nice article....little something on the Pacers
By Eric Neel
A few weeks back I said the Wizards didn't impress me because they hadn't played anybody. The next night they beat the snot out of the Sonics, and went on to win five straight and seven out of their next 10, including wins over Indiana and Cleveland on the road.
Seems I'm a bit of an idiot.
Happens some times. You think you've got something figured out, you say so, and it turns out you're dead wrong. I was the same way about Pitino saving the Celtics once upon a time.
Whatta ya gonna do?
Well, for starters, you take comfort in the fact that you're not alone, especially when you're talking about the NBA. We're just past the halfway point now, and conventional wisdom's been slapped up and down and six ways from Sunday. Preseason truths and widely-agreed-upon predictions are piled up out back like so many LaRue Martins.
1. Everybody knew the Sonics would wilt. They lost 45 games a year ago, they made almost no moves in the free-agent market, they lost their glue guy (Brent Barry), their best player (Ray Allen) was looking to get out of Dodge, they shot too much, didn't rebound enough, and played defense with about half the enthusiasm of a teenage boy cleaning up his bedroom.
Turns out Danny Fortson, if given the chance to log some minutes (check out his 2001 and 2002 numbers with the Warriors), has always been a monster on the offensive glass, The Apostle was due for a bit of a second-season breakout, and team defense can in fact be learned. Throw in the steady maturation of Vlad Radmanovic and an offensive style that spreads the floor (challenging opposing teams to play serious defense, and providing professional shooters like Allen and Rashard Lewis with looks and options), and, you know, like we all said, the Sonics were the obvious choice to win the Pacific Division.
Shaq's numbers aren't soaring quite as high as everyone predicted.
2. Conventional wisdom had Shaq on a season-long rampage. He was a lean, mean, Buss-busting, Bryant-breaking machine. He was set, like Jules, to go all Ezekial 25 on folks, night in and night out.
Truth is, The Daddy ain't so much angry as he is, umm, what's the word I want? Oh yeah ... aging. His days of 29 and 14, like he averaged with the Lakers in 2000, are now a more pedestrian 23 and 11.
3. There was no doubt (especially after an 0-9 start) the Bulls were bad. No doubt they would continue to wallow in curse-of-Krause misery for another ugly 82. They'd never shown any backbone, they were too young and leaderless to show one now, their Bigs were babies (as in "big fat" and "crying little"), they were counting on two former Blue Devils (Chris Duhon and Luol Deng) to make plays as professionals (which is somewhere on the order of hoping "Speed II" was going to be as much fun as the original), and they had yet to respond to Scott Skiles', er, motivational techniques.
Actually, Eddy and Tyson are in their contract years, which is never a bad thing and usually a good one. (And by the way, they're both 22 years old, so you think maybe if we could be a little patient and let them come into their own a bit we'd see that they're each is right about on target to be a very good post player in this league? I'm just asking.) Kirk Hinrich is, it seems, something close to Skiles 2.0, and Ben Gordon has one of them there Jordanesque feels for the dramatic. So now all of a sudden Tim Legler's making very plausible arguments on TV about how maybe this team is playoff bound ... just as everyone predicted.
4. We figured for sure the Pacers were dead in the water after wading into the crowd.
Should have known better.
Should have known (forgive me) they're fighters (20-21 as we speak, and only four-and-a-half back in the Central).
5. The Wiz were irrelevant, everybody knew that. It's not so much that we damned them, it's more like we didn't even think of them. We took a look, saw that they'd brought together three 2002 Golden State Warrior teammates, made a little mental note about the logical parallel between this move and the one that brought Gary Cherone, former lead singer of Extreme, in as lead singer for Van Halen, and then promptly forgot about them.
That was a mistake.
Arenas is averaging 23.8 points per game.
The pieces of the puzzle were there: Antawn Jamison, one of those freaky, wrong-body, right-moves scorers doing what he's been doing for six years; Larry Hughes looking to build on a bust-out season; Gilbert Arenas in his second year with the team, with a head coach (Eddie Jordan) working a system (Princeton); and the infusion of lunchpail vets (Anthony Peeler, Michael Ruffin, and Samaki Walker) who would set a tone, bring some professionalism, in practice and during games. We knew the East was ripe. We knew some team would rise up. We might have figured on the Wizards ... if we'd thought about them at all.
6. Like a whole lot of people, I said the Cavs without Boozer were in over their heads.
Dear Mrs. Gooden, Please forgive me. I said some ignorant, disparaging things about your son. I was wrong.*
Dear Mrs. James, Please forgive me. As much as I admired your son's game, I underestimated his overall impact. It won't happen again.
7. The word on the Suns, almost from the get-go, was: They can't keep it up.
35-10 as we speak, and, led by the (surprise) seriously underpaid Steve Nash.
8. You couldn't find a writer, pundit, or clued-in fan anywhere who wasn't certain the Pistons would dominate the East. They were team-playing, defensive-stopping saviors. They wrapped up Sheed, added McDyess, had Larry back on the bench and Big Ben back on the back line.
That was then.
In the here-and-now, they're an on-and-off team that's lost to the Bucks and Grizz twice, to Atlanta at home, and to the Bobcats. They win six straight and then drop four straight. And in the blink of an eye, coach Brown seems to have reverted from the title-winning grit of Gene Hackman (as Norman Dale) to the doomed nebbishness of McLean Stevenson (anybody remember, "Hello, Larry"? Then say it with me now: Hello? Larry?).
9. The Bobcats would challenge the '73 76ers. That seemed inevitable. They were a joke.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum ...
Actually two funny things: Punchline No. 1: Okafor's even better, and a whole lot more aggressive, than anyone guessed. Punchline No. 2: Brevin Knight, the Mike Morgan of the NBA (seven teams in eight years), is doling out 9.3 assists in just 29 minutes a night (that's 15.6 per 48). You think maybe the Suns are wishing they still had him, as a backup for Stevie, right about now? Me too.
Don't look now, but Iverson may be having his best season.
10. AI is a lot of things, but he's no point guard. Who didn't know that?
Just AI, I guess.
Sixth in the league in assists, fourth in steals, and first in scoring, plus four boards a night. Nobody's talking about it, but is it maybe his best season yet?
11. Grant Hill was d-o-n-e done. We hoped it wasn't true, we wished it weren't so, but we knew it was.
And then all of a sudden, like Bobby Ewing in a shower scene, the man is back.
And never have so many been so glad to be so wrong.
12. Carmelo and LeBron were the most exciting tandem since Larry and Magic. Writers knew it, fans knew it, Madison Avenue knew it, too.
Excuse us, Mr. Anthony, these are Mr. Wade's bags. Would you please carry them to the plane?
13. It was a lead-pipe cinch that the Wolves would be back in the title hunt. KG had gotten a taste of the late rounds of the postseason. Cassell and Sprewell were back. They had Wally all year, and a healthy Troy Hudson. Flip Saunders, a players' coach, would only have to fine tune them and point them in the right direction, the players would take care of the rest.
Here come Spree's kids, with their mouths wide open.
And that's just the first baker's dozen I could think of. On and on it goes. One wrong-headed certainty after another. Some of them, we've even been wrong about twice (see Brent Barry who was, then wasn't, now might be again, a vital part of a Spurs championship run).
And like I said at the top, we're only halfway through the season. You know there's a whole lot more wrong out there to be had.
The early contenders? I'd say, for starters, we're wrong about ...
How bad the Lakers are, how good the Raptors can be, how Sacramento and Dallas will fare in the playoffs, the value of Sam Dalambert or any other big body for systems like the ones in Phoenix and Washington, and the idea that Tracy and Yao are never going to figure it out.
But, you know, I've been wrong before.
Editor's Note: Drew Gooden's mother's name is actually Ulla Lear.
Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2. His Basketball Jones column will appear each Wednesday -- and the occasional Friday -- during the NBA season.