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Through the last 16 games of the 2002-03 regular season, the Bulls' Eddy Curry was one of the most dominant young players in the game.
For those of you whose memory has been whitewashed by Curry's up-and-down 03-04 campaign, let's refresh.
After a season and half of ignominy, Curry started his last 16 games for the Bulls, averaging 20.3 ppg and leading the NBA in field goal percentage at a whopping 66 percent from the field.
2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM PPG RPG APG FG% FT%
55 14.2 6.2 0.9 .498 .682
Curry, it said here last fall, was going to dominate the league because he was one of the few true low-post scorers left in the game.
Then reality hit. Curry hit the wall early in November as the Bulls stumbled out of the gate. Curry watched his minutes dip. Coach Bill Cartwright complained about selfishness, no energy and a total lack of conditioning.
Curry averaged 13.1 ppg and just 6.7 rpg, and couldn't seem to muster the effort every night to do much more. By January the talk in Chicago centered on the trading the Bulls' young cornerstone. Was he a bust? Would he ever develop living in Chicago?
The answer is tricky. Since the All-Star break, Curry has found his stride again. Much like last season when he dominated the meaningless games at the end of the regular season -- Curry is back in force.
What does that mean? Other theories abound. Did it take Curry this long to get in shape? Did he need the tough love of a coach like Scott Skiles to get serious about the game? Is Curry just the type of player who can put up good stats on bad teams but can't actually help you win anything?
"He's young and this was the first season that something was actually expected of him," one prominent GM told Insider. "I totally expected him to struggle. When you take your game up a notch, defenses react, you get more attention and your life on the court becomes more difficult. We forget these kids are 21 and 22 years old. By most measurements, they shouldn't even be in the league yet. It's an adjustment period. I think he's going to be fine."
After a devastating January when Curry averaged just 11.5 ppg and 4.8 rpg, he's been on fire since the All-Star break. His 17.4 ppg and 7.9 rpg are a major improvement over his earlier play and his numbers in the last five -- 19.5 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 2.2 bpg -- are exactly where everyone hoped Curry would be at the end of the season.
The kid still has his issues. His stamina is the biggest one. Curry tends to get most of his points and rebounds in the first half of games. His intensity is the other. Curry can be dominant when he wants to be . . . but it's always unclear which Eddy will be taking the floor that night.
"Eddy's not that good yet at resting and coming back and playing, either at half time or when you take him out of the game and put him back," Skiles told the Chicago Tribune.
Curry admits he needs to play more aggressively. "I don't like to force things," he said.
Still, Skiles has hope. "I like my team. Twenty minutes ago, we had Eddy Curry lifting. He came and wanted to get a lift in. Every morning, when I look outside my window at the Berto Center, I've got more and more guys shooting before practice starts. We continue to practice better. I've never been around a team that, once that started happening, it didn't eventually pay off with wins."
Just keep Curry in mind as you watch several other young players start to find their stride as the season winds down. Injuries, no shot at the playoffs or just an attempt to shake things up can result in big minutes and big numbers for young players during the last month of the season. Here's a sneak peak at five more players who look like they could be on the verge of breaking out next year.
Samuel Dalembert, C, 76ers
March numbers: 14 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 2.3 bpg on 63 percent shooting
The Skinny: Dalembert's numbers and production have been increasing all season. At the young age of 23, he's already the Sixers' best rebounder and shot blocker when he's in the game. Last week he scored 20 points and grabbed 15 rebounds versus the Kings and dropped 19 and 14 on the Knicks. He still has games in which he disappears, but most scouts who have been watching Dalembert think he could turn into something special with increased strength training and practice this summer.
Hedo Turkoglu, F, Spurs
Post All-Star numbers: 13.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg on 49 percent shooting
The Skinny: After a slow, slow start in San Antonio, Turkoglu is finally living up to his promise in San Antonio. He's now playing big minutes for the Spurs and averaging an impressive 17.8 ppg over the team's last five. Turkoglu's versatility to play four positions on the floor has always made him an interesting prospect. The fact that he's finally living up to the hype and putting up meaningful numbers on a playoff team is huge. It's no coincidence that the Spurs are 12-3 since Turkoglu started taking off. This should bode pretty well for him heading into free agency this summer.
2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM PPG RPG APG FG% FT%
61 10.5 7.1 1.6 .488 .711
Kwame Brown, F, Wizards
Numbers since December: 13.3 ppg, 7.9 rpg
The Skinny: Brown, like Curry, has been on this list before. Why include him again? Because there are real signs that Brown is beginning to get it. He's been much more aggressive lately and has started to act like he cares about winning or losing -- something that wasn't evident at all in year one or two. Eddie Jordan is getting to him and Ernie Grunfeld is determined to surround him with players who will make him better. Brown has burned us before, but we think with another summer (remember it will be a contract year for Kwame next year) of hard work, Brown still has the makings of a star.
Jiri Welsch, G/F, Celtics
Numbers since December: 10.1 ppg
The Skinny: Welsch is splitting playing time with Ricky Davis right now, which explains his dip in production from December. However, we expect the Celtics to remedy that problem this summer. There was talk that the Celtics were shopping Davis before the trade deadline to create a bigger role for Welsch. If Welsch can get more time, and a more prominent role in the offense, he's capable of 16 ppg, four rpg and four apg next year. With all the mistakes Danny Ainge has made, we think he's absolutely right about Welsch's potential.
Mark Blount, C, Celtics
Post All-Star numbers: 12.7 ppg, 9.9 rpg
The Skinny: The Celtics actually have several candidates, including Brandon Hunter and Jiri Welsch. But no one has the upside the Blount does. He's been amazing lately, posting double digits in scoring and rebounds in six of his last seven. Blount, who is already 28, still seems to be finding his rhythm, but the comparisons to other overhyped big men like Calvin Booth and Jerome James aren't fair. Neither of these guys ever put up consistent numbers like this. While there's very little chance that Blount could ever be a star, he's turning into a pretty decent center in the league.
Around the League
Rising: The Grizzlies Who would've thought before the season that the Western Conference would have six, not five, elite teams vying for the playoffs? The Grizzlies' are 9-2 since the break and just a half game behind the Mavericks for the fifth seed in the West and just two and half games behind the Lakers for the fourth seed.
The team has become the proverbial "Team No One Wants to Play in the First Round" and for good reason. With Hubie Brown's lethal 10-man rotation (most coaches pare their rotations down to seven or eight come playoff time) the team has the legs and versatility to match up well against just about everyone. That's going to be a big advantage come playoff time. The fact that the team doesn't rely on any one player to do the bulk of the scoring makes it a pain in the butt to prepare for defensively.
"They're so tough to get a handle on," one Western Conference coach told Insider. "Hubie has the freedom to play the hot hand every night. If Gasol's struggling, he sits him. If Posey or Williams aren't clicking, they sit. He always has another guy waiting on the bench for a shot. I think it's a big part of they're success. They're a team, not a cast of two stars and a bunch of supporting players."
How likely is it that the Grizzlies can pull off an upset in the first round? Memphis has the second-best record in the league against Western Conference teams (24-16). Only the Kings (25-15) have been better against the West. Against the big five (Dallas, Los Angeles, Minnesota, San Antonio and Sacramento), the Grizzlies are 9-6. There isn't a team in the league with a better winning percentage against the big five.
Falling: The Nuggets Was the Nuggets' unbelievable first-half run an illusion? The team is just 2-8 in the second half and in danger of losing the eighth playoff seed to the Jazz or Blazers. Things have gotten so bad that the players called a "player only" meeting on Sunday after an embarrassing 30-point loss to the Pistons on Saturday.
The meeting was called by two of the shiest Nuggets -- Andre Miller and Voshon Lenard. "We talked about everything that has happened since the all-star break," Miller told the Rocky Mountain News. "Just cleaning stuff up with the team. Nothing to do with the coaches. It was open (microphone). It was whatever anyone had to say and get off your chest."
"It's how they relate to one another when things are tough that ultimately decides our destiny," coach Jeff Bzdelik said. "As a recently put together team, this is the first time as a group that they've gone through a difficult stretch."
What's the problem? Our own Greg Anthony reported on ESPN that the team had tuned out Bzdelik, lending even more speculation that Bzdelik, whose contract ends after the season, could be on his way out.
Rodney White didn't try to dispute the report. "It might be true," he said. "If people are tuning the coach out, that's a problem."
Jon Barry disagreed. "You'd have to ask every single guy (on the team) that question. . . . (Bzdelik) prepares us as good as anybody that I've ever been around."
The biggest problem for the Nuggets has probably been their schedule. All of their losses except one (at Orlando) since the break have come at the hands of pretty good teams (Pistons, Nets, Pacers, Lakers, Spurs, Grizzlies).
The bad news is that the competition doesn't get much easier over the next seven games. Six of those seven are on the road and four of them (New Jersey, Milwaukee, Detroit and Minnesota) are road games against potential playoff teams.
If the Nuggets continue to struggle, is Bzdelik in the hot seat?
"I think Jeff's done a good job this year, and he's going through a very tough spot," GM Kiki Vandeweghe told the Mountain News. "He's got to figure a way out."
Was Duncan bogging down the Spurs? The Spurs are 4-1 since Tim Duncan went down and most of the credit goes to the fantastic play of Tony Parker, Hedo Turkoglu (see above) and center Rasho Nesterovic. Parker is averaging 18.4 ppg on 48 percent shooting. Nesterovic, for the first time all season, has been a dominant force in the middle since Duncan went down. He's averaged 17 ppg, 12.4 rpg and 3.4 bpg all on an amazing 59 percent shooting.
In the five games since Duncan was placed on the injured list, the Spurs have averaged 101 points -- 11 more than they previously averaged for the season. Was Duncan stifling the Spurs' offense?
Parker, who's had plenty of issues with the Spurs' grind-it-out offense, hinted as much. "A hundred points," Parker said. "In three games. Without Timmy (Duncan). That's just amazing. Everybody feels comfortable," Parker said. "Everybody's touching the ball. Everybody is making shots. Everybody is aggressive. Everybody's moving."
The Spurs have been using a motion offense with Duncan out of the lineup and everyone seems to be responding -- especially Parker, who has been given more control over the play calling by coach Gregg Popovich.
"I think he's handling it great and responding to the responsibility we've given him," said Popovich. "We've let him know flat-out, 'If you don't play well, we're not going anywhere.'"
Chemistry issues catching up with Wolves? The fact that the T-Wolves have lost three of their last four isn't as big of a deal as the fact that two of those losses have come to the Sixers and Celtics.
2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM PPG RPG APG FG% FT%
63 17.3 4.2 3.7 .415 .815
Even more troubling? The drop-off in play of Latrell Sprewell since the return of Wally Szczerbiak, Michael Olowokandi and Troy Hudson. While Kevin Garnett and Sam Cassell have maintained their torrid pace, Spree is averaging just 13.2 ppg on 39 percent shooting since the break. He's averaging just 11.6 ppg in his last five. That's a pretty steep drop-off from the 18.1 ppg before the break.
Coach Flip Saunders claims that the heavy minutes Sprewell had to play in the first half have taken their toll.
"We're trying to watch his minutes a little bit," Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "Thirty-two to 35 minutes is ideal for him."
"I've got to look at film," Saunders said. "I think he's getting some good looks at times. He's probably pressing a little bit, too. It's not for a lack of working on his game. Hopefully, he'll shoot his way out."
But that's not the only issue. Saunders also claims that the team's chemistry has struggled as the returning players try to find their niche on the team.
"The situation we have here is guys trying to find themselves," Saunders said. "They are pressing. They are trying to assert themselves. . .We're not fine-tuning. We've still got three guys who haven't played (much) this year. We're trying to find out where they are."
Skip finds a home: We've been waiting years for AND-1 legend Rafer "Skip to my Lou" Alston to finally make the crossover into a legit NBA point guard. After years of being a decent back-up on several teams, Alston's game has elevated to a whole new level this season in Miami. Alston has already established career bests in points, rebounds and assists this year.
Lately he's been shattering them. Alston is averaging 14.6 ppg, 5.6 apg and four rpg on 50 percent shooting from the Heat. He's become a key player on a team that looks destined to grab one of the three open playoff spots in the East.
Only the Pacers can rest easy
By Greg Anthony
Folks, the playoffs have begun, for everyone, that is, with the possible exception of the Indiana Pacers. They're probably the only team that has a lock on their playoff spot.
Even in light of last year's implosion, it's a pretty safe bet that with a 7½-game lead and only 21 to play, Indiana has clinched home-court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, and potentially the Finals as well. Their schedule is much more favorable than Sacramento's or Minnesota's, which should give them the edge for best record overall.
But everything else is undecided, and injuries and the ability to win on the road could ultimately determine who's in and who has home-court in the first round.
Let's start out West, where the race for the best record seems to be wide open. Four teams have a legitimate chance, but my money is on Sacramento. While San Antonio and L.A. are surging, Minnesota has faltered miserably, losing to both the 76ers (without Allen Iverson) and Celtics (at home) in the past week. And those were sandwiched around a tough loss to the Houston Rockets at home.
That stretch could cost them home-court, because all these teams will be battling one another over the next five weeks, and making up more than three games may be next to impossible. That's why I also don't think the Lakers or Spurs have a chance, either. All four should have home-court in the first round, which is critical (especially for Minnesota, which has lost seven first-round series in a row).
The Memphis Grizzlies have elbowed their way into playoff contention in the West.
Where, you might ask, is Dallas? The high-powered Mavericks are in the middle of a stretch in which they play 11 of 14 on the road. That's not good, because they're an abysmal 11-19 on the road and Friday were torched by San Antonio (without Tim Duncan, no less) for 113 points, and Sunday they lost at Houston.
And did I mention that Memphis is right on Dallas' heels for the No. 5 seed, having won four in a row, eight of their last 10 and 14 of 17 since the beginning of February? That's not a good combination if you're the Mavs, because without home-court in the first round, I don't think Dallas can advance.
The Nuggets are another team in desperate need of getting their world together. They've lost seven of eight and have six of their next seven on the road, five against potential playoff teams. Even more dire for the Nuggets is how they end the season; get this: at Phoenix and Houston, home to Portland and Sacramento, then at San Antonio. You don't want your playoff hopes riding on that stretch, because three of those teams (and maybe four) still will be playing for either the playoffs or seeding. Good luck.
In the East, it's even more clouded at the bottom of the barrel. The top three are basically settled, but everything else is wide open. I like Milwaukee and New Orleans to battle for the 4 and 5 spots, and the Bucks have a legitimate shot. The only problem is they are a jump-shooting team, and that could hurt them down the stretch. With so many teams still in the running, the more-versatile Hornets could have the edge, but that battle will be interesting.
2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM PPG RPG APG FG% FT%
56 14.9 11.4 2.1 .517 .766
I think the Knicks and Cavs both will make it. The Cavs are playing great, and with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Carlos Boozer, they have a potent 4/5 combination that not many teams in the East can match (OK, the Pistons and Pacers are pretty good on the frontline, as well). But Cleveland has great depth and now has started to win on the road -- a must for a team with playoff aspirations.
So it all comes down to the eighth and final spot, where the Celtics, Raptors, Heat and Sixers are battling. All but Philadelphia have shown a pulse and played as if they want to make the playoffs. The Celtics are playing great defense and won a huge game in Minnesota on Sunday. Do they have enough to hold on and make it? Probably not, but you better take them seriously. The Heat have been one of the great stories of the year, and Lamar Odom has become a bonafide star and competes every night he takes the floor. They have a great shot.
But for some reason I keep thinking Allen Iverson will find a way to will the depleted 76ers into the playoffs. That last spot could come down to the last game -- Philly at Orlando. It just might matter after all.
San Antonio Spurs: The Bruce Bowen Fan Club continues to grow. "You can put me down now as one of the many who have called him dirty," Mavericks head coach Don Nelson said. "I've never cast an aspersion toward Bruce Bowen -- but he's a dirty player. And I'll remember it. I'm shocked he wasn't suspended." Nelson is referring to their most recent game against the Spurs in which Michael Finley was involved in an altercation with Bowen. "Obviously, the league saw what happened before my retaliation," Finley said. "I'll turn the other cheek, for now . . . You look at Ben Wallace or Dikembe Mutombo, they don't ever play dirty," Finley said. "They get into guys in the flow of the game. But when you give a cheap shot away from the play, that's not basketball."
Orlando Magic: Comeback attempt No. 4 for Grant Hill is starting to look a lot like No. 3 or No.2 or No. 1. "I took a strength test," Hill said in the Orlando Sentinel, "and it was good but not perfect . . . It comes down to the old business equation of high risk versus low reward. Right now I'm still looking for a scenario that's high reward versus low risk." A recent trip to the doctor, one that was expected to clear the way for his return this season, ended with news that his surgically repaired ankle had not progressed as planned.
Philadelphia 76ers: If this is Allen Iverson's last season as a Sixer, then he's not going down without a fight. "This might be the worst season that I've had since I've been a Sixer," Iverson said in the Philadelphia Daily News. "I've had some good seasons; this one's just tough for me because of all the injuries and everything. It was hard to get my rhythm like I wanted it, being hurt as much as I've been hurt. I've got another opportunity to turn this thing around. We're not out of it; that's the fun part about it . . . People talk about how we played against the Kings [in a 114-105 loss last Thursday]; I'm way too far gone in my career to care about moral victories. We've just got to play hard and play together. The most important thing for us is to fun; once that part of the game goes away, it's hard to play the game. Lately, with all the talk going on and everything going on, it was kind of hard to have fun. I don't ever want a pen and pad or camera to take that away from me."
Boston Celtics: The sign on the door still reads "interim" but if team president Red Auerbach had his way, he'd change it. "Danny and I, we talk about it and we don't talk about it," Auerbach said in the Boston Globe of coach John Carroll after the team won its fifth straight. "But here's what I think: Let's see what happens with Carroll. You never know. Let's see if he can do what [Jim] O'Brien did . . . As long as the head coach is working hard, why not root for him? You don't need any other problems."
Minnesota Timberwolves: Latrell Sprewell's minutes are down. The problem, though, is that so are his other numbers. "We're trying to watch his minutes a little bit," Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders said in the Pioneer Press. "Thirty-two to 35 minutes is ideal for him . . . I've got to look at film. I think he's getting some good looks at times. He's probably pressing a little bit, too. It's not for a lack of working on his game. Hopefully, he'll shoot his way out."