View Full Version : 4/1 ESPN INSIDER (The race in the West)

04-01-2003, 12:22 PM
The Amazing Race in the West
by Chad Ford

Stop us if you've heard this before. Western Conference coach whose team is struggling to keep its head above water looks longingly back East and rhetorically wonders, "If only we were in the Eastern Conference." Is there any doubt teams like the Suns, Rockets, Warriors and Sonics would be talking about home-court advantage in the first round if they played in the other conference? We know things are tough in the Wild, Wild West, but this is ridiculous. Monday we did a quick FEMA-led drive-by through the disaster area known as the East. Now it's time to pack up our game and head out West where real teams come equipped with big men and bigger sticks.

For starters, lets go to Mark in Dallas.

Q: Am I reading this right? After ignoring us, I mean the Mavs, the team with the best record in the NBA, for the entire season, now you're predicting that we won't even win our conference? Given that we're currently two games ahead of the Spurs in the standings, what gives?

A: Just a hunch. The Spurs are the hottest team in the NBA since the All-Star break. Their 20-4 record since the break is just staggering. And the best news is that their schedule down the stretch isn't that tough. A road game against the Pistons and a season finale against the Mavs are the two toughest games down the stretch for San Antonio. I'll go out on a limb and say that whoever wins that game will win the Midwest and end up with the best record in the NBA. Since it's in San Antonio, I give the edge to the Spurs.

What an amazing turn of events that really is. Tim Duncan, who's having another MVP season, will get most of the credit. But it's really been the emergence of Tony Parker that has put them over the top. The Spurs desperately needed a second dependable scorer, and Parker has given them all of that and more. His 16.3 ppg average after the All-Star break doesn't blow you away. But his 48 percent shooting from the field does. And don't forget he doesn't turn 21 for another six weeks. You also can't forget the supporting cast of Malik Rose, Stephen Jackson and Emanuel Ginobili. They've all stepped up their games down the stretch. Will the Spurs win it all this year? I doubt it. But once they get a little more talent via free agency this summer, they should be the favorites in the West next year.

Insider prediction: 61-21. First place in the Western Conference.

Q: You've been picking the Kings to win it all for the past two years. What makes you think this is the year? They couldn't even manage the best record in the West.

A: Patience. The Kings have been playing through significant injuries all season. Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic and Bobby Jackson have all missed 10 or more games due to injury. Now that everyone is healthy, the Kings are really clicking. The team is 18-5 since the All-Star break. It's getting balanced scoring from Webber, Stojakovic and Bibby. The Kings have the best bench in the league with Jackson, Keon Clark, Scot Pollard, Jim Jackson and Hedo Turkoglu. A first-round matchup versus the Lakers doesn't terrify them. In fact, after talking with several folks on the Kings, they're more worried about the Spurs. San Antonio has won the last three games with the Kings. If they meet in the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs will have home-court advantage. It's always something with Sacramento.

Insider prediction: 58-24. First place in Pacific, second place in Western Conference.

Q: Seriously, how can you be projecting the Mavs to be third here? Is our defense that bad?

A: Yes and no. The defense will be a problem in the playoffs. Right now, the Mavs' biggest concern is a pretty tough schedule down the stretch. Their last nine games are all against playoff-caliber teams. They play back-to-back games against the Lakers and Suns on the road. They also have road games against the Spurs and Jazz. Their home games aren't easy either. This week they face the Hornets, Lakers and Magic. They also play the Warriors and Sonics at home in the last week of the season. If the Mavs lose three of these games (including the one with the Spurs), I think San Antonio will catch them for the top spot in the West. With Michael Finley out with a sore hamstring, that's a pretty tough task.

Insider prediction: 61-21. Third place in the West (Spurs will own tie-breaker).

Q: Will home-court advantage finally propel the T-Wolves into the second round?

A: You're assuming that the T-Wolves will get home-court advantage. That won't be easy. The Wolves likely will have to go 5-2 down the stretch to lock up the home court. Even then, it's not a given the edge will help them defeat the Blazers, the other team vying for the fourth seed. After starting the season with the best home record in the West, the T-Wolves are just 3-3 at home over their last six. Of course, those losses came at the hands of the Spurs, Lakers and Mavs, but still you have to be able to beat the elite teams in your own house. The good news for the T-Wolves is that they've already beaten the Blazers once in Portland this season. Their second road game against the Blazers on April 6 could decide who holds home court in the first round.

Insider prediction: 51-31. Fourth place in the West.

Q: Is it just a matter of time before the Blazers self combust?
A: What do the Jail Blazers do when they're in a funk? Dale Davis has the answer. "Usually, when I'm in a funk, I go back to my old roots," Davis said. "I go penitentiary style. That's me; that's the way it has to go down." Penitentiary style? That can't be good. Before Friday's blowout of the Mavs, the Blazers had lost five of their last seven. Eight of their last 10 games are against playoff contenders in the West. Without Scottie Pippen, you really have to wonder if they have enough stability to get things done. Like every year, one night the Blazers look like they could win it all. The next night, they look like the Cavs. Which one will show up down the stretch? If we believe Davis, it will be the team that usually spends the second round at home dodging police searches.

Insider prediction: 51-31. Fifth place in West (lose tie breaker with T-Wolves).

Q: Does home-court advantage matter to the Lakers anymore?

A: They claim it doesn't. And it probably won't. The Lakers have been one of the best teams in the West in the second half. They still have weird hiccups now and then against teams like Seattle and Chicago, but for the most part, they're eating everyone alive right now. When the Lakers care, and they rarely seem to anymore, they can beat anyone. As long as Shaq and Kobe are doing their thing -- and they are -- the Lakers really don't have much to worry about. I think the Kings can take them if the Lakers end up facing them in round one. But more likely, the Lakers will face either the Spurs or Mavs. If I was a betting man, I'd go with the Lakers in either series.

Insider prediction: 47-35. Sixth place in the West.

Q: I thought the Jazz's window was supposed to close, like, four years ago?

A: While everyone is still obsessing about the Jazz's two senior citizens, Karl Malone and John Stockton, the team has slowly injected the franchise with fresh, athletic legs to take some of the burden off their shoulders. Matt Harpring has been sensational this season. He's shooting over 50 percent from the field, 43 percent from beyond the arc, and is second on the team to Malone in rebounding. And don't forget about second-year stud Andrei Kirilenko. His game isn't flashy, but he does some of everything. He's the team's best shot blocker, a stifling defender, an excellent rebounder and good shooter. Put them on the floor with the two grumpy old men and the Jazz make you pick your poison. I don't think they have enough juice to get out of the first round, but they do have enough to make interesting.

Insider prediction: 47-35. Seventh place in the West (Lakers own tie breaker).

Q: Weren't the Suns supposed to be one of the worst teams in the West this season? What they hell are they doing in the playoffs?

A: The rookie of the year debate is basically over, and it appears Yao Ming has it locked up at this point. But if you want to look at a rookie's impact, Amare Stoudemire wins the award hands down. Without him, the Suns are fighting the Nuggets and Grizzlies for the worst record in the West. With him, they still have a great shot at the playoffs. His 14.7 ppg and 8.8 rpg since the All-Star break have kept the Suns from being massacred in the paint. The Suns stumbled without Penny Hardaway in February and March. He's back now, but still getting his legs back. If he can put on a few more performances like the one he dropped in Memphis last week (18 pts, 9 reb, 5 assists) the Suns will be in business.

Insider prediction: 43-39. Eighth place in the West.

Q: Will the Rockets win one for Rudy T?

A: I'm sure they want to. But with Yao Ming looking exhausted and the Rockets getting little help from anyone other than Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley, it's unlikely. They'll be lucky to get a win against either Milwaukee or Philly on the road. Then they come back to tough home games against the Magic and Blazers. Then back on the road against the Jazz. Their last three games against the Sonics, Grizzlies and Nuggets are easier, but by then, it may be too late. All in all, it may be the best thing that could happen to the Rockets. Yao needs rest. The Rockets need to regroup. They won't make a big push in the playoffs anyway. All is not lost if they have to wait one more year to hit the big time. With so much young talent, it's not a question of if for the Rockets, it's a question of when.

Insider prediction: 42-40. Ninth place in the West.

Do the Heat have Olowokandi locked up?

We thought the mass exodus from the Clippers would probably not take place until after the season. However, reports surfaced over the weekend that Michael Olowokandi has already purchased a home in Miami. One report in the Chicago Tribune went so far as to say the Heat already had Olowokandi "locked up" for next season.

The Heat are looking at anywhere between $5 and $7 million in cap room this summer. Olowokandi, who will be an unrestricted free agent, is free to move about the country if he wishes. However, he'd be taking less than the Clippers offered him last summer if he signed with the Heat. Olowokandi's agent, Bill Duffy, told Insider on Monday that there's no connection between the house and the Kandi-man's final free-agent destination.
"There's nothing to it," Duffy said. "He just really wanted to live in Miami. Remember that a few years ago Antonio Davis bought a house in Orlando and everyone in the media just assumed that he'd sign with the Magic that summer. As you know, he re-signed with Toronto instead."

Duffy continues to insist Olowokandi is keeping all of his options open, including a return to the Clippers. "It just doesn't make any sense for us to be deciding this type of thing right now. Michael's got to get healthy first. And then, when he's free to talk to other teams [after July 1] he's going to explore all of his options." Olowokandi's name has also been linked to the Spurs and Nuggets, two teams that could offer him much more money than the Heat could this summer. Speaking of Olowokandi, it looks like he will miss the rest of the season recovering from his Feb. 3 knee surgery. According to the L.A Times, Olowokandi still cannot run.

"Yes, he is progressing and he's ahead of where he was last week or the week before," coach Dennis Johnson said. "I know he's doing his work." The Clippers are also waiting to hear whether Elton Brand will be able to rejoin them this season. Brand will meet with doctors today to determine if his stress fracture in his left leg has healed enough to allow him to play the Clippers' last nine games. "If Elton's ready and he's cleared to play, we're going to play him," Johnson said. "I don't think that would be rushing him back. He's been doing all his rehab stuff and all that, and he'll be ready to play."

In or Out of the NBA Draft

Carmelo Anthony keeps hinting that he might return for a sophomore season at Syracuse.

Carmelo Anthony has proven he's worthy of being a top NBA pick. Don't count on it, according to one source close to Anthony told Insider. "You better not believe that," the source said. "He's coming out. His performance in the tournament just sealed the deal." Indeed, Anthony, who wasn't exactly in the national spotlight at Syracuse, is winning over a lot of people. From coaches to commentators, more and more people are wondering whether Anthony, not LeBron James, should be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

Anthony's exposure on the national stage, along with the distinction of leading Syracuse to the Final Four, should be enough to push him into the league, even if he has to drag his momma kicking and screaming. "If you're projected as a top-three pick in the draft, you've got to come out," another league source said. "He loves playing at Syracuse, but in the end, this will be a business decision. He's one of the few guys in this draft that has the skills to contribute in the league right away."

One NBA source and one international basketball source told Insider this weekend that Gonzaga power forward Ronny Turiaf will put his name into the draft. Turiaf, a 20-year-old sophomore power forward from France, is riding a series of rave reviews from his performance in the NCAA Tournament. Turiaf (6-foot-9, 228 pounds) is considered one of the most lethal low-post scorers in college basketball. He's one of the most talented big men in the game playing with his back to the basket. He possesses excellent footwork and several different go-to moves off the block. And he gets to the foul line better than just about any other big man in the college game.

According to several NBA scouts, Turiaf would likely be a mid-first-round pick if he declared now. However, with strong workouts, or another good season at Gonzaga, he has the potential to be a lottery pick. High school star Charlie Villanueva still sounds like he's leaning toward putting his name into the NBA Draft. After Monday night's prep all-star game in Chicago, Villanueva said he'd wait a few more weeks before making his final decision. "[Playing in the NBA] is my goal," Villanueva told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "That's what I want to do, but if it doesn't happen, I can always go to college. That's not a bad idea."

Villanueva (6-10, 215) said he will enter the draft if he is projected to be one of the first 15 players selected. He has until May 12 to declare. "I'm going to wait three or four weeks and then make my decision," said Villanueva. "I'm going to see what kind of feedback I get from the NBA, (my) coaches and things like that. ... I'm definitely going to Illinois if the NBA doesn't work. Illinois is a great program, but I'm going to wait and see what happens." The good news for Illinois fans is that Villanueva is currently projected by NBA scouts as a late-first-round pick. Working against him are his slender frame and the uncertainty over what position he'd play in the pros.

"He needs to go to Illinois, toughen up and learn how to play," one scout said last week. "LeBron is the only high school senior with any business being in this draft."

Peep Show

New York Knicks: According to Latrell Sprewell, Marcus Camby isn't unhappy in Denver anymore. However, he would like to return to the Knicks next season. "Other than the fact he wants to come back here, I pretty much know that," Spree told the N.Y. Post. "[But] he doesn't seem too terribly displeased." The Nuggets still maintain that they have no intention of moving Camby. "There were teams interested at the deadline, but we're not looking to move him," Nuggets assistant GM David Fredman said. "We've had discussions about [a contract extension]."

Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe Bryant thinks Phil Jackson is asking a lot of him. Currently, Kobe is being asked to run the triangle offense and lead the team in scoring. "I challenge you to find anybody in the history of the league who has had to do what I'm doing right now," Bryant told the O.C. Register. "You're talking about two different things that are diametrically opposed to one another, and it's tough. I'm trying to get back into rhythm. I'll get it; I'll get it. My teammates, we're are all getting it, and we'll be fine." So is the friction between Bryant and Jackson over his role reaching the boiling point? "We're fine," Bryant said. "Our personalities will always clash. No, I'm just playing."

Minnesota Timberwolves: Kevin McHale is outraged over the T-Wolves' three-game losing streak. "I'm disgusted," he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "I'm just disgusted with how we played defense. We didn't get to loose balls, we gave up open shots... . We'd better be concerned with how we're playing, or we won't be playing very long."

Boston Celtics: Can the team regain the defensive vigor that it displayed last season in the playoffs? Paul Pierce thinks so. "[Last year] it was more consistent when it came from all five guys," Pierce told the Boston Globe. "There are just too many times when we have maybe four guys working and one guy really slacking. It can't be like that. The way our defense is designed, if all five guys aren't working together, then it breaks down the whole defense. I definitely think we have the personnel. It's just a matter of doing it on a consistent basis. With the playoffs around the corner, if we're playing defense like [we did against Cleveland], then we'll be going home pretty early."

Milwaukee Bucks: Sam Cassell isn't lacking for confidence. "I make big shots everywhere," he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I get accustomed to it. I'm not afraid to be the goat. I don't worry about what you (reporters) say about me in the papers. In fact, I like it. It tickles me."

Portland Trail Blazers: When Dale Davis said the Blazers were going into penitentiary mode, he wasn't kidding. Rookie Qyntel Woods was cited with marijuana possession and speeding Monday night, according to the Oregonian. It's the third marijuana possession citation for the Blazers this season. As you may remember, Woods admitted in pre-draft interviews with NBA general managers that he had used marijuana. Although he claimed he had stopped using marijuana and that it was "in his past," he slipped from a projected top-10 pick until the Blazers selected him with the 21st pick. According to the Oregonian, Woods admitted to police that he had smoked the drug for about three years and wanted to quit but was addicted. Ironically, news of the bust came on the same day Rasheed Wallace got six months probation for marijuana possession charges.

04-01-2003, 03:07 PM
Thanks, OP. Good read.

04-01-2003, 05:53 PM
That brings up one question: who on the Blazers squad is the dealer?

04-01-2003, 11:46 PM
Thanks outlet! Finley is going to pratice tommorow. Hopefully he is wrong about his prediciton regarding the mavs.