Our buddy Craig over at The Association quite gleefully pointed out that the Phoenix Suns -- who are 33-8, have won 30 of their last 32 games (with the two losses coming in overtime on a 54-point explosion by Gilbert Arenas and at the buzzer on a killer Dirk Nowitzki jump shot), and have had winning streaks of 15 and 14 (and counting) games -- are 0-4 against the Western Contenders. In this case, "Western Contenders" refers to the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, and Los Angeles Lakers. I have a few problems with this definition:
Problem 1: The term "Western contenders" is, by its very nature, absurd since the Eastern Conference doesn't have any championship contenders this season. Yes, yes, I know...a team from the East is going to make it to the NBA Finals by default. But let's be honest: that team has as good a chance of winning the title as I do of travelling back in time and wrestling away Britney Spears' virginity from noted pop star and weenie-boy, Justin Timberlake. It just isn't going to happen. So let's stop pretending that there are Eastern and Western Conference contenders. There are contenders, period, and those teams are all in the West.
Problem 2: Craig lists the Lakers among the contenders. He wisely clarifies that pronouncement by stating "I know the Lakers are more like a distant 4th best team in the West." I feel the need to refute this proclamation on a couple different levels. For instance, shouldn't the Jazz be considererd the 4th best team in the Western Conference? After all, they have a better record than the Lakers, and they've notched wins against all the West's best teams (Mavs, Suns, Spurs, and Lakers). The Jazz also have a winning road record (13-10), whereas the Lakers are sub-.500 away from home (8-11). Go back and find an NBA champion who won less than half their road games (here's a hint: there isn't one). It should also be noted that the Jazz have played more games on the road than at home, whereas the Lakers have played more games at home than on the road. So if the Jazz have a better record, have wins against the other "contenders" (including the Lakers), are a better road team, and have played more road games than the Lakers...shouldn't they rightly be considered a better team?
Craig doesn't think so. He said, "I'm not counting Utah as a contending team in the West. Since the 12-1 start they are 16-13 and can't keep guys from dropping 50-spots on them...they are a fraud!" Those are harsh words, and not entirely justified. Let's apply this reasoning to the Lakers. They started out 14-6 and have gone 13-9 since. Statistically speaking, there isn't much of a difference between 16-13 and 13-9. And don't forget that the Lakers got to play 15 of their first 20 games at home, which played a huge part in their quick start. As for guys dropping 50-spots on the Jazz, I seem to remember Gilbert Arenas dropping a 60-spot on the Lakers...with one of the league's "best defenders" Kobe Bryant guarding him (and then making pouty comments to the press afterward).
Anyway, yes, the Jazz have given up four 50-point performances this season. But here are a few factoids on those games: 1. they all happened when the Jazz were the road team, 2. the first two (from Michael Redd and Kobe Bryant) came on the second night of back-to-back games (and teams tend to surrender more points on "second-night games"), 3. the third one (from Ray Allen) came in overtime (and he didn't eclipse 50 until the extra session), and 4. the fourth one (from Gilbert Arenas) didn't happen until Arenas hit a buzzer-beater to win the game (and thereby reach 51). So in those four games, the Jazz went 1-3, all on the road, with one loss in overtime and another on a buzzer-beater. Not to mention the fact that that the scoring explosions all came from shooting guards, who since last season have been put under some kind of federal protection (and if you're wondering, those players combined for over 60 free throws in those four games). Frankly, considering these circumstances, and the fact that these guys were being guarded by Derek Fisher's corpse, the Jazz did a good job holding the dudes under 70.
All defense of the Jazz aside, I don't think Utah can contend for a title. They're a well-coached team with a lot of sturdy, above-average role-players, but they don't have the star power to be a serious contender. The Lakers can't, either. By the numbers, they're ranked 5th in the West, and depending on who you ask, they're probably the 4th or 5th (or possibly 6th if Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady get healthy) best team. They're well-coached, have a group of hard-working players, and have the league's best scorer. They're going to give someone a good tussle in the first round of the playoffs. Heck, if they get matched up against the Jazz, they might even make it to round two. But that's where the dream will end. The Lakers don't have the talent up front (Kwame Brown and Andrew Bynum? Seriously?) or the floor leadership (Smush Parker? Uh, no.) to contend for the title this year. They just don't. It would take serious injuries to Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, and Tim Duncan for me to raise my estimation of the Lakers, and I can't see all three of those guys going down.
As for the Suns: I agree with Craig that the Suns shouldn't be put into any all-time great lists just yet, and honestly, I haven't seen as much of that as you'd expect...especially from an over-eager press corps that is ever-ready to crown a team showing even the faintest glimmer of greatness (and the Suns are showing much more than a glimmer right now). I believe there are two reasons for this. First, I'd like to think that what happened with the Pistons last year taught the prognosticators a few lessons. Second, the Suns are neck-and-neck with the Mavericks right now, and there's little to choose between the two teams. With both of them on a roll, hyperbole becomes even more ridiculous than usual.
But as for the 0-4 record against the "contenders," well, I take that with a grain of salt. First off, they still have seven games left against those teams -- four of which come in the last two weeks of the regular season -- so there will be several opportunities left to make a statement. And secondly, they could go 0-11 against those teams and it wouldn't matter. It's all about the playoffs. The 1983-84 Boston Celtics were swept in the regular season by both the Philidelphia 76ers and the Lakers, the other two "contenders" for the '84 crown. It didn't matter. The 76ers were defeated by the Milwaukee Bucks and the Celtics downed the Lakers in seven games to with the championship. Or how about the 1994-95 Houston Rockets? They were 1-5 against the contender Spurs, 2-3 against contending Jazz, and 0-2 against the Eastern contending Orlando Magic. Yet they beat all those teams en route to the 1995 title. If you want a more contemporary example, well, you made a big deal about the Miami Heat's record against contending teams last year, and yet we now live in a world where Gary Payton, Antoine Walker, and Jason Williams can correctly be called...champions. And even though a part of my soul died to admit that, it's true.
The Suns have every component necessary to win a title. They are wonderfully coached, blessed with a truckload of talent (especially with the return of Kurt Thomas and Amare Stoudemire), and have the two-time MVP Steve Nash playing at his absolute best. And yeah, I ditched the quotes you used, because Nash is the real deal. If you can't see that by now, then you're either lying to yourself or you just don't know basketball. Forget the 19.5 points and 11.6 assists; we've seen that before. But he's shooting 54 percent from the field (including 49.8 percent from 3-point range)...as a point guard! (Meanwhile, Lakers fans and the press are ooohing and aahing over how Kobe is shooting a career-high 47 percent from the field...which, frankly, isn't nearly as impressive considering Bryant's comparitive physical gifts.) Nash's assist-to-turnover ratio is 3.2. He rarely ever takes bad shots or throws bad passes...at this point, he's like a basketball machine, and he's playing the game as well as it can be played.
Does this mean the Suns are going to win it all? I have no idea. We're only halfway into the season. Nash could break his ankle tonight, or next week, or a month from now. Of course, so could Dirk, or Tim, or Kobe. Frankly, I'm not going to bother with making predictions until a little closer to playoff time. Right now I'm just going to enjoy watching the games, reading the box scores, and taking my nightly bath in goat's blood while I relentlessly stab my "number 24" voodoo doll and cast evil wicca curses on the Lakers.
Basketbawful's Playoff Guarantee: Craig thinks that the budding Suns/Lakers rivalry and combined with L.A.'s size gives the Lakers a legitimate shot of unseating the Suns in the playoffs. No way. Did the Lakers front court give the Suns problems in the first round of last year's playoffs? Absolutely. But it should be noted that 1. the Lakers still lost, and 2. the Suns now have Thomas and Stoudemire healthy. The Lakers size is no longer an issue. If for some reason these two teams meet in the playoffs, I personally guarantee that the Suns will prevail (barring major injuries to key players). If the Lakers somehow pull off the upset, I will wear a Lakers t-shirt for a week.