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Shoals Unlimited: These Teams Are For Real

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Welcome to Shoals Unlimited, where Bethlehem will post a long-form piece on basketball once a week.
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Last year, no one would believe that the Hornets -- near the top of the West pretty much all season -- were for real. Even after Chris Paul starting garnishing some MVP buzz, we all were waiting for the other shoe to drop. It did, kind of, when they dropped four of the last six, and ceded the top spot in the conference to the Lakers -- a large market juggernaut with an embarrassment of riches. Sigh of relief for all. ↵

↵Then, of course, New Orleans tore into the playoffs with cold-blooded gusto. The Hornets slaughtered Dallas, a veteran team expected to redeem itself for last year's Warriors debacle, before losing in seven to the Spurs in a series they easily could've won. San Antonio then got run out of town by Kobe and company, which in the end, showed just who deserved that No. 1 seed. Right? ↵

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↵The question is, who is this year's Hornets? What team will win and win and win, but be seen as pretenders to the throne until something (or someone) cuts them down to size? It's like we've so thoroughly absorbed the anti-NBA meme that "the regular season means nothing," that any success, right up till the final weeks, could very well be a mirage. The logic is thoroughly backward: Over so many games, the best teams are bound to lose interest, slack or rest. So that means that mediocre teams can sneak in and dominate? You'd think a larger sample size of games would be decisive evidence, not short playoff series, and especially in the second half, the pudding would be too thick too deny. ↵

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↵Therefore, looking at what little data we have for 2007-08, here's a brief account of what teams might be this year's Hornets: The ones that no one will take seriously until (cliche alert) it's too late. ↵

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↵Atlanta Hawks: Might as well start with the obvious. They put up a brave, Masada-esque fight against the Celtics last April, and then lost Josh Childress. This was a young team on the rise, especially with Al Horford filling out the middle with authority. Now, they're at 6-1 -- without the services of shot-blocking, break-inspiring, morale-boosting Josh Smith, out with an ankle injury for another two or three weeks. They lost their first game of the season Wednesday -- but a last-second shot by Paul Pierce was needed for the Celtics to win. And yet this team, with non-coach Mike Woodson, supposedly gets by on pell-mell talent alone. ↵

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↵Finally, though, I think we can take them seriously. Joe Johnson is perhaps the most team-friendly super-scorer in the league. Horford reigns supreme. Smith's return will be icing on the cake, especially if he's got a solid structure to work around -- instead of being expected to provide that. And most of all, Mike Bibby's contract year has inspired him to show some consistency. This team will be over .500 all year, if not better. ↵

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↵Phoenix Suns: Steve Nash has looked awful. Leandro Barbosa has had like one good game. Boris Diaw is fat and neglected. Coach Terry Porter appears most concerned on making Shaq the key to this team's strategy, arranging everything to maximize the fading big man. This once-poetic team is rudimentary and often disengaged. And yet there's that 6-3 record, with a good shot at hanging around all season and finishing in the top four of the West. ↵

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↵Why? Amare Carsares Stoudemire, my friends. He's pretty much regained all his pre-surgery athleticism, but is a far craftier and more versatile player. In fact, at this point, he can dominate a game even if Nash is playing like his own worst stunt double. Amare's shooting percentage is up in more minutes, he's having an effect on defense, and just generally, he scares the living crap out of opponents. His 49 points against Indiana put the entire league on notice: This man has reached his prime, and with the slightest bit of support can keep his team in contention. A definite MVP candidate. ↵

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↵Cleveland Cavaliers Any regular readers of mine know that I'm forever suspicious of the Cavs, no matter how much they win. Their roster has just been so bad, and their coach needing so many excuses, that I've always felt they benefited from a soft East -- in last year's improved conference, they were right on the borderline between the new elite and all the rest. Yes, I remember when they made the Finals, but let's be real here: They've had a pretty easy path every season, and all it's taken is a few key showings from Bron Bron for them to end up way deeper than they deserve. ↵

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↵However, this year's different. James is playing out of his mind, and as silly as some of this team's ideas have been, the basic philosophy of Bron reaching yet another level, surrounded by competent, creative guards like Delonte West and Mo Williams, is just enough to make me believe. Now, there's some offense to complement that defense and rebounding, as well as a superstar who is truly terrifying at both ends of the court. It would not surprise me at all if Cleveland won the East, and made the Finals. Which is to say, this LeBron, with these wingmen, has just enough to edge out Boston in seven. ↵

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↵Portland Trail Blazers Last year, the Blazers were supposed to stink, then they surprised everyone with a midseason bout of respectability. But, as the Hornets should have, they eventually came back down to earth, largely because of their reliance on jump-shooting. For 2008-09, they were ready to team up LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden, which would catapult them to legitimacy. Not sure if you heard, but Oden's missed a few games, and he hasn't looked great when he has played. ↵

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↵Fortunately, Aldridge has improved greatly in both the power and finesse departments, and rookie Rudy Fernandez has given them unexpectedly strong wing play. They've yet to give significant minutes to rookie Jerryd Bayless, are missing sharp shooter Martell Webster for a while with injury, and have yet to figure out exactly what to do with 2007-08 breakout forward Travis Outlaw. Oh, and there's that Sergio Rodriguez, the team's only true point guard, who is just now beginning to get some burn. Oden or no Oden, this is a young team stocked with talent, energy, and in prime position to get a solid spot in the Western playoffs. ↵

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↵Some of these teams will definitely contend; others, probably not. But you can be sure that, as the season rolls on, and the pundits start questioning the standing or decrying the B.S. regular season, these teams are for real. That much will become clear when the playoff start, and they're still standing. And when that "real" competition starts, they'll prove that those records were anything but an illusion accidentally assembled over six months of happenstance. ↵

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↵(Editor's note: Don't forget, The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, co-authored by Shoals, is available now.)
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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.