Can’t jump, etc.

Nice article on Slate about the idiocy in comparing every white basketball player to Larry Bird. Here’s a taste:

Want proof that getting compared to Bird is a one-way ticket to the Caucasian basketball graveyard? A list of players who’ve been identified as Bird-like reads like the roster of a CBA team sponsored by the KKK. There are the Dukies: Danny Ferry, Mike Dunleavy Jr., and Christian Laettner (according to Charles Barkley, “the only thing Christian Laettner has in common with Larry Bird is they both pee standing up”). There are the guys whose main qualification was playing college ball in the Midwest: Troy Murphy and Wally Szczerbiak (“a Larry Bird game, a Tom Cruise smile,” one scribe said). There’s the inexplicable: Australian Andrew Gaze. And the monstrously, hilariously inexplicable: center Eric Montross, whom Celtics exec M.L. Carr said was cut from the same cloth as the Birdman.

Hoopage

Two neat basketball stories today. First, Chuck Klosterman wrote a neat piece on ESPN’s Page2 about how Phil Jackson will become a much better story once he’s gone through the abject failure of coaching the Lakers this year.

Americans don’t read very much, mostly because they don’t have to. But we still live in a staunchly literary world. We understand almost everything (and everyone) within the context of a narrative that’s written by circumstance and reality; each person’s history is a little story where they are the main character. As such, historical figures are remembered for the things they accomplish and the victories they win — if life were a movie, the collection of those achievements would comprise the plot. But people are always defined by their greatest failure. You learn very little about a man’s character from his success; truth exists only within adversity. And adversity is what Jackson needs to define himself as A Great Man; without it, he’s just a tall dude from Williston High School who won a lot of games with a lot of talent.

The other neat story? Why, it’s that Seattle Sonics center Reggie Evans missed a piece of the 3rd quarter of last night’s game against the Knicks because he was taking his drug test at halftime.

“I’ve been clean since I’ve been in the league, I’ve been clean since I’ve been in college, I’ve been clean since I’ve been in high school, middle school, elementary school,” Evans said. “I’m just cleaner than clean. I’m cleaner than Pine-Sol.”

NBA 2005 Southeast Division Preview

by Tom Spurgeon

(Here endeth VM’s NBA week! Hope it didn’t hurt too much!)

Mostly Above the Halfway Point Division

Seattle Supersonics

Looking over Seattle’s 2005-2006 roster is like learning about the marriage of a couple you thought had broken up months ago. Last year’s experiment in having a bunch of free-agents on roster so that they’d play hard to garner a big pay day in free agency paid off really well — especially for the Sonics, as nobody wanted most of Seattle’s players despite the team’s very effective 2004-2005 season. My primary theory is that because they’re as physically unattractive as the 1986 Boston Celtics, people may expect more than even their division-winning season brought about. Or, alternatively, no one wants to break up this team before High Resolution becomes the sports-watching standard and every hoops fan in America gets to see this team and its unfortunate skin marks and tufts of hair in God’s format. My tertiary theory is simply no one has any idea who plays on Seattle sports teams.

Seattle also managed to retain the services of Jesus Shuttlesworth, perhaps the only perennial all-star and one-time film actor with star wattage so low he can be outshined charisma-wise by local WNBA players.

Predicted record: 50-32

* * *

Denver Nuggets

George Karl, with the shady, doughy appearance and split of a bad guy on the Superman television show (Dean Cain era), enjoys as his primary virtue the fact that he looks totally in charge. He’s the kind of guy you ask about sporting goods even though he’s just standing there in t-shirt and jeans, or that you keep your eye on in a bar to see if he’s messing with your drink order by a shake of his head in the bartender’s direction. Don’t laugh — in an era where coaches seem split between corporate nobodies and confused ex-players, this is a highly desirable skill. He’s a coach and he looks like a coach.

Unfortunately, unlike other evil genius icons such as Joe Paterno, James Lipton and Governor George Pataki, Karl has failed to flatter and/or bludgeon a specific fan base into loving him no matter what the exit polls and scoreboards say. Karl’s last prominent gig as a coach was leading the 2003 World Basketball tournament team to consecutive losses against Aquilonia and the Country of the Houyhnhnms. I think most basketball fans are just waiting for the Nuggets to lose a few dozen games so this can be spat back in Karl’s face. Okay, maybe that’s just me.

The Nuggets as a team are entirely too dependent on Carmelo Anthony’s unique physical balancing act: staying skinny enough to be efficient on offense and to dodge the occasional morning practice right cross from teammate Kenyon Martin No. 1, but not so skinny he caves in to a sudden on-court pang and eats Earl Boykins.

Predicted record: 49-33

* * *

Minnesota Timberwolves

The brief rise of the Minnesota Timberwolves a year or two ago was interesting for the unique public persona grafted upon noted post-rebound screamer Kevin Garnett, who joined the league as an 11-year-old white girl in 1982. Perhaps unique among all sports celebrities, Garnett had become saddled with an underachiever label that received consistent reinforcement through his own advertising appearances, including one in which a psychological projection of Garnett berates the real Garnett for his lack of post-season success, which one supposes was supposed to draw attention to the power forward’s high standards rather than a tendency to slip into dementia. The only thing that comes close in recent memory to Garnett’s self-sabotage through ad spot is Matthew McConaughey’s “Yep, I’m a good-looking, lightweight dumbass” cologne campaign. Thankfully, the only humiliations that Garnet suffers these days is that people seem to prefer using their remote control on the Black Eyed Peas by a ratio of 2000 airings to one, and, once again, on the court.

As for positives beyond their loudest star, the Timberwolves are no longer coached by a white guy named “Flip” and they’ve jettisoned their hateful old men — including Latrelle “The Provider” Sprewell and Sam “Magic Jeep” Cassell — for a few inoffensive younger types, something that worked really well for Cheers and not so well for that one iteration of Van Halen we’d all like to forget.

Predicted Record: 38-44

* * *

Portland Trailblazers

Unbeknownst to most people outside the Pacific Northwest, the Portland trailblazers are an experiment in community karma. As the city itself completes a 20-year renewal that has resulted in an entire metropolitan of art-loving, bike-riding, farmer’s market- attending, beautiful souls, the Trailblazers team has in return for a string of sell-outs that would make a Greek military historian take note absorbed the entire region’s bad impulses and, as a result, devolved into a one of those gangs from a Beach Party movie. After several years of resulting player malfeasance including re-enactments of the pot-suffused car-destroying joy ride from Fast Times at Ridgemont High on I-5, and a Warren Oates movie moment regarding a poor soul bred primarily for pit fighting (not Ruben Patterson), the nonsense has finally reached the coaching staff. Nate McMillan, the longtime Sonics icon who ended up the coach in Portland the same way a guy after his first fight with his high school sweetheart might end up married in Vegas, spent a portion of the off-season in some sort of bizarre legal tussle with a leftover assistant coach who claimed McMillan doesn’t really want them there. Worst episode of Judge Hatchett ever.

The ball team’s chances depends on the development of players who would stab maturity in the face with a knife if it looked like it might cross the room and tap them on the shoulder. The Blazers somehow managed to dump Damon Stoudamire only to get smaller at the point guard position. Zach Randolph has the quick feet of someone who can dance between cars in a late-night parking lot to get in a kick or two on someone already being punched down to wheel-level. Worst of all, their center is named “Joel.”

Predicted Record: 32-52

* * *

Utah Jazz

The Utah Jazz were my dark horse pick for the Western Conference Finals last year. I based that selection on

1) a few snippets of Nostradamus’ prose concerning a “Mehmut D’Okur” and “the third Napoleon between two rivers.”

2) wishing beyond measure for that moment when Karl Malone would want to come back to Utah and be turned down

3) they were really good in 2003-2004 and added a bunch of better players.

Boy was I stupid.

Despite my confidence in them, the 2004-2005 Jazz won about three games and one-time favorite player to watch Andrei Kirilenko, a combination of Dolph Lundgren’s Rocky IV haircut and a shoddy 1960 giveaway toy with a wire infrastructure, became a skinny Larry Krystowiak.

I think what happened to the Jazz is what happened to the Indiana Hoosiers college basketball team in the late 1990s — coach Jerry Sloan became just old enough that he could no longer kick everyone’s ass, but not quite old enough to leave most of the coaching to his assistants while he made commercials that only showed on local cable.

Predicted Record: -12-94

NBA 2005 Southeast Division Preview

by Gil Roth

(Last day of NBA Week here on VM! Soon, it’ll be back to confessional rambling and snarky comments about the news!)

Atlanta Hawks

This team, hands down, gave us the most entertaining story of the offseason. They offered Phoenix way too many assets for a free agent sign-and-trade of Joe Johnson, then saw their “team governor” minority owner submarine the deal, because he felt it was too expensive.

The other two ownership groups had to sue to get the guy “de-recognized” by the league, and then had to buy him out, which made the Johnson deal even more expensive. Is JJ worth it? Of course not! He put up nice numbers as a complementary player with Phoenix, but he’ll be exposed when he’s controlling the ball this season.

His main reason for leaving the Suns, of course, was that he was tired of being the fourth option.

The rest of this team looks pretty awful. Al Harrington got exposed last year when he wanted to go be the main man in Atlanta. Unfortunately, there’s not even a Gold Club for him and JJ to head to for solace. At least they can go The Cheetah, Atlanta’s only choice in fine dining gentlemen’s clubs.

Projected record: 18-64

* * *

Charlotte Bobcats

I thought they’d be adequately bad last year, and I was right. Bad, but not record-setting bad. This year, though, it looks like their draft was coordinated by the marketing department. They took a pair of guys from UNC with high picks, one of whom clearly came out of college too early, since he made the prediction that the Bobcats will make the playoffs this season.

The team had some success developing its young players, like Gerald Wallace, and watched Brevin Knight somehow post 9 assists per game. That career resurrection was enough to get him consigned to the bench this year, where he’ll tutor Ray Felton in how to be undersized and play on 7 teams in 8 years.

Projected record: 21-61

* * *

Miami Heat

This team is completely befuddling. They were within 5 minutes of getting to the finals before they melted down against Detroit. So, rather than tweak with the lineup, they blew up half of it, bringing in a couple of no-defense gunners in Antoine Walker and Jason Williams, an over-the-hill ass in Gary Payton, and one of my favorite players from two seasons ago, James Posey. How will they fit together? Will all those new guys need too many shots to be effective? Will Antoine Walker get into a fight with Shaq over the post-game buffet spread?

I have no idea. The mere presence of Shaq will keep guys in line, and Dwyane Wade made The Leap last year into superstar status, as he single-handedly carried the team in the second round of the playoffs, but a lot of these new players seem like raging idiots, to be honest.

That said, I’ll pay to watch Jason Williams any ol’ day. I know that, every game, he will try to make at least one pass that no one else in the league would think of throwing.

Funnily enough, Shaq complained that he was too skinny last year, and that’s why he got injured. So he decided to bulk up for this year. Now, I’m firmly convinced that, by the end of his run in LA, he was topping 400 lbs. The fact that he retained such amazing footwork is like watching that scene in The Freshman where Brando ice-skates pretty gracefully around a rink.

I imagine that a bunch of these pickups were made with an eye toward beating Indiana, not Detroit, and that the smartitude of the plan will make itself clear in late May, leaving me feeling like an imbecile.

Projected record: 60-22

* * *

Orlando Magic

Steve Francis, who seemed to have a sorta gay relationship with Cuttino Mobley, went in the tank after the Big Cat got traded to Sacramento. At some point, they’ll have to shift him to SG for good, but it won’t matter. Like Stephon Marbury, he has no clue about how to make other players better.

I saw him play last year, and pile up a ton of assists while his team was down by 16. There are some nice players on this team, but they’re not exactly going to ride their big high school oaf back to the playoffs. He’s a good rebounder, but he has no instincts for offense, except for dunking putbacks.

Grant Hill made a nice comeback last year, but I can’t imagine that he can sustain it for another season. I hope they figure out some way to run him at the point, and get the scorers to concede that Hill’s the best ball-handler on the squad. Won’t happen, because of Francis, but it’s nice to hope.

Projected record: 28-64

* * *

Washington Wizards

Okay, I was completely wrong about this team last year. I joked that they were trying to recreate the “magic” of the 2001-02 Golden State Warriors by reuniting Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, and Larry Hughes. Turned out they’d learned to play in those intervening years, and put up a pretty good season. Unfortunately, they got swept in the playoffs by a Miami Heat team that was missing Shaq for the whole series. So, they were good, but not that good.

They lost Hughes in the offseason, but it would’ve been insane to re-sign him at the money Cleveland offered, so they added Antonio Daniels instead. Then they traded Kwame “I’ve still got upside” Brown to LA for Caron Butler, which really helped them restock. I think this team is in better position than last year’s was, but I’m a retard. So I’m going to predict that they make a little jump next year into the second-tier of playoff squads.

Projected record: 50-32

NBA 2005 Central Division Preview

by Gil Roth

(NBA Week continues on VM! Don’t worry; it’ll be over soon!)

Chicago Bulls

Surprise team last year, but easily one of the worst playoff teams since the 1999 Atlanta Hawks, which actually made the second round. Fortunately, karma realigned itself and booted this team from the playoffs early, after Chris Duhon decided to try to catch an inbounds pass with his shoulder-blades.

They have some nice components, and they got rid of Eddy Curry, who was the least effective rebounder I’ve ever seen at his size.

The simple fact that they now have Tim Thomas on the team means they’ll post a worse record than last year. They may as well waive him and try to get some karma-cap relief, because he will poison the locker room to the point at which coach Scott Skiles goes nuts and tries to beat him to death after a game.

Projected record: 42-40

* * *

Cleveland Cavaliers

I’m not sure why I’m predicting them to be better than last season. Their big addition was a player (Larry Hughes) whose skills too closely mirror those of LeBron James. I thought they needed a dead-eye shooter who can light it up from the perimeter. Unfortunately, they went with the “he’ll be the Scottie to LeBron’s Jordan” mentality, which is asinine.

I mean, let’s look at all these perimeter players who are “Top 10 talents” in the NBA: Kobe, McGrady, LeBron, Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, etc. These guys keep piling up monster numbers, but they’re not exactly marching through the playoffs, because it’s too easy to configure defenses to limit their touches or drive them to areas on the floor where they’re uncomfortable. They’re not worth a damn without either a good point guard, or an overpowering center (Yao doesn’t count, since he can’t stay on the floor). Jordan was once in a lifetime; get over it.

LeBron’s fun to watch, but that team’s going as far as Zydrunas Ilgauskas can carry them. I guess they’ll win a few more games than last year, especially if their crazy-haired Brazilian stays off the injured list, but I don’t see them making noise in the playoffs.

Projected record: 48-34

* * *

Detroit Pistons

They’ll be so happy to not have to hear Larry Brown’s voice, it’ll carry them for the first 6 weeks of the season. After that, it’ll be interesting to see if they respond to their first losing streak with comments about “that’s not how coach Brown would do it,” and “way to get out of the first round of the playoffs that one time, coach Saunders.” Which is to say, this team better be self-motivating.

The Pistons remain a pretty bizarrely assembled team, but I wouldn’t put it past them to make another good playoff run, squaring them off against the Pistons in the second round. Then we can see a Bird/’Nique duel between Darko Milicic and Jonathan Bender.

They are a deep squad, and Saunders loved playing a defensive zone when he had long players like Kevin Garnett & Joe Smith, so he’s probably drooling over the possibilities of playing Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince with Ben Wallace ready to pad his blocks-per-game stats while leaving his defensive assignment free to get offensive rebounds.

Projected record: 52-30

* * *

Indiana Pacers

Last year, I predicted that Ron Artest would melt down at a key point and submarine his team’s chances. I didn’t think it would occur quite as soon as it did last year, but it just goes to show you how uncontrollable my psychic powers are. It’s like a mediocre episode of the Twilight Zone, I tellsya!

That said, I predict that Artest will keep his crap together this year, post a multi-game streak where no one he’s guarding gets a single basket, and put up at least one 50-point game. People will start talking him up as an MVP candidate, implicitly hoping that he melts down and beats a player to death after a tough loss.

In preparation for PG Jamaal Tinsley’s annual dozen-game trip to the injured list, the Pacers signed Euro-import Sarunas Jasikevicius, formerly with Maccabi Tel Aviv. ‘Runas won the last three Euroleague titles, so I guess bringing him into Israel made sense. I mean, given Lithuania’s history with Jews during the war, I could imagine that some people were skittish about making him a national hero. On the other hand, we Jews do love us some hoops.

Reggie Miller finally retired, which means the last active player from that era is, um, Cliff Robinson? Is Kevin Willis still around? Anyway, it symbolizes the end of an era, of which Reggie was the tail-end. All the old-timers, just post-Magic/Bird, are gone: Olajuwon, Drexler, ‘Nique, Barkley, Ewing, Stockton, Malone, Reggie, um, Blue Edwards, Tom Chambers, Dan Majerle . . . All retired. Of course, as good as all those guys were, Hakeem & Drex were the only ones who managed to win the title, so I guess it was an era of heroic underachievers. Regardless, it sure beat the Gary Payton / Larry Johnson era that followed, but hey.

The Pacers still await Jonathan Bender’s breakout season.

Projected record: 75-7

* * *

Milwaukee Bucks

So happy with their #1 overall pick in Andrew Bogut that they traded for a starting center a few days before the season begins. I read yesterday that SG Michael Redd, signed to a massive deal in the offseason, is one of the worst defensive guards in the league. They’ll benefit from getting TJ Ford back this year, unless he takes another nasty spill and ends up paralyzed. The frontline seems huge, with Bogut, Magliore, and Bobby Simmons, but I just think those winters in Milwaukee are so bitter that the team will suffer a rash of terrible injuries, and be lucky not to lose 50 games.

Also, Bogut can’t jump over the Sunday paper. No one on this team will beat anyone to death, but GM Lenny Harris may pull a Matthew Broderick on some unsuspecting Wisconsinites driving home from a game.

Projected record: 34-48

NBA 2005 Preview: Texas, Fed Exes and City Hexes Division

by Tom Spurgeon

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are the first team in NBA history where the better they play, the more likely the shooting guard’s family is to be kidnapped and ransomed.

Other than looking forward to Michael Finley’s adjustment period, the only thing about the regular season with the Spurs worth watching is if Tim Duncan owns slacks and a sports coat, or will take some of the money with which he buys giant wheels of cheese or train sets or whatever and pay off the dress policy fines in advance. It’s an amazing policy that unites Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson against the commissioner’s office. The other good story, if you get the whole thing and not just the Extra! version on some red carpet somewhere, is how Eva Longoria’s father basically pimped his daughter to hang out in the same locker room Larry Kenon once roamed. It’s really creepy. So are the Spurs, who play good enough to win yet not quite good enough we win by watching them play.

Projected Record: 80-2

* * *

Dallas Mavericks

In the midst of a playoff game against Phoenix that ended like that weekend your hometown girlfriend visits you in college, giant revolving haircut mannequin Dirk Nowitzki and guard Jason Terry began to exude some winning Pat McCormick/Paul Williams big man/bitty man chemistry. One hopes to see them in matching powder blue cowboy suits at some point during the forthcoming season.

Because the Mavericks were coached for years by Don Nelson, team members tend to blink and stare as if they were slightly abused show business children uncertain how to function in the real world. New coach Avery Johnson comes to the team from a league program that gives high-profile positions to ex-players who can’t talk, following a trial run by Bill Cartwright in Chicago.

Projected Record: 54-28

* * *

Houston Rockets

Houston’s development of Yao Ming reminds me of the job NASA’s done as caretakers of the space shuttle portion of the modern space program. Okay, not really. Mostly it reminds me of people sucking at things. Ming’s a unique offensive talent with little clue how to play defense in danger of never developing his potential and becoming a burnout/bad knees case because of time demands back home. The NBA had done little to alleviate the latter through negotiation and intervention and the Rockets’ solutions to the former have included: hiring a coach that cares so little about offense that hitting the backboard counts as a score during scrimmages, a consultant who betrayed his own talent to take more shots and whose primary contribution to league history was to make promises he couldn’t keep, and teammates who can’t do much of anything other than dunk, hit 40 percent of all wide-open three-pointers and bump into people. It’s like Yao Ming is being punished, and maybe he is.

Projected Record: 48-34

* * *

Memphis Grizzlies

I know more about the Memphis Sounds from the 1974-1975 ABA (Rick Mount’s shoulder surgery year) than I do the Memphis Grizzlies. I saw them play once back in Vancouver, in a giant building with tons of empty seats, but I couldn’t even tell you what their uniforms look like now. Look for Kimani Ffriend to be the first Grizzlies rookie profiled by all the NBA satellite shows, but only if he makes the team.

Lawrence Roberts is this year’s case of a college player who lost money by returning to college for his senior year; I hope he sticks on this squad, although I don’t expect to see him much. Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a Fennis Dembo Overcooked Traveling All-Stars squad featuring players like Roberts and that Porter kid from Auburn?

Projected Record: 41-41

* * *

New Orleans/Oklahoma City/Baton Rouge Hornets

It’s depressingly easy to make comparisons between the Hornets and the city of New Orleans, but the basketball team is more a nation in the throes of a structural collapse than a victim of natural disaster. What I can remember off the top of my head is that Chris Paul, Chris Andersen, and Jackson Vroman are on this squad, which should mean a few highlights before the final score of 98-63 is slapped up on ESPN. The Hornets will play the majority of their home games in Oklahoma City, a temporary home suggested by the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce so as to avoid a 19th straight win in the players’ “Worst City to Visit” poll.

Projected Record: 2-80

NBA Preview: Atlantic Division

Boston Celtics

Last year, I said that Danny Ainge is an idiot, mainly because of his trade for Raef La Frentz. That’s enough to retain idiot-status for several seasons. The Celtics traded to get Antoine Walker back midway through last season, helping them get on a “run” to win the Atlantic Division. They posted the fewest wins ever for a division winner and may have been the biggest first-round underdog as a third-seed in league history. As expected, they got wrecked by the Pacers in the first round, and headed back to square one, as Walker and Gary Payton left.

They’re back to relying on a sullen, second-rate superstar in Paul Pierce and a hypertalented idiot in Ricky Davis. I give them credit for not flaking out too much during last season, but when your key off-season acquisitions are Dan Dickau and Brian Scalabrine, you’re not exactly taking strides into the future.

I loved Scalabrine with the Nets, but he symbolizes a horrible truth about the NBA: good role-players shouldn’t get long-term deals. Scalabrine signed a 5-year/$15-million deal with Boston, and I’m glad that he’s getting paid, but he’s a nice hustle player who looks too much like Beaker to be taken seriously. In recent years, there’s been a run of journeymen getting long-term contracts (Kevin Ollie, Brian Cardinal, Earl Boykins, Greg Bruckner, et al.), and it became apparent pretty soon that these guys never got long-term deals before because they’re just not that good. They’re great stop-gap players, and sometimes they can put on a nice run for a few weeks, but they’re going to end up outliving their usefulness and getting lumped into trades as salary-cap ballast within a year or two. So, I hope the Scalabrine era goes well in Boston, but I’d advise him to rent, not buy.

The Celts will probably be okay this season, unless there’s an early losing streak. At that point, Pierce will get sullen, point fingers, and end up with “nagging injuries” that “limit his effectiveness” till he gets traded for pennies on the dollar.

Fortunately, it’s Boston, so the starting lineup is 60% white.

Projected Record: 36-46

* * *

New Jersey Nets

Rod Thorn’s a heck of a GM. After the team’s new owner went into fire-sale mode the previous offseason, Thorn was able to convince him that fans are not likely to support a team that announces it’s in “cost-cutting mode”, then swindled Toronto out of Vince Carter, who is the Dominique Wilkins of this era. Also, last season’s Euro-import, Nenad Krstic, turned out to be a pretty good offensive player and a decent rebounder. He looks like a skinny Kevin McHale in the post; given that I had had my share of up-and-under post moves back when I weighed 155, I really feel for Krstic. If only he wore goggles and had goofier hair.

Going into this season, the Nets look like they’re trying to repeat the Phoenix Suns’ formula from last year, with a ton of running, athletic players who can rebound and run the break, complemented by spot-up shooters (Lamond Murray and Scott Padgett). I don’t think it’ll work too well, since none of the Big Three players are as deadly from long-range as most of the Suns were, so the break’ll probably be predicated more on speed than on the secondary shooters that Phoenix relied on.

It may’ve worked better if Thorn had completed his trade for Shareef Abdur-Rahim, which would’ve given the Nets a post-up black-hole to dump the ball into when the break stalled, but I’m always wary of guys who pile up huge numbers on losing teams.

The Nets will be fun to watch, with Carter and Richard Jefferson climbing all over the rim, and Marckque Jackson tossing players around like rag dolls. I think they’re positioned to win the Atlantic, provided the Big Three stay healthy and backup PG Jeff McInnis doesn’t get beaten to death by Charles Oakley.

Projected Record: 51-31

* * *

New York Knicks

Isiah Thomas has become the last chick in the bar at closing time. Twice this offseason, he held out till the bitter end, and turned into the only option for some lonely men: Larry Brown and Eddy Curry. Thanks to his strategy of hanging out by the jukebox and drinking wine coolers, he has a new coach and a new starting center. It doesn’t matter that the former uses a catheter and the latter may drop dead of a heart attack at any time.

Brown will go nuts and try to get Stephon Marbury traded by the end of November. This will be followed by mean comments to the tabloids about Jamal Crawford, Quentin Richardson, and Maurice Taylor, all flawed players brought in by the GM. Brown will realize his misstep when he says Curry has no heart.

Doubly unfortunate for the Knicks is that this appears to be the first time in years that the team had a decent draft, netting some young big men and an explosive guard. I say it’s unfortunate because Larry Brown won’t play any rookies. This is probably because of their lack of experience. You figure it out; he’s the genius.

The team’s undersized as ever — if you consider Marbury to be a shooting guard — and the best rebounder is Richardson, will be spending a bunch of time out on the perimeter as the only legit 3-point threat.

Speaking of 3-point threats, it wouldn’t be right to talk about the Knicks without saying a fond farewell to sweet-shooting anti-Semite Allan Houston, who retired after Jewish doctors were unable to repair his arthritic knee, which is all part of God’s plan.

Projected Record: 44-38

* * *

Philadelphia 76ers

I don’t even know where to start with these guys. Everyone praised Allen Iverson’s performance last year, but it just seemed to me like a continuation of his ball-hogging ways. His stats looked better, but that was just a function of his dominating the ball more than ever: it having a “career-high” in assists (7.9 per game) was great, but it was accompanied by a career-high in turnovers (4.6 per game). At least he got another coach fired, to be replaced by a former teammate in Mo Cheeks, who will probably trumpet AI’s stats for steals, without mentioning that most of them come at the expense of gambling on defense, and forcing the rest of the team to cover up for him.

But I spent LAST year goofing on Iverson. Throughout his career, he proved he can’t play with anyone who actually needs the ball to be effective, so it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion as to how this season will shake out with Chris Webber, who’s old, shot, and could never be relied on in the clutch.

The Sixers have actually put together an intriguing batch of younger players, headlined by Andre Iguodala, Samuel Dalembert, and Kyle Korver, but their development will be stunted by AI the same way Gary Payton crippled the progression of Seattle players for years. On the positive side, AI will probably miss 10-20 games this year because of various injuries, so the other players may have a chance to develop and gain some in-game experience before he returns and dominates the ball again.

Philly also has my favorite one-dimensional player, Lee Nailon, who can do nothing but score.

Projected Record: 42-40

* * *

Toronto Raptors

Holy crap, is this team going to be terrible. Everyone knows you never get equal value when you trade away a superstar player, but what they took back for Vince Carter was ridiculous. Watching Carter go on to break the Nets’ single-season scoring record–despite playing only 57 games for them–must’ve pissed off the Toronto fans, after VC tanked it early in the year so he could get traded. What does the team have left? Chris Bosh (a young, productive big man who will leave the moment he’s a free agent), Jalen Rose (possessed of one of the most bloated contracts–7 years/$92 million–in league history), and Charlie Villanueva (a rookie who might be productive in a couple years, but probably went way too high in the draft). Villanueva may have problems playing for the team this year, since he’ll need both a work visa from Canada and approval from the Men in Black to stay on our planet.

Toronto has two things going for it in training camp: they have four players named Williams (Eric, Aaron, Alvin and Corey), and they brought in Robert Pack, whom they eventually cut.

I only mention Pack because I once pulled up alongside him at a traffic light in Hackensack, NJ. I figured out it was him because of the “PAC JAM” license plate on the expensive black Mercedes. I rolled my window down and motioned for him to do the same. I said, “You Robert Pack?”

“Yeah.”

“I really loved your game when you were down in DC. Good luck this year.” He thanked me, light turned green, vroom.

Later that season, when he was playing against the Sixers, official VM flake A-Fink was sitting behind the opposing bench and said, “Hey, Pack! You still got those Oregon tags on your car?” This was probably better than the time I got Derrick Coleman to turn around and glare at me during a game.

I wish the Raptors hadn’t cut him, so that he could catch on with his 9th team, and start heading for Jimmy Jackson’s record of 11 teams. Still, the team does have 40% of the league’s active Williams.

Predicted Record: 24-58 (16-48 with the exchange rate)

NBA 2005-2006 Preview: Left-Hand Bottom Corner Division

by Tom Spurgeon

Phoenix Suns

That sound you hear from America’s greatest city without actual city stuff is either Amare Stoudamire’s knee ligaments grinding during rehab or the sound of men all over America scrambling across the room to change their Direct TV pre-sets to some other team to watch as an ongoing back-up. In the kind of move that epitomizes the NBA today, the Suns responded to their failure to go over in the 2005 Western Conference Finals by dropping a lot of what worked about their team and adding parts that have a 50/50 chance of acting like so much corn syrup in the gas tank. Did no one other than San Antonio pay attention to the great NBA teams of the 1980s through mid-1990s, where teams stood pat and added maybe one Mychal Thompson per year, one James Edwards and then only in a reserve or supporting role? Suns point guard Randolph Mantooth will build on his largely undeserved Best Actor Emmy from last year and Phoenix will continue to be a great place to golf.

Projected Record: 81-1

* * *

Sacramento Kings

Does anyone out there think that Peja Stoyakovich still misses Hedo Turkoglu? Not on the court — no one misses Hedo on-court, especially as he grows a half-inch every year — as much in the clubs, hitting on women together in tight jeans and unbuttoned shirts. I imagine Peja trying to bond with other teammates, shivering in a fishing boat underneath a purple hat somewhere with Brad Miller, going to Vegas and screening female interns on a reality show with the Maloof Brothers, or going to mosque with Shareef Abdur-Rahim before realizing that things would never be the same again.

I think this Sacramento team would have won a lot more games than most current squads were Kang the Time Lord to assume ownership up and make them play in previous eras; at the same time, I can’t see this team getting past the first round of the layoffs. I have no idea what that means, but I can totally see the matching up well against the New York Rens. Speaking of match-ups, I look at their roster changes of the last year or so and I swear they’re trying to find way to match-up with the Portland Trailblazers rather than team that make the playoffs.

I wish I had Rick Adelman’s job security, and I’m self-employed.

Projected Record: 42-42

* * *

LA Clippers

Wouldn’t the Clippers be a good match for their previous home San Diego, and not just because of the name? How did this not work out the first time? People like visiting San Diego; I bet the Clippers would get more press coverage if they were to move. They could host their own all-star game. They could have celebrity-free crowds, even minor-celebrity-free — the San Diego audience would be like a better-dressed Dallas, or a slightly less obese Sacramento. A pleasant team with a second-rate history, the Clippers would fit San Diego’s personality far better than cruel, snotty Los Angeles. No one would make fun of Elgin Baylor’s strange 1982 haircut, or Elton Brand’s Unseld-lite style of play, or take bets on how soon they ruin their latest 17-year-old point guard prospect.

Wouldn’t a move to San Diego give me something to write about?

Projected Record: 28-54

* * *

Golden State Warriors

My suspicion is that the Warriors will be this year’s false-hope team, by which I mean you should withdraw your attention from the team and start paying attention to the fans, just for that sweet, delicious moment when they’re let down one more time. Despite winning a bunch of games at the ass-end of 2004 that only mattered to three drunk guys sitting in the Terrible’s Casino sportsbook, nothing about the way they play ball really signifies anything more than potential for future junk wins. Those kinds of opportunities just aren’t on the menu for a full 82-game season.

Two notes on the roster. First, we should all pause and celebrate the largely undistinguished career of Calbert Cheaney, who came into the league as a Big Ten first-teamer but has survived roster to roster like an NAIA scoring runner-up. Second, everyone should reorient their start page right now to Adonal Foyle’s web site, a rarely updated but always amusing stab at declaring oneself the Smartest NBA Player, just without the John Ameche overtones. It’s the perfect on-line destination for those of us who have always wondered how the all-time Warriors shot-blocker felt about the latest dispersal of funds in Iraq.

Projected Record: 28-54

* * *

LA Lakers

When it comes right down to it, I have about as much interest in Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson as I have in any other hot media couple from the mid- to late-1990s. That would be none then; if possible, less now. Shaq and Kobe was the sexier pairing anyway; Phil and Kobe is like that unfortunate hook-up between leftover stars on the late seasons of a primetime drama, the one that makes old fans say, “I’m glad I don’t watch that anymore.”

In other news, Scottie Pippen has been brought on board to teach Lamar Odom how to be Scottie Pippen to Bryant’s Michael Jordan. One imagines a master and grasshopper relationship where Odom is forced to speak three octaves lower, trade insults with Charles Barkley, and stay on the bench during the last few seconds of playoff games. Oh, I’m kidding; Pippen was a great, great player nearly every second he allowed the coach to keep him in the game and Odom has only the cautionary high-living-as-a-young-player story of a great player. Still, it makes you wonder when the modeling stops. Did Jackson bring in Dave Debusschere to teach Horace Grant how to shoot 12-footers? I don’t recall, but I’m guessing “no.”

With Kwame Brown as Bison Dele.

Projected Record: 4-78

2005 NBA Preview: Western Conference Teams

by Tom Spurgeon

Although none of its teams are likely to lose a game to an Israeli club squad anytime soon, the Western Conference of the NBA remains the junior circuit of the two because of history and mythology. A team in Sacramento not only sounds less interesting than one in Kansas City or Cincinnati, it is less interesting — there’s no connection to regional college passions, or the great Midwestern industrial league teams. The Clippers won titles in Buffalo, collected injured legends in San Diego and became synonymous with massive incompetence in Los Angeles. The Western Conference’s most emblematic franchise isn’t the Lakers but the Phoenix Suns, the pride of a city where one can imagine having season tickets for 10 years and never seeing anyone else you know at a game, spreads of houses connected to other spreads, each of which boasts 32 sports bars and 1,700 Dan Majerle look-alikes.

When I think of the Western Conference I think of Ralph Sampson, power forward, Mark Eaton, All-Star, and the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics, last great champions of the NBA’s recreational cocaine use/random sucker punch era. I have no love for basketball in the West; these are players that embrace Oakland and reject Vancouver; these are fans that describe Scottie Pippen as handsome and who feel Chris Mullin was a better player than Isiah Thomas. You could lop the league in half and I’d happily move to the other side of the Mississippi to celebrate.

Then again, the West has most of the good teams. What follows are my thoughts on the Western Conference basketball squads, in order of projected finish. My projected finish will be in the exact same order as last year’s actual finish, because I like cut and paste only to a certain point and last year proved forever I have no idea what I’m talking about when I put my own order forward.

NBA Week

Hey, dear VM readers! The NBA season kicks off next week, so it’s time for the annual VM NBA preview! Official VM buddy Tom Spurgeon & I are spending this week profiling all 30 teams. (We might also get some guest-commentary from readers about their home-town teams.)

Let’s kick it off with Tom’s NBA 2005 introduction:

NBA Basketball 2005
by Tom Spurgeon

An oft-ignored key to professional sports in America is how effectively they straddle the seasons. Basketball, especially as the game has been re-imagined since the 1970s, is in the minds of most a summer game. It’s a game of playgrounds and parks packed with bodies young and those that remember youth trying to hold the court as long as possible. Playground basketball has a bad reputation vis-a-vis its effect on the traditional, more formal competitions, but in actuality the game is closer to its best in such circumstances than sandlot football or tree-bush-sidewalk-home suburban baseball could ever hope to claim. You can carve a space for yourself in a pick-up game in Seattle’s Denny Park or near the New City Y in Chicago by rebounding and playing defense, whereas football played between two driveways rarely rewards fine pass-blocking technique and hockey in the street, well, that’s a comedy sketch, not a contest. Basketball in the summer feels real, and not just the last game of the day, before dinnertime, but the first and the second and the third, stretches of movement and muscle and skill that ignore the final score.

And yet most of basketball is played in the winter, in white-hot arenas that one must leave in a heavy, three-quartered coats, opened to catch a flash of number. It’s swimming lessons as opposed to summers at the lake, heavy footsteps on the iron indoor track at the Y rather than a run by the river. There are significant basketball memories in harsh, cold places like Syracuse, New York, Minneapolis, Minnesota and Hershey, Pennsylvania; when one thinks of the old, great barnstorming teams they ride on buses in the gray cold of wintertime, hitting factory towns and playing in what would amount to cages, a snatch of summer put in the coldest most inhumane buildings imaginable. Basketball is packed high-school gyms and temporary legends, funny insults lobbed at the bench and Iron Crown beers downed in the car. When the great NBA teams of the 1980s met to do battle for the world crown in early June, they were finishing arguments begun in backcourts all the way back in January, heated discussions echoed in bars where men drank because it was too icy to drive home and into the mountains. Magic versus Bird was the conclusion to an argument that began with Dr. J’s hands around someone’s neck months earlier. The Showtime Lakers were built on Kareem’s turnaround punch the first game of the season in Detroit.

I’m not sure the modern NBA has ever understood its place in the cold, preferring instead the summer, and the Finals, and the Dream Teams, and even the WNBA. The other sports have always known how the second season comments on the first. October’s final showdowns represent the boys of summer all grown up. Football’s winter playoffs underline the battles of Fall against a more severe backdrop (a big reason the warm-weather Super Bowl generally disappoints; it should take place on an ice floe). I’d suggest the NBA has lost a sense of winter, the cold backdrop and artificial heat that links the game to its high school and college roots, that feeling of men at work, stripped to the bone, prepared to match determination and skill and muscle. Basketball is a winter sport, and needs to be once again, although the fragile athletes and ugly, undisciplined basketball made common by rampant personnel changes all scream back that no attention need be paid until June 1. And that’s okay, too. It’s just not the same.