- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Turns out, though, that such a pull-back might not be far off, should Malone continue to greet San Antonio's offer with silence.
The Spurs have been checking in with agent Dwight Manley all season to let Malone know that they'll be armed with a contract when he's prepared to play. That's because Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Malone have an established relationship, and because San Antonio could use some frontline fortification with Rasho Nesterovic struggling mightily and playoff legend Robert Horry, at 34, coming off two straight ineffectual postseasons.
Spurs insiders, however, insist that management won't keep the invitation open much beyond the end of this month, feeling that February is a bit late for a roster alteration involving such a dominant personality. That's even though Malone, as a free agent who has not played for anyone this season, would be eligible for the playoffs no matter how late in the regular season he signs.
When he ruled out a return to the Lakers last month, after the hubbub involving Kobe Bryant's wife Vanessa, sources say Malone decided that the Spurs were the only team he'd consent to play for now. But the signals have never been stronger that Mailman, 41, might really be ready to retire, just 1,459 points shy of breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time scoring record.
Manley told ESPN.com in November that a formal decision was likely in early January after Malone spent the holidays with family. He has since declined multiple interview requests with a no-comment-at-this-time stance.
Miami remains interested as well, since Mailman is a free agent and since Alonzo Mourning -- the other veteran power player Shaquille O'Neal wouldn't mind recruiting -- is still Toronto property and fighting health issues. Yet Malone has never shown a willingness to play in the East.
I'm hearing ...
That there has been some serious huddling going on in Minnesota, with even owner Glen Taylor reaching out to Kevin Garnett to brainstorm for antidotes to the Wolves' growing slump. But it's not an easy fix, because the Wolves have been suffering from a Pistons-like, team-wide intensity shortage. Even though its leader is the NBA's intensity king, Minnesota simply hasn't played with the same hunger seen last season, when the Wolves were still a team yet to get out of the first round. Is it Flip Saunders' fault? Hardly. Not with Sam Cassell seemingly bothered more than he'll admit by the residual effects of serious hip surgery, Latrell Sprewell likewise aging -- and shrinking in production after his loud calls for a fat contract extension -- and a few vets who have been paid underperforming. Troy Hudson is one example; Trenton Hassell is another, after KG personally lobbied Taylor to match Hassell's contract offer from Portland. The Wolves appear to have too much talent, and not enough of it committed to playing good defense. The list of Wolves playing hard enough these days to meet Garnett's standards starts and ends with Fred Hoiberg and, yes, Wally Szczerbiak. ...
That Jeff Bzdelik was far from surprised to be dismissed by Denver less than halfway through the season. I'm told that Bzdelik confessed to more than one colleague that he feared he had lost the team as early as Week 1, when the Nuggets started 1-4. They rallied briefly with a 9-3 surge, but that had more to do with a weak, home-heavy schedule than any long-lasting recovery. ...
And that the Mavericks are very serious when they says they're out of the Jason Kidd sweepstakes, a topic sure to come up this weekend when Kidd makes his only Dallas appearance of the season. The Mavericks were close to trading for Kidd in the summer, with a package built around the expiring contract of Antoine Walker, who was later dealt to Atlanta. But sources insist that even the free-spending Mark Cuban is unwilling to absorb Kidd's contract now, given the possibility of even stricter luxury-tax penalties being implemented before next season when the league and union hammer out the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. Similar concerns prompted Portland to abandon its pursuit of Vince Carter before New Jersey got him.
Kobe Bryant misses the triangle offense?
Not exactly. He didn't say it quite like that when we spoke last week.
But maybe folks shouldn't be surprised that coach Rudy Tomjanovich, in L.A.'s back-to-back victories over Houston and Minnesota, called for the Lakers to return to some of Phil Jackson's triangle sets.
Speaking last Wednesday about how much closer teams guard him these days, Bryant said, "In the past it was a little harder to key in on me, because I was constantly on the move."
Way back in the twilight of 2004, when Chicago was in the midst of a 2-13 launch that prompted louder-than-ever calls for the trade exile of Eddy Curry, more than one rival GM advised us that we shouldn't expect John Paxson to rush into any moves.
Reason being: Paxson is perpetually worried that Curry and/or Tyson Chandler will blossom as soon as they go somewhere else, as several young Bulls of recent vintage did after Jerry Krause dumped them. Or have you forgotten Elton Brand, Brad Miller and Ron Artest? Hassell, too.
Hard to argue with the patient approach now. The Bulls are suddenly meshing better than they have since the Jordan Era despite the fact that Paxson's top six players include three rookies (Luol Deng, Ben Gordon and Andres Nocioni), second-year floor leader Kirk Hinrich and Curry and Chandler as the old-timers.
Seattle's Ray Allen has a message for anyone suggesting that his good year (and the Sonics' 24-8 start) is simply a byproduct of the fact that Allen is a free agent come July 1 who needs a new contract. "Everybody has their opinion," he says, well aware of the theory in circulation. "But if you look at my stats and everything I've done in my career, I'm pretty consistent. I'd like to think I gave the same effort last year." Indeed: Allen's numbers are only a shade better than last season's. He averaged 23.0 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.8 assists in 2003-04 while shooting 44 percent from the field, 39 percent on three-pointers and 90 percent from the line. This season? Entering Tuesday's play, Allen was averaging 23.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists while shooting 43 percent from the field, 38 percent on threes and 90 percent from the line. ... Kobe, on his father Joe's comeback with the ABA's Boston Frenzy: "He can still play. It's like riding a bike. He can play the minutes -- it's just after the game he can't move." . . . Shaquille O'Neal says he won't take any more "K questions" -- Kobe Bryant questions, he means -- until March. 15, two days before the Lakers meet in Miami. It's an understandable wish from O'Neal, but it's also unlikely to influence us media pests. Don't forget that Shaq and Kobe will be squaring off again in just over a month at the All-Star Game in Denver.
The Spurs are patiently waiting for Karl Malone's yea or nay, but they won't wait forever.