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04-07-2003, 11:12 AM
Death march to ninth place in the East
by Chad Ford

NBA Most Improved Player: See no evil, hear no evil

With just a little more than a week to go in the NBA regular season, the playoff race in both conferences has never been tighter. News of impending MRIs to two crucial big men, Ben Wallace and David Robinson, could torpedo the Pistons' and Spurs' chances to go all the way. And while we're at it ...The Nets have finally woken up and realized that they've got to win it all to make sure Jason Kidd hangs around. The Pistons realize that Mehmet Okur is no Big Ben. When Ron Artest isn't sticking his crooked fingers up toward the heavens, the Pacers are proving they can still run with anyone. The Sixers are pleading for a little nap time before the real NBA season begins. The Magic are running out magic numbers. And the Bucks appear poised to add another shocking meltdown to George Karl's distinguished record.

Here's Insider's latest projection of the Eastern Conference playoff seeds. Tuesday we'll do the Western Conference ...

1. New Jersey Nets (48-29)

What's wrong: Dikembe Mutombo is complaining about his minutes. Rodney Rogers still hasn't completely broken out of his funk. And Jason Kidd still can't make up his mind about where he'll be playing next season. After saying on Wednesday that his intentions are "100 percent to stay," in New Jersy, Kidd waffled again over the weekend. "I still have a decision to make come July," he told the New York Times on Saturday. "Again, I hope that it will be the Nets, but it's nothing in concrete that will happen. So we have to see.

What's right: Kenyon Martin played big in his first game back since spraining his right knee on March 29. At least Mutombo is healthy enough to make his minutes an issue. Richard Jefferson is heating up at the right time. And perhaps the team realizes the best chance they have to keep Kidd around is to start winning again.

What's left: The Nets have it pretty easy down the stretch. Road games against the Hawks and Bulls are dangerous, but winnable. Home games against the Raptors (minus Vince Carter the rest of the season) and an injury-riddled Hornets squad are both doable as well. Their toughest game left will be the season finale in Indiana.

Prediction: 52-30. Top seed in the East.

2. Indiana Pacers (46-31)

What's wrong: Not much right now. Ron Artest is on his best behavior. Jamaal Tinsley is back and seems as focused as ever. Barring a bout with the plague, the Pacers seem to have put their troubles behind them.

What's right: The team has won five of their last six. Brad Miller is healthy again. Jermaine O'Neal and Al Harrington have been beasts in the paint. And Jonathan Bender is starting to show why the Pacers drafted him at No. 5 three years ago.

What's left: It's not an easy schedule, but every game is winnable. The team has the Nets and Magic at home and the Bulls, Bucks and Knicks on the road.

Prediction: 50-32. Second seed in the East.

3. Philadelphia 76ers (45-31)

What's wrong: The team has lost five of their last six at home. Allen Iverson has a swollen left knee. Keith Van Horn is in street clothes, with his left foot (strained plantar fascia and a bone bruise) in a protective boot. Aaron McKie continues to suffer from back spasms. The laundry list of injuries has gotten so bad, coach Larry Brown is considering sitting some of his players down the stretch. "I know how much these guys want to play and be out there, and a lot of them feel that at 60 to 70 percent they need to be there to help their teammates, and I admire that," Brown told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "But there are times you simply can't do it and have to accept it. When I see guys struggling and laboring, it doesn't make me feel good."

What's right: Kenny Thomas has been playing at an All-Star level the last few weeks. He's scored 17.4 ppg and pulled down 14.6 rpg in his last five. Tyrone Hill has been a huge addition to the Sixers. Eric Snow continues to play at career best levels for the Sixers.

What's left: Their toughest game left may Tuesday's home game against the Pistons. They also have tough home games against the Hornets and Wizards. And away games vs. the Celtics, Knicks and Bulls.

Prediction: 50-32. Third seed in the East.

4. Detroit Pistons (47-29)

What's wrong: Ben Wallace sprained his left medial collateral ligament Sunday night, putting a major question mark on his availability the rest of the season. "We'll know more tomorrow," Pistons coach Rick Carlisle told the Detroit Free Press. "It's unfortunate to lose him. It looks like we are going to lose him for some games, I'm not sure how many. That's a blow." Losing the team MVP during the first round of the playoffs could lead to an early playoff exit for the Pistons. To make matters worse, the team has lost three straight.

What's right: Zeljko Rebraca could be back as early as Tuesday. Rebraca has been out since Dec. 21 with an irregular heartbeat. With Wallace out, the Pistons need Rebraca back more than ever. "There's a very good chance Rebraca will be activated for Philadelphia," Carlisle told the Free Press. "I don't want to say for sure, but there's a very strong chance. That being said, we haven't had much contact practice in recent weeks because of the schedule. He has done a lot of work on his own. He has gotten to the point where we believe he's ready to be activated. That gives us some relief pending on how he responds to game conditions."

What's left: Away games agains the Sixers, Hornets and Celtics could mean big trouble for the Pistons without Wallace. Luckily, they also get to face the Bulls and Cavs at home. The key game to watch is a game vs. the Grizzlies on the road. Memphis has been struggling lately, but without Wallace, the team could trip up in Graceland.

Prediction: 49-33. Fourth seed in the East.

5. New Orleans Hornets (42-35)

What's wrong: Baron Davis' twisted left knee, P.J. Brown's ankle sprain and David Wesley's bruised left foot have really hurt. While Davis' injury isn't considered serious (he's expected to play the rest of the season), Brown's may be more serious.

What's right: Jamaal Magloire has become a beast on the boards. George Lynch has added some offense to his defensive intensity. Jamal Mashburn continues to play like an All-Star. And Kenny Anderson has been pretty good in relief of Davis.

What's left: Home games agains the Cavs, Pistons and Hawks are all winnable. But away games against the Sixers and Nets will be tough. It looks like the Hornets are still locked into the fifth seed, though the Celtics are making a push.

Prediction: 45-37. Fifth seed in the East.

6. Boston Celtics (41-36)

What's wrong: Antoine Walker's 8.2 apg over the last five are amazing, but his 12.8 ppg on 27-for-80 shooting has killed the Celtics. Tony Battie is playing, but he's not healthy enough to give them the type of inside presence they need. Rookie point guard J.R. Bremer (9.8 ppg, 2.4 apg in last five) looks like he may have hit the wall.

What's right: Paul Pierce. Pierce is averaging 33 ppg, 7.8 rpg and 5.8 apg over the last five. Walter McCarty has come up with some big games off the bench, as well. The team finally looks committed to playing good defense again. That was the secret of their success last season.

What's left: Away games against the Magic and Wizards will be tough, as will home games against the Pistons and Sixers. The only "easy" game will be a roadie vs. the Heat.

Prediction: 44-38. Sixth seed in the East.

7. Orlando Magic (39-38)

What's wrong: The Magic's schedule. Their last four games agains the Sixers, Spurs, Mavs and Rockets (all losses) have been brutal. After a wonderful start in Orlando, Drew Gooden has cooled off considerably the last few games because of a sore toe. Tracy McGrady's ribs are bothering him. "It's a real frustrating time for this team," McGrady told the Orlando Sentinel. "Losing four in a crucial time like this? Everybody's supposed to be on the same page. Right now we're out of sync. We're not on the same page. I think we thought we already clinched a playoff spot, and we didn't. We're playing like [expletive]."

What's right: Stephen Hunter has given the Magic solid minutes in the middle. He had 15 points, 7 boards and 5 blocks in the Magic's loss to the Sixers and 14 points and 10 boards in their loss to the Mavs.

What's left: The Magic get a little break when they face the Raptors at home on Wednesday. Then they play a tough game in Indiana on Friday and must fly back to Orlando for a home game vs. the Celtics on Saturday. They end the season on the road with games against the Hawks and Bucks.

Prediction: 42-40. Seventh seed in the East.

8. Milwaukee Bucks (39-40)

What's wrong: A huge loss against the Bulls on Saturday, after blowing a 19 point lead, let the Wizards back into the playoff hunt. The loss ruined what was otherwise a very good week for the Bucks. "We had an opportunity to have a great week," coach George Karl told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Some of the outcome was our fault and some of it was Chicago's pride. We had good control of the game early when we were focused defensively and passing the ball. Late in the third quarter, it got away from us, and Chicago got back in it. If we had been mentally tougher and played better team basketball, we would have won."

What's right: The Bucks have won four straight before Saturday's loss against the Bulls. Michael Redd continues to prove he may be the Bucks best player. He's averaged 19.3 ppg, 9 rpg and shot 46 percent from behind the arc in April. Desmond Mason's 13.4 ppg and 7.4 rpg have also been big for the Bucks down the stretch.

What's left: The team only has one road game left, against the Raptors. They also play home games against the Clippers, Pacers and Magic. Luckily, the team holds the tie breaker over the Wizards should they end in a tie.

Prediction: 40-42. Eighth seed in the East.

9. Washington Wizards (35-41)

What's wrong: The Wizards have lost a few heartbreakers at the buzzer. Other than Jerry Stackhouse and Michael Jordan, no one is really stepping up with any consistency. All of these "Jordan farewells" have to be taking their toll.

What's right: Michael Jordan. He's averaged 21.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg and 4.8 apg over his last five.

What's left: The Wizards have only three road games left, against the Cavs, Heat and Sixers. They play Boston, Atlanta and New York at home.

Prediction: 39-43. Miss playoffs by one game.
Denver or Golden State for Arenas?

Gilbert Arenas swore he was going to quit talking about his impending free agent decision this summer. However, a report by the Rocky Mountain News over the weekend, quoting his father changed all of that.
The Mountain News reported on Saturday that Arenas was leaning toward signing with the Nuggets this summer. "Denver is definitely the leading candidate," Gilbert Arenas Sr. said.

Arenas Sr. said the Nuggets cap space was a big factor in the decision. As was Arenas's relationship with Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe. "Kiki is just a great gentleman, and Gilbert would love to work with him if he ends up in Denver," Arenas Sr. said. "(Vandeweghe) said during those workouts that Gilbert was the best of all the players that he worked out." On Sunday, Arenas denied he was eyeing the Nuggets or anyone else for that matter. Arenas told the San Francisco Chronicle his father "is making me look stupid. . .I told him I don't talk about my contract until the summer. Wherever he's getting this from, I don't know. It isn't from me."

Teammate Antawn Jamison was even more emphatic that Arenas would not leave the Warriors this summer. "There's only one team he's looking at," Jamison said. "That's the Golden State Warriors." "See?" Arenas said. "Thank you, baby. Write that, quoted by Antawn Jamison." "That's my protege right there," Jamison said. "I have to make sure he says the right things."

Odom still wants to stay in L.A.

What is it with these Clippers? They can't win basketball games, their owner is the cheapest guy in the NBA and yet the players still want to stay in L.A. One week after both Elton Brand said he'd like re-sign with the Clippers and center Michael Olowokandi said he'd consider returning to the team, Lamar Odom told New York reporters that his first choice was to remain in L.A. "My loyalty is to the Clippers for being loyal to me," Odom told the N.Y. Times. "We'll have to see in July, but hopefully the Clippers want me back."

However, Odom is realistic. He knows that the Clippers may not be willing to fork over the cash to keep him. Odom has mentioned the Heat as a possible destination next summer should the Clippers keep playing cheap. He also said he'd love to play for the Knicks, even if it means signing for the mid-level exception. "I would listen to them," said Odom. "That's the one team where I could see myself signing for that. It's New York. But I would think the Clippers would match that."

While Odom would love playing in New York, it isn't clear whether Latrell Sprewell would approve. He claims that the Knicks need to add another power forward or center to the team. "We definitely want [Antonio] McDyess back, but we have a lot of guards, perimeter guys," Sprewell told the N.Y. Post. "We still could use guys inside to bang."

Allen vows to clean up the Blazers

Owner Paul Allen issued an all points bulletin this weekend promising to light up the Blazers this summer in an attempt to smoke out all of the bad seeds. No word on whether Allen issued the press release to the Oregonian while riding in the back seat of Rasheed Wallace's SUV. "Let there be no mistake that unacceptable conduct will not be condoned," Allen said in a faxed response to questions from The Oregonian. "Everyone at the Blazers will tackle these issues head-on -- and we are prepared to suspend players, levy heavy fines and trade or release a player if that becomes necessary."

"The community deserves a team of which we can all be proud and I am fully committed to improving the Blazers' conduct on and off the court.'' Perhaps Allen, who rarely makes public statements about the Blazers, was inspired to go public after Ruben Patterson's touching reconciliation with Zach Randolph. Randolph, you'll remember, punched Patterson in the face at practice last week after Randolph got into a scuffle with Qyntel Woods.

"I forgive him," Patterson told the Oregonian. "He's my teammate, he made a mistake, and I can't retaliate, trying to fight him or beat him up, because I'm on probation, so I would get in trouble." Isn't that lovely? Maybe Allen needs to provide probation officers for all of his players. If Allen holds true to his word, he's going to have to dump a quarter of his team this off-season. Wallace, Patterson Randolph, Woods and Damon Stoudamire have all had serious issues with off-the-court conduct.

Peep Show

Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies: Kobe Bryant to the Grizzlies in 2004? The rumors have been running rampant ever since Jerry West took the team over last summer. While some argued that Bryant would never leave the Lakers for the lowly Grizz, now that West is quickly bringing the Grizz toward respectability, what does Kobe think of West and the Grizzlies? "The Grizzlies have been pretty much a laughing stock," Bryant told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "But he's made some changes, brought in some talent and they have a lot of potential. . .It's amazing how quickly he's been able to turn it around."

San Antonio Spurs: David Robinson will undergo an MRI on his right knee today. "One of the doctors along the way said it could indicate a meniscus problem of some sort, but he doesn't think it's a ligament," coach Gregg Popovich told the San Antonio Express News. "That just gave us pause. If he can't straighten that thing, it will be hard for him to go full bore. He said he feels better, but we can't chance it. Hopefully, there's nothing there."

Chicago Bulls: The pairing of Jamal Crawford and Jay Williams in the backcourt has been a hit. The two shot 16-for-29 from the field and had a combine 15 assists on Sunday. However, coach Bill Cartwright still believes that playing them both together is a mistake. Right now it's clear he's following orders from Jerry Krause. "I never said they couldn't play together," Cartwright told the Chicago Tribune. "I said that's not our best tandem out there. And I still stand by that." Jalen Rose agrees. "Neither one of those guys has been put in position to run a team," Rose said. "In college, both of them were combination guards, if you think about it. They were asked to score the ball and then distribute. Both of those guys come in as point guards, but they like to shoot. [Running a team] comes with NBA maturity and experience."

New York Knicks: GM Scott Layden tried to soften the potential loss of second-round draft pick Milos Vujanic this weekend by claiming that former first-rounder Frederic Weis could still join the team this summer. "We haven't dismissed him by any means," Layden told the N.Y. Times. "Whether he'll work out or be over here, I don't know. But he's 25, he's still a young guy and he's got that thing you can't teach." Of course, some international scouts wonder why the Knicks would want him here. Weis plays only 16 minutes a game, and averages 2.8 ppg and 4.5 rpg.

NBA Most Improved Player:
Pacers still looking the other way

Used to be that Ron Artest was better seen rather than heard. Now, I can't even bear to look much less listen to his coach make excuses for his boorish, boyish, bullish behavior. Last year, as a Chicago Bull, he averaged 15.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.7 steals and 0.8 blocks per game on 43 percent shooting as a hard-working middle of the first round draft pick who had already been named to the All Rookie Second Team, but was more than willing to work his fingers to the bone and then literally break a couple of them to get better.

In his first game of this season, Artest tallied 20 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals on 61 percent shooting with 2 three-pointers. In his first month of this season, he averaged 16.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.8 steals and 1 block on 50 percent shooting. Then came the broken camera in front of his friends and family after a game in New York, the shoving and shouting in Miami and ensuing technical fouls and flagrant fouls, followed by punitive suspensions by both the league and his team and then mandatory suspensions for continued problems.

By the month of February, his averages were down to 11.4 points and 4.7 rebounds on 33 percent shooting and the Indiana Pacers had gone from a 33-14 record before the month to 8-17 since. So, he can tally 20 points, 6 boards, 6 assists, 5 steals and 3 blocks on 54 percent shooting with two three-pointers against the Suns on March 30 followed by 23 points and 8 rebounds on April 1 against the Kings.

But all I can see, all I can hear, is Isiah Thomas getting shoved away by Ron Artest in the very next game on April 2 after he committed another technical foul and uttering: "Ron is like any other player or any other person." Which is really too bad because we kinda hoped he'd be better or, at least, Most Improved.

We don't know if he's going to be traded next year. We don't know if he's going to be benched this year. We don't know why it took so long for all of us to get to this point in the first place. But what we do know is that Ricky Davis has better numbers across the board than Vince Carter, nearly doubles the rebounds, assists and steals from Allan Houston, plays better defense than Jerry Stackhouse and is statistically almost twice the playmaker Michael Finley is. So, aside from Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Allan Houston, all called selfish, aloof and temperamental, themselves, we find no cause not to give this award to a shooting guard who has just about doubled his numbers in every major statistical category we use in default when half the players mentioned here aren't going to the playoffs, either. Except, of course, for that awful taste in my mouth which got worse as I typed this.

Bobby Jackson
Sacramento Kings

Current Stats: 16.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.2 spg, 0.06 bpg, 47% shooting in 29.3 mpg
Career Stats: 9.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1 spg, 0.1 bpg, 43% shooting in 22.2 mpg

In a better world, he'd have his own team. Until then, we won't know how good he can possibly be which is too bad for us, him and the game, itself.

Matt Harpring
Utah Jazz

Current Stats: 17.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1 spg, 0.2 bpg, 51% shooting in 33 mpg
Career Stats: 12.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.5 apg, 0.8 spg, 0.1 bpg, 47% shooting in 29.3 mpg

Matt Harpring turns gold this year, shooting better than 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from long range and 80 percent from the line. Pause. Now, combine the numbers of all eight players who have been able to shoot at a higher percentage from the field this season than Matt, and this guy still has hit 55 more three-pointers than all of them this year and 81 over their combined careers.

Corey Maggette
Los Angeles Clippers

Current Stats: 17 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.8 apg, 0.9 spg, 0.2 bpg, 44% shooting in 31.8 mpg
Career Stats: 11.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.4 apg, 0.5 spg, 0.2 bpg, 45% shooting in 23.1 mpg

Most point to the fact that Corey Maggette, in his fourth year as a pro, has finally and greatly improved his ability to simply shoot the ball. I'd like to add that, had be stayed in school, this would have been his rookie season.

Eric Snow
Philadelphia 76ers

Current Stats: 12.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 6.8 apg, 1.6 spg, 0.1 bpg, 45% shooting in 38.3 mpg
Career Stats: 7.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 5.3 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.09 bpg, 43% shooting in 27.5 mpg

It took Eric Snow seven seasons to eventually average double-digit scoring. A year later, which just so happens to be this one, he has increased that number as well as posting career highs in rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and, assuming he hits his next four shots, shooting percentage. Now, we can go ahead and honor all the other guys on this list for their breakout seasons so long as we don't forget about players like the aforementioned point guard and his fellow partners in arms Chauncey Billups, Troy Hudson and Alvin Williams for continuing to improve over the course of their careers.

04-07-2003, 11:35 AM
Odom would consider going to ny with the midlevel exception in lottery hell and salary cap hell. Maybe all the perks the mavericks have can persuade him to come here.