Tag:Raja Bell
Posted on: September 29, 2009 2:19 pm
Edited on: May 3, 2010 2:45 am
 

NBA 2009-2010 Southeast Division Preview

The NBA: where amazing happens.  Don’t believe me?  Well then you get watch the propaganda spewed out by David Stern with his commercials during the NBA Playoffs.  Or, if you want more concrete evidence, watch the Orlando Magic’s meteoric rise to the NBA Finals last season.  Given no credit during preseason predictions last season, the Magic went from being an “above average” team to now being the defending Eastern Conference Champion.  But the Magic did not make it without problems.  The credibility of their coach came into question at the first quotable reference from Shaquille O’Neal.  The offensive game of Dwight Howard was critiqued at every level.  Hedo Turkoglu was criticized, loved, and then all but disowned by the Magic fan base and organization.  So even though the Magic are the defending division and conference champion, they enter this year with new players, a new mentality but with the same goal as everyone in this division: win the NBA Championship.

The southeast division isn’t the most star studded division to take the court but they’re a solid bunch all with hopes of duplicating Orlando’s success from last season.  Miami went from winning 15 games, to riding Dwyane Wade back to the postseason last year.  Washington, playing all of last year without Gilbert Arenas, will look to do the same thing this season.  Meanwhile, a team like Atlanta hopes to take the big step forward that Orlando took last season while a team like Charlotte is full of talent, but still trying to find its identity in hopes of making the first postseason appearance in franchise history. 

With new players, returning players and everything in between, this division has a whole new feel to it.  However, as solid as it is, it’s not crowded at the top.  Orlando enters this season as the team to beat in this division but you have four hungry and capable teams rounding out the division.  From two to five, the division is really tight and could really fluctuate.  There should be no doubt, however,  that this is Orlando’s division to lose. 

This is how I predict the Southeast Division will turn out for the 2009-2010 season.

1. Orlando Magic – Last season’s run for Orlando was a sight to behold.  Dwight Howard captured hearts and accolades with his performance all year and is now established as the unquestioned best center in the league.  Things looked bleak as far as a run in the playoffs was concerned when Jameer Nelson was lost for the season.  But the Magic pulled off a terrific trade for Rafer Alston and made the NBA Finals.  Stan Van Gundy was mentioned as one of the best coaches in the NBA, but when he got into a public exchange of words with Shaquille O’Neal, he was accused of being a “master of panic” and immediately Van Gundy was under intense scrutiny.  Every mistake, every play was overly scrutinized in the postseason and every time that Van Gundy’s Magic lost a game, he was immediately blamed for it.  Even Marcin Gortat, the backup center for the team, came out and criticized the coach in a newspaper published in his native country during the postseason.  Somehow, Van Gundy was still able to rally his troops to upset victories in series against the defending champion Boston Celtics and the indestructible Cleveland Cavaliers before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers (another loss he was blamed for).

The Magic enter this season without Hedo Turkoglu, who has been the big floor manager for them for both seasons of the Van Gundy regime.  Once he left for the money in Toronto, the Magic jettisoned the often criticized Rafer Alston, backup big man Tony Battie and promising rookie Courtney Lee to bring in Florida native Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson.  This gives the Magic a new dimension that Turkoglu really couldn’t bring and that’s athleticism.  Now, not only will the team be able to shoot the long distance shot, they can also run the floor better and really push it out in transition.  A healthy Jameer Nelson and the NBA return of Jason Williams, signed to be a backup here in Orlando, will also help matters in terms of pushing the tempo.  The Magic are blessed with solid depth at every position across the board and should use that to their advantage all season long.  With the new addition of Matt Barnes, they can start he or Mickael Pietrus at the three and Vince Carter at the two.  Barnes and Pietrus both give the Magic incredible defensive effort and three point shooting, so either can be used for different matchups.  With big men like Brandon Bass and Marcin Gortat on the bench, the Magic are one of the few teams that has premium big men at their disposal.  This may help Rashard Lewis avoid having to play bigger men for extended minutes during the game. 

All in all, the Magic enter this season with a swagger that was missing going into last season’s Eastern Conference Champion team.  Time will tell if the addition of Vince Carter is an upgrade over Hedo Turkoglu or if the chemistry will be missing with Turkoglu gone.  But there’s no denying that the talent is there, the experience is there and the mentality is there.  Now they just need to take that last step to get the job done.


2. 
Atlanta Hawks – Pigs may not be able to fly.  Dogs may not able to speak English and Tony Romo may not be able to win a playoff game.  But another miracle is taking place right before our eyes, consistency is residing in the Atlanta Hawks franchise.  Not that they hadn’t been consistent before; if you include consecutive last place finishes consistency.  But with Mike Woodson entering his fifth year at the head coaching spot and with the Hawks fresh off not only their second straight postseason appearance but their first playoff series victory in ten years, the Hawks display promise, direction and, dare I say it, consistency.  The acquisition of Joe Johnson has a lot to do with that, as he’s given the Hawks a solid first option for the last four seasons and has stepped up continuously when the team has needed it.  The acquisition of Mike Bibby also has done a lot, as it’s given the Hawks leadership and experience when they had none of it outside of Johnson prior to Bibby arriving.  But, when you show promise expectations arrive, and now it’s time for the Hawks to start showing that they can take a new step in the right direction.  Al Horford really proved to be key for the Hawks last year, and there’s no doubt that his injury played a big factor in why the Hawks were so outmatched against Cleveland in the Semifinals.  He needs to stay healthy and continue to improve his game as the Hawks are a much better team when he’s being assertive and looking for possessions.  The Hawks also missed Marvin William in the postseason, as the guard and forward was beginning to play a huge role in the team’s development.  But his injury also derailed the team’s momentum. 

Josh Smith enters the season with no contract problems, no questions about his game, this is going to be his team sometime in the near future.  He’s still prone to taking too many jump shots, but Smith has really evolved his game the last few seasons and stepped up his performance in the postseason.  That was crucial to the Hawks winning that playoff series against Miami.    Coming off the bench, the Hawks have two solid big men in Zaza Pachulia and free agent signee Joe Smith.  Gone is Flip Murray from last season’s squad, but they upgraded the sixth man-combo guard role with the acquisition of Jamal Crawford.  Crawford, if he openly accepts this diminished role, should flourish being the first option off the bench with no other assignment other than to score.  He and Maurice Evans are a solid offensive duo on any squad and really give the Hawks options past the starting five. 

It’s hard to tell if any further progression will be made in Atlanta this season, but the seeds are in place for this team to grow and evolve.  Staying healthy and staying hungry are huge keys for the team and how they start the season will speak wonders about what should be on the horizon in Atlanta.


3. 
Washington Wizards – Last season was disastrous in our nation’s capital.  Washington had injuries to everyone on the roster outside of Antawn Jamison, got their coach fired and watched an abysmal season get worse until it mercifully ended with 63 losses.  But there’s a new feeling of refreshment in Washington and it has everything to do with players on the team getting healthy, and not the turnover from last season’s squad.  Gilbert Arenas has played all of 15 games the last two seasons and his scoring and ability to give the team options in the clutch was sorely missed last season.  He had another knee surgery after signing his big free agent contract last offseason, but the Wizards seem determined to give him, Caron Butler and Jamison one more run at a championship.  The biggest setback to this is that the Wizards never showed any kind of elite potential when all three were on the court together in the first place, and Butler, himself, has missed an average of 19 games a year since arriving to Washington.  But the Wizards are still optimistic and the arrival of Flip Saunders should help fuel that optimism.

Although his reputation has taken a beating, Flip Saunders really has shown an ability to exceed during the regular season, something the Wizards must first do before approaching any talks of winning a championship.  He has a sound feel for the game on the offensive side of the ball and should be able to find a way to maximize the talent on the roster.  Having options like Randy Foye and Mike Miller on the bench should only help matters in Washington, as their thin bench last year became almost laughable.  Nick Young will either settle into the starting two guard role or will go back to the bench this year, something that will also help with the depth of this squad.  Brendan Haywood also is returning from injury this year for Washington, and he and newly acquired Fabricio Oberto give the Wizards solid big man depth as well. 

The pieces are in place in Washington for another postseason run by the Wizards.  Healthier players, new players and a new coach have helped ease the memory of last season’s disaster.  The optimism is legit, as the prospects of a playoff appearance are good for the Wizards.  But talks of a championship, or a run at the Finals, seem a bit premature.  Especially with all the growing they’ll have to do this year.
 


4. 
Miami Heat – It’s amazing, but it seems so long ago that Shaquille O’Neal was manning down the center position in Miami and the Heat were winning championships.  Amazingly, it’s only been three seasons.  But the Heat hit bottom hard when the injury bug bit start guard Dwyane Wade and they seemed to be a franchise heading nowhere in a hurry.  Wade stayed healthy last season, though, and followed up his spectacular play in the Summer Olympics with an MVP-Caliber season and leading the Heat to a postseason appearance.  The biggest problem in Miami, though, was that Wade seemed to be doing it all by himself.  Michael Beasley took a long time to develop and then crumbled this offseason.  Mario Chalmers was solid all season as a starting point guard, even as a second round rookie, but still heard rumors about being replaced all offseason.  Even a flirting session with free agent Allen Iverson didn’t seem to do much to give Wade hope that help was on the horizon, so it’s hard to imagine the Heat believing they can be any better than they were last season. 

One reason for optimism is that Wade is in the prime of his career and all the young players (and head coaches) on the team are a year older.  Last season’s run at the playoffs did a lot for the franchise but they did nothing to truly expand on it.  Jermaine O’Neal is still going to be the team’s starting center and will have his first full year with Miami while doing it.  But his inconsistent play and continued battle with injuries don’t do much to ensure he’ll be there for the entire ride.  And instead of improving the backup big men on the team, the Heat opted to resign both Joel Anthony and Jamaal Magloire.  Daequan Cook and Chris Quinn give the team three point shooters off the bench and Udonis Haslem continues to man down the power forward position for this squad, but there wasn’t much excitement last year even during the team’s postseason push.  All of the attention and praise went to Dwyane Wade and his MVP Chase.

If the Heat are to take any steps forward, the maturation process with Chalmers and Michael Beasley will really have to take fruition.  Or else they’ll be stuck in the middle of the pack just as they were last year.  Having to do everything by himself could cause Wade to burn out and that could only spell doom for Miami.


5. 
Charlotte Bobcats – The Charlotte Bobcats are a hard team to figure out.  They have one of the greatest coaches in NBA history on the bench.  They have the best player to play the game as an executive and talent scout, and they have a solid bunch of role players, veterans and young players on the squad to really make up a solid team.  However, there just seems to be no reason for excitement in Charlotte.  The environment there didn’t change much this offseason when the Bobcats traded Emeka Okafor to the Hornets for Tyson Chandler.  Chandler has a long history of injuries and inconsistent play, although he’s just as good as Okafor at the center position.  If he can stay healthy, it will really do wonders for this squad and it’s ability to run the floor.  But chances are he won’t be able to do that.  In order to make a run at the postseason, the Bobcats acquired veteran role players Raja Bells, Boris Diaw, Vladimir Radmonovic, and DeSagana Diop.  But it didn’t pay off as the team narrowly missed the postseason and is now stuck with bloated contracts from all four players. 

They recently brought back Raymond Felton, who watched his job go to rookie guard D.J. Augustin.  Augustin did a lot off the bench for the Bobcats before fading down the stretch last season.  With some proper conditioning, he can really give the Bobcats hope to be that point guard of the future.  Gerald Wallace looks to have a bounce back season after struggling with injuries all of last season.  With Okafor gone, Wallace is now the only original Bobcat on the squad and is the unquestioned leader of the team.  If he can stay healthy it’d do wonders for the team on the court and in the locker room.  The addition of Ronald Murray will do a lot of the Bobcats as he can be the team’s sixth man and help alleviate some of the pressure off of Augustin coming off of the bench.  Nazr Mohammed teams up with Diop to combine a solid big man trio in Charlotte giving them pretty good depth at basically every position.

It’s hard to explain the problems in Charlotte.  Looking at the roster, there may not be any.  But the organization still has a long way to go in terms of creating a positive environment that players will want to compete in, and believe they can win in.  That’s on the horizon but not quite there in Charlotte. 

Posted on: January 23, 2009 4:21 pm
Edited on: January 23, 2009 6:17 pm
 

The Rise and Fall of the Phoenix Suns (Part 2)

Entering 2007-2008, the spirit and excitement surrounding Phoenix had diminished as quickly as had been experienced in quite some time.  This was not the look of a hungry team, aspiring to finally get over that hump and gain championship glory.  Instead it was a beaten team, with spirits down and excuses aplenty.  Mike D'Antoni's position as coach of that luck deprived team was not enviable.  As a coach, there's only so many ways you can encourage your team to continue to play outside of their capabilities as they continue to receive short hand after short hand.  This was a city and fan base starved for championship success and the Suns represented their best opportunity at achieving that.  But after falling short three successive seasons, a lot of the blame went towards D'Antoni's style and basketball philosophy.

Who knows whether the fast break, 7 seconds or less style offense will ever be the catalyst for a team looking to gain the Larry O'Brien Trophy?  Mike D'Antoni took a franchise with no direction and made it one of the most successful and exciting teams since the days of the Lakers three-peat.  It was a team that played a style everyone who has played basketball could admire.  But the fact that the anti-Suns, the San Antonio Spurs, had defeated the Suns in two out of the three postseasons where D'Antoni was at the helm created a lot of skepticism surrounding the system.  Steve Nash had won two MVP awards and put up astounding numbers as a point guard, but was contiuously exposed by Tony Parker against the Spurs and with his age coming into question, many people wondered how much longer D'Antoni could play Nash heavy minutes, run that style of offense and still have likely aspirations to win a championship.  It was believed that the window was closing on D'Antoni's team and panic was setting in.  To try and win a championship, owner Robert Sarver took D'Antoni out of control of the front office and hired a former Spur, five time NBA Champion Steve Kerr, to run the franchise.

Kerr and D'Antoni immediately butted heads on how they believed the team was supposed to operate.  Kerr wanted to stress size, a certain style of play and an emphasis on defense that seemed to be lacking in D'Antoni's style.  Shawn Marion, although he continuously put up fantastic numbers in D'Antoni's system, repeatedly went to the press about how unhappy he was in Phoenix and as a result brought down the morale of the squad.  As if the team had not yet recovered from the demoralizing loss to the Spurs, a locker room morale was so dangerously low that mediocrity seemed to be creeping back into the Phoenix franchise.  The Suns, at the time of early February, were a 34-14 team but did not maintain that excitement and emotion that they possesed for the previous three seasons.  So Steve Kerr traded the locker room question mark in Shawn Marion and brought in the player least fit for D'Antoni's system, former NBA MVP and three time champion Shaquille O'Neal

In his prime, Shaquille O'Neal was quite possibly the most dominant player in the NBA's history.  He made his debut in the league at the time of the Patrick Ewing's, David Robinson's, and Hakeem Olajuwon's of the league and then carried that domination into the 21st century as one of the only true centers left in the league.  His charisma, humor and overall talent left him as one of the most embracable and exciting players in the NBA's history.  Shaq arriving brought a lot of questions, but ultimately brought a renewed excitement to the team.  He immediately promised a championship ring, and promised that his age (35 years old) and lack of mobility (how agile could someone 7'1" and 325 pounds be) would not prevent Phoenix from continuing their style of play and that they could still gain a championship with him being the elephant in the room (no pun intended).  Allowing Amar'e Stoudemire to move to power forward, it created a more realistic approach to the lineup for Phoenix but greatly altered their effectiveness on the offensive side of the ball.  Many said this was a move for the postseason, so that they could counter the size of the Lakers and Spurs and that only then could we truly rate the move for Steve Kerr.  The team went 18-11 with O'Neal in the lineup to finish the season and finished with 55 wins and the sixth seed in the NBA Western Conference.  The team that held the 3rd seed: the San Antonio Spurs.

The excitement surrounding the Suns matchup with their bitter rivals, the team that they acquired Shaquille O'Neal to beat, was quickly lost when the Suns were demoralized in a classic game 1 in San Antonio.  With the Suns maintaining a lead for the majority of the game, a big shot by Michael Finley and a monster game by Tim Duncan helped the Spurs shock the Suns in double overtime and quickly let the air out of the Phoenix Suns sail.  The Suns fought hard but could not recover from the demoralizing game 1, and quickly bowed out in 5 games.  An offseason of questions awaited.

Mike D'Antoni immediately voiced his displeasure with Steve Kerr and was given the opportunity to find a new job, which he found with the New York Knicks.  Steve Kerry signed players such as Matt Barnes and a new head coach in Terry Porter looking to quickly shape the mentality and construction of this unit into more of a realistic lineup.  It brought conventionality, but lacked excitement.  To date, Steve Nash is having his worst year as a Phoenix Sun, players are unhappy with Terry Porter's approach and they boast a 23-17 record.

There are many reasons as to why the Phoenix Suns crashed as hard as they had risen in Arizona.  Management could be the first place to point at, with their continuous questionable decisions.  Bryan Colangelo left to run the team in Toronto, but left behind huge salary issues for coach Mike D'Antoni to deal with before Kerr's arrival.  Players like Nate Robinson and Luol Deng were drafted by Phoenix, but quickly shipped out to create cap flexibility.  Nate Robinson was traded with Quentin Richardson for Kurt Thomas, the player supposed to give the team a defensive inside presence.  Thomas fit in greatly with the Suns and performed admirably against Duncan in the 2007 Conference Semifinals, but the team could no longer afford him and he was shipped to the then Seattle Supersonics for a 2nd Round draft pick and 8 million dollar trade exception.  Huge contracts were given to Boris Diaw, who vastly underachieved when Stoudemire returned to the lineup and to Leandro Barbosa, who never took his game to that next level.  They gave a huge contract to Stoudemire, who was undergoing career threatening arthroscopic knee surgery and let the draft rights to Luol Deng go for a first round draft pick and cash considerations.  Rajon Rondo, the point guard for the NBA Champion Boston Celtics was also a draft pick by the Phoenix Suns but was also traded for a first round draft pick and cash.  The Shaqille O'Neal trade could be involved here, but it wasn't really a bad trade,  Just a mispalced player in D'Antoni's system.  O'Neal brought new excitement to a depressed fan base and although he did not deliver, his effort and dedication has been tremendous in Phoenix and he should not be blamed for the team's decline.  When you focus so much on free agency, it disallows a team to grow and also be secure in their future.  When the players you have rapidly show their age, you have no other options and those questionable decisions that were made for the immediate "now" are why the team has such a questionable future.

For all that D'Antoni revolutionized in basketball, his coaching and coaching related decisions were brought into question continously in the postseason.  When the team needed to get a crucial stop in a playoff environment, the team continuously failed to follow through and as a result focussed entirely on effeciency on the offensive side.  In an 82 game season, that begins to wear on a team looking to maintain stability and win a championship.  Not only does the system wear on the players, heavy minutes contribute to that.  D'Antoni was notorious for not playing his bench players and as a result his teams would show decline in the postseason and also would remove themselves from almost any offseason activity to maintain legs for the regular season.  D'Antoni's style of play was exciting, but watching his team fail brings to question whether that style of offense could ever win.  As a result, we've seen a quick flirtation with the system dissapear this season with scoring coming back down after the way the Suns and Golden State Warriors failed.

Also brouht into question for the Phoenix Suns was their psychological strength.  Crushing blows to the team at the hands of Amar'e Stoudemire's knee and also crushing losses to the San Antonio Spurs always seemed to give this team an excuse when they lost.  When you become comfortable with losing it creates an environment that nobody wants to be associated with.  The Phoenix Suns wanted to win, and losing undoubtedly bothered them, but they also were quick to point at other factors as to why they lost.  As a result, accountability was absent in Phoenix and the team no longer was responsible for their performance on the court.  D'Antoni's emotional state on the sidelines greatly affected this as the Suns became so paranoid, that every single call that went against them turned into reason for panic amongst the fan base and more crucially, the players.  Shawn Marion's constant bickering about his role in the offense and lack of appreciation also created distractions for a team with bigger goals in mind than Marion's statistics.  His lack of maturity in the team's crucial minutes was a huge factor in why the team declined in the 2007-2008 season and why they were forced to make the Shaquille O'Neal trade.

Amar'e Stoudemire's injury could be the sole reason for the Suns peaking so early and falling so quickly.  In the 2004-2005 season, Phoenix relied heavily on Stoudemire at the center position and he responded with career numbers and fantastic dunks not seen or recognized by anyone up until that time.  Given that he was only 21, many people saw a bright future ahead for Stoudemire.  A knee injury took him out for the Suns surprising (and probably most successful) 2005-2006 campaign but his return brought hope that he was the missing piece in that trademark year for D'Antoni and Phoenix.  Stoudemire returned with a solid 2006-2007 season, averaging over 20 points a game and displaying a brand new, highly effective 18 foot jump shot.  Stoudemire, though, has seemingly reached his potential too early.  The injury is probably the biggest reason for that, but his best season is still 2004-2005, and now, three full years after that injury, he still lacks the explosiveness that made him so effective and the mystique and fear some felt when matching up with him is gone.  He's become a finesse player, also a locker room distraction, and looks destined to be this generation's Derrick Coleman, a player with so much untapped potential who will get by in his career simply with talent.

Age is another huge factor as to why Phoenix so rapidly declined.  Last season, acquiring the way past his prime Shaquille O'Neal added to a team already full of players in their 30's, including crucial pieces such as Steve Nash, Grant Hill, and Raja Bell.  Their reliance on players so deep into their careers undoubtedly contributed to the team's lack of energy in certain playoff games and, coupled with the heavy minutes, was reason for rapid decline in D'Antoni's system. 

But all things considered, it's safe to say the San Antonio Spurs are solely responsible for the decline of the Phoenix Suns.  Their style of play won two championships during D'Antoni's reign in Phoenix and three out of the four seasons that D'Antoni was in charge of Phoenix, the Spurs eleminated the Suns from the postseason.  Tim Duncan and company continuously had answers for all offensive ideas and strategies that D'Antoni could possibly fathom and gave fans reason to focus on how to beat the Spurs, instead of how to win games on their own. 

It remains in question whether D'Antoni will ever win a championship, although he's gotten the Knicks to overachieve midway through this season.  But there's no doubt that his contributions to the Phoenix franchise will forever be remebered by fans and players alike as he was able to bring excitement back to basketball and also get the Suns to the most successful period of their franchise.  A team's desparate desire for a championship can bring unecessary criticism when frustration sets in.  The team's continued lack of toughness in critical situations and constant short handing at the hands of the league and fate provided plenty of reasons for frustration amongst a loyal fan base.  This set in the panic moves such as bringing Steve Kerr in and forcing D'Antoni to leave despite his amazing winning percentage.  It was nice to admire and watch during the time when it took place, but also creates a sad environment for Phoenix fans.  The closest they've gotten to a championship since Charles Barkley's stay in Phoenix was ended by many factors and they remain a spectacle and topic of discussion for fans around the league.  Phoenix may not be able to regain the success D'Antoni had the team become accustomed to but there will be success in Phoenix eventually, they always find a way to sustain a fine level of play in that franchise.  But with Stoudemire's sudden lack of presence and with the team boasting players ready to turn a new leaf in their careers the team's future is blurred.  Steve Kerr, brought in to help the team win a championship, is already on the hotseat and questions remain about whether he will be the guy at the helm to do the job in Phoenix.

Regardless of who's in charge, it's safe to say the D'Antoni era brought entertainment, joy and excitement to a franchise that had no direction.  But as quickly as it happened, it left in those 2007 conference semifinals.  The team flamed out and for that reason remain a fascinating story of how a team can quickly ascend, but how contributiong factors could make it increasingly difficult to maintain success in a system such as D'Antoni's.

Posted on: January 23, 2009 4:18 pm
Edited on: January 23, 2009 6:20 pm
 

The Rise And Fall of the Phoenix Suns (Part 1)

For four years, few teams matched the excitement and mystique that surrounded when the Phoenix Suns were set to appear in a basketball game.  Led by the innovative Mike D'Antoni and highly successful Steve Nash, the Suns resurrected a moribound franchise and turned the NBA upside down in the process.  With quick cuts, fantastic slams around the basket, a plethora of three point baskets and with absolutely no defense (which in turn allows the other team to follow through with all of those aforementioned offensive attractions) the Phoenix Suns became the team for the casual NBA fan, and the team that most of us wanted to watch when we felt like being assured entertaining basketball.  But funny things happen when you tinker with the system and bring things that people are not used to to the forefront.  When you introduce basketball's version of the spread offense, success can be attained but only when you bring championships are your efforts truly respected.  Many people passed off D'Antoni's philosophy on basketball and said that it could not win championships.  That same criticism turned the greatest period in Phoenix Suns basketball upside down, and seemingly prolonged the franchise's now 40 year history. 

It all started with a trade back in 2001, when the Suns traded future hall of fame point guard Jason Kidd for the insanely talented Stephon Marbury.  This trade was supposed to be a nice swap of talented guards which would result in hardly a change for either squad.  Instead, the Suns went to the lottery and the Nets went to the NBA finals.  Stephon Marbury's frustrating first season in Phoenix resulted in a trip to the lottery for the Suns, which resulted in Amar'e Stoudemire being added to the team.  With Stoudemire garnering rookie of the year honors and the team's quiet acquisition of guard Joe Johnson from the Boston Celtics, the Suns sneaked into the playoffs with the 8th seed and surprised the top ranked San Antonio Spurs in game 1 of their first round matchup.  Shortly thereafter, though, the Spurs would emerge victorious and things took a turn for the better; eventually.

The 2003-2004 season started off with mediocre expectations for a seemingly dirrectionless Phoenix franchise.  Then in midseason, amidst the team's struggles and inability to show any immediate progress, owner Robert Sarver steamheaded a complete reconstruction of the Suns.  Both Jerry and Brian Colangelo went to work on putting the pieces in place for this team to fully take off.  Frank Johnson was removed from the head coaching position and assistant coach and longtime European league coach Mike D'Antoni would be given the reigns.  Also, in what would headstart a completely opposite direction for the two franchises, the Suns sent Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway to the New York Knicks for five players who would not finish the season as Phoenix Suns players in addition to two first round draft selections.  Although the Knicks made the playoffs that season, nobody could have predicted the decline that would soon follow Stephon Marbury's fourth franchise.  Then again, nobody could have predicted the ascension that awaited in Arizona.

In the offseason, the Suns quickly gave Mike D'Antoni a vote of confidence despite his 21-40 record finishing the season as Phoenix's head coach.  The team's late surge, which was spurred by guard Joe Johnson, rookie guard Leandro Barbosa and now second year forward Amar'e Stoudemire could have been a huge factor in why D'Antoni was given a second chance.  Once free agency started, the Suns made a big splash by signing free agent point guard Steve Nash and free agent forward Quentin Richardson.  D'Antoni would move Stoudemire to center and insert forward Shawn Marion at the power forward position (a move Marion continuously complained about despite putting up the best numbers of his career) giving the team a ridiculously small lineup.  What ensured was pure, utter, fast break basketball.

Steve Nash spearheaded a revolutionary style of play as the Suns quickly brought offense back to the forefront in the NBA.  Gone where the days of walking a ball upcourt while your seven foot center could set up under the basket.  With quick, athletic big men like Stoudemire and Marion and with an intelligent and talented point guard like Steve Nash leading the way, the Suns went on to average 110.4 points per game (although giving up 103.3 PPG) and posted an NBA best 62-20 record.  Steve Nash shocked all by winning the NBA MVP award while D'Antoni and Colangelo were given the coach and executive of the year awards respectively.  In the playoffs, guard Joe Johnson would succumb to an eye injury and the Suns would sorely miss his leadership and skillset.  A sound defeat of the Memphis Grizzlies and a trouncing of the Dallas Mavericks set the Suns up with who would become the main reason for the Suns eventual decline: the San Antonio Spurs.

The San Antonio Spurs are basically the anti-Phoenix Sun.  They don't dazzle you with fantastic athleticism or bombard you with a multitude of points, they systematically and soudnly defeat their opponents by way of Tim Duncan and a group of role players that are fine performing their tasks for the sake of the greater good: a Larry O'Brien Trophy.  The Spurs two centers that year, Nazr Mohammed and Rasho Nesterovic, would probably not even get a sniff from D'Antoni yet wound up becoming productive players on championship teams.  Was D'Antoni's emphasis on speed and offense neglecting all that you were tought growing up?  Is a great offense truly better than a great defense?  Can you win scoring 110 points instead of focusing on holding your opponents below 90?  These all came to a head in this true battle of wits.

Amar'e Stoudemire would experience a coming out party against the Spurs, as San Antonio had no answer for the young player on his way to averages totaling over 30 PPG in the series.  But the Spurs, with two championship trophies already to their credit, would be able to answer every trick Phoenix tried.  Bruce Bowen was there to contain Steve Nash's explosiveness, Tony Parker was there to expose Nash's glaring defensive deffeciences, Tim Duncan was there to take care of Stoudemire's similar weaknesses, and the Spurs took the Suns out in 5 games, bringing end to the fantastic first season in the D'Antoni era. 

Many people did not know what to expect for an encore in Phoenix.  The gimmick offense was sure to be stopped when teams were given ample time to prepare for it.  Expectations can always ruin a team not used to winning, and Joe Johnson and Amar'e Stoudemire would be gone, Johnson in a trade to the Atlanta Hawks and Stoudemire due to knee surgery.  The Joe Johnson trade brought Boris Diaw, an afterthought in many instances and then the Suns shipped Quentin Richardson and the draft rights to Nate Robinson to New York for a center in Kurt Thomas that they believed would be able to counter Tim Duncan's effectiveness in a seven game series.  The team also obtained guard Raja Bell, a player praised for his on the ball defensive prowress and three point effeciency.  But the sky was not the limit this season, as, without Stoudemire, many expected the Suns to fail.

Stoudemire's absence meant wonderful things for Shawn Marion who turned in the best year of his career.  Boris Diaw proved out to be a fantastic find by the Colangelo's, winning the NBA most improved player of the year award, and Steve Nash went on to win his second consecutive NBA MVP award after helping lead the Suns to a 54-28 record in the regular season.  But the signs of the eventual decline already started to take shape.  Bryan Colangelo was said to have major conflicts with owner Robert Sarver and bolted to take the General Manager position with the Toronto Raptors.  Stoudemire received heavy criticism from the organization when he spent a majority of the season away from the squad while tending to his knee.  And although the team managed to avoid the Spurs in the postseason, draining seven game series with both the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers took alout of Phoenix, as they simply had nothing left by the time they met the Dirk Nowitzki led Mavericks in a second consecutive Western Conference Finals.

The 2006-2007 season brought about great expectations for the Phoenix squad.  With Boris Diaw teaming with Leandro Barbosa on the bench, the Suns were supposed to finally have that deep squad that would allow for D'Antoni to stray from his favored 7-man rotations and still provide the same innovative offensive schemes that had been prominent the previous two seasons.  Phoenix struggled with chemistry some, including Stoudemire back into the lineup and it showed.  The team, though, rebounded quickly to the tune of 61 victories and a No. 2 seed in the playoffs.

Elsewhere in the NBA, the 67 victory Dallas Mavericks had been upset by the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs in what would be largely noted as the greatest upset in playoff history, and the Utah Jazz would celebrate their return to the playoffs after a three year absence with a victory over the Houston Rockets, giving the Suns home court advantage, now, throughout the playoffs and seemingly the drivers seat to an elusive championship.  After the Suns quickly dispatched of the Lakers for a second consecutive season, they saw themselves standing opposite the 3rd seeded San Antonio Spurs, and a fantastic conference semifinals ensued. 

Bruce Bowen and Tony Parker quickly asserted physiciality into the already deeply rooted rivalry with the Spurs, as Steve Nash left game 1 with a bloodied nose recieved from Parker and could not finish the game, as the Spurs pulled out a close victory.  This brought about major criticism as some felt it was unfair for the Suns to lose without their best player due to excessive blood loss, but the rules would stay and the Spurs maintained a 1-0 series lead.  After taking game 2, Phoenix would head to San Antonio for one of the most controversial games in recent memory.  Game 3 between the Spurs and the Suns was known for its excessive fouls called, constant whistles and annoying lack of gamesmanship in the contest.  The Spurs would ride a questionable free throw advantage to the victory and then all hell broke loose.  With Phoenix rebounding to take game 4, Robert Horry stepped in front of Steve Nash on a harmless drive down the baseline, and changed the Phoenix Suns forever.

With the series tied at 2 games apiece and heading back to Phoenix, all cards seemed to be in place for Phoenix to finally nudge past their nemisis and gain ground towards becoming NBA Champions.  But Horry's flagrant foul on Steve Nash sent the Suns into a frenzy, which resulted in both Stoudemire and Diaw leaving the Suns bench and therefore forcing the NBA's hand in having to suspend those two players for a critical game 5 in Phoenix.  Mike D'Antoni criticized the decision but his efforts went unnoticed as the suspensions stood.  A game Phoenix crowd and shorthanded squad gave the Spurs trouble but eventually succumbed in a game 5 loss.  The team returned to San Antonio demoralized, and could not take advantage of Stoudemire and Diaw's reintroduction into the lineup and would lose game 6 in San Antonio.

In effect, the Robert Horry foul gave Phoenix their first leigitmate gripe of the D'Antoni era.  Being too inexperienced in 2005 and too tired in 2006, 2007 seemed a prime opportunity for Phoenix to grab the franchise's first championship.  The Horry foul took away their best shot at putting a foot down on the rival Spurs' throats, and assured us all that there's always that one squad that prevents you from winning.  For Phoenix, it was San Antonio.  The Spurs went on to win the championship that season, and in the process demoralized alot of the Phoenix fan base.  The same team would essentially return for 2007-2008 but the excitement, hunger and mystique surrounding the franchise had gone away.  After posting a mediocre start to the season, new general manager Steve Kerr would make the move that effectively ended the D'Antoni era in Phoenix.

Posted on: December 29, 2008 1:45 am
 

NBA Power Rankings Through December 28, 2008

1. Cleveland Cavaliers (2) - The Cavaliers rallied for an impressive win against Miami today and remain the only team this season to be undefeated at home.  They hold home court admirably and they also are getting fantastic play out of Mo Williams lately.  This team is playing a consistent brand of basketball, and although the assortment of players and the list of victories doesn't blow you away, they are the hottest team so far this season and they play fantastic defense and win basketball games at home.  Those are three qualities of great teams.

2. Boston Celtics (1) - I know with two losses this week you could make arguments about them falling behind either Orlando or the Lakers, but they still have the best record in the league and last week people were questioning when exactly this team was going to lose.  They had a tough western swing but the Celtics are still the best team in the league.  I think it would be entirely irrational to drop them too far down the list.

3. Orlando Magic (3) - The Magic are the second hottest team in the league right now and are frequently blowing teams out of the arena.  That performance against New Orleans on Christmas day was impressive.  Getting Mickael Pietrus back from injury is going to help this team immensely in the near future.  They continue to perform at a high level regardless of doubts concerning their ability to consistently perform at this level.  Currently, they're at this level so I can't drop them.

4. Los Angeles Lakers (4) - The Lakers gained an emotional and emphatic triumph over Boston on Christmas day in one of the most anticipated regular season games in recent memory.  Kobe Bryant, as of late, has been playing near his MVP level from last season and the Lakers have to love what they're getting out of players like Sasha Vujacic as of late.  They've seemed to turn the corner on the difficult stretch that they seemingly were having and inner turmoil over their defense had to be addressed with that performance against Boston.  They clearly are the best current team in the Western Confrence.

5. Atlanta Hawks (6) - Joe Johnson is playing at an amazing level currently and this Hawks team is clicking on both sides of the basketball.  Their quick start has proved to not be a fluke as they continue to play great basketball even going into January.  The team may lack true depth at the point guard position, but Johnson runs the offense so much that it masks that problem.  Overall, Mike Woodson has this team playing at an unbelievable level.

6. San Antonio Spurs (10) - Tony Parker has elevated his game to an unbelievable level this season.  His offensive game is as polished as any point guards in the league.  That shot from Roger Mason was huge on Christmas day and Tim Duncan is quietly having an unbelievable season.  Matt Bonner has really slowed as of late, and as a result I look for the Spurs to look for some inside scoring around the trade deadline.  Knowing them, they'll find a team to give them an outcast and I look at Eddy Curry (don't laugh) as being someone who could fit in good with the Spurs.  But they need another force in the paint to take some pressure off of Tim Duncan.

7. Denver Nuggets (9) - The team played great basketball without Carmelo Anthony in the lineup and then carried it over with a big win at Madison Square Garden today when Carmelo returned.  This team continues to stay around the top and are getting fantastic production out of J.R. Smith as of late.  Kenyon Martin has shown flashes of the player we all loved in New Jersey as of late but it's a shame that a lot of his explosiveness has limited him.  He had the potential to be a really, really good player in his career.

8. Portland Trail Blazers (7) - They're getting production out of Brandon Roy, but they have to love the contributions they're getting night in and night out from players like Steve Blake, Travis Outlaw and Joel Przybilla as those types of role players are what help a team become a consistent threat night in and night out. 

9. New Orleans Hornets (5) - Their performances against Los Angeles and Orlando revealed they still have not yet turned that corner and become a really good team.  They're still playing maddingly inconsistent basketball but Peja Stojakovic and Antonio Daniels returned this week and that is reason enough for optimism in New Orleans.

10. Houston Rockets (8) - Ron Artest has been great off of the bench since his return from injury and I look for the Rockets to continue to play him at that spot.  Tracy McGrady has been really inconsistent this season and continues to be in and out of lineups with nagging injuries.  It's a shame he could indirectly ruin the best chance the Rockets have had at a championship since Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen were wearing Rockets uniforms. 

11. Dallas Mavericks (12) - The Mavericks are playing tremendous basketball as of late and have gotten past that slow start to develop into a fun, cohesive unit.  That suspension for Dirk Nowitzki is laughable but it didn't stop them from being the lowly Clippers.  I know Jason Kidd's numbers are down, and he's not the player he once was, but I feel as if he's delivering so far this season for Dallas.  No he's not the player that Devin Harris is but he's done a fine job keeping this team together this season and they're slowly getting healthy as well.  The Mavericks have played above expectations so far this season and it'll be intersting to see them continue to try and do so. 

12. Utah Jazz (11) - Injuries to Carlos Boozer, Deron Williams, Ronnie Price, Mehmet Okur and Paul Millsap have held this team back and they've still yet to field a consistent and healthy squad for an extended period of time so that we can fairly evaluate the legitimacy of this Utah squad this season.  Overall, I believe Jerry Sloan has done a fantastic job keeping this unit at where they're at even though they can't get continuity in the lineup.

13. Phoenix Suns (13) - The Suns had one game this week and lost it but they played strongly against the Spurs on Christmas day.  They're winning games and at this rate will put up a soild record for the season but they don't seem to have any sort of spark to them this season that makes them feel like a legitimate threat to a team in a seven game series.  Amare Stoudemire, for all the talent that he posseses, is becoming a quiet 20 point 8 rebound guy and you never want to fall into that category.

14. Miami Heat (14) - A tough loss at Cleveland is the only problem the Heat have experienced the past couple of weeks.  Their defense keeps them in every single game and they find ways to hang around and win ball games.  Jamaal Magloire would be a nice boost to this team if he could ever get consistently healthy but I don't know if that's in his capabilities any longer.

15. Detroit Pistons (15) - The Pistons found ways to beat bad teams this week and it's still a step in the right drection.  They've been around .500 since acquiring Allen Iverson but they've still got time to right the ship and become a threat come the postseason.  But looking at the energy of this squad, you have to wonder if they will. 

16. New Jersey Nets (18) - The Nets still refuse to go away.  Devin Harris and Vince Carter, night in and night out, carry this squad and keep them playing at a competitive level.  Brook Lopez has done a fine job and has settled in nicely at the starting center position but I think this team still lacks the overall talent to stay in the playoff race all season long.  But they've exceeded expecations so far this season so it's not outside of the realm of possibility for this team to stay at this level.

17. Milwaukee Bucks (17) - The Bucks continue to stick around regardless of a lack of fanfare or consistency.  Michael Redd has struggled a tad this season and Richard Jefferson's game has dropped a bit as of late but Andrew Bogut has done a great job keeping this team afloat.  I'd also like to give some kudos to Charlie Villanueva for being voted the world's sexiest bald man, giving the Bucks their first player to win an award in the past couple of decades.  Congratulations!

18. Chicago Bulls (16) - This squad, much like the team in Utah, continues to deal with inconvenient injuries and have not yet fielded a consistently healthy squad.  Everyone can't seem to get cohesive on this team because of the injury problems.  Derrick Rose and Ben Gordon have done a great job of keeping this team together but overall they are a perimeter based squad and unfortunately, when shots don't fall they have no shot of victory and that won't hold up all season long.

19. Philadelphia 76ers (19) - I've been wanting to say it the past few weeks so I will give credit this week, Marreese Speights has done a great job this season, especially in the recent absence of Elton BrandAndre Iguodala has shown flashes of the player that he was last season but overall he and this squad have vastly underacheived this season. 

20. Memphis Grizzlies (23) - I wonder what happened to Marc Gasol to see his minutes being reduced as the season has progressed.  Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo are nightly constants for this young squad and they finally have a sense of direction in Memphis for the first time since the first season they made the playoffs in 2003-2004. 

21. Golden State Warriors (24) - The Warriors had a very impressive victory over Boston this week that was quickly forgotten after their performance against the Lakers tonight.  Stephen Jackson has been playing better as of late but this team still misses Monta EllisCorey Maggette was a questionable addition when he signed with Golden State and word is the Warriors are listening to offers for the swingman.  His contract may make it hard for him to be moved, but I don't believe it's going to work for him in Golden State.

22. Charlotte Bobcats (25) - Emeka Okafor has played great as of late, giving the Bobcats a consistent threat at the center position that they've lacked majorly this season.  Boris Diaw gives him a body to work with down in the paint and Raja Bell has finally picked up his play after being traded from Phoenix.  They're playing good, hard basketball at the moment and still have time to salvage the season by making a late season push for the playoffs.

23. Toronto Raptors (26) - The Raptors, mainly spearheaded by Jermaine O'Neal, responded in a big way this week after that dreadful previous couple of weeks that they played.  This team still is a question mark as to whether or not they're going to right things this year but there's no denying how tough it's been to get a grip on this team.

24. New York Knicks (20) - The Knicks were never known for their defense even before the arrival of Mike D'Antoni, but the laziness on the defensive side of the ball has quickly spread in that locker room and has since grown to become a laughable ailment for this team.  The team doesn't even try to guard you, which is what keeps them from pulling potential upsets over better squads.

25. Indiana Pacers (22) - The Pacers have yet to really get it together this season and after spending all season waiting for them to do so, I've finally come to the conclusion that it just may not happen.  Mike Dunleavy has started to become more active after missing all season due to injury but I believe it's outside of his capabilities to turn this season around in Indiana.  I said Brandon Rush would be a rookie to look out for this season and in turn he's played very underwhelming basketball this season. 

26. Los Angeles Clippers (21) - The Clippers are such a Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hide squad.  You have no idea if they're going to be competitive or susceptible to being blown out.  They've recently given minutes to raw project DeAndre Jordan as of late and you have to wonder what that spells for oft injured but extremely talented center Chris Kaman with the now recently crammed frontcourt in Clipper land.

27. Sacramento Kings (27) - Their offense is so anemic without Kevin Martin in the lineup and I'm tired of waiting for him to come back and make this team competitive again.  It has to be dissapointing that after such a strong season last year this team has played at the level it has this season, but injuries and inconsistency within the organization can derail a team on the rise and that's exactly what's happened to this identity-less team.

28. Minnesota Timberwolves (28) - The Timberwolves finally got a victory for coach Kevin McHale this week but still lack any true power on their squad.  Rashad McCants and Ryan Gomes are two pieces of this team that would truly flourish on better squads but they basically serve no purpose for this horrible team.  If you look at the current roster, you can't even say that they're rebuilding.  They don't have any young projects in place aside from Al Jefferson.  They're just an assortment of bad players.

29. Washington Wizards (29) - Now that Caron Butler is injured (and we all saw that coming), Antawn Jamison is all alone now as far as options for the Wizards.  He was good enough for a victory over Oklahoma City but there's not much more he can do for this squad.  He's played unbelievable basketball but it will and should go largely unnoticed around the league because this franchise is so poorly operated.

30. Oklahoma City Thunder (30) - I looked at the Thunder playing Joe Smith at the center position with concern but after looking at the level of center play around the league, I guess it's a gamble for the worst roster in the league.  Nick Collison's injury obviously doesn't help matters but for the most part it really doesn't matter.  I don't see Joe Smith (who would be a nice fit in San Antonio) or Desmond Mason finishing February in Oklahoma City jerseys.

Posted on: December 22, 2008 1:06 am
 

NBA Power Rankings Through December 21st, 2008

1. Boston Celtics (1) - There's no better team in the league than Boston and they're head and shoulders above the rest of the league.  They're going to approach the NBA's record 72 wins in a season though I can't see them overtaking that record.  It's not outside of the realm of possibility, though and they're the class of the league. 

2. Cleveland Cavaliers (3) - Delonte West has settled in extremely well at the shooting guard position for the Cavaliers.  They're an unorthodox bunch, what with a 6'9" point guard, two big men (one who rebounds, one who scores) and two shooting guards but they find different ways to win.  Mike Brown's insistence on defense has really done wonders for this team and everyone, including some Cavaliers players, are finally starting to see why this mentality is so critical to success.  Just look at Boston.  An aggressive, smart defense will always keep you in ball games.  LeBron James will find ways to win many close ball games.

3. Orlando Magic (4) - They've really legitamized their placement atop the league this week with big victories over both San Antonio and the Lake show.  This group is dangerous when everyone's connecting.  They got Dwight Howard back from injury and had a tremendous week from Jameer Nelson and he was huge in both of the victories.  They're a group of misfits but they find a way to work and they play hard.  Stan Van Gundy has done a tremendous job with this organization.

4. Los Angeles Lakers (2) - Kobe Bryant has tried to do it all this week and for the first time all season, the Lakers look vulnerable.  We know these tough patches come every year so I don't believe it's anything worth throwing up the white flag, but there is trouble with this team.  Andrew Bynum isn't having the season he was supposed to have this year but they're getting really good production out of Trevor Ariza and Jordan Farmar off the bench.  Lamar Odom doesn't seem as comfortable off of the bench as he did in the starting lineup.  When he started against New York this week, he looked a lot like the player who was a huge contribution to last year's squad.  I think Lakers fans really undervalued his importance but I doubt he'll start next season as a Laker.

5. New Orleans Hornets (8) - The Hornets are on a roll right now and are doing a tremendous job on the defensive side of the ball.  Tyson Chandler has looked energized this week and James Posey continues to be a tremendous force off of the bench.  Peja Stojakovic's injury is cause for concern and this week will be the true test as to if the Hornets run is legitimate, and they need a healthy Peja to really have a fair shake.

6. Atlanta Hawks (7) - Even though they loss to Boston this week (who hasn't) how strange was it to have people circling a game at Atlanta?   This squad has the attention of the best team in the league and has had them on the verge of defeat two times this season.  They ended the week with a strong defensive performance against Detroit and this team continues to overacheive.  Al Horford has proved last season was no fluke.

7. Portland Trail Blazers (11) - I can't seem to get a firm enough understanding of this squad and I move them up between the top half of the league every week.  Brandon Roy is right behind LeBron James and Dwyane Wade this season as far as MVP candidates are concerned and his 52 point performance against Phoenix Thursday night was amazing.  The players play well as a team and they all know who the go to guy is.  Minnesota fans have to look at Randy Foye and shake their head.

8. Houston Rockets (9) - Ron Artest seems pretty comfortable off of the bench and, honestly, Shane Battier's game may be better suited starting off for the Rockets.  Rafer Alston's injury doesn't help matters but Aaron Brooks has done a fine job in the starting role.  The team finds ways to win basketball games and Yao Ming deserves acclaim for his job so far this season as the anchor for this team.

9. Denver Nuggets (5) - This is the lowest the Nuggets have been since Chauncey Billups' arrival but they've hit a wall this week.  After Carmelo Anthony's tremendous week last week, he shot horrible from the field this week.  Their lack of explosiveness in the front court is crippling and they still seem to lack something to be taken serious as a Western confrence contender.

10. San Antonio Spurs (6) - I may have gotten too crazy with their run last week but the Spurs had two tough losses to New Orleans and Orlando this week.  I'm shocked at the lack of minutes being distributed to Ime Udoka and Bruce Bowen but Popovich knows best about this squad.  Kurt Thomas has seen a huge increase in minutes lately and I'm wondering if the Ian Mahinmi experiement is ever going to come to fruition.

11. Utah Jazz (10) - The Jazz organization is so caught up in the Carlos Boozer situation (his injury, whether or not he'll return next season) that they're letting it overshadow a very dissapointing start to this season for Utah.  They've been very inconsistent this year and they still struggle on the road (unless they're playing Detroit).  Deron Williams has yet to regain that level of play he's displayed the last two seasons but I see it only as a matter of time before he gets his feet back.  When he does this team will take off, but it needs to happen soon. 

12. Dallas Mavericks (12) - Dallas has had a quiet season but with the return of Josh Howard I think this team is ready to start taking strides.  Jason Kidd can't do much at this stage in his career, but he can run an offense and Dirk Nowitzki's production with Kidd on the court is a testament to that.  They take advantage of lesser competition and that's a huge upgrade from the beginning of the season.  They just need to find ways to beat the better teams.

13. Phoenix Suns (14) - The Phoenix Suns have quietly had a huge week and a monster performance from Brandon Roy is all that kept it from perfect.  I know Shaquille O'Neal is a punchline on these forums but his play this year has been solid for this team.  I don't believe all that much has been lost from last season, but this talented bunch isn't having fun and I guess that means you complain regardless of record.  I'm getting tired of the whining in Phoenix but that's a tradition Mike D'Antoni instilled that can never be replaced amongst that bunch.

14. Miami Heat (15) - Dwyane Wade had a tremendous week and this team as a whole had a tremendous week.  A big Friday night victory against the Lakers was followed with a solid performance against New Jersey and this team seems to have finally developed some kind of a groove.  Shawn Marion may not be playing up to his potential and Michael Beasley may be a huge dissapointment (statistically speaking) in the rookie class, but they have to love what they found in Mario Chalmers and I think Daequan Cook is doing a tremendous job in his important role off of the bench.  They got a solid little team if they can get physical inside. 

15. Detroit Pistons (13) - Rodney Stuckey has performed very well since his insertion into the starting lineup.  They have, legitimately, no front court, though, and that bench that was so widely praised at the beginning of the season looks incredibly weak without Stuckey on it.  Players like Aaron Afflalo, Walter Herrmann and Amir Johnson have dissapeared and have not lived up to preseason expectations.  Jason Maxiell plays like a guy who received a huge contract instead of the guy who for the past couple of seasons looked like he was playing for his career.  It's amazing to see how lackadaisical this team is.  I don't think Flip Saunders was the problem.

16. Chicago Bulls (17) - Drew Gooden's injury is an inconvenience but the Bulls continue to play solid basketball.  They may lack consistency but they're a legitimate playoff threat with Derrick Rose surprisingly playing at the current level of play he's displayed.  They'll be around all season. 

17. Milwaukee Bucks (20) - The Bucks have had a really solid week and have played well since Michael Redd's return from injury.  They've been under the radar all season long but have to be pleased with the production that Scott Skiles has gotten out of this bunch.  They're weirdly assembled but they play hard every night and that's reason enough to believe in them.  Scott Skilles proves once again that he's a tremendous coach.

18. New Jersey Nets (16) - Devin Harris' performance against the Mavericks was unbelievable and New Jersey has to feel it made out like bandits with that trade.  Eduardo Najera also played in that game against the Mavericks but quickly collected another DNP.  They've gotten good minutes out of Ryan Anderson lately and Rod Thorn's done a good job building this team from the ground up.  I can't see Vince Carter staying past the deadline if the Nets have an opportunity to trade him, and he's played well enough this season to where I can see some team taking a chance on him.  They need to continue and complete the rebuilding cycle.

19. Philadelphia 76ers (21) - Well the destruction I wished on that franchise didn't happen and they've played well under new coach Tony DiLeo.  Elton Brand's injury will show if this team is really better suited to run a spread out, fast court game.  I think that fits the styles of their players better and I think they'll play well without Brand for a month. 

20. New York Knicks (19) - Seven man rotations and no defense, D'Antoni ball is in full effect over in New York.  All cheap shots aside, he's done a good job with that bunch and even though Al Harrington has cooled down considerably, Nate Robinson has picked it up with a very good week for the Knicks.  They probably won't make the playoffs but the fact that people are believing they have a shot speaks for the job D'Antoni has done with this overacheiving bunch.

21. Los Angeles Clippers (23) - Marcus Camby has awoken this week and played at level that he displayed while with Denver.  The Zach Randolph trade has worked out well for the Clippers but Baron Davis' play is holding this team back.  You have to wonder if his priorities are in order, but I guess if you willingly sign for big money to play for the Clippers your priorities are already put into question.  They can't move him, he has to work out there, but he can't continue to shoot this team out of ball games.

22. Indiana Pacers (24) - The unfortunate flu epidemic nailed the Pacers locker room and they played inspiring ball near the end of the week even though they were without three of their top four scorers in Marquis Daniels, Danny Granger and Troy MurphyJarrett Jack gave them a tremendous week as did T.J. Ford and overall, I'd say both Ford and Rasho Nesterovic have been nice additions to the Pacers team.  They lack any kind of consistency but have talent over in Indiana.  I just don't know if it will ever be fully tapped.

23. Memphis Grizzlies (22) - The Grizzlies lost both of their games in a quiet week and O.J. Mayo finally scored in single digits in a game.  Yes, I know it was a quiet week in Memphis.  I'd like to see Hakim Warrick start to get more minutes over in Memphis, though.  He does well given the lack of opportunities he truly has.

24. Golden State Warriors (25) - Jamal Crawford single handedly got the Warriors a victory, and they're getting good production out of Marco BelinelliMonta Ellis is gearing up to return sometimes in the next month but this team still lacks a true point guard.  Hopefully, though, Ellis can return to form and give this Warriors fan base reason for excitement this season.

25. Charlotte Bobcats (27) - Boris Diaw looks rejuvenated in Larry Brown's offense and has done a fantastic job in his new starting role.  Raja Bell looks unhappy in Charlotte and who can honestly blame him?  Aside from that, though, the Bobcats look to be open to the thought of trading Raymond Felton.  To me, it's amazing that he hasn't succeeded there but D.J. Augustin's performance is quietly pushing him out of favor with the organization.

26. Toronto Raptors (18) - The drop may be a tad drastic but this team is in awful shape.  Chris Bosh is getting booed, they're losing to Oklahoma City and they don't play as a team anymore.  Bryan Colangelo has truly done a bad job with this bunch but they're just not that talented to begin with.  Jermaine O'Neal has done fine this season but it was fair to see all season that he just couldn't be that inside guy that Toronto truly needed.  This team needs to do a lot of restructuring within the organization.

27. Sacramento Kings (26) - Reggie Theus' firing infuriated me but I'm not surprised.  A team full of outcats from other organizations probably should be in playoff contention.  When Brad Miller is your most consistent start you're not going to be in great shape and new coach Natt's 1-3 record since taking over isn't surprising.  Theus deserved better for what he did last season and I don't think stressing that this team play hard and try to win should be overlooked simply for playing younger players and accepting poor performances.

28. Minnesota Timberwolves (28) - The Timberwolves are reeling big time and Kevin McHale is winless as Minnesota's coach.  Al Jefferson is a fine player but he can't do it all by himself.  This shouldn't come as a surprise as, even in his last seasons, Kevin Garnett couldn't do it by himself in Minnesota.  This is a poorly run organization and the team is horribly assembled.  They may never get better with McHale at the helm. 

29. Washington Wizards (29) - Mike James has played well since arriving in Washington but it's made no change to their record.  Who can be surprised?  Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison are playing really hard and it's difficult to watch those two players fail but the organization as a whole just has no real direction.  They're in a hole, too, with the contract that was given to Gilbert Arenas

30. Oklahoma City Thunder (30) - They finally got a win this week!  They're playing hard every night now, which is an upgrade, they just don't have the talent on the team to win.  Kevin Durant has played fine ball since Brooks was introduced as interim coach but after him, nobody is consistent enough to really give this team a chance to win on a nightly basis.  They're still a few years away.

Posted on: December 15, 2008 1:57 am
Edited on: March 21, 2009 1:25 am
 

NBA Power Rankings Through December 14th, 2008

1. Boston Celtics (1) - This team is absolutely on a roll and every bit as dominant as last season's champions were.  Kendrick Perkins is a force down there in the middle and the bench, despite Kevin Garnett's in game criticism, is fantastic.  Players like Glen Davis, Eddie House and Leon Powe have spearheaded a very fun team over in Boston.

2. Los Angeles Lakers (2) - A quiet week for the Lakers, despite their loss to Sacramento.  They seem to be in cruise control at the moment and aren't as smooth and dominant as they were at the beginning of the season, but they're still winning and are still 20-3.  I was surprised by Luke Walton's promotion to the starting lineup, and even though coach Phil Jackson stresses Vladimir Radmanovic is not in the doghouse, the team's depth at the small forward position may leave him on the outside looking in.  Something to keep an eye on.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers (3) - A loss at Atlanta keeps this team from jumping up in the rankings but they're still playing fantastic ball and are still looking every bit as talented as both Boston and the Lakers.  I understand and agree with the high praise for Dwyane Wade but LeBron James is currently in another atmosphere.  He's playing tremendous ball and they're getting great production out of everyone else on the team.  Zydrunas Ilgauskas' injury is something to keep an eye on but the team is still playing good ball.

4. Orlando Magic (4) - They've solidified their spot with a fantastic road trip this week.  Tough wins at Portland and Utah couldn't be overshadowed by a tough, last second loss without Dwight Howard to Phoenix.  Rashard Lewis is carrying this team currently and even with Hedo Turkoglu playing inconsistent ball, they continue to quietly win and that seems to be enough for them.

5. Denver Nuggets (5) - Carmelo Anthony is currently on fire.  His 33 points in one quarter against Minnesota on Wednesday was the highlight of a quiet two game week for the Nuggets.  This team continues to roll along with Chauncey Billups and are even getting good minutes out of their big men.  Their lack of depth and inconsistent production out of those 4 and 5 positions may do them in but currently it's not so you have to keep them up here.

6. San Antonio Spurs (11) - Yeah they've shot up here quickly and the San Antonio Spurs have arrived.  This team's offense is clicking and just as quickly as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili returned this team has reeled off a string of successive victories.  They're going to be in the race all season and their slow start seems like it was years ago.

7. Atlanta Hawks (8) - Mike Bibby has played like his former self here lately and has eased some of the pressure off of Joe Johnson.  The team's getting healthy and a big, impressive win over Cleveland helped the Hawks get some of their much deserved recognition.

8. New Orleans Hornets (9) - Friday's dissapointing third quarter at Boston has taken some eyes off of the fact that the Hornets have been highly successful the past three weeks.  Tyson Chandler's stiff neck is room for concern but if he can return at full force the Hornets can work at reclaiming the spot they held last season.

9. Houston Rockets (9) - That loss to the Clippers was embarassing but we'll give them a break since they were without Ron Artest.  The fact that Yao Ming has been the most consistently healthy out of the big three this season is room for concern but the team has stayed up around the top ten all season long and continue to play solid, cohesive ball.

10. Utah Jazz (10) - They looked great against Portland but couldn't take care of business against the Dwight Howard-less Magic at home.  They still look like the class of their division but seem to be lacking something so far.  Even though Paul Millsap continues to prove his early season production is no fluke, they're better suited with Carlos Boozer and need him to return.

11. Portland Trail Blazers (6) - The Blazer's big drop was more one of those "everyone else around you" situations more than their actual play, though their play hasn't been very inspiring this week.  Brandon Roy has been amazing this season but aside from him, nobody else can consistently keep up.  This team is deep but they're unpredictable.  All of this will change as the season goes on as this team just needs to grow.

12. Dallas Mavericks (12) - You inhale and take a step back, and the Mavericks are right there.  Again.  Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry are shouldering the load but they usually get somebody different to step up every single night.  I'm pleased to see the increase in Brandon Bass' minutes and think he's more important to that team than his production shows.  Carlisle needs to utilize him a little better.

13. Detroit Pistons (14) - Right now in Motown, there's no such thing as bad wins.  This team is still trying (months later) to transition into the Allen Iverson era and even though their victory over the Charlotte lacked punch, this team has lost bad games and the fact that they won needs to be acknowledged moreso than how they won.  Tayshaun Prince has fallen off big time since Iverson's arrival and I'm not sure if this small lineup that has him at the power forward position is going to help that, but Antonio McDyess' return gives this team some more front court depth.  Rodney Stuckey has done great with the starting role, but you have to move either Iverson or Richard Hamilton to the bench.  Their lineup stands no chance in the postseason.

14. Phoenix Suns (15) - I'm one of the few that doesn't like the arrival of Jason Richardson in Phoenix but I'm going to give it some time.  The loss of two important role players in Raja Bell and Boris Diaw (regardless of fickle fans' loss of interest in the two) will hurt the team just as the loss of McDyess did to Detroit.  Richardson is a scorer, but not much else, and I'm not too sure if he was any kind of missing piece to anything.  Looks like a desperate move by Steve Kerr to me.

16. Miami Heat (16) - Dwyane Wade is trying to do it all by himself, but they can't get anyone else to step up and compliment the spectacular season the former Finals MVP is having.  Coach Spoelstra and Wade actually have this team overacheiving but they should still stay above average all season long.

16. New Jersey Nets (13) - Welcome back to Earth, Nets.  Vince Carter's 0 for 13 performance against Toronto highlighted a woeful week for the Nets.  They've played over their heads this year but have been too good for me to drop them too far.  I like what they're currently getting out of Brook Lopez.

17. Chicago Bulls (18) - I'm a little dissapointed in the season Joakim Noah is having for the Bulls as I felt with last season's late surge he would carry that over into this year but he seems to be lackadaisical at times out there.  Ben Gordon and Derrick Rose are night in and night out doing it for Chicago and they have to be pleased with the recent production out of Drew Gooden.  By the way, I like Luol Deng but they have to be displeased with his production given the contract that he received this offseason.

18. Toronto Raptors (19) - This team has responded well to coach Triano and played some inspired ball this week.  Jose Calderon has been solid this season, but so much more was expected after last season.  He has struggled as the team's second option although he's still putting up the same numbers as last year.  I'm surprised with Andrea Bargnani's decrease in minutes lately and wonder if the Raptors will look to move him at the deadline.

19. New York Knicks (17) - A Jerome James sighting!  D'Antoni has finally started to play more than 7 people (it's too early for his typical short rotation) and the team got Jared Jeffries back this week.  He's not a great player in any category but is versatile enough to where I could see him succeeding in D'Antoni's system.  It was sad to see Cuttino Mobely to retire.  He was always a classy guy and a fantastic shooter.  His lefty release always looked like it was going in.  I give best wishes to him and hope the enlarged heart condition doesn't substantially shorten his life. 

20. Milwaukee Bucks (21) - Andrew Bogut and Richard Jefferson have been solid in the starting lineup for the Bucks this season.  Ramon Sessions has quieted a little bit recently but this team still has stayed around .500 all year.  They're not great in any facet of the game, but they're well coached and are solid in all areas.  They're a fun team to follow.

21. Philadelphia 76ers (20) - The firing of Maurice Cheeks was pathetic.  It's a shame that a team that gave an injured, overweight Elton Brand that type of money can blame Cheeks for being unable to work Brand into an offense that's better suited in the open court.  Ed Stefanski should be ashamed of himself and I hope to see bad karma visit this team the rest of the season.

22. Memphis Grizzlies (26) - Don't look now, but outside of Boston and San Antonio, the hottest team in the league is the Memphis Grizzlies!  Benching Rudy Gay seemed to spark the team a bit and they're even getting solid minutes out of Darko Milicic this week.  O.J. Mayo has been nothing short out of tremendous this year and lately has played like the best rookie in the league.  And that's no shot on Derrick Rose, just high praise for Mayo.

23. Los Angeles Clippers (27) - For one week, the Clippers were the team I thought they would be this season.  With great wins over Portland and Houston this week, the Clippers looked like a talented cohesive team and like a team that could hang with the league's best.  It's probably fools gold as far as the record is concerned, but Zach Randolph continues to be the team's best player and Al Thornton looks like a great player to build around for the next couple of seasons.  For one week at least, Clipper land!

24. Indiana Pacers (22) - Their inconsistency and inability to get over the hump is killing me.  Danny Granger is seemingly doing it by himself but this team is just bland all around.  I had picked them to make the poseason this year, and they still may make a run at it, but they're lacking some serious energy and excitement on this team.  This organization still needs that shot in the arm.

25. Golden State Warriors (24) - The Warriors won a couple games this week and that's reason for excitement in the bay area.  Corey Maggette may be ruled out indefinitely and his scoring may be missed, but he hasn't seemed like much of a fit out there on that team.  Kelenna Azubuike deserves a little bit of praise for his performance this season.  It further heightens why teams showed interest in him in the offseason.

26. Sacramento Kings (28) - A victory over the Lakers gives this team a nice little boost and shows that they can still play hard for Reggie Theus.  Kevin Martin is back to missing games after his short return and you have to wonder how serious that injury is.  Brad Miller will most likely be gone by midseason and this team is still two years (including this one) away from being taken serious as postseason contenders.

27. Charlotte Bobcats (23) - I know I bashed Phoenix for the Richardson trade, but it's not as if I like it any better for the Bobcats.  They lack scoring and, again, Michael Jordan is running an organization where pieces just don't fit.  You can't make things work.  His lack of dedication kills this team and the front office is so infatuated with his name that they won't properly evaluate his job.  After all, if they did he would not have gotten the job in the first place after that fiasco in Washington.

28. Minnesota Timberwolves (25) - Memo to Kevin McHale, improve this team or be shown the exit.  Randy Wittman was let go this week and McHale now steps up.  He was solid in the 2005 season but he's not that much of a coach.  Al Jefferson, Randy Foye and Kevin Love (three players McHale has traded for) have all played better under McHale but I don't know if they can be enough for McHale to keep his job.  Or rightfully keep his job anyways.

29. Washington Wizards (29) - Caron Butler is wasting away over there in Washington and their team's response to their struggles was not addressing their extremely small and thin frontcourt, but was instead a decision to add Mike James and Javaris Crittenton to a team that boasts a bunch of run of the mill guards in the first place.  I'd like to see Crittenton to get an opportunity to flourish but this situation is no different from his situation in Memphis.

30. Oklahoma City Thunder (30) - Finally Kevin Durant is grabbing some rebounds and playing some down in the post.  He's too talented to let his game be jump shooting and taking possesions off on defense.  Jeff Green has been tremendous this week and I was surprised at Russell Westbrook being benched today.  They're playing more competitive lately and the talk of them being unable to win 9 games this season is ludicrous.  They'll win at least 10 games this season and this team is talented, just extremely raw.  They need more time.

 

 

 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com