(I worked as a Sports Editor from late 2004 until the summer of 2006. This is one of the many columns I was able to save that were originally published in The Sun-Times of Heber Springs, Arkansas.)
Today is the final day of the NBA regular season. It seems like just yesterday we were lamenting the play of the Olympic team, wondering about the new defensive rules, and predicting how horrible the Lakers would be.
It was a fun season, which was made all the more enjoyable to me when my Grizzlies qualified for the playoffs Sunday. Even though it was an off day for Memphis, the Minnesota Timberwolves loss to Seattle gave the Grizz the eighth seed in the thick Western Conference.
More than likely they’ll match-up against the high-octane Phoenix Suns in the first round. While the Suns have gone supernova on most of the league, Memphis split the regular season meetings and feels pretty good about their chances.
I think they have an outside chance of winning the series. An outside, around the corner, behind the tree, hiding in the ‘fraidy hole chance; but still a chance nonetheless. If they win their first ever playoff game, I’ll be happy enough.
(And while we’re on the subject of the Grizzlies and the playoffs – and couldn’t we explore this topic in a two month long in-depth series of reports – I highly suggest making the trek to the FedEx Forum and buying some seats. You can thank me later.)
Since the season has come to a close, it’s time for me to review (and revise) my pre-season picks. It was obvious when I recalled the selections during the All-Star break that I was doing nothing to further my prognosticating career.
Now let’s just see how unabashedly wrong I was.
Rookie of the Year
If I could pick now: Emeka Okafor; Who I did pick: Dwight Howard
When I originally made my selections, I said the Bobcats would be lucky to win 10 games. They’ve won 17 as of Monday, which includes going 7-8 in their division. Okafor’s averages of 15 points, 10 rebounds and 45-percent shooting are the main reasons why. Howard (11 pts, 10 reb) and Chicago’s Ben Gordon are deserving, but Okafor carried the load for his expansion Bobcats.
Coach of the Year
If I could pick now: Scott Skiles; Who I did pick: Paul Silas
What the Cavs did to Silas merits its own column someday. Silas benched, cajoled, coaxed, and coached his team into a rock solid sixth place in the East. Then he was fired because the players questioned his substitution pattern. Now the Cavs might not make the playoffs and LeBron doesn’t trust any of his teammates. But Scott Skiles has taken a Bulls team that hasn’t even said the word playoff since Mike retired and has them in position to host a first-round playoff game.
Sixth Man of the Year
If I could pick now: Ben Gordon; Who I did pick: Shane Battier
With the Grizz, Battier could start half the season, and come off the bench the other half. Scott Skiles has taken Gordon and turned him into basketball’s version of a closer. Statistically there hasn’t been a better fourth quarter player this season, and Gordon is a vital cog in the Bulls turnaround.
Defensive Player of the Year
If I could pick now: Marcus Camby; Who I did pick: Ron Artest
Again, how did I know one cup of beer would soak two of my picks? I have no doubt that Ron-Ron would have taken this honor, but in his stead, I will award it to Marcus Camby. Camby’s 3 blocks a game leads the NBA, and the former Minuteman grabs almost 10 defensive boards a contest. His presence in the middle allows Carmelo the luxury of not playing D and frees up Kenyon Martin to be a psycho.
Most Improved Team
If I could pick now: Chicago Bulls; Who I did pick: Chicago Bulls
Finally, I got one right. After their 0-9 start I wasn’t sure, but now the Bulls are fourth in the east and are 20 games better than they were last year. Their playoff hopes got dashed when Eddy Curry and Luol Deng went down, but the gritty Scott Skiles has transformed a team of Baby Bulls into something the Windy City can be proud of.
Comeback Player of the Year
If I could pick now: Grant Hill; Who I did pick: Gerald Wallace
I was really trying to show off my obscure NBA knowledge by choosing Wallace. He did have a breakout year for Charlotte, but not enough to secure this piece of hardware. Grant Hill on the other hand, has resuscitated his career from the brink of a series of career ending foot injuries. Hill’s play this year had hoop fans thinking of 1995, and he almost had the Magic in the playoffs until the front office decided they wanted to go back to the lottery.
If I could pick now: The Brawl; Who I did pick: Los Angeles Lakers
Come to think of it, the Lakers slide wasn’t that disappointing. In fact, I kind of enjoyed it in a sick, ‘I like bad soap operas’ kind of way. The real downer on the season was the Pistons-Pacers brawl in Detroit. Not only did it affect the way the general public views the NBA, but it ruined the last real chance Reggie Miller had at a championship. Fan and player relations will never be the same.
If I could pick now: Tie – Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves; Who I did pick: Charlotte Bobcats
Picking Charlotte wasn’t that much of a stretch. Expansion teams never do well in their first season, but the Bobcats are doing better than expected. The real losers are the Lakers and the T’Wolves, the first two teams to have made the Western Conference finals one year and miss the playoffs the next. The Lakers front office became Kobe’s fantasy GM headquarters, and Minnesota bet the bank on two caustic, broken down veterans in Sam Cassell and Latrell Spreewell. Kevin McHale and Mitch Kupchak are making Elgin Baylor look like Reed Richards.
If I could pick now: Vince Carter’s resurgence; What I did pick: Trailblazers staying out of trouble
The Jailblazers have stayed relatively quiet this year, but there were the misadventures of Darius Miles that almost led Maurice Cheeks to quit. But I’m most surprised at how Vinsanity has turned his game around in New Jersey. I didn’t think he had it in him to become an elite player again, but his new gig in the Meadowlands with Jason Kidd has inspired him to reach for rarified air again.
If I could pick now: Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal; Who I did pick: Shaq, Duncan, Garnett, McGrady, Iverson
I revised this at the All-Star break and booted off McGrady and A.I. and inserted Nash and James. Iverson is having the best year of his career (and selflessly I might add), and James’ play is getting better each minute he logs. Nash is a true MVP candidate, and what can you say about Shaq and K.G. that hasn’t been said?
If I could pick now: Miami Heat; Who I did pick: Indiana Pacers
I still say if it weren’t for one drunken idiot, the Pacers would have won it all. But now the Heat is sizzling and once the Big Daddy enters the second season, the real domination will begin.
The MVP of the league has a willing protege in Dwayne Wade, a solid game tactician in Stan Van Gundy and players who will do the little things for him.
Unless the Grizz get hot and then it’s over baby!