15: Charlotte Bobcats
-Besides skinny, what’s the consensus on how Anthony Davis will look in a Bobcat uniform next year? It’s almost embarrassing how bad the Bobcats are. Gerald Henderson is their leading scorer. Stop laughing, that wasn’t a joke. Henderson is best known for delivering a vicious elbow to Tyler Hansbrough and even if he leads the Bobcats in scoring with 15 points per game for the next ten years, he’ll remain best known for that elbow. The Bobcats don’t just lack star power, they lack power in general. Not one player on their team would log crunch time minutes for any of the current teams in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Would you feel comfortable going to war with Henderson, Boris Diaw, D.J. Augustin, Byron Mullens and Corey Maggette? Probably not. So here is my question: Wouldn’t the Bobcats be better if Michael Jordan was playing for the team rather than running the team?
Stop laughing, that wasn’t a joke. I have a firm understanding of the fact that MJ is 48 years old, and he happens to be a little out of his prime. But is a decade past his prime MJ better in the clutch than anyone the Bobcats can offer? Go ahead and call me crazy, but I say yes. Right now, Matt Carroll, a 6’6 eighth year 31 year old guard is logging 13 minutes per game for Charlotte. If my life was on the line and I needed the Bobcats to win a game, I want the 6’6 48 year old Jordan logging those 13 minutes, no offense to Matt Carroll. I’m 100% convinced that Jordan could play six minutes per half and give me better minutes than Matt Carroll could. Obviously, there would be things the Bobcats would need to do to protect him. Play some zone defense while he’s in (which wouldn’t kill the Bobcats, just look at how badly a good team like the Heat struggle against a zone) and slow down the pace of the game while he is in there (which wouldn’t kill the Bobcats, considering they are already 23rd in the league in fast break points per game). And even if Jordan doesn’t make much of an impact on the floor, the Bobcats instantly become the hottest ticket in the NBA, and that might be more beneficial to them than wins would. I would most certainly fork out some good money to watch Michael Jordan play twelve minutes for a terrible Bobcats team. I’m not spending the loose change hanging around on my dresser to watch Matt Carroll.
14-9: Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors, New Jersey Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks
-Okay, poll question for the readers: Should I type 200 words a piece on six teams that aren’t title threats at all and have a combined 2.25 star players (Deron Williams a full star, John Wall a half star, Brandon Jennings a quarter star, Kyrie Irving a quarter star and Anderson Varejao a quarter star) or should asking this question be enough of a notice to move on to the top eight teams? Yeah, I thought so too. Up next at number eight…
8: New York Knicks
-I’ve said plenty about the Knicks since they foolishly butchered a very exciting and as a Heat fan, scary team. The Knicks would be sitting at ten in the rankings if it weren’t for, wait for it… Jeremy LINNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!!!!!!!!!! He’s made the Knicks exciting again! Maybe this sounds crazy but I’m more afraid of the type of team the Knicks have been with Jeremy Lin featured than I am the Carmelo Anthony version. I know I’ve been extremely harsh on Carmelo for the last year: Ripping the Knicks for trading way too much to get him, leaving him off of my hypothetical USA Olympic team and now hyping up the Jeremy Lin led New York Knicks while simultaneously tearing Carmelo down. I just don’t foresee a future where we talk about Carmelo Anthony as an all-time great franchise player. All-time great scorer? Yeah, he’ll most likely end up falling under that category. Is Jeremy Lin a franchise player? I strongly doubt it, but he has done something that Carmelo hasn’t done in his short time in New York: He’s made the Knicks exciting.
7: Atlanta Hawks
-I bet you are thinking, “Sonny, why so low on the Hawks? They are 4th in the standings, they’ve beaten four of the six teams ahead of them in your rankings, and have been playing a good portion of the season without arguably their best player, Al Horford.” It’s really pretty simple, and it has nothing to do with the game of basketball. The Hawks, like Oklahoma Sooners football, Kansas Jayhawks basketball and the Pittsburgh Steelers are a team that I annually flip flop how I feel about them, and they routinely bite me in the ass. Let me take you through a brief timeline of my predictions/thoughts on the Atlanta Hawks.
2008: I felt the Hawks would get throttled by the number one seed Boston Celtics in the first round. The Hawks took the series seven games. (0 for 1)
2009: I picked the Miami Heat to beat the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs. The Hawks won in seven games. (0 for 2)
2009 cont.: I stated that I thought the Hawks could give the Cleveland Cavaliers some issues in the 2nd round. The Cavaliers swept the series. (0 for 3)
2010: I picked the Milwaukee Bucks to beat the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs. The Hawks won in seven games. (0 for 4… Do you see a trend building?)
2010 cont.: I stated that I thought the Hawks could give the Orlando Magic some issues in the 2nd round. The Magic swept the series. (0 for 5)
2011: I picked the Magic to sweep the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs. The Hawks won in six games. (0 for 6)
2011 cont.: I kept my damn mouth shut after that.
So let me go on record stating that from now until the playoffs start I will undervalue the Hawks, at which point they will likely either beat the Pacers or 76ers. After that I will state that the Hawks could give either the Bulls or Heat some trouble in the next round, only the Hawks will be swept. I can see it coming but can’t do anything about it. Just wait.
6: Orlando Magic
-Even in the always unpredictable NBA, it seems as if we finally know how the Dwight Howard soap opera is going to play out. He’ll most likely finish the season in Orlando only to leave them after the season with nothing to show for it. Bad news for Orlando, good news for the team that is patient enough to not gut their team like the Knicks did for Carmelo last February (here comes some more Melo bashing). Actually that’s unfair; Dwight is miles better and more valuable than Carmelo is or ever will be, so by odd logic, that means a team should gut their team to get Dwight. Let me try to make this a little simpler.
A motivated Dwight Howard equals a team finding themselves in championship contention. A motivated Melo equals Melo finding himself in contention for a scoring title. If I was the GM of the Knicks last year I wouldn’t have played with the ESPN Trade Machine or even taken calls for Carmelo considering he made it pretty clear he A) wanted out of Denver after that season, B) I had a playoff team already, and C) He wanted to play in New York. He was going to end up in a Knicks uniform regardless. Now if I were GM of an NBA team in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes, would I massacre my roster to trade for Dwight? Possibly. I would certainly be listening to trade proposals and most definitely messing around with ESPN’s Trade Machine.
Here is what we’ve learned about Dwight Howard over the last 7 years:
-Along with Kevin Love, Dwight is the only player whose stat lines constantly make you do a double take. He’s had games of 24 points and 25 rebounds, 25 &24, 28 & 20, 33 & 14, 20 & 24 and the utterly ridiculous 45 point, 23 rebound, 39 free throw attempts stat line at Golden State.
-He’s extremely durable. He’s played every game for Orlando this year, and has only missed 7 games in the last 7 plus seasons.
-He can turn chicken shit into chicken salad. Have you looked long and hard at Orlando’s roster? Ryan Anderson, Jason Richardson, Jameer Nelson, and a well-past his prime Hedo Turkoglu are the top non-Dwight Howard options. Somehow, Dwight makes this work considering…
-He’s developing his post game well enough that he almost always commands at least a double team. This is how the aforementioned chicken shit line-up ends up tasting like chicken salad. At this point, not one perimeter player on the Magic can consistently create his own shot. But with at least two guys always paying attention to Dwight, they never need to. I guess these last two points warrant gutting your team to get him.
5: Boston Celtics
-Ah yes, those pesky Celtics. I won’t be fooled and count them out. No sir. Not happening. I feel like if I were to rank the Celtics any lower than five I would be making a mistake similar to the one that everyone from the town of Haddonfield, Illinois has made in the Halloween movies. You know, when the impervious-to-injury Michael Myers gets stabbed in the shoulder with a fire poker and the idiot who stabbed him walks away like they cut his head off. Come on now, I could survive a fire poker stab to the shoulder, you don’t think this maniac wearing a mask can?
Maybe I’m crazy for ranking the Celtics this high and for making a ridiculous movie analogy to hammer my point home (more to come). The defining Celtics game this season: The 91-83 “bar fight” victory over Orlando, where the Celtics were trailing by 21 points at halftime. By the way, the Celtics had no Rajon Rondo and no Ray Allen for this game. What did this game tell me besides the fact that Boston’s chicken shit is slightly tastier than Orlando’s chicken shit? Boston has the heart of a champion. That’s something that can’t be measured by any statistic, but Boston has it. Just like it can’t be measured whether or not Michael Myers is invincible.
4: Indiana Pacers
-There is oodles to like about the Indiana Pacers (kudos to me for successfully using the word oodles). I really like head coach Frank Vogel. I love the Pacers off-season pick up of two-time all-star David West. I absolutely adore their huge starting line-up—Collison, George, Granger, West and Hibbert— that own the boards (3rd in the NBA in rebounds per game). Most importantly, I’m really impressed with the effort they bring on a nightly basis. Indiana is a smash mouth, physical, hard-working team that is going to challenge you every single night. This shouldn’t come as a big surprise if you watched the Pacers 1st round playoff series against Chicago last season. Not only did they take a game in the series, but they traded punches and held their own against the top team in the Eastern Conference. In the first four games of the series, the only difference between the Pacers and Bulls was that the Bulls had the MVP and playoff experience on their side, and the Pacers didn’t. It’s as simple as that.
Now that the Pacers have a year of playoff experience under their belt and an improved line-up (West starting, Tyler Hansbrough off the bench rather than Hansbrough starting and Josh McCheddarBob off the bench), you could see them maturing from a team that last year was a fringe playoff team into a legitimate playoff contender this year. Already the Pacers have beaten the Celtics, Lakers, Bulls, Magic, and Mavericks on the road in this young and hectic season. Would I pick them over Chicago in a seven game series? Probably not, but I would have to think really hard about it.
Allow me to make an unorthodox analogy relating to the top three teams in my Eastern Conference power rankings that at first glance won’t make much sense, but hopefully once I’m done it will all be clear. I’m a movie guy. Outside of sports, nothing fascinates me more than great cinema. I have serious admiration for the select few who could write, direct and act at a high level in high quality movies. If I wasn’t so into sports, I would most likely be spending my time collecting and watching as many great movies as I possibly could (Wait, I’m already doing that). With all of that being said, here comes the unorthodox analogy:
What’s the greatest movie of all-time? The Godfather. Hands down, period, end of story. Maybe you disagree, but honestly, that’s irrelevant for the purpose of this analogy. My opinion is all that matters… sorry. After The Godfather, it’s a mystery where every other movie falls in place. Hypothetically, let’s say I think that Slumdog Millionaire, The Shawshank Redemption and Forrest Gump fall in place in some order after The Godfather. I don’t think this is too far-fetched. If I were to compare those three movies to the three teams at the top of Eastern Conference power rankings, Slumdog Millionaire could be Philadelphia, The Shawshank Redemption could be Chicago and Forrest Gump could be Miami. You’re dying to know how the hell I came up with this ridiculousness.
3: Philadelphia 76ers
-I’ll bet you were a little surprised that Slumdog Millionaire is in my pantheon of great movies. You’re probably just as surprised that I put Philadelphia in the hypothetical pantheon of Eastern Conference powerhouses. Just like Slumdog Millionaire (2009 Academy Award winner for Best Picture) has every right to be in the discussion with Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption, Philadelphia has every right to be talked about with Miami and Chicago, the pre-season Eastern Conference favorites. Slumdog Millionaire overcomes its minute weaknesses/downfalls—it’s an independent and foreign film; it wasn’t a huge hit in theatres; there are no big name stars, nor big time acting performances—thanks to good but not great acting, a unique/exciting/dramatic/uplifting story and a surprisingly strong soundtrack. If you make a crossover connection, you could say similar things about Philadelphia. The 76ers aren’t a very marketable team due to the fact that they don’t have any “stars.” In the end, their strengths overcome their weaknesses. Their roster has seven to nine guys (depending on how you feel about Jodie Meeks and Nikola Vucevic/Lavoy Allen) you could go to war with in a playoff series. They are well-coached, well-rounded and beat the crap out of everyone they play—they are second in the league with an 8.9 point per game differential and 15 out of their 18 wins games have been by double digits.
With all of that said, just like Slumdog Millionaire, I can’t put Philadelphia ahead of its two competitors. Even though Philadelphia does everything you could want a good team to do (2nd in scoring defense, 2nd in point differential, 1st in turnover differential, 6th in field goal percentage, 3rd in field goal percentage defense, 4th in 3 point field goal percentage), there is still the elephant in the room that Lou Williams, Jrue Holiday or Jodie Meeks will be taking on late game scoring duty. The NBA is dominated by stars who make big plays, especially at the end of games. Even though Dallas triumphed over Miami last year as the more prototypical “basketball team,” Dirk Nowitzki was still the go-to-guy in late game situations. I don’t think Williams, Holiday and Meeks can compete with the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Derrick Rose and Luol Deng; just like Dev Patel can’t compete with Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise, Morgan Freeman, and Tim Robbins.
2: Chicago Bulls
-Not many people know this, but The Shawshank Redemption is a slightly better movie than Forrest Gump. Why did Forrest Gump take home the Academy Award for best picture over The Shawshank Redemption in 1995? Forrest Gump was more marketable: it had a better name, a more unique story and more star power which leads to more memorable characters and acting performances. Plus, after all it is a damn good movie. Then why if I concede that The Shawshank Redemption is a better movie than Forrest Gump, do I rank the Chicago Bulls (The Shawshank Redemption) lower than the Miami Heat, the Forrest Gump of this analogy? Well, for sort of the same reasons.
Like I referenced above in the 76ers section, star power usually wins out in the NBA. Derrick Rose is an absolute superstar. But Miami’s two and half absolute superstars (Bosh waivers between being a star and a great player) trump Chicago’s one. Chicago might play sounder defense than Miami. They give up eight points less per game than Miami. Teams shoot a lower percentage against Chicago than they do Miami. But does Chicago bring more to the table than Miami? Probably not. If you could only watch one movie for the rest of your life, would you want to watch The Shawshank Redemption or Forrest Gump? I’m guessing you pick Forrest Gump. And even I would pick Forrest Gump.
In the end, I like Miami over Chicago for one main reason: As I mentioned earlier, Miami’s two and a half superstars trump Chicago’s one. There is just too much responsibility resting on Derrick Rose’s shoulders. The starting point guard of your team should not have to score 30 points per game for you to win, and he definitely shouldn’t be taking 30 shots. Derrick Rose needs offensive help. Maybe Luol Deng’s offensive game reaches a new level; a level that could propel the Bulls to the finals. Maybe Carlos Boozer thrives after a year under his belt playing for the Bulls. Maybe Rip Hamilton, a seasoned veteran with playoff experience will come through in the playoffs. Maybe that is too many maybes to be able to call a team the best in the conference.
1: Miami Heat
-Finally we get to the Miami Heat. Like Forrest Gump, the Miami Heat are different from anything else you’ve seen. Are the Heat conventional? Absolutely not. Nothing about Miami says “typical basketball team.” They didn’t come together in a conventional fashion. They aren’t covered in a conventional fashion—really, does there need to be a Heat Index that gives post-game grades after the 9th game of the season against the Nets? They definitely don’t play conventional basketball. It still amazes me that Wade and LeBron could just take turns carrying the scoring burden, as the other stands in the corner and watches like the kid who doesn’t know the plays for his high school basketball team. This defies basketball logic, yet somehow works a good portion of the time. Enough to make it to the NBA Finals last year, but ultimately fall short.
So like Gump, the Heat have incredible star power: LeBron- Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), Wade- Gary Sinise (Lt. Dan Taylor), Chris Bosh- Robin Wright (Jenny!). The rest of the supporting cast acts as the Bubba/Mrs. Gump/Little Forrest/The Guy who said “Woah Man, you just ran through a big pile of dog shit!” (Underrated moment of the movie) of the team. Whether you love the Heat or hate them; if you think they are the best team in the league or think they are overrated, everyone watches them. Maybe we are heading towards an age in the NBA where every successful team has to have a collection of stars that come together through big time free agency moves. An age where NBA teams are going to start to look more and more like a street ball team than an actual “basketball team” running basketball plays. But the Heat will always be the first, the most controversial and most talked about team of this fashion. It’s polarizing to watch them play with such ease at times, and at other times struggle so mightily despite the incredible star power they can put on the court. Polarizing… that’s a perfect word to describe Forrest Gump too. It’s dramatic, it’s sad, it’s exciting and it’s funny. It’s different than any other movie ever made and it leaves an impact on you no matter how you feel about it. There will never be another Forrest Gump, just like there will never be a collection of talent so highly scrutinized and closely covered as the Heat. That is why the Heat and Forrest Gump get the nod over the other two teams and movies.
What is the most spot on part of the Miami Heat/Forrest Gump analogy? “Momma always said, life’s like a box of chocolates… you never know what you’re gonna get.” I’ve watched roughly 90% of Miami’s games since they came together in 2010, and I still don’t know what I’m going to get from them game to game. They could just as easily win by 20 after trailing by ten at halftime as they could lose by 20 after leading by ten. They might fold under pressure like a lawn chair that is past its prime, or they might completely lock a team down and score at will to close out a tight game. I still can’t figure them out and I’ve been intensely watching and scrutinizing basketball for over a decade. “Momma always said, life’s like a box of chocolates… you never know what you’re gonna get.” Every time I watch the Heat I’m just praying I don’t pick out the chocolate with the disgusting orange filling inside.