Triple-Threat: Southeast Division
1. MIAMI (10-7)
LIKE: The Heat are doing exactly what they need to without Shaquille O’Neal. Winning 2 out of every 3 games, not wearing out Dwyane Wade (38.2 MPG), and getting the veterans (in particular GP and Toine) their minutes. The last thing Coach Stan Van Gundy wants to do is fuel this fire with Payton any further. We all know that telling GP the starting spot isn’t his is like informing a woman she looks fat during her pre-menstrual cycle. At this point, just give the guy his 30 minutes, along with the majority of the 4th quarter run, and he should remain relatively harmless. This is exactly why I questioned this signing in the summer.
HATE: I respect the fact that SVG admitted to blowing the game in Denver, but c’mon man, can you be any more frightened of Pat Riley? Check the quote: "Our guys did a great job of battling back from 14 down and quite simply, I blew it. That was a ridiculous call. I mean, the zone got us back into the game. There's no reason we should have been in it on that last possession. The game is fully my responsibility. I'm about ready to hang myself in there. That was an absolutely ridiculous coaching decision." Translation: “Pat please don’t fire me just yet. Just give me another week or so until Shaq comes back. Pretty please. Pretty please with a cherry on top?” Have some self respect Stan, Jesus.
SLEEPER: If C Alonzo Mourning were a stock, he would have made a ton of people money in the last month or so. This past week alone he tallied 34 points and 19 blocks in 4 games. Seriously, how can he not warrant 25 minutes a game when Shaq comes back? Speaking of Shaq, his return (possibly this Wednesday) creates a huge dilemma for Zo owners: A) keep him and risk his minutes dwindling down to 15, or B) trade him away and risk him maintaining 25 minutes and 2+ blocks per night? Honestly, if you need the blocks and Mourning is merely serving as your backup, I’d keep him. If he’s your primary 5 and you have another asset to deal away with him, I’d look to move him for say, a Joel Przybilla. Good luck.
2. WASHINGTON (7-8)
LIKE: Their double-overtime win at Detroit was one for the ages. At the end of the season we’ll see, at most, 5 home losses for the Pistons and these Wizards can be proud of at least one. In addition, despite shooting just 31% that night, Gilbert Arenas put up 39 points, 8 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks, truly a gold level game. And when Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins can throw in 27 and 20, respectively, one has to consider the Washington bench among the league’s elite. And now that free-agent signee Antonio Daniels has been demoted, that second unit has become even stronger.
HATE: I’m still trying to figure out why Eddie Jordan has settled on this new starting lineup of Arenas, Jarvis Hayes, Jared Jeffries, Antawn Jamison, and Brendan Haywood. Why completely destroy Daniels’ confidence and send him to the pine? Why let Arenas reassume PG duties when he doesn’t have a capable 2 to help shoulder the load (like ‘04-05 with Hughes)? And why have two more-than-capable starting PGs riding the pine? Why not give Chucky Atkins a shot at lead guard? It’s not like Hayes and Jeffries are doing anything spectacular to keep them on the first unit anyway. Remember that this team started 5-1 and is now just 2-7 since. Something needs to change here.
SLEEPER: I’d keep a close eye on Atkins. If this starting lineup continues to struggle and the L’s continue to stack up, next in line for an extended look is Chucky. With Arenas’ knack of driving the lane (7.9 FTA) coupled with Atkins’ stellar 3-point touch, that backcourt tandem may very well make the most sense for Jordan and co.
3. ORLANDO (7-9)
LIKE: Defense baby! Does anyone realize the turnaround that Coach Brian Hill has achieved on the defensive end? A team that rated 28th overall in allowing 101.8 PPG a year ago, now ranks 2nd in yielding just 89.1 PPG. For you math majors out there, that’s a 12.7 point differential—quite incredible. Now if Steve Francis could just stay healthy and Grant Hill does in fact return by the December 19th date he has set, this team could legitimately reach the Playoffs.
HATE: 11.4 FGA, 38.0% and 10.6 FGA and 50.0%. What does these numbers represent you ask? The first pair of digits belong to Hedo Turkoglu and the second, Dwight Howard. Anyone have a problem with this? Why on earth would any coach allow Turkoglu to take more shots than a rising star, especially when the latter is shooting 12% better from the field? Get the ball in the post for the sake of the team and more importantly, to speed up Howard’s development. Honestly, DH should be averaging close to 20 PPG, not a measly 14.5—that’s amateur stuff.
SLEEPER: Does any player in the league who receives 35+ minutes per night provide any less for his team than DeShawn Stevenson? Really, take the time to look it up because there is no legit reason why he continues to warrant starters run. Instead, why not give PG Jameer Nelson another look? Saturday at Milwaukee, 20 points (7-15 FG), 9 assists, 5 rebounds, & 3 steals—he was named National Player of the Year for a reason, you know?
4. CHARLOTTE (5-13)
LIKE: One thing that had recently slipped my mind is the fact that the league has restricted Charlotte’s salary cap to $37.125 million this season, while the rest of the NBA is allowed $49.5. However, this ample restriction is set to be lifted this summer and should allow for the ‘Cats to bring in some rather talented free agents. Plus, with young guys like Okafor, Wallace, Felton, and May in the teams permanent plans, Charlotte could conceivably be a Playoff team by the ‘07-08 season. My hats’ off to Bernie Bickerstaff.
HATE: Even before Sunday night’s 20 point outing, I thought Melvin Ely should be granted more playing time. In the four games in which the Fresno State product has received 28 minutes or more, Ely has averaged 14.8 PPG and 7.3 RPG, while shooting over 51% from the floor. With C Primoz Brezec’s numbers all significantly down from a year ago, it might be time for Bernie to pull the old switch-a-roo.
SLEEPER: This is the one team where pretty much only two starting spots are secure, that of Okafor and Wallace. PG Raymond Felton should be stealing more and more run from Brevin Knight in the coming months (or so I’m told) and Ely and PF Sean May could be given extended looks as well. Keep a close eye on all three.
5. ATLANTA (2-14)
LIKE: Joe Johnson’s brutal learning curve. While many of us remain skeptical that JJ can be the centerpiece of this team, his resiliency thus far has proven us wrong. Despite being on the shit end of thousands of Phoenix boos on Sunday night, Johnson still found all the right words to say following the Hawks’ 112-94 loss. “Now I was on the opposite side. It was fool's gold. It was fun coming back home, but I'm glad it's over. [But] If I had to do it again, I would make the same decision.” Going from a 62-win team to a 10-15-win club is never easy, but Johnson did the right thing in reiterating his happiness in being a Hawk. Good job Joe, keep your head up. (By the way, his 34 points, 6 rebounds, and 10 assists last Friday show that he’s definitely on the right track to superstardom).
HATE: This constant indecision over whether or not JJ is the starting PG or not has gone on long enough. Over the past four games, Johnson has played alongside three different players in the backcourt, Tyronn Lue, Royal Ivey, and Salim Stoudamire. Now I know Coach Mike Woodson is simply trying to find the right places for all his players, but his priority needs to be in determining Johnson’s role as a 1 or a 2. This constant flip-flop of positions is doing no good for JJ or the team. If they do decide on SG for Joe, maybe Atlanta’s management can then get their hands on Daniel Gibson in the 2006 Draft—redemption for their embarrassing decision to bypass Chris Paul last summer.
SLEEPER: I can’t help but think that Stoudamire is going to turn into one of the steals of the ’05 Draft. On November 18th, the Arizona product lit up the Hornets for 30 points on 11-15 shooting, including 4 from downtown. As a player with such a lethal outside shot, SS needs to be given every opportunity to find his place, especially on such a young, putrid team. The question is however, at just 6-1 (very exaggerated), is Salim better off at the 2, or should Woodson and his staff push him to learn the 1? His cousin Damon has done a rather fine job as a lead guard, thus perhaps Salim can find similar success at that position. Whatever the end result may be, expect the Hawks to give Stoudamire 20+ minutes per night to help find an answer to one of their many questions.