I have a confession to make: I'm not a fan of the Houston Rockets. Yes, I was born and raised in H-Town and, yes, after a thirteen year exile, Houston is my home once again. But the truth is, I haven't been a Rockets' fanatic for about a decade. After growing up living and dying with the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Otis Thorpe, Mario Elie, Kenny Smith, Lewis Lloyd, Mitchell Wiggins and all the rest, I'm now an NBA orphan. Hey, it happens. I'm not saying I'm happy about it, because I'm not. Some of my favorite moments as a sports fan occurred while watching the Rockets' storybook run to consecutive titles in '94 and (especially) '95.
So why am I telling you this? Because it's important for me to set the record straight in this, my first NBA column. If I write something positive about the Rockets, I don't want it to come off as the ramblings of some hometown hack. Just know that when it comes to basketball (and baseball, for that matter), I'm about as unbiased an observer as you're likely to find.
So now that that's out of the way, let's emerge from our NFL-induced coma and quickly catch-up on the NBA season. If you haven't been paying attention, there are really only two things you need to know:
1. Dallas and Phoenix are far and away the class of the league. The distance between them and the rest of the pack is about the same as Rex Grossman's proximity to being a competent quarterback (sorry, I'm having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that the NFL season is actually over).
2. Allen Iverson finally forced his way out of Philly and now stars in the NBA's most potentially explosive experiment since David Stern banished black players from the league. Oh wait, that hasn't happened yet. But mark my words, it's coming. The Commish is on a mission.
That's it. That's really all you've missed. So since we just passed the halfway point of the season, this seems like the perfect time to rank the TRUE contenders to the crown. I'm not talking about teams that have a shot at making the Finals. I'm only discussing the teams that have a legitimate chance to win it all. Let's begin with the no-brainers.
1. Dallas Mavericks (39-9)
Why do the Mavs get the top spot over Phoenix? First of all, I'm still having a difficult time coming to grips with the fact that they're NOT the defending champions. And while some see their choke job against Miami as a negative, I think it might actually play in their favor come June. The fact is, they're hungry and there's just no way Avery Johnson is going to allow that stumble to permanently impede his club from achieving its goal.
Also, I love the Mavs' depth and versatility (in stark contrast to the Suns). This is a team that can run, but it's just as comfortable in the half-court. And Dallas plays defense. I'm sorry, I know Phoenix is an improved defensive team, but you still can't convince me they're dramatically improved from their matador days of recent years gone by.
2. Phoenix Suns (39-10)
Now that I've sent a few salvos in the direction of Phoenix, it's time for confession number two: I really want the Suns to win it all. I mean, how can you not love this team? They're just so much fun to watch. It's like seeing the '99 Rams for the first time. They just play a style of ball that's so unique, so refreshing and so pleasing to eyes. Can they win it all? Absolutely. Amare Stoudemire seems to get more explosive by the day and Leandro Barbosa would probably be an All-Star is he were on another team. However, for the reasons stated above, I give the slightest of edges to Dallas. But don't you think it'd be great for the league to have a run-and-gun team like Phoenix take home the title?
3. San Antonio Spurs (32-16)
I know I'm going by the book so far, but just bear with me. Fact is, I picked the Spurs to take home the O'Brien trophy before the year began. Obviously, I'm not feeling too great about that prediction right now. But... this team is still capable of getting it together in time to make a serious run at another championship. I mean, look at what the Colts just accomplished. Sometimes dull superstar player, great coach and solid supporting cast combine to produce a disappointing regular season that seemed to indicate their window might be closing and then, voila! They found the magic formula just in time. Do I think it's going to happen in San Antonio? No. In a league that continues to shift toward emphasizing speed, quickness and creativity, the Spurs appear to be a dinosaur whose time has passed. But by no means should they be counted out.
4. Houston Rockets (31-17)
See? This is why I had to preface this post. Because I know some of you would immediately label me about as credible as our favorite astronaut. But here's the thing: This team is for real. Before the season began, I went on the record and said the Rockets would finish the season as a top 6 team (in the NBA, not just the Western Conference). Funny thing is, I figured that would be because Yao and T-Mac would finally play a whole season together. Well, it obviously hasn't worked out that way. Yao has already missed 21 games and doesn't figure to return until late March. McGrady has been on the shelf 8 times and role players like Kirk Snynder, Bonzi Wells and Chuck Hayes have battled injuries, too.
Yet the Rockets are not merely treading water, they are surging. They lead the league in defensive efficiency. They're getting implausible contributions from AARP members, Juwan Howard and Dikembe Mutombo. T-Mac has been playing like it's 2004 ever since his visit to the Waco witch doctor, and Shane Battier is, quite simply, the ultimate glue guy. Throw in coach of the year candidate, Smeagol Van Gundy, and you've got a team on the cusp of greatness.
Of course, all of this will be rendered null and void if Tracy and Yao can't stay upright. And, yes, there's that small matter of McGrady having never advanced past the first round of the playoffs. But the Rockets have Space City ready for lift-off. Let's just hope they don't end up in diapers, armed with nothing but a BB gun and pepper spray.
5. Miami Heat (23-25)
I know, I know. How on earth can I put them in the five slot, much less label them a TRUE title contender? For the love of God, they're barely clinging to the 8th and final playoff spot in the Bog of Eternal Stench better known as the Eastern Conference! What can I say, I just have this much respect for Dwyane Wade. Heck, I'd consider voting him MVP of the league if the season ended today. I know that's heresy considering the body of work produced by Nash, Kobe and Dirk, but Wade has singlehandedly prevented the Heat from entering Oden-Durant territory. I think when everything is said and done, Miami is going to get a chance to defend its title. And after seeing what Wade accomplished in the Finals last year, would you really want to bet against him in a seven game series this June? Didn't think so.
And that, my friends, is it. Those are the only five teams I can see winning it all. I was tempted to throw Detroit in the mix at number six, but I just can't take the Pistons seriously. Yes, their starting five is as good as anyone's, but that was the case last year, too. I just don't think this year's club is better, I don't think they trust (or respect) Flip Saunders and I don't think Chris Webber will be a true difference-maker when the Pistons finally face elite postseason competition (be it in the Eastern Conference or NBA Finals). Yes, he's a great passer who can still contribute offensively, but he can't do anything on defense (what with his one leg and all) and he's not exactly known for stepping up in crunch time.
Look at it this way: A few weeks ago, I said I expected the Bears to go to the Super Bowl (this was at the NFL's final four stage), but that they had no chance to actually win it all (on account of Rex being prominently involved). Well, it's the same deal here with Detroit. They're the favorites to represent the Least, so any team that appears in the Finals has to have a shot, right? Not in my world, they don't. Sorry, Detroit. It's just not going to happen. By the way, my goal is to have every sports fan in the Great Lakes area hating me by the year's end. Trust me, I'm off to a great start.
Other teams to which I have to apologize: the Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets and Bulls. Los Angeles is the most intriguing of the group because of the Kobe factor, but I think they're still a year away. Are they capable of pulling off an upset or two come playoff time? Absolutely. But Kobe is still learning how to rely on his teammates and Andrew Bynum is not quite ready for primetime. I have to admit, though, Phil Jackson and Co. have put this thing together much quicker than anyone expected.
As for Utah, the record is nice and I like what they're building. Jerry Sloan definitely deserves COY consideration. But do you really think they could take out any of the top 4 in a playoff series? Me neither.
Chicago: Too young, even if they trade for Pau Gasol. And make no mistake about it, as talented as this team is, they desperately need an inside presence on the offensive end before they can become serious title contenders.
And finally, Denver. Can't wait to see this team scare the bejeezus out of somebody in the first round. But chemistry counts in this league and there's just no way the Nuggets will have enough of it by the time the playoffs roll around. Really too bad they don't play in the East. Of course, pretty much every Western Conference team outside of Phoenix and Dallas is muttering that same sentiment to themselves right now.
As for the rest of the league, sit back and enjoy watching what should be the greatest Western Conference playoffs of all time. And if your team won't be making a postseason appearance, do yourself a favor and catch every game featuring Kevin Durant. Yes, he's that special.