EAST: The New York Knicks, with massive roster changes and brave talk of "Chicago who?" hogged much of the off-season commentary. I said in October anything coming out of New York, with innumerable media outlets frantically vying for attention, is madly exaggerated. Nothing's as bad or as good as the New York media says. So it's been with the Knicks. I predicted all the new faces and egos would create chemistry problems. Every time I listened to national sports shows, I'd hear how the new Knicks stink worse than the smegma on a camel's... uhh... weenie. Then, I'd pick up the paper and see a pretty good record. Their halfway mark of 36-14 is an improvement over last season. Give me a C. I thought Indiana would be close behind Chicago. They've stunk, playing two games under .500, which should give me an F, except I noted center Rick Smits must stay healthy or forget it. Smits missed most of the first half, so grade me up to average for effectively covering my tush.
The other big off-season story was the Magic's loss of Shaquille O'Neal. A cold, lonely doom was predicted for the Shaq-less Magic. I thought the Magic still had a pretty nice team. Certainly, no longer a championship contender, but good enough to win 50 games. That won't happen, because injuries for lengthy periods to Penny Hardaway and Nick Anderson left Orlando with little more than the mouse and a few of Snow White's more diminutive dwarves. They're both back now. Seikaly's numbers are more than respectable. How about a C+? Everyone's dogging the Hornets, who got robbed, so went the conventional wisdom, letting Mourning and Kenny Anderson go and then trading away Larry Johnson for Anthony Mason. I said, "Lighten up, Jack." The Hornets, with Mason, Rice and Divac, have some pretty nice players, and are nine over .500. B+. The Bullets seemed to be the designer pick of '96, but I didn't see why. The coach has already been fired. Bernie Bickerstaff, who did a beautiful job destroying a once-promising Nuggets team, is now the coach of a squabbling, 23-26 team. I'll take an A. I completely blew the two biggest stories in the East: the emergence of the Pistons and the obvious genius of a hated coach, Pat Riley of the Heat. Miami, last year a .500 team, has the second best record in the entire league. Detroit (Doug Collins did get smarter during his years behind the TNT mike), with 36 wins, has the third best record. My question is, "Can we grade on a curve?"
WEST: "You'll read this a lot," I wrote, as I created a likely quote from Rocket coach Rudy Tomjanovich, nervously explaining to reporters how he hopes, finally, to have all three superstars healthy to start the playoffs. Barkley, Olajuwon, and Drexler began the season like a runaway train, but the train's had a wreck. All have missed significant stretches due to injury. Rudy T. made a rare mistake, playing his aging superstars 40+ minutes in high profile, but meaningless, early season games. The studs are broken down. The Rockets are 2-8 in their last 10 games. I'll take an A. I predicted a championship for Seattle, but only if they could overcome chronic chemistry problems. The Sonics, though only a few games off of last year's Western best pace, need, more than scoring and rebounding, a top-notch group therapist. Their chemistry problems would befuddle Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, a most obscure, 17th-century German physicist. At mid-season, let's call the grade incomplete. I said the Spurs were going nowhere. They have, just faster than I thought. C+.
I didn't think the Lakers, with O'Neal, would be as good as last year's team without him. I was wrong, but not because of O'Neal. I'm not a Shaq basher. The man's a great player. I just don't think he's a winner. Eddie Jones, whom West Coast friends have raved about for years, is Robert Horry without the prefix of unfulfilled potential attached. He scores, rebounds, steals, dishes out assists, and makes 80% of his free throws. If Pat Riley's a genius, Laker GM Jerry West is a Mensa among the genius crowd. The Lakers, always drafting low, consistently come up with a quality pick. Van Exel, picked in the second round, Jones #10, Elden Campbell #27, and Kobe Bryant, picked out of high school. Last year's pick, someone named Derrick Fisher, has played in 48 games, averaging 12 minutes a night. This isn't luck. Contrast it with the pathetic Mavs, who have "can't miss" picks -- which miss -- every year. I should take an F here, since the Lakers are leading the West, but grade me up for being man enough to admit a genetic L.A. bias and for being big enough to confess I was wrong. To graduate college, I had to take a correspondence course in Spanish II, which I flunked the previous semester. I, with mucho gusto, and yes, Me gusto albondagas! took a D. I'll do the same here.
Overall, in an unsurprising recreation of my entire academic career, I find myself a C prognosticator.