With the NBA All-Star break behind us, its time for some mid-season musings on Pau, Yao, the Mavs, the Cavs, and whats in store for the seasons second half and beyond.
The Grizzlies are a fun team to watch. Theyre still bad, folks, but theyre young, versatile, and genuinely exciting. The addition of Drew Gooden, Gordan Giricek, and Wesley Person has transformed a plodding, predictable team with maybe three scoring options to a club that might be led in the scoring column by any of seven different players. Pau Gasol is the real deal and will serve as the measuring stick for how close the Griz are getting to playoff contention. Hes a classic second star. Think about what Bostons Kevin McHale was to Larry Bird. Or L.A.s James Worthy to Magic Johnson. More recently, how about San Antonios David Robinson to the brilliant Tim Duncan? When the Grizzlies find a player who will shift Gasol into a supporting role Ñ and as long as Gasol accepts such a transition Ñ Jerry Wests creation will be on its way to May basketball. Where do you find such a gem? Thats why Mr. Logo is a Memphian.
The fans have spoken . . . and should be ignored. Yao Ming an All-Star starter ahead of, ahem, Shaq Daddy? Come on, people. With all due respect to the biggie-sized story that is Yao, and with a tip of the cap to the Chinese fans who took advantage of on-line voting, this was an atrocity and made the over-hyped exhibition game that much more of a joke. I was as stoked as the next guy to see the 75 Rocket slap ONeal field goal attempts hither and yon in the first Houston Laker game of the season. Its hope for the future, to say the least. So let Yao start an All-Star game . . . in the future. Shaquille ONeal remains this generations most significant force in the NBA. And he shouldnt sit behind anyone.
My proposal? Turn the All-Star selection process on its head. Instead of letting fans choose the starters (with head coaches filling the roster), allow fans to pick all twelve players for each conference. Sure, its a popularity contest. So what? (You might allow a single wild card selection for a diamond-in-the-rough on each team.) Once the roster is established, allow the coach to name his own starters. Give the honor some credibility.
Speaking of diamonds in the rough, when do you think well next see a nationally televised Cleveland Cavalier game? What an awful collection of rim-denters surrounding rookie Dajuan Wagner. Ive been excited to see the undersized Wagners scoring acumen prove as dynamic on the NBA hardcourt as it was at the University of Memphis. Im just afraid his game will remain one-dimensional as long as hes stuck in the latest incarnation of the mistake by the lake.
The Dallas Mavericks will not win the NBA title. Or even reach the Finals, for that matter. So long the leagues laughingstock, Dallas may be the most fun team to watch since Jordans Bulls. That is, when theyre playing their game and against the right competition (read: not the Kings, Lakers, or Spurs). They pass, they run, they score, they even block shots (a frontcourt of Shawn Bradley, Raef LaFrentz, and Dirk Nowitzki is more than 21 feet of swat). But the Mavericks continue to lack a toughness, a grit, a fire that every NBA champion has had. They blew a 27-point lead in the fourth quarter(!) against the Lakers. Portland beat them up inside in erasing a 12-point halftime lead on Super Bowl Sunday. They may win 65 games, but . . .
If they can get healthy by April, the Sacramento Kings will be your 2003 NBA champs. Im convinced the Lakers will rise, and may even edge San Antonio for a spot in the Western Conference finals (the de facto championship series, based on the Eastern Conferences vast inferiority). But Sacramento is so good that their second unit would make the playoffs (and might just win the East!). Most importantly, Chris Webber has turned himself into an unselfish player. The Kings start a unit of five players every bit as willing to pass the ball as shoot. Their backup point guard Ñ Bobby Jackson Ñ would start for about 20 other clubs. They have a center in Vlade Divac who doesnt know hes outmanned by ONeal or Duncan. And thats important come June. Webber is the requisite superstar . . . hell be your Finals MVP.
My mid-season All-NBA team: Jason Kidd (New Jersey) and Paul Pierce (Boston) at guard, Tracy McGrady (Orlando) and Kevin Garnett (Minnesota) at forward, and Duncan in the middle.