(The above is my new header for the recurring, but previously mundanely-titled "Sports Notes"; it's a combination of "sport" and "blog" with just a hint of "The Borg"--that fictional name itself probably a rip-off of famed Swedish sportsman Bjorn.)
Much Ado about Next to Nothing
Tonight the reserves for the NBA All-Star game will be announced. There has been a whole lot of blather about this; it is a pretty big honor to be named, after all, since, unlike the MLB one, there's not enough spots to go around--24 vs. 60.
The talk has mostly been about the surfeit of good candidates in the West and the paucity of them in the East. The NHL had a good idea for its A-S this year and placed them more or less randomly, ignoring nominal Conference borders, and some have suggested the same for the NBA, but they don't have much imagination (I think I pointed this out before).
The key fact to consider in predicting these is that Doc Rivers of the Celtics and Greg Popovich of the Spurs will be choosing. Rivers will make up for the complete absence of his players among the starters elected, while Popovich--who, if anything, is embarrassed by how healthy and well his playoff-based squad is doing in the regular season--should not care so much.
Here are my predictions (as well as preferences):
East: To go with fan-voted starters Dwight Howard, Amare Stoudamire, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, and Dwayne Ward (no problems for anyone with those choices): Paul Pierce, Rajan Rondo, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen of the Celtics, Joe Johnson and Al Horford of the Hawks, and the third of the Miami Big 3, Chris Bosh. (My next name would be Danny Grainger of the Pacers, but I don't think he's needed.)
West: Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul were elected, along with (horrible choice) Yao Ming: reserves Manu Ginobili of the Spurs, Dirk Nowitzki of the Mavs, Pau Gasol of the Lakers, Blake Griffin of the Clippers, Kevin Love of the Timberwolves, Russell Westbrook of the Hornets, and Deron Williams of the Jazz. Yao, definitely, and Williams, probably, will need to be replaced: Spurs' coach Pop will see whether his players, Duncan and Parker, want to get rest or the work (probably rest for Tim and work for Tony). (If needed, the next spot would then go to Lamarcus Aldridge of the Trail Blazers.) With all those names and teams included, the one who's most unfairly overlooked is Steve Nash, but there are already plenty of point guards on the West team.
More NBA There may be (there is!) more all-star quality talent in the West, but in terms of playoff-worthy teams, I'd say the East has (finally!) almost achieved parity. There are really five good teams in each conference at present (in order of playoff-worthiness): Boston, Miami, Orlando, Chicago, and Atlanta in the East; and Los Angeles, (first-place) San Antonio, Dallas, Oklahoma City, and New Orleans in the West. If #1 seed in the East played #1 West, #2 vs. #2 etc., as in a match of tennis teams, I'd say it would be a toss-up, but of course that's not how the playoffs go. Still, Boston has great depth now (Miami does not), and I wouldn't hesitate to back the Celtics against either the Lakers or the Spurs in the Finals.
There will be three pretenders in the playoffs in each conference (New York could get a bump up in quality, if not in the standings, if it makes the Melo trade without giving up too much present value). The key thing, then, in terms of the lead-up to the playoffs, is for the top teams in each conference to avoid finishing 4th or 5th, which would put them in a tough first-round matchup, and I will be watching Orlando and Dallas closely to see if they can make the necessary push to be worthy of 3rd spot. (Right now, Chicago is tied for second and Orlando/Atlanta are tied for 4th, but I expect Orlando to do better down the stretch.)
College Hoops The most exciting development for me so far this year was St. John's destruction of Duke last Sunday in a non-conference game at Madison Square Garden. It was kind of an unimportant game, in a way: Both teams are immersed now in their conference season, Duke had a key backcourt injury, and the Blue Devils simply didn't show up on the day. On the other hand, I find it significant that, deprived of the home court advantage Duke usually gets for matchups against good non-conference opponents, they surrendered early and often to a team that is about the 12th-best in the Big East (I'm not kidding!). It should be a good omen for the NCAA tournament.
As things stand, I would rate Pittsburgh--the team with the best record in the best conference, with a couple of first-rate guards--as top pick for the national championship, with Kansas and Texas as #2 and 3. Kentucky looks like a good dark-horse candidate as a regional seed in the 3-5 range (especially if they manage to lose in the SEC tourney), as do Louisville and Syracuse (the other two top-level schools for which I routinely root) in their hugely-competitive Big East competition. The field looks a bit thin this year--though there was one day last week when seven Top 25 teams lost to unrated teams--and even though the Big East teams will be knocking each other steadily for the next month, there should be at least 10, maybe 12, that make the field (which has expanded slightly, to 68 teams, this year). That's because hardly any B.E. teams have lost to any teams outside the conference, and the St. John's-Duke game at least meant that perspective was maintained.