(Editor's note: ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein supplies each item for this around-the-league notebook edition of the Daily Dime.)
SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION Great expectations, bad results
I apologize in advance for the bitterness, but these are disappointing times. March Madness has begun and my beloved Cal State Fullerton Titans, who actually began this season as a favorite to win their conference for the first time I can ever remember, didn't make it.
Didn't even come close, really. They went 5-9 in a Big West that's not exactly big-time. They posted one measly win in the Big West Tournament. They should have been doing what Pacific did Thursday, taking Boston College to double-overtime, but will instead be remembered as the most disappointing Titans team of all time. At least on this scorecard.
I share all this only to explain the mood behind the topic selection for this Weekend Dime. Here are my top five disappointments, of the team variety, as we enter the final month of NBA season:
Ten extra wins. That's what I thought Larry Brown's coaching would do instantly for the Knicks, no matter who his players were.
Ten extra wins, even if you gave them to the Knicks right now, still wouldn't make this a playoff team.
Disappointing, then, doesn't even begin to describe this nightmarish Year 1 for Larry in his Dream Job. Wearing on his players with negativity, in private and via the media, is a staple of Brown's many stops, but so is immediate improvement. Nothing has happened instantly for these Knicks apart from the deterioration of Brown's relationship with Stephon Marbury -- yes, it's been even faster than expected -- and a nosedive so dramatic that they've unseated the Los Angeles Clippers as the NBA's foremost punching bag.
I don't want to heap more blame on the architect of this 18-win, $125 million roster, because Isiah Thomas is getting all of the blame while Brown, Zeke's marquee free agent, has somehow dodged the healthy slice he deserves. But there's little choice. Thomas simply has to be a more forceful and effective mediator if the Knicks intend to shed their newfound laughingstock status any time soon.
You'd rather see Isiah ousted? Fine. But if so, Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan better find a proven front-office operator -- who comes with a strong personality -- to pair with Brown.
History, remember, tells us that Larry's only lasting NBA successes came alongside a management heavyweight to A) mediate the coach's inevitable disputes with players and B) prevent the famously fickle coach from acting on his perpetual trade impulses. Donnie Walsh in Indiana. Pat Croce in Philadelphia. Joe Dumars in Detroit.
The Knicks, to restore any hope in Gotham, have to have an effective Larry foil of own. All they have otherwise is a slew of expensive players no other team wants and an expensive coach who hasn't come close to savior status.
How disappointing has Brown been? He's actually making folks feel sorry for Marbury, which didn't seem possible.
Remember last season's 14-4 finish?
Remember this season's 12-6 start?
Didn't think so.
With the Warriors mired in a 15-31 slide, Baron Davis hobbled by ankle woes for the past month and all that playoff talk turning out to be one big tease, Golden State gave the Knicks a real run for No. 1 here. New York, after all, was merely considered a playoff maybe when the season began, even with Larry. The Warriors, by contrast, were widely pegged as a top-eight team in the West, despite 11 consecutive seasons out of the postseason.
Make that 12. The Warriors indeed finished the '04-05 campaign with a flourish after trading for Davis, but the momentum fizzled one month into the new season. They also disappointed some fans on the trade front by flirting with a bold move for Ron Artest and then pulling themselves out of the running by refusing to part with rookie forward Ike Diogu.
I actually agreed with Chris Mullin's reluctance there -- it's going to take more than 25 choir-boy games in Sacramento to convince me that Artest is no longer a huge risk -- but Warriors players acknowledge now that they expect a shake-up trade or two this summer.
I'd also bank on a coaching change for starters, as discussed in this cyberspace recently, because the Warriors clearly aren't responding to the laid-back approach of Mike Montgomery. If they ever did.
I didn't pick the Wolves to finish in the West's top eight, which is rather disappointing in itself when you think about it.
Going into a season expecting Kevin Garnett to miss the playoffs?
Yet it's even uglier than that now, with the Wolves well south of .500 and headed into an off-season of total uncertainty.
Rumblings about the job security of first-year coach Dwane Casey are growing louder. Kevin McHale's approval rating in Minneapolis has never been lower.
And . . .
The Wolves are expected, for the first time, to at least consider trading Garnett, who turns 30 in May.
If the Wolves decide they still don't want to part with KG, who says he's "Sota" to the death and doesn't want to leave, they'll still need a major roster overhaul to get competitive again. Which will undoubtedly lead them to consider making a serious pitch to reacquire Marbury.
Either way, Minnesota faces an unenviable choice. Do you incur the wrath of your fans by parting with the face of the franchise and risk starting over completely? Or do you hope that a limited assortment of trade assets can somehow net someone who re-energizes the most deflated KG we've ever seen?
It's not often that a team can be described as resilient and a disappointment.
But Indy qualifies.
Even though it's Ron-Ron who sabotaged the Pacers' last attempt to make the Artest-Jermaine O'Neal marriage work, barely one month into the season, it will be recorded as a failure for both parties. Even though the Pacers did everything imaginable to save the relationship -- I'd have probably done the same given how good Artest can be on his sane days -- that's just the way it works.
No matter how many injuries Indy fights through again this season -- even if it survives a round in the playoffs after that last, long spin on the Artest roller-coaster -- these Pacers can't escape the fact that they were supposed to be a title contender. And fell well short.
5. THE EASTERN CONFERENCE
We're obviously lumping several teams together here, but it's merited. This, remember, was supposed to be the season that gave us a New East.
Numerous experts projected this season to be the first since Michael Jordan's Chicago departure in 1998 in which the East could be considered the stronger conference. It's a theory that gained credence when Phoenix lost Amare Stoudemire just days into training camp.
Stoudemire still hasn't played a game yet -- and might not come back until next season -- but West is still best. With two teams (San Antonio and Dallas) headed for 60-plus wins and a 227-171 advantage in West vs. East games entering the weekend, who can argue? The Suns, even without Stoudemire, still look like a more serious title threat than anyone in the East apart from the Pistons.
Disappointing? If Miami clicks suddenly in the playoffs after its snoozy regular season, as Shaquille O'Neal believes, then it's not such a big deal. At this point, though, it saddens me to say that Detroit is the only team in the East's top five that has lived up to billing. The Pistons have exceeded all expectations, actually, but does that make up for the Heat, Nets, Cavs and Pacers and the Knicks?
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
LeBron's Cavs have struggled to finish games lately, but that's no surprise when you count up their veteran leaders. (See below.)
Even if they hold on to the fourth seed in the East, don't be surprised if Cleveland is widely picked to lose the first playoff series of LeBron James' career. Especially if the Cavs draw a veteran Indiana team in Round 1.
Reason being: Cleveland has a 21-year-old franchise player and a rookie coach.
In other words, this team has a leadership void.
As good as LeBron has looked in his third season, he hasn't been able to consistently elevate the play of those around him. Not with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and definitely not with struggling newcomers Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones.
It's unfair to expect anyone to have everything at 21, even James. At this stage in his development, he needs help with the leadership stuff. Trouble is, Larry Hughes remains unavailable through injury and help from the sideline isn't always forthcoming, with a 36-year-old coach in Mike Brown who admits that he's still "trying to feel my way."
Said Hughes: "LeBron still has to figure out how to win in this league. He's still figuring out the best way to make his teammates better. He's an amazing talent, but it takes a lot of figuring out, especially when you're thrown in there to be 'The Man' from the jump."
If there wasn't a spot for Allen Iverson in the Team USA player pool, it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that the Sixers' other AI went uninvited as well.
But if that doesn't change for Andre Iguodala in coming years, that doesn't mean he has no international future.
Nigerian basketball authorities, I'm told, have let the likes of Iguodala and Golden State's Ike Diogu know that they are welcome to play for the African power if they don't want to wait for a Team USA shot.
There are five active players who boast career averages of 20 points and 10 rebounds. Two play in the East.
Can you name them?
Philly's Chris Webber at 21.6 points and 10.1 boards.
One man's take on the Cleveland Cavaliers and their offensive struggles, from Dimedom's web of front-office executives, coaches and scouts:
"They put LeBron in a lot of pick-and-rolls and I don't think that suits him. And then his teammates stand around watching too much, waiting to see what LeBron's going to do.
"It's obviously tougher with Larry Hughes out, because it forces LeBron to handle the ball a lot more, but they're very predictable. I'd like to see them bringing him down under the basket more and getting him moving without the ball and coming off screens -- that's where he's at his best.
"They don't play inside-out very much, either, even though things get easier for them on nights they do. If you get that ball into [Zydrunas] Ilgauskas and get guys cutting off him, he'll get people easy baskets. He can pass as well as score.
"But it's a lot like Michael Jordan in his early days with the Bulls when he didn't always trust his teammates. LeBron's doing everything. He's involved in every [offensive] action and he's not always a willing passer."
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
Is Larry Brown hanging his head in shame or is he just averting his eyes from the disaster that is the Knicks' play? Probably both.
Unexpected development in that two-team, all-Texas race for the No. 1 seed in the West:
Neither team, suddenly, remains obsessed about securing home-court advantage in the second round. For both clubs, health is more of a priority than ever.
The Mavs gladly would sacrifice the Southwest Division title and the accompanying chance to play host for Game 7 of their inevitable playoff showdown with the Spurs in exchange for a full-strength Howard and Harris, who are sidelined indefinitely with leg ailments.
San Antonio, meanwhile, isn't looking at any new injuries, but Gregg Popovich admits that he's tempted to sit Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili in the second games of the Spurs' four remaining back-to-backs. Pop's two best players have dragged through foot trouble all season, and Duncan is especially relieved to know that teams aren't subjected to back-to-back duty in the playoffs given that he has averaged just 14.4 points on 38.8-percent shooting in the second half of back-to-back sets.
"It would be great if he rests Timmy and Manu," said Spurs guard Tony Parker, "because we need them in the playoffs. And we know we can win on the road, so it doesn't matter if we get the No. 1 seed."
The Spurs will rely on their know-how and ability to control tempo in big games to get through the forthcoming playoffs, but they've already decided that experience won't be enough next season.
Their attempts to acquire J.R. Smith from New Orleans/Oklahoma City before the Feb. 23 trading deadline, which fell through at the buzzer, amount to an admission from San Antonio that youth and athleticism is a bigger concern than anticipated.
Look for the Spurs to address it in the offseason, with Duncan and Rasho Nesterovic turning 30 during the playoffs to leave Parker (24), Ginobili (28) and Nazr Mohammed (28) as the only players in Pop's main rotation under 30.
You know that Houston has had some problems winning without Tracy McGrady. More than some, actually. The Rockets were 2-17 entering the weekend minus T-Mac, who's likely out for the rest of the season because of a longstanding back problem.
Yet that's not the only hole in Houston's record. The Rockets are also 0-11 in games against fellow Southwest Division foes and thus have only five more chances to avoid becoming the first team in NBA history to go winless in their own division for an entire season.
McGrady has only played in four of those 11 division games. The Rockets host the Spurs on Saturday and again in the April 19 season finale, and play once more against Dallas, New Orleans and Memphis -- only the Grizz at home -- in search of the three victories that can keep them off this list:
Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images
While Marvin Williams has shown potential, one ESPN wag will always wonder what Chris Paul would've looked like in a Hawks uni.
From the Stein Line e-mailbag:
Nique (Atlanta): Why are you always busting on the Hawks for not drafting Chris Paul? The Jazz, if I'm not mistaken, passed him over, too.
Stein: You're right, Nique. The Jazz (who, incidentally, have to live with you holding out after the 1982 draft until Utah consented to trade you to Atlanta) are just as guilty.
Except for one thing.
Paul wanted to be a Hawk. Let me repeat myself: Chris Paul wanted to be a Hawk. He also told me back in December that he had his best pre-draft workout for the Hawks. Factor in the position Paul plays -- one of the two toughest to fill, remember -- and you run out of wiggle room. No matter what it saw in Marvin Williams, Atlanta had to draft CP3. Had to.
This was even before the Hawks knew they'd be getting Joe Johnson in free agency. But you'll recall that Johnson's strong desire to leave a title-chasing situation in Phoenix for the long, difficult climb confronting Atlanta is one of the main reasons Hawks management was willing to part with so much to get him: Boris Diaw, two first-round picks and a $70 million commitment to Johnson.
Now? Not only would Paul and Johnson have formed a killer tandem; Atlanta would suddenly have two marquee players proud to call Philips Arena home.
It doesn't sound like much until you try to come up with a few more marquee names who long to be Hawks.
Had Paul revealed a fondness for Salt Lake City after slipping to the Hornets, I'd be roasting the Jazz more regularly.
"I was on the track all summer long, two hours a day. I feel like I can run all day."
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, attempting to dispel the notion that he'll fade in April after the scoring load he's shouldered all season.
A four-game stretch entering the weekend, in which Bryant averaged a mere 26.5 points, could be viewed as cause for concern. Yet Bryant is still at 34.8 points per game for the season and thus still positioned with a shot at becoming just the second player since 1970 to score 35 a game.
The first? You'll be shocked to be reminded that Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 points for Chicago in 1986-87 and an even 35.0 ppg in '87-88. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (34.8 ppg for Milwaukee in 1971-72) and Bob McAdoo (34.5 ppg for the late, great Buffalo Braves in 1974-75) are the next closest since '70.
There were several unexpected outbursts over the past few days. The Clippers' Chris Kaman rumbled for 24 points and 23 boards in a win over Minnesota. Utah's Carlos Boozer re-announced himself to the NBA with 30 and 10 in an OT setback at Orlando. Memphis' Jake Tsakalidis has resurfaced from oblivion with a string of double-doubles. Charlotte's Bernard Robinson, whoever he is, just scored 21 points in a loss to Washington.
Yet my favorite surprise of the week comes from a savvy lefty I've known since his college days at UCLA, when only the refs saved Darrick Martin and his No. 2-ranked Bruins from a historic loss to my Titans at Pauley Pavilion in 1991.
I'll never get over that one -- I still ride Bruce Bowen to this day about a dunk he missed right before a crucial no-call on a blatant Ed O'Bannon double-dribble that turned the game -- but I have come to appreciate Martin's resilience.
He hooks on somewhere every season and displayed the value of veteran know-how Tuesday when he rung up 18 points and 12 assists to help Toronto to a 111-97 road win over Allen Iverson-less Philly.
Playing for his sixth team at 35, after two stints each with the Wolves and Clippers, Martin had only 18 points and six assists total for the Raps between Jan. 6 and March 12. It is worth remembering, though, that Martin did have a 38-point game back in 1996.