- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Editor's note: As he does every week during the regular season as part of "The Stein Line," ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein takes you around the league for the latest news and notes in "Coast to Coast."
Once the season starts, it won't be long before the lobbying starts anew for a new playoff format. Let's face it: We're facing another 82 games of Western Conference teams dominating the ESPN.com NBA Power Rankings, after Minnesota's active summer gave the West at least five teams that could win the East.
Only New Jersey and maybe Detroit would have a shot to finish higher than sixth out West if they were forced to cross over. The West's best will have gone 5-for-5, in terms of upgrading its rosters, if the Dallas Mavericks can complete their desired acquisition of a more forceful big man in an attempt to keep pace with the moves that clearly strengthened San Antonio, Sacramento, Minnesota and the Lakers.
That's not to say league officials feel the same way as the lobbyists. No change in the NBA's 16-team playoff format is expected, even with a league-appointed committee of owners and general managers -- assembled to consider divisional alignment issues -- currently evaluating proposals for a 1-through-16 seeding system in which teams would qualify for the postseason in order of overall record and without regard to their conference.
The committee's findings will be presented in a report at the next Board of Governors session in October, but league sources indicate there is little support for such a seeding plan and breaking up the Finals tradition of West champ vs. East champ.
"Any time you make decisions like that because of a shift in power, it's a mistake," one East GM said. "There was clearly a time when the East dominated, and I didn't hear all the carping about the imbalance in power.
"Would you do that with the NFL or with Major League Baseball? Or would you still like to see the American League play the National League? I know I still want to see the AFC play the NFC in the Super Bowl."
Miami's Grant back in Mavericks' sights
Back to the Mavs: Dallas recomissioned its attempts to pry Brian Grant away from Miami last week, but this time discussed the possibility with a refusal to disassemble its core four of Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel.
The deal, as so many are these days, would have been a money-motivated swap in which the Heat would have received cap-friendly contracts in exchange for parting with Grant's onerous one. It likely would have required Dallas to sign-and-trade free agent Walt Williams, with Williams' new contract expected to include only one season of guaranteed money. Such a scenario could have allowed Dallas to package Williams and Avery Johnson and a free agent or two mentioned above along with Evan Eschmeyer. The swap was strongly considered Thursday before the Heat pulled out, apparently not quite ready to give Grant away strictly for financial benefit.
It was the Mavericks who balked at a midseason swap of Grant-for-Van Exel, largely because of the four (expensive) seasons still left on Grant's contract -- a reluctance that enabled Van Exel to become the Mavs' surprise playoff catalyst. The plan now, ambitious as it sounds, is adding on to the core that came within two games of the franchise's first NBA Finals berth, just as Sacramento managed to add to its deep roster by landing Brad Miller.
Yet missing out on Grant in this reconfigured deal, unless it is resuscitated somehow, leaves the Mavs still searching for a bulky center or forward, someone to alleviate the need to rely exclusively on Shawn Bradley and Raef LaFrentz for interior toughness. Portland's Dale Davis, Toronto's Antonio Davis and Detroit's Clifford Robinson are also on a target list that features Atlanta's Theo Ratliff and Golden State's Erick Dampier, but it remains to be seen whether Dallas can swing a deal without moving one of its Big Four (or LaFrentz) and without an abundance of last-year contracts to offer luxury tax-fearing teams.
Johnson and Nash, an All-Star who isn't available, are the only last-year contracts on Mark Cuban's roster. The Mavericks appear resigned to the reality that they will have to part with Johnson to add some bulk, even though they hoped to keep the Lil' General on the roster as a player/coach, with the idea of grooming him as Don Nelson's long-term successor as head coach.
Cavs' only untouchables? LeBron, Big Z and ... Boozer
LeBron James is going to start at point guard as a rookie. At least that's the Cavaliers' plan heading into training camp, an idea solidified by James' assured showing in two summer leagues. The man-child, as new coach Paul Silas refers to him, didn't get knocked off the ball in his first pro experience -- albeit against lesser defenders than James will see for real -- and proved immediately comfortable running NBA offenses.
The Cavs, furthermore, plan to start LeBron together with Ricky Davis and Darius Miles in an alignment brimming with potential, athleticism and length. It was widely assumed once Cleveland drafted James that the volatile Davis would be traded, but the club's preference is to give these three every chance to make it click before saying it can't work. That also gives Silas a chance to make his own evaluation.
If any young Cav would appear to be bound for the trading block, Dajuan Wagner tops the list. Wagner is earmarked for an off-the-bench scoring role, and Silas sees him as the Cavaliers' answer to plucky David Wesley, but Kevin Ollie figures to be Cleveland's first guard off the bench and a steadying force for a team of turnover-prone kiddies. James might start at point guard, but there will be plenty of fourth quarters where James moves to a wing spot to conserve his energy for scoring, while Ollie takes care of the ball. As such, Wagner stands to wind up as Cleveland's fourth guard, at best.
For now, all trade interest in Davis is being dismissed immediately by the Cavs. Fitting in quickly with James and Miles, who are already close, would be a fine way for Davis to offset some of the negativity that still lingers after his humiliating attempt to record a triple-double late last season against Utah.
Cavs owner Gordon Gund, mind you, stopped short of ruling out a down-the-road Davis trade. Gund said recently that "other than LeBron, and possibly Carlos and Z, that there really isn't anybody" in the category of untouchable. Z, as you know, is Zydrunas Ilgauskas, arguably the best center in the East now that his body is starting to hold up. And Carlos is Carlos Boozer, the former Dukie who, after slipping into the second round of the 2002 draft, has emerged as a building block at power forward for Cleveland.
Odom's best option
The Clippers' Lamar Odom is hoping that his wait for a new contract finally ends this week, when Heat coach/president Pat Riley returns to Miami. Of course, Odom knows it'll be tough to get what he really wants -- a long-term offer sheet from Riles' Heat that the Clips won't match.
Odom is said to be miffed by L.A.'s apparent view that re-signing Corey Maggette was a greater priority. He'd love to join the Heat, in the same switch Elton Brand longed to make before the Clippers matched Miami's $82 million offer to Brand. The Clips, though, intend to match any offer sheet Odom gets, even though they don't intend to present the 6-foot-10 swingman with a long-term proposal themselves. Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor met with Odom recently to make sure he knows L.A. plans to match.
Unless the Heat extends an offer sheet far richer than anyone expects, a risk Riley is understandably hesitant to push for given Odom's recent record with injuries and off-court issues, the most likely outcome remains a one-year deal with the Clippers that would enable Odom to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Said one source close to the negotiations: "I really believe Lamar is going to take the one-year deal and stay."
Atlanta interim coach Terry Stotts and Phoenix assistant Marc Iavaroni remain the favorites to be named Milwaukee's next coach, with a decision expected this week after Sen. Herb Kohl -- who already knows Stotts from his time as a Bucks assistant -- takes a weekend away from his duties in Washington to interview finalists. We'd love to tell you what the Hawks will do if Stotts gets the Milwaukee job, but we'd also love to bank a dime for every time we've heard that prospective owner David McDavid's purchase of the team is close. ... There's a story behind the other big Laker story at the recent ESPYs: Gary Payton wearing a No. 20 jersey on stage before he had actually signed with L.A. Turns out he borrowed the jersey from fellow Oaktown native Brian Shaw, and that's why viewers only got to see the front of the jersey, since it had SHAW on the back. ... There's a tall tale in circulation about the Clippers accidentally slipping Mike Dunleavy's new coaching contract under the soon-to-be-dismissed Dennis Johnson's door when both were staying at the same hotel during the Summer Pro League in Long Beach last month. Not exactly. Dunleavy's new contract was mistakenly placed in a stack of faxes Johnson collected at the front desk -- no, not at the Clippers' request -- which is how DJ found out that his status as interim coach was about to expire. ... More promising news from New Orleans' offseason: Spies who saw Baron Davis in L.A. for Magic Johnson's annual charity game report that Davis is in better-than-ever shape, after concerns in recent seasons that he has been carrying too much weight. ... Yet another example to illustrate the widening gap between West and East. The two All-Stars involved in last February's lone blockbuster trade at the deadline are both in the West now. Ray Allen was traded from Milwaukee to Seattle for Gary Payton, who has since left Milwaukee to sign with the Lakers. No wonder Jason Kidd passed on San Antonio.
7hMichael C. Wright