With two weeks remaining in our condensed and partially mutilated 2011-12 NBA season, we're juggling more plots, subplots and characters than a vintage episode of the show that we're no longer allowed to mention on Grantland because David Simon is a condescending, humorless blowhard. Did these storylines emerge because we crammed 66 games into four months? Did we just get lucky? Or am I fudging this because I desperately needed a Friday column? Probably all three. But here are 33 reasons to be excited for the last two weeks of the NBA season.
1. Do you realize Charlotte has a chance to finish with the NBA's worst winning percentage ever? The '73 Sixers own the worst 82-game record (9-73); the '99 Grizzlies own the worst strike-shortened record (8-42); and the '48 Providence Steamers set the records for fewest wins (they went 6-42) and most times someone said, "They put a team THERE?" (215,563 times and counting). The Bobcats have blown 50 of their 57 games for a remarkable winning percentage of … (wait for it) … .123.
They could win one more game and still set the record (.121), but if they blow their last nine and finish 7-59, that drops them to an unfathomable (and record-setting) .108. Even better, that means Michael Jordan would have direct ties to the best regular-season team ever (the '96 Bulls) and the worst regular-season team ever (the '12 Bobcats). Stay classy, MJ.
2. Sorry, we have to run the Bobcats back because you won't ever witness a more worthless professional basketball team. You can't even call them shitty because it's an insult to shit. It seems impossible that an NBA team could finish with a point differential of negative double digits (even the 8-42 Grizzlies finished -8.94 in 1999), but Charlotte's opponents have outscored them by a staggering 13.3 points per game. The Bobcats have lost 31 games by 10 points or more. They're 2-30 against teams .500 or better. They're 4-23 at home. They've had losing streaks of 15 and 14 (the current one). They tied a record this week by losing their third straight home game by 20 points or more. They don't have a single player averaging more than 15 points, 6.5 assists or 5.6 rebounds. Their three best players (Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and Byron Mullens) wouldn't play a lick for ANY of the league's 10 best teams.
Did I mention that the most homicidally competitive athlete of our lifetime owns this franchise? What the hell? How can Michael Jordan live with himself? And how can we reward this putridity (is that even a word?) by giving them the 'Brow in two months? That reminds me …
3. The Unibrow Sweepstakes are heating up! Even if the wretched Bobcats secured Ping-Pong pole position weeks ago, 44-loss Washington and 42-loss New Orleans are fighting for the second spot; 40-loss Sacramento and 39-loss Toronto are fighting for the fourth spot; and Golden State, Cleveland, Toronto, Detroit and New Jersey are jockeying for the sixth spot. That's why, just a few days ago, you probably heard a booming voice say, "Gentlemen, start your Tankapalooza engines!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
For the record: I fully support tanking when a blue-chipper like Anthony Davis is waiting at the end of the tanking rainbow. He's on that rarefied Kevin Durant/Chris Webber/Tim Duncan/Patrick Ewing "Can't Miss" level. You do whatever it takes to get Davis, short of committing murder or signing Javaris Crittenton, especially when the league refuses to make easy tweaks to ensure that non-playoff teams won't shut down their best players for dubious reasons. (For instance, if they ever adopted my Entertaining As Hell Tournament and held a 16-team, single-game elimination battle for both 8-seeds right after the season, Portland probably doesn't shut down LaMarcus Aldridge, right?) But since the league moves slower than Eddy Curry, the following Tankapalooza subplots are in play …
4. After guaranteeing they'd make the playoffs, Golden State subtly went into tank mode a few games ago. Remember, if the Warriors' pick doesn't land in the top seven, they lose it to Utah … which is why you can expect David Lee to get shut down any day with "knee tendinitis" or some equally bogus injury. Feel free to start gambling against them if gambling were legal. If teams are going to crap on their fans, we may as well profit from it.
5. The Hornets can't tank because, you know, they're owned by David Stern. (At least for a few more weeks.) Even if they're better off losing, they can't. And you thought that massive conflict of interest of the NBA running the Hornets had run out of ways to screw over Hornets fans and embarrass the league. Hah! Think again. Wait, it gets better.
6. You might remember New Orleans getting Minnesota's unprotected pick in the Chris Paul trade … a pick that suddenly became interesting after Kobe so callously blew out Ricky Rubio's knee1 and sent the T-Wolves into a free fall. Right now, Minnesota is 25-35 and threatening to drop into the bottom seven; along with New Orleans's own pick, it suddenly looks like the Hornets might have a bunch of Ping-Pong balls. That's right, we're inching closer and closer to the single funniest sports scenario of 2012 … David Stern selling the Hornets to an ownership group that will assume control of the team, and just a few days later, coincidentally win David Stern's lottery! This doesn't feel like a massive scandal at all!
7. Shifting the other way, you might remember New Jersey stupidly trading its top-three protected no. 1 pick for Gerald Wallace last month because he gives them a better chance to acquire Dwight Howard this summer (because Howard likes Wallace or something).2 I'd argue that they would have had a better chance getting Howard had they (a) parlayed that pick into Paul Pierce or Joe Johnson, or (b) shut down Deron Williams, tanked the rest of the season, and increased their odds to get Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, rather than (c), you know, giving that asset away for the third-best guy on a lottery team when Portland would have happily made the same trade two months from now. But what do I know?
Anyway, the 21-38 Nets find themselves in a funny spot — it might be in their best interests to untank (keep winning so that pick ends up in the 10-12 range instead of the 4-6 range) instead of tank (and hope to get lucky with a top-three pick). And by the way? If the Nets somehow won the Unibrow Sweepstakes (and got to keep that pick), that would be even fishier than the Hornets winning the lottery. Hmmmmm … things "work out" so the Nets move to their fancy new building in Brooklyn with Deron Williams, Jay-Z and the 'Brow? If there was ever a season for the league to put live cameras in the Ping-Pong room so we could see with our own eyes what happens, it's this season.
(FYI: We'll be launching "Tankonia" on Grantland next week — basically, following the daily proceedings of this seedy process so you don't have to. Enough about tanking; let's get to the good stuff.)
8. With Steve Novak leading the league in 3-point shooting — right now, he's sitting at 46.2 percent, just a hair above Stephen Curry (45.5 percent), Ersan Ilyasova (45.5 percent) and Ray Allen (45.3 percent) — a white dude might bring that title home for the third straight year. Can Novak follow the plodding, Caucasiantastic footsteps of Kyle Korver (2010) and Matt Bonner (2011)? And could there be a bigger cliché than Korver, Bonner and Novak going back-to-back-to-back?
9. Carmelo Anthony … he's back! And looming as "The Guy You Definitely Don't Want to See in a Seven-Game Series If You're a 1-Seed." And ready to (belatedly) own the Big Apple if something good happens! Especially if … (well, I don't want to step on no. 23 yet).
10. Speaking of the Knicks, did you know Tyson Chandler has a chance to finish with the second-highest field goal percentage of all time? The Dipper owns the best mark (72.7 percent in '72) and second-best mark (68.3 percent in '67), but Chandler is currently sitting at 68.0 percent. Oh, and did we mention he's been the league's best defensive player? I continue to believe that the Mavericks left the 2012 title on the table by outsmarting themselves and allowing Chandler to leave. On the bright side …
11. You know those unflattering Lamar Odom/Dallas stories are going to start trickling out — I can't wait. That reminds me …
12. I know I just wrote a gushy column about them, but man, after watching that bizarre Bulls-Heat game last night, am I wrong to think the Creaky But Lovable Celtics could sneak into the Finals?
13. [Furiously knocking on wood.]
14. When was the last time we had four legitimate candidates for the three All-NBA center spots? You have the Coach Killer (Dwight Howard: 20.6 PPG, 14.5 RPG, 2.1 BPG, 24.3 PER); the Unsung Stopper (Chandler: 11.2 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 18.8 PER); the Up-and-Comer (Andrew Bynum: 18.4 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 2.0 BPG, 23.1 PER, and most important, he stayed on the court this season); and the Wily Old Veteran (Kevin Garnett: since the All-Star Break, 17.5 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 52% FG). Howard has the best stats; Chandler means the most defensively; Bynum was probably the most consistent; and Garnett is having a significant impact on the team that's playing the best right now.
And look, I know it's probably unfolding Dwight (first team), Bynum (second team) and Chandler or Garnett (third team), but man … rewarding Howard for what happened this season just seems wrong. Really, we're giving first-team All-NBA honors to someone who absolutely might roll over on his team in Round 1? Would Garnett or Chandler ever, in a million years, do that? An interesting moral dilemma for everyone with an awards ballot.3
15. As you know, the worst signing of the 2011-12 season wasn't Kwame Brown, Caron Butler or Nene … it was Shaquille O'Neal. Maybe it wasn't shocking that someone who mumbled his way through interviews for 20 years and rarely said anything interesting would negatively impact the best studio show in the history of sports television, but this will become a major problem in the playoffs when everyone just wants to hear Chuck and Kenny. Can TNT use these next two weeks to teach Shaq to basically do a lot of nodding? We don't need him to be Chris Bosh, we need him to be Joel Anthony. Just sit there and smile, Shaq. Let the other guys do their thing. Come playoff time, I need me some Chuck and I need me some Kenny.4
(On the bright side, at least Shaq opens the door for jokes like this one, from Jerzan in San Antonio: "Don't complain about Shaq on TNT — he's just rounding himself into shape and mailing it in until the playoffs.")
16. We only have two weeks left of the New Jersey Nets, giving us plenty of time to celebrate some of our favorite Nets-in-Jersey memories. Like the time they used the no. 6 and no. 7 picks of the 1980 draft for two white guys named Mike (O'Koren and Gminski). Like the time Larry Brown ditched them. Like that one fun Micheal Ray Richardson season before Micheal Ray, um, got banned from the league for life. Like G-Mo's incomparable beard that made him look like the dad in about 14 different '80s sitcoms. Like the time they spent back-to-back top-four picks on Dennis Hopson and Chris Morris. Like that one fun Coleman/Drazen/Kenny season. Like that two-month stretch when it seemed like Keith Van Horn was going to be good. Like the time they landed the no. 1 overall draft pick during the single worst NBA draft ever (2000). Like two straight NBA Finals appearances that doubled as the worst-rated Finals of the past 30 years. Like the time Vince Carter was stuck playing there. Like the time Lawrence Frank
started out went 0-16. Like the time they gutted their future for the CHANCE at teaming up Deron Williams and Dwight Howard. It's a credit to the Clippers and Warriors that we don't think of the New Jersey Nets as the NBA's most screwed up franchise. Let's hope they have better luck in Brooklyn.
17. Even if Rajon Rondo (11.4 APG) is starting to pull away from Steve Nash (11.1 APG) for the assist title, can we have one of those prolonged, respectful standing O's — you know, like the one Miami's WrestleMania 28 crowd had for Triple H, Undertaker and Shawn Michaels after their unforgettable "Hell in a Cell" match — for Nashie being in the mix for the title at the tender age of 38? And on a mediocre team that doesn't have a single perimeter player who can create his own shot, no less?
18. Speaking of old guys, Jason Kidd has two weeks left to extend one of the league's most randomly incredible streaks: For 17 straight seasons, he's had at least one triple double. Given that he's only averaging 7.1 points, 5.4 assists and 3.8 rebounds since the All-Star break, I'd say the odds look slim … you know, unless Kobe can bring him to Germany for a quick, um, recharge of their batteries. By the way, I might go for a triple double of Kobe/Germany jokes just in this column.
19. I don't want to jinx it, but Bosh's Pit has a chance to average fewer than eight rebounds a game. He's sitting at 7.7 right now that's not even two per quarter. If he pulls it off, can the Miami fans chant "YES WE DID"?
20. That reminds me:
21. One more time, just for fun:
22. I mean … have you been watching Miami???? Their supporting cast might be worse than it was last year. How is that possible? They played Ronny Turiaf 30 minutes last night. Not a typo. Shane Battier, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem are sharing one fork for three backs. Chris Bosh has turned into a taller Brandon Bass. And the LeBron/Wade dynamic has never been icier or more dueling banjos-ey; last night in Chicago, they did everything but scream "MY TURN!" like my kids do when they're fighting over the same iPad game. El Heat couldn't look more vulnerable.5 Which leads me to …
23. Right now, the Knicks are trailing Philly by one game for the seventh playoff spot. They feature a suddenly hot scorer (Carmelo's last 10 games: 28.5 PPG) who truly believes he's on the same level as Wade and LeBron, as well as a defensive stopper who knows how to beat them (Chandler), an elite perimeter defender who can defend both Wade and LeBron (Iman Shumpert), and a bloodthirsty crowd that will absolutely, unequivocally show up in full force for Games 3, 4 and 6 (the Knicks fans). It's giving me goose bumps just thinking about it. Imagine the Knicks improbably taking a 3-2 lead home for Game 6, and imagine THAT crowd. On a scale of 1 to the "Boom Goes the Dynamite" Guy, how terrified do you think LeBron will be during crunch time of that game? Even the chance this might happen has me fired up. Let's see it once and for all, LeBron … do you have "it" or not?
24. In case you were wondering, here are my dream Round 1 matchups (and the ones I think you should root for, although it's a free country and you should do whatever you want):
Chicago (1) vs. Milwaukee (8): This won't happen because Philly is getting in, but still … the Whatever Highway That Is series would have been fun.
Miami (2) vs. New York (7): Cross your fingers.
Boston (3) vs. Orlando (6): What better way to send Howard packing?
Indiana (4) vs. Atlanta (5): Atlanta keeps alive its streak of having the majority of its playoff games appear on NBA TV (one of my favorite spring traditions, right up there with the hockey playoffs, Halter Top Day and getting drunk while on hay fever meds). More important, this sets up Indy-Chicago and Miami-Boston for Round 2. Trust me, those are the matchups we want. Bad blood all the way around.
Oklahoma City (1) vs. Denver (8): Up and down, run and gun, get the F out of the way. Durant and Westbrook could average 70 combined, and also, we might have the Greatest Block That Ever Happened with Serge Ibaka and JaVale McGee involved. This is another "cross your fingers" matchup.
San Antonio (2) vs. Dallas (7): Texas in the house!!! One last Nowitzki-Duncan battle for old times' sake.
L.A. Lakers (3) vs. Houston (6): An interesting one because you'd have The Team That Isn't Going to Beat Itself (Houston) playing The Volatile and Aging Contender That Could End Up Beating Itself at Any Time (the Lakers). I live in Los Angeles and have yet to meet a Lakers fan who'd trust Mike Brown to place a Starbucks order, much less coach their team for an entire playoff series.
L.A. Clippers (4) vs. Memphis (5): As a Clippers season-ticket holder, this is my worst-case scenario because (a) Memphis has a better team, (b) Memphis doesn't have Vinny Del Negro, and (c) if the Clips blow this series, they'll really be blowing our chance to see a Clippers-Lakers Big Brother/Little Brother chippy slugfest in Round
2 3. But this would be an incredibly entertaining series, wouldn't it?
25. Again, Lakers-Clippers is in play. Let's dust off the checkers board for Del Negro and Brown to be safe.
26. You realize Memphis is "The Team Absolutely No One Wants to Play in the West" despite the fact that they (a) spent the second pick in 2009 on Hasheem Thabeet, (b) traded Kevin Love for O.J. Mayo in 2008, and (c) teamed up Zach Randolph and Gilbert Arenas, a move that would have violated the Geneva Convention as recently as 18 months ago? If they rig this correctly, they could draw the super-beatable Clips in Round 1 and Oklahoma City (a team they should have beaten last spring) in Round 2. I thought they would make the Finals in December; I feel even more strongly about that in April. Just sayin'.
27. I can't believe I haven't mentioned Goran Dragic's epic free agency run yet! Thrust into Houston's starting lineup with Kyle Lowry sidelined, Dragic morphed into a delightful cross between Steve Nash, Manu Ginobili and Tiny Archibald and helped keep Houston's playoff hopes glimmering. In 20 games as a starter, he's averaging 18.2 points and 8.7 assists with 50/42/84 shooting splits, and that doesn't even tell the whole story because he's a killer at the end of games. According to 82games.com, he's shooting a sizzling 70 percent in crunch time. Seventy percent!!!!
Given that he's only 25, what's Dragic worth on the open market to a team with cap space like Portland, Indiana, Toronto or Dallas? Or would Houston be better off re-signing Dragic, then dealing Lowry with their two first-rounders (theirs and New York's) and/or Kevin Martin/Luis Scola for a proven All-Star like LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh or (in the irony of ironies) Pau Gasol? And by the way, shouldn't we mention that Dragic (a throw-in for the vetoed L.A./N.O./Houston three-teamer) is now more valuable than anyone in that trade except for Chris Paul and Eric Gordon (the prize of New Orleans's eventual haul for Chris Paul)? You gotta love the NBA! There can't be a weirder sport. There just can't.
28. Lest we forget the poor man's version of Dragic, there's Chris Kaman's less-than-epic free agency run for a forgettable Hornets team. The K-Man quietly averaged 16 points and nine rebounds in February and March before tailing off in April (12.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG), but still, if you don't think he's earning an absolutely atrocious contract from some dimwitted NBA GM in July, you're kidding yourself.
29. There's a halfhearted scoring race going on right now between Kevin Durant (27.5 PPG) and Kobe Bryant (28.1 PPG) that's always a 55-point Durant game or a six-point Kobe-Limping-Around game away from heating up. Has to be mentioned.
30. Much more interesting: It looks like Howard might lock down his first Montresor Award, presented annually to the league's worst free throw shooter. After finishing in the top four for the last five years, Howard finally got over the hump this season by shooting a sizzling 49.1 percent. Poor Blake Griffin (52.4 percent) never had a chance. Congratulations, Dwight. You quit on your team AND the charity stripe this season.
31. Most interesting: We're two weeks away from Shawne Williams officially becoming the first player in five years to play 20-plus minutes a game while submitting a PER under 5. The last guy to do it? Jason Collins in his historic 2007 season: 23.1 minutes per game, an astonishing 3.02 PER. To put that doozy in perspective, John Hollinger rigged his PER engine so that you get a 3.5 just for breathing. Anyway, Williams signed an inexplicably lucrative contract with New Jersey ($6.15 million for two years), then stunk the joint out (20.6 MPG, 28.6% FG, 4.96 PER) for 25 games before getting hurt (he had foot surgery), then got traded (to Portland in the Wallace deal), and yes, he's out for the season. Pour some skunked beer on your own head, Shawne Williams. You made history.
32. You know what's in total flux? The 2012 MVP race. Since I wrote that column about weighting the MVP trophies 10 days ago, LeBron's campaign took a hit with Miami struggling, and it's not like Durant (the consensus no. 2 choice), Chris Paul (probably no. 3 right now), Kobe (injured) or Kevin Love (just got concussed) seized the reins. It's starting to look like a Wimbledon platter of an MVP season; the winner will be winning for the always loathsome reason that "somebody had to win." Unless one of the candidates turns it up these last two weeks.6
33. You know why you should really enjoy these last two weeks? Because they'll have an enormous impact on the momentum of the playoffs, if only because this kooky regular season suddenly has no momentum whatsoever. In the East, Derrick Rose's injuries and Miami's bizarre identity crisis have left everything wide open. In the West, Oklahoma City responded to everyone making it the alpha dog by promptly blowing four of its next six — to four playoff teams, no less — and then San Antonio jumped in by giving up an unfathomable 30 rebounds to Andrew Bynum in an embarrassing defeat to the Kobe-less Lakers.
By my count, nine teams could win the title: Chicago, Miami, Boston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis, the Lakers … and I guess we have to include the Clippers (just in case Chris Paul kicks it up a notch) and Mavericks (just because of Carlisle and Dirk), even if I can't imagine those teams winning four straight playoff series without major help (and I mean MAJOR help, along the lines of injuries, kidnappings and failed drug tests). Who's playing the best right now, at this exact moment? Probably … (big gulp) …
[No way I'm jinxing this.]
[Enjoy the weekend.]
Just wanted to see if the Lakers fans were still reading.
Jersey's argument here was especially confusing: They let it be known that they only liked three guys in this draft, which is why they made it top-three protected (and apparently justified the idea behind the trade, since they wouldn't be losing anyone they liked, anyway). This would make sense except … well, what if other teams liked five guys in this draft, or seven, or 10? The VALUE of that pick was much higher than they assessed. All in all, I thought that was one of the weirdest NBA trades in a long time — it was like watching someone steadily losing at a blackjack table who tried to regain their losses by suddenly tentupling their bets.
Yes, I have one … and I'm leaning toward going Bynum, then Chandler, then Garnett. Quick question: Would YOU have wanted Howard as a teammate this season?
Last Thursday's Magic game demonstrated why Chuck and Kenny are so crucial: After Howard rolled over on national TV, we needed them to properly hammer him, defend the integrity of their sport and also express the right amount of (genuine) disappointment in Howard, both as a player and a person. Which is exactly what happened.
One last time.
Don't sleep on Durant here.