Malone still pondering his options
Friday, Dec. 27
Two-thirds of this season plus playoffs remain, and Karl Malone intends to take all of it in before making firm declarations about next season.
Whereas the Halloween noises from Mailman were retirement hints -- "I've made up my mind," he said in mid-October -- the Christmas/New Year's forecast is essentially the opposite. It sounds as though Malone, who led the Utah Jazz into Portland for the nightcap of ESPN2's Friday doubleheader, is wrestling just as much now with where he'll be playing next season as the if.
"I have good days and bad days," Malone said with a smile. "But I don't want to make a quick judgment. At the end of the season, I'll sit down with my family and look at my options.
"I will say this: The decision I make will be a decision that I make, and my family and I will live with it. I'm not going to say, 'I can't even imagine myself in this uniform or that uniform.' I'm going to wait until the end of the season and just let it play out."
That's because it won't be until the summer that Malone really knows what the other options are. He doesn't deny that "it enters your mind" that Utah's back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals in 1997-98 could be as close as Malone will ever come to a championship ring ... unless he leaves Salt Lake City to join a contender in the off-season.
Mavericks? Lakers? His home-state Hornets?
"I kind of hope there's some (outside interest)," Malone said with a smile. "What do you think?"
Given that he is still pretty productive, and undeniably still ornery, the variable figures to be money. Malone will be 40 on July 24 and, after earning $19.2 million this season, can't expect more than the $4.5 million exception from any team outside of Utah. Truth be told, in these tough luxury-tax times, teams that go after Malone will undoubtedly try to convince him to accept the $1 million veteran's minimum for one last shot at a ring.
Could Malone stomach either pay cut? He might surprise you, given the undeniable frustration that has spilled out more than once already this season.
Returning to the Jazz, even if John Stockton elects to play one more season, would undoubtedly mean another scuffle with .500 and No. 8 in the West, because Jazz management will be prevented by cap constraints from major roster renovations until after the Stockton-to-Malone era. Because Malone also will probably need two more seasons after this one, at his current pace, to overtake Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record 38,387 points, it makes sense for Mail to give one last championship run as much consideration as chasing the top spot on the scoring charts.
"That'd be really the only reason to leave," Mail said of the championship void on his resume. "It sure won't be for the money. If it's strictly money, staying in Utah would be the best bet."
Money, though, offers no insulation from criticism, as Mailman has increasingly discovered, and that ranks as another factor that could lead to a new address next season. Malone has lashed out at least three times in the season's first two months at Utah locals who continue to point out that his scoring average (18.3 points a game, along with 8.4 rebounds) is less than 20 points a game for the first time since Malone was a rookie in 1985-86. The Jazz is a surprising 15-12, but Malone bristled loudest when his poor play during a recent four-game skid -- 12.5 points on 20-for-60 shooting -- got so much attention.
Asked if the Utahns who have mostly roared for him the past two decades will understand should he elect to pursue one last title shot elsewhere, Malone doesn't hedge at all there.
"You'll never please everyone," he said. "I definitely know that."
A change was needed in Atlanta
Thursday, Dec. 26
The idea behind the idea, Lon Kruger explained, was to generate a "buzz" around the Hawks.
Guarantee a playoff berth, with $125 refunds to season-ticket holders on the line, and you get people talking. Or so Kruger hoped.
Problem was, this is Atlanta. Nothing less than Mike Vick gets these locals interested. Even in the Hawks' locker room, where it mattered most, there wasn't much talk about the playoff guarantee or any other scheme Kruger hatched.
It has been about as lively in there lately as it is in the Philips Arena stands, which stands as one of the many reasons the Hawks could wait no longer. Management has undoubtedly known for a while that it had to make a coaching change to jumpstart its players. The Hawks were apparently just waiting for Christmas to pass to confirm it.
Historians will brand Kruger as yet another college guy who couldn't succeed at the pro level, but the college background wasn't his major failing. The bigger issue: Kruger was a laid-back nice guy who ranked as a curious choice from Day 1 and who consistently struggled to get the Hawks to play hard. Injuries gave him a disclaimer for two seasons, and Kruger is an undeniably fine gentleman, but Atlanta is 5-12 since the 6-4 start this season.
Worst yet, all six defeats in the past seven games were double-digit defeats. Strong signs, in other words, that the Hawks had stopped trying for him.
Much more was expected from a team, guarantee or not, that added a potential All-Star scoring forward the past two summers: Glenn Robinson this time, after Shareef Abdur-Rahim the summer before. Worst of all, even with center Theo Ratliff back from injury to join those two and purportedly fortify the defense, the current skid also has seen Abdur-Rahim and the unheralded Ira Newble openly question team strategy and desire.
So much, then, for any idea that Kruger could spark a turnaround in the new year. With the Hawks looking increasingly uninterested and with a well-prepped replacement on Kruger's bench in Terry Stotts, who has long been considered one of the league's most promising assistants, the move had become a must by Thursday.
Especially because there is still time to avoid paying out an estimated
$500,000 to the reported 4,000 season-ticket holders the Hawks do have. The standings somehow show Atlanta just a game out of No. 8 in the East, in spite of its well-documented turnover trouble (27th in the league at 17.4 a game) and porous defense (24th at 98.6 points allowed a game).
"It's bittersweet, because I know I wouldn't have this opportunity if I didn't have the opportunity to join Lon's staff," Stotts said Thursday night after completing his first practice and just before consuming his first dinner (spaghetti, for the record) as a head coach.
"These opportunities are few and far between. I know how fortunate I am, because I've got a team with a chance to win right now. The goal of making the playoffs hasn't changed. We know we can do it."
Stotts spent more than a decade alongside George Karl in Seattle and Milwaukee before leaving the Bucks in August to join the Hawks and forge his own identity. If he can get the lifeless Hawks to start stopping people and stop giving the ball away, he might end up being the next Jim O'Brien instead.
O'Brien, remember, took over for a college guy in Boston named Rick Pitino and did so well that he made the Celtics' job his permanently. No one in Atlanta is about to issue any more basketball promises, but Stotts has a shot to do the same.
A mere playoff berth, mind you, isn't bound to generate much buzz in Atlanta, either. Not even Dominique Wilkins as Hawks coach could fill Philips more than once or twice. That said, the switch is a good step regardless. With Kruger in charge, his guarantee had no shot.
Kidd, Jackson are first trimester MVPs
Tuesday, Dec. 24
Almost everyone has played at least 27 games. Pistons, Blazers and Knicks are the only exceptions.
Must be time to take stockings of the season, with a third of it somehow already gone.
East MVP: Jason Kidd has kept the Nets atop the Atlantic with his best-ever start, and largely without Dikembe Mutombo and Kerry Kittles. Indiana has a few worthy candidates -- Jermaine O'Neal, Ron Artest, Brad Miller -- to complicate picking one out.
West MVP: He's more likely to wind up with Sixth Man votes than MVP votes, but it's Bobby Jackson. Bobby held the Kings together while Mike Bibby and so many others were out. In Dallas, like Indy, the Big Three (Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley) steal votes from each other.
East Coach of the Trimester: Isiah Thomas didn't stop at putting in a new offense. He's molding the Pacers' toughness, too.
West Coach of the Trimester: Votes are split. Split between Don Nelson, for his proddings in Dallas' hot start and the Mavs' newfound interest in defense, and Rick Adelman, for his ability to grind wins out of the battered Kings.
East surprise, good: The simple fact that there are six teams on a 50-win pace, raising hopes that maybe one of them can give us a competitive NBA Finals.
East surprise, bad: For all the talk of dunking back with a vengeance, Vince Carter's knee hasn't cooperated in Toronto. Grant Hill's day-to-day struggle in Orlando was expected. Carter's was not.
West surprise, good: As the outstanding Jeff Munn would intone over the sound system at AWA ... your Phoenix Suns. If you predicted a 17-11 start, you're fibbing.
West surprise, bad: Most of the country is enjoying it, actually, but the Lakers' 11-18 launch has been shockingly frightful.
Rookie of the Trimester: Houston's Yao Ming, closely followed by Amare Stoudmire in Phoenix.
Looking ahead to Trimester 2, we wonder: Who breaks out of the East pack to seize conference control? Will Lon Kruger see New Year's Day in Atlanta? Which players go where in the season's first blockbuster trade? Can the Knicks make any kind of trade? Has fate decided that Hill and Tracy McGrady are destined to suffer interminably? Is Michael Jordan still on anyone's radar? Is LeBron James, 10 months away from his first training camp, already more popular? Have the Blazers finished imploding? Are the Mavs going to be the only 100-point-a-game team we see all season? Does anyone outside Dallas think the Mavs are for real? Oh, yeah: Will the Lakers finally wake up?
The week in preview
Monday, Dec. 23
Happy Festivus, friends.
And you know what that means.
We're down to two days before the game everyone wants to see.
New Orleans ends its seven-game hike all over the NBA map with a visit to San Antonio. Hornets opened with wins over the Jazz and Lakers, dropped three in a row (Sacramento, Portland, Golden State) and then won in overtime Friday at Seattle. Spurs will make it tough to get to 4-3.
You might have heard about this one. ABC has the game. Kings at Lakers, apparently. The other two Christmas Day offerings ain't bad, either: Pistons at Magic on ESPN, Celtics at Nets as the ABC undercard.
The Hornets' reward for spending nearly two weeks on the road? An easy one to break back in at home: Dallas vs. New Orleans. Pistons at Wizards brings Jerry Stackhouse and his old team together for the holidays.
The ESPN2 cameras get some run when Utah goes to Portland, giving the nation a timely glimpse of the new, streaking Blazers against the old Jazz geezers.
Hornets in the news again: New Orleans at Indiana. Portland, too: Blazers complete a challenging back-to-back with a trip to Sacramento.
Brand stamps out contract distractions
Friday, Dec. 20
Memo to unpaid Clippers, present and future:
Not being paid is a handy excuse for underachievement, but it's no sin to grab rebounds instead.
That's what Elton Brand does.
Brand doesn't deny that a roster full of free agents and the Clippers' carved-in-stone reputation for frugality have contributed to L.A.'s underwhelming 11-15 start. "Of course," Brand says. "It's human nature for that stuff to be in the back of your mind."
"I don't think all our problems with wins and losses are because of the contracts."
Injuries have been a problem. L.A.'s seasons-old inability to hold fourth-quarter leads is a bigger problem. But another is that the Clips don't have more workhorses like Brand, playing through his envy of peers around the league who did get paid.
Brand has obviously deduced that he will be paid eventually if the production merits it, even if that inevitably means a divorce from Donald T. Sterling, the Clippers' famously frugal owner. As a result, the Clippers have the league's fourth-best rebounder (11.6 rpg) … and the best offensive rebounder (4.4) … and the top shot-blocker (3.2 bpg).
It's all the same guy, all from a 6-foot-8 power forward who doesn't have mad hops, one who's also averaging 18.2 points, just to be thorough. It's the same Brand who broke off contract talks with the Clips in September, and who missed all of training camp after sustaining a knee injury at the World Championships that required arthroscopic surgery.
"I had a slow start," Brand said. "My first game back, I didn't even score a bucket. But I look at it like I can still get a lot better this season."
If he does, perhaps he'll even force his way onto to the Power Forward Radar that doesn't always acknowledge him. Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal has complained of a lack of pub, but Brand -- in spite of his across-the-board consistency -- can't even claim more acclaim this season than Phoenix counterpart Amare Stoudemire. Stoudemire's undeniably a smash but a rookie nonetheless.
"I think I'm starting to get a little (of attention)," Brand said. "But I know how it works. I averaged 20-and-10 with the Bulls and nobody really talked about it because we were losing. (Attention) goes to the guys on winning teams."
Eventually, Brand is going to get it all. The money, too. It has been verified that the Clippers really did offer Brand a six-year deal over the summer worth $60 million. They had to include incentives to get the figure that high, but it's a Clipper record offer nonetheless. And if Sterling is willing to go that high …
Brand wants more than that, of course, but it should be noted that he wasn't holding out for a max deal last summer. More than Raef LaFrentz received ($70 million over seven years) should cover it, and such a contract isn't outlandish for what Brand gives a team. The catch: It'll probably have to wait until the summer of 2004, when Brand finally becomes an unrestricted free agent.
This is a season in Clipperdom with a ready-made excuse to underperform. Then there's Brand, who's using the season instead to remind us that -- whatever he's worth on the open market -- he's a max-effort player.
Under any circumstances, and for any owner.
Rockets clear logjam with Thomas trade
Wednesday, Dec. 18
Asked recently if any team in the league was close to making a trade, with barely a quarter of the season gone, one prominent general manager took pause to mentally survey the landscape.
"Well," the GM said, "Kenny Thomas is out there for the taking."
Amazingly that was enough.
Even the Houston Rockets would have to admit some surprise that Thomas could be a catalyst for the first in-season trade of 2002-03. Thomas makes just $1.6 million in the final year of his contract, meaning that he wasn't likely to fetch a big name in return in the matching-salaries game. It usually takes bigger numbers than that to ignite things.
Of greater concern, power forward has been Houston's problem position this season, and Thomas -- recovering from a broken thumb and some ankle trouble -- was part of that struggling three-man rotation. The statistical drop from last season (14.1 points to 9.9, and 7.2 rebounds to 6.8) is somewhat expected with Yao Ming's emergence, but Thomas has been missing open shots. Coach Rudy Tomjanovich has shaken up the lineup repeatedly trying to jump start at least one of his three four-men, which seemingly couldn't have done much for Thomas' trade value.
The Rockets, as part of Wednesday's three-team deal, claim James Posey -- who was nearly traded by the Nuggets to the Wizards around the draft. Posey offers athleticism and defense at small forward and gets the nod here as a better bargain than Thomas at basically the same price. Posey, earning $1.7 million this season, is also a free agent-to-be. The onus now falls on Griffin and/or Taylor to start playing better.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, add Philadelphia's first-round pick from 2005 and a future second-rounder from Houston to their down-the-road war chest. GM Kiki Vandeweghe, besides systematically clearing out every remnant of the Dan Issel era, is collecting assets for this summer's team makeover.
Vandeweghe will have more than $20 million in salary-cap space for signings and trades. Thanks to Thomas, he has at least one more attractive piece (yes, the first-round pick) to play with.
Another Johnson beats out Bird
Tuesday, Dec. 17
It was at the Hall of Fame inductions in September that Larry Bird told us exactly how it felt to lose to Magic Johnson.
The play-by-play: "You get this sickness in your gut ..." he started.
Of course, losing to his longtime rival was at least the sort of losing Bird could rationalize, if not stomach.
Losing out to Robert Johnson? That experience, on Tuesday night, left Larry Legend awash in different form of misery.
Deeper misery, believe it or not.
"Heartbroken" was the word Bird used, and this is not to be confused with his induction speech about Magic-induced heartbreaks that had the audience rolling in Springfield, Mass.
Bird wanted to run the forthcoming expansion franchise in Charlotte, which will be officially awarded to Robert Johnson at a Wednesday news conference, as much as he has wanted anything. This wasn't merely the opportunity to run basketball operations for an NBA team. It was a shot at starting with nothing and building a legacy, and Bird was absolutely intoxicated by the concept.
He's going to get the chance to run an NBA club eventually, because Steve Belkin -- the Boston businessman whose Charlotte ownership bid lost out to Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television -- is highly regarded by NBA-types. The league will undoubtedly push Belkin to buy Golden State or Atlanta or the next team that goes on the market.
Bird will also get the chance to be somebody's team prez because, well, he's Larry Bird. He was an all-timer on the floor, an instant smash as a coach and a strong bet to flourish again when he takes over a front office someday.
Yet in spite of all that, Bird was crushed when he got word Tuesday that the league's expansion committee will be recommending Team Johnson to the Board of Governors for official approval. Rarely seen in public since leaving the Indiana Pacers' bench after a trip to the 2000 NBA Finals, Bird even issued a statement to express his devastation.
"It is difficult for me to properly express how deeply disappointed I am that we did not get the opportunity to build a championship team in Charlotte," Bird said in his statement.
"I purposely say championship because I truly believe that, with the amazing support that the city officials and the people in that community have shown to us right from the beginning, there was no doubt in my mind that together we could have created an extremely successful basketball team."
Bird was ready to move to Tobacco Road as a full-time resident and live out what he called a "dream I have had for so many years."
He didn't care that the Charlotte Whatevers won't have a shot at the No. 1 pick until after their second season, or that he would have been forced to scour teams' unprotected lists in an expansion draft to pick out the most palatable of the league's most undesirable contracts.
With an expansion team, there is no one to fire or clear out. There is only a blank canvas, and Bird sees this as the mid-life equivalent of dueling with Magic in the NBA Finals. The ultimate, as Magic would say.
Problem was, going up against an ownership group headed by Robert Johnson turned out to be a lot like playing Magic Johnson. The billionare Johnson has lots of juice, too, meaning that there was a 50-50 chance Bird would lose, great as he is. Just like it was against Magic.
Worse yet, this was a one-game series against one of the country's most successful businessmen. Bird doesn't get another shot at Robert Johnson.
No shot to turn this sickness in his gut, from this Johnson, into a champagne bath next time.
The week in preview
Monday, Dec. 16
The Knicks, last Friday, became the last team to play a 20th game and nudge the season all the way to the quarter pole. Quarter No. 2 opens with a slew of good matchups:
Indiana visits Dallas in a rematch of the game that halted the Mavericks' 14-0 start -- one victory short of the record. Michael Jordan's Washington Wiz visit Atlanta to see if maybe he can draw a crowd to Philips Arena.
The ESPN offering is another dose of the Pacers, this time in Houston. Miami goes to Boston to allow Pat Riley and Jim O'Brien to compare notes on their problems with referees.
Two biggies. Lakers at Nets in a Finals rematch, albeit with the hosts favored this time. It'll be followed by Spurs at Kings, in what should be Mike Bibby's comeback as well as the latest round of Tim Duncan vs. Chris Webber. Only two games on the schedule, and rightfully so.
Not the easiest back-to-back for the Lakers, going straight from Jersey to Philadelphia in the opener of ESPN's Friday doubleheader. Phoenix, the West's surprise package, faces another L.A. disappointment at Staples Center in the late game, although the Clippers have started playing up to their potential. Other matchups of note include Chicago at Indiana -- which will remind the Bulls first-hand how much they helped the Pacers with that big trade last February. Utah at Dallas will resume hostilities between two teams that don't like each other.
The surging Pistons are the only team in the East with wins over Indiana, New Orleans and New Jersey. The Nets were the most recent victim, last Sunday in Detroit. The rematch stands out even on a packed slate which also includes Indy at Chicago to complete a home-and-home, back-to-back and Seattle at Portland in another Pacific Northwest derby.
Bibby starting his comeback with Kings
Thursday, Dec. 12
With LeBron James material threatening to fill the unfillable and overrun cyberspace, plus plenty of other mediums, it seems appropriate to restrict ourselves here to a few Thursday tidbits.
Sacramento's Mike Bibby (foot surgery) returned to shooting drills Thursday afternoon and could be cleared to participate in his first full-contact practice of the season Saturday. If not the weekend, it should be by practice next Wednesday. Bibby is vowing to be in uniform for the Kings' Christmas Day fisticuffs with the Lakers and wants to play at least a few games before that, provided he can convince his skittish coaches. The Kings want to be cautious with Bibby after all the injury chaos they've had. Hedo Turkoglu (sprained wrist) also practiced Thursday and is eyeing a return next week.
Count on Horace Grant clearing waivers (a 48-hour wait) even if someone out there has interest in signing the Orlando castoff. No one would claim Grant off waivers because that would force the claiming team to pick up the balance of his $2.6 million salary.
Early indications around the league suggest that Grant won't be picked up even after he clears, because he's a 37-year-old with a suspect knee and back. Don't totally rule out the Lakers, though. Folks inside and outside the organization are baying for change and that would be an easy one, because power forward is a major Lakers need and because Grant obviously knows Phil Jackson's system.
Question is, does Grant still want to play with the $2.6 mil coming either way? And, could he even get healthy enough to help the Lakers? And, is there any leftover ill will from their parting in the summer of 2001?
We'll soon see on all three.
If you somehow missed the long limbs and the amazing passing and the fact he didn't try to force the game when anyone would have understood if he did, surely you noticed the headbands. LeBron James' teammates wore green adidas headbands on ESPN2 on Thursday night. LeBron's bore the NBA logo. Now you know why.
Of course, you should also know that the teams bidding for the league's worst record -- Cleveland, Denver, Memphis, Miami and New York -- might not want it. Not even after LeBron's show in the face of unimaginable scrutiny.
Spurs must solve fundamental problems fast
Wednesday, Dec. 11
They wondered Wednesday night, as the San Antonio Spurs wonder every night, if someone besides Tim Duncan would score more than 12 points.
Of course, they've been wondering the same thing for more than a season.
The Spurs won 58 games and the Midwest Division last season with only Duncan averaging more than six buckets a game. The lack of offensive support for TD didn't really hurt the Spurs until the fourth quarter of seemingly every game in their second-round series with the Lakers, when even Duncan didn't score.
So now, when it's happening again, the Spurs know that their scoring shortcomings can't be the source of all their woes. The bigger priority, they confess, is addressing the more readily fixable problems that have surfaced in a now-13-9 start.
The team's .669 free-throw shooting entering Wednesday's ESPN date with the Dallas Mavericks, worst in the league.
The team's 16.2 turnovers per game, against just 19 assists.
The fact that, in spite of the league's best field-goal defense at .406, the Spurs' fourth-quarter D has been porous, leading to lost leads.
Those are all things San Antonio can (and must) correct immediately, even with the Spurs' two new impact guards (Manu Ginobili and Speedy Claxton) out injured.
Until they start to do the routine, the Spurs can't even think about how they plan to boost their non-Duncan scoring.
"We all anticipated a period of adjustment," said Spurs general manager R.C. Buford. "Nobody expected this."
At least "this" looked a little better by night's end, after San Antonio held on for a 111-104 victory over Dallas. Tony Parker scored a slump-busting 32 points, topping four Spurs who cracked the magical 12-point barrier. Duncan had 22, with David Robinson and Stephen Jackson adding 17 each.
The turnover count was still high (17), and Dallas' 35-point fourth quarter made it close, but the Spurs missed only five free throws all evening and got seven makes in the final minute from Parker.
A first step, perhaps, toward a return to regular-season normalcy for a team that's not supposed to be ordinary. No matter how little scoring help Duncan gets.
Kings contemplate value of a pair of Jacksons
Tuesday, Dec. 10
Now that a federal judge in Detroit has been kind enough to pre-empt Chris Webber's perjury trial until after the NBA season, the hot talk-show topics in Sacramento invariably focus on a Jackson.
There's the Bobby Jackson question: Should he keep starting at point guard when Mike Bibby returns to work?
And there's the Jim Jackson question: Can we please keep him?
It's the latter query, surprisingly, that has suddenly gripped all of Sacto. For a couple reasons.
Reason No. 1: No one really expects a quarterback controversy on a team with some of the best chemistry the NBA could bottle. Bibby is the clutchest of the Kings and should be safely back from foot surgery and starting before Christmas Day festivities with the Lakers. Bobby, meanwhile, can undoubtedly live with life as one of the five most feared sixth men in the league. He's going to be finishing plenty of games right next to Bibby anyway, because it's good to have both on the floor when it matters.
Reason No. 2: JimJax is fresh off scoring 23 points in a 24-point road rout at San Antonio, which naturally roused the Kings' flammable fans.
They want him to stay -- duh -- and they'll be pleased to know the Kings aren't ruling it out. Having a second Jackson for a full season would take the Sacramento payroll over $70 million, which would mean almost $20 million in luxury-tax payments for Joe and Gavin Maloof, but they're thinking about absorbing the hit ... provided JimJax can embrace spot-duty status.
As Peja Stojakovic (heel) and Hedo Turkoglu (wrist) gradually regain full health, there won't be many minutes for Jackson Deux. Especially if Gerald Wallace continues to progress. The question the Kings are asking themselves: Can Jackson be content if used on an only-as-needed basis?
If the findings are positive -- and Jim Jackson has been longing to play with a contender in the wake of stints with the Hawks, Cavs and Heat -- look for the Kings to hang on to him. JimJax could serve as some very handy Peja/Hedo insurance, since Sacramento can't be sure either won't suffer periodic injury relapses.
It would obviously cost more to take two Jacksons to the playoffs, but there is a potential payoff attached. The Kings were considered the league's deepest team last spring without Jimmy or Keon Clark. Assuming that Bibby and Peja and Hedo and the still-really-ailing Scot Pollard are all mended by May, it couldn't hurt to have more options this time.
The week in preview
Monday, Dec. 9
Orlando at Boston means another dose of Tracy McGrady vs. Paul Pierce. Which can't be bad. Phoenix at New Jersey, meanwhile, is Round 2 of Jason Kidd vs. Stephon Marbury. Both shot horribly in the desert on Nov. 27, but the Suns still won. This time?
Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan are both starters again … and they'll be going head-to-head when Portland visits Washington. Game O' The Night, however, is in Houston: Kings at Rockets. If there's anything missing from Sacramento's steely stand in the face of injuries, it's road dominance. The Kings are just 7-5 away from Arco Arena. Making this one even more enticing are the individual matchups: Steve Francis opposite the relentless Bobby Jackson, and Yao Ming against an international center (Vlade Divac) with lots of tricks to teach him.
Portland at New Jersey (ESPN), Seattle at Philadelphia and Indiana at Milwaukee are all good. Then there's Dallas at San Antonio, also on ESPN, in a big game for both Texas outfits. The Mavs can promptly answer their newfound critics with a road victory free of collapse. The Spurs can rejoin the title race by smacking down one of the West's top two and current No. 1 in Texas. Added incentive: These teams usually play it close.
The season's final installment of New Orleans against the Jazz plays out at the Delta Center. The Hornets used their 25-point rout on opening night as the springboard for an 11-0 start in their new city, but Utah is playing considerably better than it was then. The Jazz is 8-1 at home itself, with the roles for Matt Harpring and Andrei Kirilenko -- as the primary sidekicks to Karl Malone and John Stockton -- sorted out now.
The Pacers get a shot to avenge their Denver embarrassment when the Nuggets visit Conseco Fieldhouse. The Knicks and Heat have a chance, in Miami, to reminisce together about their days as Teams That Matter. Most of all, New Orleans (Jamaal Magliore, Elden Campbell and P.J. Brown) gets to size itself up against Shaquille O'Neal's L.A. Lakers in the nightcap of the ESPN Friday doubleheader. Hornets-Lakers comes right after Michael Jordan brings a rare crowd to Continental Airlines Arena in Wizards at Nets.
Lakers dancing with who they brought
Thursday, Dec. 5
Fan uproar, media pressure and even Shaquille O'Neal's thinly disguised hints to general manager Mitch Kupchak and coach Phil Jackson about upgrading the personnel won't lead to tweaks. The Lakers, as presently constituted, are the Lakers who have to play out of this hole.
Phil believes it'll happen when everyone's healthy, soon enough to undo a 7-13 start and assure L.A. no less than a No. 4 seed in the West. In the interim, while Phil is waiting with legs crossed, don't expect changes.
Owner Jerry Buss, who once vowed that he would never pay the NBA's luxury tax to avoid staining the spirit of the game, allowed his payroll to rise to more than $63 million over the summer. That's after only one big summertime expenditure -- Devean George re-signing for $18.6 million over four years -- but reflects the fact that O'Neal and Kobe earn a combined $36 million.
Thus, if the league's estimated tax threshhold is accurate, Buss will be paying more than $10 million in tax at season's end. That's why Kupchak wouldn't have had the license to bid for Jim Jackson before Sacramento signed him even if L.A. wanted Jackson. It's why the Lakers wouldn't add another big body in recent weeks, doling out heavy minutes instead to Slava Medvedenko and Mark Madsen.
Buss has imposed his new limit and the Lakers are up against it. So the waiting (and losing) continues.
Stopgap signings, like the Kings just made, don't work in Lakerland anyway. Besides the finances -- a $1 million veteran like Jim Jackson really costs double because of the tax penalty -- there are system considerations. It generally takes players a full year under Phil Jackson to earn the coach's trust. Anyone they add now, without a training camp, would have almost no shot at winning minutes, as seen with some guys (J.R. Rider, then Mitch Richmond) who have gone to Phil's camps.
The championship vets will be the only guys given the chance to lift the Lakers out of the morass, and every single one of them, except for maybe the ever-clutch Brian Shaw, has to play better.
O'Neal can lace into teammates all he wants, but he's still rusty and lumbering and still hasn't really explained why he waited until September to have toe surgery. Bryant, at times more frustrated than Shaq, has a gimpy knee that isn't helping his disposition. It's now a standard Laker assumption that Robert Horry will limp around all season, but Derek Fisher and Rick Fox also struggled manfully when O'Neal missed the first 13 games. None of them have established a rhythm yet. George is in a funk, too, after christening his new contract by a lost assignment on that unforgettable Jerry Stackhouse dunk at the buzzer, followed by a 10-game stay on the injured list to rest a sore ankle.
It would be typical Lakers for them to finally be the LAKERS on Friday night, when the league's hottest team visits. At the very least, with Samaki Walker (back) eligible for reactivation, the showdown with Dallas might be the first time this season L.A. has its top eight players available.
Or the Lakers could just lose again and wait some more. Christmas Day is still weeks away.
Yao's shots least of Houston's problems
Wednesday, Dec. 4
There's a reason Houston never viewed its alleged Getting Yao The Ball problem as a Full Blown Crisis, and that was true even before Yao Ming detonated for 27 points and 18 rebounds against Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
That's because, sometimes, the Rockets are actually trying to limit Yao's touches.
The Rockets don't want him taking a mere 5.2 shots per game over a five-game stretch, as just seen before Tuesday's detonation, but they also don't want the offense running through Yao yet.
So if there's a problem, it's this:
"We've been trying to bring him along slowly," Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson said with a gleeful laugh, "but he's not cooperating."
The Rockets have promised themselves to be conscious of the pressure and expections Yao's carrying, and without forgetting that he hasn't a break from basketball for more than two years. Coach Rudy Tomjanovich was nonetheless all but forced to put Yao in the starting lineup before he wanted to, in his 11th NBA game, after Yao sliced through the Mavericks and same-sized Shawn Bradley for 30 points and 16 rebounds. Tomjanovich, though, feels it's too soon to be calling a Hakeem-like number of plays for Yao on a nightly basis. That's even after what Yao did to other centers in the state, Duncan and Robinson, who combined for just 32 points and 18 boards.
"Rudy has been putting something new in [the offense] every day for Yao," Dawson said. "But Rudy wants to put players in comfortable positions and set them up to learn as they go. He's going to go out of his way to make sure they have as few setbacks as possible."
Truth be told, the Rockets are much more concerned with the lack of consistency from their forwards than any Yao issue. Eddie Griffin, Mo Taylor and Kenny Thomas are all averaging less than nine points per game. No one has emerged as the obvious starter. That's a problem.
Not Yao's shot count. Not this early. Especially not when you consider the calm Yao's showing in the post, passing out of double teams -- yes, he's already drawing doubles -- like a vet. Better yet, Yao never takes a shot he can't make. Something you can't say about lots of folks in today's NBA.
"I'm not surprised at what he's doing, but I'm surprised how quick he's doing it," Dawson said. "I thought this is what we'd be seeing by the middle of January."
Mind you, at this rate, who knows how many shots he'll be taking by then.
The week in preview
Monday, Dec. 2
Indiana's first long trip isn't as tough as it could be, with no killer stop on the six-game swing that began with a win over the injury-hit Clippers on Sunday night. This visit to Utah is probably the toughest game of the six for the Pacers, given the Jazz renaissance in the past week and the fact that it completes a back-to-back. Expect some physicality.
Kevin Garnett should be a King the way he has been carrying the Wolves sans Wally Szczerbiak. Wolves at Kings sends the one-man gang against the team most adept at playing hurt. Spurs at Rockets is another to watch; Tim Duncan and David Robinson brings years of experience (but only a 3-5 road record) into Yao Ming's ring.
The first installment in a grudge-themed, back-to-back set takes Jerry Stackhouse and Washington to Detroit for his first of four reunions with the Pistons. Boston travels to Philadelphia to resume their shared history of hostilities, with a chance to hand the Sixers (9-0) their first home defeat.
Bucks at Hawks continues the grudge theme with Atlanta's Glenn Robinson seeing Milwaukee for the first time since the big summertime trade. Ray Allen (ankle) remains optimistic about being activated in time to face Big Dog, but he's already trying to downplay the notion of any trouble between the two at Philips Arena. We'd settle for seeing both on the floor.
Assuming the Lakers aren't waiting for their Christmas Day fisticuffs with Sacramento on ABC, maybe this is the big game to rouse the slumbering champs out of their 6-12 stupor. Can they really win whenever they want to? Can the Mavs actually beat L.A. twice in a row, and this time with Shaquille O'Neal? Come to ESPN to find out.
MJ the GM will be more fun to watch
Friday, Nov. 29
Michael Jordan has been 99.9 percent sure before, and now he's 100 percent sure that his next retirement will be the last, and surely you don't want to waste time quibbling over that 1/100th of a percentage point. Do you?
Maybe he's serious about finally stopping for good after this season. Maybe he'll wind up changing his mind for the hundredth time. Just don't have the stomach for starting the guessing this early, one day after Thanksgiving.
Yet there was something else important and interesting Michael Jordan said about his future, whenever it is he stops.
That bit about returning to the Wizards' front office as team president and part-owner.
"That's my intent," MJ said.
That's the sort of comeback we want to see. Curiousity reigns in Dimedom about MJ as a GM, because he left the front office just when he had strung together a series of quality moves.
Jordan traded Juwan Howard when no one said he could, wiped the expensive contracts belonging to Rod Strickland and Mitch Richmond from the Wizards' books and risked the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft on Kwame Brown. The Wizards' subsequent moves are also unofficially his -- you know MJ had to sanction the trade for Jerry Stackhouse, and the signing of Larry Hughes -- but they can't officially help Jordan make the unlikely leap all the way to Executive of the Year someday. Which would be much more impressive than a Sixth Man Award trophy.
It's being suggested that Jordan announced his intent to retire for good on Thursday as a motivational ploy, to infuse his slumping Wiz with some urgency. Sounds feasible.
Or perhaps it's simply an admission from Front Office Mike that, by summertime, he'll have to be a fully focused free-agent player, obsessed with the personnel side to capitalize on Washington's $10 million-plus of projected cap room. Surely it must be clear to the Wizards' sixth man, whether he retires at 40 or 41, that the Wiz has some holes to fill.
Save a spot on Team USA for Finley
Thursday, Nov. 28
Those in the know say there's only one Team USA alumnus from last summer's World Championships debacle who has a chance to be on the next Team USA.
Same guy who hung 42 points on the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night.
Michael Finley took the Yanks' slide to sixth place in Indianapolis as hard as anyone, but there hasn't been a hangover effect. Not with him. Finley looks determined to have his best season, which is why Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash always say the Mavericks are still Fin's team ... even though the truth is the three of them share it.
Finley impressed countless USA Basketball types with his team-first approach and dedication in Indy, qualities that stood out on a squad that needed lots more of both, especially when the Yanks started losing games.
The carryover effect finds Finley, after his career-best scoring output against the Pistons, averaging 22.3 points per game. The 42-point outburst was especially impressive, given Detroit's standing as the league's No. 1 defense … and the fact that the Pistons had three days off to prepare for the Mavs … and the fact that they had already seen the Mavs once (a 39-point loss in Dallas on Nov. 9) to wipe out the unfamiliarity defense.
Finley's scoring, mind you, isn't what pleases the Mavericks most. He's averaging 7.4 rebounds per game, or two more boards than last season. More than anyone, Finley has embraced the demands from Mark Cuban and Don Nelson to put more emphasis on board work and defense to negate the absence of pure stoppers on the Dallas roster. The emergence of Finley (9.1 rpg in his last 10 games) and resurrection of Shawn Bradley (7.5 rpg overall) as rebounders have been as crucial to the Mavericks' success as their three zone-defense schemes.
USA Basketball has noticed, raising the likelihood that a spot will be held for Finley as a sole returnee. They're looking for team guys and Finley is playing the team game as well as anyone these days. Which is better than hearing your name in trade rumors, as Finley did last season, and much better than wearing street clothes during a long winning streak … as Finley did last season.
The Mavericks reeled off 10 straight victories without him last winter, spawning a bunch of "Better Without Finley?" stories leading up to the trading deadline. Can't see those same stories running this February.
Ask Finley about the Olympics and he's philosophical. "It would definitely be an honor -- I love representing my country -- but if it doesn't happen I'm not going to let it hurt me," he said.
Ask him next if he worries that the Mavericks are playing too well too early and he philosophizes again.
"Is there such a thing as peaking too soon?" Finley said. "Every team in the league would love to have the start that we've had."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.