WITH THE BEST players in the league gathering this weekend in Phoenix for the NBA All-Star Game, we mark the halfway point in the 1994-95 regular season for the only pro league never to have a work stoppage. This will forever make the NBA the best league in America.
Actually, we're a few games past the midway point now, and the teams are in their stretch runs for the playoffs, which will start in late April and be done sometime in mid-June. This, of course, is better than the sissy-boys who play hockey, who started their season in January because they were whining about money, and therefore won't finish up until around the Fourth of July--which is usually the midpoint of the baseball season, though we're not sure if those non-athletes will be parading around on the grass by then or not, because they want more money.
Anyway, thus far the NBA has had a few surprises, a few disappointments and a couple storm clouds gathering on the horizon. A look at the NBA at mid-season:
BEST TEAMS: Preseason favorites Phoenix and Orlando are right on schedule. At press time, the two teams were tied for the best record in the league and are demolishing the competition. Orlando didn't lose its first home game until the fourth month of the season, and Phoenix has been rolling along with an All-Star lineup that features eight players averaging double figures.
Orlando appears to be the clear favorite in the East. Only last year's East titlist, New York, looks to be even closer to the Magic. The rest of the East is just sorta there. Charlotte is coming on, and Cleveland and Indiana are hanging around, but the power in the NBA is definitely in the West.
Right behind Phoenix (as in, only one game back in the overall standings) is the Utah Jazz. Not the most talented group in the league, but a team, playing with unselfishness, desire and a sense of purpose. Utah is having a great season and could give Phoenix trouble.
Last year's NBA champion Houston has only the sixth-best record in the West, but is dangerous--as is Seattle, which appears to have removed point guard Gary Payton's head from his butt.
WORST TEAMS: The Los Angeles Clippers are so bad, if they were a racehorse, you'd have to shoot 'em and then break all four legs, not to justify the mercy killing but to make sure it didn't try to get up and run again.
They suck so badly they're not even fun to pick on. Their record at press time is 737. Also stinking up the league on a nightly basis is Washington, led by the captain of the NBA All-Crybaby team, Chris Webber.
SURPRISE TEAMS: Back in my formative years, the L.A. Lakers were led by guard Jerry West and forward Elgin Baylor. The latter is now the general manager of the hapless L.A. Clippers, while West has a similar post with the cross-town Lakers. Both were perennial All-Stars as players, but their paths have diverged since then.
West presided over the Laker teams of the '80s, which won five championships. When team leader Magic Johnson had to retire because of HIV, the Lakers spun downward. They barely made the playoffs that first year, then missed them altogether last year.
But now, all of a sudden, the Lakers are back with a whole new lineup and a dazzling record. L.A. is in a solid third place behind Phoenix and Seattle and is playing well at home and on the road. Jerry West is an absolute miracle worker.
Maybe an even bigger surprise is Sacramento. The long-suffering Kings, the only major-league team ever to have been based in (ahem) Omaha, is kickin' butt. They're in fourth place behind the Lakers, but barring a complete second-half collapse, the Kings should make the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. Good for them.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: This should be a wide-open race this year. Shaquille O'Neal will probably get some votes, but he's not even the most valuable on his own team; Anfernee Hardaway is.
Last year's winner, Hakeem Olajuwon, is keeping the so-so Rockets in contention all by himself, and his rival, David Robinson of San Antonio, is also a strong contender.
Charles Barkley would be a good choice, even though his production is off in several areas. His will and desire has spread to the rest of the Suns team and has helped keep all egos in check as all 12 guys work as a team for the common goal of an NBA championship.
Still, if I were voting, I'd try to mount a campaign for the tandem of Karl Malone and John Stockton to be co-MVPs. The difference in talent levels among NBA teams is razor thin, so winning becomes a matter of desire, hustle and teamwork. You could put Malone and Stockton with any other team in the league and they would lead that team, by sheer example, to a spot among the league's elite.
PREDICTIONS: If they all stay healthy, the Suns will get Charles his NBA title. The Suns will win the West, have the home-court advantage and beat New York (not Orlando!) in the finals.
As for MVP, hey, your guess is as good as mine. But my guess is John Stockton. Or Karl Malone. Or John Stockton and Karl Malone. Hey, the campaign has begun. Now all I have to do is get a vote.
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