Page 2 columnist
Good God, where do we begin? Has there ever been an NBA season quite like this one? The revamped Lakers gunning for a title, only with Kobe's trial hanging over everything? Antoine, Antawn, Antwaan, Ant'one, Antone and Antowain joining the Mavericks? Mourning on the Nets? The Pacers with a real coach? Player conduct codes for the Blazers? Year Two of Yao and Amare? The Truth, VC and T-Mac battling for top 2-guard honors in the East? Not one but TWO Van Gundys? And best of all, Carmelo and LeBron ready to pull a Magic-Bird over the next 15 years?
For a season with so much promise, it was only natural that the players tried to derail momentum with about 300 arrests this summer. My favorite one happened when Damon Stoudamire was allegedly carrying pot through an airport detector. They asked him to empty his pockets, so Stoudamire placed the weed (wrapped in tinfoil) in one of those little buckets, along with his cell phone, car keys, wallets and everything else. The NBA ... it's FANNNNN-tastic! I love this game!
To celebrate Opening Night, I burned the candle at both ends to finish my annual NBA preview: three parts, 9,000 words and more potshots and hyperbole than you can imagine. Sure, I haven't slept in three days, plus I'm constipated and shaking like Ozzy Osbourne. No matter. You always sacrifice for the ones you love.
Here's Part One, a look at the non-title contenders in the West -- also known as the "Why Couldn't We Be In the East?" group -- from worst to best:
14. Utah Jazz
Flipping channels in the wee hours last week, I stumbled across MSG's replay of a Jazz-Knicks game just in time to hear the announcer say, "And our score at the half: Jazz 31, Knicks 25." I kept watching long enough to see Jerry Sloan sitting on the bench, staring vacantly onto the court as Carlos Arroyo and Jarron Collins ran a pick-and-no-roll. Either he was day-dreaming about Stockton and Malone, or he was making plans to hang himself in the locker room after the game. Maybe it was a little of both.
Hey, I've been there. When the Bird Era abruptly ended in the early '90s, I was talking myself into things like, "Boy, this Dino Radja could be one helluva player." That's the Dino Syndrome. Deep down, you know it will take four-to-five years to rebuild, but you can't accept it ... so you start snowing yourself about the Dino Radjas of the world. It's a painful process, like watching your kid stumble around a Little League field and pretending that he has potential (only because you're his Dad and you need to pretend these things).
One thing's for sure: Utah will be the worst team in the West. They're brutal. A guy named "Arroyo" replaced Stockton -- I had to look up his first name on the internet. Their big off-season move was Keon Clark, who went to college in Vegas (UNLV), then played for Toronto, Sacramento and now Utah. No wonder he keeps getting busted for pot; he's probably clinically depressed. Greg Ostertag and Jarron Collins share the center position; this could be the team that yields Shaq's first 100-point game. Your go-to guys this season? Andrei Kirilenko and Matt Harpring.
What a ghastly bunch. If you could wager on "Number of total Utah wins" vs. "Number of weeks before Sloan is sobbing at his retirement press conference," which one would you take?
13. Golden State Warriors
Watching countless old basketball games on ESPN Classic and NBATV this summer, I kept noticing Golden State's lively crowds from the mid-'70s (the Barry Era) and the early-'90s (Run TMC). Is there a more underrated group of NBA fans? I attended a game there in '98 and was blown away by their passion. Yet nobody ever mentions them.
And here's why: Most of the time -- like this year -- their team stinks. I didn't mind the Van Exel-Jamison trade, only because Jamison was overrated when they gave him the max. But how can you lose Gilbert Arenas and not get anything for him? And why would you import Van Exel -- a guy who pouts more than Kelly Osbourne when he's stuck on a losing team -- and surround him with quality young players like Troy Murphy and Junior Dunleavy, not to mention someone as sketchy as Jason Richardson? Has there been a more consistently stupid front office over the last 20 years?
You could sum up their playoff hopes with three moves: They could have packaged salaries and picks to clear cap space for Arenas, who's only the next Michael Ray Richardson. But they let him go. In his place, they signed Speedy Claxton, who was the Tyronn Lue of last year's Finals -- a mediocre player who turned one good series into a multi-year contract. And they traded for Van Exel mostly because they needed to dump the expensive salaries of Danny Fortson and Jamison ... two guys who they WILLINGLY SIGNED two years before. What a cruddy franchise. Their fans deserve better.
(Of course, if Van Exel decides, "Screw it, let's have some fun," all bets are off.)
12. Los Angeles Clippers
After a Clippers practice last February, Jimmy Kimmel's show filmed a bit where Quentin Richardson rated his teammates' cars. Well, I happened to be there. Searching for participants, we approached Andre Miller, who was untying his sneakers at the time. After we explained how the piece was called "The Cars of the LA Clippers," Miller scowled and said, "Man, I ain't doin' sh*t for the Clippers!" Then he stormed off.
I mention that story for three reasons. One, it was one of the highlights of my year. If I could go back and make "Man, I ain't doin' sh*t for the Clippers!" my high school yearbook quote, I would. Second, no moment sums up last year's Clippers better than that one. And third, there were three unhappy guys on last year's team -- Miller, Lamar Odom and Michael Olowokandi -- and they're all gone.
As amazing as this sounds, Donald Sterling did the right thing by keeping the underrated Elton Brand (check out his shots-per-points and offensive boards) and Corey Maggette (coming into his own), then building around them and the other young players (none of whom is older than 25). More importantly, it's a group of good guys ... unlike last year. Sterling even hired a real coach -- Mike Dunleavy, the poor man's Rick Adelman. And best of all, they imported my man The Drobber -- Predrag Drobjnak -- almost like they were daring me to get season tickets.
(Hey, it's a likable team, no question. But I'm not dropping down ten grand for a 25-win team unless Moochie Norris is involved. Maybe next year.)
11. Seattle Sonics
Here's a team built along the lines of George Karl's old Bucks teams, but with one crucial difference: They're playing in the West. I can follow that sentence up with 20 paragraphs, or I can follow it up with four words. I'm choosing the four words. Here they are:
That's not gonna work.
10. Denver Nuggets
(Note to reader: Every year, one lottery team makes me completely irrational, and I end up throwing them into the playoffs before thinking better of it at the last minute. Needless to say, I had to re-write these next two paragraphs at about 3 a.m. Tuesday morning. Consider yourself warned.)
There's so much to love about this team. Like Jeff Bdzelik, who should have won "Coach of the Year" AND "Best Scrabble Name" honors for winning 17 games last season. Like Andre Miller's inevitable date with the Juvenation Machine. Like Marcus Camby (ready for a comeback year) and Nene banging bodies upfront. Like the fact that Nene did the Brazilian thing and changed his name to "Nene," so it's even on his jersey and stuff (it's the little things that make me happy). Like free agents Earl Boykins and Jon Barry providing sparks off the bench. Like Nikoloz Tshvhtititititititititititi putting on 30 pounds of muscle during the off-season, which should look great on him when he's sitting on the bench.
And then there's Carmelo. There are few sure things in life, but this is one of them: Joe Dumars will regret taking Darko over Carmelo. Maybe it won't hit him this season. It might not even hit him until 2007 or 2008. But it's going to happen. This is "Bowie over MJ" all over again. You can't pass up on someone who ...
A) Had the best college season in 15 years
B) Like Bernard King, was practically created by God to play small forward in the NBA
C) Could be the most engaging, likable rookie since MJ
... just because Tayshaun Freaking Prince looked good in the Philly series. Hey, I like Tayshaun -- I could see him being an above-average scorer off the bench for the next eight years. And I'm sure Darko will be fine, even if I can't imagine him being any better than Raef LaFrentz five years from now. But you can't pass up Carmelo Anthony. That's ridiculous. Every Piston fan should have a sick, queasy feeling right now, like the way you feel when you realize you left your bank card in an ATM machine ... only you'll be feeling that way for the next 12 years. Just prepare yourself now. He's that good. I feel very strongly about this.
One more thing, and only because I'm adopting the Nuggets as my West Coast DirecTV thing this season: During my 2001 Preview, I begged NBATV for a running documentary about the Nuggets (if only because head cases like Van Exel and JR Rider were involved). Well, it took two years, but they finally obliged: They follow the Nuggets in "Real Training Camp," a poor man's version of "Hard Knocks." Definitely check it out, if only for the scene where Tshvhtititititititititititi flexes his muscles in front of a giant photo of his (skinnier) self from last season. Highest of high comedy.
Of course, if I were running ESPN -- and frankly, what are they waiting for? -- we would have seen this same idea executed with ...
9. Portland Trail Blazers
Can you imagine? Behind-the-scenes in the Blazers Training Camp? I think I would have to be sedated before every episode. Remember my "How Much Would You Pay?" game? I'm not kidding ... I think I would pay five grand for ten episodes of "Blazers 420," or whatever they would end up calling it. Can't this happen? This week on an emotional episode of "Blazers 420," Ruben Patterson loses his electronic tracking bracelet in Seattle. Really, can't this happen? Why spend all the money on "Playmakers" when they could have just gotten the real thing?
(And speaking of TV networks, why hasn't E! run an E! True Hollywood Story about the Blazers yet? They're doing Jenna Jamison, Corey Haim, the cast of "Melrose Place" ... what would be better than a two-hour Blazers show, with re-enactments and everything? We could have segments on Arvydas's wife, Randolph sucker-punching Patterson, Rasheed and Stoudamire getting arrested, the fans turning on them ... who wouldn't watch this? Seriously, why am I always the one who has to suggest these things?)
As for this year's team -- you might not believe this -- they look a little dysfunctional. Roto sleeper Zack Randolph needs space down low, so they moved Rasheed to small forward (in a contract year, no less). They have Stoudamire and Jeff McInnis sharing the point (yikes). With Scottie Pippen gone, Mo Cheeks claims Bonzi Wells has emerged as the leader of the team (if you've ever seen Bonzi in action, you know how funny that statement is). Also, everyone on the bench will be unhappy, as usual. And the team's new "Player Conduct Codes" will prevent anyone from getting high after games (yeah, right). Tick ... tick ... tick ... tick ... it's a collective time bomb.
But if you're the Blazers, what else can you do? If this were a roto league, Paul Allen would have already sent out the half-joking e-mail to the other owners asking, "Hey, does anyone want to trade teams?" In real life, you're stuck with these guys. They should just go the other way and trade for Eddie Griffin. That's what I would do. Better to be notorious than irrelevant.
8. Memphis Grizzlies
(I'm sorry ... I can't resist.)
"Okay, you're Hubie Brown. You have an underrated point guard in Jason Williams, a guy who LED THE LEAGUE in assists-to-turnover ratio. He can push the ball and create scoring opportunities for his teammates. You have athletic bodies in Lorenzen Wright and Stromile Swift, two guys with TREMENDOUS upside potential who can rebound and finish. You have a seven-footer with some upside in Jake Tsakalidis. You have two guys who love doing the Little Things in James Posey and Shane Battier. You have two terrific shooters in Mike Miller and Wesley Person, guys who can EXTEND THE DEFENSE and create space for Pau Gasol. And in Gasol, you have a horse who commands double teams and scores two ways, either FACING THE BASKET or with his BACK to the basket.
"Now, you know your team is gonna come to play every ... single ... night. You're deep, you can run, and you can defend. And Gasol gives you a GENUINE OFFENSIVE OPTION at crunch-time, someone who is ready to take his game to the next level. You also know that, if you are close in February, Jerry West will make a move to PUSH YOU over the top. You aren't even thinking regular season upside anymore ... you are thinking PLAYOFF upside."
7. Minnesota Timberwolves
During a preseason feature this week, SportsCenter called these guys "T-mendous!" I love dopey graphics like that. If I worked for them, I'd be sitting around praying for Marshall Faulk and Kevin Faulk to rush for 150 yards on the same day, just so I could write the graphic "ClusterFaulk!" Anyway, I'm not sure about Team T-Mendous. They brought in two proven playoff guys (Cassell and Spree), changed centers (the Kandi Man for Rasho) and even signed Fred Hoiberg and Mark Madsen so Wally Z had buddies to hang out with.
On paper, everything makes sense ... but can you really slap NBA teams together like roto teams?
For instance, Cassell is a dominant personality who always takes too many "big moment" shots; if he didn't defer to GP last year, you think he's deferring to Troy Hudson? And where does this leave Hudson, who busted out in last year's playoffs, only to find himself coming off the bench in a contract year? Also, can Spree become a role player after being the centerpiece in New York? Will Olowokandi be happy when they never run plays for him? And will these dominant personalities mesh with Szczerbiak, who always rubs teammates the wrong way?
I'm also not buying the "KG will whip everyone into place" argument. You think Cassell and Spree will defer to someone who never won a playoff series? Please. How can this work? Too many egos, too many personalities, too much Madsen. Kevin McHale played on the '86 Celts, for God's sake -- he should have known better. Now there was a team that was T-mendous.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, as well as one of the writers for Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC. Part Two of the West Preview ("The Contenders") runs Thursday, and the Eastern Conference Preview ("The Pretenders") runs Friday.