By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Quick story about Wednesday's Celtics-Lakers game: Not only did I get stuck with the L.A. announcers on Channel 9, not only did they fail to show Antoine and the pregame introductions, but the game was TAPE-DELAYED by an hour. What is this, 1978???? How is this even remotely acceptable? No wonder L.A. doesn't have an NFL team yet; even Atlanta wouldn't do this to its fans. Twenty hours later and I'm still speechless. Why not go a step further and show each quarter tape-delayed, only with "Seinfeld" re-runs between the quarters? Absolutely ridiculous.

(Quick Celtics prediction: Looking at their schedule, they're hitting 40 wins before they hit 30 losses. Just wanted to get that on record. As Todd Day once promised, "This train is bound for glory." Sure, that was nine years ago, but who's counting?)

Anyway, after watching the tape-delayed first half, TiVo-ing the rest and hopping online to follow the last five minutes of the game as it actually happened -- you know, because it's the 21st century and all -- I dragged the Sports Gal down to the Staples Center to see Nowitzki and the Mavs. You knew it was a big game because Don Johnson was in the house.

(That's right, Don Freaking Johnson!)

He was sitting courtside opposite the Clippers bench, carrying an extra 25 pounds and wearing his hairdo from the 1988 season of "Miami Vice," the frumpy one that made him look like a housewife. Considering that I've been watching the Season One DVD the last few weeks (yes, there's a column coming), seeing an aging, double-chinned Sonny Crockett on the Jumbotron plowing through a carton of Chinese food would have been the most startling moment of the Clippers season, if not for the knockdown/drag-out fight in the stands during last week's T-Wolves game, which went on for two solid minutes before Staples security finally showed up. I've never seen a fight in the stands where people stopped punching each other, then looked around waiting for someone to break them up, then started punching each other again; and where girls were legitimately throwing haymakers at each other. All in all, something like eight people were kicked out, and if a tape ever turned up on eBay of this thing, I think my opening bid would be $250.

The Mavs game was another biggie for the Clips, who watched their season collapse during a suicidal road trip last month, nearly going 0-for-February before toppling Minnesota. They have lost so many excruciating games this season, both at home and on the road, that there literally wasn't a scenario left after Monday night's kick in the groin (my brother Bobby missing a tying layup at the buzzer), save for someone making a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to beat them. As it stands right now, they're four games behind the Lakers (holding the 8-spot) in the loss column, with the fading T-Wolves and the surging Nuggets also ahead of them. Doesn't look good. Out of the 32 losses this season, I would wager that nearly half of them came down to the final minute. I'm not even kidding.

Of course, you tend to lose close games when your point guards are Rick Brunson and Lionel Chalmers. That's fine for one game, maybe two ... but two months? This isn't to put down the tireless work at the trading deadline of Clippers GM Elgin Baylor, who responded to the injuries of Shaun Livingston and Marko Jaric by, umm ... well, he didn't make a single move. We're not even sure he has a phone in his office. Although, in Elgin's defense, he didn't have any expiring contracts to move.

(Wait, scratch that. Between Kittles, Jaric and Wilcox -- none of whom will be here next season -- they had about $15 million in salaries to move for someone who could have helped the team right now. There were 11 deals made last week, almost all of them involving also-rans moving quality guys for cap flexibility, and the Clippers weren't involved in any of them. On the bright side, they did sign Kenny Anderson this week.)

Why do people keep coming back? Three reasons: It's a likable team; they always play hard; and the fans are always hoping that THIS is the year the Clippers make a run. The team leads them along -- like with the Maggette/Brand signings, or the pursuit of Kobe -- then breaks their hearts in the end. And this has been going on for 20 years. Then again, owner Donald Sterling makes something like $50 million a year from the team, and people keep coming to see these guys, so who can blame him?

At the Minnesota game, the father-son combo in the row in front of me -- who have been coming for like 17 years and seen exactly six home playoff games -- came up to me and asked, "Hey, you know some of the people who work for the Clippers, why aren't we trying to trade for anybody?" And it wasn't like they were even angry about it -- they were more beaten down, the same way someone looks on "Cheaters" after finding out their girlfriend has been sleeping with the next-door neighbor. And honestly? I didn't have an answer. The Clippers could have trumped New Jersey's offer for Vince Carter (who clearly needed a change of scenery); they could have gotten any number of veterans who would have helped (guys like Donyell Marshall, Eduardo Najera, David Wesley, Mike James, Darrell Armstrong, even Rodney Rogers); they could have rolled the dice for two months with a restricted free agent like Kwame Brown or Vlad Radmanovic; hell, they could have even discussed Baron Davis with the Hornets.

But they did nothing. More important, they didn't THINK of doing anything. Pretty discouraging.

And yet, every time you think this team is finished, they come roaring back. They walloped a disjointed Mavs team that was never really in the game. We kept waiting for the Mavs to make a run -- in fact, I had two old guys sitting right behind me who were JUST LIKE the guys in the barbershop from "Coming to America," and every time Dirk made a jumper, one of them would say, "Uh-oh, here de come, here de come." Only it never happened. Although I did immediately sign both guys to a holding deal for my NBA studio show on ESPN6.

It's tough to judge the Mavs from one bad game, especially because Erick Dampier didn't play. But I could see them sliding down the stretch. They've juggled the point guards all season; now they have three guys splitting time there, which never works. With Nash gone, their offense is a complete mess -- they try to play the slash-and-kick game, only nobody slashes. They have four quality guys (Finley, Howard, Daniels and Stackhouse) for two positions, with none of them getting enough playing time to ever get into a groove. And the players aren't comfortable together because, in classic Cuban-Nelson fashion, they changed 75 percent of the roster from last season, which would be a great idea if this was a fantasy league.

Dallas' big mistake happened last summer: First, they traded Jamison to Washington for Stackhouse and the No. 5 pick, which they used to take Devin Harris. Then, because it had Harris and Jason Terry in the fold, they thought Nash was expendable, so they let him go to Phoenix. If you ever saw Harris play in college, you knew that he was too out of control to play right away -- it will be 3-4 years before he could play point guard for a contender, if ever -- but the Dallas braintrust didn't understand this for whatever reason. And Terry has always been one of those hybrid guards like Chauncey Billups, someone who was never totally invested in getting his teammates the ball. These are the guys you want running your offense in May and June? Really? More importantly, why trade Jamison, a good soldier who was fantastic coming off the bench last season? How many inside-outside scoring forwards are in the league right now? Maybe 10? It was a terrible trade at the time, and with the way Jamison and Harris have played since, it's roughly 15 times worse now.

Mistake No. 2: They used Nash's money to acquire Erick Dampier, the center they always needed to battle Shaq in the West ... only Shaq wasn't in the West anymore.

To recap ...

Team they could have had: Nowitzki, Jamison, Nash, Howard and Finley with Daniels, Najera, Terry and Bradley coming off the bench (and they still could have made the Van Horn move in February, which was an excellent move).

Team they have: Dampier, Nowitzki, Howard, Finley and Terry, with Harris, Daniels, Stackhouse, Alan Henderson, Bradley (and Van Horn).

Would you rather have the first group or the second group? Exactly.

(By the way, did I mention that they never made a serious run at Shaq? Or that they traded Jamison before the draft without saving him for July, when everyone knew L.A. was trading Shaq, and they could have made a Jamison-Finley-Bradley offer for him? Whatever.)

This would barely be a .500 team without Nowitzki, who's been putting up MVP numbers playing with three subpar point guards and a rotating supporting cast. Watching him, I was struck by how far he's come as a franchise guy -- he was barking at referees, pushing people around in the low post, whipping his mouthpiece in disgust, demanding the ball from his coaches and so on, a virtuoso performance (as opposed to the one from Michael Finley, who was wearing a 37-cent stamp on his head). Nowitzki even shaved his head this week, a superb idea because the old haircut made him look like someone who would be the third guy in with Rocco Siffredi and Anita Blond. He's all business this season. If only his front office and coach were as good.

Couple of other notes and questions and we'll call it a night:

  • Keith Van Horn had a mustache going. I'll let those words sink in for a second.

  • Move over Andre the Giant and Gheorge Muresan ... make room for Pavel Podkolzin. I stared at him during every timeout. Intently. Is it too late to work him into "Dream Job 3"?

  • I do like Mark Cuban -- not only because he's good for the league, but because he's singlehandedly trying to bring back the baseball shirt. With that said, I would love to be in his roto league.

  • Can they have the Don Nelson retirement press conference, since he apparently retired two years ago? He could lead the league in "These five guys just pulled us back into this game, I think I'll take a couple of them out" decisions. I'm absolutely convinced that I could out-coach him in a seven-game series. I'm not even kidding.

  • The referee situation is so brutal in the NBA right now, I'm not even sure that Violet Palmer is one of the five worst officials in the league anymore. It's like they're coming off an assembly line -- they're all in phenomenal shape, they all look like running backs, and they're all incompetent. Every last one of them. There was a guy named Tony Brown Wednesday night who was on a TiVo 2-second delay -- every whistle happened two seconds after the fact. Truly terrible. There were six or seven laugh-out-loud calls, all by him. He was like a poor man's Rodney Lott.

  • My personal highlight: Nowitzki was doing an insane amount of complaining last night, even for him, so I was waiting for the perfect time to call him out. It ended up being the fourth quarter, when someone called a foul on him, and he reacted like someone was putting a boot on his car. With the big guy standing in front of the Dallas bench, I waited until the stadium fell silent, then shouted out, "Hey Dirk, STOP BEING A BABY!!!!!" I know, I know, not the funniest line, but trust me -- it was perfect for the exact moment. That was followed by everyone cracking up and Dirk whirling around with a ticked-off look on his face, as everyone in our section made the "Ooooooooooooohhhh!" sound.

    (The lesson, as always: It's always fun to heckle someone from Germany.)

    Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.

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