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03-01-2004, 01:37 PM
Who should start tanking the season?

Normally, I'm not allowed to use obscene words in my column ... something about being family friendly ... but every year I go ahead and push the envelope here and write an entire column using the dirtiest word in the NBA. Cover your childrens' ears if you just happen to be reading this out loud.

Tank, v.: To suffer a sudden decline or failure.

There, I said it.

The Hawks deny they're doing it. The Magic, at this point, have no choice but to do it. The Clippers and Warriors are proving once again they've perfected the art form. The Bulls, despite all that talent, can't get off the merry-go-round.

We all know what goes on behind closed doors, in the dark corners of locker rooms and in the wandering mind of Tracy McGrady.

Avert your eyes if you must. Flee the scene if you can't take the heat. Hang a scarlet "T" around your mascot's neck if it makes you feel any better.

UConn's Emeka Okafor is among the top prizes for the NBA's lottery teams.

It's tanking time folks. You know it. I know it. And the American people know it. And secretly, you love it. You want Dwight Howard or Emeka Okafor on that wall. You need him on that wall. You don't want the truth because, frankly, you can't handle the truth.

What else should teams like the Bulls or Wizards be doing at this point in the season?

While it's reprehensible for a team to begin the season with such a goal, at this point several teams would be stupid not to dump their last 20 games.

The Cavs did it shamelessly last season, and look what it landed them. Sold-out arenas every night for the next decade and a fighting chance at the playoffs this season.

Everyone is still playing for something. Playoffs or lottery balls? Experience or upside? Honor or hope? For the good teams out there, there's no time like the present. For the bad ones, there's always next year.

The key is understanding which category you're in. Sure, it's easy to say the Suns are playing for the lottery and the Kings are playing for a ring. But what about the Celtics, Sixers, Jazz, Blazers and Sonics?

Should they be going for the gold or enrolling in the Lottery Ball Acquisition Program? In our ongoing effort to educate, Insider reveals the answers today. But remember, sometimes the truth hurts.

There should be one simple mantra for lottery-bound teams 60 games into the season: If it's broke, don't fix it.

Here's a look at 10 teams that should tank the rest of the season ...

Orlando Magic
Record: 17-44
Chance of landing No. 1 pick: 25%
The Skinny: The Magic are playing their best basketball of the season (four wins in their last 10 games) at the worst possible time of the year. The Magic don't have the flexibility to dramatically alter their roster in free agency or via trade. They just don't have enough pieces. After severable miserable drafts, they need to hit a home run this year. The problem is, the two best players in the draft -- Dwight Howard and Emeka Okafor -- play the same position as Orlando's second- and third-best players -- Juwan Howard and Drew Gooden. The Magic do seem enamored with 7-foot-5 Siberian giant Pavel Podkolzine, but he's not ready to contribute yet.

Chicago Bulls
Record: 17-42
Chance of landing No. 1 pick: 20%
The Skinny: Deja vu? The Bulls are in serious running for the first pick in the draft. GM John Paxson has a thing for Okafor, so don't assume the Bulls are tired of collecting inexperienced players in the draft. If they slip to No. 2 and Dwight Howard is on the board, pass Paxson the Rolaids. Most believe the Bulls will try to trade this pick, along with another asset or two, to land a veteran all-star. Still, to get the most for their money, they need to stop this silly streak of winning and get back to what they do best -- dumping the ball into Eddy Curry, then limping off the court with another "L" in the Win-Loss column.

Washington Wizards
Record: 18-41
Chance of landing No. 1 pick: 15.7%
The Skinny: Like the Bulls, the Wizards probably have had their fill of young, inexperienced draft picks. The team has eight players with three years of experience or less. But there is a lot of interest in Okafor, who by NBA draft standards is a 10-year vet, and also interest in moving the pick. If they can add a tough, legitimate center to play alongside Kwame Brown, the Wizards might actually be able to make some noise next season. They're another team that's been winning a little too much lately.

Atlanta Hawks
Record: 19-40
Chance of landing No. 1 pick: 12%
The Skinny: They have nothing to play for. Next year's roster, with the possible exception of Boris Diaw and Travis Hansen, won't look anything like this season's ragtag squad. The Hawks' latest move, dumping Dion Glover, proves they have the right idea, but when are they really going to get serious and sit Jason Terry for the season? The Hawks' worst nightmare is an injury to Terry that makes him untradeable this summer. As far as the draft goes, it's likely the Hawks' chances of landing the No. 1 pick will improve, as the odds of them reaching 22 wins seems pretty slim right now. Look for Atlanta to nab local product Dwight Howard if it gets the No. 1 pick.

Phoenix Suns
Record: 20-41
Chance of landing No. 1 pick: 8.9%
The Skinny: The Suns are, by far, the most talented team in this group. Unlike everyone else here, they have a very solid core with Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and some nice young players in Leandro Barbosa, Zarko Cabarkapa, Casey Jacobsen and Maciej Lampe. Throw in the draft rights to Milos Vujanic, and it's pretty clear the Suns don't need this pick. Unless there is a legitimate, Western Conference center waiting for them in this draft, you can be pretty sure they'll try to package this pick, along with Jahidi White's contract, to get the cap room they need to make a major run at a veteran free agent. Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant have the buzz, with Mehmet Okur as a sleeper should the Pistons decide to only re-sign Rasheed Wallace.

Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 24-36
Chance of landing No. 1 pick: 6.4%
The Skinny: The Sixers have crumbled before our eyes this season. I know they're still trying to grit things out and make a run at the playoffs -- and they have a legit shot, as almost everyone in the East does -- but is it in the Sixers' best interest? The team is getting old and needs fresh blood, especially on the front line. Philly's only young players with much promise are Samuel Dalembert, John Salmons and, to a lesser extent, Kyle Korver. The Sixers need a freakishly versatile, athletic player like Howard in the worst way. Landing the No. 1 pick could turn a dying franchise around pretty fast.

Boston Celtics
Record: 25-36
Chance of landing No. 1 pick: 2.9%
The Skinny: Danny Ainge loves this draft so much, he was willing to take on the last two years of Chucky Atkins' contract just to get a third first-round pick, even if it's low in the round. With the Celtics playing some of the worst basketball in the league right now, I believe Ainge has decided it's time to throw in the towel. He wants head coach John Carroll to play young players like Jiri Welsch, Brandon Hunter, Marcus Banks and Kendrick Perkins so he has a better feel for what he does and doesn't have going into the summer. Given Danny's preference for up-tempo basketball, you can be pretty sure he's gunning for a player like Howard to add size and versatility to his front line.

Golden State Warriors
Record: 25-33
Chance of landing No. 1 pick: 1.5%
The Skinny: No one knows this game better than the Warriors. They should miss the playoffs for a league-leading ninth consecutive year. Another late lottery pick isn't going to help things, and the playoffs appear to be out of the question now. Time to pull Erick Dampier (before he gets hurt), Cliff Robinson and Calbert Cheaney out of the rotation and let Mike Dunleavy and Mickael Pietrus shoot the team into lottery land.

Los Angeles Clippers
Record: 25-33
Chance of landing No. 1 pick: 1.4%
The Skinny: Does it really matter?

Seattle SuperSonics
Record: 27-32
Chance of landing No. 1 pick: 0.7%
The Skinny: Nate McMillan hates this. You don't blame him. But when the Sonics decided not to make a move at the trade deadline, GM Rick Sund essentially told McMillan the playoffs weren't a priority this year. It's probably just as well. Now's the time to throw Ronald Murray and Luke Ridnour out there and see how well they'll mesh with Ray Allen.

Around the League

Kobe Bryant
Shooting Guard
Los Angeles Lakers

44 23.0 5.3 5.0 .447 .850

Kobe heats up: Has there been a better player over the past two weeks than Kobe Bryant. Kobe got off to a slow start this season, and the constant distractions of the trial of the year hanging over his head and some nagging injuries have been a problem. For the first time all season, though, he seems focused, healthy and he's lighting everyone up. He dropped 40 points on the Suns, a triple-double on the Wizards and had a streak of six games in seven where he averaged 28 points or more. That stopped with an 11 point, 10 assist "off night" in New Jersey on Sunday. What's gotten into Kobe? He's averaging 30 ppg, 8.3 apg and 8 rpg on 53 percent shooting since the break.
"This is the fist time this season I've had to try to will us back in the game," Bryant said. "A lot of times you can look at the stats and put up good numbers, but a lot of times that's not what does it. You really have to put forth the will and, when your teammates see that you're putting forth 110 percent, then they have to follow suit. They have to believe. And I believe."

Andrei Kirilenko
Power Forward
Utah Jazz

56 17.2 7.9 3.3 .464 .802

Andrei a giant? Sometimes being selected to the All-Star game too early can ruin a guy's career. It was no secret Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan was worried third-year forward Andrei Kirilenko made the cut too soon, fearing Kirilenko would become complacent and quit working on the areas of his game that needed improvement. Well ...
Kirilenko has been on fire since the break. The Russian forward averaged 16.3 ppg before the break and is averaging 23.3 ppg after it. And he's doing it with more steals, the same number of rebounds and assists and with a better field goal percentage. Kirilenko already has made the leap from great prospect to All-Star this year. Is he about to make the jump to superstar in the second half? He dropped in a game-winning 3-pointer against the Sonics last Wednesday and sounded like a man with new-found confidence afterward.

"It's tougher when people say, 'All-Star, All-Star,' but I'm liking it," said Kirilenko, who scored 24 points, including seven of the Jazz's nine points in overtime. "I can make big shot at important moment, like the 3-pointer -- boom! I like it."

James Posey
Memphis Grizzlies

59 13.0 4.7 1.5 .481 .854

Posey for most-improved: The Grizzlies also have come out of the All-Star break on fire, and it's becoming pretty clear their best player is not Pau Gasol or Mike Miller but the unheralded James Posey. Jerry West signed Posey to a bargain, mid-level deal this summer without much fanfare. The thinking at the time was Posey would give the Grizzlies a big, athletic, defensive-minded swingman to balance the plethora of offensive types on the team. Who knew that by February he'd also be the team's first option on offense?
Posey's improvement over the course of the season has been stunning. He averaged 8.6 ppg and 3.4 rpg on 40 percent shooting in November. He upped that to 11.9 ppg and 4.3 rpg in December on 46 percent shooting. In January the numbers jumped again to 14.3 ppg and 4.7 rpg while shooting 51 percent from the field. In February the numbers increased again to 18.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg on 54 percent shooting. It gets even better if you focus on his post All-Star break numbers -- 22.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg on 54 percent shooting. He's been doing all of this the last seven games despite a badly bruised inner thigh that would put a player like Marcus Camby out for the season.

I don't think I'm going out on a limb here when I throw Posey's name into the ring for most improved player of the year. He's been downright awesome and the biggest reason the Grizzlies are 5-2 since the break.

Kirk Hinrich
Point Guard
Chicago Bulls

54 11.5 3.4 6.2 .395 .786

Rookie surprise: Either LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony will walk away with Rookie of the Year honors in a few months, but who would've guessed their closest competition at this point would be Bulls point guard Kirk Hinrich? Hinrich's game has slowly evolved to the point coach Scott Skiles now believes the rookie point is the best player on the entire team.
Hinrich's post All-Star numbers are impressive. He's averaging 16.7 ppg, 7.5 apg, 5.8 rpg and shooting 47 percent from downtown, including his first triple-double Saturday night against the Warriors. Hinrich becomes the first member of the draft class of 2003 to accomplish that.

Only Anthony (27.3 ppg, 6 rpg, 47 percent shooting) and James (22 ppg, 7 rpg, 4.7 apg, 46 percent shooting) have been better since the break.

Soaring Hawks: Who are the two big winners in Atlanta after the Rasheed Wallace trade? Stephen Jackson and Chris Crawford. In the absence of anyone else who can shoot and score the basketball, both players have seen a big boost in minutes and shots since the trade.
Stephen Jackson
Atlanta Hawks

57 15.5 4.4 2.9 .417 .732

Start with Jackson, who has the most to gain. He can and will opt out of his contract this summer, and he now has his first chance to show what he can do outside the shadow of Tim Duncan and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. He's averaging 21 ppg, 6 rpg and 3.6 apg since Wallace was traded, a nice up-tick over his 14.8 ppg and 4.1 rpg season average before the trade.

Crawford's production has been even more eye-popping. He averaged just 8.4 mpg and 2.6 ppg on 37 percent shooting before Abdur-Rahim was dealt. He's been averaging 19.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg on 52 percent shooting since taking over as the team's starting power forward five games ago.

"When [Wallace] got traded, there were no more power forwards left," Crawford told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I just decided to take advantage of the opportunity that came before me."

Crawford played a total of 12 games the previous two seasons. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament during the 2001-02 season and has had to endure three surgeries. "The last two years have been a struggle," Crawford said, "but I'm getting my athletic ability and my jumping ability back to where it was."

Peep Show

Washington Wizards: Not so fast Jerry Stackhouse. "He's going to go get everything checked out and make sure that everything, structurally, is sound," said Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld after Stack voluntarily quit on the rest of the season.. "He's going to go and get therapy and we'll evaluate it after that. Our number one concern is that he feels good health-wise." The bottom line, though, was that the shooting guard wasn't going to get an early vacation. "It's trying to come up with a plan," Stackhouse said in the Washington Post. "If that's to be in rehab or whatever or trying to find a schedule, that works from a standpoint of rest from games and practicing and doing rehab and everything to where I feel good. You do what people ask you to do . . . I'm still basically on the clock and that's what I have to do and we'll see and go from there."

Philadelphia 76ers: Allen Iverson didn't show up to Sunday night's game, didn't call head coach Chris Ford as required, and didn't seem to care that the two were about to get into it again. "There will be something levied for that," Ford said in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "There are rules in our handbook that was handed down at the beginning of the season, not my rules but the organizational rules. There are guidelines that are handed down." Iverson wasn't scheduled to play because of a sore shoulder as the Sixers upset the Timberwolves, but he was expected to be on the bench even if he was claiming to be sick.

Los Angeles Lakers: The basketball drama in Los Angeles has reached biblical proportions. Just ask Phil Jackson. "People don't understand, they're like brothers," the Zen Master said of Shaq and Kobe in the L.A. Daily News. "They're like Cain and Abel, they're just scrumming over the blood and the fruit. You know, who's going to have which sacrifice that means the most to God. So they have their little disagreements, but they are very attached in each other's minds and in the team way, too. I think both of them have been together for long enough to have adopted each other's plights and their cares. And sometimes their concern does get personal, but that's normal things that you have in a family." And about Gary Payton . . . "He's got to find out how to work inside of my offense, inside the team offense," Jackson said of an upcoming meeting with the point guard. "That's something that's taken players a long time, and it's not unusual that a player is going to have a little difficulty. He'll find his way around it."

Miami Heat: Dwyane Wade didn't feel any pain in his left foot after a fall in Sunday night's game and that's what worried him. "My foot was very numb," Wade said in the Palm Beach Post. "Once I got the feeling back I knew that it wasn't good. I knew it was hurting real bad. I still tried to come out and play. Once I know it's not broken I'm always trying to come back." X-rays were negative but it is still not known if he will play against Toronto on Tuesday.

Denver Nuggets: Marcus Camby refused to go on injured reserve and head coach Jeff Bzdelik refused to comment on it publicly. "Next question," the visibly upset coach told the Denver Post. Camby was unable to play Sunday night with a strained groin and isn't sure when he'll be back on the floor. Because of that, the Nuggets asked him to go on the five-game disabled list so that they could activate big man Francisco Elson. Camby refused, forcing the Nuggets to put Ryan Bowen on the injured list to activate Elson. "I have to look out for myself," Camby said. "I've been playing the last couple of games on a bad wheel."

Cleveland Cavaliers: Dajuan Wagner didn't make a bucket in the Cavs latest game but what worried the team was that he didn't even take a shot. "He's got to figure it out," head coach Paul Silas said in the Lorraine Morning News. "He's got to shoot the jumper. We need his production." Silas admitted, though, that he believed his oft-injured guard may need until next season to be back to his former self.