- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Editor's note: As part of "The Stein Line" every week, ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein takes you around the league for the latest news and notes in "Coast to Coast."
Go ahead. Name 12 players in the Eastern Conference playing at a higher level than Cleveland's LeBron James.
Not easy, is it?
James sits a surprising fourth among East guards in All-Star voting, with a deficit of nearly 175,000 votes behind No. 2 Tracy McGrady in spite of the widespread belief than fans nationwide would make McGrady a starter in a landslide. If McGrady can't make up that deficit over the next six weeks, he'll have to rely on East coaches to make it to February's All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles.
Thing is, if he continues to play the way he did in a nationally televised victory Thursday night over Detroit and with 37 points in Saturday's loss against Boston, James isn't a such a long shot in the coaches' vote. Chances are he already has Larry Brown's vote, since the Pistons' coach is a longstanding LBJ fan.
When you comb through the East, only nine guys jump out as All-Star locks. At forward, it's Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest and Toronto's Vince Carter. Detroit's Ben Wallace is the only sure-fire center. At guard, there are five players clearly ahead of James: Philadelphia's Allen Iverson, McGrady, New Jersey's Jason Kidd, New Orleans' Baron Davis and Boston's Paul Pierce.
Yet from there it gets interesting. Atlanta's Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Milwaukee's Michael Redd and two Pistons guards -- Chauncey Billups or Rip Hamilton -- will all get votes. It will also be up to the coaches to put some size on this team to help out O'Neal and Wallace, which gives hope to New Jersey's Kenyon Martin, New Orleans' Jamaal Magliore, James' Cleveland teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas and maybe even New York's Kurt Thomas.
That said ...
James certainly belongs in the same paragraph with that second group. Especially if he can sustain the aggressiveness he regained against the Pistons after a string of lackluster performances. The strikes against him, of course, are his rookie status and the Cavaliers' 6-17 start. Barring a sooner-rather-than-later rise in the standings, some coaches will inevitably vote against a first-year player on one of the East's worst teams.
"It would mean a lot if the coaches voted for me," James said. "I don't want to say it would mean more [than being voted in as a starter], because I love my fans so much, but it would definitely mean a lot."
Minutes aren't LeBron's problem
It has been suggested that James is already wearing down because of the heavy slice of playing time he shoulders, leading all rookies -- and ranking fifth in the league overall -- at 40 minutes per game. Cavaliers coach Paul Silas admits that he has been playing James more than he wants to, but laughed off the notion that the kid was tiring, pointing out that "he's 18 -- he can play all day."
Silas concedes that "as the season goes on we're certainly going to have to curtail some of those minutes." It's the coach's belief, though, that James' recent three-game slump (10.3 ppg on 27-percent shooting) had more to do with his frustration with losing and the Ricky Davis-induced chaos that surfaces periodically with the Cavs.
With the Cavs speaking to lots of teams these days, making it clear that Davis remains very available, James has been more assertive in the past week, both in games and on the practice floor. Even though Cleveland went 1-2 on a three-game homestand, James showed more determination to block out the turmoil and push his teammates.
"I'm going to have to lead this team until someone emerges," Silas said with encouragement, "... but it might not take [James] too long."
James, meanwhile, has quietly set a personal goal to average a triple-double by his fifth season in the league. Silas isn't doing anything to discourage that sort of ambition, repeatedly telling his franchise player that he has the talent to do what hasn't been done since the days of Oscar Robertson.
"That should be a goal of his, most certainly," Silas said.
Where the 'Sheed sweepstakes stand
Teams that call Portland for Rasheed Wallace are getting the same response from the Trail Blazers as they did before 'Sheed's controversial soliloquy about the supposed exploitation of young players.
That response, basically: Either trade us your best player for 'Sheed, or a slew of expiring contracts that come with a future first-round pick, or picks.
The difficulty and/or unwillingness of teams to meet those conditions is why Wallace hasn't been traded yet, in spite of a steady flow of speculation that will continue until the day he is dealt or the passing of the February trade deadline.
As our ESPN colleague David Aldridge noted Friday, Wallace is still going to generate plenty of interest even after the diatribe. San Antonio is on the list of intrigued suitors, but league sources insist that a rumored swap featuring Rasho Nesterovic, Ron Mercer and Robert Horry for 'Sheed is not in the works. "Nothing to it" is what we're told.
Mercer and Horry don't have guaranteed money coming after this season, which appeals to the Blazers, but Nesterovic is just starting a six-year, $42 million contract. Plus it would be counter to coach Gregg Popovich's reputation to give up on Nesterovic so quickly, especially since it was Pop who went to Slovenia in July to personally recruit the former Minnesota center.
Nesterovic, for his part, has been playing better ever since the Portland talk began to circulate.
So much for Larry Brown's dream of moving in the 3-point line to help the NBA's poor shooters punish zones a little easier. "I don't think the 3-point line is up for any reconsideration at all," Commissioner Stern said. … By one man's math, there are 127 players who signed new free-agent contracts between mid-July and Sept. 15. Those 127 players were thus rendered ineligible to be traded until Dec. 15, which comes Monday. One of the more prominent names on that list is Orlando's Juwan Howard, one of the few players on the Magic's roster who can be shopped to bring in new blood. Minnesota is said to be interested again, having lost Michael Olowokandi for up to two months and after nearly landing Howard in the offseason before the Magic got him. Howard, however, is in the first year of a new six-year, $37 million deal - a long and expensive contract to absorb in today's climate. … Attention, NBA: Every team out there needs a shooter and one of the best in history is available for trade. Hubert Davis has barely played since going to Detroit, but he's just 33 and is in the final year of his contract at a very reasonable $3 million. If someone gives him a chance to chip the rust away, Davis can still help several teams.
1mMichael C. Wright