Then & Now: Your Weekly NBA Digest, 3/16

↵Welcome to Then & Now, where Shoals sums up the week in NBA hoops and tells you what to ↵look for. Find it here every Sunday (usually) evening. ↵
↵Financial Buzzer-Beaters: Alas, 2009 brings a new class of late season intrigue, brought on by this nation's wreck of an economy: the uncertainty of whether or not a team will even be in the same city for next year. This week, you had the Hornets revealing that their strong ticket sales means they won't need any state money—a civic line of defense against losing Chris Paul.
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↵Conversely, the Pacers can no longer afford to operate Conseco Field House, and The Boston Globe reports that the Kings are contemplating a move to Anaheim now that the days of endless sell-outs are over. Pretty clear message here: Put together an exciting, young team, and it doesn't matter if your city's lost a lot of its population and still bears the scars of a national disaster. ↵
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↵Two Horse Race: LeBron puts together three straight triple-doubles and then has to settle for 51 and the division title over the weekend. Not to be outdone, Dwyane Wade drops 50 in an epic 3-OT win over Utah. Meanwhile, there's Kobe, putting up somewhat more modest (but still superhuman) numbers and leading the Lakers to win after win. There seem to be two schools: Those who think it's LeBron or Wade, and those torn between James and Kobe.
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↵I suspect, though, that while everyone's witnessing Bron, there are a lot of people either still sleeping on Wade or taking Kobe for granted. ↵
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↵Sympathy for Larry Hughes: Hughes—who with Cleveland established himself as one of the NBA's most overpaid, and ineffective, guards, maybe even the new Tim Thomas—is turned his career around in New York. Cynics will no doubt chalk this sudden improvement up to "the D'Antoni effect," which inflates stats and creates optical illusions.
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↵And while, Hughes's size, versatility, and preference for the wide-open game make him a good fit for these Knicks, maybe it's also we ask if the Cavs misunderstood his strengths. Or if Hughes would ever make sense in an offense that pretty much limited everyone but LeBron to one-dimensional roles. The Bulls, predictably, just lazily bought into the conventional wisdom about Hughes. ↵
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↵FILM CRITIC: ↵
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↵Don't think of this as "Jason Richardson tried to get fancy and that's why he got blocked." Try this on for size: Richardson, one of the league's premier dunkers and a two-time Dunk Contest champion, thought he had the space and time to put on a show. LeBron erased that in a heartbeat. Again: Richardson made a judgment call based on past experience and his own considerable physical gifts. Then he discovered that, with LeBron James around, all those old calculation ain't worth a thing. ↵
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↵LOOKING AHEAD: ↵
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↵-Delonte West is out after missing a game with a back issue. You have to wonder if Delonte's going to be at 100% going into the playoffs, since without him, they're not nearly the same powerhouse. You underestimate Delonte at your own peril. The flip side of that is the Celtics, whose own injury issues are keeping them from winning games -- and might cost them home court against, presumably, the Cavs. Remember when the Celts were on pace to break the all-time single season wins record? The equation that emerge: Is a Delonte-less Cavs with home court greater than a fully-loaded Celts on the road? ↵
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↵(I'm fairly confident that, even if Boston falls behind Orlando, it'll still come down to this Cavs question.) ↵
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↵-Even if you're like me, and could care less about college ball except for when there's a Kevin Durant or Michael Beasley wreaking havoc, watch this month's NCAA games. Because even though scouts have been following these players for years, very often it's the next few weeks that make or break a guy's draft status, and sometimes rocket him up into the lottery. If you closely follow the weirdness that is the fluctuations of draft stock in June, there's no reason you can't approach March Madness in the same way—even if the games have football scores. ↵
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↵-Some pretty amazing numbers coming out of the West this time. Phoenix is fading fast, and Dallas has found their rhythm, which means the eight for the playoffs are looking set. Check this, though: Lakers on top, Spurs—the other powerhouse—8.5 games behind. Then Dallas, seed eight, are 13.5 games back. A mere 5.5 games separate the second seed from the eighth, and if assume San Antonio's on another tier and start with Houston (currently third, and 11 games back), you a get 2.5 games separating the third from the eighth.
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↵We're used to seeing a tight Western Conference, but what's most telling about it this season is that all of them teams not named Lakers or Spurs are somewhat unstable, recently coming into their own, or just plain inconsistent. This doesn't just show how competitive it is, but much is still up for grabs.↵

This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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