Updated: Jan. 15, 2006, 5:05 PM ET

SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION
Francis adds to Magic mayhem

Editor's note: ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein supplies each item for this around-the-league notebook edition of the Dime.

They have a cornerstone player sufficiently young, big and mesmerizing to make a mess of teams drool with envy.

The Orlando Magic also have a new mess to manage that has once again shifted the focus away from where it should be and where it never seems to stay: Dwight Howard.

The Magic, for the umpteenth time since the Shaq-and-Penny collapse, have to make the painful admission that their plans have been mucked up.

The latest plan? Orlando was undoubtedly praying that Steve Francis, with plenty of the ball and nearly 40 minutes a night, could play his way to the point that someone out there would develop some interest in trading for him.

Now?

It's tough to see how the sort of suspension you associate with Knicks center Jerome James -- conduct detrimental to the team -- is going to boost Francis' trade value.

As a ball-dominating little man with no clear position and a hard-to-handle rep, Francis was never going to be easy to move anyway, especially with three seasons left on his contract after this one at $49-plus million. Yet you have to believe it just got tougher after Francis, who has been moping ever since he sat out the fourth quarter of a Dec. 30 home rout of Minnesota, took his sulking to the point that he refused to go into a game Wednesday night and forced the Magic to suspend him.

Since the calendar flipped to 2006, with the Magic at 1-5 in the New Year, Francis is averaging just 11.5 points and 37.5 percent shooting ... and taking just over nine shots per game. The better Jameer Nelson plays, in the best individual stretch of his young career, the more detached Francis looks.

The Knick he most resembles, of course, is not James but Stephon Marbury. Neither is terminally untradeable, because no one in the NBA is absolutely unmovable, but they're both about as hard to move as it gets at a time when the game's best point guards (Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups) are actually known for how they run their teams and make others around them better. Francis and Marbury basically suffer from the same three afflictions.

1) Neither has won much anywhere.

2) Both have iffy locker-room reputations.

3) Each possesses an unattractive contract.

In short, then, there's no easy way out of the Magic Kingdom. Assuming that's what Francis wants -- and believing that's what his bosses want -- the best way to improve the odds of finding an escape route is a healthy spell of compliance and production under new coach Brian Hill. But Francis has instead taken another misstep to dredge up everything in his past that obscures the toughness he's shown playing through migraines and vertigo, be it his refusal as a rookie to play in Vancouver ... or his alleged detour to the Super Bowl that led to a brief suspension from Jeff Van Gundy in Houston ... or his unhappiness playing for Van Gundy even though their one season together marked Francis' only trip to the playoffs in seven pro seasons.

It's no secret that Francis never wanted to leave Houston, in spite of his philosophical clashes with Van Gundy, and whatever happiness Francis found in Orlando began to vanish once the Magic dealt his beloved sidekick Cuttino Mobley to Sacramento last January. Nelson's progress only seems to have unsettled Francis further, which means all Orlando has left from its Tracy McGrady trade is Kelvin Cato and a disgruntled, suspended combo guard.

John Weisbrod, Orlando's former GM with the hockey background, is the one who swung that deal. You can argue that McGrady's serious back troubles make the Magic better off no matter what they received in return, but I can't. Not the way it's turning out. Not with Orlando having so much trouble putting anything good around the best young big man in the game this side of Amare Stoudemire.

Howard, quite simply, is a dream. He's a blossoming beast and a great kid, too. His presence, in this era of such limited quality size, means the Magic are covered at the toughest position to fill.

Trouble is, Orlando is still trying to dig out from the mess that began a decade ago, when Shaquille O'Neal defected to the Lakers. There was the heartbreak of an oh-so-close run at Tim Duncan, followed by the ill-fated signing of a snakebitten Grant Hill, followed by a messy split with local favorite T-Mac.

And now one more episode to make you wonder how long Howard will have to wait for the help he needs to lift the Magic out of the muck.

• Talk back to... Marc Stein | The Daily Dime gang

Dimes Past: January 1 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6-8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13


The Big Shadow
Shaq
The good folks of Orlando are still waiting for some good times to help them forget about seeing the back of this guy.


Eastern Conference
More rough news for Gerald Green fans who are still buzzing about that baseline drive and dunk Green threw down in the Las Vegas summer league:

We regret to report that the D-League, where the 18-year-old has been sent by the Celtics without playing a single NBA minute, does not have a dunk contest.



In case you're still wondering about these things, Detroit fell well short of the record for most victories to start a season with only four defeats. The recent OT loss at home to Utah dropped the Pistons to 26-5, making it impossible for them to catch the following three powerhouses of yore:

1966-67 76ers: 46-4

1995-96 Bulls: 41-4

1971-72 Lakers: 40-4

Not that Detroit feels any deep disappointment about the lost opportunity. Sweeping the season series with San Antonio took care of that.


The early buzz on Pat Riley's recently disclosed contract extension pegs it as a deal that only addresses his ongoing role as Heat president. So it looks as though we'll have to wait for a definitive declaration from Riley, whenever he plans it, about his coaching intentions for next season ... although I still struggle to imagine a scenario where he goes back to a strict front-office role and asks someone else to coach Shaquille O'Neal and the expensive group he assembled around Shaq.

Monday's Martin Luther King holiday, meanwhile, brings us the season's second and last installment of Heat vs. Lakers and thus a good time to revisit Riley's take on Phil Jackson, as told to my colleague Chris Sheridan last month:

"He's too old to worry about it and I'm too old to worry about it -- too old and too wise to worry about any bickering that went on a long time ago because both of us were probably foolish," Riley said. "I never had a rivalry with Phil Jackson. You [media] guys made it a rivalry. I never, ever, ever went into a game trying to [outcoach] anybody. I could give a [expletive] about that. I just tried to prepare my team, and whatever you guys make of it, you make it."



Question Marc
Bowen

From the Stein Line e-mailbag:

Jack (Dallas): Have to call you out on something. I know all about your undying loyalty to Cal State Fullerton, but Bruce Bowen was born in 1971. The Olympics will be in 2008. I don't think I want a 37-year-old Bowen on Team USA.

Stein: You got me, Jack. Maybe I did get a little carried away with this nomination. Then again, maybe not if Team USA chief Jerry Colangelo is considering Bowen as it now appears. Either way, I think you understand the point. We keep hearing that Team USA will be looking for role players this time, yet we're mostly still hearing only star names thrown out as possibilities. Bowen is a championship-tested role player whose defensive prowess and ability to make 3s adds up to an interesting package. I'd also say that Bowen, at 34, looks as spry as he ever has at a time when he theoretically should be slowing down already, because he looks after himself so religiously.

I can't totally discount your concerns, though. Maybe we all could use a reminder, after the recent stories in circulation regarding Shaquille O'Neal and Allen Iverson and whether they can be coerced into making the long-term commitment to the new Team USA regime, that the Olympics are three summers from now. (P.S. -- I'm guessing you don't have a problem with my recent Josh Howard nomination.)


Air Bron
LeBron James
LeBron gave us the highlight of the week with this sick dunk, but he failed to deliver the clutch shot against the Lakers in L.A., which could be bad news for the Cavs come playoff time (See Box 8).


Life on the Ron (continued)
Artest

The much-discussed trade that would send wayward forward Ron Artest from Indiana to Los Angeles for Clippers swingman Corey Maggette, which moved suddenly toward completion this week after initial resistance from L.A., has fizzled.

NBA front-office sources told ESPN.com on Thursday that the Pacers have abandoned their interest in Maggette because of concerns with his troublesome left foot.

The Clippers, sources said, will have to wait up to a month for the removal of Maggette's cast just to determine if the 26-year-old can be reactivated this season -- or if an ongoing ligament problem will require season-ending surgery that places a screw in Maggette's foot. Indiana, as a result, has elected not to pursue the deal, even though Maggette -- a rugged scorer known for getting to the free-throw line -- had been near the top of its wish list since the Pacers decided last month that they would honor Artest's public request to be traded.

See Stein's full story



Western Conference

One more team to keep on your Ron Artest scorecard: New Orleans-Oklahoma City.

The Pacers, like just about every playoff-bound club in the league, would love to pilfer P.J. Brown from the Hornets. That won't happen, because Brown is an untouchable along with Chris Paul and David West, but sources close to the situation indicate that the Hornets haven't ruled out the idea of bringing Artest in.

Yet with Brown off-limits, NO/OKC is unlikely to offer the Pacers much more than salary relief and possibly second-tier youngsters or draft considerations. Desmond Mason and his expiring contract, acquired in October from Milwaukee for Jamaal Magloire, is an obvious option since Mason ($7.2 million) and Artest ($6.8 million) are a virtual salary match.

The Pacers, though, are expected to keep probing for potential deals after coming close to swapping Artest for the Los Angeles Clippers' Corey Maggette. New Orleans also continues to be pursued as a third- or fourth-team conduit in a larger Artest deal by the clubs -- such as Denver, Minnesota, Houston and the Lakers -- who need a multi-team trade to assemble a package Indy likes.


If the end of his Sacramento career is indeed approaching, free agent-to-be Peja Stojakovic isn't bound to remember this farewell fondly.

Nor would you call this a contract drive.

Plagued by back troubles, Peja hasn't had a 20-point game in more than a month (Dec. 11).


You wouldn't have to look hard for reasons why Erick Dampier has begun to lose the support of coach Avery Johnson, as some of Johnson's thinly veiled critiques in the past week suggest.

Johnson lobbied as strongly as anyone for the Dampier acquisition via a sign-and-trade with Golden State in August 2004. Yet Dampier, looking increasingly lethargic, had failed to score 10 points in a whopping 25 consecutive games entering the weekend. His longest such streak last season was four.

All the Mavericks really expect from their center, as a result, is activity on the boards and a low-post presence defensively. The team's unspoken mantra is that they're a threat to anyone in the league when they get something out of Dampier. But they're not even getting that consistently, which has to be a concern given the five years and nearly $57 million left on Dampier's contract after this season.



Chat Excerpt

Hunter (Southfield, Mi): Between the Cavs and Nets, which team would you least want to face in the postseason? LeBron can be scary, but New Jersey is showing the rumors of its demise were greatly exaggerated and they are still in position to possibly pull off a trade before the deadline to bring them another big man.

Stein: Don't think the Nets are going to find a big man of consequence. But I'd still take them over the Cavs in a playoff comparison. Experience is the difference. LeBron in the playoffs is still an unknown. Maybe he'll be fabulous from the start. But until we see him on the playoff stage, we don't know.

I'd probably still pick Miami to win a seven-game series with Jersey in the second round, but I'd also expect the Nets to give the Heat some problems. The Heat are bound to struggle defensively with a perimeter trio that likes to get up and down.

The full Stein chat wrap Insider



Marc's Quote
"We get kind of mind-boggled a lot."

Atlanta swingman Joe Johnson, referring to his young team's increasing struggles to hold late leads, leaving the Hawks as the only team in the league with fewer than 10 victories entering the weekend.



A Fine Line
JAN. 11: RASHARD LEWIS VS. MAGIC
MIN FGA-M 3PA-M FTA-M REB AST PTS
44 12-18 4-5 17-20 5 2 45

I'll go out on a limb and suggest that Wednesday's Magic at Sonics tussle will be remembered for other things ... like Ray Allen's front-row scrap with Keyon Dooling ... or maybe Steve Francis' refusal to re-enter the game in the fourth quarter to earn an indefinite suspension from Orlando management.

That said ...

I'd say Rashard Lewis merits at least a mention for what he did in Seattle's 113-104 triumph. Gaudy numbers are in abundance lately -- Orlando's Jameer Nelson, for example, had a career-high 32 points in the same game -- but Lewis still managed to stand out with 45 points that saved the Sonics. (The total was also notable because it reminds you that Lewis needed another five points to match the career-best 50 he scored in Japan in the second game of the 2003-04 season.)

 

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