Now that we've reached late May on the NBA calendar, a quick inventory check reminds us that the LeBron James Tampering Fine Derby ranks as the league's most compelling competition.
Mark Cuban still checks in as the favorite in that event, but only because David Stern may not have the authority to sanction President Barack Obama.
Anyway, while this LeBron conjecture tour is being launched, we also are being treated to some remarkably dynamic playoff failure. With apologies to James, who seemed to go zombie in a Game 5 loss to the Boston Celtics that left his Cleveland Cavaliers reeling through a Game 6 elimination, the most grand exit strategy is the one currently proffered by the Orlando Magic. The Magic may not be officially dead just yet, but next of kin have been summoned.
In bowing down or out ungracefully to the high-riding Celtics, the Magic and Cavaliers are marching in front of a disturbing trend. Good teams behaving badly ... or at least playing badly. It should be noted that we really are knee deep in a trend and not just overreacting to the Celtics' systematic clubbing of the two teams with the league's best regular-season records.
Sure, the C's deserve credit for spanking the 61-win Cavaliers, then turning around and taking the heart from an Orlando Magic team that won 59 games, swept two playoff series and then allowed Boston to seize its will. The Celtics, however, were the Eastern Conference's fourth seed, meaning yet another regular-season toughie went out with a whimper.
Right, that would be the Atlanta Hawks, who were swept onto fishing boats and golf courses by the Magic. And the Hawks, mind you, were obliged to play seven not-exactly-scintillating first-round games in their bid to knock off a Milwaukee Bucks team that was playing without star center Andrew Bogut.
Before indicting an entire conference (the Charlotte Bobcats and Miami Heat hardly set the playoff world on fire), let's note that a few Western Conference hotshots were seen slinking away from the playoffs as well. Taking a curtsy on their way out were the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks.
Let's examine these ugly playoff departures on a case-by-case basis, beginning with Orlando.
OK, the Magic are producing one of the most-difficult-to-witness playoff folds we've seen in a while. Perhaps we were duped into higher expectations following the 59 victories, stellar second half of the regular season and consecutive sweeps of the less-than-mighty Bobcats and Hawks.
The Magic started looking tragic in Game 1 of the Eastern finals, losing in Orlando. Point guard Jameer Nelson, who killed Charlotte and cruised through Atlanta, was pretty good in the opener, but Dwight Howard was neutralized while pricey "stretch" four-man Rashard Lewis was exposed.
With Kevin Garnett using his experience, length and returning mobility to close out -- under control -- on skip or reversal passes to Lewis, the Orlando forward has had few clean looks from beyond the arc. He also lacks the handle and shake to get past KG and either finish inside or pull up from mid-range.
Howard, it's been obvious, has been working on a drop-spin move that he finishes by turning over his right shoulder to shoot with his left hand. Unfortunately, he hasn't worked on this enough to make a shot consistently. He missed most of 'em in Game 1, but was allowed to turn over his left shoulder for a right-handed jump hook that often went in during Game 2. Dwight had 30 points in that one, but Boston didn't care enough to double-team him, so Orlando's spot-up gunners had few pristine looks at the rim.
When the series resumed in Boston, Celtics center Kendrick Perkins did a better job of forcing Howard back over his right shoulder and was able to team with Rasheed Wallace in limiting Dwight to seven points. With the Magic seemingly weary of listening to Coach Stan Van Gundy's pleading for passion on defense and ball movement on offense, they looked like a team that had quit early in Game 3.
With NBA basketball often registering as tremendously simple, the variables that really matter are as follows: The goal of the offense is to force the defense to get into rotation by dribble penetration, post-ups or isolations that force double-teaming and screen-roll schemes. Teams that prevail are those that anticipate these situations on defense and execute timely rotations -- this means any teammate who leaves his man to help is helped in the same manner by a third teammate who does so at the proper time. And so on.
The Celtics have been textbook in their rotations on defense and one pass ahead of them on offense. The Magic have been dreadful. Some of this has been caused by coaching, but, with so many teams running similar schemes, the greatest difference in teams is talent and heart. Howard is a great athlete with limited offensive skill and some of his teammates are really good players. But Boston has three future Hall of Famers now enjoying ample rest between games, and a red-hot young point guard in Rajon Rondo.
As the blame is skillfully passed around by Orlando's critics, we find the addition of Vince Carter and departure of Hedo Turkoglu added to the criticism of Howard and Lewis. But the healthy existence of Nelson, who was eating up lesser teams as a scorer, may deserve some credit for the Magic's 0-3 hole. Nelson missed most of the 2009 postseason while pass-first veteran Rafer Alston was running a Magic show that reached the Finals.
With defenders staying at home on post-ups to Howard, Nelson exists as Van Gundy's next option for creating shots. With Rondo too nasty to be taken straight up off the bounce, Van Gundy has attempted to get Nelson into the lane using ball screens.
It's too bad that Nelson seemingly refuses to aggressively turn the corner and attack the defense.
And when Orlando's on defense, no amount of rotational strategy can overcome a lack of effort.
We now move to Cleveland, where James eventually looked mortal, while the additions of Mo Williams last year and Antawn Jamison this year obviously were not enough to ride shotgun into the Finals. Ultimately, Boston's Doc Rivers smoked Cavaliers coach Mike Brown in the adjustment arena, with Brown's inability to get the ball to LBJ off the move proving deadly. Boston's pack-line defense limited LeBron off the dribble, and the Cavs' shooters didn't come through when he gave up the ball.
Our next stop is Atlanta, where the Hawks' disinterest in defending at a playoff level could have been predicted. Atlanta had nobody capable of staying in front of Nelson, and the myth that Orlando was just too stinking big seems lame. Sure, Howard is taller than Atlanta post man Al Horford and can leap to the moon, but Al's only a bit more than an inch shorter and is a pretty tough customer.
Orlando's Lewis, at the four spot, certainly had no rim-level edge on Josh Smith, but sometimes observers forget that defense is a lot more than blocking shots.
Over in Miami, the Heat went down to Boston in five, but only because a superstar turn by Dwyane Wade saved Game 4. Charlotte was swept by Orlando despite Howard committing 22 fouls and spending about half of the series on the bench. Bobcats Coach Larry Brown couldn't find the right way to prevent Nelson from looking like the second coming of Isiah Thomas.
The first big flop in the Western Conference was provided by the second-seeded Mavericks, who reminded sharpies that they actually are older than the Spurs. The Spurs had too much quickness on the perimeter, Tim Duncan on the inside and the soon-to-follow blessing many of experts expecting them to challenge the Los Angeles Lakers.
Before having an opportunity to line up against the Lakers, the Spurs were swept by the historically doomed Phoenix Suns, who were playing without starting center Robin Lopez.
On the other side of the Western bracket, the 53-win Nuggets, working without Coach George Karl, eased on down the road by losing to the Jazz. With point guard Deron Williams inspiring many league watchers to declare him the league's best at that position, the Jazz were swept by the Lakers. At least they could use an injury to Mehmet Okur (Achilles, Game 1 at Denver) as something of an alibi.
The first two games of the Western finals were exercises in tardy defensive rotations by the Suns, who rode a better-late-than-never uprising by Amar'e Stoudemire to beat L.A. in Game 3. Having little chance of guarding the Lakers man to man, the Suns went to a zone in the second quarter and the defending champs didn't attack it. They went inside-out and shredded the zone for 37 points in the third quarter, then went back to minimal player and ball movement in the decisive fourth quarter.
Even though the effectiveness of their zone was created by the Lakers' mental and tactical lapses, at least the Suns look like they're refusing to go ... not just refusing to go quietly.