Dallas finally has a chance to win it all.
That's the text of an instant message I sent to a hoops-junkie co-worker on March 19, the day Don Nelson resigned as the Mavericks' head coach. As you may know, I've long said that no team coached by Don Nelson would ever win an NBA title.
Of course, I used to say the same thing about Larry Brown. OK, so I'm not always right, but I'm sticking with this pick: Mavs to go all the way.
Here's a look at the eight series in the first round of the NBA playoffs, known around these parts as the regular season. The number before each team's name is its conference seeding, and the "at" designation refers to the team with the home-court advantage, which is the one with the better record, not necessarily the higher seed.
8) Memphis Grizzlies at 1) Phoenix Suns
Thank you, Phoenix Suns, for the 2004-05 season. Thanks, Steve Nash, for coming over from Dallas and leading one of the most exciting offenses in years. Thanks, Amare Stoudemire, for being such a general power stud. Thanks, Suns, for leading the league in wins while playing stylish, uptempo basketball. Here's hoping this sort of thing catches on even more than it already has.
That would certainly happen if the Suns were to go all the way. Go, Suns! I hereby root for you even though the Grizzlies are No. 2 in the Complicated Calculus of Teams I Root For, NBA division.
Problem is, to paraphrase Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's famous quote, the Suns stuff don't work in the playoffs. At least historically speaking. Good defenses, given seven consecutive chances to stop even the best offenses, usually figure it out, at least to some extent. That's why that old saw about defense winning championships is far more true in the NBA than it is in, say, football and baseball, where it's often taken as gospel but is not quite true.
I don't think the Griz have the defense to stop Phoenix, but they're a deep, hard-nosed team that played well after Mike Fratello took over as coach. The Suns, by the way, are not deep, another problem. The teams split the season series, for what that's worth -- nothing -- and the Grizzlies should keep it close, but I think we'll get at least a month more of the Suns show.
Prediction: Suns in six
5) Houston Rockets at 4) Dallas Mavericks
This might be the best series of the entire playoffs, right here in the first round.
Both teams are hot. The Rockets went 27-10 down the stretch and won their last seven in a row. The Mavericks went 16-2 after Avery Johnson took over for Nelson and they ended the season on a nine-game winning streak.
Throw in Dirk Nowitzki, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming and the intrastate rivalry thing and, to drop another phrase that for some reason comes to mind, let's get it started.
Johnson said he'd emphasize defense when he took over, and though he says the Mavs aren't there yet defensively, they're certainly somewhere.That 16-2 finish wasn't a mirage. They were 8-1 against playoff-bound teams. They're doing it with defense, having actually become a fairly elite defensive team, but they've also gotten better offensively than they were under Nelson, the offensive coach.
The Rockets are better defensively, but I'm not sure either team has anyone who can stop the other's big scorer, McGrady of Houston and Nowitzki of Dallas, but the Mavs do have Erick Dampier to slow down Yao without a double-team, and that should help with McGrady. A little. The teams split the season for what that's worth -- nada.
Can a team win the NBA title with Jason Terry at point guard? The Mavs are deep and healthy and putting it all together at the right time. I think the answer is yes.
Prediction: Mavericks in seven
Second round: Mavericks over Suns
7) Denver Nuggets at 2) San Antonio Spurs
The Nuggets just went nuts after George Karl took over as coach. They'd been 17-25 before he showed up. They immediately started playing better, and then from mid-February to mid-April they went a preposterous 24-2 before cooling off last weekend and losing two straight.
Are they that good? Can they knock off the Spurs, those perennial championship favorites? The answer to these questions are a hearty yes and no. To both.
The Nuggets aren't 24-2 kind of good but they're plenty good. They may have overachieved a little under Karl, but they underperformed more under his predecessors, Jeff Bzdelik and Michael Cooper. Denver has a terrific frontcourt of Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby, plus Nenê off the bench. There are more talented players there than on San Antonio's front line, but San Antonio has Tim Duncan, which more than makes up the difference.
The Spurs also have a better backcourt and a deeper bench. The Spurs' bench is really good, in fact, a bunch of veterans who can come in and score.
Duncan has had a rough year physically, his latest problem being a sore ankle. If he's not healthy, the Nuggets have a chance here, though it should be noted the Spurs are pretty good without Duncan too. He said he's around 75 or 80 percent this week. If he gets anywhere close to 100, Denver's overmatched. The teams split the season series, for what that's worth -- zilch.
Prediction: Spurs in six
6) Sacramento Kings at 3) Seattle SuperSonics
The Sonics, even more than the Suns, were the surprise of the league this year. They started 17-3, but that seems like a long time ago now. Seattle lost six of its last eight and 10 of its last 14, and it enters the playoffs banged up.
Star Ray Allen sat out the season finale, complaining that he's fatigued from playing so many minutes. Rashard Lewis is nursing a sore knee. Vladimir Radmanovic, a 6-10 shooter, has been badly missed since breaking his foot in March. He returned to practice Thursday, proclaimed himself stiff, and is day-to-day. This club's in trouble.
But the Kings have been hurting too. Bobby Jackson had a nice game Wednesday returning from a wrist injury -- while Peja Stojakovic (pulled groin) and Brad Miller (broken leg) watched in street clothes. Stojakovic hopes to play in Game 1. The Kings hope to get Miller back sometime during the series.
The Kings have played well through their injuries, though, and they know how to win in the playoffs, at least in the early rounds. I don't think they're good enough to do much more than beat the Sonics. Seattle won three of four in the regular season, for what that's worth -- diddly.
Prediction: Kings in six
Second round: Spurs over Kings
Conference championship: Mavericks over Spurs
8) New Jersey Nets at 1) Miami Heat
It comes down to Shaquille O'Neal's leg. If he can bend it, the Heat win. If not, a rare 8-over-1 upset is a real possibility.
The Nets are hot, securing a playoff spot with a 15-4 run to overtake sputtering Cleveland, and the Heat are not, struggling as Shaq has missed a lot of time down the stretch with various ailments.
If Shaq can patch himself together sufficiently, the Heat are going to be a title contender in the East, which is vastly inferior to the West. There are at least three and maybe five Western teams that could handle the heat with a healthy Shaq.
But he and Dwyane Wade are the best tandem in the conference, and not by accident did they win home court by five games. If Shaq's out, or significantly hobbled, the Nets, led by Jason Kidd and Vince Carter, should take them. Good news could be coming for New Jersey Friday, when Richard Jefferson, out since late December with a wrist injury, was scheduled to try practicing.
The Heat won all three games in the regular season, for what that's worth -- bupkis -- including a 35-point drubbing last month.
Prediction: Heat in seven
5) Washington Wizards at 4) Chicago Bulls
At first glance the Bulls look like a lurky kind of team. They finished with a modest 47 wins, but remember they fell on their faces out of the gate, going 2-13. You'll be hearing about how, after that, they went 45-24, meaning that they've been playing on a 55-win pace since early December.
Fifty-five wins is more than the Pistons (54) or Sonics (52) had. The problem is, you can do the same thing by excising a bad 15-game stretch from their schedules too. Drop the first 15 games from the Pistons' season, for example, and they've been on a 60-win pace since since early December.
And consider this about the Bulls: You'll probably hear someone point out that they went 9-4 after center Eddy Curry went out with an irregular heartbeat in March, much better than the 36-33 record they had at the time. But all four of those losses came against playoff teams, all nine wins against teams headed for the lottery.
Compare that to the Nets' season-ending 15-4 run, when they went 8-2 against lottery teams, but also went 7-2 against playoff-bound clubs.
The Wiz have an explosive backcourt in Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes, plus small forward Antawn Jamison. Between Curry and Luol Deng, out for the year with a bad wrist, the Bulls are missing 45 minutes, 28 points and 10 rebounds up front, leaving them with not enough to exploit Washington's weaknesses there. The Wiz won two of three from the Bulls during the regular season, for what that's worth -- squat.
Prediction: Wizards in six
Second round: Heat over Wizards
7) Philadelphia 76ers at 2) Detroit Pistons
If the Heat falter, it'll be the Pistons winning the East again, but these are not last year's Pistons. The bench is not as deep and not as good, and Rasheed Wallace has been bothered by a hamstring, an injury that can nag.
Both teams finished the season playing well, but the Sixers don't have enough beyond Allen Iverson, who had an incredible year. Chris Webber is playing better of late after a bad start in Philly, but he's not what he once was. The Pistons won three out of four in the regular season, for what that's worth -- nix.
Prediction: Pistons in five
6) Indiana Pacers at 3) Boston Celtics
Two interesting teams that aren't going to win the championship.
The Pacers overcame the Brawl and all those suspensions, plus a late-season injury to Jermaine O'Neal. And they have Reggie Miller singing his swan song. The Celtics got a lot better after the whoda-thunk-it trade that brought Antoine Walker back.
This isn't last year's Pacers either, without injured point guard Jamaal Tinsley and the suspended Ron Artest, but they're tough, and they've overcome a lot to get here. They should be able to slow down the Celtics' many and varied offensive weapons, the most dangerous of which is Paul Pierce. The Pacers won two of three in the season series, for what that's worth -- zippo.
A Pacers-Pistons series in the second round looks like a slightly pale version of last year's tilt, but still a pretty good match.
Prediction: Pacers in seven
Second round: Pistons over Pacers
Conference championship: Heat over Pistons
NBA Finals: Mavericks over Heat
Why was "Monday Night Football" so expensive? [PERMALINK]
Ever since the big NFL TV deals were announced early this week, I've been trying to get my mind around the $1.1 billion per year ESPN paid for the rights to "Monday Night Football" for eight years. That's twice what ABC, it's corporate sister, had been paying, and almost twice the $600 million a year NBC paid to reenter the NFL business for six years of Sunday nights.
Why was the price for Monday so high, especially given the NFL's apparent opinion that Sunday night games on free TV will outdraw the Monday night games that will stay free for one more year on ABC?
Many in the commentariat, including me, have explained that ESPN can afford to pay more than the broadcast networks for the same program because it collects revenue from subscription fees as well as advertising. That is, cable distributors pay ESPN -- a lot -- for the viewers it delivers. The new deal figures to bring in even more viewers and allow ESPN to charge higher fees.
ESPN is also unique among the big networks in all the different ways it has to make money: subsidiary networks like ESPN Deportes and H-D, a huge Web site, a radio network and so on.
But nobody's explained why ESPN would pay so much more than anybody else. ABC had pulled out of the Monday night bidding after offering $400 million. If the other broadcast networks were considering paying $1 billion or so for something, they'd have outbid NBC for Sunday. So did ESPN overpay?
"The most likely explanation is that ESPN is concerned that if they didn't get those rights than Fox would have gotten the rights," said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College who writes extensively about sports economics, "and Fox would have used the rights to lift the status of their national sports channel to be a competitor to ESPN."
"They have to have calculated the return on investment for ESPN-Disney to be greater than the billion they invested," said Matthew Brown, an assistant professor of sports administration at Ohio University who studies and writes about sports business. "ESPN has done a good job of shutting down rivals like Fox nationally."
That's pretty much how ESPN executive vice president Mark Shapiro explained it.
"There's monster competition," he said. "I mean, if you don't think there's another cable player that wants to get in on the action, that'd be foolish. There's a lot of players that want in, not to mention Fox sitting out there, who's been damn obvious and up-front about the sense that they want more football for Fox, and if they can get even more football they would love to launch a new sports network."
Other major players might have included Comcast, the country's largest cable company, which has been rumored to want to start a sports network, and the NFL itself, which has the cable NFL Network, where a still-unsold package of eight late-season Thursday- and Saturday-night games could end up.
Another theory: "Other than they're trying to keep Fox out, the answer might be that they just paid too much," Zimbalist said. Referring to the president of ESPN and ABC Sports, he added, "George Bodenheimer's a nice guy, he's a hard-working guy, but just because he thinks that it's going to be $1.1 billion doesn't mean he's right. Maybe they'll take a loss on this stuff. And maybe Fox wasn't going to go after it anyway."
Shapiro declined to discuss whether ESPN would profit from the Monday night deal. "All I can tell you is that ESPN is going to deliver, year over year, double-digit growth to the Walt Disney Co.," he says, "and we would not be able to do that if this deal wasn't economically sound for us."
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Be right back [PERMALINK]
The NFL draft is this weekend, and I'm celebrating the occasion by going on vacation so I don't have to watch it or write about it. I found this to be a most salubrious gambit last year.
The NFL draft incorporates the two worst features of American life: all-day committee meetings on a weekend and commentary by Chris Berman.
I will return May 2.
Previous column: "The Making of Casey Stengel"
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