NBA legend holds that Shaquille O'Neal doesn't start getting serious about a season until he celebrates his birthday on March 6.
SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION Big Aristotle ponders his future
A few weeks removed from his 35th birthday party and with the playoffs just three weeks away, Shaq definitely transmitted a stern springtime vibe when we caught up with him this week for a quick (OK, brief) question-and-answer session.
The State of Shaq heading into Sunday's Heat vs. Pistons showdown in Detroit:
Q: Last time I saw you, right after the All-Star Game, you said that this has been "an F'd-up year." You guys won 11 of the next 13 games after that, so how are things now?
A: We're OK. Just trying to make it. Whatever position we end up in, we put ourselves in.
Q: Was it ever realistic to think that the defending champs wouldn't make the playoffs after Dwyane Wade got hurt?
A: I don't get into panic mode. I've been here 15 years [in this league]. I've been through all this s--- before. So nothing can make me panic.
Q: What does it say about this conference that you guys were 19-25 at one point, lost D-Wade and look now like you're going to win your division?
A: The East is not as strong as it was.
Q: How important is it to win the division and lock up a top-four seed now that you're right there?
A: It'd be nice to get home-court advantage [in a series or two], but I've won it before without home-court advantage.
Q: I've been writing and saying all year long that I can't pick anyone in the East to beat you guys four times in a series as long as you and Dwyane are both in the lineup. Am I right?
A: That's what I feel, too. But we've got to do everything right. If our guards are shooting the ball well, we beat anybody.
Q: Are you impressed by what the Mavericks are doing?
A: A little bit. They're winning a lot of games. But if you don't win the whole thing, it don't matter.
Q: We've heard D-Wade and Dirk [Nowitzki] go back and forth since the Finals and neither one is known for that kind of stuff. What do you think of their growing rivalry?
A: I don't.
Q: Really? Isn't Mavs-Heat a good rivalry? It looks to all of us on the outside that these teams really don't like each other.
A: This ain't no [bleeping] rivalry. I think it's good for marketing. I think it's good for Mark Cuban and ticket sales and all that. But [rivalry]? No, never.
Q: Can you give us an update on Dwyane's shoulder?
A: I don't really ask him [for updates], but he's in there [rehabbing] every day, twice a day. He's a tough kid. Hopefully he's there [in the playoffs].
Q: What about you and your knee?
A: It's sore, but they say it's going to be like this for the rest of my life.
Q: So have you decided how much longer you're going to play?
A: Until my contract's up. Then I'll see what's next for me.
Q: For sure? You're definitely going to play three more years after this one?
A: How many years do I have left [on the contract]? Two or three?
(Editor's note: O'Neal has three more seasons left, each at $20 million, which would take him to age 38).
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
Shaq says he'll be Miami's man in the middle for a few more years, but Jermaine O'Neal's Indy future isn't as certain. (See below.)
If Rick Carlisle winds up as the scapegoat for Indiana's second-half slide -- and if Lenny Wilkens gets even more front-office say in Seattle than he has now, as he's seeking -- you can expect the Sonics to have Carlisle high on their list of potential replacements for the all-but-ousted Bob Hill.
Wilkens is a vice chairman for the Sonics' new ownership group fronted by Clay Bennett and already has a strong voice on any basketball move Seattle makes. The consistent word in NBA coaching circles, furthermore, holds that Wilkens prefers a supervisory, team presidential role to returning to the bench at 69.
Given Wilkens' status as a well-known Carlisle fan -- and remembering that Carlisle has already worked in Seattle as a TV analyst, as Wilkens does now -- there's a natural connection.
It's still too soon to know exactly how the Pacers will react to their second-half unraveling, but the initial signals out of Indy suggest that they're much more apt to make a coaching change than to unload the one Pacer most worth keeping: Jermaine O'Neal. Although O'Neal had a deal with management going into the season that they would sit down when it's over to determine whether it's time to preserve the marriage or part ways, he's played gamely (and very well) on a bad knee in the face of a 3-16 nightmare. Too well to part with rashly.
Bryan Colangelo, Executive of the Year?
The 2005 winner, then with Phoenix, has to be at or near the top of the '07 list after surrounding Chris Bosh with a virtually all-new team that sports a 26-14 record in 2007 in spite of a variety of recent injuries (most notably suffered by Andrea Bargnani's and Jorge Garbajosa's) and which carries a magic number of six to clinch the first division title in franchise history.
Colangelo also has Bosh lobbying for him.
"As soon as he came in, he just brought a different sort of class and a different attitude to the team," Bosh said. "He brought in guys who were team players. He knew that they were going to sacrifice what it took to win and he went all over the world to get 'em."
Some of the numbers are downright gruesome.
Indiana awoke Friday with the aforementioned 3-16 record since the All-Star break, worst in the NBA. Orlando's record -- 6-13 -- rivals lowly Memphis' 5-14 success rate in the same span. The Knicks, meanwhile, needed an unexpected home victory over Cleveland on Wednesday just to get to 2-6 since Isiah Thomas received his contract extension.
History says there's more hope at the bottom of the East playoff ladder than at the bottom of the West's.
Since 1983-84, when the NBA expanded its playoff field to eight teams in each conference, no team has erased a greater deficit at this point in the season than New Jersey climbing out of a 3½-game hole in the 2004-05 season. That has to give the Pacers and Knicks some hope, since both were just 1½ games removed from the No. 8 spot entering the weekend.
If history is a reliable guide, Sacramento (3½ games out) and Minnesota (four back of the No. 8) are realistically out of playoff contention in the West, even though they're both mathematically alive.
From the Stein Line e-mailbag:
Benjamin (Dallas): I don't get it. Houston gets home-court advantage against Utah in the first round if the Rockets have a better record than the Jazz, even though Utah will be the higher seed. Chicago is on course to have the third-best record in the East and wind up with a No. 5 seed. What is the point of a higher seeding if it does not guarantee a team home-court advantage?
Stein: Not an original question, Ben, but one worth revisiting every so often, especially as the playoffs draw near.
I even agree with you, to a degree. The league did revise the seeding system so you couldn't finish with the second-best record in your conference and wind up seeded fourth -- like the Mavs last season -- but won't budge on the rule that ensures nothing lower than a No. 4 seed for division winners.
The league's point is that it wants division winners to be rewarded with something. A top-four seed, meaningless or not, apparently qualifies as that something for the NBA's decision-makers.
I know, I know. You, like me, are undoubtedly wondering why the league doesn't just do away with divisions and give playoff spots to the eight teams in each conference with the best records. You are undoubtedly wondering why the NBA has to make this so complicated.
But this is what the owners want. I'm told that it's a majority of owners, as much as anyone in the league office, which likes the idea of playing for division titles. It gives a wider range of teams an opportunity to chase a prize that at least sounds significant in theory, as opposed to those few legit title contenders chasing the real prize.
Is it meaningful for the Toronto Raptors to be able to hang an Atlantic Division banner next season and print "Atlantic Division Champions" on their ticket brochures? For a franchise that has won one playoff series in a 12-season existence, probably.
Earlier in the season, I was just as adamant as you are that the No. 4 seed should come with home-court advantage no matter what. I made my case to NBA vice president Stu Jackson in December. But I'm starting to grasp the thinking here. You can't bestow too much on a division winner in a league that essentially operates with a balanced schedule.
NBA teams don't play teams in their division more than other divisions. Major League Baseball teams, meanwhile, play almost half of their games within their division. NFL teams play nearly 40 percent of their games within their division. In the NBA, intradivision games make up only 20 percent of the schedule. So giving, say, Utah home-court advantage based on a quarter of its schedule, as opposed to the entire schedule, wouldn't be equitable if the Rockets indeed finish with a better record.
If you want to argue that the system should be tweaked further, by leaving the divisions as they are but seeding teams 1-to-8 strictly based on record, that's understandable. (Although then division winners aren't even guaranteed a playoff spot, which didn't seem so impossible on Jan. 1 when not a single team in the Titanic, er, Atlantic began the new year with a record over .500.)
You could also make the argument that NBA teams should start playing more games within their divisions if we're going to seed this way, like the other sports.
But the biggest injustice in the seeding system has been fixed, so I'm not as worked up about this as I used to be.
Ridiculous as it sounds for the team with the third-best record in the East to know that it can't be seeded higher than fifth, Chicago can console itself with home-court advantage, which is what really matters when it comes to the playoffs. Since the league switched to a best-of-seven format in the first round in 2003, 28 of the 32 teams that advanced had the home-court edge.
Victor Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images
Shaq's dripping here but swears he wasn't sweating it when D-Wade went down, even if some of us were wondering whether the champs would even make the playoffs.
It's a funny game sometimes.
Perhaps you've noticed that a key figure during the Clippers' rise (if we can call it a rise) to pole position in the race for No. 8 in the West -- as well as the 14-5 start last season that represents their best extended stretch of success in the renaissance that began in November 2005 -- is a guy named Corey Maggette.
That's the same Maggette who has spent much of the last year-plus either bracing for or seeking a trade since that Maggette-for-Ron Artest swap with Indiana collapsed in January 2006.
L.A.'s 14-5 start was crucial last season because the Clippers basically played .500 ball thereafter: 33-32. Maggette was a starter in all but two of those victories, both of which he missed because of injury.
He's also been a starter for 17 of the past 18 games, often masquerading as a point guard because of injuries to Sam Cassell and Shaun Livingston, helping the Clips survive in a race that's realistically down to them and Golden State for the No. 8 spot unless New Orleans/Oklahoma City wins both of its remaining games against L.A.
I didn't find it terribly encouraging that Clippers owner Donald Sterling felt compelled to step in on the Maggette-Mike Dunleavy chill -- after finally starting to let his basketball people make most of the important decisions -- and make the organizational declaration that Maggette is off-limits.
I likewise understand why Dunleavy has long preferred to deploy Maggette as a sixth man, since Maggette's strength, scoring ability and penchant for getting to the free-throw line make him a natural tempo-changer.
I acknowledge, furthermore, that it's no mystery why Maggette has improved his shot selection while gradually growing more willing as a passer. With all of L.A.'s injuries, he knows he's going to get minutes now.
None of the above changes the reality that the Clips keeping Maggette, thus making him available for the promotion into the starting lineup that he's always been after, could be the factor that prevents Hollywood from going back to being a one-playoff-team town.
Kobe Bryant, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, needs 48 points Friday night against Houston to secure a 40-point average for the month of March.
But don't bet on it.
No player has scored as many as 48 points against the Rockets in a regulation game in (gulp) 12 years: Dana Barros hit them for 50 on March 14, 1995.
Kobe did score 53 against Houston in December but needed two overtimes to get there, finishing with 41 in regulation.
If No. 24 does manage to defy recent history and score at least 48, it'll be the fourth month in Bryant's career that he's averaged 40 ppg for a full month: 40.6 in February 2003, 43.4 in January 2006 and 41.6 in April 2006.
Elias says Kobe is the only player in the last 40 years to average 40 a game for an entire month, with a minimum of five games.
Looks like the last of those scoring averages, incidentally, invalidates all those recent claims about how Bryant won't be able to shift out of shoot-first mode when the playoffs come. Looks like he went pretty seamlessly from 41.6 ppg in the final month of the '05-06 season to Mr. Facilitator in that seven-game classic with Phoenix.
The Mavs might have been worried about the ankle Dirk Nowitzki twisted on Wednesday if (A) they needed more than a 5-6 finish to secure a 65-win season and (B) if Nowitzki, as we've discussed here before, didn't suffer countless sprains every season.
Since he walked off under his own power after the latest twist, he was jokingly asked if that means this one failed to earn a spot in his all-time Top 10 Sprains.
"It's not even in the top hundred," Dirk said.
As for the significance of the 65 wins? Only 11 other teams in history have reached that plateau and 10 went on to be champions.
The only 65-game winner that failed? As the venerable Bob Ryan reminded me on a recent edition of The Sports Reporters, it's the 1972-73 Celtics team that went 68-14 but saw its postseason spoiled by a serious shoulder injury suffered by John Havlicek.
Ron Artest's retirement flirtations. Kobe Bryant's scoring spree. The latest developments in the MVP and playoff races and some throwback chatter about why the No. 1 MJ on Marc Stein's list will always be Magic Johnson.
Your humble Weekend Dime correspondent touches on all those topics in a pair of radio spots:
If you prefer the podcast variety to radio, Marc Stein checks in on all the hot topics -- Artest, Kobe's place in the MVP race and playoff possibilities -- with ESPN.com Daily Dish host Chad Ford.
"Next question. I'm not talking about playoffs."
Wolves coach Randy Wittman, after the worst single-game collapse in franchise history on Tuesday night -- from 25 points up midway through the third quarter -- left Minnesota with two fall-from-ahead losses in a span of five days to a Seattle team playing out the string.
Those two losses effectively ended the Wolves' season, dropping them four games out of a playoff spot with 12 to play, and put Wittman's record at 10-20 since replacing Dwane Casey, who had the Wolves at 20-20 when he was dismissed.
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:
Jed (Minneapolis, MN): You mentioned that Arenas was the only player with more than one buzzer-beater this season, but I know that's not true.
KG has hit two one in OT against Philly on Jan. 5 as well as the one to beat Portland on Sunday, which is even mentioned in your Wolves comment. (If only the Wolves' anemic record since the All-Star break was likewise a misprint.)
Committee's counter: You know what, Jed? You're absolutely right. Arenas was the only player in the NBA with more than one buzzer-beating, game-winning shot until Sunday. The committee somehow failed to add two and two and realize our own material needed an update. Good catch.