- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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A handful of e-mails will be flagged every week for group discussion. Here's the first batch, but be sure to include your full name and city if you want your question to be answered. This leniency won't last.
To the mail ...
Q: Do you think sentiment around the league has changed concerning Kevin Garnett? While I don't think anyone doubts his athleticism, leadership or accomplishments, are people starting to say that he will never be "The Man?" KG has a very limited repertoire on offense. His jump shot is inconsistent, he doesn't have the post game that a man 6-foot-11 should, and in the clutch he often can't get himself a good shot. I really like Garnett and recognize what an outstanding all-around player he is, but I look at him and wonder why he can't take his game -- and, accordingly, his team -- to the next level. Am I the only one?
A: KG is hearing this more and more, Joey, even though he's still one of the 10 best players in the league and just locked up Tracy McGrady the other night like no one else can. Fact remains, though, that Garnett still hasn't been on a team that was favored to win a first-round series. His contract is at least partly to blame, because it hampers Minnesota's attempts to put quality players around him, but don't confuse KG's first-round drought with Grant Hill's. When Hill was with the Pistons, there was a series or two Detroit definitely should have won. Not so for the Wolves.
My biggest quarrel with KG, as you touched upon, is his lack of development in the post. Why he and Kevin McHale haven't spent at least one summer together, locked away in a gym working on moves down low, I can't understand. Those two need each other if they want to avoid a lasting stain on their resumes. On the encouraging side: Garnett just put in his best summer yet. Stung by the criticism from Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley -- sorry, he ain't really bothered by what you or I say -- KG ate more than ever in the offseason and worked with a personal trainer for the first time. The effort, more than the marginal bulk he added, is what catches the eye.
Not that I expect a different outcome for the Wolves. KG and Flip Saunders continue to be one of the best player-coach duos in the league, and I like the Rod Strickland gamble. But they're all stuck in the West and they're not going to have homecourt advantage for the seventh straight time in the playoffs.
Q: Tim Thomas, a player I watched at Villanova when I lived in New York, has great talent but has never produced on a consistent basis. Why are the Bucks banking on him? Sure he's talented, but today's NBA is full of talented guys who have everyone on Earth praying they'll develop into a consistent performer. I get so frustrated with how the NBA pumps up guys like Thomas and ignores Elton Brand's consistent play and great attitude. Thomas has produced less than half of what Brand has, and Brand (in Chicago and L.A.) has had less around him to do so.
Los Angeles, Calif.
A: Easy one, Joseph. Bucks are banking on Thomas because they've already got nearly $70 million invested in him. He's a great example of how much the market has shifted in a short span. In the summer of 2000, when Thomas was up for a new contract, the Bucks overextended to keep him from bolting to Chicago, even though Thomas hadn't averaged 12 points a game yet. That's what you did for a good youngster. This past offseason, through the Halloween deadline for rookie-scale contract extensions, Wally Szczerbiak and Rashard Lewis -- one an All-Star and the other also more established than Thomas -- had to take less money than Thomas received. Their respective teams (Minnesota and Seattle) never even considered offering a max contract. Only a franchise guy (New Orleans' Baron Davis was the most recent example) gets that kind of deal now.
Q: You, along with every other pro basketball "expert," keep perpetuating one myth: That the Jazz moved to Utah because the city of New Orleans couldn't and/or didn't support them. Do a little digging and you'll discover that the ownership of the Jazz wanted to move to Utah, and with no restrictions on franchise relocation in place, they decided to up and leave.
New Orleans, La.
A: Not entirely the case, Robin. There's no question then-owner Sam Battistone wanted to move the team closer to his Santa Barbara home, and that Battistone, a Mormon, had ties to Salt Lake City. New Orleans ranked fifth in league attendance in 1975-76 and sixth in 1977-78, but the average attendance in the cavernous Superdome dropped almost 4,000 in the final season there to 8,883. The Jazz also never managed to build a season-ticket base when they were drawing crowds because locals knew they didn't need season tickets to get a good seat to see Pistol Pete.
Concerns about the lack of a corporate presence on Bourbon Street -- and whether the NO public can afford NBA prices -- are still legit concerns. Opening night last Wednesday was only a sellout with a walk-up crowd, so I respectfully disagree with the suggestion that New Orleans is a proven NBA market. What I'll give you is that the true NBA fans in New Orleans were victimized by some really bad timing. The move to Utah coincided with the arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, which helped every city in the league. The Jazz also had wonderful fortune to land John Stockton and Karl Malone in short order, cementing fanatic support in the SLC.
Q: What is happening with Jim Jackson? Will he play this year? Any idea why he hasn't signed with anyone?
A: Jackson remains the most recognized name available in the free-agent pool. J.R. Rider and Cedric Ceballos are two more scoring small forwards who have drifted off the radar, although you can certainly understand why in J.R.'s case. Ceballos is 33, Jackson 32 and Rider 31. In Jackson's case, word is he's waiting for a call from a contender. He knows there's no money out there for veterans; Jackson's apparent concern is signing with a bad team and then still struggling for minutes. That's why he signed in Miami last season instead of Memphis. He thought playing for the Grizz -- but winding up as, say, Shane Battier's backup -- would do more harm than good. Chances are he'll get a call eventually, especially if the injury pace doesn't ease up. It's almost easier to list who's healthy these days.
Q: I feel the NBA should be considering contraction, not realignment. The league is watered down considerably. There are less great players, spread out over a lot of teams, and there are players who just shouldn't be in the NBA.
A: Realignment is going to happen, Kevin, whether we want it or not. A six-division format is coming, for the 2004-05 season at the latest. I just hope there isn't more expansion. An eight-division format would probably work better geographically than the six-division model, but that would require adding two more teams on top of the new Charlotte Whatevers coming in '04. In other words, the last thing we need.
Commissioner Stern argues that the influx of international players -- 67 on Opening Night rosters -- justifies Charlotte's re-entry, or at least that it justifies the current count of 29 teams. No question, though, that expansion has diluted the product, as we've seen in every major sport. You almost can't compare the Lakers of today to the Lakers of the 1980s because that's comparing the depth of a team in a 29-team league to a squad from a 23-team league. The Bucks or Mavericks of the 1980s, teams that never won anything in their era, would be ridiculously stacked by today's standards.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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