A little over midway through the NBA season, there have been some disappointments and some surprises. Philip Maymin and Chris Monjoy of Hoopsworld.com sit down and discuss what’s happening on the East Coast and on the West Coast.
Chris Monjoy: Let’s check in on the Boston Celtics. Where does Gary Payton go, if anywhere? Is Marcus Banks really ready to step into the starting role?
Philip Maymin: GP says he wants the Minnesota Timberwolves or the Sacramento Kings. Reunion rumors say the Clippers, the Nuggets, the Sonics, or even the Bucks. A contrarian view says Utah: he and Sloan might just hit it off after years of rivalry. Houston needs him but doesn't have anything Boston wants. The New Orleans Hornets probably don't want him, and he wouldn't want to play
there, but they have Baron Davis as bait. There's a solid chance Payton plays out the year in Boston. So we've what? Ruled out the Lakers and Suns and that's it, right?
Banks is not quite ready to start. His assists-to-turnover are getting better: 6-1 in garbage time the other night! Gary has been great for him. Maybe he will be ready by next year, but right now, he just doesn't make the correct
passes. On breaks he is okay, and when he drives and dishes it usually works, but I rarely see him feed the post like you need to in the halfcourt. His defense is quite solid, even with the new handchecking rules he is still a leader in steals per 48 minutes (he was #1 last year if I
recall correctly). Defensively and scoring-wise, he can start, but in terms of running an offense, it's just not there yet. The Celtics main weakness for next 1-2 years is a solid point guard. If they decide Sam Cassell can fill that role until he expires at the end of next season, GP will be a happy man in Minny. Meanwhile, Delonte West is very, very solid on both ends of the court and will likely be getting the lion's share of backup minutes in most cases.
CM: Are the New Jersey Nets for real? Do they make a move to get a real big before the trade deadline, or stand pat and face the inevitable first round exit?
PM: The Nets have a terrific coach, some great players, and a top-notch front office. They also have a whole bunch of first round picks from the K-Mart trade. Getting Vince Carter was huge (and for chump change!). Richard Jefferson says he'll be back for the playoffs. They need a mobile big man to run the floor and defend, and another big who can shoot and pass out of the high post. They run one of the most complicated sets in the league, with a little borrowed
from lots of places (they even run a bit of triangle).
They're not going to mortgage their entire future to land a three-month rental of a big, and they're not going to get tied up in huge contracts so it's hard to find a reasonably priced, mature big. If they do, they'll grab him, but they'll probably work it by committee. Jabari Smith has been impressive and Elden Campbell is a solid vet. Nenad Krstic needs to buy a vowel but is otherwise a double-double threat every night. Jason Collins has not deteriorated much. I'd bet they're likely to be roughly where they are now in terms of talent unless they can pull off another huge upset like Vince.
CM: Do the Detroit Pistons pull it together at the end of the season, like the old Lakers did, or are we looking at
a team facing a first or second round exit? More to the point, was the Pistons' championship just a marriage based on right timing/right effort/right opponent?
PM: No, the Pistons were not a fluke last year. They were huge right off the bat after the Rasheed trade. They obliterated the previous league record of three games in a row of holding opponents to under 70 points, doing it six times with the seventh game being 71 points. They've had their Larry Brown controversy but they also had a terrific pickup in Carlos Arroyo for virtually (and if the Nets hadn't picked up Campbell off waivers, literally) nothing. It's rare for a championship team to come back with pretty much all of its pieces intact, plus upgrades. They're missing something but I'm not sure what it is, and if it'll be found in time for the playoffs. They're still a huge contender.
CM: Is there anything that can be done to save the Knicks?
PM: They mortgaged their future and flexibility for Stephon Marbury and now there are (very unconfirmed) rumors he might be available? Crazy. They probably ride out the year, hit the lotto, get Phil Jackson. They'll have some huge expiring contracts over the next two years to use as bait to get back a pick or something, but it won't be high.
CM: Will the Orlando Magic make some noise in the playoffs? After their hot start, they seem to be cooling off.
PM: I keep expecting them to have a prolonged slump but they keep surprising me and bouncing back eventually. They made two (what seem to me to be) questionable trades, Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao for Tony Battie and Cuttino Mobley for Doug & Jackie Christie, yet they are still the sixth seed, and own the fifth best record in the east. At current seedings, they would face the Celtics, who owned them this year with a 3-0 sweep.
Philip Maymin: Now let’s talk West Coast basketball.
What do you do about Minnesota? Can anything be done to salvage their contention dreams for this season?
Chris Monjoy: First off, how lucky are the Wolves that Latrell Sprewell turned down the $21 million offer, now that he’s shown his true colors? He and Sam Cassell have been playing the entire season with a 37 cent stamp affixed plainly to their forehead. Worse yet, Trenton Hassell, newly inked to a big money deal pouted when Wally Sczerbiak was put in the starting line-up. What’s interesting is it was recently reported that the friction between Kevin Garnett and Wallyworld is completely gone, because KG knows that at least Wally gives him 100% on the court, which is more than the rest of the team is giving him. They’ve been desperately trying to trade Spree or Sam, and nobody wants them. Think about it: would you want to take on Spree, with his history, and his present? Plus, he’s slowing down, anyway. With Cassell, all of a sudden, he can’t stay on the court. Neither guy is very attractive to GM’s right now. Truth of the matter is, there’s probably nothing that can be done, short of a jolt of desire and effort on the court. The big question is, what happens to Flip Sauders and Kevin McHale at the end of the season? If and when they don’t make the playoffs, does the team get blown up and rebuilt around KG again? Probably.
PM: When will the Seattle Supersonics cool off? I feel about them like I feel about Orlando. They keep surprising me.
CM: Seattle won’t cool off until the playoffs, when they go up against a tough defensive team for seven games. Right now, Seattle would face the Houston Rockets in the first round (a pretty good defensive team). If that match-up stays, there’s a good chance Seattle gets bounced in the first round, even with the good season they’ve had. Seattle is so successful because they’ve got a group of guys who are incredible shooters, and two pretty good post players in Reggie Evans and Danny Fortson. They’re basically playing Euro Basketball, and you saw what that did to the U.S. in the Olympics. However, given a chance to really gameplan against this team, a good team will come up with a good defensive scheme and contain Seattle’s shooters. If you look at the other teams, currently in the eight seeds, most of them would beat Seattle in a seven game series: San Antonio would easily defend them, Phoenix would outrun them, Dallas has been better defensively under Avery Johnson, so they could probably beat them, Memphis definitely will outdefend them in a series, and as I said, Houston could probably outdefend them, too. The only teams they would really have a shot against would be the Sacramento Kings and the L.A. Lakers (if they even stay in the playoff picture).
PM: I thought Denver was a contender but then they stunk up the joint half the year. Are they now legit under George Karl?
CM: Maybe, maybe not. While they’re certainly better under Karl, they remain a team that’s much better on paper than in practice. Kenyon Martin, as people are seeing, isn’t nearly as good without Jason Kidd feeding him. Andre Miller is decent, but he’s no Kidd. Earl Boykins shows flashes, but there’s no consistency. Marcus Camby has health problems. Nene has been hampered by health problems, and is still very raw. Carmelo Anthony’s game has actually regressed since this summer. He’s very one-dimensional, at this point. As weird as it sounds, losing Voshon Leonard in that first game against the Lakers was huge. He was their reliable outside shooter that kept defenses honest. They haven’t been able to find a good replacement. Now defenses can collapse on their bigs and not worry about getting burned from the outside. They tried to get Kareem Rush from the Lakers, but they were asking for too much. So while Denver is a better team, and they may even grab the eighth spot, they’ll get bounced easily in the first round.
PM: I haven't had a chance to really watch Sebastian Telfair. Have you? Is he everything he's cracked up to be? Will he have a good career in the NBA? When?
CM: I like to compare Telfair to Shaun Livingston of the Clippers, in that they’re very similar in how they’ve done so far in their NBA careers. Both of them bring a tangible energy and confidence every time they step on the court. That alone, catches your eye. However, both of them also make a ton of the mistakes you would expect from an 18 year old. Both of them have trouble finishing their lightening quick dribble drives, and both of them force passes. However, you can also tell they’re both going to be good (Livingston probably has a higher ceiling because he’s already a decent defender). So, yes, Telfair will be everything he’s cracked up to be under the right tutelage, and if he keeps his nose clean. However, especially in Portland, that only gives him a 50/50 chance. That’s why I think potential ballers should spend at least two years in college before they go pro.
PM: How come Sacramento is doing so well? They are amazing.
CM: Sacramento’s offense is a well-oiled machine. Against inferior opponents, or opponents not ready for them, they can run and pass you right out of the building. However, as history has shown, once they face a team that has time to properly game plan for them, they’re simply not good enough defensively to beat a good team in a seven game series.
PM: How come Houston is not a contender? What are they missing right now?
CM: Actually…they might have found part of the answer, in Bob Sura. Part of what Houston was missing was a reliable point guard as a third option, which Tyronne Lue certainly wasn’t and Bob Sura has shown he can be. Ultimately, however, Houston was banking on Tracy McGrady being Kobe Bryant and Yao Ming being Shaquille O’Neal, and neither of them are. McGrady doesn’t have the defensive presence, nasty willpower, or passing ability Kobe has (Kobe gets a bad rep as a ballhog, partly deserved, but people forget when he wants to be (ie in the playoffs), he’s one of the best passers in the league and Phil Jackson even admitted as much in his book), and Yao certainly isn’t as dominating as Shaq. Also, while their relationship was contentious, Kobe and Shaq knew each other’s games. Yao and McGrady still have no real idea how to play together. Still, they could be dangerous come playoff time, especially with Sura’s emergence as a good third option.