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Eight Weeks, Four Teams

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

PHOENIX

One year ago, the field was open and just about every contender believed an 11th-hour move could ensure a trip to the NBA Finals. This year, with professional basketball, like every other industry, carefully guarding its wallet, trade deadline rumors will be more hype than reality and the second half of this NBA season may be exactly like the first, which is to say:

Los Angeles Lakers.

Boston Celtics.

Cleveland Cavaliers.

San Antonio Spurs.

In some order, perhaps one that changes twice a week between now and the third week of April when the playoffs begin, those are the four teams that will dominate our attention the rest of the season. They're the four best teams, the teams with the greatest players, the smartest teams, the toughest teams. Last season's second half was a wonderful jumble; this second half is preordained. Pick one of the above and ride it out.

Is there anybody out there who could sneak into that foursome? Well, perhaps, but it would be a major upset.

The Denver Nuggets, ever since turning over their team to Chauncey Billups, have the look of a serious contender. Their relative youth and athleticism, and Billups's acumen could give the Spurs fits in a seven-game series.

And in the East, Orlando, if Jameer Nelson returns to his January form, matches up quite well with the Cavaliers.

That's it, that's the list. Detroit is past its prime. Atlanta can scare anybody, especially Boston, but simply doesn't have the one superstar who can lead it through a playoff series. Miami, with Jermaine O'Neal joining Dwyane Wade, will help the Heat finish fourth and continue the franchise's rebound, but that's this year's ceiling. Philly has regressed from a year ago and nobody else in the East is even remotely ready.

Portland, without a deal before the trade deadline, is too young. Houston, my dark horse pick to start the season, is into full dysfunction mode and Tracy McGrady's knees are a major issue. New Orleans hasn't dealt well at all with the burden of expectations. And the Phoenix Suns, the hard-luck team of the first decade in this new century, don't seem to know what to do.

Yesterday the Suns fired a coach they hired just this summer, Terry Porter. The Suns replaced him with a coach they should have hired in the first place, Alvin Gentry. The Suns have gone from the most exciting thing in basketball to complete disarray, thanks to top management. And things will only get worse if they trade their four-time all-star, Amare Stoudemire, essentially to dump salary.

It's a shame because no team has been more thrilling, more aesthetically pleasing to watch over the past four years than the Suns. But decisions to save money by selling off top draft picks and bad decisions on personnel (like letting go of offensive players like Joe Johnson, Eddie House, Tim Thomas and Boris Diaw) without adequately replacing them siphoned off the team's considerable offensive prowess. And Steve Kerr's decision to hire Porter to remake a racehorse into a plodder has been nothing short of disaster. Regardless of your rooting interests, it's the biggest disappointment in pro basketball. Gentry's task is to convince his bottom-line owner to keep Stoudemire, dust off the old offense (with some modifications for Shaq) and get on a roll over the next 30-some games to make the playoffs.

But at least the Suns, who start the second half 1½ games out of the eighth and final playoff spot, have something that resembles a shot at making the playoffs. The scenario isn't even that kind for the Washington Wizards, bless their hearts, who'll be looking primarily to see how much better JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Dominic McGuire will get between now and the beginning of April and whether Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet and Oklahoma's Blake Griffin can be impact players at the professional level. And after that, we'll be watching to see how lucky the Wizards can be in the lottery.

And what about Gilbert Arenas? There are divided thoughts from players in the league as to whether any player who's been out as long as Arenas has should come back and play a month for a team so far out of contention.

One philosophy, which I subscribe to, is that anybody who just signed on for $111 million owes it to his employer and the patrons to get on the floor even if it's for only a week at the very end of the season. But I've talked to two injured former all-stars who say that the best thing for the franchise, no matter how infuriating it is now, is for Arenas to shut it down and spend the months between now and October getting ready to go 100 mph when he returns, and that's also the best way to handle him as an investment.

It's fairly sad stuff, speaking relatively, for a team that spent the last four years jockeying for playoff position. They'll be looking up at the Lakers, Spurs, Cavs and Celtics.

What we should expect from that quartet is one long streak after another by each. All four are capable of winning playoff games on the road, particularly the Spurs and Celtics, the last two champs. Still, each wants to have home-court advantage over the others, particularly the Lakers, who have convinced themselves that it was the only thing that separated them from the championship last year.

The only one of the four who could look markedly different is San Antonio, which (if you believe the rumors) is considering trading for Vince Carter, who seems like the anti-Spur. There are those who believe such a move would suggest the Spurs (by getting rid of Bruce Bowen among others) are convinced they can no longer beat the Lakers by playing great defense, or in fact are no longer convinced they can still play great defense, and feel they must outscore L.A.

Either way, the reduced number of contending teams doesn't necessarily make for less excitement as long as they're good enough -- and these four are -- to hold our interest for the final eight weeks.

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