The Washington Wizards have been able to leap tall buildings (San Antonio and Detroit) and trip over small pebbles (Orlando, Charlotte) in a single bound. But while the Wizards' inconsistency has been perplexing at times, no team in the NBA has been more schizophrenic than the Indiana Pacers. Predicted by many in the preseason to win the Eastern Conference and by others to take win the NBA title, the Pacers last week gave the latest reason as to why they are far from being a team that can be taken seriously in the playoffs: The day after they soundly roasted Cleveland -- ending the Cavaliers' eight-game winning streak -- on Thanksgiving, they become the turkeys and lost at home to the Atlanta Hawks. Then, two days after losing to Atlanta, the Pacers recorded an impressive win in Los Angeles against the Pacific Division-leading Clippers (that still is pretty funny to write), which leads to the question: Who are these people? Losing to the Hawks might've been forgivable considering the Pacers were playing without Ron Artest -- except the Hawks entered the game having won just one game on the season, they hadn't won back-to-back games in more than a season and they hadn't beaten the Pacers in more than two years. More troubling, however, is that the loss came less than two weeks after they were blown out by 32 points in Charlotte -- with Artest.
The Pacers are the most difficult good team to get a handle on. They have beaten the Miami Heat twice, but they've squandered games they should have won against Philadelphia and Milwaukee. They're good enough to embarrass the Cavaliers but can have the same result administered by the Bobcats.
It might seem like nitpicking to disparage an 8-4 team that is just two games behind the Detroit Pistons for the best record in the East despite playing the entire season without a contribution from center Jeff Foster or Jonathan Bender. They certainly have the talent to contend, with all-stars Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest, a sharpshooter in Stephen Jackson and considerable depth. But they are quickly learning that championships aren't awarded to teams that talk about it the most; they have to be won on the court. "My thing is, we need to lay off talking about a championship until we get ourselves together and define ourselves as a team," O'Neal told reporters following their 97-92 win against the Clippers. "Consistency is what you want if you're going to talk about being a championship team."
And, there certainly is reason for concern with this team in the long haul. After the loss in Charlotte, Austin Croshere, without naming names, said the team lacked leadership. And, during the loss against the Hawks, O'Neal and Jackson reportedly got into a heated exchange near the end of the first half and needed to be separated Jackson also was booed by the home crowd during that game.
It would be one thing if the Pacers had one or two mentally fragile players, but their three best players have shown that they lack the mental fortitude needed to be a championship contender. Artest is arguably their best all-around player, but his brain breakdowns -- even before he rushed the stands last season -- have been well documented. O'Neal has the ability to get easily rattled in pressure situations and Jackson can flame out quicker than a trick candle. If the first month of the season revealed anything, it's that the Pacers will have a greater struggle dealing with themselves than their opponents.
Houston Has Some Problems
The Houston Rockets aren't good enough to be considered a legitimate threat in the West without Tracy McGrady. But do they have to be contending for next season's No. 1 pick? Only Toronto (one) and Atlanta (two) have fewer wins than the Rockets, but the Raptors' and Hawks' struggle was no surprise. The Rockets, however, were expected to tangle with San Antonio and Dallas for control of the Southwest Division with the offseason additions of Stromile Swift and Derek Anderson. Instead, they are 3 1/2 games behind the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets in the division and possess the worst record in the Western Conference.
The Rockets have lost seven games in a row and are looking to end that skid tonight against the Atlanta Hawks when McGrady returns from a strained back. When McGrady sits, the Rockets are plain pitiful at 0-8. They score almost four fewer points per game (83.4-87.2) and shoot almost two percentage points worse (39.8-41.9) than when McGrady plays. Although the Rockets were built around McGrady's immense talents and his playmaking skills cannot be overlooked, the Rockets cannot expect their situation to be turned around completely with their other all-star back in the lineup.
With McGrady, the Rockets are just mediocre at 3-3. McGrady started the season with a knee injury and has yet to play a game fully healthy this season. In his last game played on Nov. 18, McGrady missed 13 of 16 shots and scored a season-low six points. And, despite his ability to score, McGrady shouldn't be asked to carry a team by himself anymore. Does anyone recall what happened during his last season in Orlando, when the Magic lost 19 in a row? The Rockets are much better than that 21-61 Magic team, but they are on pace to finish with a similar record.
The Rockets need more from Yao Ming, who may never become the dominant force many expected. He has put up respectable numbers (18.9 points, 8.9 rebounds), but too often Yao has been reluctant to take over with McGrady sidelined, and teams have had fun ganging up on him. Last week, Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni started the 6-foot-8, 215-pound Boris Diaw at center against the 7-6 Yao. The quicker Diaw, with the help of 6-9 swingman Shawn Marion, held Yao to eight points.
The free agent acquisitions of Anderson and Swift have had a minimal impact. Anderson was recently benched in favor of Ryan Bowen. Swift is averaging 9.1 points and 4.6 rebounds but has yet to claim the starting power forward position from former Wizard Juwan Howard. Swift's athleticism and incredible leaping ability have made him eye candy for most of his career, and Coach Jeff Van Gundy knew he was facing a challenge in helping the former No. 2 pick reach his potential. When asked about Swift before training camp, Van Gundy said, "Stromile, so far has been a better talent than a player in the NBA. Hopefully, we can help him maximize his abilities, but a lot is coming from how much he wants from his career right now."
The Rockets should also be concerned about what they want from this season.
OK in OKC
When the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets opened the season with a spanking of the Sacramento Kings, it could've easily been overlooked as an emotional win, given all the city of New Orleans had to endure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But a few weeks later, Coach Byron Scott, much-maligned for how things ended in New Jersey, has to get some credit for what he's done with a team that wasn't expected to win six games before the start of January, let alone before December -- especially after the Hornets traded Jamaal Magloire to Milwaukee the week before the season began. But as of today, the Hornets are the ninth team in the Western Conference and just 1 1/2 games out of the playoffs. They have won four of their past six games and are 6-7. Last season, the Hornets were 1-12 after 13 games.
No question the difference has been the arrival of No. 4 pick Chris Paul, who has emerged as the early front-runner for Rookie of the Year, averaging 16.8 points, 6.6 assists and 5.3 rebounds. On media day in October, Paul was speaking to a handful of reporters when Scott leaned over Paul's shoulder and whispered, "Rookie of the Year." Paul laughed and Scott walked away, saying, "No pressure." What pressure? The 20-year-old Paul has had some stellar performances, scoring at least 15 points in eight of his past nine games, including a career-high 26 points in a loss against Dallas. He also had 25 points, 12 assists and 7 rebounds in a win against the Hawks (why didn't the point-guard-less Hawks draft him again?). But Paul has had some help from 12-year veteran P.J. Brown, high-flying second-year guard J.R. Smith and Speedy Claxton. The Hornets have also received a surprising boost from David West, a 2003 first-round pick who never found his way into the rotation until Magloire was traded and slam dunk contest legend (for the wrong reasons) Chris Andersen was injured. In the past five games, West has averaged 22.2 points and 9.2 rebounds and shot 58 percent from the field.
The Hornets will finally play their first game in Louisiana since the catastrophic storm when they host Phoenix in Baton Rouge on Dec. 16. Fans may actually see something they rarely saw in New Orleans last season: a competitive, pesky team.
Team of the Week
The Magic started the season 0-3 and appeared to be headed toward a disastrous season with Grant Hill out until mid-December. But Orlando has won its past four games, including a 91-83 win against the Wizards and an 80-77 win against the Shaq-less Heat. For the Magic to be 7-6 and a half-game out of first place in the Southeast Division is impressive, no matter how you slice it. Under Coach Brian Hill, the Magic has the top ranked defense in the league (88.1 points).
Team of the Weak
The SuperSonics deserved some kudos for rebounding from a 1-4 start to win four out of the next five games. But how do they follow up a return to respectability by losing the next three games -- including home losses to the Utah Jazz (playing without Andrei Kirilenko) and the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets? It's obvious that former Coach Nate McMillan took the magic with him, but this team hasn't established any sort of identity under Bob Weiss.
Player of the Week
Gerald Wallace, Charlotte Bobcats
The most telling stat of the Bobcats season: When Gerald Wallace plays, they are 4-4. when he's out, they're 1-5. Wallace returned from a wrist injury last week to average 22.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists while shooting 58.7 percent. He also made six of 14 three-point shots, recorded seven steals and blocked 10 shots as he led the Bobcats to wins against New York and Washington. In the Bobcats' 100-82 victory over the Wizards, Wallace scored 26 points, grabbed a career-high-tying 14 rebounds, and blocked a season-high five shots.
Player of the Weak
Ruben Patterson, Portland Trail Blazers
Portland is trying desperately to move from the "Jail Blazer" era, but Patterson, one of the carryovers from that lamentable period in franchise history, won't let the bad times go. He erupted into an expletive-filled tirade in a team huddle last week and Coach Nate McMillan wasn't having it. McMillan rightfully sent Patterson home and suspended him without pay. Patterson wants to be traded and the Blazers want to trade him. It's time to move him. Problem is, who will take him and the excess baggage (not to mention the $13 million Patterson is owed for this and next season)?
1. Detroit Pistons (10-2)
A double-overtime loss to the Wizards did nothing to keep them from retaining the top spot -- especially when they bounced back the next night with a win in Milwaukee.
2. Dallas Mavericks (10-3)
Put the "Allas" jokes to rest. The Mavericks actually play D this season. Only three teams have scored 100 points or more on them.
3. San Antonio Spurs (10-3)
The Spurs lost at home to the Bulls. The Spurs lost at home to the Bulls. That sentence was repeated because it wasn't expected to be written this season.
4. Memphis Grizzlies (9-5)
Snapping the Mavericks' seven-game win streak with a 20-point win in Dallas -- without Mike Miller and Brian Cardinal -- helps erase a home loss to the Trail Blazers last week.
5. Indiana Pacers (8-4)
Blowing out Cleveland and beating the Clippers on the road is rather impressing. Losing at home to the Hawks -- even without Ron Artest -- leads to more head-scratching for this unpredictable team.
6. Cleveland Cavaliers (9-4)
They follow up an eight-game win streak by losing two in a row. The Cavaliers have to find a way to get Zydrunas Ilgauskas more involved. He struggled mightily in their past two losses (13 points on 3 of 13 shooting with 12 rebounds) and Cleveland is 8-1 when he scores at least 12 points.
7. Los Angeles Clippers (9-4)
The Pacific Division-leading Clippers are going to have to prove that they are for real now. They have a tough stretch the next eight games, which includes contests against Cleveland (twice), Minnesota, Miami, Detroit and San Antonio.
8. Golden State Warriors (10-6)
Baron Davis was able to beat his former team on Monday and has been credited for being the spark for the turnaround in Oakland. But when are people going to notice that Jason Richardson is really blossoming into much more than a dunker?
9. Phoenix Suns (7-5)
The Suns are starting to heat up. They've won three in a row against some shaky teams (Toronto, Houston and New Jersey), but for a team that has been in a funk like Phoenix, who's complaining? Not Steve Nash. The reigning MVP averaged 21.7 points and 9.7 assists last week.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves (7-5)
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor says the team isn't trading Kevin Garnett, who is putting up MVP numbers again this season. Winning in Cleveland last week was huge for a team that previously had been winless (0-4) on the road.
Five Games to Watch This Week
1. Portland at Washington (Wednesday)
Fans in this area have always cheered on the ultimate underdog in Juan Dixon, who seemingly can do no wrong after leading Maryland to a national title in 2002. He should get a raucous ovation when he returns home in an enemy uniform for the first time in career.
2. Chicago at New York (Wednesday)
Think a strained calf will keep Eddy Curry out of this game? Curry was wounded by what he felt was a lack of faith shown by the Bulls, who traded him in October because of concerns about his heart. The Bulls demanded that he take a DNA test. Curry refused and has been waiting to pay back the team he felt damaged his value in the free agent market.
3. San Antonio at Dallas (Thursday)
The Mavericks and the Wizards are the only two teams to defeat both the Spurs and the Pistons. The Mavs, however, have been much more consistent than Washington and they actually slaughtered the past two NBA Finals participants. The Spurs haven't forgotten that 19-point beatdown from three weeks ago.
4. New York at Detroit (Friday)
The Pistons are anxious to show Larry Brown how much they don't miss him, while Brown will take time to ponder exactly why he turned his back on this team to coach the Knicks. What will Detroit fans do when Larry Brown returns? Will they cheer him for leading the Pistons to two trips to the NBA Finals and a championship? Or will they boo him for flirtations with Cleveland and New York?
5. Atlanta at Phoenix (Sunday)
Joe Johnson -- the player who cost the Hawks $70 million, two first-round draft picks, Boris Diaw and former majority owner Steve Belkin -- returns to Phoenix. Johnson felt disrespected by management for failing to open the vault. He didn't like being the fourth option with a winning team, so now he is the second option on a losing team. Make sense? Didn't think so.