Sports Beat, 4-17-08

--The Lakers got the ideal draw heading into the Western Conference playoffs. While every team in the West won at least 50 games, and only 7 games separated the top-seeded Lakers from the 8th-seeded Nuggets, the Lakers match up well with Denver. The Lakers swept the season series without Pau Gasol, and the Nuggets are dealing with the distractions from Carmelo Anthony's recent DUI. The Nuggets play an exciting brand of basketball under George Karl, reminiscant of Paul Westhead's up-and-down shoot-first system, but that style is prone to mistakes and doesn't seem to be effective defensively.

If the Lakers get by Denver, then the winner of Houston and Utah awaits. Both teams had terrific seasons, but the Rockets have come back down to earth since their 22-game winning streak came to an end. Without Yao Ming, they just don't have a reliable inside force, and will struggle to guard Pau Gasol. Utah is as tough as any team in the NBA at home, but the Lakers would have the home-court advantage in that series, and they already have a win in Salt Lake City without Gasol.

I like how the Lakers matchup against the other potential Western Conference Finals foes, with the exception of San Antonio. The Spurs are the most disciplined and experienced team in the West, and if I were a betting man, then I would place money on them. Still, they have to get by Phoenix and possibly New Orleans or Dallas. At the end of the day though, the Lakers got the best draw of any team in the West, and that should take them to at least the conference finals.

--There has been much speculation about whether or not Kobe Bryant should be the MVP this season, and I strongly feel that he should. There's no question that Chris Paul of the Hornets has had a remarkable season, but Kobe's season has been absolutely incredible. The Lakers got better this year because Bryant finally learned how to make his teammates better, and he had to integrate Andrew Bynum and then Pau Gasol into the offense while still keeping his team at the top of the deepest and toughest conference in years. The MVP Award should go to the player who is most valuable to the league, not necessarily to an individual team, and it's hard to argue there is a better player out there right now than Bryant. If he doesn't win the award, then it may have more to do with the voters' personal bias then anything.

The Lakers should also be considered for two other post-season awards. I'm a bit surprised that no one is talking about Phil Jackson for Coach of the Year or Mitch Kupchak for Executive of the Year. No one in the mainstream media expected the Lakers to be better than they were last season, especially considering all of the drama surrounding Kobe Bryant. Jackson managed to keep his team together, effectively used his bench, weathered a storm of injuries, and managed to get Gasol to fit into his system quickly. Jackson may not be the loudest coach out there, but his accomplishments this season are no less remarkable than other top coaches like Byron Scott, Doc Rivers, Rick Adelman, or Stan Van Gundy.

Some feel that Danny Ainge of the Celtics made the move of the year in acquiring Kevin Garnett before the season. It's hard to argue that, but Kupchak's midseason trade for Gasol was no less important. He single-handedly shook up the Western Conference, leading the Suns and Mavericks to match him by trading for Shaq and Jason Kidd respectively. But the Lakers got better after their trade, whereas the Suns and Mavericks actually fell in the standings. Kupchak's other moves finally paid off this season as Andrew Bynum realized much of his potential before being injured, Jordan Farmar turned into an important role player, and the Laker bench saved the day in numerous games. But GMs also have to relate with the media and their own players, and with the exception of Isiah Thomas, no NBA GM faces tougher media scrutiny than Kupchak. He refused to trade Bryant for two cents on the dollar, he refused to let Bynum get away easily, and he didn't hand over Lamar Odom in a deal he didn't like. He kept the organization on track throughout all of the preseason Kobe drama, and finally got the key piece the Lakers needed. Kupchak should absolutely be in the conversation for NBA Executive of the Year.

--Life isn't so great in Clipperland, where STAPLES Center's other team completed a dismal season last night. In a tough Western Conference, the deck was already stacked against the Clippers, but the team was further derailed by injuries to Elton Brand and Shaun Livington and a public feud between Donald Sterling and Mike Dunleavy. At this point, the Clippers need to hope beyond hope that they can hang onto Brand and Corey Maggette who can both opt out of their contracts this year. I'd bet on Maggette to leave for another team and a lot more money. For whatever reason, he's never quite seen eye-to-eye with Dunleavy. As for Brand, it's well known that he likes it here in LA, and already made a foray into the movie business. Still, he may want to go to a winning team and will have no shortage of suitors. I'd put his odds of staying at 50-50, and how the Clippers fare in the NBA Draft Lottery may have an impact. Many blue and red fans will be hoping the ping pong balls bounce such that they get Derrick Rose or Michael Beasley, but even OJ Mayo could be a possibility.

--UCLA lost Kevin Love to the NBA today, which is no surprise. I've seen Love listed anywhere from the No. 5 pick to the No. 20 pick, so the pre-draft workouts will be critical for him. Some have questioned Love's abilities in light of his disappointing performance against Memphis in the Final Four. But Love played remarkably well in the NCAA Tournament before then, and Memphis simply did a phenomenal job of denying him the ball. Love could be better served by developing his game in college for another year or two, but he has a big and wide body, he has good fundamental skills, and in my mind he projects as an above-average NBA power forward.

Russell Westbrook also declared the NBA Draft, and some project him to be taken in the top-10. No one can question Westrbook's athleticism, and he seems like the kind of player who can help a team as a uber-role player. He can play defense, go after the loose ball, and make a big play when he needs to.

The remaining question is whether or not Darren Collison will stay. Collison hurt his draft stock with his putrid performance against Memphis. The Bruins needed him to step up in order to have any chance of beating what we now realized was a better Tigers team. I expect Collison to declare anyways, but don't be surprised if he doesn't hire an agent and chooses to go back to school if he thinks he won't crack the first round. Right now he's fallen from a lottery pick to roughly No. 20 on most draft boards.

So what does all of this mean for UCLA? Well, the Bruins have what some people believe to be the nation's best recruiting class next year, led by Jrue Holliday. If they lose Collison, and possibly Luc Richard Mbah A Moute in addition to Love and Westbrook, then the Bruins will have an awfully young and inexperienced team in 2008-09. Yet, there will still be plenty of talent on the floor, so it shouldn't take too long for Ben Howland's team to be back among the elite in college basketball.

--UCLA women's basketball got a boost today when it named Nikki Caldwell as its new head coach. Caldwell is a disciple of Pat Summit and has known nothing but success in the women's college game. She is highly regarded by many in the sport, and seems almost like a coup for the Bruins to hire.

--UCLA football surprised a few people this week when it was indicated that Patrick Cowan is No. 1 on the QB depth chart. Most fans would have expected Ben Olson to be their Opening Day QB, but evidently Rick Neuheisel and Norm Chow have other ideas. It's a crowded QB field for UCLA, and even Chow has admitted that by giving five QBs an oppotunity to win the job they have actually prevented any one of them from getting enough reps in a new system. Still, Cowan has shown over the past two seasons that he can win games and make things happen offensively. While Olson is clearly talented, the offense just never seems to gel properly when he's under center. Regardless of who's QB at UCLA, Neuheisel isn't pleased that he may have to lose a spring practice because his players ditched the other day. It apparently left a bad impression on recruits.

--Finally, it became clear that USC football's No. 1 QB is officially Mark Sanchez. According to reports, none of the three QBs competing for the job -- Sanchez, Mitch Mustain, and Aaron Corp -- played particularly well in spring practice. That might partially be due to the tough Trojan defense they've had to scrimmage against each day. However, it was disappointing to some that Mustain wasn't able to play better this spring. Mustain went 8-0 as a freshman starting QB in the SEC for Arkansas, and he's known as a playmaker. However, Mustain's mobility and improvisational skills may not mean as much in a USC spread system that favors a drop-back passer like Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, and yes, Mark Sanchez. Additionally, Sanchez has been in the Pete Carroll/Steve Sarkisian system for one year longer than Mustain, and it clearly has benefitted him this spring. The coaching staff also seen Sanchez run the show for three games, and he played rather well in wins over Arizona and Notre Dame, and almost willed the Trojans past an Oregon team that looked like the best in the country before Dennis Dixon got injured.

Still, I don't think we've seen the last of Mustain. While his decision to transfer was perplexing, because of both the system and the presence of Sanchez, he's too talented to stay off the field for too long.

April 17, 2008 4:36 PM • Native Intelligence • Email the editor

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