Tuesday, November 09, 2004

5 on Five

5 on Five

Week of 11/8/-11/14
By Paul Benedict

5 Faces to Watch (Theme: Fill-Ins)

1. Maurice Williams, PG, Milwaukee Bucks
-Last year's 3rd stringer in Utah has done a solid job filling in for the injured Mike James (Ribs), averaging 10 points and 10 assists, but also turning the ball over 7 times and shooting just 40% from the floor in 2 games. Mo showed potential in limited minutes last season for the Jazz, and was certainly a terrific pick-up for the Bucks after Utah declined to re-sign him. Whether he takes this opportunity as the starter and runs with it remains to be seen, but we may find out over the next two weeks as he continutes to play big-time minutes.

2. Keith McLeod, PG, Utah Jazz
-McLeod inheritted the job left vacant by the aforementioed Williams, and has had to step in as starter with Carlos Arroyo (Ankle) and Raul Lopez (Knee) both nursing injuries. Though McLeod will see his minutes dwindle when Arroyo comes back this week, he almost certainly has guaranteed himself of a roster spot either with Utah (if Lopez remains out) or with another team. A steady ballhandler and a crafty passer, McLeod has dished out 24 assists and committed just 4 turnovers in three blowout victories for the Jazz.

3. Zoran Planinic, PG, New Jersey Nets
-Though journeyman Jacque Vaughn will likely remain the starter for the near future with Jason Kidd out, Planinic is Kidd's eventual successor (after Kidd is traded) and an intruging prospect worth keeping an eye on. Drafted in the 1st round a year ago by the Nets, Planinic had been impressive in both the summer league and preseason, but has seen just 41 minutes in 3 games thus far. Though scouts love his size (6'7") and skills as a playmaker, there have been question marks about Planinic's work ethic and ability to defend opposing point guards.

4. Bobby Simmons, SF, Los Angeles Clippers
-The former DePaul Blue Demon has been a summer league standout for a couple years now, but was never given enough minutes to truly strut his game during the season. With recently acquired Kerry Kittles on the injured list for a couple more weeks (knee), Simmons should continue to shine in the veteran's stead and may just force Mike Dunleavy to consider bringing Kittles off the bench. In 2 wins, Simmons has averaged 26 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting a mind-boggling 21-26 from the floor and 9-9 from the stripe. It's probably a stretch to expect Simmons to keep this shooting up, but 15 points, 7 boards, and 50% FGs is definitely within reason.

5. Chris Wilcox, PF/C, Los Angeles Clippers
-With Chris Kaman on the injured list, Dunleavy has decided to go with a smaller lineup by inserting the 6'9" former lottery pick Wilcox into the center slot. The move has worked out brilliantly for Coach Dunleavy, with Wilcox averaging 18.7 PPG, 7RPG, 60% FG, and the Clips winning two of their first three games. There was no question that Wilcox was going to play a major role for the Clips this season, but that role was expected to be off the bench and likely will once Kaman returns. Regardless, Wilcox appears as though he is ready to live up to his lottery-hype this season and could be a huge factor if the Clippers surprise out West.

5 Fascinating Factoids

1. After the Washington Wizards went up 4-2 18 seconds into the first quarter Saturday night, it marked the first time this season the Miami Heat had been trailing. And after three games, this has been the only time the Heat have trailed. Although Shaq has not quite been dominant yet, his presence has surely been felt in their 3 wins over eastern conference opponents. But the real reason the Heat have been smoking is none other than Dwayne Wade. In that Washington game, Wade went off for career-highs 37 points and 12 assists, and also pulled down 8 boards. If Wade continues to perform like this, the Heat won't be trailing much at all this season.

2. Bobcats point guards Brevin Knight and Jason Hart have combined to dish out 29 assists and commit just 7 turnovers in two games. Some people figured that Charlotte would struggle to put up 70 a night, yet they have scored 96 and 111 in two games thanks in large part to the dynamic play of the point guards. The 4.14 AST/TO ratio between the two would rank 4th in the NBA amongst starting point guards and so far has shut the door on the questions asked to Bernie Bickerstaff before the season as to why he didn't acquire a point guard capable of running an NBA team. Apparently he signed two.

3. The Bucks waived 2002 lottery pick Marcus Haislip and signed 2000 lottery pick Marcus Fizer...and I don't think anybody knew about it. Haislip had been a monster bust since being drafted 13th out of Tennessee, having not even cracked the rotation heading into his third season with the club. Fizer, on the other hand, put up solid numbers in the amount of minutes he played, but had fallen out of favor with Chicago brass due to his poor defense and whiney attitude. In four seasons, Fizer averaged 10.5PPG and 5.0RPG in just 21.9 MPG. If he gets starters minutes, that comes out to about 17 and 8. Also consider that in the final two games of last season for the Bulls, Fizer went off for 51 points and 36 rebounds. Fizer will be out another 4-6 while recovering from a knee injury, but he's a guy that could have an underrated impact for the Bucks who desperately need some help up front.

4. Another fact coming out of Milwaukee, this one being borderline mind-boggling. When the Bucks opened up in Orlando last Wednesday, it marked the 20th consecutive year that they played their season opener on the road! Is that just a bizarre scheduling quirk, or did owner Herb Kohl make a deal with David Stern that he would go on the road for his season opener for 20 straight years if Sternie awarded him the privelege of hosting Michael Jordan's first career NBA game in 1984?

5. Philadelphia 76er Corliss Williamson was awarded his NBA Championship ring from Pistons owner Bill Davidson prior to the contest Saturday night. Corliss became only the second active player to don an NBA ring and also win an NCAA title. The other? Richard Hamilton, who was awarded his ring before the home opener on Tuesday night along with the rest of the remaining Pistons from last year's championship squad. So that raises a question (at least in my mind), who will be the next to boast titles in both the NCAA and the NBA? Some candidates: Carmelo Anthony (Nuggets, Syracuse), Scott Padgett (Rockets, Kentucky), Carlos Boozer (Jazz, Duke), Mike Bibby (Kings, Arizona), and Christian Laettner (Heat, Duke).

5 Fantastic Matchups

1. Indiana at Minnesota, Tuesday @ 8.
-East vs. West. KG vs. Jermaine. Artest vs. Sprewell. Bird vs. McHale. Two championshp contenders. This matchup has it all...except national TV coverage (Nice scheduling once again Sternie!)

2. Toronto at Sacramento, Tuesday @ 10.
-Two teams off to surprising starts. This game marks the beginning of a 6 game west coast swing that should give us a strong indicator of whether the Raptors are for real. The Kings meanwhile, need to write the ship before they deal with their annual injury bug, which usually hits right about now.

3. Phoenix at Cleveland, Wedesday @ 8.
-The most exciting young team of the West travels to Gund Arena to take on the most exciting young team of the East. Should be a real barnburner as both teams look to run...and also happen to play some pretty pathetic defense.

4. Dallas at Miami, Thursday @ 8.
-Both teams could potentially come into this matchup undefeated, and that would only be a subplot of this intruiging battle. Think Shaq has a nice welcoming present for Cuban and co. after they failed to ante up for the big fella this summer?

5. Lakers at Houston, Saturday @ 8:30.
-One positive about TMac's move to Houston hasn't been talked about very much is that we're now going to be able to watch him faceoff against Kobe at least twice as many times. It'll be interesting to see how each's role reversals effects this budding rivalry.

5 Fretful Thoughts

1. I've never heard of it happening to a basketball player before, but Voshon Lenard tore his left achilles' tendon on opening night against the Lakers. It looked like a sprained ankle when it happened, but regardless, Lenard is out for the year and a team hurting for depth and outside shooting suddenly has a problem. Jeff Bdzelik started DerMarr Johnson in the game following Lenard's injury, then started Greg Buckner at the 2 in the team's last game. Johnson will supposedly never be the same player after that scary car accident from a couple years ago, and Buckner's offensive game is simply embarassing. So GM Kiki Vandeweghe is looking elsewhere; tomorrow he's bringing in former Memphis 1st Round pick, Troy Bell for a look. Despite being the 16th pick of the 2003 NBA Draft, Bell could not crack Hubie Brown's rotation in Memphis. He was stuck behind J-Dub and Watson at the 1, and too undersized to play the 2. With Andre Miller standing at only 6'1', I'm not sure the Nuggets will be able matchup against teams with both backcourt mates standing at 6'1". There's also been rumors of a potential trade with the Suns in which Phoenix would send Casey Jacobsen and Zarko Cabarkapa for Nicoloz Tskitishvili. This would help solve the shooting and depth problems, but it remains to be seen whether Kiki is ready to give up on Skita just yet.

2. Jason Richardson is off to a horrid start for the 0-3 Warriors. After having signed a 6 year contract extension worth $70 million the day before the team's first game, Richardson is shooting just 15-56 from the floor (30.4%), scoring only 13 PPG, and pulling down a mere 4 RPG, down from 6.7 last season. "I don't know what it is," said Richardson, "I'm staying after practice, I come in early, I get up shot after shot, I can't make them in games." Richardson better start knocking some down soon because there's no excuse why a team that runs a fast-paced offense like the Warriors is scoring just 80 points per game, and as the team's #1 option and now highest paid player, it's on Richardson's shoulders to right this ship

3. In 3 wins, Shaquille O'Neal is 8-28 (28.6%) from the free throw line. That's worse than Jason Richardson's abysmal field goal percentage thus far. That's worse than Cezar Isturis' batting average. That's worse than the Arizona Cardinals' winning percentage so far. That's even twice as worse as Shaq's field goal percentage from last year. Luckily for Stan Van Gundy, Shaq's pathetic free throw shooting hasn't been a problem as of yet, with the Cavs winning their first three games by comfortable margins. But when the Heat are involved in some close games, either Shaq has to get that percentage up to at least his career average of 53%, or Van Gundy may have to consider taking out the Diesel in clutch situations.

4. I mentioned in last week's column that the Kings were going to have a tough time getting off to their usual fast start to open the season. So while some people may be surprised at their 0-3 record thru one week, I can't say that I am. Sacramento lost a lot more than people realize when they let Vlade sign on with the Lakers. Considered by many to be the best teammate in the entire league, Vlade's leadership is what helped this team dig down when it needed to. Now upon his departure, Peja is unhappy (largely because his close friend Vlade isn't around anymore), Chris Webber is already whining about losing and complaining about knee problems, and the team is struggling to find a true leader. If the Kings want to stay amongst the western elite, someone is going to have to take on Vlade's role by stepping up (Christie?) and steering what has been considered the best "team" in basketball over the last five years in the right direction.

5. The New York Knicks lost their home opener to the Boston Celtics 107-73 on Friday in a game that was never close and saw the Knick players being booed mercilessly before halftime. The Knicks allowed the Celts to shoot 56% from the floor, were outrebounded 45-21, and turned the ball over 19 times. All this coming after a solid effort in Minnesota to start the season despite losing 99-93. "I would have booed too, if I was a fan" said Stephon Marbury, "The way we played tonight we deserved to get booed." Whether this is any indication of what's to come for Knick fans remains to be seen, but this is certainly not the right way to introduce the 2004-2005 Knicks to a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks host Philadelphia and the Clippers this week before embarking on a brutal 4-game road trip with stops in Indiana, San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas. The way it looks right now, Knick faithful would be wise to be content with a 2-6 start to the season. Ouch.

5 Fearless Forecasts

1. The Utah Jazz will continue to be a force to reckon with in the West. Off to a blazing start by demolishing the Nuggets, Lakers, and Warriors, the Jazz have combined a tenacious defense and a disciplined offense to overwhelm their opponents. While teams like the Lakers, Nuggets, and Rockets struggle to find a comfort zone while implementing new players and schemes into their attack, the Jazz should continue their hot start and could end up leading the western pack for awhile with a very favorable schedule (12 of next 19 against non-playoff teams from last year). With Carlos Arroyo returning from a sprained ankle as early as this Saturday, and newcomers Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur continuing to adjust to Jerry Sloan's system, there's even reason to believe that the Jazz aren't even playing up to their full potential just yet. Watch out for this team.

2. Jamaal Tinsley will lead the NBA in assists. With Jason Kidd out until at least mid-December and presumably being traded to a new team, it's unlikely that the star point guard repeats as the NBA assist leader this season. So who will inherit the covetted title? Look no further than Tinsley. People tend to forget that he averaged an impressive 8.1 APG his rookie season in 2001-2002. Injuries, a suspect shot, and questionable decision-making has resulted in Tinsley losing some minutes over the past two seasons. But by the halfway point of last season, Indiana coach Rick Carlisle had renentrusted Tinsley to start at the 1 and play 35+ minutes a night. Larry Bird was so impressed with his play that he annointed Tinsley as the team's "next all star" and awarded him with a 6 year contract extension worth $40 million. Tinsley has delivered thus far, leading the NBA with 31 assists through 3 games.

3. The Hawks are going to lose more games than anyone, including the Bobcats. Dating back to the preseason, Atlanta has now lost 10 consecutive games; now when you can't even pull off a win in exhibition, there has to be something really wrong with your team. Heading into Tuesday's home opener against the also winless Cavs, the Hawks are giving up an average of 108 points and losing by 22. Being led by two players who are known for their lackadaisical defense(Walker and Harrington), I don't see the Hawks stopping anyone defensively. And with a starting lineup containing two players on the verge of collecting social security (Kevin Willis and Kenny Anderson), you have to wonder how the Hawks will keep up with teams dropping 100+ on them every night.

4. Chris Webber will (surprise!) be the first marquee player to land on in the injured list for a significant amount of time. Webber has already been complaining about his bum knees after just three games, perhaps an excuse for his 40% shooting and the Kings' 0-3 record, but also maybe because Rick Adelman is playing him 37 minutes a game after allowing C-Webb to participate in an unusual abundance of minutes during the preseason. Anyone who watches Webber can just tell that the guy is not the same player as he once was; he has lost nearly all of his vertical ability and laterally he just does not move as swiftly as he once did for a power forward. Considering that Webber hasn't played more than 70 games since before the new millenium, and that he usually goes on hiatus during the first half of the season, I'd say it's certainly a strong possibility that he goes down in the near future.

5. Ray Allen will be the first marquee player to be traded this season. My gut tells me that Kidd comes back in mid-December, takes about a month to show he's fully recovered and then is shipped off to (Fill in Blank) a few weeks before the February 24th trading deadline. With that in mind, the Sonics will have tanked by December (9 of next 14 on road), and with Nate McMillan already thrown to the wolves, GM Rick Sund will be ready to make another major change in personnel. By keeping Allen, a player that has not been as popular as expected with the Sonics organization or its fans, the Sonics almost certainly eliminate any cap room they might have this summer as Allen is demanding a max contract. By trading Allen and taking on draft picks or expiring contracts, the Sonics can free up close to $18 million in cap room. Look for the Sonics to try and send Allen to the Blazers for Shareef Abdur-Rahim (expiring contract), Travis Outlaw (future prospect) and a draft pick or two.

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