Dog Days – teams and players of the NBA Midwest Division

Dwain Price

Sure, the San Antonio Spurs played shamefully in being swept out of the conference finals, but they still lead the NBA’s toughest division

FROM THE 1993-94 TO 1999 seasons, teams in the Midwest Division were able to flex their muscles and lay claim to three NBA titles–two by the Houston Rockets in 1993-94 and 1994-95 and one by the San Antonio Spurs in 1999 in the lockout-shortened season. Since then, the division has been like a flirty girl on a hot date–nothing more than a big tease. And the biggest tease in the Midwest is the the Spurs.

In the 1999-2000 season, the Spurs became the first team since the Boston Celtics not to repeat as NBA champions. Of course, one of the main reasons the Spurs were booted out of the first round of the 1999-2000 playoffs by the Phoenix Suns was because Tim Duncan missed the series with an injury.

So what, pray tell, was the Spurs’ problem last year when they went into the playoffs as the top team in the NBA, only to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals?

The Lakers made the Spurs look like a fired, old team. Even still, from top to bottom, the Midwest presented the most competitive division in the NBA last year, as six of the seven teams won at least 40 games and the Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, and Utah Jazz all won 53 or more.

The Spurs added Steve Smith and Bruce Bowen in hopes of getting another crack at the Lakers. But losing the athletic Derek Anderson and the steady hand of Avery Johnson may hamper their shot at redemption.

Fueled by the solid trio of Michael Finley, Dirk Nowitzki, and Steve Nash, the Dallas Mavericks are one of the NBA’s most entertaining teams. With Shawn Bradley and Juwan Howard rounding out the starting quintet, coach Don Nelson should have even more fun than he had last season, when the Mavericks qualified for the playoffs for the first time since the 1989-90 season.

The Utah Jazz will go back to war with elder statesmen John Stockton (40) and Karl Malone (38) at the front of the line. But how much longer will Stockton and Malone be able to keep up with the young kids on the block?

With Hakeem Olajuwon shipped off to the Toronto Raptors, the shackles will finally be removed from the feet of Rockets point guard Steve Francis, who should soar to even greater heights. With Francis teaming in the backcourt with Cuttino Mobley, no one is looking forward to facing the Rockets’ slippery guards.

Joe Smith is back in Minnesota. However, his return won’t be enough to get the Timberwolves back in the playoffs for the sixth straight season. Denver center Raef LaFrentz should benefit from the addition of Kiki Vandeweghe, who was named general manager and director of player development for the Nuggets. While working as the director of player development for the Mavericks the past two seasons, Vandeweghe is credited with helping Dirk Nowitzki blossom into a superstar.

The Grizzlies, a perennial Midwest Division cellar-dweller, left sprawling Vancouver for the Elvis country of Memphis. They also parted ways with Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Mike Bibby while adding Jason Williams, Lorenzen Wright, and rookie Paul Gasol. But if it looks like a Grizzly and quacks like a Grizzly, it’s still a Grizzly. They may have crossed the border, but the Grizzlies won’t escape the Midwest cellar.

1. SAN ANTONIO SPURS WHERE THEY LEFT OFF: The Spurs were last seen sweeping up the ashes from a season that saw them get unceremoniously flattened by the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. Despite finishing with the best record in the NBA, the Spurs were absolutely no match for the Lakers in the playoffs. The Twin Towers of Duncan and David Robinson were scorched by Shaquille O’Neal, while Danny Ferry, Terry Porter and Antonio Daniels weren’t afforded wide-open looks from behind the threepoint line like they had in the previous two playoff-series victories over Minnesota and Dallas. The Spurs’ season ended with a thud, not a celebration.

2000-01 Midwest Division Standings

W L PCT GB HOME ROAD DIV

San Antonio Spurs 58 24 .707 — 33-8 25-16 19-5

Dallas Mavericks 53 29 .646 5 28-13 25-16 14-10

Utah Jazz 53 29 .646 5 28-13 25-16 14-10

Minnesota Timberwolves 47 35 .573 11 30-11 17-24 11-13

Houston Rockets 45 37 .549 13 24-17 21-20 11-13

Denver Nuggets 40 42 .488 18 29-12 11-30 13-11

Vancouver Grizzlies 23 59 .280 35 15-26 8-33 2-22

ON THE COURT: Guard Derek Anderson got furious with Spurs management over his contract, then left for Portland via a sign-and-trade in exchange for guard Steve Smith, who was furious with Trail Blazers management over his contract. And the exodus continued: Avery Johnson bolted for Denver, Samaki Walker couldn’t beat them, so he joined the Lakers, and sharpshooting Sean Elliott retired to the TV booth.

David Robinson did sign a two-year deal, which is precisely the remaining number of years left for the Twin Towers to try and win another NBA title. With so many wholesale changes over the off-season, that’s a strong indication that Spurs coach/general manager Gregg Popovich is feeling the heat from owner Peter Holt to win now, or else.

WHY THEY WILL FINISH FIRST: Besides the Lakers tandem of O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the Spurs’ twosome of Duncan and Robinson is the most dynamic duo in the NBA. Duncan is one of the league’s top players and is a matchup nightmare. Robinson, 36, still is an effective scorer, rebounder, and shot-blocker. The two were the main reasons the Spurs led the NBA in blocked shots last season. Duncan and Robinson love to run the court, and are two of the quicker big men in the league. Although losing Anderson and the electricity he brings to the court was a downer for the Spurs, adding a savvy veteran like Smith was a nice recovery.

SPURS TEAM AVERAGES

Five–Season Record: 50-32

Plyoff Appearances, Past Five Seasons: 4

Five-Season Scoring: 93.6 Defense: 90.0

Differential: +3.6

2000-01 Team Scoring: 96.2 Defense: 88,4

Differential: +7.8

2000-01 Season Leaders

Points: Tim Duncan, 22.2 ppg

Rebounds: Tim Duncan, 12.2 rpg

Assists: Avery Johnson, 4.3 apg

Blocked Shots: David Robinson, 2.46 bpg

Steals: Derek Anderson, 1.46 spg

2000-01 Leaders

Scoring: Karl Malone, Utah, 23.3 ppg

Rebounding: Tim Duncan, San Antonio, 12.2 rpg

Assist: John Stockton, Utah, 8.7 apg

FG Percentage: Wally Szczerbiak, Minnesota,.510

FT Percentage: Steve Nash, Dallas, .895

3PT Percentage: Terry Porter, San Antonio, .424

Blocks: Shawn Bradley, Dallas, 2.78 bpg

Steals: Terrell Brandon, Minnesota, 2.06 spg

2. DALLAS MAVERICKS WHERE THEY LEFT OFF: When last Seen, the Mavericks were doing cartwheels after making the playoffs last season for the first time in 11 years. The party went into the wee hours of the summer, especially after the Mavericks fell behind the Utah Jazz. 0-2, in the opening round of the playoffs. and bounced back to win the next three games and the series Losing to San Antonio in five games in the second round couldn’t dampen the Mavericks’ spirits. The Mavericks posted a remarkable 53-29 record during the regular season, tying for the second-best record in franchise history. They also set a club record by winning 25 road games.

ON THE COURT: The Mavericks traded point guard Howard Eisley and lost center Calvin Booth to free agency and added point guard Tim Hardaway and center Evan Eschmeyer. In the process, they cleared more room under the salary cap to make an appointed run at Tim Duncan when he becomes a free agent in the summer of 2003. The Mavericks also re-signed guard Michael Finley and center Shawn Bradley to seven-year contracts, hoping that in the latter’s case, the NBA’s new zone defense rules will turn Bradley into a defensive terror.

WHY THEY WILL FINISH SECOND: Why not? After all, Finley has proven he’s a true AU-Star, and forward Nowitzki has shown that he, too, is one of the league’s top players. Nowitzki scored a career-high 42 points and tied his career-high with 18 rebounds in the Game 5 playoff loss to San Antonio. Nash, when healthy, has shown he’s one of the top 10 point guards in the NBA and is tailor-made for Nelson’s uptempo offense. A close inspection of the top 10 centers in the league has to include the wiry Bradley. Howard, meanwhile, gives the Mavericks their first solid power forward since the days of Roy Tarpley.

MAVERICKS TEAM AVERAGES

Five-Season Record:

Playoff Appearances, Past Five Seasons: 1

Five-Season Scoring: 95.1 Defense: 97.3

Differential: -2.2

2000-01 Team Scoring: 100.5 Defense: 96.2

Differential: +4.3

2001-01 Season Leaders

Points: Dirk Nowitzki, 21.8 ppg

Rebounds: Dirk Nowitzki, 9.2 rpg

Assists: Steve Nash, 7.3 apg

Blocked Shots: Shawn Bradley, 2.78 bpg

Steals: Michael Finley, 1.44 spg

3. UTAH JAZZ WHERE THEY LEFT OFF: The Jazz were sick to their stomachs after blowing an 2-0 lead to the Mavericks en route to dropping that first-round playoff series in five games. The Jazz won 53 games last year and were the No. 4 seed out West. But losing the decisive Game 5 on their home court sent the Jazz reeling into the offseason and searching for answers. Donyell Marshall replaced Byron Russell as the starting small forward, and that helped propel the Jazz to newer heights (Marshall averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds in 49 starts, and only 9.4 points and 5.2 rebounds while coming off the bench). Neither Olden Polynice or Greg Ostertag appear to be the answer at center, which is the weakest link on the Utah team.

ON THE COURT: Malone and Stockton still run the best pick-and-roll in the NBA. Last year, Malone averaged 23.2 points and 8.3 rebounds, while Stockton averaged 11.7 points and was second in the league in assists with 8.7 per game. But it’s no secret that the Jazz are concerned about the mileage Stockton has racked up through the years. Now 40, Stockton averaged just 29.2 minutes last season and this might be his final season. Malone, 38, is the league’s second all-time leading scorer, and won’t retire until he passes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The Jazz coaches are excited about Andrei Kirilenko, the 6’9″, 223-pound Russian who was the team’s 1999 first-round pick and has spent the past two seasons playing in Russia.

WHY THEY WILL FINISH THIRD: The Jazz have always been an exemplary team during the regular season. Because they’re so experienced and can make the playoffs in their sleep, they should finish at least among the top three teams in the division. Old men or not, Malone and Stockton still have to be severely respected for what they can do on the court, and both players are still the most physical at their respective positions. The Jazz, meanwhile, execute their offense as well as any team around, and Jerry Sloan coaches them as well as any team in the league.

JAZZ TEAM AVERAGES

Five-Season Record: 60-22

Playoff Appearances, Past Five Seasons: 5

Five-Season Scoring: 98.2 Defense: 92.0

Differential +6.2

2000-01 Team Scoring: 97.1 Defense: 92.4

Differential: +4.7

2000-01 Season Leaders

Points: Karl Malone, 23.2 ppg

Rebounds: Karl Malone, 8.3 rpg

Assists: John Stockton, 8.7 apg

Blocked Shots: Greg Ostertag, 1.75 bpg

Steals: John Stockton, 1.61 spg

4. HOUSTON ROCKETS WHERE THEY LEFT OFF: They are openly upset they didn’t qualify for the playoffs, because they deserved to be there. The Rockets’ 47 wins were the most among the 13 teams that didn’t advance to postseason play, and placed the Rockets ahead of the Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers, two teams that made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Last year the Rockets had the double pleasure of having a winning record at home (24-17) and on the road (21-20).

Hakeem Olajuwon, who had played his entire 17-year NBA career with the Rockets, followed through with his threat to leave, as he forced management to trade him to the Toronto Raptors.

ON THE COURT: The Rockets traded Shandon Anderson and got New York Knicks forward Glen Rice in return. The Rockets were disappointed with Anderson’s lack of progress, while Rice bombed in his one-year stint with the Knicks. Still, Rockets coaches know that for his career, Rice averages 19.5 points and shoots 46% from the field and 40% from three-point range, and if he can produce those figures for Houston, the Rockets have traded for a gold mine. Rookie forward Eddie Griffin will be expected expected to make major contributions right away. Forward Maurice Taylor’s injury, further weakening a frontcourt that will sorely miss Hakeem Olajuwon, will place big pressure on youngster Kenny Thomas.

WHY THEY WILL FINISH FOURTH: Francis and Mobley are arguably the quickest and most dangerous backcourt in the NBA. Thunder and Lightning lit up a lot of defenses last season with their electrifying skills and ability to beat anyone off the dribble. Francis averaged 19.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 1.76 steals while staking his claim as the NBA’s best all-around guard. Mobley wasn’t far behind, averaging 19.5 points and 5.0 rebounds and proving he can take over a game whenever he wants. The Rockets are expecting newcomer Rice, who is coming off a foot injury, to become the all-important third scorer they need to reach the playoffs.

ROCKETS TEAM AVERAGE

Five-Season Record: 46-36

Playoff Appearances, Past Five Seasons: 3

Five-Season Scoring: 98.0 Defense: 96.5

Differential: +1.5

2000-01 Team Scoring: 97.2 Defense: 94.9

Differential: +2.3

2000-01 Season Leaders

Points: Steve Francis, 19.9 ppg

Rebounds: Hakeem Olajuwon, 7.4 rpg

Assists: Steve Francis, 6.5 apg

Blocked Shots: Hakeem Olajuwon, 1.52 bpg

Steals: Steve Francis, 1.76 spg

5. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES WHERE THEY LEFT OFF: Nothing seems to ever change around here. Last season, for the fifth straight time, the Timberwolves advanced to the playoffs. And for the fifth straight season, the Timberwolves were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, falling to top-seeded San Antonio in four games. The Timberwolves bolted to a 47-45 record, including a sparkling 30-11 worksheet on their homecourt. This came following a slow start after the Timberwolves had to deal with the death of swingman Malik Sealy, and several sanctions levied against them by the NBA for signing center Joe Smith to an illegal contract.

ON THE COURT: Kevin Garnett, now a mere 25, is simply getting better and better with age. Garnett enters his sixth season after averaging 22 points, 11.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.79 blocks per game in 2000-01. He is truly the cornerstone of this franchise, but needs some more help if the Timberwolves have any designs of reaching the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.

Joe Smith returns to the Timberwolves after a season in exile with the Detroit Pistons, but is he capable of taking any pressure off Garnett? One more season with a superstar like Garnett should help the growth of point guard Terrell Brandon and small forward Wally Szczerbiak.

WHY THEY WILL FINISH FIFTH: The Timberwolves have been able to enjoy a five-year journey to the playoffs, but that streak is about to come to an end because the Midwest is the toughest division in the NBA. The Timberwolves went down to the wire last season before beating out Houston by two games for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot. Why the Timberwolves were so enamored with Smith that they risk the future of this franchise is one of the great mysteries of the NBA. There’s a very good reason why Smith is working on his fourth team–and his second stint with Minnesota–over the past five years. He’s just an average Joe.

T-WOLVES TEAM AVERAGE

Five-Season Record: 45.37

Playoff Appearances, Past Five Seasons: 5

Five-Season Scoring: 97.2 Defense: 96.5

Differential: +0.7

2000-01 Team Scoring: 97.4 Defense: 96.0

Differential: +1.4

2000-01 Season Leaders

Points: Kevin Garnett, 22.0 ppg

Rebounds: Kevin Garnett, 11.4 rpg

Assists: Terrell Brandon, 7.5 apg

Blocked Shots: Kevin Garnett, 1.79 bpg

Steals: Terrell Brandon, 2.06 spg

6. DENVER NUGGETS WHENE THEY LEFT OFF: If there ever was a Jekyll and Hyde team ill the NBA last season, it was the Nuggets. Denver’s 29 home wins tied for eighth-best in the league. But while they played like the Harlem Globetrotters at home, the Nuggets turned into the Washington Generals on the road, where they stumbled all over themselves and won only 11 games. This all came during a season when the, Nuggets players made national headlines after publicly embarrassing themselves for boycotting one of coach Dan Issel’s practice sessions. The Nuggets claim they became a close-knit family–Issel included–after the boycott. But on the surface, the kiss-and-make-up scene came way too lab to repair the damage.

ON THE COURT: There’s probably not a power forward that plays with as much energy and passion as Antonio McDyess. Without him, the Nuggets are no better than a 30-win team. With him, along with the offseason additions of point guard Avery Johnson and Francisco Elson, the Nuggets could be banging on the playoff door.

Johnson was signed to help bring along rookie point guard Omar Cook, to help settle down the temperamental Nick Van Exel, and because he dot’s wonders in a locker mom. Elson, a seven-foot forward who played in Spain the last two years, has received rave reviews from the Denver coaches. Center Raef LaFrentz is known to hang around the perimeter too often, but he actually averaged more blocked shots (2.64) last season than Tim Duncan or David Robinson.

WHY THEY WILL FINISH SIXTH: If Van Exel had Johnson’s heart and temperament, the Nuggets would be battling San Antonio for the Midwest Division title. Unfortunately, Van Exel too often plays like he doesn’t have a care in the world, then gets offended when critic’s point that out. Van Exel needs to become more focused on the court, and check his ego at the door, because his many mood swings are what’s keeping this team from playing at its optimum level. The Nuggets also are weak at small forward and shooting guard, where James Posey and Voshon Lenard are trying to hold down the fort. There’s only so much McDyess can do. He needs some H-E-L-P!

NUGGETS TEAM AVERAGE

Five-Season Record: 26-56

Playoff Appearances, Past Five Seasons: 0

Five-Season Scoring: 95.1 Defense: 101.0

Differential: -5.9

2000-01 Team Scoring: 99.0 Defense: 101.5

Differential: -2.5

2000-01 Season Leaders

Scoring: Antonio McDyess, 20.8 ppg

Rebounding: Antonio McDyess, 12.1 rpg

Assists: Nick Van Exel, 8.5 apg

Blocks: Raef LaFrentz, 2.64 bpg

Steals: James Posey, 1.13 spg

7. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES WHERE THEY LEFT OFF: Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley whined enough about losing money that the NBA finally allowed him to move his team from Vancouver to Memphis. In their last season in Vancouver, the Grizzlies won all of 23 games, which was a franchise record. But the entire season was played under the dark cloud of relocation, making it difficult for the players to remain focused on the task at hand. Then again, news of the team probably leaving town wouldn’t have made a major difference: The Grizzlies were an awful team, and awful teams usually finish in the cellar. That’s certainly a place the Grizzlies are accustomed to occupying.

ON THE COURT: The Grizzlies finally conjured up the guts to trade small forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim and point guard Mike Bibby, their top two scorers from last season. Those two were the cornerstones of this franchise, but the Grizzlies didn’t bat an eye in waving goodbye. The new direction the Grizzlies are headed in starts with newcomers at point guard, small forward and center.

Jason Williams moves from the Sacramento Kings to play point guard, and rookie Pau Gasol of Spain should get the starting nod at small forward. Lorenzen Wright, a Memphis native, should start at center and be a local drawing card, while point guard Brevin Knight came over with Wright from the Atlanta Hawks to keep tabs on the erratic Williams.

Why are the Grizzlies the worst team in the Western Conference? Shooting guard Michael Dickerson is the team’s best player.

WHY THEY WILL FINISH SEVENTH: Because they’re the Grizzlies. Changing countries won’t matter. If the Grizzlies can’t win with underrated stars like Abdur-Rahim and Bibby, how in the name of Canada do they expect to win with over-rated players like Williams and a string-bean rookie, Gasol? Abdul-Rahim gave this team 20.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game last season, and Bibby added 15.9 points and 8.4 assists. Wright going home is a nice touch, but players’ games usually go south when they go home, because they constantly have to deal with supplying family members and friends with tickets and money. It’s a new country, but same the or Grizzlies.

GRIZZLIES TEAM AVERAGE

Five-Season Record: 18-64

Playoff Appearances, Past Five Seasons: 0

Five-Season Scoring: 92.1 Defense: 99.6

Differential: -7.5

2000-01 Team Scoring: 103.2 Defense: 97.5

Differential: -5.7

2000-01 Season Leaders

Points: Shareef Abdur-Rahim, 20.5 ppg

Rebounds: Shareef Abdur-Rahim, 9.1 rpg

Assists: Mike Bibby, 8.4 apg

Blocked Shots: Stromile Swift, 1.03 bpg

Steals: Mike Bibby, 1.30 spg

COPYRIGHT 2001 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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