The NBA All Star break may not be the exact midpoint of the season, but it is the marking point of the start of the more important part of the season: the stretch run! While there is a lot of basketball left, it is still a key time for handicappers because many teams are focused on division titles and playoff seeding. And other teams know their season is shot and could begin to put out less of an effort, or even try young kids and new combinations while looking ahead to next season. The Kings are a team that has already shown some life. At present, the organization is happy with newcomer Ron Artest, who brings energy to any ball club (before he wears out his welcome). The Kings bring a 6-3 SU, 7-1-1 ATS run into the start of play this week. A few weeks ago Artest guaranteed a playoff berth.
I don't know if they will make it, but it clearly wasn't idle talk -- this team is playing hard and much better. The team that traded Artest -- Indiana -- also has some hope with Peja Stojakovic happy and contributing. The Pacers are 5-1 SU, 6-0 ATS the last 6 games. The Houston Rockets are another team to keep a close eye on. They've underachieved this season because of injuries to star players Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. But both are healthy now and Rafer Alston (6.
5 apg) has been a big plus as a ball handler. And this team always plays tough defense for demanding coach Jeff Van Gundy, even though they've been up and down and unpredictable at times. But they are within sight of the final playoff spot in the West along with such teams as the Lakers and Jazz. Houston brings a 6-2 SU/3-5 ATS run into this week. I wrote about the Mavericks and Spurs last week, and those teams are locked in a duel for the No.
1 and 2 seeds in the West. Don't look for either of those talented teams to go through the motions between now and playoff time. On the other end of the spectrum are dead teams that are far closer to the draft lottery than the playoffs. Orlando is a team that just oozes lethargy. Coach Brian Hill has never impressed anyone as a coach from his days in Vancouver and the old Orlando days with Shaq and Penny Hardaway (they were big favorites under Hill to win the 1995 NBA Finals and were swept by the Rockets).
They just pulled off a trade, too, dumping Kelvin Cato and a No. 1 draft pick for guard Carlos Arroyo and 20-year old 7-foot Darko Milicic, the former No. 2 pick in the draft. It stands to reason the Magic youth movement has begun and they will have to play Milicic to see if he was worth the #2 draft selection. Orlando is on a 1-10 SU/3-8 ATS run, so why not play the kids? They couldn't be any worse. Unhappy Kevin Garnett and Minnesota is on a 2-7 SU/ATS run.
The chemistry on the club is awful and the cost-cutting measures (getting rid of Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell) has made them far worse. Another Northwest Division club that's a mess is Seattle, and they should only get worse. Bob Weiss was fired after 30 games in which he was 13-17.
Since then, the new coach is 7-16. There are reports of roster moves and changes in the Seattle papers as the Sonics will be trying new combinations of players, all of which is a bad sign. The Sonics are big money burners on the road at 8-19 SU/8-19 ATS. Boston is on a 2-7 SU/ATS run and begins the second half of the season on the West coast. They've been awful on the road all season and it's difficult to imagine a worse scenario for the Celtics than a long road trip right now.
And the poor Knicks have been a nightmare in Larry Brown's first year as coach, currently riding a 2-15 SU/4-13 ATS run. There will be firings and changes over the next few months and the only one safe might be Brown, a brilliant coach who jumped into an impossible situation. Good luck, as always.
Al McMordie. .
By: Big Al McMordie