- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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David Stern, for once, is stumped.
He is asked to identify the toughest job in the NBA. Held by anyone.
After a long pause comes the response.
"I have no idea," sayeth the commish.
He is briefed on the criteria: There is no criteria. He is given the freedom to nominate any coach, player or front-office executive ... or anyone who works in the NBA in any capacity.
Take, for example, the entire Dallas Mavericks organization. Dallas will be hoping Friday for its first road victory in Los Angeles over the Lakers since 1990, when Dirk Nowitzki was 12 years old. By now, beating the Lakers in L.A. must seem like an impossible job to the Mavs.
"I think there are no difficult jobs in the NBA," Stern eventually says. "It's a piece of cake. There are people out there with real jobs. We've got nothing but larks."
So should we start calling it the NBL?
There are actually lots of tough tasks out there, and this week's Stein Line narrows it down to a top five. Or is that a bottom five? Either way, here's our list of colleagues with the hardest jobs in the league:
You could go with a number of people in Portland. You could go with Steve Patterson, who replaced Bob Whitsitt as the Blazers' top-ranking official under owner Paul Allen. You could go with John Nash, who succeeded Whitsitt as general manager. Maurice Cheeks, of course, might have the toughest coaching job in the league. Just don't forget Kersey. He's in his first season as Portland's director of player programs, a fancy title for Team Mentor. If you've heard Rasheed Wallace's latest diatribe, and we're guessing you have, it won't be a shock when we say that 'Sheed doesn't sound like a guy who's lining up to be mentored.
Atlanta Hawks ticket sales staff
The Hawks aren't last in the league in home attendance -- at least that's what the stats say -- but no team is more renowned for its empty seats. That's at least partly because, as Michael Vick and last year's All-Star Weekend proved, the Atlanta ticket consumer (no jokes, please) only seems to respond to star power. Superstar power, actually. There's little doubt Philips Arena would be regularly full had the Hawks won the LeBron James lottery. The Hawks, though, have no one even a fraction as marketable as LBJ and haven't since Dominique Wilkins was dealt away in 1994 ... which helps explain why 'Nique is expected to receive a prominent front-office role when the new ownership group fronted by Steve Belkin finally takes hold. Talk is also growing louder that Atlanta, not New York, is the favorite to land Doc Rivers after this season when 'Nique's former teammate returns to coaching, in what would be another effort to reconnect with the community. Truth is, the challenges facing Orlando's sales staff might be even greater, with no new arena to pitch and an economic climate that can't match the growth in suburban Atlanta. Yet it's the Hawks who are stuck with the Good Seats Still Available stigma. I wouldn't want to be one of the folks forced to cold-call customers, selling a spectacle, at NBA prices, that starts and ends with Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Jason Terry.
Paul Sunderland and Joel Meyers
"Thankless job" is probably the better description for these men. They are, respectively, the television and radio play-by-play voices for the Lakers -- successors to the late, great, irreplacable Chick Hearn. Anyone would want to work for the Lakers, sure, but sitting where the most beloved Laker of all time sat for well over 3,000 consecutive games can just as easily be described as a no-win situation. Sunderland and Meyers, mind you, are two of the classiest guys in the business and would tell you every time that they are the luckiest guys in the business. Honorable mention goes to Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Arroyo/Raul Lopez in Utah, stepping into the sneakers of Karl Malone and John Stockton. San Antonio's Rasho Nesterovic, meanwhile, has it almost as tough as Sunderland and Meyers, as the Spurs' first starting center in a decade and a half not named David Robinson.
The new referees
Matthew Boland, Tony Brown, Derek Collins, Pat Fraher, Michael Henderson, Anthony Jordan, Ed Malloy, Troy Raymond and Gary Zielinski. You probably don't recognize these names, but their faces are well-known all over the league. These are the referees with two seasons or less of experience. These are the referees players and coaches try to bully on a nightly basis. We should probably also make a mention of the refs' boss, Stu Jackson, if only because it's Jackson who has to take the complaint calls every day. As one Western Conference executive quipped the other day: "Do you think anyone ever calls Stu and says, 'Hey, those three guys last night were great.' "
LBJ won't be on this list next winter, but he's got to be on it now, whether or not he makes the kind of money that drowns out any sympathy. Chances are this will be the only sympathy he gets all season, but I genuinely feel for the kid, even with numbers that compare favorably to Magic Johnson's first 20-odd games in the NBA. James started his career with dozens of critics, fans and even peers wanting him to fail. He quickly hushed the haters but now finds himself in a tense locker room, where it's a nightly lottery for James and coach Paul Silas, wondering which Ricky Davis will show up. I go to Boston and Davis shoots the ball every time he touches it. I come to Cleveland and Davis refuses to shoot, passing every time he gets it as if to say, "Is this the way you want me to play?" Silas needs a player to help him referee, until Davis either accepts a secondary role or until the Cavs can move him, but his best player is an 18-year-old who can't (and shouldn't) be expected to police a team yet. Magic was truly revolutionary as a 19-year-old because, beyond the on-court gifts, he had a for-the-ages leadership package. James has already proven that he was more ready to play at the NBA level than anyone envisioned, but there's no shame in saying he can't supply the veteran presence on the youngest club in the league. For now, James needs to focus on playing hard through the discord as he grows into a take-charge role. Before a stirring performance in Thursday's home win over Detroit, highlighted by a string of dazzling passes and some timely buckets, James' intensity had been fading. Worse yet, he had almost totally stopped smiling. He has to find a way to grind through the losses as his leadership skills blossom.
2dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann