Sleepers, keepers and NBA weepers

Santo Caruso

With the NHL on strike, the NBA has a mortal lock on the attention of sports viewers as soon as the football season ends. With utter confidence and absolutely no credentials , I will make my fearless (and somewhat abbreviated, I don’t have nearly enough space) picks for the season.

Least no more

Atlantic: Should be the worst division in basketball, but wait for the Southeast. No real dominant team, and all of them have huge questions. But if any group can provide solid answers they can run away with the crown.

Pick: Boston – Paul Pierce is probably the best player in this division, and assuming the Glove can find some inspiration, the Celtics can win.

Sleeper: Look out for the Sixers. AI is back at the point where he has always belonged, and their young talent is blossoming quickly in Samuel Dalembert, Willie Green and first round pick Andre Iguodala. Iguodala is looking like a steal in the draft, and with the Big Dog staying on the bench the Sixers will score and play better defense.

Central: A little more talent in this division, best by far in the East. Indiana and Detroit should battle all season (assuming Jermaine O’Neal can stay healthy). Cleveland is a chic pick, but I think Boozer’s betrayal will hurt a lot more than people think. Milwaukee can play and Chicago has the big men and youth to stir up some trouble towards the end of the season.

Pick: Detroit – Can’t go against the champs yet, though I don’t think they improved much with Derrick “Are you going to eat that donut” Coleman and injury prone Antonio McDyess. But if you play D and are able to win with your third overall pick on the bench, you can win the East.

Sleeper: Besides Indiana, the true sleeper is Chicago. I love Kirk Heinrich, a 4 year college player, running the point dishing to Tyson Chandler (please please, play like a seven footer) and Eddie Curry. Plus you have Chris Duhon and Ben Gordon, two more seasoned college players, and Luol Deng, an extremely versatile (but small) forward from Duke. They won’t come within 10 games of first, but I see them picking up a low seed due to a late run.

Southeast: What if Miami didn’t get Shaq? How awful would this division be? With that said, forget every team not in Florida. Orlando may be worth watching because first pick overall, Dwight Howard, is getting rave reviews, but watch Shaq break the beanpole from Atlanta in half when he faces his first team.

Pick: Miami – Ever since he left, the East has lacked a dominating big man like Shaquille O’Neal. Dwayne Wade will learn what it is like to pass to someone who will always finish, and Wade is about as good a young player as there is in the league. Could use a few more role players, and a backup center who can play some D for the inevitable games where Shaq is hurt or fouls out.

Sleeper: Me, during every Atlanta vs. Charlotte matchup all season.

The Best (the West)

Northwest: This is a young fun division. Carmelo Anthony is a little overrated (he has to learn to play a more defense, and take better shots), but with Kenyon Martin backing him up with some hard nosed ballin’, expect a bigger year from him. Carlos Arroyo proved he can play, and Andrei Kirilenko has the best nickname in basketball (Ak-47, it works on so many levels). Seattle still shoots the lights out, and Portland is always good for a drug arrest.

Pick: Minnesota is the real deal. Kevin Garnett is taking over as the most complete player in basketball (sorry Tim Duncan, but you don’t have quite the outside game or athleticism of the Big Ticket). Spreewell, if he can shut his mouth, is a good second option, Sam Cassell is a great third option and reliable point guard, and the team has the role players (Mark Madsen, Wally Szerbiak and Michael Olowakandi if anyone needs to towel underneath the basket) to play well. The only knock is the lack of a strong center, their age and the potential for Spreewell to choke Flip Saunders to death.

Sleeper: Denver is a very popular pick, and a very good team. So I’ll go against this wisdom and take Utah. Good point guard in Arroyo, great swingman who can fill the stat sheet in Kirelenko and some serviceable big men. I say they finish third, but give Denver a run for their money

Pacific: Very strong from top to bottom, and everything hinges on how good the Lakers can be. Sacramento is getting old, and Chris Webber is slowly losing the talents that had him considered one of the best players in the league.

Pick: Sacramento – Peja can still out score almost anyone in the league, Bibby should have a better year and Bobby Jackson would start on any other team. The Maloofs have the money to improve the team, and the loudest gym in the NBA, so the Kings always have a chance to win.

Sleeper: It’s easy to say Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, and I think they have a better team from 3-12 than last year, but there is something about the Phoenix Suns. They are like the anti-Knicks. They have a point guard who makes good passes and shoots at the right time in Steve Nash, a great big man in Amare Stoudamire and several swingmen who are neither undersized nor overrated (Shawn Marion, Quentin Richardson and Joe Johnson). Watch Maciej Lampe, who could learn from Nash how to play the NBA point.

Southwest: A very balanced and intriguing division. Like a combination of the talent of the Pacific and the youth of the Northwest, the Southwest may be the toughest pick.

Pick: San Antonio – Tim Duncan is still the best big man in the league, and Tony Parker might be a bit of a head case (he seems to play well in some situations and completely collapse in others) but he can play.

Sleeper: Houston probably improved the most of any team in the league, and are a solid pick, Dallas has an owner who will spend all of his money and dignity to improve (unless it means paying for players who can play defense). But a real sleeper is the Memphis Grizzlies. Pau Gasol can do everything, Stromile Swift has a great name and they have the Jason Williams that neither killed anyone nor crashed his motorcycle. They can run the floor or breakdown and into a solid half-court offense because of walking corpse Hubie Brown. If they make the playoffs watch them knock off an overrated, old, or injured team in the first round (paging Chris Webber, Chris Webber).

That’s it. Within a week it will be obsolete, but at least I tried.