The NBA All-Star Game Sunday in Denver represents the traditional 13/20ths point of what the league calls its regular season, so it's a good time to check back in, especially since the NCAA Tournament is coming up in just four weeks, and we're really going to be ignoring the pros then.
Two months ago, with a quarter of the 82-game preseason in the books, I wrote that we already had a pretty good idea which teams were in the playoffs and which had no chance, and the next four months would be a process of figuring out which of the mediocre teams in the middle would grab the few remaining postseason spots.
Well, I was wrong. It's been a topsy-turvy, bang-up year in the NBA, and I don't mean just for guys standing next to guys who threw beer at Ron Artest.
I wrote that after 20-or-so games, there were six teams in each conference that we could be pretty sure would make the playoffs, including the Pistons and Pacers in the East. Both were struggling, and the Pacers were playing without Artest, Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson because of their suspensions, but it seemed logical to conclude both teams would recover in plenty of time.
Oh, how mistaken I was! Sure, nine of those 12 teams, including Detroit, continue to cruise toward endless repetitions of "Let's Get It Started" by the Black Eyed Peas, but in the East the Pacers are still a bubble team, tied with the 76ers for the last spot, and the Magic, playing .500 ball over the last two months, have been sliding slowly toward the bubble, though they're still in by two and a half games.
In the West, the Timberwolves, having gone into a tailspin that cost coach Flip Saunders his job, have gone from sure thing to maybe, trailing the Lakers by a game for the last spot. The Kings, having lost six of their last seven, are dangerously close to becoming a bubble team, but they're not yet.
Now, I could mention two things about the Timberwolves but I won't. I won't say that in December I talked about the possibility that the T-Wolves could collapse. I can't take any credit for prescience because I wrote that if they went down the tubes, it would be because of an injury to Kevin Garnett, rather than just playing like crap, which is what happened.
I also won't mention that in my NBA preview I wrote, "These guys are in trouble" and "I think this team is going to stumble," because if I did you'd send me an e-mail pointing out that I predicted the Jazz would win the Northwest Division and the Sonics would finish last, a pair of predictions that literally could not have been more wrong.
So the Suns, Sonics, Spurs, Kings (probably) and Mavericks still look pretty solid in the West while the Heat, Pistons, Wizards and Cavaliers look safe in the East.
But there hasn't just been dizzying change at the top. Oh, no, it's happened at the bottom too. The West's two no-chance teams, the Hornets and Warriors, have been joined by the Jazz (see my preseason predictions for sharp commentary on that bunch).
In the East, I have to turn off the sarcasm for a few paragraphs because there really has been a wee little bit of movement. The Raptors and Nets, Vince Carter's old and new teams, have managed to rally from being totally out of it to being on the bubble. Just barely.
The Raptors even staged a little hot streak in January, after the Carter trade, going 8-3 at one point and climbing to within six games of .500. Since then, they've given back that ground, going 3-8, and they're tied for 12th in the conference, five games out of the playoffs and probably out of it, but I'm trying to be positive. The Nets, who were 7-14 when I dismissed them in December, have gone 16-16 since, which in the East gets you closer to the postseason. They're 10th, three games out.
But the real surprise has been the Bulls, who began a five-game winning streak the night my earlier column appeared, and have gone 22-8 after a 4-15 start. If they stay that hot for the rest of the season they'll win 50 games, which may be enough to challenge the Pistons for the Central Division title and the second seed, and would almost certainly be enough for a fourth seed. Right now they're seventh in the conference, but only three games back of the fourth-place Cavs.
The Bucks and Knicks are also just barely hanging on to slim, and I do mean slim, playoff hopes in the East, the Nuggets, Clippers and Trail Blazers in the West.
It looks like the next two months will come down to the Celtics, Magic, Sixers and Pacers fighting for three spots in the East, and the Rockets, Grizzlies, Lakers and T-Wolves fighting for three spots in the West, the Rockets with a two-game leg up.
I really underestimated the excitement in December.
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Free the Stanley Cup! [PERMALINK]
This column is throwing its weight, all zero virtual ounces of it, behind the Free Stanley movement, an effort to wrest the Stanley Cup from the control of the NHL. Free Stanley, a group founded by a trio of hockey fans from Edmonton, argues that the league doesn't own the Cup, but is merely the trustee.
Lord Stanley bought the trophy in 1892, intending for it to be a challenge cup for Canadian teams and appointing two trustees. The trustees decided in 1910 that only pro teams would compete for the Cup, and within a decade of the NHL's founding in 1917 the Cup became the exclusive trophy of the league's champion.
Trusteeship was turned over to the league in the late '40s, on the condition that the NHL remained the best pro hockey league in the world, based on caliber of play. Free Stanley posits that if you're not playing, you can't be the best league in the world based on caliber of play.
That seems logical to me. Let's have a tournament that includes the champions of the various European and North American professional leagues. Beats what we've got now.
What we've got now is the league and the players union trying to justify their inaction and intransigence, which led to the cancellation of the season this week.
I just caught a moment of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's appearance on James Brown's national radio show Thursday. Bettman entered into a Socratic dialogue with the host, asking him what sport he spends most of the year covering.
"The NFL," answered the student.
"And what does the NFL have that we don't have, Grasshopper?" Bettman asked.
The answer was a hard salary cap, and, using the kind of logic by which you can prove that Ray Charles is God, Bettman proved that its salary cap has made the NFL the most successful league in American sports.
Maybe Brown followed up on this point, but just in case he didn't: Listen, Gary, here are some of the things the NFL has that the NHL does not.
Not sure if that last one's relevant.
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