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Thread: 3-16-2004

  1. #1
    Pacer fan since 1993 Ragnar's Avatar
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    Default 3-16-2004

    Can the Sixers really trade Iverson?

    By Chad Ford
    Tuesday, March 16

    There's a history to the Sixers love-hate relationship with Iverson. His recent bout with coach Chris Ford has raised speculation yet again that Iverson's days in Philly are numbered. Will the Sixers finally trade Iverson this summer?

    If they do, it won't be the first time the team has tried to trade him. If they don't, it won't be the last. In the past, every time the Sixers have flirted with moving Iverson, history has intervened.

    History tells us you never trade a superstar (Philly fans are still reeling from the trade that shipped Charles Barkley out of town). History also says it's almost impossible to get equal value in return when dumping a star. History scares the hell of GMs who know that a fan revolt is the last thing a struggling team needs.

    History has bought Allen Iverson more time than he deserves. Has Iverson finally ran out of time?

    The mercurial superstar wore out his welcome in Philly four years ago. Back in 2000, Billy Knight and Larry Brown, both sick of Iverson and his antics, had the opportunity to trade Iverson to the Pistons and almost did in a convoluted trade that would have left Philly with Jerry Stackhouse, Glen Rice and Jerome Williams. The deal fell apart when Matt Geiger, who was also included in the deal, refused to waive a trade kicker that was needed to make the numbers work under the CBA.

    With the trade in shambles, Brown decided to give Iverson one more chance. It was a wake-up call for AI. Iverson went on to lead the 76ers to the NBA Finals that year. He was on his best behavior. He played like a leader and produced the most impressive season of his career.

    All was forgiven. Sort of.

    By most accounts Iverson became incorrigible after he led the Sixers to the Finals. The missed practices became more frequent. The tardiness and flouting of team rules were more conspicuous. Brown thought Iverson would learn from his success and realize hard work turns into championships. Iverson saw the Sixers' run as validation that his lifestyle didn't interfere with the basketball team.

    Three years after the run, Brown is gone, and so is most of the supporting cast that helped Iverson get to the Finals. The team has grown weary of his antics. Ford has put his foot down several times, and Iverson has rebelled on each occasion.

    Is the coach the problem? The Sixers could dump Ford this summer and try to convince the Blazers to let Mo Cheeks come home (remember, last summer the team refused to let Philly talk to him). Cheeks has a great relationship with Iverson, but what would it really accomplish? If Randy Ayers, who let Iverson do whatever he wanted, couldn't get along, how can Cheeks, who's had his own problems in Portland, be that much of an improvement?

    It's always easier to fire the coach than to dump a player. But how many coaches are you willing to go through before realizing the coach is no longer the issue?

    Are his teammates the issue? Several commentators over the past few months have concluded that the Sixers' woes are more about Iverson's aging supporting cast than they are about Iverson.

    Nonsense. Players like Aaron McKie and Derrick Coleman are overpaid and over the hill. Glenn Robinson is both, and he's a team cancer to boot (his plus/minus stats are the worst on the team). But the Sixers have their fair share of young talent. Samuel Dalembert looks like the real deal at center. Kenny Thomas is wiping the glass clean at the four. John Salmons and Kyle Korver both look like they have promising futures.

    Can the Sixers trade Iverson?
    The Sixers core isn't too old or that bad. They are just uninspired. A couple of nice team players for Iverson -- perhaps a solid two and a three -- and the Sixers would be back in business ... well, sort of.

    Everyone knows the reason Philly hasn't already sent Iverson packing is their fear fans will flee the arena. This year they have the fourth-best home attendance in the league, despite their awful record, and are the third-best road draw (behind only the Lakers and Cavs). Iverson is one of the best three draws in the NBA and has been for years.

    Unless they replace Iverson with Shaq or LeBron, interest is going to wane.

    The other big issue is that the Sixers can't seem to get close to equal value in return for Iverson. You think the Stackhouse, Rice and Williams wasn't fair market value for a 24-year-old Iverson? What do you think a 28-year-old Iverson with a massive six-year extension that pays him $22 million in 2008-09 (when Iverson is 34) does to his trade value?

    King learned first-hand when he explored moving Iverson before this season's trade deadline. GMs were wary about offering anything of value in return for Iverson because of his history of difficulty, his massive contract and the other dirty little secret the Sixers have yet to come to grips with -- Iverson's body is breaking down. AI's game is played above the rim, attacking the paint and throwing his body in every direction. In the NBA, that style of play takes it's toll, especially on a 170-pound body.

    Iverson has missed a career high 22 games this season, and most GMs believe the number is only going to grow. As the injuries mount, Iverson inevitably will lose his quickness -- the one thing that sets him apart from almost everyone in the league. Without it, what is he? A below-average-shooting, turnover-prone, tiny two guard. No one wants to pay $22 million for that.

    That's why King has been so adamant about denying the plethora of Iverson trade rumors out there. He doesn't want expectations spiraling out of control. If the Sixers do trade Iverson, it will be a disaster ... on paper.

    Where could Iverson land?
    Insider has been talking to GMs about the issue for months, and most concede they don't have the resources -- or guts -- to give up a couple of good players to get Iverson. GMs lose their jobs over guys like Iverson, and given the caustic nature of the league right now, there are only a handful of GMs in the country who have the job security and assets to make an Iverson trade happen.

    Who are they?

    Start with Jerry West in Memphis. West has built an amazing team that is missing one key ingredient -- a superstar. West also has a coach, Hubie Brown, who has the power to keep Iverson in check. The Grizzlies have a ton of assets and could afford to lop off a few in order to add Iverson to the mix. With West itching to make a serious run at the NBA title ... could Iverson be the answer?

    Would a combo of Bonzi Wells and either the emerging James Posey or Stromile Swift (via sign-and-trade) be enough for the Sixers? Both players have reasonable contracts and could, along with the Sixers' young core, turn Philly back into a respectable team. West isn't giving up Pau Gasol, but Wells and either Swift or Posey could be considered acceptable losses.

    The Pistons' Joe Dumars also has the power and resources to bring Iverson in. The issue there is Brown. Brown fled Philly, in part, because he'd grown tired of fighting with Iverson. If Brown could stomach Iverson's return, would the Sixers be able to live with a combo of Richard Hamilton and Corliss Williamson?

    Denver's Kiki Vandeweghe is another GM with the clout. The team will have a ton of cash this summer, which means they could absorb some or all of Iverson's contract without having to send back so much cash. However a combo of Rodney White, Nikoloz Tskitishvili and the Nuggets' first-round pick won't get it done. It's doubtful that Denver would be willing to offer any of their core -- Carmelo, Nene or Andre Miller.

    Dallas also could be a player. They really loved the energy Nick Van Exel brought to the backcourt and wouldn't balk at Iverson's huge contract. Would a straight-up swap for either Michael Finley or Antawn Jamison work?

    The rest of the teams interested in Iverson probably would be making the deal out of desperation. Looking for something, anything, to boost the gate, would these teams be willing to make an offer?

    The Warriors have been desperately looking for a gate draw. Would they be willing to part with Erick Dampier and Jason Richardson?

    The Bulls are looking for a spark anywhere, but would they be willing to give up Eddy Curry to get it done? A Jamal Crawford, Curry and Eddie Robinson deal might make sense for Philly. But would it really work for the Terri-Bulls?

    The Clippers are going to be in the Kobe Bryant hunt, but should they strike out, would a combo of Quentin Richardson (sign-and-trade), Chris Wilcox and their first rounder work for Philly? They'll be far enough under the cap to absorb the difference.

    And what about the Magic? They may be the only team in the league, out of desperation, that would offer a star in return for Iverson. If they become convinced Tracy McGrady is likely to bolt Orlando anyway, would the Magic swap T-Mac for Iverson? They'd be crazy to do it ... but with sagging attendance and very few options, who knows what will cross new GM John Weisbrod's mind. Remember, he's a hockey guy.

    Assuming the Sixers can't pry T-Mac out of Orlando, each of these scenarios arguably gives the Sixers back something less than Iverson in return. At this point, their options won't get any rosier ... so why hesitate? If they aren't willing to cut their losses, it's only a matter of time before history catches up with the team and time runs out for King, Ford and Sixers fans. Is anyone in Philly ready to take that risk?

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    Pacer fan since 1993 Ragnar's Avatar
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    Default Re: 3-16-2004

    Deng, Iguodala top prospects in Atlanta region

    By Chad Ford
    Tuesday, March 16
    While college basketball still provides the NBA with almost all its guard power, finding a good big man in college can be virtually impossible.

    When sifting through the East Rutherford, N.J., region for NBA prospects Monday, four of the top six players we focused on were guards. Only one of the six, sleeper Chris Taft, was a power forward or center.

    Today, the trend continues. Heading south, five of the top six prospects in the Atlanta region are either point guards or shooting guards. It will continue. NBA-caliber, home-grown big men in the tournament are virtually no-existent. By Thursday, just seven of the 24 players we will have looked at will be power forwards or centers. Of those seven, just three were born in the U.S.

    ESPN Insider talked to multiple NBA scouts and GMs to give you a look at the Top 5 NBA prospects they'll be watching in each NCAA region. Today, we look at the Atlanta bracket. Wednesday, we'll tackle St. Louis.

    South Region NBA Prospects

    1. Luol Deng, SF, Duke

    The Skinny: 6-foot-8, 225 lbs, Freshman. 14.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 46 percent shooting from the field.

    The Good: He's the complete package. Deng has it all. Athleticism, an NBA-ready body, quickness, fundamentals, a nice shooting touch and a great feel for the game. Deng is an unselfish player who can handle the ball, nail the mid-range jumper, grab a rebound in traffic or lock down an opponent in crunch time. His long arms and nice vertical leap make him play much longer than his height. He's a good shot blocker for his size. The comparisons to Grant Hill are obvious. Not as obvious is a game strikingly similar to the Jazz's Andrei Kirilenko.

    The Bad: His 3-point shooting is still an issue, as Deng is much more comfortable taking the mid-range jumper. He averaged three 3-point attempts per game this year and shot a respectable 36 percent from behind the arc, but scouts know it's not his strong point.

    The Ugly: The best NBA small forward prospect in the land. His numbers don't blow you away, but when you consider that he's playing on a team filled with older, more experienced All-Americans, they're pretty impressive. The word around the league is that Deng plans on staying in school However, if he were to lead Duke to a national championship, like Carmelo Anthony did last season, there will be a lot of pressure on him to declare. Right now he's considered a top-six pick in the draft.

    2. Andre Iguodala, SG, Arizona

    The Skinny: 6-6, 207; Sophomore. 12.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 5 apg, 45 percent shooting from the field.

    The Good: What's the big deal about an average-sized two guard averaging just 12.7 ppg? Scouts believe he's a Scottie Pippen-type player who can play multiple positions, handle the ball in most offenses and lock down anyone he has to defend. He already has an NBA body and is an elite athlete. Think Doug Christie with more hops.

    The Bad: Scoring. Iguodala struggles to score. He doesn't have a great perimeter shot, and he isn't a post-up player. Most of his points come in transition or off offensive rebounds. He shot just 30 percent from downtown. Can a shooting guard that can't shoot survive in the league?

    The Ugly: Despite the obvious flaw to his game, scouts love him. Several believe that with his passing ability he could turn himself into an unstoppable big NBA point. With the ball in his hands, Iguodala wouldn't have to worry about scoring every time down the floor. A big tournament, where he shoots the ball well, would put him very high on the draft board -- think mid to late lottery.

    3. Raymond Felton, PG, UNC

    The Skinny: 6-1, 195; Sophomore. 11.5 ppg, 4 rpg, 7.2 apg, 43 percent shooting from the field.

    The Good: After Wake Forest's Chris Paul, scouts believe Felton is the top "pure" point guard in college basketball. Felton has blazing speed and a real feel for directing traffic. He's a great ball handler and can see things on the floor before most point guards can. He's an excellent athlete and has a nice, strong frame that NBA scouts love. He can be very explosive and plays with a nice flair. He's also an accomplished defender. The comparisons with T.J. Ford are pretty obvious.

    The Bad: He can't shoot off the dribble. Like Ford, he struggles to nail even open jumpers when teams give him the shot. What's interesting is that Felton averaged 30 ppg as a senior in high school, so obviously he knows how to score. He just hasn't done it well during his stint at UNC.

    The Ugly: It's not clear whether Felton will be in the draft, but if he is, he'll challenge several top point guards including Jameer Nelson and Devin Harris. An impressive tournament leading his team to the Final Four would do a lot for his stock. If he struggles, expect him to return to Chapel Hill for another year.

    4. Rashad McCants, G, UNC

    The Skinny: 6-4, 210; Sophomore. 20.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 48 percent shooting from the field.

    The Good: He's obviously a gifted scorer and a top-notch athlete. He's a dead eye from long range and seems to have no problem getting to the basket at will. He's very quick and explosive.

    The Bad: Scouts believe he's much closer to 6-3 and don't believe he has the handle or the head to be an NBA point guard. His long arms and athleticism make up for some of those height issues, but not all of them. He's also a spotty defender, which certainly doesn't help his cause.

    The Ugly: The word is McCants will test the waters this year. Unfortunately, there is no clear consensus at the moment. McCants' value is really in the eye of the beholder. Some see him as a sure-fire mid-to-late first-rounder, because of the mixture of shooting ability and athleticism. Others think he could slip into the second round. It's really too early to call right now, but a great performance in the tournament obviously could help his stock.

    5. Francisco Garcia, SG, Louisville

    The Skinny: 6-7, 185; Sophomore. 16.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.6 apg 43 percent shooting from the field.

    The Good: He's very long, has a nice mid range jumper and is an above-average passer for someone his size. He's one of the best free-throw shooters in the country and does a pretty good job getting to the line. He has long arms and is a good shot blocker for his position.

    The Bad: Concerns about his strength and toughness abound. His inability to shoot off the dribble, grab rebounds and a lack of lateral quickness are also question marks. He has a rep as a good long-range shooter but shot just 33 percent from behind the arc this year after shooting 42 percent from 3 last season.

    The Ugly: Will Garcia declare? Several NBA scouts claim he will but won't hire an agent, thus retaining his college eligibility. That's probably a good thing, unless he really lights it up in the tournament. If Garcia returns to school, gets stronger and improves his ability to create his own shot, he's got a chance to be a lottery pick someday. Right now? He's probably drafted in the late 20s to second round.

    Sleeper: Hassan Adams, G, Arizona

    The Skinny: 6-4, 200; Sophomore. 17.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 53 percent shooting from the field.

    The Good: He's strong, athletic, tough as nails and has to be (next to Iguodala) one of the best rebounding guards in the country. He has very long arms that allow him to play bigger than his height. He's a very good shot blocker and an above average defender. His bread and butter is taking the ball to the basket. His perimeter game is improving.

    The Bad: Size and shot are still small question marks with scouts. While his long arms make up for his height to a certain degree, and his perimeter shot is improving, scouts would like to see more improvement before taking a gamble on him.

    The Ugly: Adams has given every indication he's returning to Arizona for his junior season. The Wildcats as a whole have been disappointing this year, which has tarnished, to a small extent, Adams' excellent season. If, however, the Wildcats go on a big run in the tournament, things may change. Scouts like Adams enough that he could jump ahead of McCants on many NBA draft boards.

    Others to watch: Lawrence Roberts, PF, Mississippi State; Romain Sato, SG, Xavier; Dee Brown, PG, Illinois; Timmy Bowers, PG, Mississippi State; Brandon Mouton, SG, Texas; Sean May, PF, UNC, Jawad Williams, SF, UNC; James White, SG, Cincinnati; Channing Frye, PF, Arizona; Salim Stoudamire, SG, Arizona; Mustafa Shakur, PG, Arizona; Andre Barrett, PG, Seton Hall; Chris Duhon, PG, Duke; J.J. Redick, SG, Duke; Shelden Williams, PF, Duke

    Draft Talk
    For the second straight day, our NBA draft coverage drew a ton of responses from readers wanting to weigh in on the growing flood of teenagers (both American and international) infiltrating the NBA draft.

    We haven't done a mailbag in a while and thought it might be great to get your voices out there. Here's a sampling of what you're thinking about the NBA's youth movement ...

    I just finished reading your commentary on the steady increase of international and high school players coming into the NBA. I agree that, based on appearances, NBA teams are starting to appear to prefer to take a high schooler or international player instead of a college player. Regardless of whether or not this trend is here to stay, I think the real question (and one I'm not sure has ever been answered in your column) is whether the NBA is better off with the influx of high schoolers and international players. Based on appearances, I would say that it is not.
    -- Michael Drew, Alexandria, Va.

    To be honest, Michael, I don't know. Things are so different right now it's tough for me to say that a Lakers team in the '80s is that much better than a Kings team in the '90s.

    I think in the end, things tend to balance themselves out. Most 18-year-olds aren't ready for the NBA and won't be for another two or three years. But there are probably more 22-year-olds playing great basketball in the NBA than at any other time in the history of the game.

    Whether you come from college, high school or the Euroleague, there's an adjustment that has to be made. What's different is that we are seeing it much more intimately when players choose to skip college and go pro. Players are maturing not only on the court, but off the court as well.

    Fan support may be dwindling, attendance may be down, but it's all relative. The number of NBA fans in 2004 greatly outnumbers the number of fans during the NBA's glory years.

    Shooting percentages stink, and scoring may be down, but I think it's a stretch to blame that on the kids. For the most part, the high school and international kids that make the jump are the cream of the crop. The international kids, for the most part, are more fundamentally sound than their college counterparts. The high school kids might not be right away, but there's no evidence they're dragging down the league field-goal percentage or scoring averages.

    Eddy Curry, a poster boy for staying in school, led the league in field-goal percentage last season. Add in Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Amare Stoudemire, Jermaine O'Neal and LeBron James -- they're what's right with the league, not what's wrong with it.

    I think the obsession with defense and expansion are the biggest reasons that the talent pool has diluted, not the influx of young players in the league. Teams like the Pistons can currently make very good teams look very bad with stifling defensive play. Better athletes playing better defense have, in effect, shortened the court and made it much, much more difficult to score. And you only have to look to the rosters of teams like the Hawks and Jazz (even though both are playing well) to see that there are way too many players in the NBA that don't belong there.

    Which gets us to our next question ...

    I find the international invasion to be ironic. Generally, the NBA today is considered a defensive league, and the biggest knock on foreign players is their lack of ability to play defense. This has been illustrated in ESPN's own articles about the importance of defense to teams and the foreign scouting reports. Why are GMs and scouts so high on these guys just because they can make an outside jump shot, when the coach isn't going to play them because they can't guard anybody?
    --Greg Bukowski, Carol Stream, Ill.

    Maybe GMs are as sick of the 70-69 yawners as the fans are ...

    All joking aside, it should come as no surprise that GMs are looking for Euros who can play some defense. Mickael Pietrus was a lottery pick based in part on his ability to play great D. This year, two international prospects in particular, Andris Biedrins and Sergei Monya, are as high as they are on the board because they're very good defenders.

    Let's move on ... obviously readers aren't the only ones who have issues with the direction the league is going. With most of the young players drafted in 2003 spending most of their time on the bench, can we expect a backlash?

    I'm ashamed of American basketball enthusiasts for the comments that come across as xenophobic or racist. ... My only concern is with the quality of the product. I do have a question about the international players, though. Looking at last year's draft class, none of the international players (Darko Milicic, Mickael Pietrus, Zarko Cabarkapa, Aleksandar Pavlovic, Zoran Planinic) have really been productive. Does that have any impact on the minds of GMs? I realize a few of those guys have shown flashes, but it seems like there was a GM backlash after the draft that Kwame Brown went No. 1, because none of the high schoolers were immediately successful. Is that at all a risk at some point this season before the draft?
    -- Jai, New York

    You've got a point. It was a question Insider asked back in December, when it was clear the 2003 crop of international players weren't getting any love.

    I think there are a lot of people who are taking a step back now and re assessing the situation. Pau Gasol was the international player who made many GMs believe a kid could come right in and contribute his rookie year. People forget that before that, young international kids were considered projects, too.

    Dirk Nowitzki's rookie year was so bad, Donnie Nelson of the Mavs actually called up most of the members of his staff and told them he thought they were all losing their jobs.

    There may be a one-time course correction this year. Teams that weren't convinced Euros were the way to go may be a little gun shy. Other teams that love them -- Dallas, Detroit, San Antonio, Sacramento and Phoenix -- aren't going to be swayed by a year of bad returns.

    The year after Kwame went No. 1, only one high school player, Amare Stoudemire, was drafted in the first round. However, that lasted one full season. Last summer four high school players went in Round 1. This year, as many as 10 have been projected.

    The word on the street is the backlash won't affect the number of international players taken in the first round, just the position. We're currently projecting between eight and 10 internationals in Round 1. I think most of the kids we're talking about will end up being late first-round picks. That allows teams to get a bargain and keep the kid over in Europe another year or two.

    Here's another, more proactive fan ...

    It seems to me that if there is going to be an influx of possibly 18 first-round teenagers into the league this season, it is very important the NBA gets on its horse in terms of developing and implementing its plan for the "new" NBDL with baseball-like farm teams. It seems to me the players' union would be pushing for this as more and more teenagers who are not ready to contribute are pushing veterans off rosters. I think you have written on the subject before, and one proposal was to have teams send three or four players each to the farm team that three or four teams would share. Are there any updates on this that you can give us?
    -- Brian Szabo, Toledo, Ohio

    I prefer this line of thinking to an age limit. An age limit would've prohibited us from seeing LeBron in the NBA for another two years. Obviously, that's ridiculous. What the league needs to do (and many GMs agree) is create an infrastructure that gives teams the flexibility to draft young players and pay them and develop them without taking up precious roster space.

    Most GMs believe the NBDL, as currently constructed, is a waste of time. What teams want to do is have the ability to take three or four of their own players and send them somewhere, along with an assistant coach, to teach them the system and give them valuable playing time.

    There are obviously a ton of logistical questions regarding something like this. The biggest are financial. Owners aren't ready to commit to owning a farm team, even if it does improve the game. The other issue is that teams want control. How do you guarantee, for instance, that the kid you shipped down is getting the playing time he needs?

    I think, given the new realities of the league and the draft, this is a must for the league when it begins it's collective bargaining with the union. In the past, the union has opposed any sort of minor league. But with so many veterans losing their jobs to young kids who aren't ready to play, I bet they're willing to make some concessions this time around.

    Having a farm league won't solve all the league's issues related to youth, but it's much more proactive than a ban.

    Keep the letters coming ... we'll try to keep the dialogue going on all week as the tournament arrives.

  3. #3

    Default Re: 3-16-2004

    Don't ask Marvin Harrison what he did during the bye week. "Batman never told where the Bat Cave is," he explained.

  4. #4
    Pacer fan since 1993 Ragnar's Avatar
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    Default Re: 3-16-2004

    By Greg Anthony
    ESPN Insider

    Is the Western Conference losing its aura of invincibility? It is when you talk of winning the NBA title. While the depth in the East is nowhere near as good from top to bottom, the East's top two teams, Indiana and Detroit, are every bit as good as the top teams in the West.

    Rasheed Wallace
    Detroit Pistons

    58 16.6 6.7 2.4 .436 .743
    The Pistons may prove to be the biggest winners with the Rasheed Wallace trade at the deadline. He has really solidified their defense. While his numbers are down offensively, that should be expected. Anytime you bring a great player to a team that was pretty good to start with, his numbers typically go down. (There are exceptions to every rule, and Sam Cassell is one glaring one, but remember -- Troy Hudson was not available for the first 50 games or so, and that forced Sam to carry a heavier load; his numbers are down since Hudson's return).

    Rip's scoring is about the same (17 ppg), but he is shooting a whopping 53 percent from the field. Chauncey, while his scoring is off (17 ppg before trade 14 ppg since), his assists and field-goal percentage are both up. He's averaging a full assist more per game, and more importantly he is shooting 45 percent from the field -- a marked improvement over the 39 percent before 'Sheed arrived.

    But the only stat that matters is winning, and Detroit has been doing that at a very significant clip, all because of their defense and their chemistry. Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, the primary scorers before the trade, are helped by not having to force their games offensively. That has made both more effective.

    Richard Hamilton
    Shooting Guard
    Detroit Pistons

    64 17.9 3.6 3.8 .446 .870
    That shows both players have been able to recognize the impact a great player brings. Wallace doesn't force the game, and he creates better opportunities for both because of the pressure puts on opponents. The attention he draws gives a little more breathing room to the guards to create and score.

    Also, by not having to force as much offensively, they can pay more attention to the defensive end. And again, Wallace pays dividends with his ability to help on penetration and support from the weak side. His blocks are up to more than two per game since joining Detroit.

    This team should only get better, too, because Larry Brown, through tinkering with the offense, should be able to come up with more wrinkles to get Rasheed more touches on the block, where he has the ability to be a big-time scorer and command double teams.

    Jonathan Bender
    Indiana Pacers

    16 6.9 1.8 0.5 .481 .806
    We all know about Indiana by now. Jermaine O'Neal continues to improve, and his confidence continues to grow, as well. But now that Jonathan Bender is in the rotation, he will become even more valuable in terms of his versatility. He can play four positions, depending on the scheme, and his ability to stretch the defense could really help for 15-20 minutes a game.

    The big question is point guard, where Jamal Tinsley has improved his play and Anthony Johnson has been a solid contributor. Kenny Anderson is also in the mix, anxiously awaiting an opportunity to contribute.

    The problem I see is the Pacers don't create enough easy baskets, which can directly be attributed to point-guard play and is an area I think they need to improve moving forward. There is no doubt how good they are, and their league-best road record of 24-11 and equally impressive 18-6 record against the Western Conference proves it. In fact, their winning percentage against the West is better than their league-best overall winning percentage -- .750 to .742).

    Again, though, I want to stress that the depth belongs to the West. No question. But that doesn't mean the title is guaranteed to stay in the West for the first time in a long time. If you're a fan of the NBA, you gotta love the fact that not only are the playoffs shaping up to be exciting, but the outcome may really be determined by a team other than the Lakers, Spurs or Kings.

    Greg Anthony, a veteran of 11 NBA seasons, is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider. Click here to send him an e-mail.

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