Better challenge ahead in '05

Updated: February 14, 2004, 3:13 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- Denver will be better. Denver has to be better.

In Denver, presumably, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony will be playing on Sunday as well as Friday. Denver is the host city for 2005's All-Star Weekend, and Sunday, of course, belongs to certifiable All-Stars. Next February, both players should be certified.

Friday night in Los Angeles belonged to James and Anthony, but their presence in the Rookies vs. Sophomores matchup was never going to be sufficient consolation for their exclusion from the real All-Star Game. Whether or not you believe they should have been voted in as All-Stars, at least by the coaches, please don't try to suggest that the so-called Rookie Challenge can or should make up for it.

Bron and Melo were wise to turn this thing into an impromptu dunk contest because that was the only way to get any value out of this "game." Moving it up one night to Friday evening was a game attempt by the league to give this portion of the weekend some luster, but it has never been an event that generates any real emotion. Except for maybe the why-am-I-here look that Rookies coach Doug Collins occasionally struggled to mask in the 142-118 loss to the sophomores.

"This is not one of my defensive (coaching) tapes I'm going to send anybody," Collins quipped.

No one except the coaches, of course, is looking for defense in these things, but Rooks vs. Sophs -- even with as much marquee talent as it has ever offered -- didn't quite come off right at Staples Center. Put it on the long list of All-Star Weekend vehicles that could use some tweaking.

Yet James, to his credit, was gracious when it was over, preferring to let the debate about his shared All-Star snub with Anthony extinguish quietly.

"I'm satisfied," Bron said of playing Friday night. "... I guess we'll be playing next year, too. In the Rookie-Sophomore game, and hopefully we'll be playing against each other on Sunday."

Because it'll be in Denver, maybe even Friday will be better next time, with James and Anthony to be teammates on Melo's home floor at the Pepsi Center. Then imagine if they are fully fledged All-Stars by this time next year. James and Anthony, on opposite teams on Melo's home floor, will be spicy indeed. LeBron figures to get some hearty boos in that one.

"They both had great cases this year," New Jersey's Jason Kidd insisted, giving the debate one last spark. The kids will instead have to settle for joining a distinguished list of legends who didn't achieve All-Star status as rookies, a group that includes Tiny Archibald, Walt Frazier, John Havlicek, Pete Maravich, Kevin McHale, James Worthy and even Bill Russell.

If it's Hollywood, it's (Lakers) drama
The first All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles in just over two decades commenced in fairly standard fashion for denizens of Lakerland. The unending soap opera that centers around Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson dominated all discussion, as if All-Star Weekend were somewhere else.

Bryant's claim that he wants "to be a Laker for the rest of my life" drew the most attention, but there were actually much splashier statements than that attempt at stifling the latest controversy that enveloped the club before the break.

Want drama?

"Our relationship has always been kind of dicey," Bryant said, referring to Jackson. "It's always been a kind of a push-and-pull type of relationship. ... Our relationship has always been that way, but it's been successful."

O'Neal, speaking to the general tenor of the day's questions: "I think we would be a funny-looking organization if we didn't have drama. I've been here for seven years, and we've had drama every year."

Bryant also went on to call Jackson "the general of the team," in spite of that push-and-pull relationship. O'Neal, of course, likes to call himself the Lakers' general.

Want one more?

With belief growing that Bryant intends to defect to the crosstown Clippers via free agency -- as you know if you're a regular reader here -- O'Neal was asked if the Lakers should consider trading Bryant before he leaves without compensation.

"I think they'd trade me before they'd trade him," Shaq announced.

Why?

"Because he's younger."

Tiebreaker change in the offing
The NBA's competition committee met Friday and agreed to recommend a change in the playoff tiebreaker system. Under the new format, which would still require Board of Governors approval, head-to-head record will remain the first tiebreaker for playoff seeding, but division record would become the second tiebreaker. At present, conference record is the second tiebreaker.

San Antonio, for example, won the Midwest Division title last season with a better conference record than Dallas. Both teams finished 60-22, but the Mavericks had a better Midwest Division record than the Spurs.

Briefly ...
Also discussed at Friday's competition committee meeting was the expected return to a universal reporting date for training camp starting next season. Veterans were allowed to report to camp three days late this season, and many veterans subsequently admitted the concept did more harm than good. League officials and the union are still discussing the details, but the union remains likely to relent and revert to the old system as long as the league makes a concession on a separate issue. ... Cheryl Ford of the WNBA's Detroit Shock, said in response to questions about father Karl Malone's knee injury: "It's hard for him emotionally. It's about to drain him -- and us, too. It's just killing him that he's not out there playing. He can barely go to the games and watch them. I feel so sorry for him." Ford said her dad still doesn't know exactly when he'll return to the Lakers. Malone, at 40, has been out since Dec. 21 with the first long-term injury of his career and isn't expected back until mid-March. ... After all the concern in Dallas about what Dirk Nowitzki would do at All-Star Weekend without his little buddy from Canada, Steve Nash -- a participant in zero All-Star Weekend events -- decided to fly West with Nowitzki anyway and spend the weekend rooting on his German sidekick. ... Something to watch for Sunday: West coach Flip Saunders is vowing to throw a zone at the East in which all five players on the floor will be 7-footers. Minnesota's Kevin Garnett will play at the top of the zone, with five more players to fill four slots: Dirk Nowitzki, Brad Miller, Yao Ming, Tim Duncan and Shaq. And yes, KG counts as a 7-footer no matter what the program says.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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