You’re right, Coach: This is where the previews get cloudy. For instance, I’m looking at your 10 to 5, and I can’t help but do a process of elimination. I don’t know the order of your top 5, but I know you’ve got 3 well-duh’s and 2 maybe-maybe-not’s. And it’s the last 2 that I’m going to focus on.
You know that I’m a diehard, lifelong Shaquille O’Neal fan. Even though the Shaq Attack has left the sunny tip for more northern pastures, I can’t help but feel some residual affection for Dwyane Wade and the Heat. Wade is the Brett Favre of the NBA. He lives to play the game. He plays because he loves it, and it shows. He spends more time on his ass than his feet because, if you think you’re still on the playground, that’s how you play the game. Like your momma might be calling you for supper any minute now, and you’re gonna claw your way to as many points as you can before you hear her voice. We always call NBA players “overpaid babies,” but Dwyane Wade is the only one that makes you want to be a boy again. So I’m happy the Heat are in your top 5, but you and I both know that’s no sure thing.
The teams you have at 6, 7, and 9 — Wizards, Bulls, Raptors — can all give Wade a run for his money. Arenas can lead a team almost as well as Wade. He can’t take over clutch games the same way, but back when he was healthy, he led the Wizards to more wins than I thought possible. I’m excited to see what Saunders will do with him, and if he can build a good supporting cast. Saunders doesn’t specialize in building teams around one person, but he knows how to take a bunch of talented, undisciplined young players and turn them into a team.
Del Negro has the same challenge, but he has a head start, which is why I’m wondering why you put the Wizards ahead of the Bulls. I’m bumping the Bulls up to the Top 5. I’ll keep the Heat there too, but I’m kicking out the Hawks. I’ve got to say, I can’t wait to hear your justification for putting them ahead of the Wizards, Bulls, and Raptors. I’ve been waiting for the Bulls to join the top ranks for a few years now, and I think they’re finally ready. It’ll be important to see who steps up for their perimeter shooting, but as a cutting-and-dishing, banging-in-the-paint, midrange-shot-of-beauty team, they’re so exciting that I just have to move them out of the second 5.
I spent all of last season in utter confusion about the Sixers. As you say, basketball IQ is not their strong suit, nor is coaching or team chemistry or defense. That should be the end of the story. Even if you can rebound and shoot — where they are streaky but surprisingly good when it counts — you’ve got a bunch of players, not a team. That shouldn’t qualify you for the playoffs. It should get you broken up and sold into pieces. They don’t need Elton Brand. They need Gordon Gecko.
That said, there is one scenario that can save them: If they can rally around a one-two punch of Brand-Iguodala. Against my better judgment, I’m going to say they pull it off, if only because Brand learned some mad leadership skills from my boy Coach K.
But it won’t be enough. Oh, they’ll top the Pistons — just barely. I never liked the Pistons, but I’m always sad to see a good team fade away. The chemistry and energy just aren’t what they used to be. But they won’t beat my surprise pick — lest you forget from last time — the Charlotte Bobcats.
So here’s my bottom 10 in ascending order: Nets, Knicks, Bucks, Pacers, Pistons, Sixers, Hawks, Bobcats, Raptors, Wizards.
I put teams 11 through 7 in italics because they are almost interchangeable. I can’t wait to see them battle it out for the last couple playoff spots. But the top 5 is where the money is made. Lay out your cards, Coach. And be careful: You know who I have at #1…
Giving the Hawks no love,