Lakers Top List of NBA Superpowers
By: Bruce Jenkins, San Francisco Chronicle
So it comes to pass that Ron Artest was something of a minimalist dresser around Houston last season. According to the NBA underground, it was common to see him wearing only his underwear in public places, including the Rockets' team bus, where he once grabbed an available seat next to team owner Leslie Alexander after boarding in a full-on sprint.
He's a funny guy, that Artest - to say nothing of weird and disturbing - but this will be a madcap early season for the NBA superpowers. Shaquille O'Neal, the best-humored big man in league history, will be joining LeBron James and his Cleveland teammates in their elaborate pregame theatrics. If you caught highlights of the Lakers' exhibition against Denver the other night, you saw the L.A. reserves in a ring-around-the-rosie routine, then executing precise leg-crossing maneuvers on the bench. You weren't sure if it was an NBA team or the Joey Buttafucco Dancers.
Not everyone is amused, naturally. You'll never wipe the scowl off the face of Boston's Kevin Garnett, and Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy is preparing his vocal chords for another season of full-throated shouting - some of which his players might even acknowledge. Through it all, the quiet-but-deadly serious mission of the San Antonio Spurs will be well worth watching. Here's a report card on the Big Five's offseason moves:
Lakers: Artest will be a fabulous acquisition until he isn't. It's quite clear that he and Kobe Bryant can shut down any opposing backcourt if they set their defensive minds to the occasion, and that Artest can take on a LeBron-size assignment when necessary. The playoffs are all about defense and matchups which is why the Warriors drift so far from relevance, and with Kobe, Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, the Lakers give you five crushing matchups every night.
Only two things can derail this express train: an out-of-sorts Artest, irritated that he isn't getting enough shots, or another injury to Bynum he's already bothered by a strained rotator cuff. Odom decided to marry reality-TV actress Khloe Kardashian after about a five-minute courtship early line among the celebrity set: "I'll give 'em six months", but he has learned to channel his full attention to the court. It will be a full-on circus the entire season, absolute must-see theater, with a fresh evaluation to come at playoff time.
Spurs: The wisdom of coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs' front office has never been more evident. They brought in Richard Jefferson for defense, mid-range shooting and fast-break forays with Tony Parker. They acquired Antonio McDyess, still an effective rebounder, to take some pressure off Tim Duncan. And they were the only team willing to take a risk on DeJuan Blair, making the 6-foot-6 Pitt forward the 37th overall pick.
Blair's surgically repaired knees are the issue, and Popovich's task is to keep him fresh throughout the season and available for the playoffs. "He's a monster on the boards," Popovich said. "It's tough when you're an undersized forward in this league. Offensively, it's a comeuppance. Or maybe he'll say, 'Pop, you're full of it,' and he's Charles Barkley."
Cavaliers: Every year, we hear about these miraculous additions - Joe Smith, Wally Szczerbiak, Ben Wallace, Mo Williams - who are supposed to put Cleveland over the top and make LeBron a happy man. Now aside from Shaq it's Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker. When are the Cavs going to get the message? It's not enough. You don't win a title without at least two proven, cold-hearted, clutch-shooting stars.
Shaq will make a huge difference in marquee value and rebounding, but there remains the distinct possibility that he'll clog the lane when LeBron needs room to operate, that the Cavs can't go to him in the last five minutes because he'll be fouled and sent to the free-throw line, and that chemistry could be an issue by April or May. It's hardly a coincidence that Penny Hardaway, Kobe, Dwyane Wade and Steve Nash all expressed relief when Shaq left their teams.
Magic: The offseason brought in a new go-to offensive guy Vince Carter, an inside presence Brandon Bass and some depth Matt Barnes, Jason Williams and former Cal forward Ryan Anderson. Jameer Nelson, sorely missed when he was lost to shoulder surgery last season, returns to run the show.
There's no reason why Carter can't replace the departed Hedo Turkoglu in the offensive scheme, but the Magic will be stopped cold when it really matters until Dwight Howard develops a low-post game and improves his free-throw shooting. The preseason brought little evidence of that. So it's lots of smiles and convincing wins and awestruck fans marveling at Howard's physique, but very bad news at the finish.
Celtics: This team was decidedly weakened last season when the front-line players got in foul trouble and Stephon Marbury had to replace Rajon Rondo. Now Garnett is healthy, tough-minded Marquis Daniels is the backup point guard, and Rasheed Wallace comes off the bench. Wallace is an emotional load, but Garnett, Paul Pierce and the rest of the Celtics were passionate about acquiring him, refusing to take no for an answer. Already a trash-talking bunch, widely despised around the league, the Celtics will be nastier than ever.
Garnett, Pierce and the aging Ray Allen probably realize this is their last realistic shot at a title together. It says here they make the Finals against the Lakers. Let's see who's healthy before making that call.
Walk this way At long last, the NBA officially has revised its rule on traveling: Two steps are allowed. It sounds dramatic, but it won't make a bit of difference as the season unfolds.Why? Because traveling is traveling. You know it when you see it. Three steps are a joke in any setting, even the tap-dancers' league. There might be an issue with LeBron James' so-called Crab Dribble - which is actually a jump-stop, catching the ball on the fly and taking two steps before putting the ball on the court - but we'll be watching basically the same two-step theater the league silently has approved for so many years.What really needs to stop: Players carrying the ball over, or "palming," on every dribble. The NBA gave players an inch Allen Iverson and Tim Hardaway stepped right to the front, and they took a mile. Let's have authentic basketball, not blatant cheating.