Category Archives: NBA

LeBron James: 2009 NBA MVP

Last year was one of the most competitive NBA MVP races I can remember. Eventually, Kobe Bryant received both the official NBA honor and my unofficial vote (but not before some serious thought on the issue.)

After the success of last year’s methodology, I tried the same thing again this year. I narrowed the pool of MVP candidates to 10, and then asked myself 10 questions. For each question, I rated the candidates. The number one answer received 10 points for that question, second place received nine points and so on.

After tallying the total points for all 10 questions, last year’s winner, Kobe Bryant fell just one point shy of his 2008 mark, but Kobe’s 78 points was only good enough for second in 2009. The winner, scoring an astounding 87 (out of a possible 100) points was LeBron James.

Honestly, this exercise in justifying the MVP may be rendered unnecessary for the foreseeable future. Despite great seasons from Dwight Howard, Dwayne Wade and Bryant, no one stacks up to James. And, at 24 years old, it’s scary but logical to believe King James is only going to get better.

Statistics don’t quite do James justice. Neither do superlatives. The best way to appreciate his game is to watch him night in and night out. From the moment he entered the league, there was no doubt that he was physically gifted. But a summer that included a gold medal run with Kobe Bryant and Team USA in China, LeBron entered this season with a new sense of purpose, drive and determination.

Suddenly his will to win met—if not surpassed—his unbelievable array of physical gifts. He’s not perfect. He could still improve his free throw shooting (though he did go from 71 to 78 percent this year). He could still develop a go-to move and a counter move in the post. But this is not the time to nitpick greatness.

LeBron is a singular talent unlike anything the NBA has ever seen before. That’s right. Ever. You can compare him to Magic or Michael or even Kobe. But truth be told, LeBron James is the prototype.

At 6-feet, 8-inches tall and 250 pounds, LeBron is built like a professional wrestler. Streaking down the court to finish a fast break or pin a helpless opponent off the backboard, he runs and jumps like an Olympic track star. And he does it all with the passing skills and decision making ability of a Hall of Fame quarterback. Of course, he also manages to synthesize all of these talents together into something that looks like basketball—only a brand we’d never dream of playing.

On any given night, LeBron may put up a triple double. On any given play, he may put a would-be shot blocker on a poster. And at any given moment, he can make a crowd of thousands say, “Wow!”

Of course LeBron will win the MVP for what he does on the court, but he’s just as valuable everywhere else. The rapport he has with his teammates is palpable. The connection he has with the home fans in Cleveland is tangible—just look at their home record. His personality is personable, his conversations engaging, his brand bordering on Jordan.

The only thing left for LeBron this season is an NBA championship. That’s the missing piece. His Cavaliers will enter the playoffs as the number one overall seed, which means that they, and more specifically he, will be labeled the favorites by many to defeat the defending champion Celtics and likely Western Conference Champion Lakers in the Finals.

In the last 20 years, only four players have won the NBA MVP and NBA championship in the same season (Michael Jordan ’91, ’92, ’96, ’98; Hakeen Olajuwon ’94; Shaquille O’Neal ’00; Tim Duncan ’03).

LeBron isn’t worried about replicating history. He’s determined to make it. But if he’s ever going to surpass Michael Jordan as the public’s consensus greatest player of all-time, it’s going to take more than winning an MVP award (Jordan has five of those). It’s going to take NBA Finals MVP awards (Jordan has six). Still, LeBron’s 2008-09 season was a thing of beauty for fans of basketball. And for that, he deserves recognition as this year’s MVP.

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.

The Legend of Shaquille O’Neal

Shaquille O’Neal is routinely mentioned among the likes of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Moses Malone and company as one of the greatest centers in NBA history. But O’Neal’s larger-than-life personality leads me to a bigger comparison.

I think O’Neal is the modern day Babe Ruth. Let me explain.

Like Ruth, O’Neal has put up Hall of Fame numbers for his career, winning several championships along the way. But neither Ruth nor O’Neal can ever be defined solely by numbers or rings. Their legacy is the thing of legend. They will be remembered for the OMG moments and the stories friends told friends. Babe did WHAT? Shaq did THAT?!

With the modern media and commercialization of sports, O’Neal’s exploits are almost all documented, so in that sense, Ruth may have a more mythical legacy. But both figures have left behind memories and moments that fans will speak of forever.

From Ruth’s called shot to O’Neal’s dunk that tore down the entire basketball hoop, there is no shortage of iconic memories from their careers. If you need more proof of Ruth’s legend, just watch The Sandlot. If you want proof of O’Neal’s legend, watch Kazaam and then marvel at the fact that he still went on to enjoy great professional and commercial success after making it. Legendary.

The similarities aren’t limited to the silver screen, though. Their body of work was made more impressive by the bodies they worked with. Ruth’s resembled your favorite beer-swilling, cigar-smoking uncle. Meanwhile O’Neal was a freak of nature. At 7’1” and more than 300 pounds of chiseled stone, he was simply awesome. There was no explanation why the pot-bellied Ruth was able to hit 714 home runs. Or why the behemoth O’Neal was able to move with the agility and grace of an NFL wide receiver. But they did it.

Another similarity is their likability. It’s almost impossible to find a baseball historian who can offer up an unkind word about Ruth. He was Gandhi in pinstripes (sorry Red Sox fans, your team sold him away). And O’Neal, always a media favorite for his quotability and humor, seems to have entered Ruthian territory. He can do no wrong despite burning bridges and throwing people under the bus after unhappy departures from Orlando, Los Angeles and, to a lesser extent, Miami.

Another measure of this legendary comparison is nicknames. You have to be somebody to earn a nickname. These guys have a slew of them. In addition to being dubbed “Babe,” Ruth was also known as the Great Bambino, the Sultan of Swat and he Colossus of Clout, to name a few. O’Neal has a number of monikers as well. The Diesel, Shaq Daddy, The Big Aristotle, The Big Cactus, and Most Dominant Ever are among the best of the bunch.

No matter how you slice it, O’Neal has entered Ruthian territory, and the best part is, he’s still going.

After winning a title in Miami in 2006, it appeared that O’Neal’s career was on a sharp slope downward. The ‘06-‘07 season in Miami was the worst of his career and Miami was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. The following season, last year, O’Neal looked old. His play was ineffective, he was limited by injuries, and he missed the all-star game for the first time in his career. A midseason trade to Phoenix rejuvenated him a bit, but his team again lost in round one of the playoffs.

All signs pointed to the end of the O’Neal era. But he came back focused this season, and earned a spot as a reserve on the Western Conference all-star team. Credit the Phoenix training staff and O’Neal for putting in the time and effort to regain all-star form. And credit karma for the 2009 all-star showcase being held in Phoenix.

There, as a member of the home team Suns, Shaquille O’Neal stole the show. Again.

There were two-dozen all-stars in Phoenix on Sunday night. The average age of the other 23 active all-stars was 28 years young. Yet it was the soon-to-be 37-year-old that made the headlines.

From his pregame introduction with Jabbawockeez to his in-game give-and-go pass between Dwight Howard’s legs to his post-game MVP-trophy mock squabble with co-MVP Kobe Bryant, O’Neal made it crystal clear: this was his night. If his 15th all-star game proves to be his last, O’Neal made sure his performance would be remembered fondly.

With his superman tattoo and man-of-steel physique, O’Neal has always played the role of hero well. But by outshining all the stars in his 15th all-star game, O’Neal proved to me his status needs to be upgraded to that of a living legend.

After all, heroes get remembered but legends never die.

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.

Very Unfortunate News for Laker Fans

In a déjà vu headline, Andrew Bynum is injured and may miss the rest of the regular season for the Lakers. Reports say it’s a torn MCL. He’s expected to miss 8-12 weeks. The Lakers have approximately 10 weeks left in the season.

This is eerily similar to last year when Bynum went down with a subluxation of his left kneecap and bone bruise in January. Then, as now, he was originally expected to miss eight weeks. Those who follow the Lakers know that those eight weeks turned into the rest of the season last year.

I’m among the Laker fans who believed Bynum would be the difference between last year’s runner-up finish and a championship. And just recently, a healthy Bynum seemed to be coming into his own, scoring a career-high 42 against the Clippers last month. He was also giving them the added toughness inside that they clearly lacked against the Celtics in the Finals.

The Lakers currently possess the best record in the West, and showed last year that they can hang with anyone in the conference playing Gasol at center and Odom at power forward. However, the odds of them keeping pace with the beasts of the East (Boston, Cleveland and Orlando) now seem slim. They’ll likely not have home court advantage in the Finals, assuming they can get back there.

Who knows, maybe Bynum does make it back in eight or 10 weeks this time, in time for a playoff run. I don’t want to be too doom-and-gloomy here. But this is a tough pill to swallow.

First and foremost, you have to feel for Bynum. Mentally bouncing back from another injury may be more of a hurdle than the physical rehab.

As for the rest of the team, they’ll immediately be put to the test. The rest of the teams in the West certainly now see a much more open conference. Will the Lakers fade? They’re in the midst of a six-game road trip that finishes with games at Boston on Thursday and at Cleveland on Sunday. Both of those games were going to be tough at full strength. The Lakers will now be tested even more.

Mike and I will surely talk more about this on tomorrow’s Winning Hand Sportscast. Right now, I’m just struggling to get past my initial reaction: it sucks big time.

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.

Reviewing Lakers-Spurs from 1/14/09

A moral victory. A good loss. Generally, I don’t buy into those ideas. But I really don’t know how else to classify this game. The Lakers were playing the second game of a back-to-back Texas-double-dip in San Antonio. It was the Spurs’ first game against the hated Lakers since L.A. knocked them out of the Western Conference Finals last year. And the Lakers were suiting up without Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton. Plus, the Lakers had upcoming showcase games against Orlando and Cleveland.

All the ingredients were in place for a blowout. But Kobe Bryant and company had other ideas.

After falling behind by 11 points in the fourth quarter, Bryant spearheaded a comeback effort that saw the Lakers take the lead. Josh Powell—this year’s Ronny Turiaf—even contributed in a big way, nailing three fourth quarter jumpers when Bryant was double-teamed on the pick ‘n roll.

Then, after Tim Duncan scored on a ridiculous flip shot to give the Spurs a one-point advantage, Kobe drained what appeared to be a dagger three, prompting him to break out the Sam Cassell testicle dance. Unreal.

There was still time on the clock, however. The Spurs found Roger Mason Jr. in the corner when Derek Fisher unsuccessfully gambled for a steal. Mason hit the shot and caught the body of an out-of-position Fisher, to earn a bonus free throw that put San Antonio up by one.

The Lakers brought the ball up for a final possession with 10 seconds remaining. Kobe was again double-teamed and passed to Trevor Ariza at the top of the key. As he drove, he was bumped by Manu Ginobli, who was trying to rotate to take a charge. The bump affected Ariza’s footing and he was called for a travel, effectively ending the game and securing a 112-111 win for San Antonio.

It was incredibly frustrating to watch the final play sequences as a Lakers fan, but I came away form this game feeling more encouraged than disappointed. Their were plenty of plays that, had they gone the other way, would have won the game for the Lakers, including a silly foul by Ariza at the end of the first quarter and a buzzer-beating three from Ginobli to end the third.

It was a big win for the Spurs, no doubt. But the Lakers have plenty to feel good about, too:

  • Kobe Bryant is playing the game better than ever.
    He’s not the athlete he was when he teamed with Shaq to win three titles, but this Kobe is better. He’s still a world-class athlete, but he’s also mastered the subtleties of the game in a way no one since Jordan has. He knows how to pick his spots offensively. He knows how to get his teammates involved and make them better. And he is a tireless, ferocious defender with infectious tenacity.

  • Their depth is a blessing.
    The good news about all the Lakers injuries is that they have such a capable bench. They essentially played the Spurs with just two guards—Bryant and Fisher. The versatility of players like Ariza and Lamar Odom allows them to adapt as well as any team in the NBA. This game also had to boost the confidence of Josh Powell, the new guy in the Lakers locker room this season. He’ll surely be called upon at some point in May or June, and this game will be one that gives him confidence to play those big minutes.

  • Bynum is progressing.
    He’s not Dwight Howard, but he’s not Greg Oden either. Bynum is coming back from last year’s injury-shortened season, and he’s making a difference. He went toe-to-toe with Tim Duncan for parts of this game, and the young fella held his own. He could have done more on the boards, but his defense definitely seemed to bother Duncan.

  • They showed some heart.
    With everything stacked against them, it would have been easy for the Lakers to have mailed this one in after they fell behind in the fourth quarter with both Bryant and Pau Gasol on the bench. Instead, they mounted an impressive comeback with textbook offensive execution and some timely stops on defense. That sort of fourth quarter execution sans the final two plays is what will win games in the playoffs.

I cannot say with absolute certainty that the Lakers are the best team in the league, but they are in the conversation. I do believe they have the most talented roster. And if they’re able to give this effort in the playoffs, watch out.

At full strength, it’s hard to imagine them not winning this game. So, congratulations to the Spurs for winning what I would call the most entertaining game of the NBA season so far. Getting Fisher on the losing-end of a close call in San Antonio was probably poetic justice. But the Spurs are still chasing the Lakers in the standings, and I like L.A.’s chances of remaining the best in the West this season.

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.

A Difference in Coaching Styles

There’s a very interesting post up on Forum Blue & Gold right now about lessons in losing. Specifically, it talks about the differences in the way that Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers have handled the rough patches their teams have endured early this season.

Many fans—myself included—often get on Jackson and the Lakers for seemingly not bringing it every night and playing down to the level of their competition. Similarly, Rivers’ Celtics—since acquiring Kevin Garnett—have been routinely praised for giving maximum effort at all times, as if every game determined the NBA champion.

The Celtics’ model, and Garnett in particular, is a high school coach’s dream. The idea of giving 100 percent effort is a good thing. However, the practice of it may be problematic. The Celtics played more than 100 games last year. Their core of players is not young by NBA standards and they lost key contributors from last year’s team including James Posey and P.J. Brown. So, it’s only natural that giving the same continous all-out effort game after game would leave them even more drained this season.

Their recent losing skid, which has seen them drop six of their last eight games, is drawing a lot of attention. But it’s not a phenomenal event. Winning 27 of their first 29 was the phenomenal thing. They were playing above their talent, and now they’ve dropped to earth. Their goal of winning the NBA title remains very much a possibility.

But in order for that to happen, Rivers is going to have to find a way to refocus his team. They are not the ’96 Bulls. Seventy wins isn’t happening. They may hit 60, but that’s irrelevant. The goal is to be playing your best in May and June. Boston better hope that they didn’t already peak in November and December.

I felt the need to comment on the subject, but I don’t want to steal its thunder. It’s an excellent post, especially if you’re a Lakers fan who agonizes over the occasional loss to Sacramento. Read it. It will make you feel a lot better about the whole situation in Lakerland.

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.

ESPN Switches Announcers. Other NBA Switcheroos to Follow?

Perhaps more than any announcer today, Dick Vitale is synonymous with his one sport—college basketball. But tonight, the bald, one-eyed basketball wacko who beat the ziggy and became a PTP’er will take part in an ESPN gimmick that features a switcheroo of announcing crews.

Vitale will team with play-by-play man Dan Shulman to call the NBA game between the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat. Meanwhile the crew of Mike Tirico, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy will call the college contest between Duke and Davidson.

Is it a ploy by ESPN to drum up ratings? Of course. Will it work? Maybe. Will I be watching? You better believe it.

I love both of these announcing booths to begin with. Vitale is a polarizing figure. Either you love his passion for the game or you’re annoyed by his over-the-top enthusiastic delivery. Personally, I love it, and can’t wait to hear his take on the NBA action. And Jackson and Van Gundy are the best analyst duo in the NBA as far as I’m concerned, so it’ll be interesting to hear their views on the college game and the pro prospects in the game, especially Davidson star Stephen Curry.

Dick Vitale’s one-game announcing stint has me thinking about other one-time switches I’d like to see in the NBA this season.

  • Referees and Coaches
    Imagine Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Stan Van Gundy working a heated contest between the Boston and Cleveland as Celtics Coach Dick Bavetta and Cavs Coach Joey Crawford had to be restrained on the sidelines. Jackson wouldn’t even need to carry a whistle.
  • Fans and Announcers
    Who wouldn’t want to win the contest that meant you and your best friend could call a game on the air? And wouldn’t It be great to see the regular commentators stuck in the nosebleed seats behind a family with crying children and beside that drunk obnoxious guy you always seem to end up seated near?
  • College Team and Pro Team
    The NHL has tweaked the sport and made January 1 a showcase date with an outdoor game the past two years. Why can’t basketball follow suit? Take college basketball’s top-ranked team as of December 25 and pit them against the team with the worst record in the NBA in a New Year’s Day showdown. Play the first half with NBA rules (for two 12-minute quarters) and the second half with NCAA rules (for one 20-minute half). Imagine seeing early-entry players Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook and the (at the time) 4-win Oklahoma City Thunder suit up against senior Tyler Hansbrough and the (at the time) undefeated University of North Carolina Tar Heels.
  • 3-Point Shot and Dunk
    Fans love dunks. But what if, for one game, a dunk was worth 3 points and everything else—including shots from beyond the arc—was worth only 2? Sure, it penalizes the short players and lousy leapers, but it would give players who can dunk—and in the NBA, that’s almost everyone— extra incentive to take it to the hoop and finish strong.
  • NBA Rules and Playground Rules
    The notion of defining “playground rules” sort of violates the whole spirit of playground basketball to begin with, but there are a few staples that I think are musts. Winner’s ball/make it take it…whatever you call it…would be in effect. There is no time set, but rather a score total. First team to 100 wins. Players call their own fouls. Tie-ups go to the defense. And perhaps most importantly, trash-talking is allowed and encouraged. Mic’ing the court might be a good idea. They have to play the game on HBO for mature language, but it’d be worth it.

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.

Looking Back at 2008 and Ahead at 2009

2008 was a great year for sports. Michael Phelps’ record-setting 8 gold medals highlighted the most exciting Olympic Games of my lifetime, which also included a gold medal for the Redeem Team in Men’s basketball as well as excitement in gymnastics from Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson and on the track from Usain Bolt.

In the NFL, the New England Patriots started the season 18-0 only to lose in one of the most dramatic and surprising Super Bowl outcomes of all-time against Eli Manning and the New York Giants.

The NBA saw the resurgence of its two most storied franchises when the Boston Celtics met the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals, won by Boston in six games.

College sports featured another upset-filled football season that saw a slew of top teams knocked off down the stretch, eventually setting up an LSU vs. Ohio State matchup in the BCS title game, which LSU won handily. And in basketball, Kansas ended the David-and-Goliath-like run of Davidson before upending Memphis thanks to a clutch shot from Mario Chalmers that will be replayed every March from now on.

Major League Baseball featured a season in which the previously-forever-futile Tampa Bay Rays removed the ‘Devil’ and beat out the Evil Empire New York Yankees and their Boston brethren to win the AL East and, eventually, the pennant before losing to the Philadelphia Phillies. For the City of Brotherly Love, it was their first title in the major four sports since 1983.

And in the NHL (yes, hockey reporting on MattHubert.com), Sid Crosby grew up as he led his Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals where they fell to the Detroit Red Wings.

Yes, it was a good year for sports—just not for my teams in sports.

Most of my teams failed, plain and simple. But even those that had good seasons ended up breaking my heart.

The Lakers exceeded preseason expectations, but their Finals performance was disastrous—blowing a 24-point lead at home in Game 4 and folding to lose Game 6—and the series—by 39 points. The fact that this happened against archrival Boston was what hurt most of all, though, and all the year’s successes were mitigated by six lackluster games leaving me feeling empty and betrayed.

Likewise, in college hoops, UCLA had a strong season, riding freshman Kevin Love to the Final Four. It was the Bruins’ third straight trip to the Final Four, and with Love filling the void that had seemingly cost them in two previous losses—a formidable presence down low—it seemed like this was the year. But Love shot just 4-11 and Memphis outscored UCLA 40-28 in the second half to pull away for a victory that the Tigers controlled pretty much the whole way.

And if the Lakers and Bruins’ season-ending losses stung, at least they had some wins to get them there. The Raiders finished out the ’08 campaign with back-to-back victories to salvage something from a lost season, but they still finished 5-11, which made them the first team in NFL history to have five seasons in a row with at least 11 losses. They also fired coach Lane Kiffin, making interim Tom Cable the Raiders’ fifth head coach in six years.

Things were no better in the college ranks where Michigan won just three games, lost five games at the Big House, and missed a bowl for the first time since 1974.

In baseball, the A’s weren’t even relevant, and though they’ve been competitive in the decade, have never made a World Series appearance during the Moneyball era.

But 2008 is over, so it’s time to focus on the future.

Here now are 10 predictions, fears and dreams for 2009—five for the sports world at large and five focusing on my teams—the Lakers, Raiders, Michigan, UCLA and the Athletics.

Predictions

  1. The Raiders will not make it a sixth straight year of 11-or-more losses, but they won’t break the .500 mark either.
  2. Lamar Odom will not be a Laker at the start of the 2009-10 season.
  3. Michigan will play in a bowl game in 2009.
  4. In basketball, Michigan will not only make it to the tournament, they’ll advance to the Sweet 16, further than my other team, UCLA, who will see its run of Final Four appearances snapped by an upset on the first weekend of the tournament.
  5. With a few call-ups to bolster their staff, the A’s will return to the postseason.
  6. Tim Tebow will return to Florida and attempt to become a two-time Heisman and three-time national champion.
  7. With teams aware of his singular talent, Stephon Curry and Davidson will get tripped up in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
  8. LeBron James will supplant Kobe Bryant as NBA MVP.
  9. Tiger Woods will once again be the best golfer, winning two majors. (For the record, that’s hockey and golf in the same post.)
  10. Matt Cassell will start Week 1 for the New England Patriots—not Tom Brady.

Fears

  1. Jamarcus Russell fails to develop as a quarterback in 2009, forcing the Raiders to start over (again) at quarterback.
  2. Andrew Bynum will reinjure himself, handicapping the Lakers’ playoff chances again this year.
  3. Terrelle Pryor will be to Michigan what Troy Smith was with the added pain that he almost chose to play for the Wolverines.
  4. Jrue Holiday will follow Kevin Love’s lead and be one-and-done, off to the NBA after his freshman season.
  5. The Angels become the Yankees of the West, leaving Oakland in the dust when it comes to money for free agents.
  6. The Celtics sign Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett wills him to play as well as he did when the two took the Timberwolves to the playoffs in the 90s.
  7. Tom Brady makes a full recovery, and the Patriots regain their 2007 form.
  8. College football signs a 10-year extension to keep the current BCS system in place.
  9. USC’s football team stays focused for a full season.
  10. The Steelers win the Super Bowl, bringing out the annoying droves of fair-weather Steelers fans in all their black and gold glory.

Dreams

  1. Al Davis sells the Raiders organization to give them a fresh start and a chance to win again.
  2. The Lakers find a way to combine the defense and athleticism of Trevor Ariza, size and three-point shooting of Vladimir Radmanovich, and basketball IQ and passing ability of Luke Walton to form a complete small forward.
  3. Michigan finds a freshman quarterback with the skills to run Rodriguez’s offense and the mind to handle Big Ten defenses.
  4. Michigan re-hangs the banners from the Fab Five’s Final Four appearances.
  5. A prominent free agent spurns the Yankees to sign with the A’s for less money because he prefers the A’s green uniforms to the Yankees’ green.
  6. My team wins a fantasy football championship.
  7. Major League Baseball institutes a salary cap to level the playing field and keep the Yankees in check.
  8. Sportscasters stop pointing out the obvious and provide actual insight.
  9. A Web site develops a jersey shop where you can order any player from any team from any era. My first order? Pooh Richardson circa 1990 with the Minnesota Timberwolves. I don’t know why, but that’s my dream.
  10. The Lakers host (and win) Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Beyonce is the halftime entertainment. And I have courtside seats next to Jack Nicholson to take it all in.

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.

Lamar Odom Trade Destinations

The Los Angeles Lakers have the best team in the West. On Christmas, they went head-to-head with Boston and ended the Celtics’ 19-game winning streak. They have a record of 25-5 yet some still think the Lakers need to make a roster upgrade. Their most valuable asset that has any likelihood of being dealt is Lamar Odom, who has a $14 million contract expiring at the end of the year.

But Odom’s unique skill set—at 6’10” he can defend multiple positions, handle the ball, post up and rebound well—makes him a valuable part of this Lakers team. He’s shifted to a sixth man role this season, and he’s had his ups and downs coming off the bench, but there is no denying his talent. There will be a number of teams vying for his services should he become a free agent at the end of the year, and the Lakers may be forced to let him walk.

With all that in mind, I still think the Lakers should keep Odom, stay put, and let this roster, bolstered by a healthy Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza, take another stab at winning the championship. Having said that, there’s no doubt that Odom’s name will continue to headline any Lakers trade rumors until after the deadline passes. So, here are what I believe to be the top-10 possible, if not entirely plausible, trade destinations for Lamar Odom. They’re ranked 1-10 with number one being in the best interest of the Lakers.

10. To the Denver Nuggets (along with Josh Powell) for Nene, Linas Kleiza and Chucky Atkins
Kleiza would improve the Lakers at the 3, but probably not enough to justify a deal involving Odom. Atkins would also fill in as backup point guard during Farmar’s injury time. Nuggets would have a potential starting lineup of Kenyon Martin, Odom, Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Chauncey Billups.

9. To the Dallas Mavericks (along with Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga) for Jerry Stackhouse, Jose Juan Barea, Brandon Bass and DeSagana Diop
This is a Mavs team that hasn’t been the same since dealing for Jason Kidd. Stackhouse is rotting on the bench. Teaming Odom with Nowitski gives them an interesting wrinkle and Odom’s ballhandling ability lessens the load on Kidd as well. Barea is where the Mavs would probably flinch, but he’d give the Lakers great point guard insurance while Farmar is injured. Stackhouse gives them another shooter off the bench.

8. To the Golden State Warriors (along with Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga) for Corey Magette and Ronny Turiaf
It would be great to get Turiaf back in L.A., and Magette would be an upgrade at small forward, but the questions would be, first of all, how would he handle being the fourth option on offense. And secondly, would he make an impact on defense? Meanwhile, Odom would flourish in the Warriors’ up-tempo style.

7. To the New Jersey Nets for Vince Carter
The Nets are playing well considering how they are clearly in cap-space mode. This move would create even more flexibility for them. As for Carter’s prospects in L.A.? If this was 2001, it’d be a different story, but 2008 Carter isn’t worth as much. His defense is shaky and his shooting isn’t consistent enough to make the Lakers pull the trigger on this one.

6. To the Washington Wizards (along with Josh Powell) for Antawn Jamison and Etan Thomas
Washington’s season is already a mess, so they might as well start thinking about the future. Talent-wise, this is a pretty fair deal. Jamison is a better scorer, but Odom is a better passer, ballhandler and defender. Plus, the Wizards could use some cap flexibility after locking up Gilbert Arenas for such a big figure this past offseason. I question Jamison’s ability to stretch the defense and his ability to play defense, but he would make L.A. a more potent offensive team.

5. To the Miami Heat (along with Vladimir Radmanovich) for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks
This deal features four guys with contracts that are probably too high. On paper, Marion would be the perfect fit for the Lakers, but with an expiring contract, he might be nothing more than a few-month rental. The flipside of that is that he would likely play his best to earn a new deal from someone, even if it wasn’t the Lakers. As for Odom, he would reunite with Dwayne Wade and could tutor Heat rookie Michael Beasley.

4. To the Milwaukee Bucks (along with Sasha Vujacic) for Michael Redd, Tyronn Lue and Luc Mbah a Moute
The Bucks have to figure it out soon enough. Michael Redd is good, but your team isn’t going to thrive if he’s your first option. In L.A., Redd would be a fourth option and a perfect spot-up shooter to play with Kobe, Gasol and Bynum. Kobe would shift to the three in this configuration. For Milwaukee, Vujacic would slide into Redd’s role as a knockdown shooter, and he’s younger and cheaper. Plus, they’d have the option to re-sign Odom or let him walk and claim the cap space. Either way, this is the deal the Bucks would do as opposed to the swap listed below.

3. To the Milwaukee Bucks for Richard Jefferson
An interesting one-for-one swap here. Jefferson’s deal would put the Lakers on the books for an extra two years, but he would give them an all-star caliber small forward. The bigger problem is where Odom would fit in with the Bucks’ roster.

2. To the Chicago Bulls (along with Josh Powell) for Luol Deng and Drew Gooden
The Bulls might like Odom in their lineup or use his expiring contract to find money to sign Ben Gordon or other free agents. In Deng, the Lakers get their starting 3-man, vaulting ahead of Radmanovich, Walton and Ariza.

1. To the Detroit Pistons (along with Josh Powell) for Tayshaun Prince and Kwame Brown
Lakers fans might groan at the prospect of Kwame Brown returning, but Prince would be a major upgrade at the 3, providing the Lakers with an exceptional perimeter defender who can also shoot from distance with consistency. Is Pistons GM Joe Dumars that desperate to dump salary? It’s doubtful, but it’s definitely worth making the call.

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.

Three of a Kind

More than a quarter of a way into the season, the 2009 NBA championship appears to be a three team race. The Spurs, Hornets, Nuggets, Magic and a handful of other teams may have something to say about that, but there is a clear-cut top tier in the NBA this season. Whatever order you rank them in, no one else is playing at the same level as the Celtics, Cavaliers and Lakers.

So what’s standing in the way of these three teams in their quest for the 2009 title?

Boston
The Celtics have been the best team so far this season. And I’ll be the first to admit that I’m surprised how well the defending champs have played the role of defending champs. They certainly appear to have the mindset to be the first team to repeat since the 2002-03 Lakers completed a three-peat. Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo have both kicked their games into an extra gear I didn’t know they had.

The worry is that they will burn out. All of this success tends to make a team complacent. That’s the expectation, but the reality has been far from that. Instead, this team seems even more focused on the mission than they were last year when their many new parts (Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, James Posey) were still learning how to play together.

Still, it’s hard to believe they can continue along at this blistering pace, especially with a veteran-laden bunch. If the veteran leaders begin to show the wear and tear, the team could slip. In a year when home court advantage might be decided by one game among three potential 65-plus-win teams, that would be tough to overcome.

Cleveland
The Cavs are the most surprising success story this year. Everyone knew the addition of Mo Williams would help LeBron James and company, but I don’t think anyone expected it to help Cleveland vault into the elite category. With James and many of the players on this roster now seasoned in playoff basketball, this is a team built for the long haul. They have great team chemistry, and their offense is finally playing to James’ strengths.

The worry in Cleveland is based in the future. Will LeBron bolt for New York in 2010? No one knows the answer, but it’s very clear that winning now would help the Cavs’ case to keep him. That’s why ownership has signed off on deals that have this team on the high-end of team salaries. And that’s why it’s been widely speculated that Wally Szczerbiak and his hefty expiring contract is being shopped around to land one more piece of the puzzle to make a run at the title this season.

In the past three years, the Cavs have fallen in the Eastern Conference Finals, NBA Finals and Eastern Conference Semifinals. They’ve experienced their growing pains, and expectations are high. No one wants to face LeBron in the playoffs. The question is, can he and his team handle the pressure of winning in Cleveland before he is free to seek a new city?

Los Angeles
The most talented and versatile team of the bunch is the Lakers. They have the best pair of 7-footers In the league. They have a deep, energetic bench that includes Lamar Odom, who would likely start for every other team in the league except maybe Boston. And, as if that weren’t enough, they have the reigning league MVP, Kobe Bryant.

The worry in L.A. is the Lakers’ apparent disinterest. They’ve lost just three games this year, but two of those defeats came against Indiana and Sacramento. After a dominant stretch to open the season 10-0, the Lakers’ defense has fallen off. While they remain the class of the West, no one expects them to contend against Boston—or Cleveland—playing the sort of defense that nearly led to losses against the lowly Wizards and undermanned Knicks.

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.

Top-10 NBA Players I’d Like to See More Often

I don’t get to watch nearly as many NBA games as I would like. For one thing, they aren’t on basic cable every night. And, even when they are, too many of the West coast games tip off at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time. That’s now a problem since I have a regular 8–5 day job. Also, a lot of lower-level teams simply don’t get on TV as regularly.

The point is that there are a number of players I’d like to see more often than I do. With that in mind, here’s my list of the top-10 guys I want to see more of as soon as possible.

10. Danny Granger (Indiana Pacers)
I’ll be honest. Granger is the reason I was inspired to write this column. His 32-point effort last night led the way for Indiana’s upset of the Lakers. I couldn’t pick Granger out of a lineup because the Pacers have gone MIA since the departures of Reggie Miller, Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson. But he is the leading scorer for a team that just became the first to defeat both teams from last year’s NBA Finals.

9. O.J. Mayo (Memphis Grizzlies)
I didn’t get a chance to see him play much at USC, and now he’s buried in the NBA’s purgatory that is Memphis. Is he a legitimate franchise player or someone looking to play a franchise for money? I’m not sold on him, but I need to see more game action before I lay down my verdict.

8. Devin Harris (New Jersey Nets)
I wasn’t totally convinced the Mavs made the right deal last year when they shipped Harris to New Jersey for Jason Kidd, but it was because of Kidd’s age not Harris’ talent. As it turns out, Harris may be the starting point guard for the East All-Stars this year. His play is the primary reason this Nets team is hovering above .500 despite being in so-called “rebuilding” mode according to many preseason predictions.

7. Chris Bosh (Toronto Raptors)
By overshadowing Dwight Howard this past summer for Team USA, Bosh piques my interest. Playing for the only NBA team north of the border doesn’t help his exposure. Neither does being part of the draft class that included LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. But Bosh is a beast, plain and simple.

6. Josh Smith (Atlanta Hawks)
One of the keys to the Hawks pushing the eventual champion Celtics to the brink of elimination last year was Smith’s versatility. He’s one of the game’s best shot blockers and packs a bunch on the offensive end as well. If his maturity ever catches up to his skill set, watch out.

5. Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls)
After watching him struggle against the defense of Kansas in last year’s NCAA championship, I had my doubts and probably would have taken Beasley first overall. Less than 20 games into the season, I think the Bulls made the right decision. Rose is already a leader in Chicago and is primed to make a run at Chris Paul for best point guard of the next decade.

4. Kevin Love (Minnesota Timberwolves)
The third rookie on this list, Love was a personal favorite of mine last season at UCLA. He doesn’t have the prototypical NBA body, but he uses his bulk to his benefit and has a knack for the game rarely seen in a young player. Plus, no one throws an outlet pass like Kevin Love.

3. Kevin Martin (Sacramento Kings)
Speaking of players lacking NBA bodies, Kevin Martin looks more like someone you’d run into at the local YMCA. Listed at 6’7” and 185 pounds, he’s as scrawny as they come. But he’s not your average baller. Martin has averaged better than 20 points per game the past two years, but still doesn’t get any respect when you talk about the best scorers in the league. Playing on the hapless Kings, it’s hard to find Martin on the tube, but he’s definitely worth watching.

2. Rudy Fernandez (Portland Trail Blazers)
My pick for rookie of the year, Fernandez is no newcomer to the game of basketball. A veteran of the Spanish league, he is a big reason why Portland looks poised to make the playoffs this year. Whether it’s throwing down on Dwight Howard or draining from distance, Fernandez is fun to watch.

1. Joe Johnson (Atlanta Hawks)
If you didn’t watch the Boston-Atlanta series last spring, you may still be in the dark about the NBA’s best kept secret, Joe Johnson. I’d put him fourth on my list of players I’d want with the ball when trailing by 1 or 2 points and less than 24 seconds remaining (behind 1. Kobe Bryant, 2. LeBron James, 3. Chris Paul). He’s clutch, able to create of the dribble and a proven scorer. The Hawks are no longer a punch line and the emergence of Joe Johnson as an all-star is a big reason why.

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.