Time to play favorites

Updated: February 17, 2004, 8:18 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Eleven games welcome us back to business, with New Orleans at Indiana and Detroit at New York resuming the playoff jockeying in the East. Dallas at Memphis and Portland at Lakers are the best of the West offerings to start, with L.A. eager to dress 75 percent of its Hall of Fame foursome: Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Gary Payton.
Atlanta at New Jersey takes Rasheed Wallace into range for the Gotham City media pack to quiz him about signing with the Knicks this summer. Milwaukee at Detroit is an East matchup with on-court substance, and ESPN2 brings you Clippers at Blazers. This could also be the day when we find out where the waived Vin Baker resurfaces.
The trading deadline is at 3 p.m. EST. The TNT doubleheader starts spectacularly -- Sacramento at Minnesota -- and then concludes with two teams that could be active before the deadline: Philadelphia (expected to swap Aaron McKie for Jerome Williams) and Seattle (which is peddling free agent-to-be Brent Barry).
Another busy 11-game evening. ESPN has two of the games, starting with Minnesota at Detroit, followed by Sixers at Lakers. Those, fittingly, are Friday's two best games, too, although San Antonio at Cleveland is an intriguing matchup of contrasting personalities.
Saturday serves up New Orleans at New Jersey and Houston at Dallas as standouts. Sunday is filled with goodies: Cleveland at New York on ABC, Lakers at Suns on ESPN and San Antonio at Minnesota on satellite. Tough week for the Wolves with games against the Kings, Pistons and Spurs in the space of four days.
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal
Can Kobe and Shaq lift the Lakers out of adversity again?

Thirty-odd games to go until the playoffs. Not even one Team To Beat has been definitively established.

Makes you look forward to starting up again, huh?

There's obviously much to play for over the next two months, since we're still awaiting the emergence of a clear-cut title favorite or two. Allow us to re-start the season with a fresh set of NBA Power Rankings, and by sharing this little behind-the-scenes tidbit.

After Sunday's All-Star Game, as they passed each other in a side interview room on the bottom floor of Staples Center, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal exchanged a warm hug. There were only a couple of witnesses in the room, so it wasn't a gesture for show. Bryant was congratulating Shaq for his MVP performance.

Lakers fans will undoubtedly take that as a good sign that L.A.'s biggest hoop stars are ready to put the ever-present chaos aside for a second and try to become that Team To Beat before the playoffs start. I can pretty much guess how fans feel in rival cities, which we can discuss next Monday (Feb. 23) when our weekly chat resumes.

Team of the Week

Eastern Conference. Don't get to say this too often, so let's repeat it: I liked watching the East's guys better than the Westerners in the All-Star Game. Still can't believe how far away Jason Kidd was from the rim when he made that underhanded lefty lob to Kenyon Martin for an oop.

Male of the Week

Isiah Thomas
Isiah Thomas. New York's third trade since Thomas took over basketball operations on Dec. 22 wasn't going to overshadow All-Star Weekend, but it kept you thinking about the Knicks even though they didn't have an All-Star. Zeke continues to make moves that didn't seem possible as recently as, well, Dec. 21. Which is why New York, at 16-10 since Zeke was hired, has to be considered a contender for the fourth seed in the East. That's whether or not you liked the Lenny Wilkens' hiring or the acquisition of Tim Thomas, who just might be the most underachieving max player ever.

E-Mail of the Week

    For the love of Cal State Fullerton, In-n-Out Burger and anything else you hold sacred, will there ever be a H-O-R-S-E competition during All-Star Weekend?
    Todd Mobley
    Notre Dame, Indiana

STEIN: I think we definitely need it, or something similar. This time last year I called for a Half-Court Shot contest, because guys in this league are so adept at swishing them, banking them, hooking them in, etc., from the center circle. Players on the East and West squads ended their respective practices Saturday by hoisting half-courters, and the fans in attendance loved it. Which tells me there's definitely interest in some sort of shooting contest, at least as a one-year experiment. Of course, the big problem is that the NBA's various contests rarely involve the actual All-Stars. The NHL has us on this one. All-Star Saturday would be a lot better if Shaq and Allen Iverson and the rest of the big names are more than just animated spectators.

P.S. You forgot Manchester City -- and, more importantly, my wife Rachel and our five-month-old son Alexander -- on the sacred list. Good effort, though.

Allen Iverson
Speak of the Week

"You guys are killing me with that. I like practice!"
This Allen Iverson quote appeared in Saturday's column from All-Star Weekend, but it was so good that it had to be repeated. It's AI's protest to the never-ending replays of the video from his infamous practice press conference.

Line of the Week

Sunday, Feb. 15, East All-Stars vs. West All-Stars
Player Min FGM-A 3PM-A FTM-A Off Reb Ast Stl Blk TO PF Pts
Allen Iverson 23 1-6 0-0 1-4 0 1 11 0 0 4 3 3
Not quite sure how this happened, but AI looked a lot more comfortable passing the ball than shooting it Sunday. The East probably wins if he shoots it better.

Stat of the Week

Only one of the three legends listed below had a higher scoring average as a rookie at the All-Star break than LeBron James' 20.4 points per game for Cleveland. That rookie was Michael Jordan, who took a 27.4 points-per-game average into All-Star Weekend in 1985.

    Season	Name (ppg, rpg, apg)
    '84-85	Michael Jordan (27.4, 6.2, 5.5)
    '03-04	LeBron James (20.4, 5.7, 5.8)
    '79-80	Larry Bird (19.3, 10.4, 4.3)
    '79-80	Magic Johnson (18.4, 6.6, 7.4)

Stat of the Weak

That was Shareef Abdur-Rahim's career point total when he joined the Portland Trail Blazers -- the second-highest total of any player yet to appear in a playoff game. Two lists detailing Abdur-Rahim's playoff drought follow, through last Monday:

Most points without playing in a playoff game, career

    T. Van Arsdale	14,232
    S. Abdur-Rahim	12,110
    Geoff Petrie	9,732 
    Nate Williams	7,709
    A. Jamison	7,542
Lowest winning pct. while averaging 20 ppg, career
    S. Abdur-Rahim	.290
    J. Stackhouse	.415
    M. Richmond	.443 (not active)
    Antoine Walker	.447
    Tracy McGrady	.456
    Glenn Robinson	.458
Note: Second list is since 1979-80.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics