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Stunning Spurs

When people talk about the best teams in the NBA, the first name they mention is rarely San Antonio. But guess what? The Spurs are rolling along again, leading the league with a 43-12 record and getting little respect as a contender for the championship.

It's amazing. No team in pro sports gets less respect that Gregg Popovich's bunch. The only real attention they got this year was when Popovich dared to leave four of his best players home for a nationally televised game against the Heat. People strain to find reasons to believe the Knicks or Pacers or Clippers might win the title. Hardly anyone points to the team with the best record and says, "How about them?"

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Donaghy Interview

There's one man who should be happy about the media frenzy over Tiger Woods' transgressions: NBA commissioner David Stern. If not for the public obsession with Woods, there would have been a lot more attention paid to the 60 Minutes interview this past Sunday with disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy.

Donaghy admitted in his interview that he showed horrible judgment by betting on NBA games. But what is even more amazing is that Donaghy won his wagers 70 to 80 percent of the time -- and investigations by the FBI and the NBA concluded that he did it without using his powers as an official to affect the outcome of the games in which he worked and also placed a wager.

It's extremely hard to win betting the NBA. If you hit 55 percent, you're doing well. Donaghy used his inside knowledge of league officiating -- the biases of certain officials toward players and owners, the randomness of calls, the way NBA refs tend to favor the home team -- to win at an astonishingly high rate.

His actions were reprehensible. Donaghy admits that. It hurt his family and cost him his career. But if you believe his claims about NBA officiating -- and the FBI did -- it casts the league in a very negative light. In effect, Donaghy is saying that NBA officiating is corrupt by its very nature. It's a tough game to officiate consistently. But Donaghy has revealed the dirty secret: Calls aren't always made objectively, or without individual bias.

Yes,  Donaghy's comments can be dismissed as self-serving. But the 60 Minutes interview dealt a body blow to the NBA's reputation. Critics will observe the officiating with a more suspicious eye -- not necesssarily because a former ref bet on games, but because he was so intimately familiar with the flaws and biases of league officials that he could accurately predict the outcome of three-quarters of the games. Against the spread.

Toss it up and let's run

I remember looking out on the court during the United States' victory over Greece at the Beijing Olympics. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade were on the floor together, and it just didn't seem fair. It was hard to imagine three basketball players of such surpassing skill playing on the same team at the same time. I'll admit, it was hard to decide which of the three NBA greats was the best player of the three. I've gone back and forth in my oime. wn mind, and it's never an easy call.

But if I had to choose, I'd go with James. He'd certainly be my choice if I had one player to build an NBA team around. Amazing as it seems, he's only 23. He turns 24 in December. Last year, LeBron averaged 30 points. over 7 rebounds and 7 assists. I think he's still getting better. He"s not as good a pure shooter as Bryant or Wade, but he's a physical freak who can score and make the players around him better. Look at the team that was around him when he willed the Cavs to the NBA Finals two years ago.

Ultimately, players are judged by championships. Wade carried Miami to a title. He's an extraordinary talent. Bryant has won three, but he had Shaquille O'Neal every time. Bryant needs to lift this current Lakers team to another championship to cement his reputation as a great team player. James will eventually win NBA titles and be regarded as one of the top five players of all time. Maybe he'll have to leave Cleveland and go somewhere else to prove it.

Who's your lock? Celtics or Lakers

So the NBA gets its dream matchup: The Lakers vs. the Celtics in a reprise of the great rivalry of the 1980s. The series, which begins Thursday, should be close and hotly contested. The teams seem to be fairly evenly matched. Both teams are better defensively than people realize. The Celtics' defense has been the key to their season. They're not that polished an offensive team. They rely too much on the jump shot. It will be a battle of two superstars who had good arguments for MVP this year: Kobe Bryant (who won it) and Kevin Garnett. I think it comes down to the team with the better superstar and the superior coach. The Lakers win on both counts. Bryant is on a mission to prove he can win the title without Shaquille O'Neal. Phil Jackson has won nine championships. Yes, he had Michael Jordan, but every championship coach has great players and it's time to concede that Jackson is one of the best ever. I like the Lakers in seven. So who do you like? The Lakers are a solid favorite (-175), but the Celtics did have the best record in the league this year and have the home-court advantage.

Sad Shaq

After watching the Pistons drill the Suns by 30 at Phoenix on Sunday, I'm even more convinced that the Suns aren't winning anything with Shaquille O'Neal. The big guy is out of his element on that team, and they simply don't play the same dynamic style with him on the court. I know it's early and Shaq will need some time to blend in with his new teammates, but I don't see it working in a playoff series. For one thing, they're a weak defensive team. When Steve Nash, Amare Stoudamire and Shaq are on the court together, a sharp offensive team will cut them up. Grant Hill isn't getting any younger, either. The Suns will lose in the first round of the playoffs, mark it down.

Dilapidated Shaq

The Suns' trade for Shaquille O'Neal is a desperate move by a Phoenix team that knows its championship window is closing. Steve Nash is still near the top of his game, but he's slowing down. The Western Conference is getting tougher by the day and the Suns will have their hands full in the first round of the playoffs, which could be among the most competitive in memory.

I don't see O'Neal taking this team to the next level. The Suns love to run and O'Neal is a broken-down, injury-plagued shell of his former self. He'll be 36 in March. He's over the hill. He was not that big a factor in Miami's surprising title run two years ago. He'll slow down the Suns, who will miss Shawn Marion's outside shooting and all-around athletic skills.

It seems like Phoenix felt it had to respond to the Lakers' trade for Pau Gasol, a soft but skilled big man who will make LA a much more dangerous team in the playoffs. If Andrew Bynum comes back, the Lakers will have a formidable front line of Gasol, Bynum and Lamar Odom. Oh, and then there's Kobe Bryant. The Suns are a weak defensive team, especially in the frontcourt, and will struggle to match up with centers in the West. Amare Stoudemire is a woeful post defender. Shaq isn't much better at his age.

The Suns are still vulnerable to an upset and don't figure to last beyond the second round. Hey, do you suppose the NBA suits are drooling at the prospect of a Lakers-Celtics final?

NBA At The Break

Here's a quick quiz question for you: As of Friday, which NBA team was first in the Western Conference, trailing only the Celtics in the overall standings? Was it Dallas? Phoenix? The defending champion Spurs? No, it was none other than the New Orleans Hornets, a team that didn't even have a home the last two years and has the second-lowest attendance in the league (Indiana is last). The Hornets played in Oklahoma City for two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.

New Orleans is riding the transcendent play of third-year guard Chris Paul, who is making a case for himself as the top point guard in the game. The Hornets are also getting strong performances from forward David West, center Tyson Chandler and veteran off guard Peja Stojakovic, who is lighting it up again from three-point range. Clearly, Paul is making everyone around him better.

Paul is one of the mid-season favorites for MVP, along with Boston's Kevin Garnett, Cleveland's LeBron James, the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, Phoenix's Nash and Orlando's Dwight Howard. I'll give you my mid-season MVP in Sunday's News, along with other observations on the league at the midpoint.

Any thoughts on MVP? Is there anyone I've missed who deserves consideration?

NBA, anyone?

Well, we're into the New Year and I have yet to blog on the NBA. This isn't for a lack of interest. I covered the NBA in the glory days of the 1980s and still follow it as closely as I can. For pure hoop entertainment, I'll take it over a regular-season college game any time -- though I still call the NCAA Tournament the greatest event in sports. The pro game isn't as compelling as it used to be (what sport is nowadays?), but there are still a lot of very good teams and exciting players to watch.

To some extent, I've fallen victim to the News' decision to downplay coverage of the NBA. It's the only one of the four major sports where our paper doesn't publish game accounts. We only run box scores. We'll run stories on drab, meaningless college bowl games, but nothing that will tell an NBA fan whether the Blazers continued their winning streak, or how a team managed to get a game into overtime, or why Dwyane Wade didn't show up in the box score.

So I'll ask you this: Do you care? Is there anyone out there who objects to the fact that the News doesn't run game roundups? The NBA fans on the staff (McKissic, Wilson and I are on top of the list) have complained to management, to no avail. The sport gets treated as a second-class citizen in our paper. I know we have space issues, but I think it's ill-advised to trivialize a sport that appeals to the young audience we say we're trying to attract. And how is this playing in the black community, where the NBA is extremely popular? Do African-Americans perceive this as a slight?

There must be some NBA fans out there. The games are televised here on cable. I don't believe there's a significantly larger audience for an NHL game (non-Sabres) than a good NBA game. Let me know what you think, and try to be as civil as possible.

NBA preview

The NBA season gets under way Tuesday night, and to mark the occasion, the News will preview the coming season in tomorrow's paper. Allen Wilson, Rodney "Rock" McKissic and I, our three ardent NBA-watchers, will kick around 10 of the burning questions that are looming as the new season begins. Check it out and feel free to contribute your own thoughts on the blog. I love the NBA and feel it doesn't get its due in our town. But we know you hoop lovers are out there. Don't hesitate to keep your NBA thoughts coming. Go at each other, but try to keep the insults to a minimum -- unless you're taking shots at the Lakers, of course.