Taking note of the biggest concerns, surprises and emerging rivalries
Posted: Wednesday January 14, 2004 1:26PM; Updated: Thursday January 15, 2004 1:25AM
We are, believe it or not, nearing the halfway mark of the NBA regular season, though, with mid-June nowhere in sight, it feels as if we have barely left the starting line. (That is not a segue into a column about the Orlando Magic, which has indeed not left the starting line.) To disguise the length of the playoffs, the NBA pooh-bahs have sagaciously scheduled the All-Star Game for Feb. 15 in Los Angeles, by which point teams will have played 54 or 55 of their 81 regular-season games. So, now is not a bad time to offer a few random midseason thoughts.
Magic fans are more accustomed to seeing Grant Hill in street clothes than in his uniform.
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images
BIGGEST CONCERN FOR A GOOD TEAM: The continued foot problems of Shaquille O'Neal. The calf strain that has kept the Lakers' center out of action is, medical experts believe, related to lingering pain in his surgically repaired big right toe. He's expected back soon, but the Lakers have to wonder about his conditioning, and, beyond that, whether he will ever again be a force who plays more than 70 games a season. Can you offer max money to a medical risk, even though it's been proven that the Lakers need Shaq in order to win? (Note: I've decided to disqualify Kobe Bryant's legal situation from this category.)
BIGGEST CONCERN FOR A BAD TEAM:Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady. That's two for Orlando. How much can the Magic depend on Hill's comeback? (Yes, he's going to try another one.) And how long is McGrady going to remain interested if it becomes any more apparent that this is a team heading for a 20-win season?
MOST UNDERACHIEVING TEAM: Dallas Mavericks. Don't take my word for it, take Dirk Nowitzki's. "Absolutely, we are underachieving," says the Mavs' power forward. "If you look at our lineup, there is no way we should lose some of the games we have lost. We are not playing as a team." It's not that the Mavs are bad (and they can still be entertaining), but they are not nearly as good as they should be. Yes, losing a gutsy player like Nick Van Exel was bound to have an effect, but getting the twin 'Twans, Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison, should have more than mitigated the point guard's departure. Still, this is a team capable of catching fire, and the plan to load up with offensive weapons could work in the playoffs ... if Dallas makes the playoffs.
MOST UNDERACHIEVING PLAYER:Steve Francis. By definition, only a good player can underachieve, which is why my choice is the Houston Rockets' point guard. He can still be brilliant, but on too many nights this season his shot has been awful, accounting for his career-low field goal percentage of .393 (as of Monday's games).
MOST SURPRISING TEAM: Denver Nuggets. There are several candidates (the Utah Jazz, the Memphis Grizzlies, even the rampaging Minnesota Timberwolves), but if the playoffs began today the Nugs would be the West's fifth seed. That is simply incredible. Even with the addition of The Syracuse Kid, does Denver's top six of Carmelo Anthony, Voshon Lenard, Nene Hilario, Marcus Camby, Andre Miller and Earl Boykins sound that formidable? This team won 17 games last season, tied for last in the league with Cleveland, and the Cavs haven't improved nearly as much (in a weak conference) with LeBron James in the same role as 'Melo. Jeff Bzdelik is the obvious frontrunner for Coach of the Year.
MOST SURPRISING PLAYER: No, it's not Zach Randolph of the Portland Trail Blazers, who, while averaging an impressive 21.9 points and 10 rebounds per game, wouldn't know an assist if one hit him upside the head. It's Utah's Andrei Kirilenko. There's no official category for this statistic, but on two occasions this season he recorded at least five points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks in a game. And he is probably the best on-the-ball defender in the conference, the West's version of Ron Artest. The problem is, Kirilenko's going to have to be even better since the Jazz's leading scorer, Matt Harpring, will have knee surgery Friday and miss the rest of the season.
BEST EMERGING RIVALRY: Believe it or not, we can turn to the Eastern Conference for this. There is still nothing like the insults the Lakers and Kings can throw at each other, but the Indiana Pacers and New Orleans Hornets have shown a real proclivity for hating each other, which is exactly what the tepid East needs. These are two of the better teams in the conference, and their last meeting (on Jan. 3) produced a melee between the Pacers' Al Harrington and the Hornets' George Lynch and Jamaal Magloire, the latter an ever-ready combatant whose tenacity and tongue irritates many an opponent.
STRANGEST PLAYER-EXEC RELATIONSHIP:Ron Artest and Larry Bird in Indiana. There's little doubt the Pacers prez of hoop operations can't abide some of Artest's behavior, particularly his decision to sleep in after being benched by coach Rick Carlisle for the second half of a game several weeks ago. But I have to think that Bird, a crotchety competitor if ever there was one, finds much to like in Artest's combative spirit. I also believe that Isiah Thomas would love to have Artest in New York, the Knicks having passed him up the 1999 draft when a brokenhearted Artest wanted to play for his hometown team. Bird would never deal Artest to New York and risk the chance that such a move would come back to haunt him.
MIDSEASON MVPs:Baron Davis of New Orleans in the East and Kevin Garnett of Minnesota in the West. I'm not saying either player will get the nod at season's end but they are the clear choices at this point.
BEST THING THAT COULD HAPPEN: That Bobbye Sloan, wife of Utah Jazz coach Jerry, beats the pancreatic cancer she is fighting. The coach himself will tell you that it takes a remarkable woman to stand by the side of such an irascible and competitive character for so many years.
Ten All-Stars If I Were Picking Right Now (in no particular order)
EAST: Davis, New Jersey's Jason Kidd, Boston's Paul Pierce, McGrady, Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal, Detroit's Ben Wallace, Toronto's Vince Carter, Philadelphia's Allen Iverson, Milwaukee's Michael Redd and Cleveland's James.
WEST: Garnett, Sacramento's Peja Stojakovic, San Antonio's Tim Duncan, Randolph, Kirilenko, L.A. Clippers' Corey Maggette, Dallas' Walker, Denver's Anthony, Memphis' Pau Gasol and Houston's Yao Ming. Because of injuries, I'm going to hold off on the Lakers' Bryant and O'Neal; if their injuries (shoulder and calf) continue, they will miss the All-Star Game, even if they are back in the L.A. lineup by then.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jack McCallum covers the NBA for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.