Updated: Jan. 12, 2006, 4:53 PM ET

Joe Johnson faces valley, Suns

Editor's note: ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein supplies each item for this weekly around-the-league notebook edition of the Dime.

It'll be the visiting team's fifth game in just over a week, against one of the hardest teams to prepare for.

It'll probably be ugly, in other words. Ugly on the scoreboard.

As for the evening itself, Joe Johnson insists that it won't be a messy occasion. He's not making any predictions about the outcome, knowing better than anyone in Atlanta how hard it'll be to run with the Phoenix Suns, but he's serious when he says he's expecting to get in and out of town without a lot of trouble.

"It's not going to be hard for me at all," Johnson said of Sunday night's return to the desert. "I don't look at it as a pressure situation."

On a weekend of flammable reunions, he's one of the few to see it that way.

First it was an admittedly jittery Larry Brown going back to Detroit. Now it's Johnson's turn to make his first visit to Phoenix since telling owner Robert Sarver that he'd be happier as a Hawk no matter how much winning the Suns do.

The jilted locals are starting to believe that replacing Johnson and Quentin Richardson with depth and variety -- Boris Diaw, Raja Bell, James Jones, Leandro Barbosa and Jim Jackson -- will actually make Phoenix a stronger force once Amare Stoudemire returns from knee surgery.

Yet they also naturally long for Johnson to come back and immediately recant his desire to leave.

"In three to six months," Sarver recently suggested, "I really think Joe will say, 'I wish I was in Phoenix.' "

Don't count on it. Your humble Dime correspondent visited Johnson earlier in the week when the Hawks were in Houston and didn't hear anything remotely remorseful (or combustible) coming from the $70 million man, who's playing OK (18.4 ppg, 5.3 apg, 4.3 rpg) given what little help he has.

Asked if he was bracing for a loud and negative reaction from the fans, Johnson shrugged.

"My family, my friends, everybody's got different opinions," Johnson said with a smile. "But I think it'll be mixed -- some cheers, some boos. If it's worse, it's not the end of the world for me."

Asked if he'd prefer to avoid seeing Sarver or Suns president Bryan Colangelo after negotiations turned so nasty -- or if he'd be uncomfortable chatting with Amare in the wake of whispers that their deteriorating relationship made Johnson eager to leave -- Johnson scoffed.

"I wouldn't mind talking to any of those guys," he said. "I don't have a grudge against anybody there."

Eventually asked the question that everyone asks the 24-year-old -- Don't you regret your decision already? -- Johnson gives no hint that he might.

"Do I regret the decision? No," Johnson said. "When I made this decision, I knew it wasn't going to be easy. I didn't think I was going to come in here and win 50 games right away. I have to have patience.

"I never question my decision. When I came here, I knew a lot of attention was going to be focused on me. As a man, I was willing to step up to the challenge."

He stepped into more than that. The youngest team in the league, with an average age of roughly 24, was rocked two weeks into training camp by the tragic death of Jason Collier.

The Hawks then started 0-9, quickly abandoned the idea that Johnson could afford to expend the energy required to play point guard and had to watch helplessly as Chris Paul -- the dynamo from Wake Forest whom they could and should have paired with Johnson instead of drafting Marvin Williams -- became an instant sensation.

It somehow got worse after the Hawks finally won a couple games in a row, including a roadie at Indiana. The team suddenly splintered anew, with players publicly discussing their chemistry problems and selfish play louder than any team in the league.

Then on Friday, Johnson's career-best 34 points couldn't prevent a one-point home loss Friday night to Toronto -- the only team with a worse record than Atlanta's -- that will surely increase the pressure on teetering coach Mike Woodson.

"I'm going to stay patient," Johnson vowed, perhaps rehearsing an answer he'll have to repeat frequently over the weekend. "Even though things haven't been looking good for us, I think we have a bright future.

"I had to do what's best for Joe Johnson and that's what I did. I made my decision to come to Atlanta and now hopefully more guys will make the same decision."

• Talk back to ... Marc Stein | The Daily Dime gang

• Dimes Past: November 26-27 | 28 | 29 | 30| December 1 | 2

What A Boris
Doug Benc/Getty Images
Boris Diaw, the "other" player in the Joe Johnson trade, is averaging 11, six and six on 52 percent shooting for the Suns.

Eastern Conference

One key element in Jamaal Magloire's early struggles in Milwaukee: Magloire is savvy enough to know that the Bucks acquired him for the short-term. Not surprisingly, then, Andrew Bogut's frontcourt escort hasn't been the easiest guy to handle so far; Magloire wants more touches for starters.

So it's wise to amend the widely held belief that the Bucks will be shopping Dan Gadzuric now that Magloire has arrived. It's looking more likely that Magloire would be made available first, but not until the offseason. Bogut is adapting faster than expected to the big leagues, but the Aussie rookie will need at least one full season of mentoring.

Magloire, meanwhile, has only one more season left on his contract after this one -- both at $8.3 million -- and will thus attract significant trade interest whether the Bucks are prepared to move him or not. The big Canadian was chased by several teams -- a list of suitors headlined by Memphis, Golden State and both Los Angeles clubs -- before Milwaukee snared Magloire from New Orleans/Oklahoma City for Desmond Mason, $1 million and the Bucks' 2006 first-round pick without lottery protection. ...

Takes a true artiste to try this.

I wouldn't have encouraged Ron Artest to sculpt "Tru Warier" in his hair, no matter how neatly his stylist did it, because he's the last guy who needs to draw extra attention to himself.

That said, you can safely applaud Artest for his comportment through the opening month of his comeback season.

Artest played in 13 of Indiana's 14 games in November and wasn't hit with a single technical foul. He's also averaging almost as many steals per game (2.6) as fouls (2.8). ...


When Larry Brown returned to Detroit on Friday, he encountered a team that has installed only about 50 percent of new coach Flip Saunders' playbook. If they pick up the rest as quickly as the first half ... uh-oh.

Yet you'd have to say that the Pistons have a decent grasp of that first half.

"The biggest difference [under Saunders]," said one rival coach, "is that guys aren't looking over their shoulder back at the bench after they shoot."

Slams and Dunks

1. I won't even try to pretend. I'm more than a bit biased when it comes to Bruce Bowen because he's not only a Cal State Fullerton guy, but we were there at the same time.

However ...

You saw this week why I don't have to apologize for saying that there's no defender in the league better than Bowen, who should be slowing down at 34 but somehow looks fresher than ever.

On Tuesday night, Bowen helped hound Kobe Bryant into a 9-for-33 nightmare that was even more unsightly than the numbers suggest, as explained in box No. 10. On Thursday night, after asking his coaches to let him chase Dirk Nowitzki around instead of switching on pick-and-rolls to leave Nowitzki against a smaller guard, Bowen led the group effort that held the German to 14 points on 3-for-13 shooting. (Nowitzki, incidentally, has been destroying small forwards this season after struggling against smaller defenders in the playoffs.)

I don't know if Bowen can win the league's Defensive Player of the Year trophy. The list of contenders is already growing, just a month into the season, with Ron Artest back in Indiana and Denver's Marcus Camby joining Artest and Detroit's Ben Wallace as a serious game-changer.

What I do know is that Bowen is right there with all of them. I'm sure he loses votes because Tim Duncan is a teammate, but after watching Bowen shadow Nowitzki -- an All-Star power forward, remember -- you can make the argument that Bowen is helping Duncan defensively as much as Duncan's presence at the rim helps the perimeter guy.

2. I keep hearing that Kobe is shooting too much. I never hear anyone volunteer the names of teammates he should be setting up more. Reason being: This is by far the thinnest, weakest team Phil Jackson has ever coached, even though Phil tried on Opening Night to convince me to use the word "inexperienced" because it doesn't sound as harsh.

It's Phil's job to make the Kobe-Lamar Odom partnership flourish and it's not happening yet. But I'd still give the Zenmeister a better shot at completing that project that just about anyone else, even though the early returns aren't promising.

The bigger long-term issue for Phil, Kobe and Lamar is everyone else. A team can win with one guy taking all the shots -- remember Allen Iverson's Philadelphia 76ers in 2001 -- but you need gritty garbage men to chase down all the misses. Kwame Brown, you might have heard, doesn't exactly fit that description.

In a dream world, L.A. could trade for Shawn Marion or Antawn Jamison. In reality, they're praying Andrew Bynum develops faster than, say, Boston's Kendrick Perkins. In his third season, Perkins suddenly submitted a 19-rebound game Wednesday night with Paul Pierce and Ricky Davis soaking all of the attention from Philly's defense.

3. This is required reading ... and not just because the author is another Titan grad (and occasional Fullerton lecturer). The great Larry Coon has just finished updating his NBA Salary Cap FAQ to reflect all the changes ushered in by the league's new collective bargaining agreement.

Nowhere else will you find the cap, its trade rules and everything else related to the business of NBA roster assembly explained in clearer terms. You can't play Monday Morning GM without it.

Growth Spurt
Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images
Pau Gasol says experience, veteran teammates and a productive summer -- not the beard -- are his keys to his success.

One on One ... To Five

Marc Stein talks with Memphis power forward Pau Gasol.

1. STEIN: I'm sure you're sick of the question, but everyone's talking about your beard and how you're playing a more physical game now. Is that really the difference?

GASOL: No. The difference is that I have four years of experience. I signed a big contract last year and I feel like I have much more responsibility. It's not me being different.

2. STEIN: OK. What about your three new veteran teammates? What kind of lift have you gotten playing with Eddie Jones, Damon Stoudamire and Bobby Jackson?

GASOL: That makes a big difference. We got three veterans who are really helping us. It's more experience than we've ever had. They're true professionals.

3. STEIN: How much more chaotic was the locker room with Bonzi Wells and Jason Williams?

GASOL: I want to focus on this year. We've got a lot of pieces that fit us perfectly.

4. STEIN: You didn't play for the Spanish national team last summer. How much fresher do you feel?

GASOL: Hopefully it'll make a difference as far as injuries and energy and fatigue. I took off a little longer than usual, but not being with the national team also gave me the chance to work more on my game and in the weight room. Everywhere I was, I got my workout in. I think it helped me mentally to be more ready for the season.

5. STEIN: The Grizzlies have never had an All-Star. Will you be the first in February?

GASOL: It would mean a lot, definitely, but I really don't want to put a lot of thought into it because I want to focus on every game and keep playing like I'm playing. But I know it would make a lot of people happy in Memphis.

Western Conference

There is one avenue available to the Rockets for creating a salary slot above the veteran minimum to offer Latrell Sprewell or any other potential free-agent help. With Bobby Sura out indefinitely after back and knee surgeries, Houston would be eligible to apply for an injury exception worth half of Sura's salary -- just under $1.8 million -- if Sura is deemed to be out for the season.

Rockets GM Carroll Dawson, however, said Friday that the club isn't ready to rule the 32-year-old out for good. Sura's back is recovering faster than his knees at last report, but a more definitive reading on the likelihood of a return this season isn't expected until early January.

It also must be pointed out that even a one-year offer at $1.8 million still isn't enough to tempt Sprewell, whose agent -- with no evidence to suggest he can get this -- says he's holding out for a multiyear deal that starts closer to $5 million. ...


After Pau Gasol's beard and the good start that sprouted with it, what you notice most about Memphis' encouraging November is that the Grizzlies opened 10-5 without their answer to Sura: Brian Cardinal.

The Grizzlies' charge-taking, pick-setting utility man is still recovering from offseason surgery on his left knee, and coach Mike Fratello can't wait for Christmas. Cardinal should be back by then. "We're one big guy short right now," Fratello said, "and that's Brian." ...

It won't generate nearly as much hoopla as Sunday's return to Phoenix for Joe Johnson, but Jan. 27 is another significant date for the Suns and Hawks. That's when Boris Diaw gets his chance to go back to Atlanta and rouse the locals.

Cries that the Hawks committed too much in the sign-and-trade for Johnson -- a contract worth nearly $70 million and two future first-round picks dealt to Phoenix -- are even louder now that Diaw is flourishing under the daring of coach Mike D'Antoni.

Of course, it's worth remembering that lots of folks in Atlanta  inside the organization and outside -- were eager to send Diaw anywhere else. In the desert, he's playing everything from point guard to center and averaging 10.5 points, 6.3 boards and 5.8 assists.

The Suns aren't satisfied yet, though. They want to see consistent intensity from the 6-8 Frenchman, which is nice way of saying that they still see hints of the submissive mentality Diaw developed during his two years in a losing program.

What A Scout Says

About the Spurs' Tony Parker:

"The No. 1 difference is that Tony looks 10 times more aggressive than he's ever been. He's trying to attack at all times.

"And you can talk about trying to make him shoot jump shots, but it's not easy.

"The Spurs are spreading the floor for him more than they ever have and he's getting into the lane at will. They're running a lot of high screen-and-roll or side screen-and-roll with [Tim] Duncan and you can't send more help at Parker because they have a lot of shooters on the floor, too.

"I know [Parker] has been working on his jumper with [new Spurs shooting coach] Chip Engelland, but the big thing he's added is a hesitation move. He's always had quickness end to end, but now he has a change of pace in the half court. When he hesitates, if [the defender] stands up, it's over. He's by you."

Marc's Quote
"I love my Big Fella. I'll take him any day of the week. This [expletive] can play. You guys can say whatever you want about him, but this [expletive] can play.

"He is not Shaq. Everyone needs to get that out their mind. He can do so many things you guys don't even understand. I'll take him on my team any time."

Houston's Tracy McGrady, upon seeing an ESPN face, launching into a passionate (and unsolicited) defense of teammate Yao Ming in response to the criticism Yao has received for Houston's 0-8 record with T-Mac out of the lineup.

A Fine Line
41 4 1 4 0 25

When does a 25-point night fall on the wrong side of the fine line? When you need 33 shots to get there. But Tuesday's trip to San Antonio and Kobe's usual duel with Bruce Bowen was even uglier than it looks on the surface.

A few days have passed to absorb all the numbers, but they're still shocking: Bryant was 1-for-18 on shots from eight feet away or longer and 0-for-11 from 15 feet and beyond.


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