Training camp begins next week, but some of you are already in midseason form with your complaints about my preseason rankings.
I'll address the Western Conference first, beginning with a Houston Rockets team that made another major move this week toward making the playoffs after enduring an injury-marred 2005-06 season.
As always, thanks for taking the time to write in. As usual, my comments appear in italics.
WEST RANKINGS ("Western wear," Sept. 28, 2006)
I was just wondering if you would be inclined to reorganize your Western Conference rankings now that Bonzi Wells has signed with Houston, especially since he scorched the San Antonio Spurs in last season's playoffs? Also, how do you see Bonzi helping the Rockets? Do you see him fitting in as a starter or a sixth man?
Almir, the Bonzi Wells signing is a coup for the Rockets, no question. To be able to sign him to a two-year, $5 million deal is pretty amazing given Wells' talent. He's one of the strongest post-up wings in the league, he rebounds and he can take over games with his scoring. Of course, he's not without his faults. He likes the ball a lot, and you have to wonder if he'll get it enough to suit him since Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady will do most of the scoring. He's not the easiest guy to coach, either.
I think if Bonzi submits himself to the team and plays the role Jeff Van Gundy asks him to play, this could be a great fit. But since Wells signed such a short deal – he has an option after the first year – he's essentially playing for a contract next summer. Will he be a good soldier, or will he be frustrated about not getting the ball enough? That's the question. And with that in mind, I'll keep them right where I have them in the rankings.
Do you think the Sacramento Kings will miss the play of Bonzi Wells?
Yes, the Kings will miss Bonzi Wells. He is a big-time scorer and a proven playoff performer, and that's why Sacramento gave him (as Terrell Owens' publicist would say) 35 million reasons to stay. I admire Geoff Petrie's discipline, though, in holding firm on that offer. Wells has proven to be a very good player, but he's not someone you build your team around. Offering more money would have compromised the Kings' salary cap, which simply isn't worth it for a player like him. Sacramento will miss him, but the team will survive just fine without him.
I think you have some interesting picks for your West rankings. I cannot agree with your rankings. The Dallas Mavericks should be below the San Antonio Spurs! The Memphis Grizzlies are not this bad even without Pau Gasol … and you ranked the Los Angeles Lakers way too high. I think you really missed it this time.
Darko, Dallas deserves the No. 1 ranking in the West because it knocked off the Spurs in the playoffs last season, winning Game 7 on the road. Plus, the Mavs made San Antonio react to them by playing small and taking the Spurs out of their game. Now it's San Antonio's turn to adjust, which is why I have the Spurs at No. 2. As for the Lakers, I believe they're about where they should be. They had the sixth-best record in the West last season and I think they'll be a little better this year. But the reality is that, in the West, teams five through 11 are practically interchangeable. So much depends on health and luck, and we'll see how things play out.
Do you really believe that Mike James and Randy Foye will make the Minnesota Timberwolves the sixth-best team in the West and that the Denver Nuggets are going to be the 11th-best team? You can't be serious. Last I checked, Minnesota was miserably bad last season and Rashad McCants is still hurt and may not be back to his normal self this year. You can't be counting on shoot-first tweener James to be a savior. I am definitely scratching my head on your West rankings.
Chris, I think that Denver is in for a fall this year. I didn't like the way the Nuggets folded last season, losing eight of their last 12 and then getting bullied by the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. I don't like Denver's chemistry, and its roster doesn't fit together. The Nuggets have no real post-up players among the bigs, and they have very poor three-point shooting.
As for Minnesota, I think James and Foye could do for Kevin Garnett what Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell did a couple of years ago. K.G. actually needs some shoot-first guys on his team to take some of the scoring pressure off of him. Call me crazy, but I have a hunch Minnesota will bounce back and have a good season.
What do you think of the Utah Jazz this year? They kept the core together with Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Deron Williams. How much better do they possibly get with Ronnie Brewer and Derek Fisher?
Ethan, I'm a big fan of the Jazz's roster. I liked them last year, too, but they had too many injuries. But I believe Utah can be very good. Fisher and Brewer will help, and I loved Williams' development last season. If Boozer and Kirilenko can stay healthy, the Jazz conceivably could win the Northwest.
John, good call. I like "Run-DNP" a lot! And it does sum up the Warriors' fortunes, doesn't it? If Davis is healthy and playing at a high level, Golden State could be tough to beat. But that's a big if.
EAST RANKINGS ("Still feeling the Heat," Sept. 26, 2006)
Finally, a little appreciation for the Miami Heat. But I think your ranking for the Detroit Pistons is a little bit too high. Ben is gone and I don't think Rasheed Wallace can play better D without him. And Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton won't be too comfortable shooting the ball when they know that the monster is gone to grab the rebound.
Jerrico, Detroit is in for some changes, for sure. They'll have to figure out who they are as a team. But I think Flip Saunders will be more comfortable offensively knowing he doesn't have to worry about hiding Ben Wallace. Look for Flip to follow the league-wide trend of playing smaller, with perhaps Rasheed playing center and Tayshaun Prince playing some four. The Pistons will be better offensively, but if their defense suffers dramatically without Big Ben, they might take a fall.
I'm gonna try and make a case here about Ben Wallace. Looking at his stat lines last season, I broke it down into two parts: the first 56 games and the last 26 (before and after March 1). In Ben's first 56 games, he had double figures in rebounds 39 times. In his last 26, he had double-figure rebounds 12 times – 70 percent vs. 46 percent. Points: first 56 games he had 21 in double figures, but the last 26 games he had just three in double figures. Thirty-eight percent vs. 11.5 percent. And it's notable that the Pistons needed him those last 26 games while trying for the best record and 70 wins, so it's not like they babied him.
Now, there's no doubt Ben Wallace is a good basketball player. But consider that he'll be 33 early next year and that his production, as shown above, drops as the season goes on and that even in Detroit, where the Pistons had a deep 4½-man rotation up front, with him, you couldn't really justify the contract. I see a lot of people conceding the East to the Chicago Bulls now that they have Wallace. My bet is that the Bulls will be better, but not much better than a fourth seed – and at home eating brats while watching the Finals on TV.
Rapid City, S.D.
Jim, trust me. I have my reservations about the Ben Wallace signing, too. He's a terrific defensive player who happens to have some serious offensive limitations. The Bulls definitely overpaid, but they had to get him. The key will be if Chicago can maintain its up-tempo, attacking style on offense while basically playing four-on-five at times.
The reason why I think it will work is that Scott Skiles is a brilliant coach – one of the best in the game. I think he'll figure out how to put Wallace in a position to succeed without compromising the team's offense. Still, I'm not sold that the Bulls are ready to win a championship. They have a lot of work ahead of them.
Do the Cleveland Cavaliers have the pieces in place to contend (truly) for the title this year, or should Danny Ferry have tried to trade his glut of swingmen and maybe Eric Snow or Damon Jones to bring in someone like Jamaal Magloire (who was obviously being shopped around)? I want to get excited about this season, but I keep remembering when the Cavs couldn't grab a rebound against Detroit in the playoffs and it killed them.
David, I think Cleveland is on the right track. Drew Gooden will certainly help on the rebounding side of things. In fact, despite the sequence where the Pistons grabbed all those offensive boards at the end of Game 6 against Detroit last May, the Cavs were one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA.
I don't believe Cleveland is a championship contender yet because I think winning a title is a process. The Cavs aren't ready. I also think they need better point guard play, which is something they'll have to address in the coming seasons. But LeBron James is so good that Cleveland will get better every year.
The Philadelphia 76ers below the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic? … Chris Webber, Allen Iverson and Andre Iguodala are still on this team. Other than Detroit and Miami, I challenge you to find three better players on any one team in the East. Don't get me wrong – the Sixers should get ripped by all sports analysts, but they are simply not the third-worst team in the East. They'll likely be a playoff team this year even though they don't deserve it.
Lee, ask Billy King if he'd trade his team for Orlando's. I think he would in a heartbeat. New York and Boston? You can make a point that the Sixers could be better than both, but it's more a matter of being "less bad." Philly has a terrible mix. Iverson and Webber are both low-percentage shooters, and neither defends at all. When your two best players are merely stat guys, you're in trouble. I think the Sixers are going to have a rough year.
How in the world can you rate the Charlotte Bobcats so low? We are easily better than the Atlanta Hawks and Boston. And are you kidding me about the Knicks and Philly? The Bobcats are a hustling team with a solid starting group. Raymond Felton is a star in the making, Gerald Wallace is a fantasy stud and an all-around player who keeps this team in games. Then there's a healthy Emeka Okafor. Add some offense with Adam Morrison and we are close to a .500 team. I know it sounds ridiculous to argue over who's the least terrible team, but I think this Bobcats organization is one to watch. And I don't think I'm being a homer … at least not much.
Nic, I love your passion! There's nothing like a basketball fan exclaiming, "We're better than Atlanta and Boston!" I realize you have to be realistic with your goals, but it just sounds great rolling off the tongue.
Anyway, it would be great to see Adam Morrison light it up and to see Emeka Okafor have a big year and Raymond Felton continue his development. But at this point, how can I rate Charlotte anywhere but last? The Bobcats need to prove something before they can move up the rankings. But keep the faith!
We've seem some teams in the past few years do worse than expected (like Minnesota and Houston) and some do better than expected (like the L.A. Clippers). Which teams this year do you think will be the surprise teams to do well and do poorly?
Rick, great question. That's one that is always difficult to figure, but I'll try.
In the West, I think Utah could sneak up on some teams, along with Minnesota and the New Orleans Hornets. And Houston is very talented. All four of those teams should challenge for a playoff spot. On the flip side, I think Denver and Memphis could be heading south. In the East, one of the surprise teams could be in your town – the Toronto Raptors. I like what Bryan Colangelo has done with the roster, and I think they have a shot at the playoffs. So do the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando, for that matter. The teams that might disappoint? Chicago is a possibility just because of the high expectations and the offensive limitations of Ben Wallace. He's got a lot of pressure on him with the contract he signed, and there's no telling how he'll respond.
Toni Kukoc is the last remaining player of the 1998 three-peat with you. Shouldn't he be retired in Chicago as a Bull? He did contribute a lot, even off the bench, in his eight seasons with Chicago.
David, I always loved the concept of a player signing with a team so that he can retire there. What is that all about? Jerry Rice signed with San Francisco last year and then promptly retired as "a 49er." Boy, all across the country tears were shed by those of us who picked up the paper the next day and read in the transactions, "Rice signs with Niners, then retires." Emotional stuff.
When I quit playing three years ago, I wanted to sign with Orlando, since I enjoyed an emotional stint there back in '93. Unfortunately, the Magic turned me down. They said they didn't remember me being there.
As far as Kukoc is concerned, hey, when it's time to retire, just retire. He was a great player and a good friend of mine, but sometimes it's just time to move on. And the fanfare is kind of ridiculous anyway. (Am I getting cynical in my old age?)
What do you think of the new basketball coming out? It appears to have gold on it. How does it feel in your hand?
Eddie, when the league designed the new ball last year, I was invited – along with Reggie Miller and Mark Jackson – to shoot around and dribble with it at Madison Square Garden. All three of us really liked the ball. It's a new design and it is made of composite leather rather than true leather. The result is a much more consistent feel to each ball.
The old NBA ball was subject to a lot of variances because the leather was a little different on each one. Some balls broke in well, and others didn't. Some were a little lopsided. All of them took a week or so to get a feel for. The new ball is ready to play with right away because it has a broken-in feel to it. It is also more durable. In short, I think the ball will be great for the league and it's going to be a good seller in sporting goods stores, too – unlike the old ball.
I've been surprised and impressed at your writing style and ability. I find it informative, succinct, and entertaining often with wry humor. Do you have editors who help you write and edit your columns, or are they truly your words? Did you major in English in college and have you always had an interest in journalism? Keep up the good work and the fine writing.
Darian, I sware, my editters dont help me with one werd of my riting. Everything you reed comes straight from my cumputer. … Seriously, I really appreciate the compliment. I have always loved to write – in fact, I took a lot of English and creative writing courses in college – and this is something I really enjoy. I do have an editor, who does a great job by the way (I'm assuming he may read this), and we talk about issues and ideas for stories. But for the most part, he doesn't have to edit a whole lot of what I write. Believe it or not, these really are my words!