NBA Insider by Michael Lee, Sports Columnist

Look Back, Ahead

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 10, 2006; 4:09 PM

Evaluations, rankings and upcoming matchups of note:

Team of the Week

Phoenix Suns

If not for the New Jersey Nets, the Phoenix Suns would be considered the hottest team in the NBA. They have won seven of their past eight games, with their one loss coming during the final stop of a five-game road trip; a fluky, triple-overtime loss in New York.

The Suns came back home last week and won three in a row at the newly named U.S. Airways Center against Philadelphia and title contenders Miami and San Antonio. They routed the Sixers and Heat by 20 points and 18 points, respectively. But the 91-86 win against the Spurs spoke volumes about how far the Suns have come since Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals and how good they are, even without Amare Stoudemire. The high-scoring Suns moved back among the league's elite and proved they can win in a defensive struggle, beating the Spurs for just the third time in 16 games.

Steve Nash was named Western Conference player of the week after averaging 21.3 points and 14.3 assists in the past four games.

The Suns still lead the league in scoring offense (104 points per game), but the most surprising stat with the Suns has been their defense. In terms of efficiency (points per 100 possessions), Phoenix's defense (second only to San Antonio) ranks higher than its offense (sixth).

Team of the Weak

Washington Wizards

Like a team of Kwame Browns, they have been routinely booed off the court at MCI Center. They are playing defense as if it were optional and they are struggling to find any chemistry on the court, with the team morphing into the Gilbert Arenas one-man show.

What happened?

The city's darling just a year ago, the Wizards are already in crisis mode a month before the All-Star break. Since starting the season 5-1, the Washington Wizards have lost 18 of their past 26 games and are slowly losing ground in their pursuit of back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 1987-88.

Coach Eddie Jordan spoke of a "five-game package" to start the season, but the Wizards are 1-3 in their first four games, with the only victory coming against the Boston Celtics -- a game they nearly lost after leading by seven points with 29 seconds remaining. The Wizards have lost five of their past six games overall, including a miserable outing against the Utah Jazz on Tuesday in which they fell behind by 22 before finally showing some life.

"Right now, we're disjointed," center Brendan Haywood said after the game. "We're not a team. I think everybody likes each other, everybody's out there playing hard, but we're not always playing hard and smart."

They got blown out at home against the Yao Ming-less Houston Rockets and suffered a 21-point blowout against the same New York Knicks they defeated the first week of the season.

Most troubling about the loss to Utah, however, was that it came only one day after President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld publicly stood behind Jordan. The Wizards have been a major disappointment this season, but maybe this stretch is proving that they just aren't that good.

Player of the Week

Stephon Marbury, New York Knicks

Toward the end of 2005, it didn't seem as if Stephon Marbury and Larry Brown would ever see eye-to-eye. Their simmering feud exploded publicly when Brown openly criticized Marbury following a poor performance in a loss to Orlando, when Marbury was 0-for-7 from the floor and Brown said Marbury wasn't aggressive on offense and looked, "scared to shoot." Marbury responded by saying that despite his rocky relationship with Brown, he still wanted to stay.

"Man, I love New York, and I want to be here more than anything," Marbury told reporters. "And whatever it's going to take for me to win, I'm going to do it. Because I feel like New York deserves it."

Since he made those comments, Brown and Marbury finally appear to be in sync and while Marbury still isn't a fan of Brown's candor, he admitted that it motivates him. In the past four games, Marbury has been playing his most inspired basketball of the season, averaging 23.5 points and 12 assists in the past four games and it has coincided with the Knicks' first three-game winning streak since February.

Player of the Weak

Damon Jones, Cleveland Cavaliers

He moped, complained and staged a short-lived media boycott when he lost out to Eric Snow for starting point guard. After two months, Damon Jones finally got his chance to start for Cleveland when Larry Hughes went down with a broken finger.

So, how has Jones responded?

The self-proclaimed "world's best shooter" can't find the basket and is forcing the Cavaliers to win in spite of him. In his three starts, Jones has totaled nine points on 3 of 20 shooting (15 percent). Of those 20 attempts, 18 have come from three-point range. Jones missed five straight three-pointers during the Cavs 96-88 win against Milwaukee on Saturday, and was booed by the home fans at The Q. After finally connecting on a three, Jones covered up his ears so that he wouldn't hear the fans cheering.

"Don't be fair-weather fans," said Jones. "I'd rather not be applauded anymore."

In the past six games, Jones, who signed a four-year, $16 million free agent contract in September, has shot 5-for-32 (15.6 percent) and averaged 2.6 points. At least Jones hasn't lost his sense of humor through his slump. Jones recently signed a shoe deal with the Chinese company Li-Ning and proclaimed. "I'm an icon. I'm global," Jones said. "If I was on the All-Star ballot, I'd have a million votes in China. And none here, because everybody thinks I'm arrogant. . . . My shoes are going to become best sellers. It's going to be Yao Ming, LeBron James and then Damon Jones."

Top Ten

1. Detroit Pistons (26-5)

No longer on a pace to win 70 games, the Pistons must focus on another goal: Hoping that they face any other team in the NBA Finals except the Utah Jazz. Detroit is 0-2 against Utah after a double-overtime loss last Saturday -- and 26-3 against the rest of the league.

2. San Antonio Spurs (26-8)

Tim "FIBA [stinks]" Duncan didn't shock anyone when he said he won't play for the U.S. Men's National Basketball team. What is surprising is that the Spurs went the first two months of the season without much scrutiny or fanfare. San Antonio will play six consecutive teams with winning records, including the red-hot New Jersey Nets and the Pistons.

3. Dallas Mavericks (26-9)

The Mavericks are tied with the Spurs for the most wins in the Western Conference for a number of reasons, none bigger than depth. What other team could lose Marquis Daniels for the next two weeks with injury but not fret because they can plug in a healthy Jerry Stackhouse, who delivered the game-winning shot against the Celtics on Tuesday. One down, one up.

4. New Jersey Nets (19-12)

Vince Carter gets slapped and booed in Toronto then beats his former team with a game-winning three-pointer -- the "best" big shot of his career -- to keep the Nets as the hottest team in the NBA with 10 consecutive wins. The roll could be nearing an end, though, with tough road games against San Antonio, Memphis and Dallas ahead.

5. Phoenix Suns (22-11)

It's time to put the Suns right up there with San Antonio and Dallas in the Western Conference. After the Suns won back-to-back games against Miami and the Spurs, they are beginning to pull away in the Pacific Division and should be taken seriously as a title contender when Amare Stoudemire returns next month.

6. Memphis Grizzlies (21-11)

The most underrated team in the NBA continues to keep the pace despite injury. They are 6-2 since Damon Stoudamire ruptured a tendon in his knee, thanks largely to the return of Bobby Jackson. There has been little or no drop off. Think the Sacramento Kings wish they had Jackson back?

7. Cleveland Cavaliers (20-11)

Losing Larry Hughes for the next two months is huge but all that means is more LeBron James. In the past three games without Hughes, James has averaged 33 points 9 rebounds and 7.3 assists as the Cavs have gone 2-1. If only Damon Jones, Hughes's replacement in the backcourt, could get on board with Cleveland's L-train.

8. Miami Heat (20-15)

After an initial spark under Pat Riley, the Heat is playing with the urgency of a rec league team. Riley has stated that he hasn't taken an "all-or-nothing" approach to this season, but it has clearly reached that point with Riley saying he won't coach next year. Think that can get Shaq back in line for a title?

9. Utah Jazz (18-17)

Stumbling in Memphis is the only thing separating the Jazz from winning eight straight. It is one of two teams -- Washington is the other -- to win in Detroit this season. Utah, however, appears headed in a completely different direction than the Wizards. They now sit atop the wobbly Northwest Division.

10. Los Angeles Lakers (18-16)

Can they officially change their name to Kobe & The Spectators? Bryant returns from his silly two-game suspension for throwing an elbow and is using his right arm for more noble purposes: shooting without conscience. Bryant has removed the black tights and averaged 47 points in the Lakers' past three wins. He became the first person in 41 years to score at least 45 points in four consecutive games.

Games to Watch This Week

New York at Cleveland (Tuesday)

Larry Brown's new team arrives in Cleveland to face what could've been Brown's team. The nomadic coach was rumored to be headed to Cleveland during the Pistons' run to the NBA Finals last season. If not for the ugly scene it created during the playoffs, Brown could've been less miserable than he is in New York.

New Jersey at San Antonio (Tuesday)

The Nets' 10-game win streak gets put to the test against the Spurs, who are beginning to get sharper despite a loss in Phoenix on Saturday. What could help the Nets, though, is if Spurs begin looking ahead to its next game.

Detroit at San Antonio (Thursday)

The NBA Finalists meet for the final time this season, with the defending champion Spurs trying to avenge an 85-70 beat down on Christmas. A matchup of the league's top two teams may not look pretty, but it should be very competitive.

Cleveland at Los Angeles Lakers (Thursday)

The LeBrons vs. The Kobes. LeBron James recently said he considered Kobe Bryant the best player in the league. Two-thirds of the league's 30-point scorers and the two best one-man shows going converge at Staples Center.

Memphis at San Antonio (Saturday)

Surprisingly, this is the first meeting of the season for these Southwest Division rivals. Memphis, which has had a relatively lightweight schedule, should be able to get a good read about where it stands in the Western Conference.

New Jersey at Dallas (Saturday)

The Nets conclude a rough three-game road trip in Big D, where the Mavericks are 5-0 at home against Eastern Conference opponents.

Miami Heat at Los Angeles Lakers (Monday)

Will Gary Payton and Lamar Odom need to be separated again? This game needs some drama, right? The Kobe-Shaq feud isn't fun anymore since neither player wants to direct any more derogatory comments toward the other. So what? When these two teams get together, it usually makes for exciting basketball. And people will still be on the lookout to see if Kobe and Shaq shake hands.

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