back to the Black Table

A few things are indisputable heading into yet another basketball season. Each year, it starts with nothing but promise and ends with a legion of fans wondering how it's possible that we're shading towards July and still playing professional basketball.

Secondly, it's that all the best teams are in the West and all the best storylines are in the East. C'mon, let's think about this for a minute. Will the Portland Trail Blazers all end up in jail this year after a brawl with Don Zimmer? Boring. Will Chris Webber come out of hiding long enough to avoid injuring his knee again? Snooze.

The East, meanwhile, has New Jersey's Kenyon Martin sniping at everyone on the New Jersey Turnpike, the Knicks are seriously considering turning MSG into an antiquities museum, and the Wizards are happy to have gotten rid of only the greatest player in the NBA, like, ever. And we haven't even touched Lebron-mania yet -- and he plays in a division where a Turkish guy and a couple of Balkan dudes are gonna lead the Pistons to the playoffs. That's just awesome.

Introductions will be kept brief, but looking division by division, here's how it's likely to shake out this year -- teams are in order of predicted finish and, uh, predicted records, which is only really for the sake of being funny. How the playoffs turn out is such a crapshoot, but whatever, I did that at the end.





New Jersey Nets: It was all going so nicely. Two title appearances, Jason Kidd re-ups with the team, and brings Alonzo Mourning with him. Then Kenyon Martin goes berserk in yet another display of a million-dollar athlete claiming he doesn't get "respect." In addition, he thinks it's a major loss to see Deke Mutombo


shipped across the Hudson. This bodes not well, were it not for the fact that they're a fast, strong team of improving leapers and even Alonzo Mourning won't suck entirely either, being a few years younger and a lot more rested than Mutombo. So they'll finish in first, and the conference final still looks likely. Not bad for a squad whose management is toying with moving them to Long Island. 55-27


  Orlando Magic: Tracy McGrady, with that lazy eye of his, has a long career someday playing villains in second-rate action movies, perhaps taking over for that dude with the Fu Manchu mustache who served mostly as an excuse to throw a bone to an Asian actor, only to  

watch him get snuffed a few seconds later. But I digress. McGrady was an absolute assassin most of the year last year, going for 40 points 11 times -- and now he's got underrated Juwan Howard (18 ppg, 7.5 rpg career averages) ready to score some buckets underneath, along with 6-foot-10 second-year man Drew Gooden. They really could use a bruiser underneath, but in today's NBA, a few capable guys is more than enough. 53-29



Boston Celtics: Every year, the media latches onto one aging veteran as this year's "comeback" player, with lovingly rendered details of their workout regiment, newly sculpted biceps, and all-sawdust-and-miso-soup, all-the-time diet. For several years, it was Larry "Grammama" Johnson, embalmed by the New


York Knicks. This year's version is Vin Baker, who has "lost 20 pounds" and "is in the best shape of his career," according to all those in the know. Whatever. When the Celts lose Baker three weeks into the season, and once again have to rely on Paul Pierce with three guys draped all over him, we'll know things haven't changed. This act is getting old. At least, however, they've gotten rid of indiscriminate carpet bomber Antoine Walker, although they didn't get much back. 47-35



Philadelphia 76ers: I'm in a minority here, but does it really matter that Allen Iverson "plays through pain" and all that stuff? Doesn't he make millions of bucks? My heroic side is supposed to be touched because of this plucky six-foot-one weirdo going up against the big guys, like he's speaking for all us small people? I watch


the NBA to see guys like Iverson get slammed to the floor. They say the meek shall inherit the earth, but in the meantime, they're going to get their heads rubbed in it for a long while. Plus, now they've got Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, a nickname my scrawny butt will never have. Maybe Iverson has a point. They still don't have anyone playing center. 46-36



Washington Wizards: F. Scott Fitzgerald was way off the mark when asserting that there are no second acts in American lives. For instance, there's G. Gordon Liddy. Thankfully, though, third acts tend to often take on the role of travesty, with the person in question ceasing to be anything but a nuisance. This is a slightly


long-winded way of saying the Wizards are better off without Michael Jordan, who was as thin-skinned and grating as a general manager as he was magical as a player. Maybe Gilbert Arenas will lead this team to the playoffs, but more likely, he'll be wondering why the NBA doesn't create a special rule mandating that whenever Jerry Stackhouse is on the court, Stack gets a ball of his own. 31-51



New York Knicks: Dementia is a real thing, not just some word that's been twisted into a convenient insult, like "retarded." I'm discussing this only because the Knicks, having already assembled the largest collection of weak-kneed octogenarians north of Dade County, decided they desperately needed the aforementioned


Deke Mutombo. Like those who suffer from dementia, these hoopsters still remember the old stories about how they used to soar to the hoop, and every so often, just for a few seconds, those reflexes will kick back into gear, and they'll recapture that old glory, rile up the crowd, and get some poor schmuck to believe, "Hey, a couple more players, and they're a playoff squad!" In the case of the Knicks, in the last few years, that "poor schmuck" has been "General Manager Scott Layden," and we see how that's worked out. 28-56


  Miami Heat: This team currently employs benchwarmer Cherokee Parks, he of the 4.4-ppg, 3.7-rpg career averages. Still, I like any team that gives me the opportunity to stand up at a game and screw up that Paul Revere and the Raiders song by yelling, "Cherokee People!!! Cherokee Pa-arrks!!" Especially  

Miami, because now they're so damn bad that I could probably get courtside seats, and scream this, all game. I could also bring one of those "art major journals" and pretentiously draw sketches of Parks' tattoos while he rides pine for Stan Van Gundy. 23-59



  Detroit Pacers: Two stories. I was on the subway last year, and a couple of punks started jawing at each other, eventually coming to blows. Then, this big dude with shoulders like a garage door calmly lifts one kid up against the doors, and says, quietly, "Cool it." And the kid couldn't do anything about it. The second story is, I  

was reminded of that moment during last year's playoffs when in the middle of the night, I'm awakened by a phone call from my father, and his first words are, "Who is this Ben Wallace guy?" The two of us have a soft spot for people who simply by virtue of their width, can get what they want in the world. Add to that Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Lindsay Hunter, and a bunch of seven-foot former KGB agents manning the middle, and that's a nice squad. First place, top seed in the East, and if they can find a way around the Nets, a possible title. 57-25



Indiana Pacers: It's amazing how a change of coach can put a person in the right frame of mind about a team. Unless the Pacers for some reason decide they really miss Zeke Thomas and completely mail it in for the better part of a season under Rick Carlisle, they've got a few things going for them here, starting with


Jermaine O'Neal, the man in the middle, and improving players like Jamaal Tinsley -- who will indeed get it together this year -- along with head case Ron Artest and old man Reggie Miller. They've got a few problems, nominally that Scot Pollard and his 53-year-old back can't replace Brad Miller. But they'll get along with grit, good enough for second place in this weakening division. 49-33



New Orleans Hornets: Carrying that theme from the last preview, the Hornets, having dismissed tough guy Paul Silas, counter with Tim Floyd, who displayed a Dubya-like ability to fall short of ridiculously low expectations with the Bulls a few years back. So instead of Silas leaning on the likes of Jamaal Magliore,


Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn to go through other teams like shit through a goose, we're going to be treated to a lot of shots of Floyd burying his head in his hands, generally looking perplexed, or screwing up his face after eating one too many bad crawdads. Shame, too, because this team has talent. 44-38


  Chicago Bulls: Anybody notice that in the last month-and-a-half of the 2002-2003 season, center Eddy Curry turned into an absolute beast? Almost 18 points a game and nearly 7 rebounds, man. Yeah, somebody has to do it, but the guy is a player. Besides him there's a rapidly developing Jamal Crawford, Tyson Chandler,  

and Marcus "Viagra" Fizer. The only sour spot is re-signing Scottie Pippen and his diminished skills in one of those "I'm teaching the kids" roles that Charles Oakley managed to royally fuck up a couple of years ago. But Scottie will get injured within a month, so it doesn't really matter. 39-43! Huzzah!



Cleveland Cavaliers: So they've got this rookie who gets all kinds of air on his drives to the hoop and couldn't knock down an 18-footer without three basketballs, a cannon and a rangefinder. Which kind of makes him like his new teammate, 41-percent shooter


Ricky Davis, the dunderhead who threw the ball off his own basket in an attempt to con his way to a triple-double last year. Paul Silas ain't gonna put up with that shit for a minute. This team -- which also sports dunking fool Darius Miles, and a bruiser I really like, Carlos Boozer -- is kind of like what Karen Lynn-Gorney said about John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever: "Interesting? Definitely interesting. Intelligent? Maybe. Maybe intelligent." One out of two ain't bad, especially for Cleveland. 35-47



Atlanta Hawks: This is the "name" squad. "Hey, they've got Shareef Abdur-Rahim! Hey, Terrell Brandon! Hey, Theo Ratliff!" Whatever. It doesn't matter, they're a second division squad, which is unfortunate, if only because it means Smush Parker


isn't going to get much national attention. Another great name, Smush. He really should be playing football, but he's only 190 pounds, and that won't get you anywhere in the NFL. Pansy. 31-51



Toronto Raptors: Boy, are there a lot of teams in this division or what? Vince Carter blah blah blah. Air Canada blah blah blah. No competent players, blah, blah, blah. Vince alone gets them 16 wins (when he plays), leaving about 10 to 12 for the rest of the team. 26-56


  Milwaukee Bucks: Hard to believe this team won 40 games last year. They won't come close this year. They've got Desmond Mason, who, uh, can really dunk the ball, or something, and a few other guys. Moving right along... 19-63  






San Antonio Spurs: David Robinson was a classy guy, a smart dude, and miraculously became one of the first players to go out on a true high note by winning a title, as opposed to finishing his career with the Knicks or Wizards or something. Despite losing him,


though, the Spurs have upgraded nicely with the additions of Ron Mercer and Hedo Turkoglu, but it's these big Slovenian bulvons -- I'm talking about Radoslav Nesterovic -- that seem to really make everything better. No Robinson, but they're still big, and they've got shooters, and they've got Tim Duncan, and nobody can do a damn thing about it. 61-21


  Dallas Mavericks: I can't tell what the stronger emotion is: wanting to see a smart guy like Don Nelson succeed or see a chowderhead like Mark Cuban brought low through some combination of misfortune, ill-timing and, I don't know, a really bad haircut. I'm going to have to suppress the latter desire, because the  

Mavs are too talented to do much else besides finish in second place. The predictable way of looking at this team is to question whether adding Antawn Jamison, another scorer, means less touches for everyone else. But a team already armed with Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley, and Steve Nash better already know how to share the ball, which they proved last year. Adding Jamison won't be a hardship. Adding Antoine Walker, a me-first ballhog who's also lost a step, is the real hardship. (That, and asking Nowitzki to play center, which is kind of like hiring Barry Bonds as a media consultant.) Whether they score 163 points a game and still lose all the time is the other question. 58-24


  Minnesota Timberwolves: These guys had the best off-season if you rank them in terms of "They got that guy?" Sadly, it only makes them, uh, well, fifth in the West, which is basically where they were last year. Latrell Sprewell is getting old, but he'll run the floor nicely with Sam Cassell, while Kevin Garnett will  

continue to show why he's a fantasy league god, and Michael Olowokandi takes up space. I feel for this team, I really do, but Dallas, Los Angeles and San Antonio just have too much in the tank for Minnesota to really get there. Maybe a first-round upset, and a lot of wins against bad teams in the same division. 51-31



Houston Rockets: Jeff Van Gundy is kind of like the Nicole Kidman rendering of Virginia Woolf in "The Hours," although with a better nose and slightly more out-of-date outfits. He's well aware that he figures to suffer from depression again now that he's reassumed


the mantle of fatalistic head coach, but he does it anyway. The NBA doesn't have much of a contingent of tortured artists, so Van Gundy's presence is gratifying. Either he's going to rip the hair plugs out of his head watching Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley ignore the seven-foot-five stud manning the paint, or he'll get them to knuckle under and pass the ball to Yao Ming once in a while. Since neither of those two idiots is named "Patrick Ewing," here's guessing they'll knuckle under, just enough for the Rockets to get to the playoffs. 46-36


  Memphis Grizzlies: The New Jersey Nets' dalliances with a possible move to a new arena in Newark must be gratifying to the citizens of Memphis if only because Newark is kind of like "Memphis East," but without the Elvis birthplace. What I'm saying is, Memphis is a  

dump. And they're going to be permanently enshrined in the Dyslexic Hall of Fame for not bothering to change their name when the Grizzlies moved from Vancouver to the burned-out hamlet they're currently occupying. Still, like coach Hubie Brown says, this team has "tremendous upside." So what the hell, they'll win 35. 35-47



Utah Jazz: The NBA has always been the league to admire for its ability to succeed in small markets, especially markets where, when the camera pans the crowd for celebrities, can only come up with Wilford Brimley. Yes, they've lost Karl Malone and John


Stockton, and look to be in the midst of a few lean years as they rebuild. But it's not a bad option, and as the Quaker Oats guy said, "It's the right thing to do." 31-51



Denver Nuggets: Guys who you can call by one name really make you think of something heroic. Square-jawed. Tough. Like old-style Greco-Roman wrestlers. The Nuggets have these guys in spades. Nene. Andre. 'Melo. Junior. Nikoloz Tskitishvili. Ok, so it's not a


perfect theory. Not enough of an embarrassment anymore for people to talk about, geographically too remote to consider an up-and-comer, they're kind of just there, and their record will inspire similar shrugs. 30-52



  Los Angeles Lakers: Ah yes, this year's "distraction" angle. Something about Kobe Bryant not being able to play if he's on trial, and I understand that, because if he's in a suit, he's not on the court. That makes sense. But if he's on the court, is there any reason to worry?  

Is his alleged victim getting courtside seats? More likely, the Lakers have age and other things to worry about. They've imported Karl Malone and Gary Payton, and along with Shaq, it creates a veritable super group of an NBA team. Super-groups don't have much of a track record. Think Blind Faith. One good song, and that one was covered by Joe Cocker, of all people. Yeah, they'll win a lot of games in an efficient, workmanlike fashion. And then get beaten in the playoffs by younger legs. 59-23



Sacramento Kings: They got all huffy last year when Shaquille O'Neal derided them as the "Queens," and then, predictably, Chris Webber injured himself when the team needed him most, Peja Stojakovic forgot how to play basketball, and the Christies (Doug and his wife


Jackie) continued their bid to move back into first place as professional sports' most grating married couple (slightly ahead of Rams QB Kurt Warner and his wife Brenda). So maybe Shaq was onto something. The Kings responded by importing Brad Miller, who Shaq nearly killed a few years back, which was a macho move by the Kings, if not terribly intelligent, since it'll only provoke O'Neal. It all depends on Webber, and that's like building on mud. 54-28, but that's deceptive.



Phoenix Suns: You know you're living in a recently developed town when the only landmark that isn't a chain store is the basketball arena. This presents all sorts of marketing opportunities for America's corporations. Sunoco could sponsor the Suns, or they


could just change their name to the Phoenix Sunocos. Apparently, Amare Stoudemire, the big rookie sensation, has a lunatic asylum of a mother, so maybe there are opportunities with Bellevue Mental Hospital. I don't know where I'm going with this, but I've got to point out that Tom Gugliotta is still technically in the NBA, and languishing on the team's bench. I'd actually pay money to see him advertise something rather than watch him play basketball. 47-35



Portland Trail Blazers: Predictions are fun, because they're wholly arbitrary. For instance, I'm going to predict a total of 34 game ejections for the Trail Blazers players this year, and at least three arrests. Wild times and hilarity ensues in a bankrupt economy currently


trying to lure a baseball team, to boot. Oh, they'll make the playoffs, as they always do, and figure out some way to screw it up. Fun. 43-39



Los Angeles Clippers: Probably time for a new marketing effort for this team. They should follow the pattern taken by the Angels of Major League Baseball, and set out for the suburbs of Anaheim. Then, change the jerseys, and adopt a cute little mascot -- feral


primates, for instance -- and have them run wild on the court during timeouts. Even better, then they could import Klaus Kinski to play center, and have him run around with the monkeys, shouting, "I am the Wrath of the Clippers! Who dares challenge me!?" At this point, if you're the Clippers, you have to be open to ideas. 37-43



Seattle Supersonics: Every year or so, there's a team that absolutely falls into the tank when you're not really expecting it. It happens in every year, every sport, every year. Bank on it. Because while predictions at the beginning of each season are always


rosy, commentators usually forget to factor in that somebody has to absorb all those losses so everyone else can win. In baseball, the Mets have been formally appointed for this position, but in the NBA, it's on a rotating basis. Last year it was Toronto. This year, it's this team. 31-51


  Golden State Warriors: Let's follow the logic: take an exciting couple of players that rekindle a mild interest in this team. Let one of them go in free agency to a team that hasn't made the playoffs in years (Gilbert Arenas to Washington). Trade the other one (Antawn  

Jamison) for a malcontent who wasn't happy playing on good teams throughout his career -- namely, Nick Van Exel. Not a recipe for success. I foresee a disaster here. 20-62



It's all a crapshoot, and no matter what, predictions come out looking forced. If you pick the Lakers, you're buying into the hype. If you pick the Spurs, you're not exactly staking much of a claim, considering the fact that they won the whole thing last year. But they've got a better supporting cast and improving shooters, so what the heck. I'll take them in the West over the weak-kneed Lakers, and the Magic to surprise the Nets in the East. So we'll have another repeat, and that's not all that bad. Spurs win it all -- again. Duncan's the MVP (again), and LeBron coasts to the Rookie of the Year honors, largely on reputation. Season will end on July 30 -- don't believe anybody who tells you different.