Updated: Feb. 5, 2007, 9:20 PM ET

SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION Why the West must be won

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

Brace yourselves for something really profound: What a difference a year makes!

OK, OK. We can say it with a touch more invention and relevance: What a difference bad starts make!

Imagine, if you will, that the Mavericks and Suns didn't combine to go 0-4 and 1-5, respectively, in the first couple weeks of November. I imagine we'd be dealing daily with 70 Wins Talk, which pretty much never comes up now like it did throughout last season's first half with the Detroit Pistons.

The 38-9 Mavs and 37-9 Suns, after all, became just the third pair of teams in NBA history to enter February with an .800 winning percentage.

The only times that happened previously for two teams in the same season: 1984-85 and 1980-81. The fallen giants from Boston and Philadelphia, in both cases, were the dueling rivals playing .800 ball as they entered the final three months of the regular season.

This season?

Because they both stumbled early, Dallas and Phoenix haven't generated any 70-win projections, even though neither club is far off in spite of their bumpy launches. The Mavs awoke Friday on a 66-16 pace, as did the Suns.

Not that either team gives one whit about trying to win 70.

They're really not even grappling for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, because they know -- valuable as Game 7s at home can be -- that they can win on each other's floor.

So what are the top two teams in the league jockeying so hard for?

Right.

The right to avoid San Antonio in the second round.

Write off the Spurs if you wish. Lampoon their collective age ... or their declining bench ... or their inconsistent shooting. For all the concerns about San Antonio's limited athleticism and dwindling margin of error around the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, perhaps you noticed that the three-time champs -- on the second night of a back-to-back -- largely controlled tempo against the rested Suns, holding them under 90 points until Phoenix finally sped away in the last few minutes.

"They're kind of like the Lakers were in 2001 or 2002," Phil Jackson says of the Spurs, comparing them to his turn-it-on, switch-flipping teams of the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant era.

"Older players know their limitations. They know what the regular season means. They're running the marathon, not trying to lead the pack. They know they can win on the road. They're comfortable with how they can play in playoff situations. Popovich knows how to do this.

"It's too early to say anything [dismissive] about them. They're still a team that has to be considered very, very dangerous."

This comes from a guy, remember, who has never been a member of any Gregg Popovich fan clubs.

Of course, Jackson also contends that avoiding San Antonio in Round 2 is only a slight bonus. In spite of the Lakers' recent struggles, Jackson regularly volunteers his belief that the Kobe-Lamar Odom Lakers match up well with the Mavs or Suns. Very well.

"You have to remember that those records Dallas and Phoenix are running up right now, when you get in a seven-game series with those teams, [records] don't have anything to do with it," Jackson insists. "When you get to see them two, three, four times in a row, suddenly everything starts to get tight."

That would be empty coach rhetoric most years, but not in the brutal West of today, where lower seeds are feared as well. That's why the Mavs and Suns are looking for any edge they can find, early as it seems to be talking about playoff matchups.

Dealing with the Lakers or physical Utah or the two potent tag teams on the West playoff ladder (Yao Ming/Tracy McGrady and Carmelo Anthony/Allen Iverson) is bound to be a chore in all cases. But you can safely assume that Dallas and Phoenix would still prefer seeing any of those teams compared to playing the Spurs just for the right to be in the conference finals.

Both teams are well aware that the Spurs are likely to hang on to the No. 3 seed in spite of their wobbles, after the Jazz just lost Carlos Boozer to injury and with Yao likely unavailable to the Rockets before March. The Lakers, don't forget, still have six games left on their own eight-game trip before we'll know if they're a legit threat to climb any higher.

The edge for finishing No. 1, furthermore, has to belong to Dallas. The Mavs have better depth than the Suns -- which helps them greatly in the regular season but also with keeping players fresher for the playoffs -- as well as seven fewer games remaining against West opposition.

As a bonus, Dallas already sports a 2-0 lead in head-to-head matchups if seeding comes down to a tiebreaker.

Yet you suspect that the Mavs would be just as pleased as the other half of the .800 Club if the Spurs wind up making Pop sound like a prophet.

Pop did say last weekend that he believes his Spurs "have more room to improve than those teams" because it's tough to imagine how Dallas and Phoenix "can play a whole heck of a lot better." Yet he's also made it a point recently to suggest that San Antonio faces "a 50-50 shot we'll go out in the first round" without significantly better D and more urgency.

And soon.

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L.A. Confidential
Lakers
Chris Birck/NBAE via Getty Images
The Lakers aren't in the same class as the Mavs, Suns or Spurs, but they're a popular dark-horse pick come playoff time. And there's a reason for that, although it's not who you think. (See Box 4.)


Eastern Conference
It happened again this week with Eddie Jones' move from Memphis back to Miami. Former All-Star with big salary gets bought out by bottom-feeder and snapped up by title contender.

Cuban

The rich get richer, right?

Not so, says one expert.

Our man Bill Simmons raised an interesting question in a recent chat, when he wondered aloud after Chris Webber forfeited just under $6.5 million for the right to leave Philadelphia and sign with his hometown Detroit Pistons: "Here's what I don't get about these buyouts: If you keep doing them, what stops an overpaid player from completely tanking his situation so he can go somewhere else? ... Why not just keep him around, not play him and force his hand? He's already made nine figures ... who knows, he might be crazy enough to take a buyout for half his contract just to avoid the humiliation of sitting on the bench behind Steven Hunter."

So I put this to Mavs owner Mark Cuban, knowing that Simmons is hardly alone in wondering why buyouts seem to be gaining in popularity with teams who have gambled on players making big salaries, only to wind up paying them handsomely to go elsewhere and thrive when the gamble doesn't work out. Cuban's multilayered response:

1. "Fewer teams are taking bad contracts in trades. The Knicks, Mavs and Blazers used to be in that business. No one is anymore. Even the Nuggets traded away [Earl] Boykins to save some money after bringing in [Allen] Iverson.

2. "Financial flexibility is worth more than the players you could get back in a trade. You've heard me say many times that the concept of 'Getting something back for a player' is for the uninformed. If your team has the ability to spend money, that's worth more to you than players you are going to get for a guy with a big number on the downside of his career. So rather than trading a player and getting back junk, it's smarter to do a buyout and save some money.

3. "Because Philly was a luxury-tax payer, whatever discount Webber took, they saved two times that. That could be the difference in enabling them to do a deal or not in the future.

4. "Unhappy players are not different than unhappy broadcasters or writers. Wanna bet that the mood around the Philly Inquirer [which just endured a round of layoffs] isn't conducive to training young reporters? Wanna bet that there are reporters out there that want more space and become locker-room lawyers? You don't want people who don't want to be there in any business."

Cuban continued:

"No one feels humiliated when they get paid 20 million dollars and very few are willing to give up 10 million dollars. You can buy a lot of humiliation for 10 million bucks. Ask yourself how much you would allow yourself to be humiliated for $10 million? You can't worry about how much money the player will make [in a buyout]. Teams care about winning games and making money. Buyouts are a smart business and basketball move."


Hollins

Does the thought of two 7-footers in the dunk contest work for you? Orlando's Dwight Howard is already in and I'm told that the Bobcats -- when they're not trying to extract $3 million from teams that want to use their cap space to facilitate three-team deals -- are urging the league to invite rookie center Ryan Hollins.

My sources in the dunk community swear that Hollins can dunk from the free-throw line off a two-footed jump, which ain't something you see every day. Bobcats teammate Emeka Okafor, meanwhile, reports that Hollins has "make-believe" vertical ability.

The NBA, remember, is again looking at young players for the dunk field because they can't force the big names to participate. The latest labor agreement does require All-Stars to participate in any All-Star Saturday event they're summoned for -- hence such a strong field (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash) for the skills competition -- with the exception of the dunk contest.


Add the name of Bucks center Dan Gadzuric to the list of players being shopped in advance of the Feb. 22 trade deadline.

Gadzuric has been deemed surplus to requirements in Milwaukee, according to NBA front-office sources, but you suspect he's the sort of athletic big man New Jersey would love to pursue if the Nets weren't facing serious luxury-tax deterrents.

Any team interested in making a play for Gadzuric must absorb the remaining four years on his contract at $26 million.



Chatter Box
Odom

One man's take on Lakers forward Lamar Odom, from Dimedom's web of front-office executives, coaches and scouts:

"I know they're going through a rough stretch right now, but the Lakers are still my playoff sleeper in the West. And it's not because of Kobe Bryant.

"Lamar Odom is such a difference-maker on that team. Want to know why Phoenix had so many problems against the Lakers in the playoffs? It's because of Odom. It's like Detroit had with Rasheed Wallace that year when they won the championship: You can't go small against the Lakers when Odom's in the game.

"He'll just take smaller guys into the post and punish them but he's so long and big that he can guard big [power forwards], too. Dirk Nowitzki is the best in the league at that. Rasheed isn't as mobile as he used to be, but now Odom is right up there. He's so valuable right now.

"I really think the Lakers are only one player away [from serious contention]. You've obviously got a great closer [in Kobe] and a great coach [in Phil Jackson].

"[Luke] Walton has become a really useful player and Bynum ... how good is he going to be? Everyone knows they need better guards [than Smush Parker] and I'm not sold on their outside shooters, but Odom is the X-factor.

"He makes them dangerous."




Locked And Loaded
Amare Stoudemire
AP Photo/Donna McWilliam
Tangled atop the West standings, the Suns and Mavs are fighting for playoff positioning.


Western Conference
Rose

Before Eddie Jones and Chris Webber, there was Jalen Rose.

Rose was this season's first prominent buyout case, securing his release from the Knicks in November and choosing Phoenix over Miami and Detroit. Yet he's averaging only 9.3 minutes in 20 games for the Suns, finding it difficult at 34 to adapt to Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo system and thus failing to crack his rotation.

This has prompted Rose's new team to make a rather noble pitch. The Suns, according to NBA front-office sources, have offered to help Rose find a new home -- via trade or perhaps even by setting him free to sign elsewhere -- if he came to them with a desire to chase a title somewhere else.

But Rose has rejected those offers to date, sticking to his belief that he'll eventually play meaningful minutes for Phoenix as the playoffs draw closer.

"I'm happy here," Rose says. "Mike and my teammates are and have been great -- and I believe we're going to win it all."

Oh. And one more thing.

"I will be a factor here," Rose said. "Trust me."


A couple of bonus bites from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich:

On San Antonio's eight losses at home already this season and going 24 days without a home game while completing its current eight-game, rodeo-enforced road trip: "At home, sometimes they play like they've disappointed the world and kind of get down on themselves a little bit because they didn't win every game or win by enough or win quickly enough. [They're] all notions that are silly, but I really think I've seen some of that [lately]. So it's good to get the hell out of there for a while, get on the road, get a little bit of a bunker mentality."

As for Pop's recent pronouncement that the Spurs won't be trading any of their main rotation players and whether he felt he had to say something public to ease any locker-room fears of a big shakeup: "I thought it was the appropriate time to do that considering everything. The [specific] reasons why I did it, you guys will just have to surmise."


One addendum to this week's chat discussion about Utah's Andrei Kirilenko and how I said that I hadn't "found one executive who thinks Kirilenko was ever really available."

As a couple of helpful front-office types from rival teams pointed out this week: Who would take him anyway?

Translation?

As multitalented as Kirilenko was at his All-Star best in 2003-04, he's got four years left on his contract after this one at a whopping $63 million. That's a lot to spend on a player who's suddenly struggling to score 10 points a game.

As openly frustrated as coach Jerry Sloan and owner Larry Miller can get with Kirilenko, furthermore, it's undoubtedly the contract more than anything that would prompt Utah to consider moving him. The Russian was a first-team selection on last season's All-Defensive squad and turns 26 on All-Star Sunday, so it might be a bit premature to say he's on the slide.

The problem Utah would face if it ever does reach the point of actively shopping him is that AK-47 made sense as the recipient of a max deal when he got it from the Jazz, as their first building block in the post-Karl Malone/John Stockton era. He was Utah's future before the breakouts of Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Deron Williams. But if the Jazz are having trouble now justifying Kirilenko as a max player, you can imagine how pricey he'd seem to anyone else.






One-On-One ... To Five
Maggette

Five questions with Rockets forward Bonzi Wells:

Q: Are you finally healthy for the first time as a Rocket?

A: I hurt my back a couple weeks ago, so I went and saw the witch doctor -- that's the specialist Mac sees [teammate Tracy McGrady's rehab therapist in Waco]. He made me feel a lot better.

Q: How frustrating has your first half-season in Houston been?

A: I was expecting to come down here and play a major role on this team. But we've still been winning so I can't really be salty or nothing [about the slow start]. I just hope that when it's time to get to the nitty-gritty, Coach will call my number and I'll be able to deliver.

Q: We've heard rumblings of friction between you and Jeff Van Gundy since training camp. How would you describe the relationship?

A: It may have been rocky at first, but right now I think we're on the same page. I think we had a problem with communication early on. You know how Coach is. He's kind of headstrong and I'm kind of headstrong, too, but we basically came to a common ground on how we were going to deal with each other. The last couple months, everything's been great.

Q: But there are also rumblings that you still might be moved elsewhere before the Feb. 22 trading deadline. Do you feel like you have a long-term future with the Rockets?

A: I planned on being in Houston for a while, but if it doesn't work out this year, I'll go somewhere else next year and make it happen. That's no problem. If it doesn't work out, hopefully I'll have options this summer.

Q: You lost many millions over the summer when negotiations with the Kings ended abruptly and they signed John Salmons instead. Are you over that?

A: I still think about it every day. It consumes my life. But I've got to try to move forward and start moving on with my life. It's tough. I left Sacramento and I wish I could still be there today, but it was just a bad situation that happened. It was just a communication error between my [former] agent and the Sacramento Kings. I wish it would have never happened. I hate that I had to get the short end of the stick.



Talkin' Hoops
Do the Mavs have some company when it comes to teams complaining about Dwyane Wade getting friendly whistles? Did Kobe Bryant really deserve a one-game suspension? Is it time to take All-Star voting away from the fans? Marc Stein joins Galloway and Company on ESPN Radio in Dallas (103.3 FM) to discuss all this and more.

Listen to the podcast



Marc's Quote
Nash

"Mike and I haven't really talked about it yet, but I'd be just as happy if Dirk starts."

Suns guard Steve Nash, when asked if he wants to be chosen by West coach Mike D'Antoni as the replacement in the starting lineup for the injured Yao Ming.

My prediction, as stated here last week, is that Nash is far more likely to suggest his good friend Dirk Nowitzki as the starter rather than lobby D'Antoni to choose him. Keeping Nash on the bench would also allow D'Antoni to check his All-Star Suns -- Nash, Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire -- into the game at the same time.



Question Marc
From the Stein Line e-mailbag:


Craig (Tempe, AZ): Hey, Stein: With Mike D'Antoni officially coaching the West All-Stars, what's the over/under? I say 200 points.

Stein: I like your optimism, Craig. Like it a lot.

A legit run at 200 points in an All-Star Game, from either side, would certainly give us a reason to hang on every dribble in the fourth quarter of a game not exactly synonymous with intensity.

However ...

You've got to remember that it's not D'Antoni's Suns playing the East. It's a bunch of guys who never play together. You're expecting them to accomplish an awful lot in one practice if you think we're going to see anything resembling the D'Antoni-Steve Nash system.

You've also got to remember where this game is going to be played. I threw your over/under theory at Nash, who answered with his own (very valid) question: What kind of shape are some of these All-Stars going to be in early Sunday evening after a couple nights of the Vegas good life?

Not in 200-point shape, I'm guessing.



 

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