Allen Iverson is responding to responsibility. Shaquille O'Neal is suddenly saying he and Kobe Bryant need each other "to shine." Derrick Coleman and Dennis Rodman have dropped out of sight, salaries are increasingly player-like and some owners (OK, one) are willing to spring for leather, lumbar-padded hot seats ... while surrounding that luxurious bench with an army of doting assistants.
Then there's this: No one's getting fired.
Not this season, anyway. Not during the season, at least. Not until after the season, apparently. It's probably just another one of those March upset specials, and surely it won't last, but this looks like a pretty good time to be crossing Xs and tracing Os in the NBA.
A healthy three-fourths of the way into the 82-game schedule, exactly one coach has been axed: Seattle's Paul Westphal. The only other in-season coaching change was an I Quit -- Rick Pitino in Boston -- and it would have been two resignations to zero firings had Sonics players taken up Westphal on his offer to step down just four games in.
Just last week, after recent rumblings of a press conference to announce the dismissal of Randy Wittman, Cavaliers management graciously opted to promise Wittman the rest of the season before sending him away. Scan the league landscape for further endangered species and really only Denver's Dan Issel faces an immediate threat. Issel is said to be bracing for the boot, sooner rather than later given the mutineers' recent slide back down to sea level, but it won't surprise anyone if this Horse makes it to the finish. Not this fluky season.
"Some years there are lots of firings and some years there's just a few," said Clippers coach Alvin Gentry. "Some years it makes sense and some years it makes absolutely no sense. You understand that going in."
Gentry gets it because, this time a year ago, he got it. On March 6 of the 1999-2000 season -- yes, that late into the race -- Gentry was pink-slipped by Detroit and replaced by George Irvine. And that was the sixth mid-stream coaching change of the campaign, after Golden State (P.J. Carlesimo), Phoenix (Danny Ainge), Vancouver (Brian Hill), Washington (Gar Heard) and Gentry's new team, the Clips (Chris Ford).
Fact is, for much of the past half-decade, the profession has been more hazardous than it seems now. The lockout-shorted 1999 season, for example, wasn't compact enough to prevent four bench men from losing their jobs before 50 games elapsed: Del Harris (Lakers), Dave Cowens (Charlotte), John Calipari (Nets) and Bernie Bickerstaff (Wizards).
There were only two on-the-fly firings in 1997-98 -- Jim Cleamons (Mavericks) and Doug Collins (Pistons) -- but a jaw-dropping seven in 1996-97. Those forgotten, fallen clipboard-toters: Cotton Fitzsimmons (Suns), Bickerstaff (Nuggets), Jim Lynam (Bullets), Brian Winters (Grizzlies), Garry St. Jean (Kings), Brian Hill (Magic) and Bob Hill (Spurs). And that list swelled to nine when Johnny Davis (Sixers) and Dick Motta (Nuggets) were dumped within hours of the regular-season finale.
Of course, the guys still in the fraternity suspect that the new season's lack of volatility is just a coincidence. Until the game's Mark Cubans are forced to sell when their franchises underperform, or the day players face pay cuts for sub-par production, coaches will get the blame. Like in Cleveland, where it's not Wittman's fault that Zydrunas Ilgauskas got hurt, because Ilgauskas' feet always fail. But because it's always the coach's fault, Wittman almost certainly won't make it to the draft lottery.
The Cavs are 15-9 with Ilgauskas, 8-30 without him and still smarting from back-to-back embarrassments last week against the Bulls and Wiz.
"Unless you're Larry Brown or Pat Riley, you really don't ever feel secure in this business," Gentry admits. "If you've ever been fired, which I have been a couple times, it's not easy, because it's a real personal thing. But one thing you do, after you've been fired, you just try to coach the [next] team like you have a 10-year contract."
Advice, perhaps, to help a few first-time victims in the offseason, when you'd expect a more typical mortality rate. Wittman, Washington's Leonard Hamilton and Chicago's Tim Floyd could all be on the firing line. Boston's interim boss, Jim O'Brien, hasn't been promised anything beyond April. The future appears equally uncertain for veterans like Issel, Irvine and Portland's poor Mike Dunleavy, who has everything in Paul Allen's kingdom of riches except for minutes for all those players and a go-to guy who stays on the court.
Not that this is the time to fret, though. Not yet. College ball has its Big Dance and NBA coaches, this March, are enjoying a rare Safety Dance. Unless (oops) we just jinxed it.
Around The League
Painted onto the black high-tops of Darius Miles, in silver ink: "I AM ON HIS SIDE." That would be the side of suspended teammate Lamar Odom, whose five-game ban for violating the league's anti-drug policy came just as the Clippers were becoming a certifiable darling.
Gentry, while quietly confident his impressionable kiddies won't be too disrupted, is also hoping folks ultimately forget Odom's transgression, which wouldn't be unprecedented. Funny how, with the best record in the Pacific Division as of Monday morning, Sacramento doesn't seem to be answering many questions about Jason Williams' five-game suspension to start the season.
As for Miles, Gentry can't gush enough about Year 1. The kid's free-throw shooting has been woeful (.506) and teams beg him to shoot from outside, but Miles has better rookie statistics than any preps-to-pros leaper in recent memory except Kevin Garnett. Better than Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal and Rashard Lewis.
"He reminds me more of a Scottie Pippen-type than Garnett," Gentry said. "He can be a great defender. He obviously has to work on his perimeter game, but he's much farther along defensively than I would have ever anticipated for a high school kid."
Miles was asked, on Selection Sunday, if he'll be watching the NCAA Tournament and wondering about what he missed out on. "Nah," the 19-year-old said. "I would have dominated college basketball. I'm doing well at the NBA level."
Jerry West, according to one confidante, is "happier than he's ever been" in retirement. Mind you, that sentiment was relayed before the Lakers somehow completed a perfectly blemished 0-4 season series with Seattle.
Checked the standings Monday morning to find this potential first-round matchup: Lakers vs. Blazers. More West madness this March: Dallas and Houston, with just under 20 games to go, have already matched last season's victory totals. Forty for the Mavs, 34 for the Rockettes.
Maybe the No. 1 overall pick in June's draft will come from the Big Dance you're about watch, rather than the Far East. Yao Ming, the 7-6 center from China, has not yet secured permission to declare for the draft -- an ordeal that requires approval from several parties, including Yao's team (Shanghai Sharks) and the mayor of Shanghai. Yao, 20, is believed to be under contract with the Sharks through at least March 2002. Because the limit for foreign buyouts is $350,000, as seen last summer with the Suns' pursuit of Jake Tsakalidis, money almost certainly won't be sufficient. And even if Yao is cleared to make his much-anticipated NBA bow next season, he'll probably have to miss training camp and the first month because of national-team and league commitments. Do you draft ESPN The Magazine's Next if you can't have him right away? Is Yao worthy of the David Robinson treatment, like when San Antonio drafted The Admiral in 1987 for a 1989 debut? Given the depleted state of modern-day drafts, you can guess the answer. (Yes, it's "yes.")
Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.