Coach's Corner

Alan Laverty conducts an annual, informal (no entry fee, no prizes) NBA prediction contest. It's a small contest he runs among a select contingent of pro-basketball fanatic friends. The contest calls for each participant to seed conference numbers one through eight. Easy enough.

I've never met Alan but last year he invited me to join his pals. He was impressed with the blind-luck accuracy of my previous season's picks. Like Jimmy Brown or Rocky Marciano, my best choice was to gracefully decline, retiring with an unblemished record. With my ego nicely stroked -- hey, I'm human! -- I couldn't resist the temptation to show, again, how smart I was. Not surprisingly, last season's selections found their proper mediocre level.

As the NBA season approached, I found myself thinking of Alan and his poll. So I was pleased, but not surprised, when his invitation to once again make him and his buddies look smart, outfoxing the old Coach, arrived in the mail. I'd already been doing my homework; reading the team-by-team scouting reports, strengths and weaknesses, that kind of stuff.

I've tried, Alan. I really have. I just can't do it. Studying the pre-season form sheet, which used to be a pleasure, is now a chore on par with returning to school after being sick for a week and being buried beneath five chapters of geometry homework.

The "changes" section of each team's report, which once included maybe a trade or two, perhaps the retirement of an old veteran, and the addition of a couple of draft picks now reads, in many cases, like the NYC phone book. I'm grateful to the Spurs -- who made almost no changes over the summer -- for keeping the good-old-days flame lit. The Spurs are going nowhere, precisely because they didn't make any changes, but I appreciate their effort to simplify nonetheless.

It's too complicated. So, as the NBA enters its 50th season, I leave you with some scattered remarks. As a fan, I'm insulted by the kindergarten drivel of the league's "The Top 50 Players of All Time." The Eastern Conference: The longest list of new meat belongs to the Knicks, a team I hate. For all intents, N.Y. is a brand-new team. This new reality rubs me the wrong way, but that's beside the point. Are the new-look Knicks as good as the N.Y. media would have us believe? First, you need to understand a basic truth: Anything and everything coming out of New York is wildly exaggerated. The bad's not as bad. The good's not as good. The Jordanization of free-agent pickups, Alan Houston and Chris Childs, both basically untested players, is a perfect example. Teams with so many changes can have problems. Who gets the ball? Who's a jerk? What's that guy's name? Nobody, no matter how smart they sound, has a clue. On paper, no team in either conference, for sure in the East, can match up with Chicago. How does the game go? Paper covers rock, rock breaks scissors, scissors cuts paper... The oldest team in the league is a year older. I quote Leroy (Satchel) Paige, "Don't look back. Someone might be gaining on you." An injury or two and Indiana will be on the Bulls' shoulder. A tough veteran team, the Pacers are almost untouched by free agency. Smits must be heathy at playoff time or forget it. The Shaq-less Magic are still a nice team. They'll win 50+ games, but obviously are no longer a championship threat. Divac and Mason are damn good players. Charlotte will not be near as bad as everyone seems to think. The Bullets seem to be the designer pick of the year. Why? I don't know. Like the Golden State Warriors of years past, the parts are greater than the whole.

Western Conference: You'll read this a lot, "The Houston superstar tandem of Barkley, Olajuwon, and Drexler have played together in only (you fill in the blanks) games this year, due to injuries. Coach Rudy Tomjanovich says he hopes to have all three healthy for the playoffs." I'm the only person in the world who believes this, but the O'Neal Lakers don't look as strong as the Laker team who finished last season with 53 wins; spotty guard play, a psychotic forward, a high school senior and a multi-national, corporate-conglomerate-center who can sing and dance to beat the band but can't shoot free throws. They have no leadership at all. A bunch of mutts surrounding a skittish, pedigree puppy. My friend Teresa -- who knows her hoops -- is a full blown Maverick nutcase. I asked for her scouting report on the Mavs. She writes, "The Mavs will win more games than last year (not too hard) possibly getting three or four games within .500." I'm boldly predicting they will lose in the first round of playoffs, but they will spunkily take their series all the way to five games, with one of the games going into overtime. I am an optimist! Indeed. If Seattle can overcome the ugly chemistry problems created by the season's most befuddling free agent move, the signing of journeyman center Jim Mcllvaine for $33 million, fanning bitter feelings among veteran players (Shawn Kemp held out for three weeks), the Sonics, after several years of trial by fire, will sup on the sweet nectar of the gods: a championship. Write me:

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