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04-08-2003, 11:08 AM
Avoiding the Lakers
by Chad Ford

While the teams in the East all seem to be playing for last place, three teams in the West are closing in on 60 wins this season.

Still, questions abound, most of them having something to do with avoiding the Lakers in Round 1. Can the Spurs sail by Shaq all the way to Finals without the Admiral? Can the Kings finally find a way to rid themselves of the Lakers? Can the Mavs even get out of the first round if the Lakers stand in their way. Is this the year the T-Wolves finally get out of the first round?

Here's Insider's latest projection of the Western Conference playoff seeds:

1. San Antonio Spurs (57-20)

What's wrong: A nine-game win streak cures just about everything. David Robinson's knee is aching. Other than that, things are pretty sweet at the Alamo right now.

What's right: Everything. Tim Duncan is playing like the MVP. Tony Parker is playing like a 30-year-old all-star point guard, not a 20-year-old sophomore. Malik Rose, Bruce Bowen, Stephen Jackson and Emanuel Ginobili are all peaking at the same time.

What's left: The Spurs play the Blazers and Sonics at home. Then they go on the road to play the Suns and Jazz. Their season finale at home vs. the Mavs will probably decide who is the No. 1 seed in the West.

Prediction: 61-21. Top seed in the West.

2. Sacramento Kings (56-22)

What's wrong: Very little. The Kings have won 10 of their last 11 and just completed a tough six-game Eastern Conference road swing. For the first time this season, everyone is healthy.

What's right: Just about everything. Chris Webber is playing as good as ever. Peja Stojakovic is sinking 3s. Mike Bibby looks great running the show. Doug Christie's defense is still stellar. Vlade Divac is as wily as ever. And that bench ...

What's left: One more big game. The Kings play the Lakers in L.A. on Thursday. A resounding win over Shaq and Co. would send a very loud message to the rest of the league.

Prediction: 60-22. Second seed in the West.

3. Dallas Mavericks (57-19)

What's wrong: Not much. Michael Finley's hamstring is still sore. He's not eligible to come off the injured list until Saturday. Coach Don Nelson is worried about Eduardo Najera's knee. Right now he's unable to practice, but Najera insists it's getting better. Big loss to the Lakers last week created more doubt about the Mavs' ability to win big games.

What's right: A lot. Dirk Nowitzki is having his best season. Steve Nash seems to have more fuel left in the tank than in previous years. Nick Van Exel will get serious consideration for Sixth Man of the Year award. And the Mavs are playing better defense lately than people give them credit for. On Saturday they held Tracy McGrady to 12 points on 3 of 14 shooting.

What's left: The Mavs are facing a tough road trip against the Lakers, Suns and Jazz. Right now, with the Spurs breathing over their shoulders, they can't afford to lose any of those games. Then they play home games against the Warriors and Sonics before that season finale in San Antonio. If the teams hold serve until that game, it could be one of the best of the year, with the winner drawing either the Suns or Rockets in the first round and the loser facing the Lakers. That's a pretty big difference.

Prediction: 61-21. Third seed in the West.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves (48-30)

What's wrong: Wally Szczerbiak's been in a slump the past few weeks. Before Sunday's 25-point performance against the Blazers, Szczerbiak had a couple of terrible performances against the Mavs and Sonics. In March, Szczerbiak averaged 21 points on 52.7 percent shooting in seven Minnesota victories. In the team's eight losses, however, he averaged 12.3 points on 38.8 percent shooting.

What's right: The Wolves are riding high after a huge road win Sunday against the Blazers. The win brought them into a tie for fourth place in the West and gave them the tie breaker over the Blazers. Kevin Garnett told his teammates before the game that the playoffs started right there, then went out and scored 16 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and handed out 12 assists. "I told KG after the game that is about as well as he has played," coach Flip Saunders told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "He's had a lot of games where he's scored 30 and had monster games, but you talk about a guy who understands. He had very good focus, he played with an edge, played with a lot of emotion and the team responded to him."

What's left: It should be smooth sailing from here. They play a tough road game on Wednesday against the red-hot Sonics. After that they have the Clippers and Bulls at home and end the season against the Grizzlies on the road.

Prediction: 51-31. Fourth seed in the West.

5. Portland Trail Blazers (47-29)

What's wrong: Do you really have to ask? Drug busts, fist fights, suspensions ... last week we asked when the Blazers would explode. One day later, as if on cue, the bombs (or is it bongs?) started bursting in air. A big home loss to the T-Wolves on Sunday ended the week with a huge exclamation point.

What's right: When the Blazers aren't doing guest appearances on America's Most Wanted, they're actually pretty good. Derek Anderson is having a great year running the point, Rasheed Wallace can still kill you, and second-year forward Zach Randolph has given the team a much-needed low-post scoring threat. And did we mention that Damon Stoudamire has been resurrected from the dead?

What's left: Just when you thought it wasn't going to get any uglier ... the Blazers have road games vs. the Spurs, Rockets and Grizzlies. Then they play the Lakers and Suns at home before ending the season with a Clippers road game.

Prediction: 51-31. Fifth seed in the West.

6. Los Angeles Lakers (46-31)

What's wrong: Just about everything not named Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. But since when has that stopped them? Phil Jackson says Kobe is playing hurt and needs to rest. We don't see that happening.

What's right: Shaq and Kobe. The Lakers are hitting their April stride. Over the past four seasons, the Lakers own the best April record in the NBA. Once again, they're showing why. The team is already 3-0 this month and has won seven of its last eight. Shaq finally looks like he's ready to dominate again. And Kobe can drop 55 on you at his coach's demand.

What's left: It won't be easy. The Lakers play Dallas and Sacramento at home this week, then go on the road against the Blazers. They finish the season against the Nuggets and Warriors. Knowing the Lakers, they'll breeze by the Mavs and Kings only to tripped up by the Nuggets. However, here's a fair warning to Blazers and T-Wolves fans. If the Lakers win their last five, they could end up as the fourth seed in the West. The Lakers hold the tie breaker vs. the Blazers and T-Wolves.

Prediction: 50-32. Sixth seed in the West.

7. Utah Jazz (45-32)

What's wrong: Considering their best two players are 40 years old, they're just happy that walkers, oxygen and viagra aren't required.

What's right: In addition to John Stockton and Karl Malone putting up another great year, they're getting stellar play from Matt Harpring and Andrei Kirilenko. They're also getting surpringly solid and consistent play from Greg Ostertag. If we didn't know better, we'd guess it was a contract year.

What's left: Nothing will come easy for the Jazz the rest of the way. A road game against the Warriors is followed by home games against the Rockets, Mavs and Spurs. A road game against the Kings, whom they will likely meet in the first round, probably won't end the season on a high note.

Prediction: 47-35. Seventh seed in the West.

8. Houston Rockets (40-37)

What's wrong: Without Rudy Tomjanovich, the Rockets have been inconsistent at best. Yao Ming appears to be slowing down. He's exhausted after almost two full years without a break. How much longer can he hold on? Steve Francis had to learn how to mold his game around Yao's. Now that Yao's ready for a nap, can Stevie Franchise get his groove back?

What's right: Francis and Cuttino Mobley continue to be a lethal duo in the backcourt.

What's left: Home games against the Blazers and Sonics and a road game vs. the Jazz are the two toughest games left on the Rockets schedule. They should be able to slip past Memphis and Denver just fine. Too bad for the Suns that the Rockets own the tie breaker.

Prediction: 43-39. Eighth seed in the West.

9. Phoenix Suns (40-36)

What's wrong: Nothing but the schedule the rest of the way. With Penny Hardaway and Jake Tsakalidis finally healthy, the Suns don't have many excuses. If you've got to blame someone, blame the guys who gave them a killer stretch of games in April.

What's right: Stephon Marbury, Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire have paired up to form one of the most dynamic threesomes in the NBA. Penny has also been good when he's been healthy. The big mystery is that elusive fifth starter. Bo Outlaw has been big of late. And Joe Johnson shows up to play about every third game.

What's left: A road game against Denver is winnable, but then they have a tough homestand against the Mavs, Warriors and Spurs. They end the season with road games vs. the Blazers and Sonics.

Prediction: 43-39. Ninth place in the West, out of the playoffs.

No Bull, Krause is gone

He looked like a troll, had the personality of a caged badger, snuck around like he was working in the CIA, not the NBA, ran Michael Jordan out of town, broke up a dynasty to prove a philosophical point, forced Bulls fans to sit through five miserable seasons and yet ... I think I speak for basically none of you when I say that I'll miss Jerry Krause.

Krause's announcement Monday that he was stepping down as Chicago's GM shocked everyone. Jerry would've wanted it that way. No press conference, no emotional interviews. Just a faxed piece of paper with a statement and a photocopy of Krause's hand giving the media the bird.

I thought it would take a coalition of the willing and several bunker bombs to finally drive Krause out.

No GM in recent history has been maligned as much as Krause. When we weren't criticizing his goofy draft picks or his bizarre trades, we were making fun of shocking lack of social graces. Krause took as much crap for who he was as he did for his actual basketball moves. The fact that I'm losing one of my favorite lines -- "It's as ugly as Jerry Krause in a thong" -- still stings almost 24 hours after hearing the news.

Forget this ruse about Krause stepping down for minor health issues. Several league and Bulls sources told Insider on Monday that owner Jerry Reinsdorf simply told Krause it was time to move on. Reinsdorf, a stalwart supporter of Krause, wanted it to be done in the most humane fashion. Krause told associates on Monday he'd be back in the business within a year. Of the people I talked to, all of them took his response to mean he'd be working with a team other than the Bulls.

For once, Reinsdorf was right. It was time for Jerry's kids to move on without him. The team Krause built appears to be on the verge of success. Krause took huge risks drafting high school phenoms Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry. After almost two full seasons of hard knocks, both appear poised to bust out into potential stars.

But Krause's closeness to the situation was prohibiting him from thinking outside the box. The Bulls are loaded with young talent now. But not everyone is compatible. Too many kids believing they're The Man make it tough to run a cohesive team. Krause's refusal to make some trades was directly tied to his fear that his kids may turn out to be superstars. That haunted him. Let the new guy, the one without the emotional baggage, decide who stays and who goes.

The new GM will have several issues to resolve. Jay Williams, Jamal Crawford or neither? Is Jalen Rose worth the trouble? Can the Bulls find a home or a role for Marcus Fizer? Where does Eddie Robinson fit into the puzzle? Are Chandler and Curry the right guys to lead the Bulls to the promised land? Is Bill Cartwright the right coach?

Krause could no longer answer any of these. He was Crawford's biggest fan, but he knew Williams was his franchise player. His refusal to trade one of them ended up damaging both of their seasons. He stubbornly wouldn't give up on Rose after seeing how well Ron Artest, Brad Miller and Ron Mercer were playing in Indiana. Trading Rose would've been akin to claiming he got taken on last year's trade. Krause's refusal to trade Fizer for anything less than a lottery pick was an attempt to hide the fact that Fizer has never been a good fit in the Bulls' offense.

That's why reports that Bulls broadcaster John Paxson and assistant GM B.J. Armstrong are the lead candidates for the job don't make much sense. The Bulls need fresh blood, a new set of unsentimental eyes that are unattached to the past. Hiring a new GM shouldn't be about preserving Krause's questionable legacy. It should be about taking the foundation he left and turning it into something Jerry couldn't.

Of course, Bulls fans will clamor for the return of Michael Jordan. I don't blame them. Krause's biggest mistake was the way he alienated Jordan. I know more than a few people in Chicago believe that had Jordan been treated better, he would be waving farewell this week in a Bulls jersey, not a Wizards one. But turning Jordan into a GM would be a mistake. His personnel moves have played to mixed reviews. He did a great job of lopping several bad contracts off the books. But his eye for talent seems shaky. If Jordan has to actually play with a guy to form an educated opinion about him, what is his shelf life as a GM?

Still, if you're Jordan, you'd have to seriously consider the gig. He loves Chicago. He's played with most of the Bulls players at Hoops Gym in the summer. He's fond of Crawford, Williams, Curry and Chandler. He has enough young trade bait to bring in a veteran or two to stabilize the ship. And he's got a coach, Doug Collins, who appears willing to follow Jordan wherever he goes. As long as Reinsdorf is willing to give Jordan full control, how could he pass up such a golden opportunity?

Here's why. The ghost of Jerry will forever haunt the organization. If the Bulls keep losing, Krause will get the blame. But if they start winning with essentially the same pieces, Krause may finally get the credit that he's long searched for. The Sleuth was famous for once saying that organizations, not players, win championships. Five years after the break-up of the Bulls, all we're certain of is that organizations, not players, build lottery teams. Whether that ultimately becomes Krause's legacy remains to be seen. But wouldn't it be ironic if it were Jordan, Krause's biggest nemesis, who ultimately proved him right?

Will the Bull Market Resurge?
Tony Kornheiser / Washington Post
In or Out of the NBA Draft

Believe it or not, Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony may not be the biggest winner out of the top college players to play in the Final Four. Anthony will get the trophy and a plush top-three spot in this summer's draft, but most scouts had him projected that high before the tournament even started.

Here's Insider's look at the guys who improved their stock the most over the last few weeks.

Scouts have been on the fence about KU's Nick Collison all year. After two stellar performances against Duke and Syracuse, he's finally getting some support.

"I think his lack of athleticism will hurt him, but he's got to be the toughest kid in college basketball," one scout said from New Orleans. "He was scrapping for everything. He's a great hustler. He's a more athletic version of Mark Madsen. He's going to give you maximum effort every night."

Collison also has a nice face-the-basket jumper and great court awareness. While teams will always be concerned about his size and defense, they were impressed by the way he guarded Anthony on Monday.

An informal poll of three trusted NBA sources all have Collison now going in the late lottery. That's a nice consolation prize after losing the national championship.

Scouts have also fallen in love with Marquette's Dwyane Wade.

"He may be the most complete player in college basketball," one scout said. "He does everything well."

Although scouts admit that he's undersized (6-foot-4) to play the two guard in the pros, they're more reluctant than in years past to pass on a great player just because he's undersized. Wade can thank Gilbert Arenas for that.

While most scouts have Wade projected as a late-lottery selection now, there was one dissenting voice.

"He does do everything well, but he's not great at anything," the scout told Insider. "I've always believed that you have to be great at something to be a great NBA player. I just don't think he'll dominate at the pro level the way he did in college. I have him on my list as a late first rounder."

Anthony isn't the only Syracuse player who's getting attention from scouts. Hakim Warrick may turn out to be the sleeper of the draft.

His long arms and superior athleticism had several scouts drooling.

"He reminds me of Darius Miles a lot," said one scout. "But with one big exception. He's a much better shooter from the perimeter. His improvement from last year to this year has been off the charts. I think he's going to be a really good pro player."

While every scout Insider talked to felt that Warrick may be better off with another year in school, they all admitted that his stock may never be hotter.

"The last image we're all going to have of Warrick is blocking that three point shot in the waning seconds of the national championship game. That was an unbelievable block."

Right now scouts have Warrick projected as a mid-first-round pick. He could, however, move into the lottery with strong workouts.

Finally, scouts seemed convinced that Texas point guard T. J. Ford won't be in the draft this year.

"I think Ford is sincere when he says he wants to return to Texas," one scout who is close to Texas coach Rick Barnes told Insider. "He wants to win a championship and he thinks Texas has the personnel to get him there. I don't think it hurts him to stay in school."

Peep Show

Detroit Pistons: Apparently, the bell does not toll for big Ben. The knee he hurt in last Sunday's loss to the San Antonio Spurs is okay, no tear and no broken or chipped bones, though the league's leading rebounder is out until the playoffs begin April 19. "It's always disappointing to lose players, especially your best players, to injury," coach Rick Carlisle said to the Detroit News. "But at the same time, you have to keep plugging away. We have a lot of tough and important games ahead of us." The Pistons play Philadelphia tonight after losing three straight and falling out of the top spot in the East.

Cleveland Cavaliers: They aren't exactly reaching for the stars, but then, again, they're the Cleveland Cavaliers and have been accused of throwing the season to improve their lottery chances with LeBron James. "I hate hearing it because I don't believe it," rookie Carlos Boozer said most recently in the Washington Post. "A lot of good teams have started off where we're at. We'll be in the middle of the road next year." Want more? "The assertion that we're losing games on purpose is preposterous for any number of reasons," Cavaliers spokesman Ed Markey said. "Even if we end up with the worst record in the league, there's still a 75 percent chance we won't get the first pick in the NBA draft." Convinced yet? "People just don't know the situation," added forward Darius Miles. "I really don't care what people say because they have freedom of speech. You've just got to know the truth." The truth, well, all that we can prove, is that these very same Cleveland Cavaliers have won only 15 games all season.

Portland Trail Blazers: Zach Randolph hurt more than Ruben Patterson's pride when the two fought recently in practice. He busted his teammates eye socket. "We are going to miss Ruben, no doubt about it, we can't get away from that," assistant coach Herb Brown said to the Oregonian. "It's just a shame because Ruben has been handling this so well." Patterson will miss the next three games at least.

Houston Rockets: Last Sunday, Houston defeated Orlando in a big game with playoff consequences and Rocket forward Eddie Griffin decided to celebrate. Only problem, though, was that policemen took exception to the fact that he was speeding, had an outstanding warrant for speeding and had an unspecified amount of marijuana found in his Cadillac Escalade's center console. "All I know is that it's a legal matter, and that's it," acting coach Larry Smith said to the Houston Chronicle. "Right now I'm just focusing on the Portland Trail Blazers. Hopefully, he'll be back with us (for the Portland game), and we have to just focus on that. We've had distractions for a while now. It's always a disappointment when all of your guys aren't here, whatever the matter may be. But we still have to play a game (today), and that has to be our focal point -- come out ready and, hopefully, get a win." Griffin posted the $500 bail but still practiced the following Monday.

Boston Celtics: The Big Chief has been invited to join teammates Larry Bird and Kevin McHale in the NBA Hall of Fame. ''I'm really happy for Robert,'' Bird said to the Boston Globe about the center who has won four NBA Titles and played more games than any other player in league history. ''He was a great teammate and I'm very proud of him. He really deserves it.'' He will join Laker great James Worthy, Laker broadcaster Chick Hearn and Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon, among others. ''It's flattering,'' Parish said in New Orleans, where the new electees were introduced. ''I've said before, I've been very fortunate to have played with some of the best players to have walked on the court, and [Bird and McHale] were two of them. It only enhances my career. They certainly took a lot of pressure off of me, especially off the court.''

Los Angeles Lakers: Not to be upstaged by the rival Celtics, the Lakers, as mentioned above, will be placing two of theirs in the Hall in James Worthy and Chick Hearn. "I just appreciated people who appreciated my game," Worthy said in the LA Times. "When you play in the NBA, when you get the respect of not only your teammates and your opponents, that was awesome. I've always been content with that. Being part of the top 50 was the ultimate accomplishment. This solidifies all the work, every wind sprint, every practice, every accomplishment I've achieved as a basketball player." Stu Lantz commented on Hearn: "Chick is beyond the best of the best. He's in a class by himself. When it came to broadcasting and play-by-play for basketball, he set the bar for everybody."

04-08-2003, 02:30 PM
At one point the trailblazers were within one quarter of the NBA Title know they are one combustible part from exploding.