Updated: March 9, 2007

SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION The NBA's kings of pain

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

Nothing slams home the unhappiest theme of this NBA season with greater force than the image of a crumpled Shaun Livingston and his mangled kneecap.

"It's the worst injury that I've seen in my 19 years," says Dallas Mavericks team physician T.O. Souryal. "It might have been one of the worst ever."

Not that such sentiments should surprise anyone. You sadly had to expect that something Theismann-esque, if it was going to happen in this league, was bound to occur during this Year of the Injury.

Everyone wants to know why we've seen so many injuries, starting with Kenyon Martin and Shaquille O'Neal going down in early November, but that's not easily answered. As Souryal reminds: "Injuries, by nature, are unpredictable. If you can predict, then you can avoid. When someone falls into Yao Ming's knee and breaks his leg or when another player falls on Devean George's knee while he's diving for a loose ball ... there is certainly a cluster of those type of injuries this season. But no real pattern."

This season? Major health setbacks have been so frequent and so unavoidable that we can't even include the Clippers -- after the implosion of several ligaments in Livingston's knee and with Sam Cassell perpetually hobbled -- on our list of teams hit hardest by the injury plague of 2006-07.

It's a list so competitive that Seattle couldn't crack it, either, despite lengthy absences for Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis and the season-long loss of Robert Swift in late October.

It's a club no one wants to join but keeps attracting new candidates, as seen this week with Atlanta suddenly facing Joe Johnson's disappearance for the rest of the season and with Indiana fretting over Jermaine O'Neal.

The top 10 sufferers:


1. Milwaukee Bucks
They were dubbed early on as the Hornets of the East, as opposed to the Hornets being known as the Bucks of the West, because New Orleans' injury issues piled up quicker.

Yet you could easily argue (and we do) that Milwaukee has had the worst of it, with Bobby Simmons unavailable from the season's opening tip because of myriad foot problems, and three mainstays -- Charlie Villanueva (elbow and shoulder), Mo Williams (shoulder) and most of all our beloved Michael Redd (knee) -- all sidelined for long stretches.

Unlike Miami and New Orleans -- teams that still have some hope of achieving their preseason goals -- Milwaukee saw its season irretrievably wrecked by these setbacks.



2. Miami Heat
Shaquille O'Neal wouldn't deny that he never wanted to play 82 games this season, but Shaq was also never hoping for knee surgery that would cost him nearly 40 games. Especially not with Dwyane Wade's subsequent shoulder separation making it a real possibility that the defending champs won't even be able to get back to the NBA Finals … in spite of their residence in the easy East.

Throw in Jason Kapono's freshly sprained ankle, Pat Riley's own hip-replacement saga and Jason Williams' long-standing knee troubles and you'll know why Shaq told me on his recent swing through Dallas: "It's been an F'd-up year."



3. Boston Celtics
Paul Pierce (foot, elbow) missed 24 games, 22 of them losses. Wally Szczerbiak (ankle, knee) only made it into 32 games before shutting it down for the season.

You can certainly debate whether the Celts have suffered so much that they now have a divine claim to Greg Oden or Kevin Durant in the draft, as all of Boston believes, but it doesn't take an honors student to calculate the impact of the vets' unavailability when pretty much every other Celtic is college-aged.



4. New Jersey Nets
Can't say it better than Richard Jefferson said it in Box 8, noting that the Nets lost Nenad Krstic for the season to a December knee tear and are still waiting for RJ to make his return from January ankle surgery:

"There's been so much talk of breaking up the team and this and that. It's really an ignorant statement. If our group would have been healthy [and then struggled], that's one thing. But we had five guys have surgery before the All-Star break. If you do that to San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix, what are you going to expect?"



5. New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets
If the Hornets miss the playoffs in their second and final season in Oklahoma City, it won't be hard to explain why. Peja Stojakovic lasted only 13 games before back surgery, David West missed 30 games with elbow and forearm issues, Bobby Jackson added cracked ribs to his long list of career maladies and Chris Paul was lost for 17 games to a nasty ankle sprain.

What we can't explain is how the Hornets, after following their 8-3 start with a 4-19 skid that dropped them to 12-22, have rallied back into playoff contention … especially when you recall last season's 9-21 fade. So they're not thinking about what might have been. Yet.



6. Denver Nuggets
Kenyon Martin lasted all of two games before becoming the first known case in league history to require a microfracture surgery on his "good" knee while in the midst of a comeback from another microfracture procedure.

Every other key Nugget has missed time for health reasons -- Marcus Camby (hand), Nene (knee), J.R. Smith (knee) and newly acquired Allen Iverson (ankle, hip, elbow) -- except for Carmelo Anthony … who missed 15 games through suspension.

The Nuggets are accustomed to injury catastrophes, but this season has been a doozy, even by their standards. That does explain at least some of Denver's season-long struggles to live up to expectations.



7. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors have had a full complement of players available in only two games all season. Not coincidentally, they won both games … including a stunning 18-point triumph Monday in Detroit at a time they had the second-fewest road wins (six) in the whole league.

Cynics will say that we should have expected Baron Davis (knee) to miss a month, but how does that account for Jason Richardson suffering a broken hand in late December to further complicate a slow recovery from offseason knee surgery?

Maybe we should be saying that Don Nelson has been as influential as advertised simply by keeping this battered club in the West's playoff chase.



8. Memphis Grizzlies
It's hardly a lock that the Grizzlies would have been a playoff team at full strength. But it's no stretch to suggest that their season was over before it started when Pau Gasol missed the first 22 games of the season with a broken foot suffered playing for Spain in the World Championship.

Memphis went 5-17 in Pau's absence to sink to its now-familiar home at the foot of the West standings, as part of a traumatic season -- also featuring the firing of Mike Fratello, a collapsed sale of the team and unending speculation about potential Gasol trades and Jerry West's retirement -- that has Grizz types believing it's their divine right to land Oden or Durant in the draft.



9. Los Angeles Lakers
Lamar Odom's knee gave out, followed by Luke Walton's ankle, followed by Odom's shoulder. Those are the big blows so far, since Odom and Walton form one of the league's underrated frontcourt combos … especially defensively.

The Lakers have also missed Chris Mihm -- who hasn't played a minute all season after ankle surgery -- because Kwame Brown (ankle) has been available for less than half of the schedule to date.

Add it all up, for a team that isn't the deepest when healthy, and it makes Vladimir Radmanovic's decision to rip up his shoulder by trying out an X Games sport over the All-Star break even more indefensible.



10. Houston Rockets
Just because they've continued to win doesn't mean that we should ignore the fact that Yao Ming (knee) missed 32 games after Tracy McGrady (back) missed nine, all while marquee free-agent addition Bonzi Wells -- whether it's been injuries, conditioning or his up-and-down relationship with coach Jeff Van Gundy -- has managed to play in only 26 of Houston's 61 outings.

Maintaining a 50-win pace won't mean much if the Rockets don't have cohesion at playoff time, which Yao and McGrady will need just as much as better health if they hope to win a round for the first time in their careers.

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

• Dimes Past: March 3-4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9


Tough Luck Bucks
Bucks
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
Those guys in suits at the end of the bench in January? Not well-dressed fans. That's three-fifths of the Bucks' starting lineup.


Eastern Conference

The Magic have been scoffing at suggestions that Brian Hill's job is in jeopardy, even though they've lost 30 of 46 games in a slide that threatens to drop them all the way out of the East's playoff picture after that 13-4 start.

I've been advised that it's not an empty vote of confidence, either.

Orlando management, according to NBA front-office sources, is apparently giving Hill some "extra rope" this time given the circumstances surrounding the end of his first stint as Magic coach in 1997, when he was essentially ousted by player revolt.

It's rope he might end up needing, too, if the Magic keep sliding amid rumblings that players are tuning Hill out and/or chafing from his rigid style.

Yet no matter where Hill's approval rating sits or whether he can survive this prolonged slump, it's clear that the Magic are also suffering from a leadership shortage. It'd be asking an awful lot of young Dwight Howard to expect him to galvanize a group clinging to its playoff hopes since Howard himself has yet to play in the postseason. Injuries, meanwhile, have prevented the venerable Grant Hill from having the locker-room sway you'd expect.

In-house confidence that they can hang onto a top-eight spot, as a result, is clearly crumbling. The only solace for the Magic comes from the team right above them in the standings, now that Indiana has been plunged into its own playoffs-in-jeopardy funk, as well as the inability of New Jersey and New York to punish Orlando with a sustained run of their own.


Accusations of first-half coasting are gradually being hushed by LeBron James.

As happily pointed out by a certain Sports Guy, who had been riding him as hard as anyone lately, James just might be getting weary of external criticism … judging by his numbers since the All-Star Game. In the Cavs' first eight games post-Vegas, LeBron averaged 33.8 points -- along with 5.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists -- on 52.8 percent shooting, highlighted by two of his best-ever individual performances in a loss at Dallas and a victory in Detroit.

Theories to explain James' alleged ambivalence earlier in the season are numerous. Was he legitimately tired after a Team USA summer? Was he frustrated by the Cavs' inability to trade for Mike Bibby or someone at that level? Does he simply believe that conserving energy for the stretch run gives Cleveland its best chance of winning an East that's there to be won? All of the above sound plausible.

As for what happened in the uninspiring weeks before Vegas, Cavs coach Mike Brown doesn't dispute that his team has at times played with a sense of entitlement it really hasn't earned.

"We kind of jumped ahead of ourselves [to] where we think we can show up sometimes and just win depending on who our opponent is," Brown said. "And that's not the case. We have to establish a culture here. We have to form an identity -- and then we have to do it year after year after year after year -- in order for us to go from good to great, if we're going to take that step.

"You could criticize more than [team] intensity. At times, we're inconsistent. Again, at times, we just think we can show up and we can win games. … But it's something that I believe can be fixed. It takes time to go from where we were to become a team like Dallas or San Antonio. Those teams have won for years. They know what winning's about. They know it's a sacrifice every day, not every other day and not just when you play a big game.

"That's fair criticism, [but] we're in the process of learning and doing. After one year winning 50 games, we have to prove to ourselves first that we're worthy of being on the same plateau."


If you were disappointed by a trade deadline that produced only three (very) minor deals on deadline day, you're going to be even more steamed when you hear this.

We'll probably have to downgrade it soon to two (very) minor trades.

The smallest of those tiny moves from Feb. 22 -- Philadelphia sending Alan Henderson to Utah for a future second-round pick to get under the luxury-tax line -- is on the verge of becoming even less of a trade than it already was.

That's because Henderson was waived by the Jazz last week and, according to NBA front-office sources, is planning to re-sign with the Sixers later this month.

Because of salary-cap technicalities, sending Henderson out and bringing him back in this manner will reduce Philly's overall payroll by nearly $500,000, keeping it just out of luxury-tax territory. The only real holdup is that Henderson must wait until 30 days have elapsed since the Utah-Philly deal was consummated.

As part of the NBA's new labor agreement instituted in the summer of 2005, players who are traded and then waived by their new team cannot be re-signed by their original team for 30 days during the season or 20 days during the offseason.

Trivia buffs, of course, will recall that this rule was ushered in thanks in part to Henderson, mere months after Dallas dealt him to Milwaukee along with Calvin Booth for Keith Van Horn. The Bucks, as part of that deal, agreed to release Henderson so the Mavs could reacquire him.

The more high-profile example from the same February 2005 deadline saw Boston include Gary Payton in the package sent to Atlanta for Antoine Walker, only for the Hawks to release Payton, as prearranged, so he could return to the Celtics upon clearing waivers.



Talkin' Hoops
Dirk Nowitzki? Or Steve Nash? Who's leading the MVP derby with just a fourth of the season to go? Marc Stein joins Galloway & Co. on ESPN Radio in Dallas (103.3 FM) to handicap that race and check the pulse of the top teams in the West.

Listen to the full Stein interview Audio




Point Of Pain
Shaun Livingston
AP Photo/Chris Pizzello
If you couldn't stomach Shaun Livingston's gruesome knee injury last month, that's understandable. It was one of the ugliest NBA injury scenes in recent memory.


Western Conference

If you want to talk about a longtime former Pacer who would make sense on the Mavericks' bench, there's a more plausible candidate than 41-year-old Reggie Miller.

That would be Antonio Davis.

As good as they're feeling about themselves, after becoming the first team in the history of major North American professional team sports to win 51 times in any regular-season stretch of 56 games, Mavsland has an opening for one more quality post defender after third-string center D.J. Mbenga was lost for the season.

Davis, furthermore, is eligible for the playoffs as long as he's on a roster before the end of the regular season because he hasn't played for any other team this season.

But Davis, who recently ceded his post as Players Association president to Utah's Derek Fisher, appears intent on staying retired.

The Bulls have already tried unsuccessfully to lure him back to active duty and I'm told the Mavs have likewise inquired about Davis' availability to determine if he's a candidate for their open roster spot. The 38-year-old continues to insist he's not interested in a comeback. Wallace had been rung up for 17 techs as of Friday morning, but two were later rescinded by the league office. So Stoudemire, with 14, was just one behind Sheed.


So what's an 11-game win streak worth these days?

If you're San Antonio, just one game in the standings. That's all the Spurs have been able to slice off the Mavs' Southwest Division lead, entering the weekend, because Dallas is 9-0 in the same span.

The consolation?

San Antonio plays only four teams with winning records in its final 20 games, raising the possibility that the Spurs can still pass Phoenix and secure home-court advantage for their likely second-round showdown with the Suns.


Stoudemire

Detroit's Rasheed Wallace is getting an unexpected push in the technical fouls race from the Suns' Amare Stoudemire.

Wallace had been rung up for 17 techs as of Friday morning, but two were later rescinded by the league office. So Stoudemire, with 14, was just one behind Sheed.

Charlotte's Gerald Wallace is third with 11 and four players are tied with 10: Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, Detroit's Richard Hamilton and the Denver duo of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson.

But Sheed and Amare are the only two players in the league currently on pace to cross the 16-T threshold. Starting with a 16th tech, players must serve a one-game suspension, with additional one-game suspensions attached to every other T thereafter … 18th, 20th, 22nd, etc.

Remember, though, that these slates are wiped clean after the regular season. Suspensions don't start in the playoffs until a player accrues seven techs, with the league sending a warning letter to any "violator" who gets to five.






Rank Comments
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:

Daniel Reyes (San Antonio): Disappointed to read that your favorite lefty isn't Manu. Michael Redd would be in my top three, but Ginobili has to be the best lefty in the game today. If not all-time. Thoughts?

Committee's counter: Manu's fabulous. A true champion and undoubtedly one of the greatest second-round picks of all-time. Our obsession with Redd was never intended to pit him against Ginobili. We're simply bigger Redd guys because of the shooting. We're suckers for a light-it-up, quick-trigger, all-net lefty from the outside and always have been.

Liam (Cleveland): I'll answer the question you posed about the Cavs in the rankings: I think their 23-point victory over Toronto pleases us more than LeBron's free-throwing in that game. For two reasons. 1) I know LeBron is going to make his free throws in the postseason because he's simply too good to cost his team games in the playoffs. 2) The game against Toronto shows what happens if the Cavs have just one other player besides LeBron -- in this case it was Larry Hughes -- who scores 20 or more. When that happens, this team is really tough to beat.

Committee's counter: Respectfully disagree, Liam. The bet here is that even LeBron would admit that he's not nearly as sure as you that his free-throw woes have been cured. So for him to make 15-of-17 from the line in the first game after his two crunch-time misses in Dallas, that was undeniably huge.

Read the full Marc Stein blog Insider



One-On-One ... To Five
Jefferson

Five questions with Nets forward Richard Jefferson:

Q: Can we assume that you traveling with the team through Texas means we'll see your return on this road trip?

A: I'm feeling better, but it's really tough for me to put a time frame on it. I don't want to put a time frame on it. I don't want to say a [certain] game or around this [specific] time because then all of a sudden if you don't come back then, you're behind schedule and you have to answer those questions.

Q: How hard is it to be that patient when your team is having trouble just getting into the playoffs?

A: I understand that. But I've been playing hurt since training camp. I kept trying to play, kept trying to play and wasn't myself. So for me to come back early now and still not be myself, I don't think I'd really be doing the team justice or doing myself justice.

Q: You ended up having three bone spurs taken out of your ankle in January. Have you been beating yourself up for trying to play through the injury or are you glad you gave it a go?

A: It's a combination of both. You do those things to gain the respect of your peers and the people in this organization, but at some point in time you have to understand that you're not playing like yourself.

The decision was really made for me when people started to question whether or not I was playing hard every night. That's something that's never been questioned in my career. Some nights you'll go out there and score 20, some nights you'll go out there and score 6, and then people start saying you're inconsistent or you're dogging it or whatever.

That was tough.

Q: While you were out injured, given all the Jason Kidd trade talk, how worried were you that you had played your last game alongside J-Kidd?

A: You're always worried, but at the end of the day you've got to understand Rod [Thorn]. Nothing was going to happen if it wasn't going to be able to make our team better. I really believe nothing happened because there was nothing out there [tradewise] that was going to make our team better -- long-run, short-term, nothing.

Q: Will we see the Nets in the playoffs?

A: I believe we're still going to make it. If we can get our act together, you never know what can happen.

But hopefully this summer everyone gets healthy and we can make another [serious] run at it. There's been so much talk of breaking up the team and this and that. It's really an ignorant statement.

If our group would have been healthy [and then struggled], that's one thing. But we had five guys have surgery before the All-Star break. If you do that to San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix, what are you going to expect? You're going to have a tough season. But I don't think people are really taking that into account.



Marc's Quote
Marion

"I can't wait to wake up in the morning and find out what I said."

Nuggets coach George Karl, on his general approach when it comes to speaking to the media.

That's the same Karl, of course, who this week publicly hinted at demoting Carmelo Anthony to the bench to shake Denver out of a 9-13 malaise since Melo returned from that 15-game suspension.



Question Marc
Chip (Cleveland): Why does the top of the East get such a bad rap? The three best teams -- Detroit, Cleveland and Miami -- are all over .500 against the West. As we've seen in two of the last three years, teams from the top of the East can beat the West in the Finals, even if the bottom four-fifths of the conference looks pitiful.

Stein: I get what you're saying, Chip. No one's trying to deny the fact that the Pistons and Heat won two of the past three championships. Miami is actually at 13-13 against the West, not over .500, but you've made your point.

However …

Conferences are never going to be judged solely on their top three teams or what happens over two weeks in June. The NBA season is way too long for that.

Teams along the Eastern Seaboard (like New Jersey, New York, Philly and Boston) or in the deep South (Atlanta and Charlotte) -- and their fans -- aren't going to feel any better about themselves just because a team from their conference wins it all after 82 games and a two-month postseason.

It simply can't be good for the East as a collective that, entering this weekend's play, it could still only claim one team (Detroit) on a 50-win pace.

Even though they're coming away with most of the draft behemoths lately -- LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in 2003, followed by Dwight Howard in 2005 -- East teams were winning just 42 percent of their games against the West entering the weekend. The West, riding its deeper rosters and longer list of certifiable stars, holds a 218-157 advantage with 75 head-to-head games left on the schedule.

Don't get me wrong: The West has some problems, too. For all the talk of its overwhelming depth, there are only six West teams with winning records and the Lakers, because of their unending injury issues, seem closer to slipping into the jumble of up-and-down clubs trying to nail down one of the last two playoff spots as opposed to keeping pace with the five teams above them.

But it's not realistic to expect folks to ignore what happens all winter -- and how the league office is forced to depend on a Toronto club with almost no experience and about 10 new players to spare the Titanic, er, Atlantic Division from fielding zero teams with winning records -- just because the Heat pulled off a Finals comeback for the ages last June.



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