- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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It was one of those Thursday doubleheaders on the Wild Side, right after the All-Star Game, to make sure everyone knows the NBA season is getting serious.
Spurs at Mavericks, followed by Kings at Lakers. Two irresistible matchups back-to-back. A foursome from which you can pick out the two teams most likely to reach the Western Conference finals, although you might be surprised whom I'm picking.
Assuming everyone is at full strength (or close) when the playoffs start, it's hard for me to see how the Spurs and Kings don't end up playing for a spot in the NBA Finals.
I don't see the Lakers fixing themselves in time to deny those two. I don't foresee the Timberwolves winning two rounds in the playoffs when they've never won one. And I don't envision another injury rash to help the Mavericks get back to the conference finals, like we saw last spring.
As stated here many times, there is no clear-cut favorite in the NBA today. That's why the final six weeks of the regular season will be so enjoyable, to see if someone can achieve Team To Beat status.
Yet we repeat: Assuming everyone is healthy, based on everything we've seen so far and what we expect to see in what Kevin Frazier calls the "stretch half," San Antonio and Sacramento are our picks to square off for the Wild Side crown.
You would think that Kings players would be a bit peeved with teammate Chris Webber, after they waited all season to get him back, only to learn that a three-game suspension for lying to a grand jury would become an eight-game suspension because of a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy.
You'd think the Kings' veterans would be miffed, at the very least, because Webber would have been eligible to play Thursday night against the Lakers, in his third game back, if not for the mysterious drug penalty.
Only one problem.
"Nobody on this team gets mad at anything," said Kings guard Mike Bibby, insisting that Webber will be welcomed back wholeheartedly next Tuesday at home against the Clippers when he's finally eligible to play again.
When Danny Ainge traded Antoine Walker for Raef LaFrentz, Ainge said he took on LaFrentz's massive contract and tender knees because dozens of phone calls with executives from other clubs convinced Ainge that he wasn't going to get a better player in return for 'Toine. Fine.
When Ainge traded away Jim O'Brien favorites Eric Williams and Tony Battie for Ricky Davis, I really liked that gamble because Davis, for all his warts, is an exceptional talent. That makes Davis a worthy gamble for the Celtics, because they're so short on talent.
It's the last move Ainge made and one of the first he made that absolutely boggle the mind.
There is no justification I'll buy about why Ainge felt the need to sacrifice some $7 million in expiring cap space and a guy who had overachieved in green (Mike James) to get Chucky Atkins and an average (at best) first-round draft pick. Especially when Ainge's decision enabled Detroit to score Rasheed Wallace for the rest of the season.
It's no less puzzling why Ainge was willing to give away Darius Songaila for two second-round picks before the season started. There is no question that the Kings' share-the-ball mentality has a way of making players look good, but let's be clear here: Songaila is a player no matter how good Sacramento's system is.
He's beefy enough to fill in for the injured Brad Miller and Webber, which means he's more than sufficiently beefy to play power forward in the East. On top of that, Songaila is also incredibly active. At both ends, the Lithuanian constantly ends up where the ball lands. Songaila, furthermore, also has a pretty seasoned game because he has played in so many big games for his country.
In other words, Songaila wouldn't be a fill-in in Boston.
Not going to lie to you. I was rooting for Phoenix to beat New York in Stephon Marbury's return to the desert Wednesday night, because I am rooting for New York to slip one spot and finish seventh in the East. Or eighth, in the unlikely event that New Jersey overtakes Indiana for the East's top spot.
Simply because ...
I want a Knicks-Nets playoff series.
The East playoffs are going to be more exciting than people expect, with the Pistons adding 'Sheed to challenge the Pacers and Nets.
Knicks vs. Nets in the first round would be a fine way to start the East tournament.
Don't know if Ralph Nader has any clue how to deal with worldwide terrorism and same-sex marriages, but I'm sure the presidential hopeful will carry the vote among the nation's hoop fans' well-chronicled aversion to NBA refereeing.
So I'm not going to write off Iverson. I'm merely writing off the Sixers' chances of making the playoffs.
Iverson is missing games he never used to miss, but I would never suggest it's because he's bailing on the season. He remains one of the greatest warriors this game has ever seen.
All I'm saying is that Iverson is putting himself first now, instead of his team and the people of Philly. He's frustrated with his teammates and bosses. He knows that the Sixers are going to explore trade possibilities, which has to make AI wonder about his future. I don't think it's a stretch to suggest that, at least subconsciously, Iverson has to be asking himself if it's worth killing his body for a team that isn't good enough to be saved.
Tuesday marked the 10-year anniversary of the first big trade I ever covered: Atlanta sending Dominique Wilkins to the L.A. Clippers for Danny Manning.
You know. The trade that cursed the Hawks, who pretty much haven't had a sellable star -- or a watchable team -- ever since.
I was a pup on the NBA beat when that trade went down. So young they used to call me Junior.
Struggling to admit to myself that a full decade has passed since that blockbuster.
But just in case you're wondering ... the answer is no.
Danny Ainge isn't the one who pulled that trigger.
2dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann