THE NBA PLAYOFFS start tonight, and I can't remember an NBA season when there were more legitimate contenders for the title. Fully half of the 16 teams in the playoffs have a decent-to-good shot at making it to the conference finals and beyond.
Last year's playoffs were wide open, but in a different way. There were several good teams last year and maybe even a few very good ones, but the playoffs were more a matter of attrition than the ascendancy of a new power. Last year's champions, the Houston Rockets, will probably be remembered as the weakest champs since the Baltimore and Seattle teams of the late '70s.
This year, there are a handful of great and near-great teams and some others who'll do more than just show up. There are more legitimate contenders in the NBA playoffs than there are for the Republican nomination for the presidency. The only difference is that whoever wins the NBA title won't make me afraid for the future of America.
Let's look at the playoff teams, from the bottom up:
THE STUFF NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO BE CHAFF: At press time, I still didn't know who was going to be the No. 8 seed in the West, but it doesn't matter. Denver isn't going to surprise anybody like they did last year, and if Sacramento sneaks in, they'll be so thrilled, they'll lose the best-of-five series in two games. The No. 7 seed Portland is very weak and should be no trouble for Phoenix or Seattle.
In the East, Boston played well down the stretch to emerge from a pack of contenders for the last slot, but the Celtics are really bad. They and No. 7 Atlanta don't stand a chance of advancing past the first round.
THE CHAFF: The Cleveland Cavaliers were a big story in the NBA this year. They played the entire season without their starting center and lost All-Star guard Mark Price for two months. Still, they managed to hang around the top of the Central Division for several months, but they've faded recently. Their slowdown game might help, but not much.
In the West, the defending champion Houston Rockets fit this category. They've got only the sixth-best record in the Conference and really don't scare anybody. The Rockets really weakened themselves by trading Otis Thorpe for Clyde Drexler. You have to give them some respect because they're still the defending champs. But not for long.
THE STUFF WE SELL TO RUSSIA; SORTA WHEAT: In this category are the Lakers (too young), the New York Knicks (too old), the Indiana Pacers (Coach Larry Brown has already squeezed as much out of them as he can), the Charlotte Hornets (hurt by loss of Scotty Burrell and have to face the Bulls in the first round), Seattle (still have to prove they have at least one heart among the whole underachieving bunch of them), and the Orlando Magic (saddled by the expectations of Shaquille O'Neal, the most overrated player in the entire league).
THE WHEAT: The Chicago Bulls. Jordan hasn't looked great yet, even with his 55-point outburst against New York, but I can't see any team in the East beating them. The Bulls are hurt by their trio of Pillsbury Doughboys (Wennington, Perdue and Longley) at center (what, is there a rule prohibiting white NBA centers from hitting the weight room?), but they still have enough to reach the finals.
THE ULTIMATE WHEAT: And the winner is...Phoenix, Utah or San Antonio. I have no idea. I think Utah can beat San Antonio, but the Spurs can beat the Suns and the Suns can beat the Jazz. All of them can beat anybody from the East.
I just can't see San Antonio making it. They're shaky. I get the feeling that any day now Vinny Del Negro is going to wake up and realize he's Vinny Del Negro, and that will be that.
Utah's tough, but they've got nobody to guard David Robinson. But then the Spurs can't stop Karl Malone. And the Suns staggered after they lost Danny Manning, but they appear to have righted themselves.
Last year I predicted the winner of the second-round matchup of Phoenix and Houston would win it all, and I was right. This year, I again think whoever emerges from Phoenix's second-round matchup will win it all. The Suns will be seeded either second or fourth, so they will play either San Antonio or Utah in the second round. If Charles can get them through that, without the home-court advantage, they should go all the way.
Let the games begin.
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