MJ not the only one hoping to hit the Big Four Oh
Friday, March 28
That, according to the best calculations in Dimedom, is what it'll take to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Forty is the magic number, just like it is in our beloved English Premiership, where 40 points is the unofficial barrier for insulation from relegation.
If you buy that guesstimate, and assuming you don't echo our dear friend Peter May's calls to cancel the East playoffs, there are five teams playing for the last three spots in the bracket. Here they are, in order of their current record and the record they'll need to reach the magical, mystical plateau of 40-42.
The Magic, then, is obviously in, but you already knew that. Especially if you watched Tracy McGrady the past few days, swatting away Jamal Mashburn's jumper at the buzzer to seal a win at New Orleans and then outdueling Kevin Garnett at home in Thursday's MVP showcase. Orlando is the new favorite to finish sixth, actually.
From there, though, nothing is certain. Not even the Celtics, just two wins away from likely safety.
If you don't think the Celtics can keep sliding, you haven't been watching. They have lost six in a row, a skid that has also seen the disappearance of Boston's defense, ball movement and perimeter success and good judgment. Worse yet, the Celts' remaining schedule is hardly friendly. Two games each with Cleveland and Miami, starting with this weekend's back-to-back against the Cavs, are the only inviting fixtures. Sacramento, Philadelphia, Orlando, Detroit and two games with Washington round out Boston's obligations.
Should the Celtics start looking like a playoff team again, by sweeping the Cavs and beating Miami at home next Wednesday, we'll be back to the expected two- or three-team race for one spot at No. 8 -- featuring Milwaukee, Washington and, if we're being really open-minded, New York. If the Celts don't arrest their slide and lose, say, two of those next three, it suddenly becomes a three- or four-team race for two spots.
So check back Monday, keeping 40 in mind.
The week in preview
Tuesday, March 25
TUESDAY: It's getting to the point where the Wizards better start winning games they're not expected to win if they want to see the playoffs. Washington is 4-8 in March, only halfway through a six-game trip out West and finds itself in Portland, which won the teams' MCI Center meeting handily. It's a game that's just as important to the Blazers, who are trying to hold off Minnesota for No. 4 in the West. Heat at Timberwolves and Bucks at Spurs also figure into the evening's scoreboard watching.
WEDNESDAY: Philadelphia at Indiana pits two East playoff hopefuls going in opposite directions -- Sixers challenging for the Atlantic title, Pacers clinging to home-court advantage -- and marks the (latest) return from suspension for Ron Artest. Orlando at New Orleans finds the Magic, rather suddenly, challenging for No. 6 in the East, with the Hornets trying to bump the slumping Pacers out of No. 4 spot. ESPN carries the latest installment of Shaquille O'Neal vs. Yao Ming in Lakers at Rockets, with Houston bidding to win the season series, and Portland goes to Utah.
THURSDAY: The Rockets can earn a 2-2 split in their season series with the Spurs if they can win at SBC Center. Minnesota at Orlando, meanwhile, is another MVP showcase: Kevin Garnett vs. Tracy McGrady.
FRIDAY: Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan square off for the last time in Wizards at Lakers ... and, yes, it's more than safe to say these teams won't be meeting in the Finals. ESPN serves up a doubleheader: Phoenix at Detroit, giving the Pistons some long-awaited national spotlight, and Dallas at Portland in a potential second-round playoff preview.
WEEKEND: Golden State plays its last game in the friendly East in Saturday's visit to New Jersey, and Utah travels to San Antonio. Sunday's ABC submission is Dallas at Minnesota, also a potential second-round preview, with Sacramento at Detroit serving as a marquee cross-conference matchup.
NBA fans treated to March Madness, too
Thursday, March 20
Unsolicited Advice O' The Week: Don't expend needless energy trying to understand how or why the NBA's scheduling computer could spit out Spurs at Mavericks to go head-to-head with Lakers at Kings ... with only one of the games on national TV ... and on the same Thursday night in March that the NCAA Tournament starts.
Better Advice: Find an NBA-friendly sports bar that'll have both games and savor the moment.
Savor it all, as much as you can in the atmosphere of the hour, because it'll probably be the last time this season that the four best teams in the league will pair off and square off.
In a real treat, that's how the second round of last spring's playoffs was packaged. It was Lakers vs. Spurs and Kings vs. Mavericks, and it scarcely mattered that neither second-rounder was close in the end. Most of the games were tight, and the 4-1 series triumphs for L.A. and Sacramento rolled right into an epic showdown for the conference title, all building toward a Game 7 at Arco Arena that effectively decided the championship. It came as zero surprise that the last team standing from that quartet swept overmatched New Jersey in the actual Finals.
Alas, hopes for a repeat are dwindling. The Lakers are going to play the Spurs or the Mavs in the first round this spring, unless the three-time defending champs can rise higher than No. 6 in the West. The obstacles are the same even if the Lakers slip to No. 7, since they'd then face the Kings. The current standings and remaining schedules suggest that L.A., Sacramento and San Antonio are going to end up on the same side of the draw, meaning only two of them could advance to Round 2 this time.
Thursday night, then, isn't just Opening Night for the Big Dancers. It's a likely last chance to see the very best teams in the country, bracketed together nicely.
The NBA's answer to the Final Four.
The week in preview
Tuesday, March 18
TUESDAY: The Celtics continue their five-game run against fellow East title hopefuls in New Jersey against the Nets. Detroit and Washington, fresh off a showdown in Motown on Friday, play the rematch in D.C. after the Pistons' 90-80 victory. Memphis, riding the longest win streak in franchise history, steps up in class at Minnesota in a bid for its seventh straight triumph. Ricky Davis, meanwhile, steps back into the public eye at Dallas, after Sunday's triple-double embarrassment.
WEDNESDAY: ESPN carries the last stop of Boston's East exploration: Celtics at Pacers, which potentially sets Indy up to slide out of the top four for the first time all season. Bucks at Nets, meanwhile, is the other East matchup of note. In the West, slumping Utah puts its No. 7 seed at risk in Phoenix. Houston caps its Pacific Northwest back-to-back at Portland after visiting Seattle the night before.
THURSDAY: Watch the college kids? Please. Sixers at Pistons, Spurs at Mavericks and Lakers at Kings are the only games that matter in Dimedom.
FRIDAY: After facing New Orleans, New Jersey (twice), Detroit and Indiana, Boston gets ... the Lakers. On the road. ESPN's doubleheader holds plenty of intrigue, too: Wolves at Spurs, followed by Wizards at Suns as Washington launches a killer six-game swing out West.
WEEKEND: New Orleans goes to Milwaukee on Saturday after hosting the Bucks on Friday night. Sacramento at Portland is game of the night, with the Kings looking to avenge a home loss to the Blazers in their last meeting Dec. 28. Sunday's standout, hands down: Lakers at Spurs on ABC. San Antonio won the season's first three meetings, two of them without Shaquille O'Neal; L.A. is 8-1 against the Spurs in the playoffs the last two years and might get them in the first round this time if the current seedings hold.
Great value in being best in Midwest
Friday, March 14
Both teams want to win the championship, of course, which starts with winning the West.
Click on your standings at ESPN.com and you'll notice that, by this time of year, teams are more commonly listed in order of playoff seedings as opposed to be broken down by division.
In the Midwest, though, the seemingly modest prize of a division championship banner is undeniably huge. Because ...
It appears increasingly likely that the team that finishes second in the Midwest, which can't be seeded higher than No. 3, will open the playoffs against the Lakers in Round 1.
Raising the stakes further: It likewise looks increasingly probable that the team that wins the Midwest can avoid the Lakers and Kings and the Midwest's No. 2 team until the conference finals, assuming L.A. finishes sixth in the West.
The division crown, then, is a massive prize, and Dallas' once-healthy lead over the Spurs is down to 2½ games entering Friday's play. With two more crunch games between Texas' top two, San Antonio has every chance to win the Midwest in spite of the Mavericks' 14-0 start.
You can't say the Mavericks are merely hanging on since their great launch. Take away the 14-0 start and they'd still be in the hunt for the West's top seed. Take away San Antonio's recent 8-1 road trip or Minnesota's 17-game home winning streak and those teams couldn't make the same claim. Here are the records of the West's top eight teams since each team played its 14th game:
1. San Antonio 36-13, .734
2. Portland 35-15, .700
3. Sacramento 35-16, .686
4. Dallas 34-16, .680
5. Minnesota 35-18, .660
6. L.A. Lakers 30-19, .612
7. Utah 30-20, .600
8. Phoenix 26-24, .520
What you can say is that the Mavericks better start beating teams in the West's top eight with more regularity if they want to hang onto to the No. 1 seed. They have 10 of those games left and their record in this department is sub-par, since Dallas' four-game sweep of No. 9 Houston will only count here if the Rockets can sneak past the Suns for the last playoff spot. Here's how the West's current top eight teams have fared against each other:
1. San Antonio 13-7, .650
2. Sacramento 13-10, .565
3. Minnesota 12-10, .545
4. L.A. Lakers 10-10, .500
5. Phoenix 10-11, .476
6. Dallas 8-10, .444
7. Utah 9-12, .428
8. Portland 7-12, .368
The week in preview
Tuesday, March 11
TUESDAY: Baron Davis returns to the Hornets' lineup for New Orleans at Indiana. Two more games spotlight the battle for No. 8 in both conferences: Phoenix at Golden State, with the Warriors barely hanging in after an 0-3 trip out East, and Orlando at Washington in the first game since Michael Jordan added to the playoff tension by lambasting his teammates.
WEDNESDAY: As the playoffs draw near, there's no shortage of impact matchups. San Antonio at Minnesota is the first of the Wolves' three tough home games this week. Lakers at Detroit is L.A.'s first challenge, and a real one, in their forthcoming stretch of 12 road dates in the next 15 games. Indiana at Philadelphia gives the reborn Sixers another chance to claw back to the East's summit. New Orleans at Boston means Davis opens his comeback with a road back-to-back against playoff teams.
THURSDAY: Boston at New Jersey is a playoff rematch and valuable to both teams, obviously, in the suddenly tight Atlantic Division. Sacramento at Phoenix pits a so-so road team (Kings) against the up-and-down playoff hopefuls (Suns) who last week toppled the Spurs and Blazers back-to-back.
FRIDAY: Lakers at Wolves showcases two MVP hopefuls (Kobe vs. KG) and spotlights the chase for No. 4 in the West. L.A. insists it's still in it, but Minny has won two of the first three meetings and claims the tie-breaker by winning this one. Portland at Philadelphia gives the Blazers -- better on the road than at home, remember -- a chance to avenge last week's home loss to the Sixers. Washington at Detroit puts Jerry Stackhouse in the spotlight again, this time against the player (Rip Hamilton) he was traded for to be Jordan's wing man.
WEEKEND: You'll notice that the Sunday games are getting better every week, but the Saturday offerings aren't bad: Boston at Detroit; New Orleans at Orlando; Lakers at Milwaukee. The weekend closes with some serious, serious heat: Mavericks at Kings on ABC, Blazers at Wolves and Sixers at Nets.
Magic coming to terms with Hill's absence
Sunday, March 9
There are no more grandiose Grant Hill delusions in Orlando. Much as everyone in the league wants to see one of its good guys finally beat the demons dancing in that mangled left ankle, Magic GM John Gabriel admits that his organization no longer lets itself dream of Hill's return.
"If he comes back," Gabriel told ESPN.com, "it's tremendous icing on the cake."
Hill announced Friday that he won't be back before next season at the earliest. What the Magic are too polite to say, given Hill's standing as one of the game's foremost gentlemen, is that a comeback would actually be tremendous only if Hill can come back and stay back. If he comes back and breaks down again, the Magic faces further salary-cap misery.
NBA teams are entitled to cap relief if a player's career ends because of injury. But contracts in such circumstances are wiped off the books only after two years have elapsed from the time the player is forced to stop playing. In Hill's case, if he never played again, that would be two years from mid-January, when he started his latest stint on the injured list.
Yet with Hill determined to play again -- "I'm not done," he declared -- Orlando's clock for cap relief really hasn't started ticking. League rules stipulate that if Hill plays more than 10 games next season, the two-year wait for erasing his mammoth contract from the Magic's cap wouldn't start until after the next breakdown of Hill's left ankle.
That's why, if Hill does come back next fall as he vows, Orlando needs him all the way back.
The only exception there arises if Hill returns next season and plays 10 games or less and then retires. Then the two-year waiting period would still be calculated retroactively to January 2003. Hill's contract would then vanish -- in cap terms -- from the Magic's list of team salary in January of 2005, with insurance covering the bulk of the $40-plus million left on Hill's contract through 2007.
If you're wondering why Hill can't give money back in a contract restructuring -- and, knowing Hill, he's the sort of guy who probably would -- it's because this isn't the NFL. The NBA does not permit players to negotiate contract reductions in salary or length under any circumstances.
If you're wondering about a buyout, be advised that A) it's pointless to suggest one if Hill is intent on making one last stab at a comeback and B) the buyout amount would still count on the cap, with the sum divided equally among the number of seasons left on the contract.
None of the above, obviously, makes for pleasant discussions, but questions about the Magic's financial options are frequently asked, given that Hill has played only 47 of a possible 246 games since signing his seven-year, $93 million pact with Orlando in the summer of 2000. Hill admits now that he might need a fourth surgery on the left ankle to come back and one of the suggested procedures involves surgeons breaking Hill's heel bone to help repair the alignment of the ankle.
"We've done our best to keep the window of opportunity open for him and our team as long as we can," Gabriel said. "We will be monitoring him closely to see if he still has it in him and thinks he can do it, but we're definitely willing and able to hang in there with Grant. (The situation) doesn't keep us from striving for the right thing for him and finding the right answer."
Would champion Spurs still sign Kidd?
Thursday, March 6
In 99 scenarios out of 100, there is no hesitation. If Jason Kidd wants to play on your team, and all you have to do is sign a check, you pay Kidd the most you can and figure out the rest later.
What if the San Antonio Spurs win a championship this June?
That's the one scenario even the most optimistic Spurs employees didn't dare imagine back in November. Or December. Going into the new year, the Spurs were a modest 19-13 and coming off back-to-back road losses at New York and Washington.
Fast forward to Thursday's showdown with Kidd's Nets and, suddenly, the Spurs are unquestioned contenders. In 2003 alone, they're a tidy 23-5. They're 3-1 against Sacramento. They're 16-0 whenever Tony Parker scores at least 20 points, and we're guessing they'd probably like to keep the little Frenchman. Especially if San Antonio, with Parker at the controls, can actually navigate the Western Conference playoff minefield to return to the NBA Finals and win their second title in five years.
So we ask again: What if the Spurs win it all now?
Whatever you do, after any hesitation, you do it with keeping Parker in mind. He'd be a 21-year-old point guard with one ring. In other words, the sort of kid you hang onto. Then you zero in on free agents.
Personally, I'm with ESPN colleague Sean Elliott, who suggests the Clippers' Elton Brand as the replacement for the retiring David Robinson. Brand is obviously undersized, but he plays bigger than 6-foot-8 with long arms that make him one of the league's foremost shot-blockers and offensive rebounders. He's a more attractive option, to me, than Michael Olowokandi, because Brand's rep (good guy who plays with a hard hat) is more Spur-ish than Kandi's.
The real problem with the Brand idea is that he's a restricted free agent this summer. And Brand is the one guy to whom any offer, even a big one, might actually be matched by Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling. That means Brand might be as unattainable as Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal, who is widely considered a lock to stay with the Pacers.
Kidd, by contrast, is an unrestricted free agent, and we'll say it again: If the best quarterback in the game wants to join your team, you take him and sort out the rest later. Better yet, the latest cap calculations suggest the Spurs can make a big enough offer to Kidd to sign him outright, without forfeiting Parker in a sign-and-trade with the Nets.
If Kidd is really willing to leave the swamps for the Riverwalk, you sign him to play him next to Parker in the same backcourt and try to fill your frontcourt void some other way. Don't forget that there will be a few reasonably priced power forwards on the market in the offseason, guys more signable than O'Neal or Brand.
Don't tell me that Kidd and Parker can't play together, because Kidd can play with anyone. Don't tell me, furthermore, that Kidd and Duncan and Parker wouldn't be enough to keep the Spurs at or near the top of the West, unless they are joined by another power player.
Look where they are now, without Kidd and with a fading Admiral.
That's right. Contending for a championship, somehow.
Kings can't rest on ruling Dallas alone
Wednesday, March 5
There was the Christmas Day conquest in L.A. against the Lakers. Followed by a nationally televised road snuffing of the then-rolling New Jersey Nets. After which the Sacramento Kings routed the Dallas Mavericks at home for the first of three victories against the team with the league's best record.
Those are the wins that made Sacramento this season's big-game kings.
Now for the losses.
Just like Dallas, Sacramento actually has some bad ones. Easily lost amid the hoopla of its hat-trick hold over the Mavericks is the Kings' very mortal 6-8 record against San Antonio, Portland, Minnesota, Utah and the Lakers. Worse yet, they're 2-5 at home against those teams, accounting for all five of Sacramento's Arco Arena losses. Against the same five teams, the oft-maligned Mavs are 6-5 overall.
Wednesday's ESPN showdown against the Timberwolves isn't just important for the Wolves. With six-plus weeks to play before the playoffs, Sacramento's focus could use some re-sharpening.
Playing so well through all the injuries for much of the season -- whether it was Mike Bibby missing or Bobby Jackson or Chris Webber -- sets the Kings up for occasional intensity lapses. Rick Adelman has been worried about it since January, when he said that finding a way to maintain that high level of concentration all the way into the playoffs "always is the challenge."
But it's more of the usual coach-type fretting than serious concern, since Webber is only just returning from an ankle injury. Bibby also isn't yet the Bibby we saw in the playoffs, and Sacramento has been able to dress Webber, Bibby and Jackson in the same game only nine times this season.
Confident that its continuity will be solidified by mid-April, Sacramento continues to be known as the Team Most Likely To Dethrone The Lakers. The Kings just can't forget that they have five games left against the Wolves, Blazers, Lakers and Mavericks. That means there are still a few more regular-season biggies to win before the real big games start.
Week in preview
Monday, March 3
After taking an 0-5 beating from the West, Detroit gets an opportunity to give some back as the home team in Rockets at Pistons. Golden State, one of the five teams to conquer the Pistons on their winless road trip, bids for its sixth consecutive victory and a 30-30 record when Indiana visits. Dallas and Steve Nash can sweep New Jersey and former Nash mentor Jason Kidd with the Nets (12-17 on the road) in Big D.
Minnesota goes to Sacramento with a chance to win the season series in an ESPN headliner. The surging Timberwolves lead the head-to-head with the Kings, 2-1, having won twice at home. Milwaukee visits Orlando in a pivotal game for those involved in the race for No. 8 in the East. Phoenix completes a rugged back-to-back by playing host to Portland after visiting San Antonio. Oh, yeah: Indiana travels to Los Angeles to face the Lakers in the best East vs. West clash of the evening.
Jason Kidd makes his only San Antonio visit of the season -- barring an NBA Finals matchup -- in Nets at Spurs. We'll give you one guess as to the story line for that game. Philadelphia at Portland isn't bad, either, as the Sixers continue their rough trip out West.
Big week for the Wolves. They're the road team against the Lakers, with Minny attempting to stretch its lead in that season series to 3-0. Now rivals from the same conference, Gary Payton and Michael Jordan headline another key battle in the race for No. 8 in Bucks at Wizards. ESPN's doubleheader offers up Clippers at Celtics, followed by Sixers at Sonics.
The feature Saturday is potentially combustible: Ron Artest vs. Bonzi Wells in Indiana at Portland. Sunday provides a series of quality East vs. West battles, highlighted by Pacers at Kings and Sixers at Lakers. Looks like Indy and Philly are right there with Minny in the big-week club.