Most sports fans I know complain that NBA games are no fun, that they are not as good or as entertaining as college basketball games. This is a fallacy. While college basketball boasts an entertaining format for deciding a national championship and for gambling, the skill level in college basketball simply cannot match that of the NBA. Moreover, with the rise of high school and foreign players, the college ranks lose out on many of the greatest players before they can matriculate.
Spectators are drawn to the college game not because of the great basketball, but because of the possibility that anything could happen, especially during the NCAA tournament. Of course, this unpredictability is aided by the single elimination format of the tournament.
With a new season under way, NBA fans across the country have hopes that the professional competition will be just as unpredictable. Here are the teams I believe will buck their recent trends by making the playoffs this season:
Phoenix Suns? Last year, the Suns were among the worst teams in the Western Conference. In the offseason, Phoenix focused on a small group of players whom they thought could change the team's fortunes, eventually getting Dallas Mavericks point guard Steve Nash and Los Angeles Clippers guard Quentin Richardson.
It looks as though the new guys have already begun to make a difference. Although they blew a large lead in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night, the Suns have started out the season 4-1, absolutely dismantling opponents' defenses. So far, they lead the NBA in scoring with 107 points a game, not surprising when one can trot out offensive threats the likes of Nash, Richardson, forward Shawn Marion, forward Amare Stoudemire, and the emerging Joe Johnson.
However, they also lead the NBA in scoring differential, beating teams by an average of 17.4 points per game, meaning that they are playing pretty competent defense. If this team can continue to play this way, look for them to be playing into May and possibly even June.
Utah Jazz? Perhaps this team shouldn't be considered a sleeper. Last year, though widely considered to have the worst starting five in the West, they fell just short of the playoffs in a three-team race for eighth place in the Western Conference. In the offseason, they landed two major prizes, forward Carlos Boozer and the talented Mehmet Okur. So far, the team has jumped out to a 4-1 start on the season.
Unlike the flashy Phoenix Suns, Utah, led by coach Jerry Sloan, is a team that wins based on an adeptness for basketball fundamentals. The player who embodies this focus on fundamentals best is the versatile Andrei Kirilenko, who fills up the stat sheet with his balanced game. Again, it success is reflected in its scoring differential, as it has dominated teams, winning by an average of almost 15 points a game.
Orlando Magic? Yeah, you read right. The Orlando Magic, losers of seventeen straight games last year and the worst team in the NBA, have a legitimate shot at the playoffs this year. After their terrible season, the Magic knew that they could not win with this team and decided it was time to shake things up. So they traded the greatest offensive weapon in the game, Tracy McGrady, at the peak of his dominance. A move like this usually comes back to haunt teams, but this move may work out for the Magic.
In addition to shipping away McGrady, the team also got traded away of undersized point guard Tyronn Lue and underperforming forward Juwan Howard. In return, they received guards Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley and forward Kelvin Cato, all solid players who constituted the heart of the Rockets several years ago. The other big offseason development for the Magic could be a return to health for the once dominant Grant Hill.
Francis has been stellar for the Magic so far. Included in his 18.6 points per game average is a game winning drive and lay-up. Hill scored 24 points against the Wizards in a losing effort Wednesday. If Hill stays healthy all year and returns to even a shadow of his former self, the Magic have a very good chance of making the playoffs this year and displacing either the dysfunctional New York Knicks or one of last year's surprises, the Milwaukee Bucks.
Washington Wizards? After two good offseasons, the Washington Wizards seem ready to compete for a playoff spot in the weak Eastern Conference. Last offseason they landed the dynamic point guard Gilbert Arenas as a free agent, giving their team a much needed star. This offseason the Wizards finally rid themselves of two perennial disappointments with large contracts in Christian Laettner and Jerry Stackhouse. They added the powerful Antawn Jamison in a trade from the mercurial Dallas Mavericks and the starting lineup actually looks pretty good.
With guard Larry Hughes finally playing up to his potential and Jarvis Hayes and Brendan Haywood playing the frontcourt, this team could surprise many teams this year. Entering play Thursday, the Wizards are 3-2, having defeated my other East sleeper, the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night. After many years of poor coaching, terrible drafting, and mismanagement, the Washington Wizards look ready to take the next step.
With any luck, the changing fortunes of the NBA will help draw some fans back to the game, and raise the fan base closer to its era of greatest popularity, the 1980s as there is just as much entertainment and excitement in the game now as ever.