Nash culminated in Stoudemire's decisive suspension last season. More teams would commit to playing fast if only Adelman or D'Antoni had proved once and for all that it works, but one guy -- Horry -- has killed the up-tempo revolution.

These come from an NBA advance scout ...

4. Detroit Pistons vs. Orlando Magic. "I will pick Detroit, though the series could go seven games. I've always got a concern that Detroit isn't taking the game serious enough, that they play without a sense of urgency sometimes: too many jump shots, waiting for somebody else to get it done at the defensive end, and when something breaks down they all look around at each other. Rasheed [Wallace] is the main culprit there, and if he isn't into it mentally, the team easily loses focus. I don't think there's anybody on that team to grab him and say, 'Get your act together,' otherwise they'd do it. They have to hope he's focused when they need him.

"Detroit has got someone who can defend Hedo Turkoglu off the dribble in Tayshaun Prince; he gives Detroit an equalizer there. Often when their point guard [Jameer] Nelson is off the floor for Orlando, Hedo is the ball handler in a lot of pick-and-roll situations, and it allows Detroit [from positions] 1 to 3 to be able to switch with him. Chauncey [Billups] is big enough to stay in front of him and guard him off the dribble; [Richard] Hamilton and Prince can too. If Chauncey gets in the post with Hedo, Detroit's got a problem, but they've been together long enough to know when to help.

"Dwight Howard is going to be a beast inside, and even Wallace is going to have problems with the young kid. Howard can defend Wallace's post-up game, but he's also going to have to come out and play Wallace, who will be trailing on the break, shooting threes and being in pick-and-pop situations. So Howard's going to be big in this series, but Detroit is going to be able to handle the rest of Orlando's shooters on the perimeter.''

3. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Utah Jazz or Houston Rockets. "Utah is the steadier team and will win its series against Houston. The Lakers are going to be too long for them, and they can push the tempo a little more than Utah can and play a little faster than Utah wants to play it. It will be like Houston's winning a couple of these games by getting out on the floor and spreading out Utah's defense and attacking on the run. The Lakers can do that too. I know Utah will fight them. It won't be a sweep; it will probably go six. Not having [Andrew] Bynum probably won't come into play against either team, because it's not like Utah or Houston has big men with a lot of length.''

2. Boston Celtics or Atlanta Hawks vs. Cleveland Cavaliers or Washington Wizards. "I would love to see both of those opening series go to the limit -- a pair of Game 7s on the same night -- but I don't think Atlanta has much of a chance of winning Game 6 at home and I also think Cleveland is better than Washington right now.

"If Cleveland winds up meeting Boston, Boston is the stronger team. They will make LeBron [James] give the ball up, they won't let him go for 40 night after night. And that alone will ultimately decide the whole series, because he has to dominate for Cleveland to advance. The Celtics should get enough scoring, though they did freeze up in those games at Atlanta to the point that they didn't know where to go at the end. LeBron can win a game on his own, Delonte West and Daniel Gibson are playing pretty well, and Zyrunas Ilgauskas can be a problem for Boston. That could go seven games.

"If Washington can get by Cleveland, the next round would be interesting because the Wizards competed with Boston well [in beating the Celtics three times during the regular season]. Antawn Jamison would be the key. He's their glue at both ends, and if he starts being a little more assertive then [Kevin] Garnett has to come out and guard him, and that makes him focus on one person and takes him away from the basket. But I don't think we're going to see Washington make it to the next round.''

1. New Orleans Hornets vs. San Antonio Spurs. "Now that's going to be a tough one. I thought Phoenix was going to be better than they were in the first round, and if they'd won that first game in San Antonio it could have changed the whole series. Grant Hill being out didn't help either. San Antonio changed the games with that hack-a-Shaq because it took Steve Nash out of the offense, but they won't have that kind of gimmick to use against New Orleans.

"I really like the way New Orleans is playing. It isn't so much whether David West can stop [Tim] Duncan -- but can Duncan stop West? West isn't a back-to-the-basket player who allows Duncan to get physical and block shots; Duncan has to come out to the elbow against somebody facing up and shooting off the dribble, and that isn't Duncan's strong suit. He'll either have to guard West or they'll put somebody else on West and have Duncan on [Tyson] Chandler, in which case they aren't getting good use of Duncan's defense either.

"Tony Parker vs. Chris Paul is pretty even. Parker is more of an attack, speed, dribble, get-to-the-rim point guard, and Paul is more about probing, drawing the extra defender and dropping the ball off. He's always in control. He doesn't overly commit to driving to the hole and he's always got an option to drop the ball off. With jump shooters like West and [Peja] Stojakovic and Mo Peterson, they're lethal. The Spurs' defense has to make sure Paul doesn't get into the paint because Chandler is always available to take a pass and drop it in. They can win on the road, too, as they don't have a problem playing in San Antonio.

"My respect for New Orleans has been growing throughout the year, but I was really impressed with them in that Dallas series. San Antonio's going to be better defensively than Dallas. But you look at New Orleans, they have the perimeter shooting plus they have the center and shot-blocker; sometimes you've got to give one of them up, or you have a guy like [Utah's Mehmet] Okur as your center out there on the perimeter. But the Hornets have everything -- the perimeter shooters and the guy inside at the defensive end guarding the goal and challenging shots, and Chandler also has no problem getting up and down the floor.

"I wouldn't say that San Antonio has such a big advantage in coaching. The bigger deal is that they've been together so long, they've been through all these series and that gives them a definite advantage in being comfortable together. But it isn't like Gregg Popovich is that much a better coach than Byron Scott. Popovich is a good coach in a great situation and he's done very well with it. Byron Scott is a good coach in a great situation now too. At one point while their team was still fairly new together, Popovich basically was Byron Scott.

"I'm going to say New Orleans takes them. New Orleans in six.''

3. Is Steve Nash the most overrated player in NBA history? Can you name any other two-time MVP who has not even played in an NBA Finals? Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are much younger than Nash and have already accomplished more in their respective careers, yet don't have a single MVP. -- Jay Jackson, Chicago

I don't think he's overrated. He's a terrific player, a true quarterback who has improved each year in his ability to create for others and for himself. He is the most skilled player in basketball. It wasn't like he was appointed MVP: They had a national vote and in each of those two seasons he was judged the best.

I'll remind you that it's a regular-season award. I looked this up: 17 MVPs were voted their awards before they had ever reached an NBA Finals. Wilt Chamberlain won four MVPs before he played in the Finals, and how overrated was he?

I hear an inordinate number of complaints from fans about Nash, and I'm sure most of those opinions -- Jay's among them -- are based strictly on perceptions of his play. But I also think some of them are colored by Nash's public stance in 2003 against the invasion of Iraq when it took courage to oppose the buildup to war. In two instances, I've run into fans who have complained that Nash should have kept his mouth shut; one fan argued that because Nash is a Canadian native he should keep his nose out of American affairs. Now public opinion obviously has shifted the other way, but that doesn't change the fact that Nash had every right to say his piece, nor will it change the minds of those who will criticize him for his conscientious statements.

2. With the fallout of the Sonics eventually leaving Seattle, is there any movement to replace David Stern as commissioner? I know the owners vote with their bottom line and generally his moves make more money and the league is doing well. But from the standpoint of the casual fan, the commissioner comes off as out of touch and slow to react. A few years ago, he refused to change the guaranteed top three playoff spot for a division winner until after the playoffs. Last year, he refused to step in when the Suns stepped off the bench after Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash. Now he's refusing to do anything to save basketball in a great city. To us, it seems that the NBA is thriving in spite of Stern, not because of him. -- Arjun, San Diego

As a lifelong basketball fan and Oklahoma resident, I would like to ask that Seattle and the rest of the country not hate Oklahoma for the situation with the Sonics. I have always wanted a pro team here and the Hornets were a blessing that only lasted two seasons. If the Sonics come here this season or in a few more, they will have support here from many loyal basketball fans. Although I may not agree with the way Clay Bennett went about bringing a team here, it has been a long time coming and I am excited to see the NBA come to OKC, and sad to see it leave Seattle. -- Rohit Rai, Norman, Okla.

Look, the fans in Oklahoma City were terrific in their support of the Hornets, and everyone expects the Sonics to be welcomed sincerely there. This has nothing to do with the people in Oklahoma and everything to do with the injustice to the fans in Seattle who have supported their team and helped build the NBA for 41 years.

As for Arjun's question about Stern, the commissioner couldn't have changed the playoff seedings during the season, and when he opened up debate on the Horry-Nash skirmish at a league meeting after that season, none other than Larry Bird spoke up on behalf of the ruling on the grounds that players must be prevented from leaving the bench during altercations.

In the case of Seattle, Stern is acting on behalf of a new owner who spent $350 million -- more than the team was worth -- to buy the Sonics. As I've written before, one of Stern's priorities is to drive up the value of franchises, because that's a big factor in how his owners measure the health of the league. I believe most objective observers would say that Bennett did not make a good-faith effort for a full year (as he promised in writing to do) to negotiate an arena deal in Seattle; that he showed little patience or interest in compromise in his approach to a negotiation that required vats of both; and that he too quickly found comfort in the idea of moving the team back to his home state of Oklahoma. Stern may disagree with this assessment, but he had to decide what was in the best interests of the league, and in his mind it was more important to support a new owner and keep the value of franchises rising -- even at the expense of a traditional market like Seattle.

(Of course he's read the e-mails that have been released in the papers; Stern reads everything.)

If the court rules that the Sonics must see out their lease and spend the next two seasons in Seattle, then Bennett's total losses may soar to well over $100 million by the time he moves the team to Oklahoma City in 2010. In that case, would he be willing to sell to a local group led by Microsoft's Steve Ballmer to keep the team in Seattle? It would mean Stern's finding another franchise for Bennett to buy and move to Oklahoma City (because he can't very well turn his back on his home state now that it's expecting a team), and it would mean landing an arena deal in Seattle before Ballmer's group would be willing to buy the team. Making all of those things work in unison sounds unfathomably complicated.

1. There were a lot of responses to my defense of the current playoff format. I'll answer each one in turn.

I agree with most of your points with respect to the NBA playoff format. I was wondering what your thoughts were on a system that would provide trade and/or luxury-tax exemptions proportional to the record of a team that misses the playoffs. I like to think that this system would provide a small incentive for teams to avoid tanking and help teams on the cusp get a complementary piece that they might not be able to afford otherwise. -- Michael Case, Gainesville, Fla.

I don't see it. The luxury tax and the financial rules governing trades are more important to the league than the playoff format. The former is crucial to balancing the books; the latter isn't. This league, like all others, exists to make money. It isn't going to unbalance its finances for the sake of postseason aesthetics.

You're missing the point of reseeding. It isn't to get a better first round. Assuming all the favorites win under the new format, look at the teams still in contention. What you get is a 53-win team, like Phoenix, getting rewarded with home-court advantage in the first round, with the opportunity to play a shaky Detroit team in the second round. How is this less attractive than the current system? And shouldn't an uneven schedule favor the weaker conference, since you play teams like Charlotte and Indiana more times? But yet somehow those teams playing more Eastern Conference opponents still managed to lose more. Why are we rewarding them with a playoff berth? -- Chad, Irvine, Calif.

By trying to fix one problem, you would create a larger problem elsewhere. I applaud you for trying to make the system completely fair. But if fairness is the goal, then you have to acknowledge the unfairness of rewarding some teams in one conference and penalize some teams in the other conference based on schedules that are not weighted equally.

For an exaggerated example, consider grouping all of the baseball teams into a single playoff bracket based strictly on the won-lost percentages of the teams. Baseball fans would riot because the teams in the American League play a schedule that is vastly different from the schedule of teams in the National League. Much like the NBA, there are inequities in postseason baseball with poorly rated teams in one league qualifying at the expense of winning teams in the other league, but I don't hear anyone in baseball calling for a single bracket. Because it would not be fair.

Your analysis of the playoff reseeding actually proves why it should be done. The biggest problem with the current format is that the Eastern Conference leaders are getting significantly easier first-round matchups than their counterparts in the West, which your analysis confirms. It also creates premature matchups between elite teams like San Antonio and Phoenix. If the point is to create "compelling" first-round matchups, then just have the No. 1 seeds face each other. But that would be silly. -- Felix, San Francisco

My point is this: If you want to promote the winningest teams to the playoffs regardless of conference, then you must change the scheduling to make it fair across the board with every team facing similar opposition. You want fairness, yes? Then every team would play every opponent three times. There would be 87 games, the cross-country travel would be increased and any hope of creating regional or divisional rivalries would be lost. The regular season is weak enough as it is. A new playoff system would create more harm than good.

I suggest that any team that wins 42 games is in the playoffs, regardless of conference affiliation. For this year, let's assume the Raptors (41-41) would have beat the Bulls in their last game of the year to get into the playoffs while the Blazers (41-41) also won one more game. So in the East, only six teams get in -- obviously less than eight. So you give the top two teams byes. Play a best-of-five first round between 3 and 6 and 4 and 5, and then move on to best-of-seven for the conference semifinals. As for the West, this year (with the Blazers' extra win) there are 10 teams. You have 7 play 10 and 8 play 9 in best-of-three to see who gets to the first round, which again is best of best-of-five. This way, the regular season is actually heightened because until a team loses its 41st game, there will be a playoff chance. And it would make the end of the season very important to teams like the Blazers, 76ers, Raptors and others. -- John Shear, Chicago

Fewer playoff games means less money. I wish there were fewer games, but it isn't going to happen.

I have a theory on improving the playoff bracket. Funny enough, it's inspired by the Canadian Football League. If the ninth seed in one conference is better than the eighth seed in the other conference, then that team would cross over into the other conference and take that seed. I would add to that and make the crossover team eligible to move up to the fifth seed if the record is better. That way, the crossover team will not gain the home-court advantage, but will play a more comparable team. -- Bill Feeney, Toronto

When you bring that one up at the next NBA Board of Governors meeting, I propose not mentioning that it came from the Canadian Football League. Just a suggestion.

2. The Hawks. "When they make jump shots, that changes everything for them,'' said the advance scout who analyzed the playoffs earlier in the Weekly Countdown. "Because they have youth and athleticism and interchangeable parts, everybody's long -- Josh Smith, Josh Childress -- and you can switch them around and they're all pretty damn good.''

That has always been GM Billy Knight's ideal -- a lively young team of interchangeable talent attacking the basket and protecting the rim. Knight's mistake was failing to draft point guards Deron Williams or Chris Paul instead of Marvin Williams with the No. 2 pick in 2005, and taking Shelden Williams with the No. 5 pick in 2006 instead of Brandon Roy, Randy Foye or Rudy Gay. But Knight got it right by using the No. 3 pick last year for Al Horford, whose inside presence has helped make sense of the whole roster. There remains a lot of work to do, but the Hawks no longer look hopeless.

1. The 76ers. When Larry Brown left Philadelphia in 2003, the 76ers changed their approach to the draft. They began to pick long athletes who could play in the open court, resulting in the acquisitions of Willie Green, Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams and Rodney Carney. Last year they were unable to trade up to draft Yi Jianlian or Spencer Hawes; instead, they used the No. 12 pick on Thaddeus Young, a 6-8, 220-pound freshman from Georgia Tech.

"He has an internal motor that's boundless,'' 76ers director of player personnel Courtney Witte said. "His family is there for him in any way possible, and his support group is one of the highest I've been around in 21 years. He has a maturity, a groundedness, that is very rare today.''

Young embodies the post-Iverson era in Philadelphia. The 76ers traded Kyle Korver in late December to create cap space this summer as well as to find minutes for Young, with the result that the team began to push the ball. The Sixers went 22-12 to finish the season in the playoffs instead of in the lottery, then won two of their first three before succumbing to the No. 2 Pistons on Thursday. Young started all six playoff games as an undersized power forward and averaged 10.2 points and 4.5 rebounds in 26.7 minutes while shooting 48 percent.

"I've surprised a lot of people this season,'' said the 19-year-old Young, the second-youngest player in the league behind Kevin Durant. In a game against Detroit earlier this season, he heard one Piston yelling at another. "The guy -- I can't remember who it was -- he was going, 'Don't rotate to him, he's not even going to get the ball,' '' Young recalled.

That changed in the playoffs, as the Pistons realized that Young has an instinct for scoring though no plays were called for him during the series. The hope is that he'll improve his ball handling and shooting to permit him to become a small forward, which in turn would shift Iguodala into the backcourt. Or the 76ers may decide that Young's immediate future is as a combo forward.

The Sixers have cap space to sign a max free agent this summer, and their first target should be Clippers power forward Elton Brand, who would fit beautifully with their up-tempo style. If they can't lure the potential free agent out of Los Angeles, however, two league insiders prophesy a move to land Bulls restricted free agent Ben Gordon, an undersized shooting guard who could share the backcourt with big point guard Andre Miller.

In any case, the 76ers' future is more promising than it appeared three months ago.

1. A decade ago, the NBA was selling us hip-hop culture as the future of the league. Ten years later later, the same executives are now fining Paul Pierce $25,000 because he made a hand sign that might have been construed as a gang gesture. Pierce's big mistake was to claim that the gesture stood for "blood, sweat and tears.'' I myself would have claimed the "live long and prosper'' defense, because at this point I'm fairly confident the executives who run the NBA know more about Star Trek than they know about hip-hop culture.

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