Updated: Nov. 6, 2006, 8:02 PM ET

SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION Cubes and the inner circle

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

You've surely heard some of these gems by now. The guess here is that you've heard more than a few, actually.

I'm reborn. It's not Mark Cuban, the benefactor. It's Mark Cuban, David Stern disciple.

"Now I have new aspirations beyond winning the title in the NBA, and that's to fit in and be like everybody else.

I love owning the Mavericks. The fans, the guys, the competition, the games. Now it's just the added benefit of going to school at the University of David Stern.

Mark Cuban pumped out dozens of them Thursday night, conducting a half-hour press briefing while stepping away on his favorite exercise machine.

Funny, funny stuff.

Of course, there's a serious side to this steady stream of David Stern zingers.

What if Stern's decision to make owners subject to a new code of conduct -- an initiative clearly aimed at muzzling the Dallas Mavericks' controversial impresario -- helps to drive him out of the NBA?

That wouldn't be so funny.

"I can see doing this for another 100 years," Cuban said Friday, insisting that only the "old Mark" would consider selling the team to escape from Stern's kingdom.

I hope so. I hope it's true. I hope we see, at the very least, another 20 or 30 years of Cuban rule in Dallas.

I imagine even the Cuban-bashers out there, even those weary of his rants about referees and his never-ending conflict with league authorities, would miss him more than they want to admit.

But it's been a legit question since the NBA Finals, when the Mavericks failed to finish off the Miami Heat. A growing faction of conspiracy theorists around town latched on to the ridiculous idea that the league wouldn't let Cuban's team win. I don't believe it and never will, but hints out of the Cuban camp were eventually dropped that a sale to get away from the only rules-makers in his life would be considered.

The story, thankfully, faded quickly. Cuban spent millions on his team again from July through October, signing Jason Terry to a fat new contract and re-signing three franchise cornerstones -- Josh Howard, coach Avery Johnson and superstar forward Dirk Nowitzki -- to contract extensions. He also combined with Johnson and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson to bring in four new rotation players: Anthony Johnson, Austin Croshere, Greg Buckner and Devean George.

Cuban, in other words, couldn't have been trying harder to load up for another run at a championship.

Then came the news that Stern, after collecting well over $1 million in Cuban fines over the past six years, had the support of numerous teams to enact a policy that would enable him to suspend owners -- like players and coaches -- for confronting referees and publicly criticizing any aspect of the league's structure. The new policy also forbids Cuban from joining Mavericks huddles during timeouts and stoppages, something he's been doing for years, home and road.

"They aren't [driving me away]," Cuban said as a Friday follow-up, repeating his promise to comply with all of the above and continuing with the theme he introduced to great laughs in the Mavs' weight room the night before.

"I love the opportunity they have given me to learn from the best. It was a tough interdiction, but the tough love my fellow owners and the commissioner have shown me are invigorating.

"I may have my missteps along the way. It might be hard to resist making the instinctual travel signal, or [raising] three fingers for a three-second call, much like a caffeine-fiend joneses for a Starbucks latte. But over time those will dissipate and I can fit in and raise my game to the level of my fellow owners."

The sarcasm suggests that the Cuban-Stern relationship is at an all-time low. I nonetheless maintain that Cuban wouldn't even consider selling unless he wins at least one championship, enabling him to make the ultimate break from the league that has made him famous and infamous. A league that has thrilled and tormented him.

Then again ...

Cuban has never been the most predictable guy in the world, so stay tuned.

"I hope it never gets to the point that Mark wants to leave," Nowitzki told me. "He's a great owner. He takes care of his players and he's always taken great care of me. He's been a big part of our success for all these years."

Nowitzki did criticize Cuban after the Finals for his constant dialogue with referees, but insisted Friday that he doesn't enjoy seeing an edict that curbs his boss' unmistakable enthusiasm.

"His passion, he loves the game so much," Nowitzki said. "I don't think you can try to take that all away.

"If we won a ring, I guess I could see it [Cuban selling], but not really. He loves to be close to the team."

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

• Dimes past: November 1 | 2 | 3


Rapid Raptor
Ford
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Toronto loves speedy point guard T.J. Ford. But will signing him to a contract extension so soon come back to bite the Raptors?


Eastern Conference

I can at least understand why the Raptors made their widely questioned decision to trade big for small by sending Charlie Villanueva to Milwaukee for point guard T.J. Ford, even if I didn't endorse it.

Besides the fact that Toronto had a huge need for a point guard, especially a push-the-pace point guard, one theory floating in team circles held that Villanueva's best games ate into Chris Bosh's production. The Raps weren't convinced that their games meshed well.

But now the Raps need Ford to stay sturdy and deliver consistent floor leadership more than ever. By signing him to a four-year contract extension before the Halloween deadline, Toronto officially took itself off the list of teams that would have been able to exceed the mid-level cap exception next summer and bid for free agents.

The extension, as Professor Hollinger so eloquently explained, was inevitable after the Raps gave up such a coveted young piece to get Ford. There's no way Toronto could have completed that trade and then let Ford go after one season just to have cap space, especially since Ford and Bosh are so close.

Yet there will always be loud doubts because of Ford's health history. If the back troubles are truly behind him, and if Ford gradually adds polish to his floor game, committing to him for three seasons (with a player option for Year 4) will prove prudent. If not, Raps fans can only hope that the recent rumbles about Vince Carter's supposed interest in returning to Canada under the Raps' new regime were overstated ... since they won't have any cash to throw at him.


Toronto was not alone Tuesday after the flurry of extensions handed out before Thursday's buzzer. The Bulls, Hornets and Sonics likewise took themselves off the list of teams that potentially had spending money next summer by awarding new deals to Kirk Hinrich, David West, Nick Collison and Luke Ridnour.

So who will have cap space above the mid-level exception in the summer of 2007?

According to Nick Silva, one of the Stein Line's most trusted cap consultants, it's an East-heavy list: Atlanta, Charlotte, Milwaukee, Orlando and Memphis representing the West.


There are naturally lots of Red Auerbach stories in circulation these days and former Celtics coach Bill Fitch has always been my go-to guy for such tales.

"I've got so many of them because every day was a story with Red," Fitch said after the passing of the Boston legend.

Among those Fitch has been telling most stems from the shows he's been seeing on NBA TV, documenting the assemblage of the first-ever Celtics dance team. The night before Auerbach died, Fitch was watching an episode and immediately recalled a conversation with Red in the early '80s when he asked his boss if the Celts would ever introduce their own version of the Laker Girls.

Red's reply at the time: "Over my dead body."

"I already had my cry," Fitch said Saturday night shortly after the news broke, "but I had to laugh at that. I bet Red's laughing somewhere right now, knowing that the Celtics were going to have dancing girls [this season] for the first time.

"He was tough on the outside, but he was really soft-hearted on the inside. Never, not once, did he say, 'This what you've got to do, do this or do that.' I remember when I went there. He said: 'You're the first outsider I've ever brought in here, but you just go ahead and do what you think. But don't [expletive] up.' "



One-On-One ... To Five

Five questions with Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas:

Q: How are you going to get over missing those two free throws in Game 6 against Cleveland?

A: They're free throws. I've won 30 games on free throws and I've lost one game on free throws. I know people are going to talk about this all year, but it happens. Dirk [Nowitzki] missed free throws in the Finals. People miss big shots. It happens. I'm not going to let this haunt me.

Q: Reasonable expectations for your team?

A: I keep saying this, but it's to beat Miami at least one time. From there the sky's the limit.

Q: What will it take for the Wiz to really move up the East ladder?

A: I'd say we're a year and a half away. The league is getting smaller and smaller. Once Shaq and a few of these other big men leave this league, all the other five men are shooting fives. The game is getting quicker and quicker. We're just like some of these younger teams trying to sneak up on the older teams.

Q: What specifically will we see different from you this season?

A: A lot more defense. I'm going to try to be a defensive stopper out there, just be more active. I'm already active, but I want to take the challenge of stopping the other team's best player on offense and giving them hell on defense, too.

Q: Is it true what I've heard about you wanting people to stop calling you quirky?

A: I'm not quirky! I have an explanation for everything I do and that's why I say I'm not quirky. I always read that and I'm like, "What is quirky?" Am I quirky compared to NBA players or regular people? I know some of the stuff I do is a little different, but I'm going to do a documentary on myself this year. Just to see how quirky I really am.




Owner Loner
Cuban
Tim Heitman/NBAE via Getty Images
There's only one Mark Cuban. And for that, David Stern counts his blessings.


Western Conference
Even though it imported a few new reserves in the offseason -- Marcus Banks, Jumaine Jones and Eric Piatkowski -- Phoenix has still been hoping to upgrade its bench after deciding it couldn't re-sign Tim Thomas because of luxury-tax concerns.

Rose

Hence the interest in Jalen Rose, who appeals to the Suns on several levels, not least of which was their ability to sign him Friday for $1.5 million.

Those details are crucial. Adding Rose's shooting, ballhandling and versatility, at that price, doesn't put the Suns in grave luxury-tax danger.

It's also a bit of a coup, assuming Rose is physically prepared to run with the Suns, because of the strong competition to sign him.

The Suns had to beat out the Miami Heat, who had Shaquille O'Neal calling Rose on Thursday night when word began to spread that the 33-year-old was leaning toward Phoenix.

Rose owns a house in Miami as well, which gave the Heat another big edge.

"I think he'll help us," Suns guard Steve Nash said.


Warriors

Doubts about the Don Nelson-Baron Davis relationship are bound to linger, no matter how well both parties say it's going, until the Warriors start living up to the lofty preseason projections coming from certain members of the national punditry who need not be named.

Losing on Opening Night to the Kobe Bryant-less Lakers guarantees it. Especially with Nelson ripping into several players afterward and describing Davis' debut "as a negative" in which "he pounded the ball too much."

But I'm betting against long-term issues. For a few reasons:

• Nelson is going to give Davis a level of responsibility commensurate with the roles he gave Tim Hardaway and Nash.

• Nelson is close with Baron's favorite pro coach of all time: Paul Silas.

• Nelson quietly hired Davis' favorite assistant to fill the last open spot on his staff: Stephen Silas, son of Nelson's ex-teammate with the Celtics. Davis and young Silas are close pals from their old Hornets days.


Three scenes from Mavs-Spurs that I'm still thinking about:

1. The biggest early problem with the new crackdown on post-whistle whining to officials is inconsistency. One fear out there is that certain players -- stars with good reps, in other words -- will be permitted to protest calls longer than, say, someone like Rasheed Wallace.

At least three times Thursday night, Tim Duncan carried a protest longer than I thought he'd be able to get away with in the new world. In one sequence that bled into a timeout, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had to walk out to the free-throw line to drag Duncan back to the huddle.

2. Robert Horry might have introduced a new craze when he flapped his fingers together to make a right-handed talk signal in hopes of grabbing the attention of referee Eddie Rush. It was Horry's way of asking Rush's permission to approach him for a discussion. Veteran move.

3. Avery Johnson sent nine Mavericks into Thursday night's game before using Devin Harris.

Johnson has indicated that he plans to rotate Greg Buckner, Anthony Johnson and Harris as the second backcourt starter alongside Jason Terry, but it was still somewhat stunning to see Harris starting the season behind all three of them, remembering that his insertion into the Mavs' starting lineup helped swing momentum in the teams' epic playoff series last spring.



Chatter Box
Jazz

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

"These guys are going to surprise some people. Everybody knows about the big "if" -- they have to stay healthy, obviously -- but they're long, they're deep and they're starting to look athletic. I'd say it's the most athletic team they've ever had in Utah.

They've got more than just a good front line, too. I'm in the camp that says Deron Williams is a future All-Star and getting Derek Fisher really solidifies their backcourt. Bringing Fisher and [Matt] Harpring off the bench, that's two guys who know how to play.

Then you have their real difference-maker: Jerry Sloan. He's still one of the best coaches going. And let me tell you, he'll never not have it. He'll get out before that happens ... at least that's my opinion."



Film Session
NBA Nation
Every week on NBA Shootaround, ESPN.com's Marc Stein joins ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher and Jackie MacMullan of the Boston Globe for an NBA Nation segment, each reporting from their region of the country.

This week's edition pays tribute to Red Auerbach, updates on Kobe Bryant's recovery from knee surgery and explains the real reason why the Mavericks didn't raise their Western Conference championship banner before Thursday night's opener against their state rivals from San Antonio.



Marc's Quote
"Absolutely not. But it wouldn't be a bad thing
to see somebody else win it."

Suns guard Steve Nash, when asked if he's capable of winning a third successive MVP award.



Question Marc
From the Stein Line e-mailbag:

Bulls

Wes (Spirit Lake, Iowa): I read where you wrote: "What was so dramatic about Chicago winning six times in an eight-year span with no memorable rival?" This comment is insane.

No rival? How about the Knicks and Pacers? Hello! Almost all rivalries are within the same conference. I can't think of a Finals rivalry since the Lakers and Celtics.

What was so dramatic about the Bulls' run? Ask all the fans, since that was when the NBA's popularity was at an all-time high. If you need further evidence of drama, see No. 23's career highlights.

Stein: I think what I also wrote, Wes, is that history backs up your contention. I'm not disputing that the masses like it better when there's a behemoth for everyone to shoot at and detest. But that doesn't mean I have to agree. Or that I can't question it.

If you're telling me, in Chicago's case, that Michael Jordan's mere presence is what made it compelling, fine. I know that was enough for zillions of people.

I suppose it's the same in golf; I don't watch it, but from afar I gather no one seems to mind when Tiger Woods wins six tournaments in a row.

One of my favorite sports has an even bigger problem with Roger Federer so rarely getting a push, and I simply liked the NBA a lot less when the Bulls were Federer.

Starting a season with only one or two teams capable of winning it -- and without the promise of a deciding series that at least has some of the allure that Lakers-Celtics had -- will never be my kind of season.

Having a handful of potential champions on Nov. 1 and no idea how it's going to turn out grabs me more.

Always.



 

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