Great divide

Mar 1, 2005 8:53 AM

Three NBA division races seem all but decided as Miami leads Washington by 9½ games in the Southeast, Seattle leads Minnesota by 11½ in the Northwest and Phoenix is up seven over Sacramento in the Pacific.

Dallas has a pretty secure hold on a playoff berth in the West, trailing the Spurs by just 4½ in the Southwest. Houston is currently seeded sixth with Memphis and the Los Angeles Lakers holding the final two playoff berths. San Antonio and Phoenix begin the week with essentially the league’s best record at 29 games above .500.

Only eight teams have winning records in the West and each of them currently would make the Playoffs. The team seeded ninth, Minnesota, begins the week one game below .500 with Denver two games below break even and currently sitting tenth.

Interesting (and surprisingly to many) all eight teams in the East that would currently make the playoffs have winning records. Two of these teams, Indiana and Orlando, are just one game above .500. This is in sharp contrast to last season when it looked for a while as though several teams would make the playoffs with losing records.

Ultimately two teams with sub .500 marks and two more at exactly .500 did make postseason play, so it is clear that the gap between the conferences has narrowed. In fact, the overall performances in the East have improved this season.

There were as many NBA trades completed within the final 24 hours as there have been in years. The biggest may have been the deal that send Chris Webber from Sacramento to Philadelphia.

To the surprise of many, the Kings responded by winning a pair of road games. Ironically the first was just two days later at Philadelphia and was followed a day later with a win at Washington. In both cases the Kings were clear underdogs and that made sense from the perspective of the general public.

The sharp handicappers did realize that Sacramento made that trade to, in their minds, better their chances for a run at the title. While the public at large viewed the loss of Webber as a signal of declining fortunes for the Sacramento franchise, in many ways team spirit was raised amongst the remaining Kings. The winning results may have also reflected that the teams in the West are still more battle tested than those in the East.

The acquisition of Webber makes Philly a contender in the East. It will bear watching over the next few weeks how Webber meshes with Allen Iverson and whether they will form the expected one-two punch management had in mind when consummating the trade.

As we go through life, many lessons learned are either discarded or ignored, while others shape us. We don’t often take the time to reflect upon some of the most important lessons, but there are such moments when reflection is truly appropriate if not necessary.

Within hours of penning last week’s column my father passed away, just several months shy of birthday number 87. Quite naturally amid the grief were many moments of reflection on his life and the lessons he passed down to both myself and my sister.

While those lessons were many, one which is truly applicable to the endeavor of handicapping is the ability to and importance of thinking clearly and not deciding impulsively. In handicapping sports, the ability to consider both sides of a wager is perhaps the most important discipline to master.

I have often commented to others that the first step to becoming a good handicapper and successful bettor is to recognize that there are always valid reasons why both teams in a game can win against the point spread. One exercise I suggest to aspiring handicappers and bettors is to simply take a sheet of paper and create two columns listing the reasons why each team might cover the point spread.

If after several minutes of thinking about the chances of both teams you have a sheet of paper with one blank column, the best advice is to pass that game. Unknowingly or subconsciously you are biased towards one of the two sides if you cannot come up with even a single reason for playing one side.

It is a lesson that is simple and easy to understand but can take a long time to master. The successful handicapper is able to make two such lists and then, based on observations and experience, determine which set of reasons is most likely to apply to the given contest. Thanks, Dad, for that lesson relating to thinking, and for so many others as well.

Here’s a look at three games to be played this weekend.

Bulls at Spurs (Fri): San Antonio won the earlier meeting, 91-75, but that occurred in the first week of December before Chicago began its brilliant play. The Bulls have leaped into the sixth seed in the East with a realistic shot of finishing as high as fourth. Chicago began the week five games above .500 after starting the season 0-9.

The Spurs are still the better team, but both have played outstanding defense all season. Chicago will not mind a deliberate style since that pace gives the Bulls the best chance of keeping things close into the fourth quarter. UNDER.

Nuggets at Clippers (Sat): Both teams have nice balance and multiple scoring options. The Clippers won the lone earlier meeting by four points at Denver in early January. Denver’s Carmelo Anthony has shown signs lately of emerging from his sophomore slump, which should benefit both Andre Miller and Kenyon Martin.

The Clippers have a talented trio in Corey Maggette, Elton Brand and Bobby Simmons. Both teams have shown improvement over the past couple of months. This will be an entertaining and fast paced game. OVER.

T’wolves at Celtics (Sun): The Celtics have strengthened their position in the East by re-acquiring Antoine Walker from Atlanta at the trade deadline. Reunited with Paul Pierce the Celtics now present problems for many Eastern foes. Minnesota has been an underachieving team all season

The Wolves have played eight straight "unders." Kevin Garnett is again putting up MVP-like numbers but both Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell remain inconsistent. The Celts should go on a mild winning streak over the next few weeks. BOSTON.

Last week: 0-3

Season: 26-23 (53.1%)