Updated: Dec. 29, 2006, 11:43 AM ET

SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION Life without The Answer still

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

It was a fun fantasy, hearing Phil Jackson and Pat Riley reveal an interest in Allen Iverson and and instantly wondering whether Iverson could actually be teamed up with Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade in time for the Christmas Day game.

But that's all it was. Reality tells us that the Lakers or Heat weren't the most serious suitors in the Iverson Sweepstakes.

It'll be a more constructive exercise to look at the three teams, besides Denver, who chased the game's fastest player hardest ... and what happens now that they didn't catch him.


BOSTON CELTICS

The fresh news that Paul Pierce will miss at least two weeks with a foot injury, which obviously opens up some shots in the short term, doesn't change my mind.

I still say Boston was quite fortunate that Al Jefferson suddenly gained inspiration from the Iverson trade speculation and played better than ever in response, convincing the Celtics to make him more off-limits in trade talks with the Sixers than Jefferson already was.

Even though Danny Ainge had been pursuing Iverson since the draft -- with Pierce excited by the idea and Boston initially on the list of teams Iverson green-lighted as a possible destination -- I don't like the two of them together as much as the thought of an A.I.-Melo partnership.

Anthony can play power forward in today's small-ball friendly NBA, which gives the pairing with Iverson more of a big/little look. Denver's up-tempo offense, with the extra possessions it creates, also increases the likelihood that there will be enough shots to go around.

Jefferson and Gerald Green still aren't sure things by any stretch, but the Celts still have a decent cadre of young assets and future draft picks to be involved in any major trade auction. They can target someone who fits better. Or they can always bring Pierce and Wally Szczerbiak back slowly from injury and (don't say this too loudly) see if their first-round pick does better in the lottery than Philly's.


LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

Iverson made more business sense for the Clippers than basketball sense ... or so it seemed.

As the Clips' malaise deepens, you start to wonder if they'll come to regret their decision to make Shaun Livingston more untouchable than any young cornerstone Philadelphia pursued in this process.

I, too, thought for a while that Iverson couldn't give the Clips much more than a box-office, team-shop icon to rival local darling Kobe Bryant, but it's getting tougher to identify what chemistry or momentum Iverson would have threatened.

While L.A. still has the very available Corey Maggette to trade for the shooter they so desperately need to open things for Brand and Chris Kaman -- and even though they've played fewer games against the East (four) than anyone in the West -- none of that guarantees better energy or explains the suspect motivation from the first group in franchise history to be compensated handsomely by owner Donald Sterling.

I'm quite sure Sterling didn't consent to contract extensions for Kaman and coach Mike Dunleavy with the idea that missing the playoffs is acceptable ... and I can only imagine what happens to the checkbook if that's the result when Sterling finally spends.


MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

No team (or fan base) out there was hit harder by this deal than the Wolves. For a couple of reasons.

No. 1: Kevin Garnett badly wanted his bosses to trade for Iverson, which undoubtedly would have (A) rejuvenated him like nothing else could, (B) finally hushed years of KG trade speculation, and (C) made the most basketball sense of any proposed new home for A.I. because Garnett's and Iverson's games mesh so nicely. But Wolves management -- even with the youngster Philly wanted most: Villanova-reared guard Randy Foye -- didn't have enough to trump the deal offered by a division rival.

No. 2: Joe Smith's expiring contract and the salary-cap relief it provided Philly was really the clincher in Denver's favor. The same Joe Smith whose under-the-table contract from the Wolves in 1999 has already cost this franchise so much.

The toughest part, perhaps, is that the Wolves apparently felt as though they were in the running until the very end. By my math, they were still at least one Smith-sized expiring contract away ... and that's assuming Philly would have eventually accepted Ricky Davis, whose contract runs a year shorter than Andre Miller's. Yet you could argue that a package built around the promise of Foye and even a future second-round pick or two offers a greater amount of overall upside to the Sixers than two late first-round picks from Denver and two players (Smith and Miller) who don't appear to be in the club's long-term plans.

Now, though, it's time to look forward. Will this whole episode inch KG closer to making the A.I.-style push for a new address that he's always resisted? Will Foye now feel a weighty sense of expectation in Minnesota, staying at KG's side, similar to what he would have shouldered in Philly as A.I.'s successor? Or my favorite uncertainty: Will the Wolves and KG wait it out for a while to see if Iverson and Anthony actually click?

To see if they get a sooner-than-expected second crack at The Answer.

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

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Minny Meltdown?
Kevin Garnett
Gary Dineen/Getty Images
The search for The Answer continues for Kevin Garnett ...


Eastern Conference

They were never going to get a home-run deal, obviously. And they did get more for Allen Iverson than the franchise got back for Charles Barkley in 1992.

However ...

On this scorecard, Philly rushed it ... unless they move Andre Miller before next season.

The Sixers didn't heed repeated warnings, here and elsewhere, about shipping Iverson out before the season started, after Iverson was openly shopped in June and July and then predictably miserable by December after returning to a virtually unchanged team. Yet after hanging onto him for so long, I still believe Philly should have held out now for nothing but expiring contracts to go with the two late first-round picks they got from Denver.

That would have meant keeping Iverson in exile longer than 11 days, but Philly had every right if Iverson indeed demanded a trade. It also would have required a third team to facilitate such a deal by providing the extra expiring contract, as you've surely read dozens of times, but I don't think the Nuggets (or Minnesota) would have stopped trying to find one.

It would have happened soon enough.

In the Sixers' defense, I never bought the theory that they killed Iverson's value by banishing him to the inactive list. If anything hurt Iverson's value, it was not moving him a year or two ago. Letting the world know that his Philly career was over now, as opposed to trying to quietly broker a trade while Iverson played on, was indeed the right play, turning this into a leaguewide auction that eventually got teams bidding against each other and prompted the Nuggets to part with Miller.

(Which is something Denver didn't want to do. The Nuggets hoped to keep Miller as their rich man's Eric Snow, expensive as that would have been, to act as a distributor between Iverson and Carmelo Anthony and help divvy up the shots.)

It's just that the Sixers don't really need Miller in their starting-over state. His contract -- with nearly $20 million remaining, through 2008-09, after this season -- offers no real salary-cap relief and, in a worst-case scenario, his presence (along with Joe Smith) just might make the Sixers competitive enough for their own first-round pick to fall out of the top three.

Three conclusions, then:

1. If the Sixers can find a new home for Miller before next season in a trade that nets a good draft pick, perhaps, or further financial relief, this deal starts to look better for them.

2. If no Miller deal materializes -- and if the Sixers were going to wind up dealing with the Nuggets anyway -- they obviously should have taken the deal Denver offered in February at All-Star time. Philly would have received the same two first-round draft picks and nothing but expiring contracts. Included in that package was Nene, who was sidelined at time ... but also entering free agency. It then would have been the Sixers' choice to either sign Nene or keep him.

3. If you're a Sixers fan who wants to feel better about this while waiting out the ifs, compare this trade to 1992's blockbuster: Barkley for Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang. That has to help.


Did you read professor Hollinger's provocative piece about the Iverson-Carmelo Anthony tandem and why it'll work better than, say, teaming up Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis in New York?

The Nuggets can only hope.

Marbury and Francis -- totally agree with Hollinger's belief that they're too similar, compared to A.I. and Melo -- have played 43 games together in Knicks colors. But both have scored more than 10 points in the same game just 14 times.


Oh, yeah: Gilbert Arenas had a 60-point game Sunday night.

In Kobe Bryant's building.

One night after the Madison Square Garden brawl and a day and a half before the Iverson Era officially ended in Philly.

Arenas' timing, in other words, could have been better.

But his follow-up, amazingly, could have been worse.

If you found it strange that Arenas, one night later, managed only 23 points -- with zero free-throw attempts -- in a loss at Denver in the first game of Carmelo Anthony's 15-game suspension, wait until you hear how the last guy in this sort of situation fared.

Before Arenas, Chicago's Michael Jordan was the last NBA player to score 60 points in a game and play the following night. In the final two games of the 1986-87 season, Jordan scored 61 points in a home loss to Atlanta on April 16, 1987 ... then came back with a mortal 17 points in a 108-105 loss at Boston in the season finale.



One-On-One ... To Five
Chauncey Billups

Five questions with Pistons guard Chauncey Billups:

Q: Almost a third into the season, how close are the Pistons to where you think you should be at this point?

A: No, no, no. We're a long ways away, man. We're getting better. But we just ... already this season, too many mental breakdowns.

Q: Is that what happened [earlier this month] when you lost back-to-back games to the Bobcats and Blazers?

A: That's a lack of mental focus. I was looking at us like, man, we're going to [have a 10-game winning streak] by the time we play the Mavericks. We went into those games a little overconfident.

Q: When I saw Ben Wallace recently, he told me that you guys still talk on the phone frequently. Why isn't that a little awkward now that you're on rival teams from the same division?

A: Friends first, man. Friends before anything. He's playing well, better now, but I [still] talk to him all the time. I miss him dearly and I know he feels the same.

Q: How do you respond to the perception that the Pistons have dropped a notch or two without him?

A: I don't agree, but we're going to have to prove it.

Q: You're going to be one of the marquee free agents next summer. Can we talk about that for a minute?

A: Why? I really don't even talk about it [with the media] because there's nothing I can do about it right now.




Sign Of The Times

Ron Hoskins/Getty Images
Fans across NBA Nation (including these in Indiana) were hoping to land Allen Iverson this holiday season. Maybe next year ...


Western Conference

It's true: I implored the Kings to pass on trading for Ron Artest and now I'm saluting Denver, one year later, for gambling on Allen Iverson.

The difference?

The difference is that Iverson will still have trade value in a year, even at a salary nearly three times richer than Artest's, if the Nuggets conclude that there isn't enough room in the same offense for A.I. and Carmelo Anthony. Someone else, if necessary, will take a chance on Iverson, who offers at least three attractive commodities to any interested team -- dynamic scoring, box-office appeal and unquestioned effort -- no matter what you think of him.

Artest? I submitted then and repeat today that he'll be a lot harder for the Kings to move on -- for anything good -- if he backslides to the levels of unreliability he showed us in Chicago and Indiana.

Which is what we might be starting to see in Sacramento, where Artest pulled himself out of the Kings' TNT game Thursday with Washington just minutes before tip-off, stunning teammates and coach Eric Musselman by complaining of sore knees despite participating in the morning shootaround and pregame warm-ups.

It's not the first signal, either, that this isn't the same Artest who sparked the Kings' second-half resurgence last season after joining them in late January. There are recent reports, from multiple sources, of Artest sitting out a shootaround or two and then suddenly making himself available for that night's game, subbing himself in and out games and generally ignoring Musselman.

Artest has also complained publicly about the Kings' offense and defense, missed games with a mysterious back problem and frequently displayed questionable shot selection.

He likewise looks decidedly less than cozy next to Mike Bibby, with both shooting below 40 percent from the field and Whose Team Is It? questions, as predicted, coming up regularly.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope this stuff is not as ominous as it looks, because I'm an Artest fan. He's not quite an entertainer in Iverson's class, but when Artest is at his best, you want to watch him play, too.

But if things don't get better soon -- if Musselman can't assert more authority and if Artest and Bibby don't find some harmony -- the most compelling show in Sacramento might be watching how they go about fixing all this.


Yao Ming

It was roughly a month ago that we reveled in the some of the overt signs that Yao Ming believes in himself as a franchise player more than ever.

The evidence then: Yao's willingness to joke and bang and make you believe, through his body language, that he's no longer awed by Shaquille O'Neal, all of which came through on the night he rung up 34 points and 14 rebounds against Shaq and Alonzo Mourning in Miami.

The latest evidence: Yao's very Americanized reactions to a couple of big baskets in a recent road win over the Clippers.

Which was your favorite? Mine was Yao pounding his heart with his right fist after an and-one bucket ... but there's also a popular video clip circulating online that shows Yao celebrating a crucial late turnaround jumper by bellowing: "You can't [expletive] stop me."

Count them as two more examples of things we didn't see from Yao in his first few seasons.


The Lakers, with Phil Jackson, weren't the only Pacific Division residents to nominate one of their own this week for Hall of Fame consideration.

Golden State has taken the same step with personnel chief Chris Mullin, with what might be one of the most impressive nomination presentations ever seen.

As a player, Mullin was a five-time All-Star, a two-time gold medalist with Team USA (1984 and 1992's original Dream Team) and had big college success at St. John's as a three-time Big East player of the year and Wooden Award winner. You don't have to be a lefty devotee like me to like his chances.

But Mully fans out there will like them even more when I tell you that the Warriors' irrepressible PR man, Raymond Ridder, has prepared a 96-page scrapbook for Hall voters that covers the lefty's whole playing career, from high school through his retirement after the 2000-01 season. It's actually too slick to be a mere scrapbook and presents a rather convincing case.

The Hall will announce its 24 finalists for the Class of 2007, from all walks of basketball life, during NBA All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas, with the newest inductees to be revealed during the college Final Four in Atlanta.



Chatter Box

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

"I've seen them a few times lately and they've been sluggish every time. So casual. And I think it's starting to affect them defensively.

"Their team defensive numbers are still good, but the thing I liked about the Cavs last year is how Mike Brown really had them getting up into people. They played with some real defensive intensity. You don't see that much now.

"Their offensive problems are harder to fix. LeBron has the ball in his hands all the time, but that's going to happen because of their personnel -- they're still looking for someone who can let LeBron be a finisher instead of the initiator.

"The bigger problem, to me, is their effort. In some of these games against [lesser] teams, it looked like they didn't really care."



Blog Excerpt
It's one of the readers' favorites and we do it every week: Trot out five (or so) responses to the latest edition of my NBA Power Rankings to make sure you have your say.

Straight from the rankings mailbag:

Ari (Washington, D.C.): Why do I continue to read -- and care about -- these Power Rankings? There is clearly no rhyme or reason to your system. The Lakers are worse than the Bulls? They have a better record and are in the far superior conference. Huh?

Committee's counter: Two responses, Ari. No. 1: The Odom injury was a significant blow that factored into L.A.'s ranking a bit like Melo's suspension factored into Denver's. No. 2: You're addicted, that's why. You can't stop even if you wanted to.

Read the full Marc Stein blog Insider



Marc's Quote
George Karl

"Great teams don't take bad shots."

Nuggets coach George Karl, sharing one element of his offensive philosophy earlier this month, days before he knew that Denver would be acquiring Allen Iverson.

It's a message he often preaches to the likes of Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith and now Iverson is bound to start hearing it regularly.



Question Marc
From the Stein Line e-mailbag:


Jeff (Cleveland): Is there going to be some sort of notation in the league's record books that this season was played using two different kind of basketballs?

Stein: One of the questions of the year so far, Jeff.

Thinking ahead. We like it.

The answer?

There apparently won't be any asterisks involved when historians record the final stats from the 2006-07 season. It's a subject, I'm told, that really hasn't even been brought up yet, but as one league official so helpfully reminded me, no one has formally suggested a need for anything special because it's not like they've used a football or volleyball for the first two months of the regular season.

I nonetheless can't wait to see what happens next week, when teams try to figure out how to start working the old leather ball into their practice routines -- while still playing games with the new synthetic ball -- in advance of the abrupt switch on Jan. 1.

I'm also curious to see how much protest we'll hear after Jan. 1 from the players who like the new ball and will miss it.

And who knows? If there are huge statistical disparities in field-goal percentage, turnovers or any other major categories after the switch, maybe your question will have to be re-posed to the league. At this point, though, there's no need.



 

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