On the list of Coaches With Stoppers, no one has a cozier spot than Minnesota's Flip Saunders. None of Flip's peers has a 7-footer who can harass guards all over the floor and still make it back to the rim in time to outleap everyone under the bucket and grab the rebound.
Only now, Flip is even more fortunate. He has the rare privilege of being able to deploy the imperious Kevin Garnett as the point man in his zone schemes or assign him to players of all sizes ... but no longer the necessity to do so. Not since the Wolves were able to sign Trenton Hassell for, well, basically nothing.
Hard as it is for Bulls fans to digest the fact that the Jalen Rose experiment cost them Ron Artest and Brad Miller, their latest disappointment is the sight of Hassell emerging as a key role player on one of the league's best teams. Hassell was Chicago's last cut in training camp, then signed with the Wolves. Two months later, Saunders can be heard on a nightly basis calling Hassell "a young Bruce Bowen."
"Like when Bruce was a younger guy who can really defend but still just earning a reputation (as a stopper)," Saunders said. "Trenton is great. We'll put him on anybody."
It's important for a couple reasons. Not only does Hassell's presence allow Saunders to demand less defensively from Latrell Sprewell -- which saves Spree's legs for the playoffs -- it also enables Saunders to keep Garnett closer to the rim. Little wonder KG is blocking more than two shots per game (2.4) for the first time since his second season in the league.
The Wolves, meanwhile, are now mixing in as many zone looks defensively as they did two seasons ago, when they were known as the NBA's biggest proponents of the new rules. And when Hassell isn't stopping the other team's high scorer, Saunders is more than ready to revert to his trusty 7-foot ball chaser. Last Saturday, with Dallas raining in a flurry of late 3-pointers, Minnesota had Garnett back out by the arc during Dallas' attempt to stage a fourth-quarter rally, blitzing Steve Nash with a nasty smile on his face.
"Kevin's tough to limit when he's on the court," Saunders said, wearing his own grin.
Suns' ticket in Kobe sweepstakes
It's true that the Phoenix Suns still have a bit more work to do before they can clear at least $10 million in salary-cap room for the summer. But you have to like the Suns' chances after all the contract obligations -- some $107 million -- they moved to New York.
The Suns likely still must trade Howard Eisley or the more movable Jahidi White to get into the double-figure millions in cap room. They will also undoubtedly cling to hope that the player they expose in the expansion draft -- probably one of those two aforementioned acquisitions -- is claimed by the Charlotte Bobcats.
Don't forget, furthermore, that each of the existing 29 teams can offer up to $3 million to the Bobcats to convince the expansion club to take a certain player that has been exposed for that draft.
It says here that, come July, the Suns will have cleared the cap room necessary to make a run at Kobe Bryant or any of the top free agents available. With Bryant specifically, a bigger deterrant is the possibility that owner Jerry Colangelo would have reservations pursuing a player who, at that point, might not yet be cleared of rape charges. The Suns, though, did award Stephon Marbury a lucrative contract extension even after Marbury served 10 days in jail following a DUI arrest.
One more Kobe factor to file away is the very real possibility that the seemingly encouraging fable about Bryant wearing No. 8 because he loved Suns coach Mike D'Antoni when D'Antoni played in Italy is not going to be a factor that helps Phoenix at all. The original explanation back in 1996, remember, had Bryant choosing No. 8 because that's the sum of the numbers he wore at the famed ABCD camp the summer before he was drafted: 143. Another explanation: Bryant's birthday is in August, the eighth month of the year.
Even though he has openly questioned Eric Musselman after two of the past five games, all losses, Golden State's Nick Van Exel insists he doesn't have a problem with his new coach. "I like Musselman," Van Exel said. "I just think, offensively, we need to have more of a label for guys -- certain guys are supposed to do this, certain guys are supposed to do that. That's all I'm really saying." Van Exel, though, acknowledges that he has wondered if the Warriors are as intent on keeping him as they were after acquiring him from Dallas in the summer. "I think about it all the time," said Van Exel, who has just one season of guaranteed money left on his contract after this season. "I don't know what we're trying to do," Van Exel said. "Are we trying to win and make the playoffs, or trying to rebuild?"
One place Nick won't be going is the Knicks, who were perpetually interested in the fiery lefty until acquiring Marbury on Monday. "Good move for the Knicks," Van Exel said, betraying no disappointment that his NYC reunion with Antonio McDyess never happened.
How rough was Marbury's start with his hometown Knicks? Scoring eight points and six points in his first two games marked just the fourth time in the prolific guard's career, as a starter, that he failed to score in double figures in back-to-back games. It happened in March 2000 with New Jersey (18 points over two games), April 1998 with Minnesota (20 points over four) and also with the Wolves in February 1997 (13 over two).
Utah is looking to join in on the season's trading frenzy, but its wish list -- like the one-and-only Kramer's fetish for velvet scrunchies -- is very specific. The under-the-cap Jazz wants cash and future draft picks to take on a player in the last year of his contract from a team trying to reduce its potential luxury-tax bill at season's end. Utah is expected to hold out as long as it can, between now and the Feb. 19 trading deadline, to generate the best deal.
Reggie Miller is averaging just 9.5 points on less than eight shots per game, both career lows. He's also leaving the mentoring of Ron Artest to coach Rick Carlisle and new team president Larry Bird. "Ron is his own man," Uncle Reg said. "He plays hard and he brings a lot of enthusiasm to the team. He doesn't need babysitters." Regarding the Pacers' good start, highlighted by 10 more road wins than home defeats, Miller added: "It's obviously still somewhat early in the season, but I'm encouraged by our road play. Homecourt advantage is never a guarantee in the playoffs. You always seem to lose one or two at home. It's encouraging to know we can go into other people's buildings and steal one."