The NCAA tournament is in full swing, with a flurry of upsets and drama during the first weekend. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are devoid of Big Dance activity.
Bettors with the Hoops Jones have to turn their attention to the NBA or the NIT. Luckily, the professionals are having themselves quite a season. A number of compelling story lines to follow include a six-team race for the best record in the West, while the Sixers continue at a blistering pace in the East.
The perception around the league was that the Lakers and Blazers were the two teams to beat. But the top two Midwest powers the Spurs and the Jazz stand atop the standings, if just barely.
The Spurs should be a shock to no one. They won the NBA title in 1999, and have Tim Duncan and David Robinson. But the addition of Derek Anderson, along with one of the deepest benches in the league, and the emergence of Antonio Daniels, make the Spurs even more formidable this year than in their championship season.
The Jazz still have Stockton to Malone, but adding Donyell Marshall gave them a tall, athletic presence in the frontcourt to go with Malone that theyve never had before. John Starks isnt the shooter Jeff Hornacek was at shooting guard, but hes a much better defender and can still get to the basket offensively.
The Lakers are certainly still dangerous, but personality conflicts have distracted the team. At this writing, theyd already lost 21 games, compared to just 15 last season. The Lakers could finish anywhere from first to sixth in the West, but they have two of the top five players in the game in Shaq and Kobe and, of course, Phil "Zen Master" Jackson. They could still turn it around and win their second in a row.
The Blazers are a mess. Theyve lost five in a row at this writing. Mike Dunleavy might not be around much longer if the slide continues. The Blazers are the antithesis of the Spurs. San Antonio has a deep roster with a number of quality role players. The Blazers have a deep roster of players who all feel they deserve big minutes. Many of them do.
But theres only so much time to go around, and the Blazers have at least 10 players who warrant big minutes. Adding Strickland just made the mix worse. Not necessarily because Stricklands a bad guy (his good and bad points are very debatable) but because the team already had two good point guards, Damon Stoudamire and Greg Anthony, in addition to Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith and Bonzi Wells, to split time with in the back court.
Up front theres just as much confusion. They added Detlef Schrempf a couple weeks ago. They already have Arvydas Sabonis, Rasheed Wallace, Dale Davis and Shawn Kemp. A team with that much talent should never be counted out, but its very hard to foster a team personality when roles are constantly changing.
The Kings sit atop the Pacific Division at this writing. Theyve had good success against the Blazers this season, and have played the Lakers tough the last couple of seasons. They have Chris Webber back and playing well. Theyve also found a legitimate second star in small forward Peja Stojakovic. Hes one of the best shooters in the league, big enough to get off his shot almost any time. Hes a heady defender, and could begin a long streak of All-Star appearances next season.
The Mavericks also have a foreign forward who can score in Dirk Nowitzki. Hes a seven-footer with a lethal perimeter game. Hes the ultimate complement to Michael Finley. Adding Juwan Howard a few weeks ago helped, as the Mavs were on a five-game winning streak heading into the weekend.
In the East, the Sixers continue to be the dominant team. Theyre the only team in the league that has already clinched a playoff birth. Adding Dikembe Mutumbo has been nothing but helpful. Allen Iverson is the key, but the Sixers have plenty of quality depth around him. Besides Mutumbo, there arent any other stars, but Aaron McKie, Eric Snow, Tyrone Hill and George Lynch are all solid veterans who know their roles.
The Sixers top two rivals in the Atlantic Division are the Knicks and the Heat. While neither is a perfect team, both are dangerous and capable of beating the Sixers. The Knicks are still probably the most talented team in the East, with Marcus Camby, Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell and Glen Rice, along with a couple of hard-working big men, and Mark Jackson and Charlie Ward manning the point.
Theyre the leagues best defensive team, but they go into long scoring slumps. They dont have a classic post-up scorer, which will make it very hard for them to get through the entire playoffs without losing a series.
The Heat are even more imperfect. The injury to Eddie Jones wrist a few weeks ago could really hurt them. In the Central, the Bucks are clearly the best team. They have an outstanding triumvirate of scorers, but lack the defensive intensity and strength down low to be considered a true championship contender.