Updated: Jan. 8, 2007, 2:04 AM ET

SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION
Will anybody win the East?

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

Let's suppose, just this once, that there was a miscalculation here.

Let's suppose that this really is the beginning of the end for Shaquille O'Neal ... that Dwyane Wade's wrist injury is more serious than anyone knows ... that Pat Riley really took a leave of absence this week because he no longer wants to coach these guys and was looking for an out before a West Coast road trip buries them for good.

Let's suppose that the Miami Heat have too much drama to sort out between now and mid-April and, despite the recent faith expressed in this formerly scornful cyberspace, won't even make the playoffs.

Then what?

Someone still has to win the East, right?

Here's how it breaks down, assuming I've overestimated the broken-down defending champs' ability to rebound:


NEXT IN LINE: DETROIT

I know, I know. They miss Ben Wallace. They're also getting older and more vulnerable at their core positions, as confirmed by one of their iron men -- Chauncey Billups -- actually suffering an injury.

Fine.

They also still have four-fifths of a starting lineup that came within one win of back-to-back championships as recently as June 2005. Delete Miami from the discussion and no one knows more about winning playoff games than Detroit. As long as Billups and Rasheed Wallace are reasonably healthy -- and Sheed wasn't in the '06 playoffs -- Detroit is unquestionably next in line.

The Pistons are also being dissed regularly these days, which they love. They'd rather be doubted than deified, as seen last season when the Pistons bolted to that 37-5 start. So hold off on writing them off.

A CUT BELOW: CHICAGO AND CLEVELAND



Coming into the season, I believed that Chicago would have a better regular season than Cleveland but ranked the Cavs as a better playoff bet because of their experience. It's easy to forget that the Cavs took some serious steps last spring, pulling out those three one-point wins over Washington in the first round and then dragging Detroit to seven games.

Only now I'm liking the Bulls better both today and at playoff time. They don't have a game-breaker in LeBron James' class, or anyone close, but they have the modern-day Vinnie Johnson (Ben Gordon), an underrated frontcourt duo (Andres Nocioni and Luol Deng) flanking Ben Wallace, and more immediate upside than a Cavs team relying on James' brilliance and Larry Hughes' temperamental health to make up for the fact that the Cavs made almost no changes to their team.

I likewise haven't forgotten how good Chicago looked against Miami in the '06 first round before they had a big man as good as Wallace or even P.J. Brown.

Don't forget, furthermore, that the Bulls have more pieces than anyone going to make a landscape-changing deal before the Feb. 22 trade deadline. The Cavs might have the least.

THE SLEEPERS: WASHINGTON AND INDIANA



Even the Wiz would concede that calling them Suns East is a bit of an insult to the Suns. Phoenix is a certifiable title contender. Washington has won one playoff series in the Gilbert Arenas era and doesn't play enough D to be all-in trusted.

Arenas, however, looks better than ever -- his walk-off triple Wednesday against Milwaukee is my other favorite play of the season so far (see Box 4) -- and Caron Butler has made the leap to certifiable All-Star. The Wiz will be a tougher out this time.

Indiana, meanwhile, is closer to sleeper territory than anyone else in the vicinity, inconsistent as the Pacers remain. Their 17-16 record as of Friday morning doesn't look bad at all when you consider that they've played 19 road games and 10 back-to-backs already, but Jermaine O'Neal sounded less than optimistic when he shared this pearl Thursday night:

"We've had a lot of games this year where we've controlled the game all the way up until the fourth and then lose our damn mind. Why? ... We get up 10 points and we just go ballistic. Sit down and get some tape. Every time we hit a 10-point margin, we go ballistic. I can't understand it for the life of me."

Jamaal Tinsley's decision-making, I'd say, has something to do with it, but I'd still put the O'Neal-Al Harrington-Danny Granger Pacers, with Rick Carlisle at the controls, ahead of the field.

Orlando started well but just doesn't have the seasoning to be a springtime factor yet, whether or not Grant Hill is healthy. Hill, remember, is still waiting for his first career taste of the second round.

Just getting to the playoffs, as a likely last-place finisher in the Central, would appear to be Milwaukee's ceiling as well.

As for those five punching bags from the Atlantic Division, we're intentionally devoting almost no cyberspace to them. Not after Mavericks owner Mark Cuban pointed out at blogmaverick.com this week that the Knicks could actually win the thing because they're the only team of the five -- likely to be sending its first-round pick in June to Chicago if it's a good pick -- that would be better off going to the playoffs than tanking their way into the lottery.

It's a reality that, maybe better than anything, sums up the state of the Leastern Conference as the calendar flips to January 2007.

"That's what's pissing me off," Jermaine O'Neal steamed. "We just need to play consistent basketball and we got the East."

Yup. It's a conference that's totally there for the taking. Yet Indy, like so many others as the season's halfway point approaches, still has no idea if it'll be able to take advantage.

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

" Dimes past: Dec. 30-31 | Jan. 1 | 3 | 4 | 5


Do A Little Dance
Rasheed Wallace
D. Lippitt/Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Nah, Sheed and the Pistons aren't celebrating their East chances, they just get a little giddy when they're playing in the shadows.


Western Conference

You read a lot of forecasting about Larry Brown's return to Sixers' front office as executive vice president ultimately landing him back on the Philly bench. Similar conclusions can be drawn just as easily in Seattle, where Lenny Wilkens is a newly minted Sonics vice chairman who works in even closer proximity with the team as a color analyst on the Sonics' TV broadcasts.

The consistent word in NBA coaching circles, however, is that Wilkens really doesn't want to coach again at 69. By all accounts, he's reveling in his role as the lead sounding board for Clay Bennett and the rest of the Sonics' new ownership.

Wilkens, you see, isn't merely using his lifelong Seattle ties to spearhead the club's efforts to find the funding that would lead to a new arena in the Emerald City. He is essentially operating as team president, according to NBA front-office sources, with a strong say on any basketball move that the Sonics make here.

That's one reason, sources say, Seattle hasn't signed Penny Hardaway to a contract after coach Bob Hill worked him out recently in Memphis. Wilkens had Hardaway in New York and isn't a fan.

Can we totally rule out Wilkens' return to the bench? History says no. History says coaches who take an advisory role or a front-office job frequently wind up coaching. Gregg Popovich (replacing Hill in San Antonio), Don Nelson (replacing Jim Cleamons in Dallas) and Rick Adelman (replacing Eddie Jordan in Sacramento) are three late-1990s examples that immediately spring to mind.

Yet even if Wilkens is not an option -- and even with Rashard Lewis sidelined now after Ray Allen missed some time -- no one's pretending Hill has much security, either. His contract expires at season's end and assistant coach Jack Sikma is an interim possibility if the Sonics decide they need a break from Hill's volatility.


Checked in again this week with Ron Artest, who's still saying that he welcomes the fizzling of Sacramento's recent trade talks with the Clippers, no matter how much he wanted a move to Hollywood a year ago.

"I know Sactown wants me here," Artest said via e-mail, referring to Kings fans as well as Kings management. "I'm happy here."

Artest also reiterated that he's plowing ahead with construction plans on the "big mansion" he hopes to have ready by the summertime, convinced that the Kings plan to keep him.


On second thought ...

Perhaps the health situations of Phil Jackson and Pat Riley don't make for such a great comparison.

Riley doesn't deny that his condition was worsened by kicking a locker-room door after a recent loss, which obviously isn't the sort of taking-care-of-yourself example you expect from your coach, especially when it's a coach A) of Riley's stature and B) who's over-the-line hammering James Posey and Antoine Walker for (very) minor conditioning offenses.

Riley also hinted Thursday, on his weekly radio show on WQAM in Miami with ESPN's own Hank Goldberg, that he "probably" could have limped along without hip-replacement surgery "if we were 25-2."

With Jackson and the Lakers, when he announced just before training camp that he could no longer avoid an operation -- even though it wound up ruling him out for the month of October -- there was no more wiggle room. A good record wouldn't have made a difference.

Jackson prayed that a summer of physical therapy and rest could get his body through at least one more season without surgery. But that became an impossibility in late September, when Jackson attended D-League tryouts -- he's still a CBA guy at heart, remember -- and could hardly move after an hour-plus in the bleachers.

The other big difference? Now that he's survived a procedure he was dreading, Jackson and the Lakers are expected to sort out a contract extension at season's end. Jackson, 61, has one left on his contract after this season, but the Lakers are optimistic they can convince him to stay longer, given how well he and Kobe Bryant functioned in their reunion when the pain was excruciating.

With Riley, no one's even thinking about next season yet. Not until they're sure he's back this season.

I personally struggle to imagine Riley leaving the bench for good in these circumstances, which would invite considerable scorn after he finally hushed nearly two decades of misery (and criticism) by winning it all. Yet even if he's back in a month or two, you'd struggle to find anyone predicting he'll be coaching next season.



Question Marc
From the Stein Line e-mailbag:


Steve Miranda (Seattle): Here's a stunning fact that has gone unrecognized as far as I can tell: New York is over the salary cap even if you only count players who are no longer on the Knicks' roster. Allan Houston, Shandon Anderson, Jalen Rose, Maurice Taylor and Jerome Williams are all still on the Knicks' books and will be paid more than $60 million this season. And when they buy out Steve Francis later this season, that number will approach $80 million. Is there any precedent for this kind of mismanagement? In any sport? Ever?

Stein: Wouldn't dare question your use of the word mismanagement. Don't think anyone would.

However ...

The math isn't quite as gruesome as your computations suggest. ESPN.com's Nick Silva, our trusty capologist here at Stein Line HQ, reminds me that the buyouts for Anderson, Taylor, Rose and Williams total just over $36 million.

Insurance, meanwhile, covers roughly 80 percent of Houston's $20.7 million salary, meaning that Houston is costing the Knicks just over $4 million this season.

The total, then, is more like $40.5 million instead of $60 million.

That's the good news.

Bring Francis into the conversation and you're looking at a $30 million player for the Knicks in 2006-07 thanks to the luxury tax, which doubles his $15 million salary.

Yet more puzzling to me, honestly, is why Isiah Thomas was in such a rush to buy out Rose for the sake of a few million in savings when retaining Rose's $16.9 million expiring contract through the February trade deadline could have put New York in play -- at worst as a third-team facilitator -- for any high-priced superstar who unexpectedly popped onto the market. It does happen every so often, as the Denver Nuggets discovered.




Mourning in Miami
Alonzo Mourning
Victor Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images
Surely this isn't what Alonzo Mourning signed up for when he agreed to come back for another shot at a title run this season.


Eastern Conference
I'm not so sure, by the time his trade to Denver went down, that the Boston Celtics were still on the list of teams Allen Iverson welcomed as a potential new home.

Iverson, according to sources close to the situation, was made to believe that Celts coach Doc Rivers wanted no part of this trade, which naturally would have changed AI's outlook.

Without a no-trade clause in his contract, Iverson was still able to dissuade initially interested suitors in Sacramento, Golden State and Charlotte simply by sending word that he wanted no part of a trade to Northern California or North Carolina.

Why does that work so often in the NBA? Simple. Teams are generally reluctant to ignore such warnings because the impact of one player in a five-on-five sport and a 15-man locker room -- especially when it's a player of Iverson's game/stature/personality -- is too significant.



How did Terry Stotts diffuse the inevitable hot-seat chatter and pressures caused by the Bucks' rough start?

A flurry of lineup changes, that's how.

Instead of of responding to the loss of Bobby Simmons by starting Ruben Patterson at small forward and Charlie Villanueva at power forward, Stotts moved both to the bench.

The result: Milwaukee has been winning with a stronger second unit and a three-guard alignment -- Mo Williams and Charlie Bell flanking our man Michael Redd -- starting alongside Andrew Bogut and new frontcourt sidekick Brian Skinner.


The mathematical implications of this week's Jeff McInnis-to-Charlotte trade are as follows:

The Nets are now $1 million and change under the luxury-tax line and created a $3.6 million trade exception, good for a year, by sending McInnis to the Bobcats for Bernard Robinson.

Charlotte, meanwhile, is finally over the league's minimum payroll ($39.9 million) by $1.4 million, but still $11.9 million under the '06-07 salary cap.

With New Jersey removing itself from the following list and Golden State waiving Anthony Roberson on Friday, there are just six teams in the league on course to pay luxury tax at season's end. They are:

New York: $44.6 million
Dallas: $10.3 million
Denver: $2.9 million
Philadelphia: $2.6 million
Minnesota: $1.4 million
San Antonio: $1.3 million



One-On-One ... To Five
Cassell

Five questions with Suns forward/center Amare Stoudemire:

Q: Is Amare Stoudemire back?

A: No doubt about it.

Q: How far back? The figure I keep hearing is somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent.

A: I can't really put a percentage on it. You can never be accurate when you put a percentage on it. So I could never tell you the exact percentage. But I feel great, though.

Q: So am I better off writing that you think you still have a level or two to go?

A: You can ask me that same question five years from now. I always feel like I can get better. That's just me always being hard on myself. I'm my worst critic. I'll always say I can improve.

Q: Your coach [Mike D'Antoni] says you and the team are about a month and a half ahead of schedule. Do you agree with that assessment?

A: If you want to call it that. I feel like I'm on schedule. I feel good. I just want to continue to get better, physically and skill-wise.

Q: Your alley-oop in crunch time [last week in Dallas] is probably my favorite play of the season so far. How much confidence in your body does that give you to be able to make a play like that, at that time, in such a close game?

A: I've never had a problem with confidence. I'm pretty confident about myself and my game and my status.



Chatter Box
Cassell

One man's take on Zach Randolph, from Dimedom's web of front-office executives, coaches and scouts:

"Randolph is a scoring machine, no doubt about it. He's always been able to score on the low block with that left hand, but now he's shooting with range. He lost some weight, he's playing with more energy and he's tougher to guard because his face-up game is better. He's driving the ball, too. He's still got work to do on dealing with double-teams -- he's just not a good passer or doesn't want to pass -- but you can go through him all day. He's got that knack.

"But I still see that guy as a two-way weapon ... something his own team has to worry about it. Can you build a franchise around him? Is he going to lead you to the promised land? Now that the Blazers are starting to slip [away from .500], will he keep playing the way he's been playing? Certain coaches out there would say they can coach him, but I don't think [the leaguewide] opinion on him has changed because he's had 30 good games.

"I think Portland is eventually going to need a strong point guard to keep him in check, someone who doesn't let [Randolph] monopolize the offense. Nate [McMillan] has done a good job there. He's a disciplinarian. With all those young guys there, he's got a lot of players who are used to being pushed and prodded. He's got the kind of guys he likes to coach. But they need a strong personality on the floor to run the show if they're going to stick with Randolph. Jarrett Jack, to me, is a backup playing starter's minutes."



Marc's Quote
Cassell

"If I can't take this team to another level, then I truthfully believe that we should go our separate ways at the end of the season."

Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal, clearly frustrated by the Pacers' up-and-down play in a 17-16 start, went on to insist that he badly wants to stay a Pacer, telling Reggie Miller recently that he doesn't want to leave until he wins the championship that eluded Miller's Pacers. But O'Neal also disclosed that he has an agreement with management to "talk at the end of the season" and determine if a change is best for both parties.

O'Neal, on this scorecard, looks like the least of Indiana's problems, playing the best defense of his life. Inconsistent play at the point, as referenced in Box 1, remains the Pacers' foremost trouble spot. Yet O'Neal acknowledges that he's "going to take the blame" for any struggles and "rightfully so."



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:

Chris (Porterville, Calif.): What's your deal with the Rockets? The Lakers have beaten them on the road and at home. I know the Lakers are without Lamar Odom and haven't played as well lately. But they have a better record than Houston and Yao is out for a while. Obviously your favorite team is Houston and, as usual, you love to hate the Lakers.

Mike (Irvine, Calif.): There has to be something you see that everyone else in America does not. How do you rank a team (Rockets) with a worse record than the Lakers -- and with two losses to the Lakers -- higher than the Lakers? Please explain.

Karl (Los Angeles): I don't know what you're smoking, but how could you put the Rockets ahead of the Lakers? I know you get a kick out of tweaking the collective noses of Laker fans, but come on.

Committee's counter: We'd first like to know where you three and several other Laker fans who wrote in get this idea that the committee is out to get you. Based on what?

Didn't the Lakers incur a couple of shaky losses last week? Didn't they, with Lamar Odom already out, lose another frontcourt starter indefinitely when Kwame Brown went down? Didn't the Rockets see Tracy McGrady respond to Yao Ming's injury by returning to the lineup and look as healthy as he's looked for some time?

We've said this a zillion times, but you can't focus solely on head-to-head results, especially this early in the season when teams haven't even played half of their games yet. L.A. has two nice wins over Houston, true. But Houston won by 30 points in Charlotte, where the Lakers lost last Friday in three overtimes. Are we supposed to ignore the Rockets' convincing edge there because of two head-to-head games?

EVERYTHING factors in, like Houston's harder schedule to date compared to L.A.'s, which gives them a bit of a boost even without Yao.

If you still need convincing, remember that this is the same committee that picked the Lakers to make the playoffs last season when few national pundits did. It's the same committee that consistently kept the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers in the upper reaches of the rankings even when their week-to-week results could have been graded more harshly. Whose noses were we trying to tweak then?

Can we please stop with the conspiracy stuff?

Read the full Marc Stein blog Insider



 

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