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NBA Quarterly Report

Here we are, just past the quarter point of the season, and already the NBA has provided its share of stories.  We’ve seen two unexpected teams in the Phoenix Suns and Seattle Supersonics rise to be the crème de la crème in the NBA, and they’re doing it in an entertaining way – running, gunning, and utilizing a 5-man attack on the floor.  Conversely, we’re experiencing a dreadful New Orleans Hornets team that will challenge for the worst record, if they’re current winning (or should I say losing) rate continues. 

We’ve seen the most out-of-control fantastical brawl in NBA history when the Indiana Pacers took on the Detroit Piston’s fans, resulting in many altercations, punches, suspensions, and yes, criminal charges.  This incident has sparked renewed discussions about the nature of today’s athletes and fans, and whether Pacer’s guard Ron Artest, the central character in the melee, was justified in going after the fan. 

We’ve seen some fine individual performances as well.  You’ve got your perennials superstars doing what they do: Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Allan Iverson, and Kobe Bryant.  But there is a emergence of players that are knocking on that door of the elite: Early season kudos has to be given to Steve Nash and Amare Stoudamire of the Phoenix Suns; Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis of the Seattle Supersonics; King Lebron James of Cleveland; and young Dwayne Wade of the Miami Heat.  And oh yes, you cannot help but feel that something wonderful is happening with the Grant Hill revival.    

Lets review some of the best and worse newsmakers after a quarter of the 2004-2005 NBA season.

Biggest Surprise Teams  

1. Seattle Supersonics (18-5)

With a sparkling 18-5 record, the Sonics are perched atop the Western Conference’s Northwest Division over such traditional powers like the Minnesota Timberwolves.  Some people still think what the Sonics are doing are a fluke although they are making a strong case for their legitimacy.  I must admit, that I am one of those people who are flabbergasted that the Sonics’ incredible run has lasted for as long as it has, WITH no apparent signs of slowing down.  The team, which did not make any “major” acquisitions in the off-season but did lose versatile starter Brent Barry, is composed of the same core players that led Seattle to a 35-47 record in the 2003-2004 NBA season, as the team missed the playoffs for its second consecutive year. 

The improvements made by Seattle this year have been the “minor” acquisition of oft-troubled forward, Danny Fortson.  The burly Fortson, who has a reputation as a trouble-maker complete with bad and selfish attitude, has been nothing but a revelation under coach-Nate McMillan’s system.  Fortson has been the cover boy in Seattle’s revival as a tough rebounding team.  Much of the team’s failures last year were attributed to their atrocious rebounding, where they ranked last.  It was the team’s glaring weakness as opponents routinely pounded inside against the “less-than-intimidating” Vladimir Radmonovic, Vitaly Potapenko, and Calvin Booth.     

Equally important in the Sonic’s success is the elevated plays of the team’s starting unit, most notably, Rashard Lewis, Luke Ridnour, and Reggie Evans.  Although the team is still Ray Allen’s, Lewis has stepped up his game to being more than a second-fiddle to Allen.  Lewis has become more and more of a threat in late game situations, and he is not shy about this opportunity.  Lewis is fifteen in the league in scoring with 22.0 points a game (Allen is sixth with 24.3 points a game).  Ridnour, who has taken the helm as the starting point guard in his second season, has done an admirable job running the Sonic’s offense is fifteen in the NBA in assists with 6.2 a game.  Even better, is the low number of turnovers he commits, ranking forth in the league in assists-to-turnovers ratio with 3.84.  Evans has become the team’s starting power forward, where he leads the team in rebounds with 8.6 a game.  He and Fortson share the power forward position that gives the Sonics a tough interior combination.  Together, they average 14.7 points and 14.8 rebounds a game.      

 2.  The Phoenix Suns (21-3)  

Oh, what a horrible season the Sun’s endured last season being the second worst team in the Western Conference on their way to a The Suns didn’t win their 21st game until March 3rd, last season.  They have already match last season’s road wins total with 10.  It has been a stunning turnaround in the Valley of the Sun.   

The Suns have become the league’s most fun and entertaining team to watch, as they outrun and outgun their opponents to the ground.  They are simply proving that they are the most athletic and well-conditioned squad in the league, on their ways to possessing the highest scoring offense and the best record in the league and leaders of the Western Conference.  Unlike Seattle, I do believe that Phoenix is for real.  They have a starting lineup where any one of them can light you up on any given night – it really has become a matter of “picking your poison”.      

The heart and soul of this team can be identified in their starting point guard, Steve Nash, who is quickly turning his questionable lucrative 5-year, $60-million free-agent deal into a bargain.  Nash is the engine of the team, whose legs allow the Suns to continue their frenetic pace, and whose ball-handling ability and vision have made his talented teammates realize their full potential.  Each member in the Sun’s starting lineup are all averaging at least 14 points a game, and Nash is chiefly responsible for distributing the ball in an equal manner.  His effectiveness in doing so is evident by the fact that he is leading the league in assists with 11 a game.  Always a scoring threat himself, Nash is also averaging 15.7 points a game, and is shooting a deadly 53.1% from the field including 39.7% from 3-point range.         

3. Orlando Magic (14-10) 

The Magic have established themselves as an Eastern Conference power with a well-balanced attack that utilizes the team’s considerable athletic ability.  They have the second most wins by an Eastern Conference team, tied with Cleveland, and under the Miami Heat (19-7).  I also think the Magic will only get better as the season goes along as team members become more familiar with each other, and with the rapid development of rookie Dwight Howard.

After their embarrassing 19-win season last year, the Magic’s general manager John Weisbrod went to work to address the many concerns that plagued the team.  He largely put a lot of these issues at rest in one sweeping move – a blockbuster trade that saw the Magic’s star and the NBA’s leading scorer, Tracy McGrady being traded to the Houston Rockets along with Juwan Howard, Tyronn Lue, and Reece Gaines for Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley, and Kelvin Cato, all of whom were starters for the Rockets, and are now starters with the Magic.  It has proven to be an excellent trade for the Magic as Steve Francis is playing with renewed energy and confidence, and the entire team is surging.  Meanwhile, McGrady and the Rockets have been struggling.   

Another stirring feel-good story for the Magic is the return of Grant Hill.  Once claimed as the savior of the franchise when he signed a lucrative long-term deal with the Magic five years ago, Hill has largely been a disappointment thanks to a slew of career-threatening injuries that limited his play to 47 games in the four seasons preceding this one.  Hill has been impressive in his injury-free season to date, and his play has been reminiscent to his earlier years when he was arguably the best all-round player the league had to offer.     


NBA Lowlights To Date

 1.  The Malice At Auburn Hills

November 19th was a dark day in the league as the world witness one of the most surreal, unruly, and primitive spectacles in sports history during a game that pitted conference rivals Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers against each other.  For those living in a cave, the event was stimulated by a hard foul given by Pacer guard, Ron Artest on Piston center, Ben Wallace.  This led to the benches clearing but nothing “special” happened until a fan threw a full beverage that hit Ron Artest, who was lying on the scorers table. 

This stimulated about 15 minutes of pure mayhem that saw Artest charged who he thought was the culprit (turned out he was wrong – an expensive mistake).  It also saw Artest’s punch-happy teammate, Stephen Jackson, run out into the stands to face a series of fans, who were all to happy to participate in the brawl.  And lets not forget, Pacer forward, Jermaine O’Neal fly out of nowhere to knock a fan out who had confronted Artest on the floor.  It was a scene of bedlam and chaos before Artest and the Pacers were escorted of the floor while being pelted with drinks, garbage, and a folding chair.  It was certainly a scene that I will remember for the rest of my life.   

The ensuing days saw the NBA react quickly to this public-relations fiasco.  Commissioner David Stern hand out a total of 143 games in suspensions.  Artest was suspended for the rest of the NBA season – an unprecedented total of 73 games.  Jackson was suspended for 30 games and O'Neal was suspended for 25 games.  On the Piston’s side, Ben Wallace was suspended for 6 games, despite the fact that he and his teammates were not involved with any of the fan-Pacer brawls.  The suspensions will severely impact Indiana’s plans of claiming the Eastern Conference’s best record, a feat they achieved last season. 

The whole incident brought to the forefront some questions pertaining to player safety.  Was Artest justified for going after the fan?  Many players feel that his actions were warranted especially in today’s age where (alcohol-fuelled) fans are getting away with a lot more (Artest had been hit with a battery before in the past).  At the same time, issues with security have risen to the forefront.  Where was Detroit’s (non-existent) security during that whole fracas?  In any case, I must admit that I liked the way how David Stern quickly handled the situation.  He HAD to set a precedent in punishment after such an unprecedented event took place, and he has already taken quick measures such as beefing up security and establishing strict punishments should this ever happen again.       

2.  Anything Kobe-related 

The soap opera that is Kobe Bryant’s life continues, and although this season’s plotlines are meager compared to his rape-accusation of last year, his verbal battles with former coach Phil Jackson, and former teammates, Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone, continue to prove that Kobe is the quintessential pampered Primadonna.

During the preseason, Kobe managed to accuse Shaq-Daddy of premarital affairs on the road, when he was explaining his would’ve/should’ve situation of having to “just pay the girls off to keep them quiet”.  Shaq vehemently denied the accusation calling Kobe “a joke”.  Kobe has made recent headlines for wanting to “apologize” to Shaq for such remarks.  Shaq’s reply: “no comment”.   

Then there was the whole ousting of Phil Jackson and trade of Shaquille during the summer, actions that had to take place should the Lakers’ retain Kobe’s services.  They did indeed, and alas Kobe finally has the team to himself, although it shows how selfish he is, by dismantling a perennial championship contender just so he doesn’t have to play second fiddle to Shaq anymore.  Kobe’s own character came to light with scathing comments made by Jackson in his book documenting his last season with the Lakers. 

And most recent, is the whole Karl Malone-Kobe feud that first started with Kobe issuing a remark that Malone’s questionable return to the Lakers’ was proving to be a distraction to the team.  Malone overreacted.  Then Kobe lambasted Malone after Vanessa Bryant told her husband that the Mailman had “hitted on her” during a Lakers game.  The scenario: The female Bryant asked Malone (who was wearing a cowboy hat), “What are you hunting for, cowboy?”  Malone replied, “Little Mexican girls” (Vanessa is Latino).  This reply infuriated Kobe.  Needless to say, Kobe overreacted.        

3.  Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming: The Dreary Du 

I admit, with the addition of McGrady to the Rockets, I was on the bandwagon proclaiming great things from this Rockets team this season.  Although it is still early in the season (with about 60 games to play), McGrady and Yao have been disappointments individual, and an utter disaster as a combination SO FAR. 

I do believe that McGrady and Yao are competitive, passionate, and smart-enough to get the ball rolling, but it is a matter of when.  Right now, the Rockets have slumped all season and are holding an unimpressive 11-13 record, 8-and-a-half games back from divisional leaders, San Antonio.  The Rocket’s half-court offense has looked disjointed and has not utilized the supposed matchup problems that a Yao-McGrady combination is suppose to provide.  Part of this is coach Jeff Van Gundy’s doing.  This man is a defensive genius but possesses no creativity on the offensive end.  He should be letting the offense go through Yao or let McGrady create on his own – but that is not really happening. 

McGrady is starting to be more assertive now, but his penchant for taking ill-advised shots has not been inhibited.  He is averaging a respectable 22.5 points but shooting a woeful 40% from the field.  Yao has been averaging 18.1 points on 51% shooting from the field, but he has looked passive on offense, almost submitting all offensive duties to McGrady.  His defense has been horrendous too, as he is averaging only 8.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks a game.  Reminder to Yao: You are 7’6”!!!       


Noteworthy Individual Performances

 1.  Grant Hill (Orlando Magic)

What a great story to the season – the return of Grant Hill.  Even if Hill goes down with injury and never plays a game again, I would still maintain that Hill’s season was wildly successful.  While I hope that never happens, I will tell you why. 

First, Hill has been a write-off for the last two seasons.  His career was essentially seen as dead after he underwent his third or forth career-reviving surgery (I lost count), so any production since then would be, in my eyes, just bonus.  You had that sense even in his brief appearances with the Magic, though it has become known that he was still writhe with pain during those games.  In the 47 games he played in the last 4 seasons prior to this season, Hill averaged a respectable 15.1 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 4.5 assists a game, but his performance only served as a reminder that injuries had made him into a shadow of the phenomenal player he once was. 

This season began with Grant Hill on the roster, finally feeling consistently healthy playing well in the team’s preseason games.  But Magic fans have learnt to take any positive Grant Hill news with caution.  Now 24 games into the season, 23 of which Hill has played in, Magic fans are silently excited about the prospect of finally seeing Hill play an entire season, although they sit back silent, careful not to jinx the all-to-fragile occurrence of an injury.  In the 23 games he has played, Hill has been splendid sharing leadership duties with new point guard, and fellow all-star, Steve Francis.  He has averaged 19.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 4.0 assists a game this season.   

Although age and injury has withered Hill a little, his performance this season has proven that he is a memorable player for the ages, and has retained his place as one of the best all-round players in the game.       

2. Dwayne Wade (Miami Heat) 

Everybody knew Wade was talented, but no one predicted that he was this talented.  After his breathtaking and gutsy performance during the playoffs last season, Wade had convinced Heat President Pat Reilly enough that the team could survive losing three starters – Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and Brian Grant in a trade that pried Shaquille O’Neal from the Los Angeles Lakers.   

Wade has made Reilly look like a genius as he and O’Neal have led Miami to the top of the Eastern Conference.  Immensely gifted with raw athletic ability, Wade has made an outstanding leap in development to become one of the most dangerous guards in the league.  He possesses a solid outside shot, ankle-breaking ball-handling ability, creative adaptability, extraordinary quickness, and an explosive first step that has made him a nightly fixture on the highlight reels. 

He is clearly benefiting from Shaq’s presence, but lets be fair now – they are both benefiting from each others’ presences, on his way to leading the team in scoring (23.0 points a game – 11th best in the NBA) and assists (7.0 per game – 8th best in the NBA).  In the Heat’s much hyped-up match-up against the Lakers’ on Christmas wade, Shaq was quick to warn Bryant that he should be more concerned about Wade rather than him.  Its clear, that Shaq has found a willing partner on the road to the NBA championship in Dwayne Wade.    

3. Lebron James (Cleveland Cavaliers) 

The expectations of Lebron James are probably higher than any other player in the NBA.  He is the league’s prized jewel, they’re next great (marketable) superstar, the ambassador that will win the league a more global audience.  Such heavy expectations can crush many a soul, but it appears that James is thriving - wanting every morsel of criticism he can wrong, wanting to dispel any naysayers of his abilities…  and he has done so in spectacular, jaw-dropping, eye-popping, but yet, fundamentally-sound basketball. 

I must admit that I didn’t think Lebron was going to be worth the hype.  I hated the fact that a high-school prep kid was getting such unprecedented attention (his games were televised pay-per-view).  I thought it was bad for society (and still do) to place such fame and hype on a kid.  But there is no denying it as the season progressed, that indeed Lebron James was something special.        

After winning Rookie of the Year, I expected James to maybe experience some form of the sophomore slump.  Didn’t happen.  Instead, James has been impressive in leading his Cavaliers to the second best record in the Eastern Conference (14-10), and in doing so leading the team in scoring (24.8 points per game – 5th best in the NBA), assists (6.7 a game – 11th best in the NBA), and steals (65 – 1st in the NBA).  At any moment, in seems James can press a switch to completely dominate a game.  He is the real deal, and has become one of my favorite players in the league.