Three NBA teams stand above the rest going into the playoffs: the Pistons, Heat and Spurs.
The starless Pistons are stronger than their parts, as defense is the bedrock of their success.
The Pistons are neither huggable nor extremely viewable, if only because 85-80 is their preferred calling card.
David Stern and the league brass in Manhattan will not be disappointed if the Pistons falter and a showdown between Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan emerges in June. Television is a star-driven medium, and several of the NBA’s biggest names are readying to take a powder as soon as the regular season is completed.
Both Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant are out of the playoff mix, an unthinkable prospect going into the season. Steve Francis failed to make a substantial impact in Orlando, and that was with a mostly healthy Grant Hill at his side. LeBron James seemingly has taken a ball-hog cue from Bryant, with predictable results.
The Suns and Mavericks are the best of the rest, just offensively gifted enough to orchestrate a surprise in the playoffs. The Mavericks, in particular, have become more of a postseason threat under the direction of the newly installed Avery Johnson, who actually emphasizes the need to play defense.
This is not to say the Mavericks have become stoppers on defense. But at least they no longer break out in a rash on defense.
The Suns have engendered a considerable amount of skepticism, despite compiling the best record in the NBA this season. They function somewhere between Doug Moe’s Nuggets and Magic Johnson’s Showtime Lakers.
The Suns are an entertaining bunch, and certainly no apologies are necessary after their 29-53 record last season, but they lack that one imposing weapon to go over the top, be it an O’Neal or a Duncan or the suffocating defense of the Pistons.
Steve Nash, the floppy-haired Canadian who has steered the Suns’ turnaround, has played his way into serious MVP contention. A voter could not go wrong with either Nash or O’Neal. The nod here goes to Nash because of his team’s league-best record and 30-plus-game improvement.
Others in contention: Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki.
Executive of the Year candidates: Bryan Colangelo, Ernie Grunfeld and Pat Riley.
Coach of the Year candidates: Mike D’Antoni, Eddie Jordan and George Karl.
All-NBA First Team: O’Neal, Nowitzki, Duncan, Nash and Dwyane Wade.
All-NBA Second Team: Yao Ming, Garnett, Shawn Marion, Gilbert Arenas and Allen Iverson.
All-NBA Third Team: Amare Stoudemire, Ben Wallace, Rashard Lewis, Ray Allen and Larry Hughes.
Feel-good story of the Year: Hill’s return to the Magic. After being limited to 47 games the previous four seasons because of a bum left ankle, Hill averaged 19.7 points and 4.7 rebounds in 67 games before a sore left shin forced him to shut it down.
Bad Guy of the Year: After quitting on his coach and teammates in Toronto, Vince Carter was rewarded with a trade to the Nets and another undeserved starting berth in the All-Star Game by dunk-obsessed fans. To show how much dog is in him, Carter increased his production in stunning fashion as soon as he donned the Nets uniform.
Runner-up Bad Guy of the Year: Bryant. After chasing O’Neal and the Zen master out of the organization, he chased Karl Malone into retirement after accusing the Mailman of trying to pick up his wife. Bryant also led the Lakers to the lottery.
Quote of the Year: “I’ve got my family to feed,” Latrell Sprewell said at the start of the season after taking issue with the Timberwolves’ offer of a three-year contract extension worth a reported $27-30 million. Not unlike a number of NBA players who dabble in being the Father of our Country, Sprewell is an ultra-serious family man, in his case three sons and two daughters from three women.
Disappointment of the Year: James and the Cavaliers.
Pro’s Pro of the Year: Reggie Miller. He may not be the player he once was as he heads off into the sunset, but Miller and coach Rick Carlisle have been the steadying influences on a team that could have packed it in after the brawl in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Here’s to the playoffs and the hope that all the players will earn enough money to feed their families.