Updated: March 13, 2006, 9:17 AM ET

SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION No knee-jerk decision for Suns

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

Saturday marks five months since Amare Stoudemire underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee.

Still too soon, in other words, to say for sure that he'll be back this season.

"It's still pretty much up in the air," Stoudemire told me in Dallas last weekend.

You will not be surprised to learn that Stoudemire didn't want to hear my view.

Can't help it, though. As much as I love watching him play -- and as much as it would do for the forthcoming playoffs if the league's most remarkable blend of athleticism and power can return this month as he hopes -- I believe more than ever that Amare should sit out the year.

It's the best thing for him and these Suns.

No one with the club is about to say so publicly, and you can understand why someone as young and proud as Stoudemire wouldn't want to make that admission, either. Yet it becomes more obvious with each passing day.

This late in the season, there's simply more to risk than gain by trying to blend a dominant figure like Stoudemire into a group that returns only three guys (Steve Nash, Shawn Marion and Leandro Barbosa) who have actually played with him.

Let's say Stoudemire plays 10 or even 15 games before the start of the playoffs. Is that really enough time for Stoudemire, after just five months to get sturdy, to find a level of performance and a chemistry with his teammates that take the Suns another notch or two higher than they are right now? Entering the weekend, remember, Phoenix was winning the Pacific Division by 7 1/2 games and seeded to reach the Western Conference finals without its future MVP.

Stoudemire, incidentally, just suffered the first brow-raising setback in his rehabilitation. A fluid buildup in his right knee, which he described as "overcompensation" from his attempts to ease pressure on the surgically repaired knee, forced the 23-year-old to wait a few extra days before joining five-on-five drills this week for the first time since the operation.

Although he has since progressed to the point that the Suns now envision Stoudemire's debut coming in two weeks or less, coach Mike D'Antoni concedes that Stoudemire looks "stiff-legged" at times and has yet to reach the point where he can "do things without thinking about the leg."

No surprise there. History says this phase is filled with setbacks and mental/psychological hurdles, and not only for those never-the-same microfracture patients like Penny Hardaway, Terrell Brandon and Allan Houston.

Skipping games because of knee soreness has been an all-season inconvenience for Denver's Kenyon Martin (28) and Utah's Matt Harpring (29). Portland's Zach Randolph, nearly a year removed from undergoing microfracture at 23, estimates that he's playing at roughly 80 percent capacity ... with Philadelphia's Chris Webber in the same range almost three years after his surgery.

Even for a successful microfracture alumnus like Jason Kidd, playing-time restrictions and nights off were unavoidable at the beginning.

Which brings us back to the time element. Stoudemire is indeed younger and more freakishly assembled than all of the above and, by all accounts, had the least severe injury in the group. Five months, though, is a fast turnaround for even the most otherworldly of NBA athletes ... and it would still leave less than a month before the playoffs to get Amare assimilated.

I ask again: Is it worth subjecting Stoudemire to a more significant setback than a fluid buildup when you factor in those variables?

Not with the future he and the Suns share, with Amare's 70-plus million-dollar extension starting next season.

This isn't Indiana or Cleveland, where the Pacers and Cavaliers are second-tier teams without Jermaine O'Neal and Larry Hughes. The Suns are rolling without Stoudemire. Maybe they can't win the championship without him, but so what? His return doesn't automatically get them any closer to San Antonio or Detroit, so why even mess with it?

(Just for the record: O'Neal's groin and Hughes' finger injuries, while not as scary as Stoudemire's, make me just as reluctant to bring them back for the playoffs. I guess I'm just a Long Term Outlook kind of guy.)

The good news for worriers like me? The Suns' basketball and medical staffs aren't going to let Stoudemire come back if the next couple of weeks raise more red flags. D'Antoni insists he won't even have to sit Amare down to convince him.

D'Antoni, who now doubles as the Suns' newly minted executive vice president of basketball operations, told me (A) that Stoudemire doesn't want to come back this season unless he can wow us and (B) to let the coach/GM do the worrying.

"We're only going to do this if everybody, including Amare, feels there's no problem," D'Antoni said. "He knows that if there's any kind of swelling or any kind of pain, he's going to back off it. Everyone in this organization is on the same page -- there's no alternative motives here.

"We do it when he's ready."

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

Dimes Past: 3 | 4-5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10


Andrei The Giant
Nash
Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images
While we're still waiting for Amare to lace up, we wouldn't mind being in Andrei Kirilenko's shoes in the meantime. (See Box 7.)


Western Conference

I'm told that Keith Smart is more likely than Mario Elie to be named interim coach in the event that Golden State dismisses Mike Montgomery before the end of the season.

Yet club insiders insist it remains far more likely that no change will even be considered until the offseason, no matter how many losses pile up and no matter how many stories you hear about the erosion of locker-room respect for Monty.

The Warriors' fall from a 12-6 start, after so many pundits projected them to finally halt their 11-season playoff drought, puts them high on the season's list of Most Disappointing Teams, up there with Minnesota and New York. But Warriors GM Chris Mullin, remember, has stated repeatedly that Montgomery is safe.

At season's end, Montgomery will be halfway through a four-year deal worth about $10 million. Long-suffering Warriors fans inevitably will be hoping that, by that point, Montgomery would want a buyout to go back to the college ranks. This group obviously needs more than a major trade to generate any optimism going into next season.


Despite its recent statement-game setbacks to West rivals San Antonio and Phoenix, Dallas has received some unexpected backing from an old playoff rival.

Sacramento ex Chris Webber, now in Philadelphia, says he "wouldn't be surprised" if the Mavericks toppled the Spurs and won the West.

Reason being: Webber likes Jason Terry's shot-making that much.

"Jason Terry is their new Nick Van Exel," Webber said. "When they got rid of Nick, that hurt them from our perspective. We were happy in Sacramento when they got rid of Nick."


The mystery third team that nearly saved that Spurs-Hornets deadline deal that would have sent Brent Barry to Oklahoma City for J.R. Smith and Arvydas Macijauskas?

Atlanta.

A third trade partner was required to complete the deal because the Hornets' earlier acquisition of Marc Jackson consumed too much salary cap space for New Orleans/Oklahoma City to absorb Barry's $4.7 million salary. The Hawks were recruited to take on injured second-year Hornets forward Jackson Vroman and his minimum wage (just under $650,000), but the deal couldn't be completed in time to beat the league's trade buzzer.



The Buzz Is Back
Mavericks

NEW ORLEANS -- It didn't quite look like a sellout as promised, but most of the empty seats at tip-off didn't stay unclaimed for long. Filling up the building with fans and noise and even a few noisy fans wearing Chris Paul jerseys was not a problem for the storm-battered survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

Nor did they have trouble booing Phil Jackson, just to make sure he'd know how insensitive and misguided it was to voice fears about "mud" and "termites" back when the Lakers found out where they'd be playing this game.

"Seats look clean, floor is dry, everything looks pretty shipshape here," Jackson said Wednesday, trying to take it all back.

The only real obstacle for a rebuilding New Orleans in its grand return to the American sporting consciousness was stopping Kobe Bryant. Someone asked Paul in the morning whether the Hornets had a special plan to keep No. 8 from dominating the NBA's follow-up to Mardi Gras, and the rookie responded with a one-word admission: "No." Bryant then proceeded to justify Paul's premonition with a flurry of fourth-quarter daggers, after three brick-laden quarters, to deal the Back Home team a 113-107 defeat.

"We made some mistakes we couldn't afford to make," Hornets coach Byron Scott said, "because we don't have a Kobe Bryant."

Read the full Marc Stein story




On The Horizon?
Francis
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images
Amare Stoudemire has much to weigh in his decision about a comeback this season.


Eastern Conference
The Bucks, according to leaguewide consensus, fleeced the Hornets when they acquired Jamaal Magloire for Desmond Mason and a first-round pick just before the season started.

Magloire's arrival gave No. 1 overall pick Andrew Bogut a burly escort and gave Milwaukee what appeared to be the third-best complement of big men in the East behind Detroit and Miami: Magloire, Bogut, Dan Gadzuric and Joe Smith ... with Bobby Simmons and Toni Kukoc also capable of playing some power forward.

Magloire

Problem is, Milwaukee is suddenly looking at a multitude of issues. Magloire says the bigs are unhappy with the way minutes and touches are divided up. Defense and home-court consistency have been concerns all season.

And now Boston is riding Paul Pierce's renaissance and rookie darling Ryan Gomes to give teams at the bottom of the East playoff ladder something real to worry about. As opposed to the Bulls.

A home loss to lowly New York last weekend was the loudest signal yet that the young, revamped Bucks -- like the team they acquired Magloire from -- are struggling to deal with playoff pressure after a good start under new coach Terry Stotts raised expectations. The difference? The Hornets' season won't be ruined if they miss out on the postseason. As Rookie of the Year cinch Chris Paul said this week, a playoff berth for New Orleans/Oklahoma City would simply make it a "storybook season."

Bucks owner Herb Kohl expects more than that. The senator surprised veteran Bucks-watchers after the New York game with a rare public critique of the team's effort and performance, announcing that "we're not content being the eighth seed."

Kohl's frustration is understandable -- with Milwaukee widely pegged to finish no worse than sixth or seventh in the East with the talent and depth it had after adding Magloire -- but it'll be interesting to see how the Bucks respond. Kohl's unexpected address might actually heap more pressure on Stotts, a longtime Kohl favorite dating to Stotts' stint as George Karl's top assistant.


Because we know you love your finance-related Knicks trivia ...

Did you know that New York's new backcourt tandem of Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis carries a combined salary of just over $29 million this season?

And did you know that the five salaries in Detroit's starting lineup total $33.7 million?


Please don't ask me to explain what Josh Smith was thinking with that piece of tape at All-Star Weekend. I haven't had a chance to ask him, and I still have no clue how it was supposed to figure into that dunk routine.

However ...

It does finally appear that Smith's ridiculous hops aren't just for slamming.

After managing just five double-digit rebound games for the Hawks in the season's first three months, Smith had six in February to supplement his sixth-place standing among the league leaders in blocks (2.53 per game).



Question Marc
Kirilenko

From the Stein Line e-mailbag:

Evan (Missouri): Who's your favorite player?

Stein: I bet some of you, if you were guessing, would expect me to say Steve Nash.

Or maybe Dirk Nowitzki.

Two more good guesses: Cal State Fullerton's Bruce Bowen ... or one of my beloved lefties like Michael Redd.

But after this month's bigger-than-Bonds revelations, I'll bet instead that I'm not alone in saying that my new favorite player could only be Andrei Kirilenko.



More Money, More Problems
Marbury, Francis
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
So far in seven games: 3 + 1 = 2 Knicks wins.


Marc's Quote


A Fine Line
MAR. 8: YAO MING VS. PACERS
MIN FGM-A FTM-A BLK REB PTS
38 14-21 10-10 5 10 38

Yao

Funny thing about Yao Ming:

Perhaps you've noticed that the volume on Yao praise, now that he's dominating, doesn't come close to how loud his critics have always been.

How many times do you remember hearing Yao rapped early in the season because of Houston's 0-8 start in games without Tracy McGrady? Fact is, T-Mac might be in worse shape now, since he's still in and out of the lineup with back trouble and also shouldering those mysterious personal problems. The Rockets, though, are making a credible playoff push anyway. Guess who's responsible?

Since the big man returned from toe surgery on Jan. 30, Houston is 14-5. Calling for the ball with more confidence than he ever has and clearly moving better than ever, Yao uncorked 38 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in Wednesday's home victory over Indiana -- making it three straight 30-point games and preserving a crucial win after T-Mac hobbled off in the third quarter. That eruption came just one night after Yao's 30 points and 13 boards delivered a crucial road victory in Minnesota that McGrady missed completely.

Common sense says Houston has to have T-Mac back to actually make the playoffs, especially with Sacramento surging and only one game left this month (out of 10) against sub-.500 opposition. Yet if Yao can maintain this type of production -- 27.7 points and 13.6 boards in the past nine games -- we might have to amend that consensus.

A lot of us, at the very least, owe the fourth-year behemoth an apology. He was playing in considerable pain before the surgery and never complained. Even as he was getting blasted for his non-domination, Yao never tried to use the injury as an excuse. It's too late to applaud him for that, but it would be nice if this long-awaited production and aggression were getting more attention.

 

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