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Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Four takes on the NBA

By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com

Editor's note: In the first edition of "Four Quarters," J.A. Adande addresses the state of the Lakers, the Rockets' early success and more.

First quarter

Right now, the Lakers are like a couple with a newborn baby, grateful for a few moments of peace and quiet, wary that the slightest noise could set off another round of crying and screaming.

The Lakers' 3-2 start, public declarations from Chicago and Dallas that they weren't Kobe Bryant-shopping (at least for now), and Bryant's realization and acceptance that his trade wishes won't be fulfilled easily have created this blissful nap time. That could change this week with a challenging schedule that includes back-to-back games in San Antonio and Dallas, followed by a home game against Detroit. It will be an early referendum on how the Lakers match up with the contending class.
LA Lakers
Despite injuries and Kobe drama, Lakerland is quietly off to a winning record.

The Texas swing has all the makings of what I call a Cool J trip (as in, L-L), and the Lakers have lost 10 of their last 12 games to the Pistons, including the 2004 NBA Finals. A winless week could set off all kinds of alarms.

Still, there's reason for optimism in the L.A. camp. The Lakers have eked out a winning record despite injuries to Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown, an uncertain center rotation, and all of the Kobe drama. They look livelier on defense, and they're third in the league in field goal percentage and assists per game.

"They're moving the ball," coach Phil Jackson said. "I think that's the best thing. Some of it's not always good passes or the passes aren't complete. But they're moving the ball, they're looking for each other, and the execution's going to come."

Overall, there's a feeling that they've settled down, that it's even possible to have back-to-back days without a trade rumor.

"That's a much better feeling than what we had before," Derek Fisher said. "I think the air of uncertainty about the whole makeup of our team was a big question mark. I think that played a little bit into that opening night game [a loss to Houston], where we had a chance to win but we just weren't quite in sync. We were missing free throws, some of the concentration things."

Bryant has resumed his customary spot atop the league's scoring list, averaging 30.4 points, but the key is he's making 49.5 percent of his shots, a career-best rate. And the Lakers have five other players averaging double figures. After missing the first four games while making sure his surgically repaired shoulder had healed completely, Odom slipped right back in with an 18-point, 10-rebound night against Minnesota on Friday night.

Fisher's 14 ppg puts him on a career-high pace, and that's not even his greatest value. "Part of why I was brought here in the first place was to give a solid performance on the court, but to definitely be a guy off the court that can be an impartial voice of reason for everybody," Fisher said.

"I've done little things here and there, make sure I'm talking to the group, make sure I'm staying connected to Kobe, make sure I'm staying connected to our team overall. Just to make sure guys don't get too caught up in thinking that this is the only place in the league where this kind of stuff happens."

Fisher pointed to the example of his last team, Utah. Andrei Kirilenko expressed his unhappiness with coach Jerry Sloan and requested a trade over the summer. "The circumstances of what happened aren't different," Fisher said. "It's the coverage and where we are that's different."

Notice how quickly the Kirilenko story died down? Life isn't as simple in Lakerland. "It's L.A., so the visibility and the spotlight is more intense," Fisher said.

That's why even the absence of news is news, and why a little silence sounds just as sweet as a lullaby.


Second quarter

This e-mail from Ames, Iowa, made me think more than any I've ever received:

Mr. Adande, I am from the professional basketball hotbed of central Iowa, and believe it or not, I have never really followed the NBA. I have sworn an oath that I would do so this season, purely because I like basketball and feel like I should be familiar with the NBA. Here's the problem, I'm in my late 20s and I missed that period in life when you choose the team you give your heart and soul to. So I have been trying to decide if I should just "be a fan of the game" or if I should try to intensely follow a specific team, and if so, which team?
Many thanks, Peter

The first part's easy: If you want to experience the highs and lows, you definitely need a rooting interest. Now the hard part: If you were going to start from scratch -- and you lived in neutral territory -- which NBA team would you adopt today?

The obvious answer would be the Phoenix Suns, but at this point that's almost a cliché. Besides, there's a chance you could be late to the party. Spurs? Too mundane, and not just because of their persona. There's nothing exciting about picking a defending champion.

I believe you should buy cars, not lease them, and I also believe you should make a long-term commitment to your team. So I'd be wary of teams that might have peaked already, such as Miami, Detroit or Dallas. You could try to catch on with the current flavor and go for the Boston Celtics (if nothing else, you could immediately taunt your friends with "Sixteen championships -- how many you got?") but if it doesn't pan out, you might have to start from scratch in a couple of years.

Unless we get an autopsy report to proclaim the Kobe trade rumors officially dead, you don't want to risk buying a Lakers or Bulls jersey only to have it become an instant throwback.

Rooting for Cleveland just means rooting for LeBron. You want to have a whole squad to cheer for.

What would be the most fun and potentially satisfying would be to get in with a young team with potential. That group includes Houston (T-Mac and Yao are still 28 and 27, respectively), Utah, Orlando, Atlanta and New Orleans, plus the long-term candidates, Portland and Seattle.

We have to cross Seattle off the list because it would be hard to support an owner who's ready to uproot his team from a place it has called home throughout four decades.

I've added another factor, on the assumption you don't have NBA League Pass: national TV appearances. You wouldn't adopt a puppy and play with him just a couple of times over the next year, right? You want your team to be a regular part of your life. And by that criterion, Houston and Portland are the two best choices. They'll be on ABC, ESPN and TNT another 13 times each this season, by my unofficial count.

Portland has a rich owner and a savvy GM and has to wash away years of image-reducing incidents, so you have to think the Blazers will do whatever it takes to get better except adding knuckleheads to the roster. They'll have a nucleus of Greg Oden, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. The only bad thing for Peter is they'll be playing most of their games in the Pacific time zone, which means he'll have to stay up late to watch his squad.

Houston's in his Central time zone and has the personality of Yao, the excitement of McGrady and the finger wagging of Dikembe Mutombo. The Rockets have won championships more recently, so you at least can say they've had success in your lifetime. I'll warn you that this team comes with underachieving Rick Adelman at coach. That means there are potential side effects with this pick, such as yelling at your TV in frustration.

Good luck with whatever team you choose, Peter.

And commenters, feel free to tell us which team you'd pick if we had the fans' equivalent of the 2005 luxury tax amnesty waiver and you could start fresh with no penalty.


Third quarter

The Rockets look as though they're beginning to understand a fundamental fact about their team: If this squad's going anywhere in the playoffs, Yao Ming will have to be the guy to take it there.

They tried the Tracy McGrady way. So far, the best that has done is extend the season by seven games. Hey, Kobe Bryant on his own hasn't been enough to get the Lakers past the first round of the playoffs -- and T-Mac isn't quite Kobe.

Yao Ming
T-Mac has had his chance, now it's time for Houston to let Yao Ming dominate in the paint.
So why not go with the 2002 No. 1 pick, the 7-6 giant with the soft shooting touch? Houston relied on him against Charlotte on Sunday, when he scored a career-high 34 points. And he carried the Rockets home a week ago against San Antonio, when his team held a nine-point lead against the Spurs in the fourth quarter. Yao scored or assisted on five of their next six field goals. He worked his way to a 28-point, 13-rebound, six-assist night and was the star of the game, even if Manu Ginobili did get all up in his Cheetos.

Maybe the Rockets are quick learners. Perhaps they watched the tape and saw what I saw in a groggy state early Tuesday morning, when I woke up in the den to find the TV tuned to a replay of Monday's Rockets-Mavericks game in the fourth quarter. I saw the funkiest moment of Yao's career: a split-the-double-team, one-handed-off-the-dribble, oh-yeah-there's-some-for-you-too-Dirk, power dunk plus a foul. Accented with a fist pump, too. That's the kind of nastiness we've been waiting to see from him.

Then he got only one more touch the rest of the way as the Mavericks pulled away for a victory amid an assortment of errant Houston jump shots.

The lesson: When your big man looks ready to own the paint, get the ball to him.

Yes, the Rockets have loosened up the offense under Rick Adelman. They're running more. Gotcha. Still, the only way they're going to make noise in the playoffs is if they have a dependable low-post option, just like Kareem was always there for the Showtime Lakers when they couldn't fast break. It's time to determine once and for all whether Yao is that guy for these Rockets. Because they can't expect McGrady to do this on a regular basis.


Fourth quarter

I caught this FreeDarko.com post about a deleted scene from Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" that featured famous philosophers playing hoops against the actual New York Knicks, so I had to ask Phil Jackson his recollections of the film shoot. He seems to recall more eating than hooping.

"We played basketball for five minutes, and then had dinner upstairs," Jackson said.

I asked him who was the best philoso-baller.

"I can't remember, but I would say that Nietzsche would be the best," Jackson said.

Why Nietzsche?

"I like his philosophy the best," Jackson said.

You can also count Shaquille O'Neal among the NBA fans of the philosopher who once proclaimed "God is dead." Jackson gave Shaq a copy of Nietzsche's autobiography, and the center produced a two-page book report, and later proclaimed: "Nietzsche was so intelligent and advanced. And that's how I am. I'm the black, basketball-playing Nietzsche."

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.