Updated: April 17, 2006, 8:43 PM ET

SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION Asking the hard questions

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

The weekend (and its Dime) arrives without a single first-round pairing firmed up.

Not one.

Only two seeds in the West are locked in: No. 2 Phoenix and No. 3 Denver. Six teams, meanwhile, are still playing (can't get away with claiming that they're battling) for the bottom four seeds in the East.

Yet that doesn't mean we can't start answering pertinent playoff questions. Here are 10 as the NBA Tournament draws near:

1. Who's the most dangerous sleeper in the NBA playoffs?

Honestly?

There isn't one.

Stein Line sources say that playoff sleepers are the rage -- it won't surprise you that someone had to pull me aside and catch me up on the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago White Sox and Florida Gators -- but not in the NBA.

Not in that letdown of a conference mistakenly billed as the "new" East, where four of the eight seeds could report to the postseason with sub-.500 records. If you're thinking that's never happened before, you're right.

Yet it's likewise hard to envision a real sleeper run in the West. I can't make a fathomable case for a lower seed in either conference to win more than one series. In the West, especially, I invite you to outline a legit scenario -- barring multiple serious injuries -- where the West's NBA Finals rep doesn't come from San Antonio, Dallas or Phoenix.

2. But aren't the Suns fading?

No. Back-to-back victories this week over Dallas and at Sacramento should answer that. But I've also asked several folks with the Suns and the answer is the same each time. The belief in the desert is that knowing they were pretty much locked into the No. 2 seed after that 11-game win streak -- along with the Kurt Thomas injury -- set the Suns back as much or more as the ups-and-downs of Amare Stoudemire's brief comeback.

The Suns' defense has been undeniably dismal without Thomas because his presence enables Phoenix to play more traditional, straight-up D as opposed to scrambling around with double-teams and traps that eventually get picked apart. But I can't see Sacramento winning a seven-game series with the Suns as they stand now and Thomas could be back by Round 2.

I'm picking Phoenix to get to the conference finals regardless. (Maybe we should call the Suns a sleeper so we have one, because I expect them to run the San Antonio-Dallas survivor ragged if nothing else.)

3. What's the best potential first-round matchup in the West?

Whichever one Kobe Bryant is in.

No. 8 has had six games this season with at least 50 points. Which naturally leads you to ask if he can do it in the playoffs.

If the Lakers see Phoenix in Round 1, put Kobe down for at least one 50-pointer, even though I don't expect L.A. to win more than a game in that matchup.

If the Lakers meet San Antonio, I can't see Bruce Bowen or the 7-footers behind him allowing a 50-point game, but that matchup still would be sufficiently weird -- such an early encounter for the West rivals -- to be as compelling as Round 1 gets.

4. What's the best potential first-round matchup in the East?

Whichever one LeBron James is in.

For two pretty obvious reasons.

A) It'll be the first time we all get to see LeBron on the big stage.

B) Cleveland is the only top-four seed in the East at risk for an upset, especially if they see Washington or Indiana. Of course, with Caron Butler ailing and the Pacers looking worse now than they did at any time during the last year-plus on the Ron Artest roller-coaster, I wouldn't be betting big on an early exit for the Cavs, either.

5. Let's lower expectations a bit. Will the Grizzlies finally win a playoff game?

Yes. I can state emphatically, without knowing who Memphis will face in Round 1, that the Grizz won't get swept.

Unless they play Dallas.

6. So does the NBA really plan to keep a close watch on Tuesday's Clippers-at-Grizzlies game to make sure neither team is playing for the No. 6 seed?

The league won't be bugging the locker rooms and sending a platoon of FBI types to monitor what happens at the FedEx Forum. After all, it's not like there's been a flurry of detailed accusations levied against either team to suggest that the Clips or Grizz really are trying to finish sixth in the West -- to face Denver in the first round as opposed to Dallas -- instead of fifth.

However ...

I've also been told that the league office is apt to remind both parties quietly before Tuesday's tip that it will be watching in its own special way. Because the last thing the NBA wants, with its seeding formula generating so much negative commentary from the outside all season, is a team or two openly feeding into the criticism.

7. Along the same lines, does No. 1 in the West really matter as much as the season-long obsession with the San Antonio-Dallas race suggests?

Yes. To Dallas.

Assuming the Mavericks finish fourth in the West, as it now appears, it actually might be easier for them to start their inevitable second-round showdown with the Spurs in San Antonio. Who would be surprised, really, if the series shifts to Dallas at 1-1?

But let's be real.

Dallas needs Game 7 at home more than San Antonio does, just as Tony Parker argued in this cyberspace last week. The Mavs, frankly, need every advantage they can muster to offset the Spurs' decided edge in big-game experience, and having the deciding game at home if they needed it is almost as important as something else Dallas won't have.

A full-strength Devin Harris.

Harris' ability to get in the paint and punish Parker (and his backups) at the other end on penetration is Dallas' X-factor in a series with their Interstate-35 rivals. But Harris missed 17 straight games with a strained left quad before returning Thursday night and would have to move quicker than ever to get back to a semblance of sharpness in time for Round 2. Hard to imagine.

8. Can Miami give Detroit a series in the East finals?

If Alonzo Mourning isn't healthy enough to make a contribution and if James Posey doesn't supply the perimeter defense Miami used to get from Eddie Jones, there's a better question to ask:

Can Miami get past New Jersey in the second round?

The Heat will begin the playoffs with no Zo, little momentum and serious questions about its D.

Shaq will have to be as good as he looks -- and he does, without question, look slimmed-down -- to provide the help Dwyane Wade needs just to get Miami into a Detroit series. And I say so realizing fully that the Nets might have one of the weakest collection of players, from Nos. 5 through 13 on the playoff roster, in the whole tournament.

9. Are you saying Shaq, at 34, is too old to flip a switch in the playoffs?

No. I'm saying this group, as a collective, hasn't proven to us that they have a switch.

We have proof that the Pistons have a Flip and a switch, but this Heat assemblage hasn't confirmed that it has an "on" button.

If they can find one in the playoffs, it'll be a huge upset. Teams generally don't jump two or three levels when the competition gets tougher and the stakes are raised.

And I bet even the man who assembled this crew will be surprised if it happens, because Pat Riley -- judging by his increasing reliance on role players like Shandon Anderson, Derek Anderson and Michael Doleac -- seems as down on the big-name mix on this roster as any media critic.

10. Who are the individuals to watch closest?

The scoring machine (Kobe Bryant) and the wild card (Ron Artest) and the manchild (LeBron James) early.

The dynamic but dinged-up duos (Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili as well as Wade's sidekick Shaq) and how they hold up late.

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

Dimes Past: April 1-2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8-9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13


A King's Reward
LeBron James
Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images
LeBron James getting hurt against Detroit was scary. Just as scary is one theory below about why he was still in the game.


Eastern Conference
Larry Bird's authority-restoring declaration earlier this week that Rick Carlisle will be back next season in Indiana came in the wake of a 1-7 slide in which various Pacers players were accused of tuning Carlisle out or chucking in the season.

One Pacer definitely not in that group: Fred Jones.

Indy keeps trying to shelve Jones because of a torn ligament in his left thumb -- suffered in early March when he got his hand snagged in Jerome James' expansive jersey -- but Jones keeps trying to convince his bosses to let him play.

It's a similar injury to the thumb ailment that prompted Toronto to shut Chris Bosh down for the season. But Jones doesn't want to sit, even though playing through pain that clearly affects his shooting and ballhandling isn't driving up his free-agent stock for the summer.

"It's not comfortable, but I can deal with the pain," Jones said. "Even with this [brace] on my hand, I think I can be some service to the team. There's no way that we should be in the position that we're in and I'm just trying to help us make sure we get to the playoffs. [Bosh's team] isn't in a playoff run."


Knicks' Five Worst Records
Season Record Win %
1. 1962-63 21-59 .263
2. 1960-61 21-58 .266
3. 1963-64 22-58 .275
4. 1985-86 23-59 .280
5t. 1987-88 24-58 .293
5t. 1984-85 24-58 .293
Home games against Milwaukee and Charlotte. Roadies at Detroit and New Jersey.

Your favorite New Yorkers, at 22-56 entering the weekend, have to find one victory in their final four regular-season obligations to avoid the first 60-loss season in Knicks history.


The first thing LeBron James will have to prove in his first trip to the playoffs?

That there are no lingering effects from the ankle injury he suffered in Wednesday's blowout loss to Detroit.

LeBron could have gotten hurt at any time, true, but getting hurt late in the third quarter of a 68-44 game -- with Cleveland already locked into the East's No. 4 seed -- made you (or at least some of you) wonder why he was still playing at that point.

One theory in circulation: LBJ was left in so, at least numbers-wise, he could keep his MVP drive going.

If so, that would represent a serious (and ill-advised) risk, because the inexperienced Cavs aren't getting out of the first round unless LeBron is the James who recently went for 35 points or more in nine straight games. It appears, though, that James' ankle sprain isn't serious, but that's a determination best saved for next weekend.



Chatter Box

One man's take on the Orlando Magic, from Dimedom's web of front-office executives, coaches and scouts:

"I think this [strong finish] is going to carry over into next year, personally. I don't see this as another Golden State situation [after the Warriors finished last season with a 14-4 flourish]. They have too much youth -- quality youth -- that will keep getting better. And it's not like they're winning a bunch of meaningless games. [The Magic] are making so many shots right now that they might just win out [the rest of their schedule].

"Dwight Howard is already a monster. Darko [Milicic] is looking like what everyone thought he could be -- he can shoot, he's mobile, he's long, he's skilled. I liked Jameer Nelson in the [2004] draft and I like him even better now. He's confident and he's tough and he can really score.

"And no one's talking about Hedo [Turkoglu]. This is the best he's ever played. Darko and Howard really complement each other because one plays inside and one plays outside and then Hedo adds the versatility to play inside or outside and handle the ball at 6-9.

"They really need to upgrade on the perimeter even if Grant Hill does come back; DeShawn Stevenson is just OK and there's really nothing else there. They could probably use another interior presence, too, even though I like the move to re-sign Tony Battie.

"But Howard is the difference. I don't think Golden State has anyone like him."




Kobe's Beef
Kobe Bryant
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
Kobe Bryant is bound to flash a Say What? look when he hears what we think of his first-round chances against Phoenix.


Western Conference

The decision to proceed with Jerry Sloan in charge or move into the Phil Johnson Era will be made by Sloan, according to Jazz owner Larry Miller.

And when I see Sloan on Saturday night in Dallas, I'll be tempted to lobby one of my favorite X-and-O interview subjects to come back for a 19th season, even though Sloan always insists on going back to the solitude of his Illinois farm at season's end to make the official decision.

The 64-year-old has two seasons left on his contract and would have to coach both to have the longest tenure with one team in NBA and NHL history. Sloan is already the all-time NBA leader for continuous bench service with one team (18 seasons) and thus just shy of the hockey record: Jack Adams' 20 consecutive seasons coaching Detroit from 1927-47.

Sloan doesn't have a shot at the NFL record (29 seasons for Dallas' Tom Landry and Green Bay's Curly Lambeau) and has even less of a shot at Connie Mack's 50 years (from 1901-1950) managing baseball's Philadelphia Athletics. Of course, as you'd expect knowing how competitive Sloan is and always will be, all he really wants is the playoff berth that is slipping away for a third successive season.

"I said before the season that I think we should be a playoff team," Sloan said. "I don't think a lot of people felt that way outside of our organization. We aren't [deep] enough to have people out [with injuries] as long as we did, but I don't like to use that as an excuse. I still think we should be a little better than what we've been."

Asked how hard it is to coach without the certainty of seeing the precise execution that became synonymous with the Jazz in the John Stockton-to-Karl Malone years, Sloan told me recently: "That's not anything I didn't expect. If I didn't think that would happen, I'd have tried to get out and go somewhere else. That's just part of coaching. I knew it was going to be a hard-fought thing to try to teach [young] guys. I'm sure we could probably open things up a little bit and play a different way sometimes. But I'm not sure it's a good teacher for playoff basketball."


Przybilla

Blazers coach Nate McMillan certainly encouraged free agent-to-be Joel Przybilla to voice his displeasure with the lack of effort from some teammates, but team sources say it was more Przybilla's frustration than McMillan's invitation that prompted the 7-1 center to take those criticisms public.

Yet sources also insist that the biggest factor working against Portland in its quest to re-sign Przybilla, more than the increasing apathy that has plagued the Blazers in this 21-57 season, is its inability to offer Przybilla more than the mid-level exception this summer.

Owner Paul Allen's decision to veto the deal that would have banished the contracts of Darius Miles and Theo Ratliff to New York at the February trade deadline cost Portland the flexibility needed to match offers above the league average. And, yes, Przybilla is likely to get a couple as the league's No. 7 shot-blocker.


Commissioner Stern says we're all "over-concerned" with the NBA's seeding system. Gregg Popovich, whose Spurs are likely to face Dallas in the second round of the playoffs because of that system, says he must respectfully "disagree."

What does history say?

Recent history actually does offer Dallas some encouragement even though the No. 1 seed is almost certainly San Antonio-bound. In the teams' two playoff series since 2001, the visiting team actually has won six of the 11 games.



Film Session
Playoff positioning
Marc Stein makes his weekly visit to the ESPNews HotList to discuss how closely Tuesday's Clippers-Grizzlies matchup will be monitored in the league office and which team -- Chicago or Philadelphia -- is more likely to claim the No. 8 spot in the East.


Question Marc
From the Stein Line e-mailbag:

Kidd

Saro (New York City): Point guards seem to be the hot MVP candidates ever since Steve Nash broke through last year to win the big award. There's been a lot of banter about Chauncey Billups or Nash this season, and deservedly so, but I wonder if all this talk makes Jason Kidd's MVP snubbing in 2002 -- when he turned a perennial Nets loser into a NBA Finals participant in his first season -- seem even more unfair? Kidd not only turned around that team, he saved an entire franchise and made me care about hoops again.

Stein: I get this one a lot, Saro, but I've got to be honest. I just don't think what happened to Kidd is a "snubbing" and I never have.

Kidd narrowly lost out to Duncan in an MVP race so competitive that Shaquille O'Neal, who wound up leading the Lakers to a third successive championship at season's end, finished a distant third. But I can't remember anyone who chose Duncan over Kidd because Kidd played the point. If memory serves, it had more to do with New Jersey's undeniable turnaround coming in a horrifically weak Eastern Conference … while Duncan was winning games at both ends in a West that had four teams with at least 57 wins.

Winning the MVP award, in other words, depends as much on your competition as anything.

So there's little point comparing Nash's MVP-worthiness last season to Kidd's in 2002 or any of John Stockton's finest hours -- another anti-Nash sentiment that often finds its way to my mailbag -- because every season is different. Every MVP race is different.

The mission of an MVP voter, as I've always understood it, is to identify the player who had the best season. Now, as Ric Bucher explained the other day in wonderful detail, there is no consensus among voters on what criteria should be used to determine who had the best season. Seemingly everyone has their own MVP definition. But that's basically what we're all trying to do.

Regular readers here know that team success, measured against the level of competition and what was reasonably expected from that team when the season started, guides me most. Kobe Bryant, for example, will find his way onto my five-man ballot, but he can't be my MVP winner -- no matter how many points he scores -- if his team isn't among the elite. LeBron James, furthermore, wasn't a contender for my vote until the Cavs unleashed a 15-4 spurt that gave them a shot at 50 wins. And now he is.

However …

What I will concede is that point guards do have a better shot than Kidd did to be recognized as an elite team's dominant force because of the rule changes limiting defensive contact on the perimeter. The gradual erosion of traditional, back-to-the-basket big men along with the new rules -- which happened to be instituted just as Nash was leaving Dallas to return to Phoenix -- have combined to change the game drastically. Point guards as good as Nash and Billups are the new centers.

Kidd, too. He might not be what he was in 2002, as he continues to recover from microfracture knee surgery at 33, but he's still up there.



Marc's Quote
Van Gundy

"Baseball is an individual sport played by nine guys. In basketball, you're so reliant on the other guys."

Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, noted baseball fan like brother Stan Van Gundy, offering his theory to explain why Alex Rodriguez can win the American League MVP award with a last-place Texas team … but why the NBA's MVP voters historically place such importance on team success.



A Fine Line
APRIL 11: SHAQUILLE O'NEAL VS. RAPTORS
MIN FGM-A AST REB PTS
28 7-9 10 11 15

O'Neal

Who needs Dwyane Wade?

Just kidding. Even Shaquille O'Neal needs Wade desperately, especially in the forthcoming playoffs Shaq has been saving himself for.

But Shaq didn't look too bad without him Tuesday against Toronto, filling the void created by Wade's absence with 15 points, 11 rebounds and a career-high 10 assists for his second career triple-double … and his first since November 1993. That time, Shaq added 15 blocks to his 24 points and 28 rebounds.

The 848 games that elapsed between Shaq's triple-doubles is the second-longest span in league history, behind Charles Oakley's 955-game drought between a triple-double in 1987 with Chicago and another 14 seasons later for the Raptors.

 

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