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Fact is, Mavs needed 'Toine

Acquiring Antoine Walker, right, enabled Mark Cuban to part with Raef LaFrentz's contract. 

Mark Cuban and Don Nelson had the same hope when they acquired Antoine Walker just a week before the season began. They hoped Walker would be their new Nick Van Exel.

The Mavericks expected Walker to play with a strut and a sneer. They were sure he'd fearlessly hoist (and make) crunch-time shots. They figured he could provide some fiery leadership, after the departures of Van Exel and Avery Johnson left no Mav behind to jump in people's faces.

Sixty-odd games into the season, even though Walker has indeed done some of those things occasionally, Dallas has been forced to admit that 'Toine is no Nicky.

Van Exel, for all his supposed troublemaking on the way in, never complained about shots or minutes as a Maverick. Nelson, in fact, often had to pull Van Exel aside and beg him to shoot more. The Mavericks' core trio of Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley loved Van Exel and urged management not to trade him.

But ...

Even though Walker is openly pouty after seeing his minutes slashed, and even though Mavericks fans have turned on 'Toine as quickly as Bostonians have turned on Danny Ainge, no one in Dallas can quarrel with the Walker acquisition. Walker isn't handling his reduced role properly -- like the classy Antawn Jamison, for example -- but he also isn't sabotaging anything.

That's because there wouldn't be much to sabotage if Walker weren't here.

The Mavericks simply had to make the Walker trade, and that's true whether or not 'Toine falls in line now for the rest of the season, starting with Thursday night's visit to Sacramento. Frustrating as it is to watch Walker persist with his errant 3-pointers and turn the ball over and dominate the ball when it should be running through the core trio, Dallas and its fans have to accept that Cuban and Nelson couldn't refuse the opportunity to part with Raef LaFrentz's mega contract.

Walker will be in the last year of his deal next season, which means he'll be a trade asset for the Mavericks as soon as this summer. Don't forget, furthermore, that the Mavericks -- even as presently constituted -- still have a better chance of achieving something in the playoffs than they would have had their Plan A come to fruition.

Plan A was signing Alonzo Mourning and keeping Van Exel and LaFrentz. All three, of course, are out for the season, and even with Van Exel and LaFrentz, there are fresh long-term questions about their health.


Don't even try to argue with this one: Cleveland would have to collapse and miss the playoffs now for LeBron James to lose the Rookie of the Year trophy. That's how hot the Cavs are, and it doesn't matter much what Denver does. Sorry, 'Melo.


Great news. With Tracy McGrady fresh off a 62-pointer, and Detroit having held its past four opponents under 70 points, the Magic and Pistons play each twice in a span of four days in April to see what gives.


Kobe Bryant is back sooner than even he could have predicted, but that doesn't change the scariest consequence stemming from his latest shoulder tweak.

The big worry for the Lakers is that, as Bryant admitted recently, the shoulder won't be fully healed until the offseason, when he gets some time to really rest. Which means he's apt to hurt the shoulder again.

Which would be devastating if it happens in the playoffs, because there's only one Laker -- even with all their Hall of Fame-bound firepower -- who has the closer qualities to step out of a courtroom and hit buzzer-beating, game-winning shots.

Bryant, remember, has already done that twice this season. Down the gut of a ballgame in the playoffs, as our man Fred Carter would say, the Lakers won't be the Lakers unless they can go to Kobe.


Hey, Utahns: You really don't believe that the Karl Malone skit is the only reason Kobe won't be considering signing with the Jazz, do you?


News that Jerry Colangelo is actively seeking to establish a plan of succession with the Phoenix Suns doesn't come at the best time. Not when the Suns are stockpiling salary-cap room and hoping to make a big free-agent splash, because Colangelo's player-friendly rep is one of the Suns' biggest selling points. The mere suggestion that Colangelo will leaving the club sooner rather than later is bound to prove costly when the Suns start recruiting players.


University officials at Michigan have moved to erase Chris Webber's name from the record books. High school officials in Michigan want to invalidate the championships Webber won at Detroit County Day. The least these people could do, if they're going to keep coming after Webb, is do something civil and try to wipe away any mention of that fateful timeout.


For the 26th consecutive spring, my college basketball season is over way too early. Cal State Fullerton, the only college team I care to watch, lost its opening game of the Big West Conference tournament Wednesday night, when the refs conspired to saddle NBA draft prospect Pape Sow with foul trouble in our 80-70 defeat to Cal State Northridge.

I hate it when the refs take it from us. And throttling the Matadors by 25 points last Saturday night obviously backfired.

The Titans' season, though, was not without highlights. To recap quickly:

1. My Titans went 1-0 in my presence, starting off my All-Star Weekend in L.A. spectacularly with a come-from-behind win at Titan Gym over hated U.C. Irvine on Feb. 12.
2. I picked up USA Today a week or two later and happily saw Irvine's name on the list of Division I schools to never reach the NCAA Tournament.
3. When the season began, Irvine disciples (all 20 of them) were telling people this was the year they were going to the Big Dance. The Anteaters didn't even make it to the Big West tourney.

So as empty as I feel right now, these are tougher times for Nuggets assistant Scotty Brooks and Bulls scout Bob Thornton.

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.