When Sizing Up the NBA, It Helps to Be Guarded

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By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, April 8, 2006

The run of good basketball around here didn't end with George Washington, Georgetown, George Mason and Maryland. One of the NBA's truly off-the-radar mid-majors, the Washington Wizards, are about to make their first back-to-back playoff appearances in 18 years. And given the degree to which playoff experience matters in the NBA, the imagination doesn't have to stretch very far to see the Wizards beating the league's golden boy, LeBron James, and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs.

Eddie Jordan might be too superstitious to say the word "playoffs," but thankfully, that's what the NBA is coming to. Two weeks from today, if Washington can simply finish 3-4 over the last seven regular season games, the Wizards should be in Cleveland playing the Cavaliers in a first-round series.

And the playoffs can't begin soon enough, because the regular season has been, for the most part, a snoozer. The only drama in the Eastern Conference is whether Chicago will hold off Philly for the eighth and final playoff spot, meaning Allen Iverson will join Kevin Garnett at home for the playoffs. And out west, there is only the slightest chance Dallas will catch defending champion San Antonio for the top seed.

The whole season has been reduced by injuries to Amare Stoudemire, Shaq, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Grant Hill (again), the first five of whom were MVP candidates when the season began. In fact, it's why none of the above players, who could normally form the first-team all-NBA unit, is on any of my first three all-NBA teams.

Only four teams at this moment look capable of winning the NBA championship: the Spurs, Pistons, Nets and Mavericks. Two teams that would have to have an absurd number of things work in their favor and therefore are dark-horse contenders when it comes to actually winning the whole thing are Miami and Phoenix. So this season's fun, at least until now, has been in watching the individual performances and in noting the shift from big men (Shaq, Duncan, Stoudemire, O'Neal) to guards.

No way, when the season started, could you have convinced me that my all-NBA first team would be four guards and a 7-foot jump shooter. But given the way the season unfolded, how can you argue with a first team of Steve Nash, James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki? You can't. Nash has led his team to a division title in the much stronger Western Conference even though his best player and only inside presence, Stoudemire, has played just three games. If Miami successfully holds off New Jersey for the second seed in the East, it's because Wade held that team together in Shaq's most ineffective season ever. Bryant, simply, is all the Lakers have. And Nowitzki is the best and most prolific player on the team with the third-best record in the league, and one that still has a chance to be the No. 1 seed in its conference.

My second team -- Shawn Marion, Chauncey Billups, Tony Parker, Gilbert Arenas and Elton Brand -- has a similar guard-oriented makeup. Marion is averaging 22 points and 12 rebounds and shooting 52 percent in Stoudemire's absence. Detroit's Billups is the most clutch player on the best team in the league. With Duncan battling plantar fasciitis, Parker has been San Antonio's best player. The fact that a 177-pound guard could shoot 55 percent while hitting only 30 percent of his three-pointers defies all logic. Arenas has only started to get consistent help very recently. And Brand could wind up having career-best averages in scoring, minutes played, shooting percentage, free throw shooting percentage, three-point percentage, defensive rebounding and blocked shots. Oh, and he's leading the Clippers, the Clippers , to the playoffs.

As unimpressive as much of the team play has been, the all-NBA third team could win a championship if Jason Kidd, Garnett, Rip Hamilton and Carmelo Anthony played together. Since the all-star break, Yao Ming of Houston and Pau Gasol of Memphis have been the two most productive low-post players in the game by a million miles. And although Gasol will make the playoffs and Yao won't, Yao has had to go it alone (without McGrady) and averaged 27 points and 11 rebounds over that time, scoring 25 or more points in 14 of his 22 games.

Garnett and Yao stand out, even on non-playoff teams. Hamilton, Detroit's second-best player, is a career 33 percent three-point shooter who this season has hit 46 percent of his threes and been absurdly efficient. Kidd has led his team on a 14-game winning streak and might lead the Nets right past Miami in the second round of the playoffs. Kidd has negotiated the playoffs en route to the NBA Finals twice before, and he knows how to feed and water high-maintenance Vince Carter. And Anthony has distinguished himself, even from his draft classmates Wade and LeBron, by hitting a Jordanesque five game-winning shots this year in the final 10 seconds or less.

You know who that leaves out?

Shaq and Duncan, Milwaukee's Michael Redd (who is leading his team to the playoffs), Gasol and Iverson. Iverson truly is an amazing player. He's averaging a career-high 33 points per game. His 45 percent shooting is the second-highest mark of his 10-year career. Nobody plays harder, and it's doubtful anybody plays with as many injuries. But in the NBA, getting to the playoffs is a prerequisite, and the Sixers are probably not going to make it.

The rookie of the year is easy: It's Chris Paul going away. He's completely revitalized the Hornets franchise and has thrown in several triple-doubles in the process, including two in his last three games. So much for that wall all rookies are supposed to hit.

Coach of the year and most valuable player are much more complicated. Nash, in a conversation this week, said he doesn't feel anything like the MVP, not with his team having lost eight of its last 15 before last night's game against the Lakers. Still, Nash is a big reason that Marion, Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, Eddie House and Leandro Barbosa are all having career years. What's difficult about the Phoenix situation is whether Nash gets the lion's share of the credit for the Suns staying in contention, or whether much of it should go to Mike D'Antoni, whose system certainly must facilitate Nash. As good a job as Byron Scott, Flip Saunders, Avery Johnson and Phil Jackson have done with their teams, imagine any of their teams if the best player (Paul, Billups, Nowitzki and Kobe) went down for the season. So, it's D'Antoni.

The Wizards won't have many -- if any -- individual awards. If they should beat Cleveland in a first-round series, the next goal would be to push Detroit as far as possible in the second round. Yes, the Wizards beat Detroit twice already in the regular season, but upsetting the Pistons in the playoffs isn't in the cards for a team as defensively challenged and as inconsistent as the Wizards.

Where the local college teams distinguished themselves in the tournament was maxing out. George Washington lost to Duke, a No. 1 seed. Georgetown lost to eventual champion Florida. George Mason was the story of the tournament, making it all the way to the Final Four. And the Maryland women won it all, beating two more heralded teams -- North Carolina and Duke -- in the process.

Taking the Pistons, say, to six games would really be maxing out for the Wizards, who haven't done that in an impossibly long time.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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