Updated: Dec. 24, 2005, 3:06 AM ET
SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION
Editor's note: ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein supplies each item for this weekly around-the-league notebook edition of the Dime.
Stein's holiday wish list
By Marc Stein
Christmas Day question: What do you get the teams that have everything?
Answer: Detroit and San Antonio don't actually have everything, so it's a misleading question.
Something they won't have this Christmas, yet again, is the spotlight. Perhaps it shouldn't be terribly surprising by now, given how their shared lack of glamour so frequently denies them top billing, but it has to be somewhat disheartening to the NBA Finals rivals that their first rematch since going seven games in June doesn't seem to be generating much anticipation. It has to be somewhat surprising, too, after these teams spent the first two months of the season separating themselves from The Other Twenty-Eight.
You keep hearing that the public supposedly misses the days when team ball was emphasized over individual brilliance, and Spurs at Pistons is definitely the game I want to watch most Sunday, but my preference appears to be a minority view. Which got my editors thinking that someone -- me -- should send the league's most team-oriented teams a few gifts, just to remind the Pistons and Spurs that they aren't forgotten during this blizzard of Phil vs. Riles/Kobe vs. Shaq hoopla.
Some ideas that came to mind:
For Tim Duncan: No more than one Stein Line mention of the fact that, after shooting 78 percent from the line in November, he's down to 58.6 percent in December.
For Ben Wallace: A snazzy case to protect those funky red goggles, if he's not going to wear them again.
For Rasheed Wallace: A reminder typed in big print and taped to his locker that the league is charging more than ever for technical fouls. A new policy instituted this season stipulates that the first five technical fouls cost $1,000 each. The next five cost $1,500 each, and then $2,000 each for Nos. 11-15. After 15 technicals, each T costs $2,500 -- with one-game suspensions issued for every other technical. With 'Sheed at five Ts through 23 games and thus on pace for 18, that would add up to a total of $30,000 in fines ... but also two one-game suspensions that would cost him (yikes) $186,545.45 in salary.
For Manu Ginobili: Besides some long-awaited good health, how 'bout a one-night jersey swap with the Spurs' famed Coyote mascot ... so Manu gets a chance to wear the exclamation point.
For Chauncey Billups: Not just a first-time spot on the East's All-Star team, but a starting spot.
For Tony Parker: Maybe not a starting spot in the West, but definitely a maiden spot on the bench.
For Rip Hamilton: Yes, an All-Star berth for you, too.
For Bruce Bowen: Some serious Defensive Player of the Year consideration would be nice, but a full-fledged jersey retirement ceremony at Cal State Fullerton -- and induction into every Hall of Fame we have at Titan Tech -- is a must.
For Gregg Popovich: A foot doctor convincing enough to assure him that the ailments hobbling Duncan and Ginobili aren't serious.
For Flip Saunders: An iPod pre-loaded with that Li'l Flip song and the unmistakable "Game over, Flip, Flip, Flip" chorus.
For Robert Horry: An official name change to Big Shot Rob, so nobody messes it up in the playoffs next time. (No, it was never Big Shot Bob.)
For Darko Milicic: A B-12 shot ... with a Starbucks gift card ... and any other legal stimulants. Whatever it takes to wake Darko up, get him moving with some urgency and give Joe Dumars a reason not to start seriously thinking about trading him for the bench help Detroit can obviously use. Larry Brown's departure was supposed to be Christmas in July for Darko.
For Rasho Nesterovic: An opportunity to pick his ESPN channel, come on and fire back at Stephen A.
For both teams: A later tipoff time than 12:30 p.m. The NBA owns Christmas Day. Make the gridiron guys play early and let the true entertainers have the night slots.
• Dimes Past: December 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17-18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23
Kobe Bryant, as explained below, thinks he'll clear the air with Shaquille O'Neal "one day." Not on a game day, though.
Unlike Shaquille O'Neal, who still greets Kobe Bryant
questions with the old joke about how he's not familiar with "that name," Kobe is willing to say publicly that, eventually, these two will have a civil conversation of some sort.
Yet it should be pretty obvious by now that it's not going to happen in a rushed (and media-blanketed) setting like Sunday's, when Bryant's Lakers visit Miami for a second straight Christmas reunion with his former three-peat collaborator.
"One day, I'm sure that we'll be able to sit down," Bryant said. "But not right now. He has things he's trying to accomplish down there in Miami. My priorities are here with this team and trying to get us back to the playoffs. I don't think it's top on either one of our priority lists as far as getting on the phone and talking or mending relationships or whatever. We have other things to do."
The Lakers, meanwhile, are not optimistic about their chances of acquiring Ron Artest, no matter how much Phil Jackson likes Ron-Ron and no matter how loudly certain media gnats plea for this to happen. L.A. simply lacks the pieces to deal directly with the Pacers and has been unable to concoct a three-team deal that interests Indy.
The Pacers, according to NBA front-office sources, would rather deal with the Lakers' co-tenants anyway. The Clippers, though, have resisted -- even though the prospect of importing Artest doesn't scare coach Mike Dunleavy one bit.
It's also believed that owner Donald Sterling would embrace the idea of adding Artest and all zaniness that comes with the big-name buzz, but Clips management remains unwilling to part with Corey Maggette. Chris Wilcox is the best player they're willing to include a deal for now.
You can argue that this isn't the time, given Clipperland's first tangible stability in forever, to be gambling on Artest. It's an argument I would echo. Yet it's also undeniably tantalizing to imagine Artest -- assuming you could actually count on him -- forming a beastly frontcourt partnership with Elton Brand.
Or Artest playing power forward, shifting Brand to center and running Shaun Livingston as a point forward alongside Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley.
The Memphis Grizzlies have never had an All-Star. The only team with an active drought in the same neighborhood as the Grizzlies' 0-for-9 is the Golden State Warriors, whose last All-Star was Latrell Sprewell in 1997.
Pau Gasol is Memphis' best hope for a breakthrough, but the Spaniard slumbered through much of December before big showings this week against Detroit (32 points and 13 boards in a double-OT defeat) and Portland (26 and 12 in a win). After the Grizzlies started 13-5, Gasol averaged just 11.3 points on 11-for-36 shooting during a recent three-game slide to dredge up the consistency questions he has been trying to bury for years.
"If he can sustain [his November success], then he's gone to a new level," said Grizzlies coach Mike Fratello, who has responsed to Gasol's favorable early press by pushing him harder. "You take that up to the All-Star break, then we have a different player."
This might be a media first, but here goes: I am here to praise Yao Ming's toughness.
The toe injury he has been playing through for a while now was actually a serious infection of the bone that required two surgical procedures this week. Yao contends that he might still be playing, too, if not for a couple painful encounters with Danny Fortson's feet in Seattle late last week.
Yao told ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher -- a story Buch related on Tuesday night's NBA Coast to Coast -- that a tangle or two with Fortson took the pain to a point that he had to stop, just one night after Yao registered 30 points and 16 rebounds at Golden State. Surgery was prescribed soon thereafter and now Yao might be forced to sit out until after Houston hosts the All-Star Game.
If you're struggling to remember Yao's last long-term injury, it's because he has never had one. He was widely bashed for failing to lead the Rockets to a single victory in the eight games Tracy McGrady missed recently with a back ailment, but he has never been properly recognized for his durability. Yao missed just two games in his first three seasons, even though he started each one drained by a full summer with the Chinese national team.
In short, the 7-foot-6 behemoth is tougher than he ever gets credit for.
2. You don't have to like it, but you can certainly understand why LeBron James -- with the size and all-around skill set reminiscent of Magic Johnson -- has been shooting so much.
A lot of the shots are going in.
Before Friday night's 4-for-16 hiccup, James was on pace to become the first player to average at least 30 points per game and shoot 50 percent from the floor since Michael Jordan did it in 1991-92. MJ averaged 30.1 points per game on 51.9 percent shooting that season; LBJ sat at 31.0 ppg on 50.3 percent shooting through 24 games until a 4-for-16 slip in Cleveland's 94-89 victory over Indiana.
When LeBron is hitting that often, and given that he's not exactly flanked by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, it's harder to bust him for it.
3. Surely you weren't surprised to hear that Artest is now begging the Pacers to keep him around.
The only surprise is that the flip-flop took a week. Given Artest's waffling, say-anything history, I was expecting "I Want To Be A Pacer For Life" headlines a day or two after the original trade demand.
Tim Duncan is gaining on Big Ben's hair height, but we're guessing you won't see these specs on anyone else.
Why no Artest trade yet? Here's why: Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh has some good bosses.
Ownership's willingness to empower Walsh to keep Artest on the inactive list for the rest of the season if necessary -- with pay -- alleviates some in-house pressure on Walsh to rush into a so-so deal.
The only other reason to make a deal quickly would be if the wait for a better offer became a distraction detrimental to the team, and it's conceivable that Indy will reach that point eventually. Yet with the Pacers accustomed to bigger distractions than this after last season, and with Danny Granger already showing flashes of his Poor Man's Artest potential, Walsh figures his team can keep winning pretty regularly in the short-term while he keeps looking.
Among the possibilities Indy has apparently dismissed is the, uh, interesting idea of Minnesota signing-and-trading Latrell Sprewell to the Pacers (along with Michael Olowokandi) for Artest.
The Wolves haven't renounced their rights to Sprewell, who would likely make more money in a sign-and-trade than he could waiting for someone to sign him outright -- even if the minimum three-year contract he would be obligated by league rules to sign in such a scenario came with only one year guaranteed.
Yet the Pacers, for some reason, aren't prepared to give Artest's locker to Spree.
What's the long-term value of a 20-3 start? If recent history is any guide, put the Detroit Pistons in the conference finals right now.
In the previous 10 seasons, only five teams have matched the Pistons' record after 23 games. Three of them wound up losing in the West finals: Phoenix last season after starting 20-3, Dallas in 2003 after its 20-3 start and Houston in 1997 despite a launch of 21-2. The only other two teams in the past decade to open a season at that pace -- Chicago at 20-3 in 1995-96 and 1996-97 -- went on to win it all.
What pleases the Pistons most about putting themselves on that list is the fact that they entered the weekend having played only nine home games, least in the league.
You've undoubtedly heard the name of injured Nuggets power forward Nene linked to the Hawks, either in a potential three-way Artest trade with Denver and Indiana or in straight-up speculation that would send Al Harrington to the Rockies for Nene and another Nugget (Earl Watson or Voshon Lenard).
Even if none of those trade scenarios materializes, file away the idea of Nene playing in Atlanta. The big Brazilian, expected to make a full recovery from a season-ending knee tear, will be a restricted free agent come July, and the Hawks will have the cap space to make the sort of lucrative offer Denver will struggle to match.
Marc Stein talks with veteran Dallas guard Darrell Armstrong:
Stein: Has the heat died down from your "How 'bout those Redskins?" taunt to Cowboys fans before last Sunday night's Mavs-Wolves game?
Armstrong: I'm still getting plenty. You know what's sad? People who have a good sense of humor, they understand what I was doing. I was just having a little fun. For Cowboys fans and Redskins fans, we heckle each other every year and that's part of the rivalry.
Stein: It cost you a $1,000 fine, but was it worth it?
Armstrong: The Redskins' organization appreciates what I said. We've been on the road all week, but I got a call from Avery Johnson's office that the Redskins sent me a surprise. It's waiting in my locker.
Stein: Far more interesting to me was the next day when you proclaimed yourself "the best kicker in Dallas" and offered to help the Cowboys with their kicking and punting woes. I know you were a kicker at Fayetteville State, but can you really still kick?
Armstrong: Who do you think my idol was growing up? Mark Moseley. I'm still a good kicker. When I was in Orlando, I went out and kicked a 45-yarder in tennis shoes. I mess around once in a while. I can still kick. I have a very strong leg.
Stein: But then you said you couldn't bring yourself to play for the Cowboys even if Bill Parcells offered. Are you trying to tell me you wouldn't go if they called and invited you to try out?
Armstrong: I just can't do it.
Stein: After all that, you had an up-close view for Kobe Bryant's 62 points. Was that the most dominant performance you've ever seen from an opposing player?
Armstrong: I remember in Orlando, we played Miami on NBC on a Saturday [in 1995] and Glen Rice dropped 56 on us. I don't think he shot more than eight or 10 free throws [Editor's note: It was 10]. Kobe shot 25. Glen was all lights-out.
One man's take on Philadelphia's Chris Webber, culled from Dimedom's web of front-office executives, coaches and scouts:
"He's a pass-first player now.
"He doesn't need the ball every time down and when he does get it, he loves to pass. The Sixers are even running a few of Sacramento's sets and Webber gets to run the offense in those sets.
"Another reason he and [Allen] Iverson can play together is that Webber is a high-post player. He doesn't clog the middle by posting up and that opens up the middle for Iverson's drives. Plus he's still such a good shooter that one of your bigs has to go out there and respect him.
"But you can see that Webber is laboring to get up and down the floor. His legs look dead sometimes, and he's playing a lot of minutes.
"That's why Philly likes to run whenever they can; if they can score quickly in transition Webber doesn't always have to run with them."
"Very close. Very close. But I knew Kevin McHale didn't want to see me playing with Dirk Nowitzki. He didn't want to see it. The way Dirk Nowitzki shoots? MVP playing with me."
Los Angeles Clippers guard Sam Cassell, when asked to assess how close he came to going to the Mavericks in a multi-player trade for Michael Finley in August before the Timberwolves opted to move Cassell to L.A. in a sign-and-trade for Marko Jaric.
|DEC. 20: KOBE BRYANT VS. MAVERICKS|
It takes something truly special to overshadow everything amazing that happened Tuesday night: Milwaukee's Mo Williams shredding San Antonio for 28 points in the Bucks' OT win over the defending champs; Portland's Zach Randolph rumbling for 37 points against the Wallace Brothers in a narrow loss at Detroit; Seattle's Reggie Evans amassing a career-best 21 points to go with 18 boards in Phoenix; and Cleveland's Luke Jackson attempting 10 free throws in one game after attempting just 14 in his career to the that point.
Of course, I'm guessing you'll agree that Kobe's 62-pointer in Tuesday's late game -- in just three quarters -- pretty much forced us to put him in this cyberspace yet again.