Around the Horn of the NBA

L.A. Clippers forward Elton Brand

The week after point guard Stephon Marbury bolted from the Wolves in March of 1999, I wrote, "...arrogance, not jealousy, is the reason Marbury is gone. He sincerely believes he doesn't have to compromise between wins and geography, that he doesn't need the likes of Garnett in order to realize his lifelong dream of winning an NBA championship in his own backyard...It will be three or four years before we really know if Stephon Marbury is as good as he thinks he is."

Six and a half years later, Marbury has become the poster boy for toxic chemistry. His numbers are spectacular, he remains one of the league's most exciting players to watch, and yet his teams are chronic underachievers. Both New Jersey and Phoenix went from mediocrity to viable championship contenders the year after they traded him. Now, finally back in his beloved New York City, playing for the Knicks and coached by Larry Brown (another NYC native with a larger-than-life legend), Marbury is the easiest target for the laziest pundits, the designated whipping boy for the Knicks' horrible start.

By now it's probably just sheer perversity, but I still like Marbury's game. How does someone who supposedly hogs the ball average more than eight assists per game for his career? And is there anyone in the league, including Baron Davis and Dwayne Wade, who gets to the hole more efficiently? (Davis and Wade may finish as well as Stephonalthough even that's debatablebut nobody dishes off penetration better than Marbury.) His defense isn't terrible either.

Unfortunately I can't argue with the numbers--something about this guy has become cancerous, something not evident back in his early years with the Wolves. Is it merely the maturation of the arrogance I saw back then, into something more pernicious and malicious? Frankly, I don't know. But none of the many Marbury bashers have written anything credible to enlighten me either. And I refuse to believe that the Knicks' current woes are more the fault of Marbury than idiotic Isiah Thomas pairing Mr. Anal Larry Brown with a crop of very talented but very mistake-prone kids, and a point guard with whom he openly feuded at last year's Olympics.

My pick for the MVP of the first two weeks of the season is Clippers power forward Elton Brand. The numbers are solid9th in points per game, 15th in rebounds per game, 5th in blocks per game, and first in field goal percentage among those averaging at least ten shots per gameyet not really MVP-worthy. But Brand is a guy who must be seen to be fully appreciated. Every night he does the dirty work on defense and under the boards, making the extra pass and taking the tough shot when no one else is available. He covers for a couple of matador defenders (Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley) and is the beef as well as the brains on the Clips' front line (alongside Chris Kamen and Mobley or Corey Maggette). An undersized power forward (he's just 6-8) for a perpetually dysfunctional franchise, he jousts against superior athletes more often than not, power forward being the marquee position in the Western Conference, and has no playoff nor all-star game appearances to show for his six-year career. But this season, he has led the Clips to the top of the moribund Pacific Division with a 5-2 mark. I sincerely hope he gets to the post-season, and is on the all star squad when it is announced this winter.

The biggest surprise thus far is not the Clippers, however, but the Washington Wizards, who have won five of six despite losing their defensive stopper Larry Hughes to the Cavs during the off season. Gilbert Arenas has been stellar, racking up more than 28 points and six assists per game, but the real lift has come from Caron Butler, who is playing like a poor man's Hughes, with nearly 18 points and four assists per game, and, perhaps more impressively, 1.5 steals and 5.5 rebounds in only 28.3 minutes per game. Give it up for coach Eddie Jordan, who proving that last year's nimble style of play can be replicated with a key cog missing.

The Bucks' success is no surprise, as, once again, pathetic Hornets' owner George Shinn has sold out his fans by giving away his best player. Last year, New Orleans practically gave away point guard Baron Davis to the Warriors. This time, the hapless Hornets shipped Jamaal Magloire, the MVP of the 2004 All Star game and one of the top six centers in the league, to Milwaukee for Desmond Mason and a first-round pick next year. Oh, and cash. George Shinn always needs cash.

Coupled with the drafting of overall number-one pick Andrew Bogut, the signing of free agent Bobby Simmons (who made Mason eminently expendable), and the return to health of point guard A.J. Ford, the trade for Magloire finishes the upgrade on 80 percent of the Bucks starting lineup. And the lone holdover, designated gunner Michael Redd, is perfectly complemented by this quartet. With the likes of Toni Kukoc and Mo Williams coming off the bench, the Bucks are a serious threat to join the Pistons, Pacers, Heat, and Cavs at the top end of a dramatically revitalized Eastern Conference.

Mea culpa to Pistons' coach Flip Saunders. This summer when no one was reading or caring about pro hoops, I wrote a blog predicting that Saunders would have difficulty succeeding Larry Brown in Detroit. The gist of it was Flip doesn't possess the hardass attitude necessary to be a defensive coach. I still believe that's true. What I hadn't reckoned on was that the Piston players would have sufficient pride, discipline, and desire to prove they can win without Larry that they would play monster D and absorb Flip's masterful offense. The point being that Flip's lighter touch is workingthe Pistons are obviously the class of the NBA right now. And while that may change, or at least flag a bit, between now and early June, I'm a lot more comfortable siding with Saunders than I am knocking him.

Too late to say I told you so. I had these impressions before the season started and never wrote them. Some have proven accurate, some not.

  • Did anyone really think Sacramento would be competitive after adding a couple of dogs like Shareef Abdur-Raheim and Bonzie Wells to their team?
  • Same sentence as above, except substitute Miami for Sac, title contenders for competitive, and Antoine Walker and Jason Williams for Shareef and Bonzie.
  • Deron Williams will put up less impressive numbers than Chris Paul this season and still be more valuable to his team. And Raymond Felton will be a bust.
  • Isn't it only a matter of time before Mickael Pietrus supplants Mike Dunleavy as the Warriors small forward? And can any team with Dunleavy, Adonal Foyle and Troy Murphy in its front line really be considered playoff contenders?
  • As mahvolous as Steve Nash and Shawn Marion are together, Phoenix is lucky the rest of the west is down this seasonand even so, will have a tough time making the playoffs without Stoudamire for four months and Johnson and Q gone. In fact, I predict Nash breaks down before Amare returns and the Suns go down the drain.
  • Basketball is dead in Canada. The Griz are gone and the Raptors are such a train wreck that even a country that didn't care about hockey would stay away from them in droves...
  • Dallas coach Avery Johnson is going to have difficulty committing to a defensive oriented philosophy with a roster that includes Keith Van Horn, Jason Terry, and Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavs will make the playoffs but get bounced out in the first round.
  • Playoff picks (in order of predicted seeding): EastDetroit, Miami, New Jersey, Indiana, Milwaukee, Washington, Cleveland, Philadelphia. WestSan Antonio, Denver, L.A. Clippers, Houston, Dallas, Memphis, Minnesota, Utah.

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