Updated: Dec. 4, 2006, 4:57 PM ET

SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION There's good news in Atlantic

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 know that we and countless others like to call it the Titanic Division.

You probably know that winning percentages in the Titanic, until the Nets beat the Celtics on Wednesday night to reach the mythical .400 Club, looked like a five-year sample of batting averages for Tony Gwynn.

But did you know that this quintet of drowning stragglers has already made league history?

Sad but true. Never before has a division leader entered December with a winning percentage as low as New Jersey's. The previous low was .435: Baltimore with a 10-13 mark on Nov. 30, 1971.

So ...

David Stern gets the question at every All-Star Game and every Finals, but we couldn't wait. We had to ask now, with the division of doom in mind: How concerned are you about a gulf between East and West that appears to be widening as opposed to narrowing?

The Commisioner's response: "Not."

As in "not concerned."

Asked to expound, Stern's answer was similarly brief: "Because."

Translation: It seems that the league office won't be budging from its belief that A) it's too early for conclusive judgments; and the oft-recited B) that these matters are cyclical, as one could reasonably conclude from seeing East teams win two of the past three championships after a five-ring run by the West following Michael Jordan's retirement in 1998.

Besides …

For all his considerable power, I don't know that there's a lot Stern can do about the divide between the conferences, unless he starts telling teams who to draft or hire. Apart from the fact that the West has a much longer list of top-flight coaches -- Gregg Popovich, Jerry Sloan, Don Nelson and the nine-ringed Phil Jackson are all-timers, with Mike D'Antoni and Avery Johnson on their way and proven vets like Jeff Van Gundy, Byron Scott, Mike Fratello, Mike Dunleavy and George Karl in the mix as well -- there's also no obvious trouble spot to target to help the East lose its Least rep.

This isn't like the old days (meaning earlier this decade) when the West had a monopoly on all the good bigs. Shaquille O'Neal and Rasheed Wallace have since moved East. Orlando landed Dwight Howard, Indiana still has Jermaine O'Neal and Toronto scored Chris Bosh. Don't forget, furthermore, that three of the top four players from one of the most celebrated draft classes of all time -- Bosh and 2003 fellow draftees LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- ended up in the East.

The Atlantic's inadequacies are exacerbated by the reality that, unfortunately, it's home to two of the most messed-up organizations/rosters in the league -- New York and Philadelphia -- and a third (Toronto) that has only just begun to hoist itself out of a deep abyss of mismanagement since hiring Bryan Colangelo in February. The Knicks' embarrassing spiral is doubly damaging to the East as a whole because their willingness to take on Stephon Marbury's contract enabled Phoenix to sign Steve Nash, creating another West resident capable of winning it all.

(Atlanta, of course, is another example of a franchise that didn't help itself when it had chances, passing on Chris Paul and trading Pau Gasol after drafting the Spaniard.)

Coaches and front offices? Have we solved the riddle? It's not that easy, because you still see plenty of good players in the East -- and a sufficient number of bright minds -- capable of giving us more than four teams over .500 when we look at the standings on Dec. 1.

There are several well-regarded executives in the weaker conference -- Donnie Walsh, Rod Thorn and Pat Riley from the old guard, younger aces like Joe Dumars and Colangelo and under-the-radar GMs in Milwaukee (Larry Harris) or Orlando (Otis Smith) -- but the Bucks' Michael Redd is a rare late-in-the-draft East nugget. This season alone in the West, Golden State's Monta Ellis can't get as much Cinderella-story spotlight as he deserves because Kevin Martin is hogging it in nearby Sacramento.

You can't discount bad luck as a factor, either, like it or not. How does San Antonio, in the only two trips to the lottery in franchise history, come away with David Robinson and Tim Duncan? How does Dallas find a sucker as gullible as the old Milwaukee regime that green-lighted the Robert "Tractor" Traylor-for-Dirk Nowitzki trade? Boston has made its share of questionable decisions in the past decade, but you likewise can't forget that the Celts were tantalizing close to Duncan and Nowitzki in successive drafts and landed neither. .

Ouch.

The good news?

I'd prefer to see the NBA guarantee division winners nothing more than a playoff spot, as opposed to the top-four seed that awaits whoever wins the Titanic. But the change from last season's flawed format, in which the worst division champ could be seeded no lower than No. 3, means that no one in the East will be tanking to get the No. 6 seed. This season's Titanic champ, if current form holds, will be seeded fourth ... and without home-court advantage in the first round unless it has the better record. The No. 5 seed, then, has never been more enticing.

It should also be noted that the Nets have started horrifically for four seasons running and haven't finished worse than 42-40 in 2004-05, when Jason Kidd missed the beginning of that season after undergoing microfracture surgery. You'd like to think New Jersey, with a mostly unchanged team and a "conference in transition" as Detroit's Dumars recently described it to The New York Times, are going to finish closer to last season's 49-33 than somewhere sub-.500.

You'd really, really like to.

"The Atlantic ... it's the same thing every year," Bosh told me the other day, confessing that he only looks at the standings "about once a week."

"We're only five games under .500, so we really can't get down on ourselves. It's up for grabs, pretty much."

You see? Something else you didn't know: There is something pretty about the Titanic.

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

• Dimes past: November 25-26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | December 1


Magic Not So Tragic
Magic
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
It's not all bad news in the East. Just check out the Magic, who could be making history of the good kind. (See Box 4.)


One-On-One ... To Five

A conversation with Hornets guard Chris Paul:

Stein: Projections for this team are mixed. Some folks, like me, see you as a playoff team. Others say this team is still too young to crack the top eight in the West. What do you see as reasonable expectations?

Paul: It's funny because you start off 4-0 and you hear everyone raving about you. Then you lose three in a row, then you win four in a row and then you lose three in a row again. A lot of eyes are on us because we made some great additions, but right now we've just got to hold down the fort 'til our team gets back healthy. I wish you could see us when we're full force. When we have everyone out there, we're tough. You can't concentrate on one person. But we're probably missing our two best players right now in David West and Peja Stojakovic.

Stein: You're not bad, either.

Paul: Thanks.

Stein: I know you've only been here for a year-plus, so I don't know how much you know about Hornets history ...

Paul: I'm from North Carolina. I was following them in Charlotte.

Stein: So you know the Hornets aren't exactly known for spending money. How much better do you feel about your future with this organization after they signed Peja and traded for Tyson Chandler?

Paul: It makes me feel very good. You have to give a lot of credit to our front office -- they said they want to get better immediately. I think we went out there and got the best players money can buy. D-West signed a new deal, Tyson is locked in. I think it's going to be a special thing for the next few years.

Stein: Is Deron Williams catching up to you in Utah?

Paul: Catching up to me? I've got to catch up to him. They started 11-1, 12-1. I don't think he's trying to catch me.



Eastern Conference

There could be an interesting trend developing with contracts, judging by a couple of extensions signed last month by rising stars from the 2003 draft class.

The latest example is Chicago's Kirk Hinrich, who joined New Orleans/Oklahoma City's David West by accepting a deal that starts at a salary considerably higher than the salary in the final year of the contract. NBA contracts have historically ascended in value.

New contract figures obtained from Hinrich's recent five-year, $47.5 million extension show the drop to be $3 million, from a high of $11 million next season to $8 million in the 2011-12 season. In West's case, his extension peaks at $10.7 million next season and dips to $7.5 million in 2011-12.

We've seen contracts that descend in value before -- Ben Wallace's new deal with the Bulls pays him $16 million, $15.5 million, $14.5 million and $14 million -- but never so drastically between the first year and the last.

Now to see if the fad spreads, which is no given. Not when descending contracts appear to favor teams more than players, since teams always want to pay players less as they get older ... and because players are generally more tradeable at lower salaries. Teams also save some money using this formula because such contracts avoid the maximum (but commonplace) annual increases of 10 percent for star players. Those increases can get pretty expensive, especially if they exceed annual revenue growth for teams and the league at large.

How, then, do teams sell the players on a descending deal? The obvious appeal is getting more money up front, which gives players the chance to spend or invest it earlier.

But the real reason we saw it twice in October, according to one prominent player agent, might be that teams generally had more leverage than members of the '03 draft class not named LeBron, Dwyane and 'Melo ... and Chris Bosh, too. Free-agent money is projected to be tight against next summer, with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban already on record predicting "a nuclear winter for free agents" in July.

The deals received by Hinrich and West, to spare themselves from exposure to anything nuclear, were completed just before the Oct. 31 buzzer for contract extension. Which suggests those deals wouldn't have been done if the players didn't accept the descending structure.

For a veteran like Wallace, who was undoubtedly signing his last major contract last summer, descending salaries make more sense. Youngsters like Hinrich and West, by contrast, will eventually be seeking extensions on these new contracts. A contract that descends in value annual won't allow them to extend from their highest single-season salary, as has long been standard NBA practice.

A few years from now, then, will they happy be with this arrangement? They'll have long-term security, but players simply aren't used to make less each season in multi-year deal.


When Dwight Howard spoke before the season of Orlando going "all the way," I really don't think that, deep down, he meant championship all the way.

But that is what he said and here his Magic are, leading the East after a month.

Can it continue?

More importantly: Does Howard have a Namath-esque bravado streak nobody knew about?

That's not how I'd bet, on either front, but Orlando's 12-4 start does give me the opportunity to share this list of NBA teams to win a championship after winning less than 40 games in the previous season.

Season Team Record as champs Year before
1975-76 Portland Trail Blazers 49-33 37-45
1956-57 St. Louis Hawks 41-31 34-38
1955-56 Boston Celtics 44-28 39-33
1954-55 Philadelphia Warriors 45-27 33-39

The Magic, a 36-46 team last season and excluded from the playoffs since 2003, would be the fifth.



Interesting rumblings out of Miami suggest that Shaquille O'Neal's knee injury -- a flap tear of the articular cartilage in his left knee -- was sufficiently severe to raise the possibility of the dreaded M word ... microfracture surgery.

The problem, of course, is that O'Neal turns 35 in March. A surgical procedure that will end up taking Amare Stoudemire, at 24, more than a year to rebound from would naturally be a lot longer and tougher for someone Shaq's age.

So it appears that the Heat chose a short-term fix, with a procedure aimed at getting Shaq back on the floor in four-to-six weeks. Although you naturally have to wonder what sort of Shaq we'll see when he does get back, and whether this injury will accelerate his decline, it's a tough sell to say Miami and O'Neal would be better off going the microfracture route ... with no guarantee he'd be any better off after a longer time away.

A similar situation, albeit with a different appendage, is playing out in Indiana. Point guard Darrell Armstrong, a new spark for the Pacers at 38, needs rotator-cuff surgery, but the severity (and recovery time) attached to a shoulder operation would likely end his career. So Armstrong plays on, grinding through the pain and hoping to complete at least one more full season before moving into coaching.




Long-Faced Divison
Vince Carter
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
From Toronto to New Jersey, Vince Carter has experienced first-hand the many ups and downs of the Atlantic.


Western Conference

Second-best center in the West?

One month into the season, it's a pretty wild conversation.

You'd have to favor Denver's Marcus Camby at this point.

You'd likewise be wise to pay attention to that Amare Stoudemire kid in Phoenix, although the league's most famous microfracture patient is starting to show signs that his recovery just might put him back in contention someday for far bigger accolades than this one. (Anyone else notice that Amare's critics have suddenly gotten awfully quiet?)

However ...

Two names that have to be included -- names that wouldn't have been nominated by their own families when the season began -- are Golden State's Andris Biedrins and Dallas' Erick Dampier.

Biedrins has hyperbolic Warriors coach Don Nelson comparing the Latvian to Dave Cowens and calling Biedrins his best center since Bob Lanier ... and Biedrins' amazing start actually justifies some of that hype. His truly horrific free-throw stroke is an affront to lefties everywhere, but everything else looks great, with the energetic 20-year-old averaging 11.1 points and 9.8 rebounds, shooting 65.2 percent from the floor and impressing countless observers with his eye for passing and ability to catch all kinds of passes.

The best part? Biedrins wouldn't even be playing if Mike Montgomery were still coaching the Warriors. Team insiders note, furthermore, that Biedrins was always restricted to low-block duty on the rare occasions Montgomery did try him. Under Nelson, not surprisingly, Biedrins has been converted to a high-post center whose quickness and agility allow him to speed past bigger defenders and get to the rim.

Dampier regressed to the point last season that coaches and teammates stopped expecting anything from him. An improving DeSagana Diop was presumed to be this season's starter. But Dampier quietly worked out in August and September as hard as any Mav -- even running sprints with little guards, on occasion -- and just completed his best month since signing his regularly slammed seven-year, $73 million deal.

Even as the league's field-goal percentage leader (.690), and with seven double-doubles already compared to just four last season, Dampier will have to do this for more than a month to hush the skeptics and win back frustrated fans. History, furthermore, says he can't (or won't) keep this up. But Dampier really hasn't gotten enough credit for the offensive rebounding and shot-blocking he's supplied Dallas during its 11-game win streak, especially since no one was really expecting dramatic improvement even after his summer of hard work.



I didn't hear a lot of dialogue about this after the Mavs won in San Antonio last weekend, but I certainly noticed.

Spurs newcomer Francisco Elson, after shadowing Dirk Nowitzki so impressively in the season opener, barely went near Nowitzki in the Nov. 24 rematch.

My theory?

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich liked what he saw from Elson on Nov. 2 ... length, athleticism and activity that A) Nowitzki isn't accustomed to seeing from San Antonio's defense and B) enabled Bruce Bowen to focus on Josh Howard while helping Tim Duncan stay out of foul trouble.

Fabricio Oberto did a fair job against Nowitzki in the teams' second meeting, but I suspect Popovich simply prefers now to expose Nowitzki to Elson as little as possible before the playoffs and save that wrinkle for the seemingly inevitable Mavs-Spurs series in May or June.


You probably heard the vow earlier this week from Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley, after a flurry of Pau Gasol trade rumors, that there's "no damn way" Pau is headed elsewhere.

Something else interesting out of Memphis that you probably haven't heard: Grizz president Jerry West, before Heisley's proclamation, apparently addressed Memphis' players to tell them that the recent speculation about coach Mike Fratello's imminent dismissal was unfounded and should be ignored.

Yet you better stay tuned away. If the proposed sale of the team goes through, which would empower former Dukie Brian Davis to make the authoritative statements, everything changes and anything is possible.



Blog Spot

I'm no Hollinger, but occasionally I do crunch some good numbers.

And I'd say this stat -- OK, with an assist from Stein Line special contributor Jack M. -- will get you thinking.

Looking for some evidence that the new ball really is messing with shooting percentages?

Read the full Marc Stein blog Insider



Amped-up Dampier
Erick Dampier
Tim Heitman/Getty Images
During the Mavs' 11-game winning streak, Erick Dampier averaged 10.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.


Marc's Quote

Kevin Garnett

"Absolutely. Why wouldn't I? Why wouldn't I? Why wouldn't I? Absolutely right."

Minnesota's Kevin Garnett, asked if he's convinced that the Wolves are playoff material ... and apparently undaunted by the Wolves' 6-8 start or their back-to-back seasons missing the playoffs in the loaded West.



Question Marc
From the Stein Line e-mailbag:

Mike Levy (Baltimore, MD): First of all, I'm a former player in the Arena Football League and making a team rule about loud music in the locker room or a rule about protecting ankles in practice, I understand. But making a rule about the use of an elastic-and-cotton band designed to keep sweat out of your face is ridiculous.

If it negatively affects play, then I'm all for it. I was the player on my team that was the team spokesman as far as following rules such as curfew, language, etc. But when a coach attempts to enforce a pointless rule, it's seen by his players as not only asinine but also misguided as to what the coach needs to be focusing on.

I don't want a coach taking time away from his planning and teaching to enforce a rule about wearing a headband. Is that what he should be focusing on? How about the fact that the Bulls were 4-9 and can't hit a jump shot? I like your columns, keep them coming. But don't tell a player to shut up and take the rules. Tell a player to shut up and take the rules that make sense for him and the betterment of the team.

Stein: Appreciate your perspective from the trenches, Mike.

I got several e-mails hitting on a similar theme in response to my column Monday, but let's clear something up. I never said that I agree with the rule itself. I'm right there with you. I can't deny that it's silly/rigid/excessive for the Bulls -- as seen with the West-leading Utah Jazz, who are also forbidden from wearing headbands by Jerry Sloan -- to be that strict about what their players can and can't wear.

Should we be asking more questions about the Bulls' motivation for instituting such a policy? Maybe. Will the Bulls change this oppressive rule someday? Probably. They obviously can't do it now, lest they appear to be caving in to an insurbordinate player, but it seems a safe bet they'll be re-assessing this policy in the offseason.

Ben Wallace

That said ...

Ben Wallace made his public protest during the 13th game of the season. He made his public stand after eight exhibition games and a whole training camp before that. That's why he was out of order. If he tried at some stage from July through October to get the rule changed and failed, you can sympathize with Wallace's frustration. But Big Ben let lots of time pass before letting the world know of his frustration, which I found to be a slap in the face of the team structure and his teammates as well as his coach.

Of greater importance, it reinforced my belief -- having spent some time around the Bulls about two weeks prior to Headbandgate -- that Wallace has been a sullen, distant member of the team since joining the Bulls ... more sullen and distant than he ever was as a legendary brooder in Detroit. And that's where the $60 million comes in.

My message wasn't: Lose the headband and like it because you're getting $60 million. My message was: After dealing with these rules for 20-something games, unhappy as they might make you, it's long overdue to see you playing with the signature Ben Wallace joy, energy and fire that made the Bulls want to pay you $60 million.

If you saw the clip of Wallace missing a layup, digging out the rebound, missing another layup, digging out another board and then scoring on a reverse against the Knicks, in the first game after the controversy broke, you know what I'm talking about. It's the first time all season that we've seen the guy Chicago thought it was getting.

Almost makes you think Wallace, who's always looking for a new chip to perch on his shoulder, was trying to get in trouble to get himself going.



 

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