Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Pistons clinch the Central

The Detroit Pistons clinched the NBA's Central Division with a win over Atlanta that moved them to 53-13. That win puts the Pistons on pace for a 65-win season. Detroit has won an amazing 80% of their games.

What is interesting is that this is basically the same squad that won the NBA Championship two years ago and took San Antonio to seven games in last year's NBA Finals. The Pistons overwhelmed a fractured Los Angeles Lakers team in part thanks to Kobe Bryant hogging the ball rather than allowing Shaquille O'Neal to dominate inside. This led some to say that the Pistons were a fluke champion.

Well, Detroit proved in 2005 that they were not a fluke champion, and they erased any lingering doubt by being so dominant in the regular season this year. Even with a new coach and a new system, Detroit came out and proved the critics wrong. They did it with a great defense and strong team play, with Chauncey Billups increasing his scoring by 2.5 points per game for a career high of 19 ppg. Billups is also averaging 2.9 more assists per game over last year, which was a career high at the time.

Other than the Miami Heat, I do not think anyone else in the East has the ability to beat Detroit in a seven-game series. Detroit defeated the Heat in Miami in Game 7 of last year's Eastern Conference Finals, and barring the unlikely event of a complete collapse Detroit will have home court this year. However, Duane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal were both hampered by injuries, and if both are healthy a series between the two teams could be a real barnburner. I predict Detroit will beat Miami in 6 games for a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.

The West is a little more open, with three dominant teams that have a legitimate chance to play in June. San Antonio is as good as they were last year and Dallas has been better than I expected. Pheonix has been a surprise, remaining an elite team without their young star Amare Stoudemire. Any of the three teams could represent the West in the Finals.

While I do not think the Los Angeles Clippers will win the West, they could be a major spoiler in the first round. Either Dallas or San Antonio will up as the fourth seed and face the Clippers, a team that has been much better since Sam Cassell came to town. LAC power forward Elton Brand is an MVP candidate. Neither Dallas nor San Antionio want to face the Clippers in the first round.

This would not be a possibility if not for the NBA's revamped division system. Since the winners of each division are guaranteed the top three spots, you could very well have the #3 seed have the fifth or even sixth best record in the league. The NBA should go back to the four-division system, which would lessen the chance of these kinds of bizarre rankings.