Updated: Nov. 26, 2006, 9:21 PM ET

SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION Passing some hefty judgments

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

If you're shopping for some inspiration after a Thanksgiving of excess, or just looking for a cautionary tale or two, you've clicked to the right place.

That's because we step away now from the holiday gorging table to run through the five most impressive weight-shedders on display in the season's first month … as well as five high-profile guys who are (or were) growing in the wrong direction.

THE LOSERS

1. Utah's Deron Williams: I'll tell you who's not surprised by Williams' sudden leap into Chris Paul's class: Members of the Dallas Mavericks who played pick-up ball with Williams over the summer. They had the first glimpse of a sleeker, quicker scorer/playmaker who shows a greater willingness and ease getting into the paint than he ever displayed as a rookie. "You could see then that he was just going to go by people," says Mavs guard Jason Terry.

2. Charlotte's Emeka Okafor: By now you've probably heard the story. Okafor bulked up after Year 1 and wound up breaking down. Now? After shedding the unneeded mass and continuing his offseason tutorials with Hakeem Olajuwon, Okafor is progressing like you expected after a Rookie of the Year season. "I don't know if he'll ever be [a franchise big man] offensively where you can just go to him on the block every time," says one West coach. "But defensively? He's already there."

3. Golden State's Baron Davis: When he's in this shape and this mood, you'd struggle to name a point guard harder to keep out of the lane. Gone are the extra pounds he carried last season and he's likewise ditched the ill-advised reliance on 3-point shots. But I can't say I'm surprised. Baron's new coach, Don Nelson, is tight with Paul Silas, Baron's favorite pro coach … and Nellie has a great history with point guards. As long as his rib injury (and any subsequent ailment) isn't serious, Davis is the last Warrior they have to worry about.

4. Portland's Zach Randolph: I buy some of the theory that microfracture surgery didn't affect Randolph like Amare Stoudemire or Kenyon Martin because he plays a more ground-bound game than those guys. But it's still microfracture -- the most dreaded surgery in the NBA -- so it's hugely impressive to see Randolph (yes, a lefty) emerge as perhaps the league's most feared low-post scorer. Dropping 15-20 pounds like everyone in this club obviously didn't hurt.

5. Sacramento's Mike Bibby: Interesting that three PGs appear here. (Not a position you typically associate with extra pounds, but Cleveland's Damon Jones is yet another who appears rejuvenated by getting himself in better shape.) Back to Bibby: He's the PG version of Okafor, having bulked up in search of greater durability last season, only to miss the lost quickness. He's 20 pounds lighter now and fearless as ever, playing through a thumb injury expected to shelve him for weeks.

THE GAINERS

1. Houston's Bonzi Wells: Wells was understandably reluctant to play on a suspect groin over the summer until finding a new team. So he was inevitably overweight when he signed. But it's fairly evident that he's still struggling to accept the millions he lost in free agency and how slowly Jeff Van Gundy is working him in … discontent that only cuts further into Bonzi's future earning potential. The Rockets really need something from him, especially having just lost Kirk Snyder, but Wells was a low-cost gamble. Bonzi needs to slim down and salvage the season for himself, lest the Rockets decide he's not worth the trouble.

2. Phoenix's Boris Diaw: This one wasn't just disappointing. It's puzzling, too. Diaw captained France at the World Championships in Japan after his breakout season. The Worlds -- and the practices leading up to them -- consumed much of August. When did Diaw have time to get heavy? What I do know is that his timing couldn't have been more inappropriate, with the Suns trying to figure out how to play Diaw and Stoudemire together and having just awarded him a five-year, $45 million extension.

3. Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Kaman: Hamstring trouble that cost Kaman lots of training-camp time is certainly a factor, but he's got to get in much better shape if he wants to A) survive in the new Small Ball Era and B) hush the whispers already in circulation about losing motivation after signing that five-year, $52.5 million contract extension. The good news? Kaman had consecutive double-doubles (points and rebounds, not my kind: In-N-Out) leading into Thanksgiving.

4. Detroit's Rasheed Wallace: This is not what the Pistons wanted to see in their first season A.B. (After Ben): Sheed showing up for camp on the fleshy side. He's certainly picked it up lately, gradually starting to adjust to life without Ben Wallace -- he's up to 2.0 blocks per game even though Detroit's defensive security blanket has relocated to Chicago -- but Sheed has enough to worry about this season (with refs cracking down on backtalk) to carry conditioning concerns, too.

5. Denver's Andre Miller: This might no longer be an issue with Miller quietly playing quite well (15.2 ppg, 9.1 apg, 4.9 rpg, 1.6 spg) and with the Nuggets starting to surge. But with Nuggets coach George Karl making it clear he planned to push the pace even more than usual this season, it was nonetheless disquieting to see Miller report to camp less than svelte … and to hear Karl publicly question Miller's ability to log big minutes.

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

• Dimes past: November 15 | 16 | 17 | 18-19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23


Full Gainer
Chris Kaman
Lisa Blumenfeld/NBAE via Getty Images
Chris Kaman, good to see you playing bigger lately. That's better, for a newly minted $53 million man, than playing the heavy.


One-On-One ... To Five

Five questions with Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas: (Editor's note: I know we did a Q & A with Gilbert about a month ago, but I normally don't run into him twice in such a short span. So I couldn't resist.)

Q: Every year, we hear talk out of DC about the Wizards finally improving their defense. But is that a reasonable expectation for this group of players?

A: We have to. We're a high-scoring team and most high-scoring teams don't play defense. But if we want to get to that next level, we have to. But we can't look for outside help. We don't have a Ben Wallace or a Bruce Bowen. We have to play with who we have.

Q: From afar, it looks like the Wiz can't win these days unless you score 40.

A: I don't want to score 40 a game. That's not a goal of mine. I'm not trying to lead the league in scoring. I need to get my teammates involved. I need Antawn [Jamison] hitting shots. Like I told him today: "We need your shooting. Personally I need your shooting because the more you're hitting, the less they're worrying about me." With Caron [Butler], same thing.

Q: Are you consistently getting teammates involved? Rate your individual play so far.

A: Up and down. I could definitely be playing better on the road. At home, I'm comfortable. … On the road, I realize what I'm doing. I'm [too concerned with] going inside. I just want to go, go, go -- trying to get to the free-throw line and get [opposing defenders] in foul trouble. But I'm not playing the all-around game that I do at home.

Q: Rate those new gold uniforms.

A: I like them better than the blue [road uniforms]. But I really want to bring black the red, white and blue. I don't want the [old] Bullets name; I just want to go back to [the Bullets'] red, white and blue. I talked to [management] about it and they said it takes two years [to make that kind of uniform change]. Hopefully we will.

Q: The last time we spoke, you said you thought the Wiz were about a year and a half away from challenging for the East title. But you guys haven't won a road game yet. How concerned are you with this start?

A: With this team, I'm never worried. I've been with this group for three years now and we've been through worse times. Last year, what did we start, 7-14?

(Editor's note II: It was actually 9-14 and 12-18, but you get his point.)



Eastern Conference
Remember last season when we virtually couldn't go a day without hearing about the brutal Southwest Division and how unjust it was that San Antonio or Dallas would have to meet in the second round of the playoffs?

And now that the NBA has fixed the seeding system so the top two teams in each conference can't meet before the conference finals, remember how this season's obsession was supposed to be the loaded Central Division?

Looks like we'll be tracking a different story instead. The story of what threatens to be the worst East ever, unless things pick up quickly and drastically.

A whopping three Eastern Conference teams awoke Friday with winning records. A fourth, Indiana, was 6-6. Everyone else was sub-.500, making it tough to identify the biggest disappointment so far.

The Bulls' inability to win a single road game after thrashing Miami on opening night? The Heat's apparent intent to validate John Hollinger's suggestion of a plummet into the lottery without Shaquille O'Neal? The Nets' 0-4 record against Seattle and Portland?

One more observation from Washington's Gilbert Arenas that didn't make our One on One segment: "I look around and see a lot of teams with records like ours."

Yes you do, unfortunately. And, yes, it's early, so firm declarations about what this East is really capable of -- good or bad -- are premature.

But if you're wondering why your favorite team seems to be playing with a lack of urgency, now you have a theory. Arenas himself conceded that Washington's inclusion on the list of early disappointments doesn't have him panicking in part because the competition doesn't exactly punish slow starters.

"When you're in the Eastern Conference," Arenas said, "sometimes you have a little leverage."



It was assumed for months that the Bobcats would fall well short of the minimum salary each team must spend this season: $39.88 million.

Turns out Charlotte's payroll is only about $1.7 million short of that figure, meaning that the Bobcats won't be forced to make a significant free-agent signing or take on an extra contract before the Feb. 22 trading deadline as anticipated.

League rules state that the Bobs, if they don't reach the minimum payroll, have to pay the difference to the league, which would then redistribute that sum among the players on the Charlotte roster.

If the cap and roster variables don't change between now and June 30, that would compute to a payment of nearly $115,000 for each of the 15 players Charlotte is carrying.


Unsightly numbers, unfortunately, are not restricted to the East standings.

Have you seen some of the free-throw percentages out there?

Have you noticed how many guys who play regularly are shooting under 50 percent from the line entering the weekend, with the season's second month fast approaching?

Most of them reside in the East, too. Charlotte's Emeka Okafor (.476, 36-for-74), Washington's Etan Thomas (.467, 14-for-30), Orlando's Darko Milicic (.452, 14-for-31), Washington's Brendan Haywood (.375, 12 for 32), Miami's Antoine Walker (.345, 10-for-29) and Boston's Kendrick Perkins (.294, 5-for-17) join the two big names you expect on the list: Miami's Shaquille O'Neal (.444, 8-for-18) and Chicago's Ben Wallace (.450, 18-for-40).

Some of the more prominent offenders in the West include Dallas' Erick Dampier (.452, 14-for-31), Kwame Brown (.368, 7-for-19) of the Lakers and New Orleans' Tyson Chandler (.345, 10-for-29).




Pulling His Weight
Deron Williams
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images
Utah guard Deron Williams, getting a hand from teammates, has bowled over many opponents with his improved play.





Western Conference

I've always regarded J.R. Smith as a shooting guard who can't really shoot. But that's not why the Bulls never considered keeping Smith after acquiring the 21-year-old as part of their Tyson Chandler-for-P.J. Brown swap with the Hornets.

They viewed him like they viewed Tim Thomas last season.

Despite a paucity of dependable scorers of any kind, Chicago didn't want Thomas around its young players last season and essentially exiled him from the team. The Bulls finally waived Thomas in March after attempts to trade him failed, only for Thomas to join Phoenix and contribute heavily to a group that reached the Western Conference finals.

A similar scenario played out in July, after Smith was included in the Chandler trade purely for salary-cap reasons. The Bulls already had Andres Nocioni, Ben Gordon and Luol Deng at the swing positions, an incoming rookie (Thabo Sefolosha) they loved … and a coach, Scott Skiles, who couldn't have been too impressed with Smith's inability to coexist with Byron Scott or Smith's oft-questioned work ethic.

So the Bulls rerouted him to Denver almost immediately for a couple future second-round picks, only for Smith to join the Nuggets and, without warning, start draining 3s. Smith riddled the Bulls for 36 points Tuesday night in Denver's 113-109 victory and will be thrown in the Bulls' face way more than Thomas was if he can sustain his current production: 16.1 ppg and 37.7-percent shooting from behind the line.

Not that the Nuggets are gloating. They like Smith's competitive streak and have found him to possess more range as a shooter than I ever gave him credit for, but they've made it clear that they still see him as a long-term project. Nuggets coach George Karl, in fact, has been very public in his attempts to temper expectations and chastise Smith for his wandering focus, hoping to keep the kid grounded.


Unforseen controversy in Salt Lake City:

Who gets Western Conference player of the month?

Carlos Boozer? Or Deron Williams?

Or do they split it, Stockton-to-Malone style, like the All-Star Game MVP award in 1993?


You missed a big one Wednesday in San Antonio.

I missed it more than anyone.

The lone disappointment of my Thanksgiving week was my inability to get to the Alamo City for a monster double bill: UT-San Antonio hosting Cal State Fullerton at lunchtime in the Bowen Bowl … followed by Bowen vs. Dwyane Wade in Heat at Spurs on Wednesday night.

The opening act was actually a nonconference basketball game, but highly significant -- at least in the Stein Line universe -- because of Bowen's ties to both schools. With two championship rings, Bowen ranks as Fullerton's most successful NBA export. But Bowen also completed his college coursework at UTSA while playing for the Spurs, making him a member of Fullerton's 2006 graduating class in May with a degree in public relations.

Fullerton's players received an inspirational lecture from Bowen on the eve of their 67-63 comeback victory over UTSA -- with three starters suspended, I should add -- and were then invited to watch Spurs-Heat.




Chatter Box

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

"They could make their lives a lot easier if Isiah changed his offense. He's running kind of a motion-style offense like he used in Indiana. The Knicks should be running pick-and-roll about 40 times a game. Francis and Frye. Then Marbury and Curry. Then Crawford and Lee. Then Francis and Lee. Every combination possible. They should pick-and-roll teams to death.

"They should play up-tempo, like everyone thought the Knicks would [coming into the season], but within that offense they need a lot of pick-and-roll. Marbury, Francis, Crawford and Robinson are all pick-and-roll players. Which is another problem; they're all the same.

"I'm not sure what their offense gives them now. It definitely doesn't put Francis in situations to attack on the pick-and-roll, where he is really good. And Marbury has no fire right now. He hasn't changed or improved his game in ages. Those two haven't convinced me that they're fighters, that they want to be part of the solution.

"But Marbury and Francis are only part of the problem. I thought the Knicks would be better, too, but they don't look very motivated to me. They don't do anything to make the opposition worry."




Film Session

On Friday's NBA Shootaround, ESPN.com's Marc Stein joined 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 covered Isiah Thomas' latest request for Stephon Marbury in New York, why Chicago isn't pushing the panic button just yet and the significance of Golden State's Baron Davis playing hurt Wednesday against Denver.

What's Durant's Deal




Marc's Quote

Dirk Nowitzki

"What is venom? I've only been here eight years, guys."

Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, reminding his audience that there are still few English words he hasn't been exposed to yet.

Nowitzki was asked to respond to coach Avery Johnson's recent assertion that bad blood between the Mavs and San Antonio Spurs is "great" because you don't get venom "if there aren't two good teams."




Question Marc
LeBron James

From the Stein Line e-mailbag:

John (Cleveland): Are you getting a bonus for ripping LeBron and/or Cleveland? I would love to see you two get thisclose to each other.

Stein: Sorry to disappoint, but there would be zero fireworks. I'm quite sure LeBron would agree with my contention that a player with his immense gifts should be a better free-throw shooter, especially late in games.

I'm also quite sure he'd agree that the Cavs absolutely, positively let themselves down after the big win in San Antonio by losing their next two games to the Bobcats and Hawks when they could have been uncorking an 8-0 start. Believing those things doesn't constitute "ripping LeBron." I see it as LeBron conditioning us to expect more because of everything he's already achieved.



 

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