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12-26-2003, 03:01 PM
Lakers enduring rough stretch

Phil Jackson doesn't want to hear about things getting better once Karl Malone is back from his knee injury. He doesn't want to talk about Kobe Bryant having a cold. And he could care less about anything you have to say about Gary Payton or Shaquille O'Neal.

"We're not a very good team right now," Phil Jackson said in the L.A. Daily News. "We just hit a slump in which we're not a very good basketball club. It's not about being able to compete or competing. It's about not being capable of competing because we're not good enough to compete right now."

The Los Angeles Lakers, yes, those Los Angeles Lakers, may still have the best record in the NBA, but they've also lost two games in a row, four of their last six and were five points away from losing another two, which would have made it six losses in a month that they had only 11 games total to play with only four on the road.

"Fourth quarter, I couldn't make a shot, Shaq couldn't make a shot, Devean [George] couldn't make a shot, nobody could throw the ball in the ocean," said Kobe in the Los Angeles Times after their latest loss against Houston Wednesday night. "That's why we lost -- aside from the fact that our defense [stinks] right now."

Gary Payton
Point Guard
Los Angeles Lakers

27 13.9 3.4 6.6 .479 .685

Well, not exactly.

Gary Payton went 0-for-4 from the free-throw line against the Warriors.

Kobe Bryant is shooting 37 percent from the field in December.

Derek Fisher is shooting 33 percent from the field on the year.

And Shaq? Well, Shaq has tallied 39 points, 23 rebounds and three blocks on 52 percent shooting while the last two opposing centers have tallied 35 points, 19 rebounds and two blocks on 68 percent shooting against him.

"You're just going to lose basketball games," Jackson said in the L.A. Times. "It's part of living with the game. But you want to be competitive in all the games. The part about not being competitive in ballgames where the finish is in doubt until the last minute of the ballgame, that's what a good team's about. [Lacking] that competitive streak, knowing how to keep it close, stay in the ballgame. Those things I didn't anticipate."

Kobe Bryant
Shooting Guard
Los Angeles Lakers

26 21.3 4.5 4.2 .423 .869

And as a result, the Lakers gave up 33 points in the first quarter against the Rockets. They gave up 38 points in the second quarter against the Warriors the game before that. They gave up 101 points to the worst team in the Western Conference after giving up a 19-point lead to the Denver Nuggets and needing a last-second shot to win against a team with a losing record on the road after the Lakers had six days rest.

"You go through the season where you play good and there's stretches where you play bad," Kobe said in the L.A. Daily News.

And we haven't even gotten to the fact that the Lakers gave up 222 points in their two losses last week or that on the season, they are being outrebounded on a nightly basis, 42.6 to 43.2, or that Malone still needs at least one more game to recover from his knee strain.

Meanwhile, the Spurs have won 11 games in a row. The Timberwolves have an even better record than them after winning six in a row and the Kings have the same exact record as the Lakers despite the fact that their franchise player, Chris Webber, has yet to play a game this year due to injury.

"I really can't put my finger on it yet," O'Neal said, "I'm pretty upset, but there's really no need for panic. Because even though we're playing like we're playing, we're still tied for first. Once we wake up, we'll be fine."

Blazers unlikely to trade Wallace
By Greg Anthony
ESPN Insider

It's time to answer some e-mail, and there are plenty of interesting topics to look at.

Let's get right to the issues that many teams are facing and their desire to resolve some of them before the season is totally lost.

D. Taheri, Centreville, Va.: Do you think the Blazers are looking to move Rasheed Wallace, or are they waiting it out for his contract to end? Also, what's with Darius Miles and the DNP's he's collecting? Has Paul Silas given up on him?

Rasheed Wallace
Small Forward
Portland Trail Blazers

25 17.2 7.0 3.0 .434 .716

A: In terms of Rasheed, this is perplexing for Steve Patterson and John Nash, the Blazers' President and GM, respectively. While Rasheed often has been a PR nightmare with this team (especially after his recent comments), he is still their best player. This team is desperate to make the playoffs and own the outright record for most consecutive playoff appearances, something owner Paul Allen covets.

The problem with a trade is that most teams that would be willing to give Portland equal value also want assurances they can re-sign Rasheed, and he has a short list of teams with which he is willing to extend. Also, there still is hope the Blazers can turn things around with the existing roster, making a trade less likely. But being winless on the road doesn't help, and the patience they have shown might start to dissipate.

As for Darius, one of the big reasons he hasn't been seeing many minutes is that he plays the same position as Ira Newble, Kedrick Brown and Eric Williams. And with his inconsistency and the team's continued search for its identity, they are shaking things up a little in the rotations. There are trade rumors surrounding Darius, and a deal could eventually come to fruition, especially with Dajaun Wagner ahead of schedule in his rehab and likely to impact Miles' minutes when he returns. There probably will be another trade made in Cleveland, and Miles could potentially be in the mix.

Prabjodh Sandhu, Pittsburg, Calif.: Do you believe the Kings can win the title?

A: Of course they can -- they are the best offensive team in basketball, and their best player hasn't even played yet. Brad Miller, after becoming an all-star last year, is even better this season. They have tremendous firepower and experience and remind me a lot of Rick Adelman's teams in Portland, but with a higher basketball IQ.

Peja Stojakovic
Small Forward
Sacramento Kings

25 24.3 5.6 2.3 .502 .930

Peja Stojakovic is continuing to play at a high level. He is the best player in the league at moving without the ball, not to mention his deft shooting touch and improving ability to create his own shot. They are the best passing team in the league and do a great job of not turning the ball over. Everything seems to be in place, when Chris Webber returns, for this team to win it all.

The only question is their defense, and it will be that way until this team can defeat the Lakers or Spurs. Both of those teams can defend it a lot better than the Kings and pose the biggest obstacle to them Sacramento's hopes of getting to the finals. I keep repeating this, but no team has won the title without their best players being dominant on the defensive end. Will the Kings be the first to buck the trend? We'll have to stay tuned for that one.

Gregory Nashif, Vancouver, Wash.: After seeing the Spurs play the Blazers on Saturday and capture their 10th-straight win, I think your assessment of the Spurs is clearly in error. This team is late-starting, but they are clearly the best team in the league right now. Hold on to your basketball -- the Lakers are going to have to earn the Western Conference. Hey, any chance of coming out of retirement and playing for the Blazers? They sure could use a good character guy right about now.

Tony Parker
Point Guard
San Antonio Spurs

22 14.3 3.0 5.8 .424 .677

A: Gregory, the Spurs are playing the best basketball in the league right now, and they are defending World Champs and will be heard from before it's all said and done. I will say this again -- I think the Spurs are a very good team; I just don't think they are as good as last year's team. That doesn't mean they can't compete for this year's title. It simply means they are not as deep as a year ago. This is why we play the season out and let the players and coaches determine who will win the title.

Oh yeah: No chance in my returning to the hardwood. I can barely hold my own in pick-up games, much less against the best athletes in the world. Keep the e-mail coming. It's going to be an amazing year in the Association.

Peep Show

Houston Rockets: At 7-foot-6, Yao Ming doesn't mind being the second-or even third-biggest fish in the pond. "It has been very interesting this season after having experienced the media crush last year," said Yao said in the Denver Post. "This year has been much easier. But I still feel that I have to be careful about what I do and say. Yes, (the Anthony-James) rivalry has definitely taken much of the pressure and attention from me. Earlier this year I was asked what I was thankful for this year, and my answer was LeBron James." He continued. "I was a little disappointed not to win the rookie of the year award last year. I can't say I was surprised because the competition between Amare Stoudemire and myself was very close. He had a very good year as well, and I hope we will be good competitors in the league for many years to come."

Los Angeles Lakers: No one's going to confuse Rick Fox with the fifth Beatle but being the fifth Laker is an entirely different thing as the end of his rehab nears. "I could play if I had to right now," Fox said in the L.A. Daily News. "The last two weeks have been very heartening in the sense that two weeks ago, I was still in that realm of uncertainty. But I feel way beyond the point of uncertainty now, and it's just a matter of continued strength building." He tore a tendon in his left foot last year and hasn't played yet. "That hasn't happened yet," he said. "I'll definitely get better. But I'm capable right now, I think, of plugging in and helping."

Cleveland Cavaliers: He is or he isn't 18-years-old. Tracy McGrady can't even decide between beautiful and the opposite when it comes to describing LeBron James. "He's unbelievable," McGrady said in the Orlando Sentinel. "He's not 18 years old. Can't possibly be. If he continues to work hard and stay hungry, it could be ugly." Wednesday night, McGrady scored 41 to James' 34 to lead the Magic past the Cavs. "He's good, but I'm still beter," McGrady added. And James didn't seem to disagree. "He's an all-star," James said. "He is a future Hall of Famer. Guys like him you cannot stop -- you can only hope to contain him."

Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki wasn't sure who to address the tag to after gift wrapping Wednesday night's big win over the Kings. "The whole organization needed the win," said Nowitzki in the Ft. Worth Star Telegram. "We lost four in a row. We didn't look good on the road at all. We talked about defense a lot lately, and still they light us up for 60 in the first half. We just had to be more solid defensively." To which Antoine Walker decided on a new resolution. "Hopefully, this can jump-start our season to the right direction before the New Year starts," said Walker.

Indiana Pacers: Jamaal Tinsley is back, though with the Pacers winning so often you might not have known he was ever gone. "I've got a good feeling about Jamaal coming back into the fold," head coach Rick Carlisle said in the Indianapolis Star. "He's worked awful hard and hasn't gotten a whole lot of notice for it in the last month and a half. Now is the time when it's going to have to pay off for him and pay off for us because we're going to need him." With veteran Kenny Anderson down with an injury, the former starter is expected to back up Anthony Johnson and get significant minutes in the near future. "My confidence is never going nowhere, no matter what they do," said Tinsley.

Bling Dynasty

On the last day of the 2003 Asian Basketball Championships, the play at the Tianrun Ice Skating Arena in Harbin, about a day's bus ride from the Siberian border, is what it's been like all week: dull. So many turnovers, so many fouls, a heavily favored Chinese team leading South Korea by so many points -- it's almost, well, pointless.

And then there is a moment.

Late in the third quarter, Yao Ming blocks a shot, a giant swat that stops a brief South Korean rally. But it's not the block so much as the fist-pump that follows. Short, quick, almost brusque, it is an exclamation point at the end of a sentence that says, "Eat it!"

A stun-gun jolt rips through the crowd. They've played basketball in China as long as anybody, as far back as Naismith. But if you want to know why the game is suddenly revolutionary here, just listen to the reaction of the crowd, the way it breaks into pieces -- not a chant, in unison, generated by the dutiful masses, but the spontaneous exuberance of 5,000 individual voices.

This is the New China, where the once-forbidden "capitalist road" is now a superhighway, and revolutions are midair 360s in the lane. Basketball is cool. And what's coolest about it is its American-ness. Guys in Lakers jerseys slice to the hole on street courts in Shanghai, kids break-dance in front of fake graffiti at the Capital Gym in Beijing. From Hong Kong to the Gobi Desert, everyone seems to know about Allen Iverson's tattoo (the Chinese character for "loyal").

Americans see the triumph of the fist-pump, the irresistible force of freedom, as inevitable -- and maybe it is. Certainly, it worked for Yao and his team. In a gym filled with fans waving thousands of small red flags to commemorate China's 54th National Day, the winners collect their trophy. And so, to a national streak that includes a booming economy, a successful Olympic bid, the wipeout of SARS and the launch of the country's first spaceman, China adds its standing as the world's new hotbed of basketball talent.

The People's Republic jams on.

Nike's Swoosh is more prevalent in China these days than the red star, but aboard a train rolling south through the countryside a week before the basketball championships, there can be no doubt where you are. A peek out the window at the hills of Manchuria and the peasants in straw hats leading donkey-drawn carts reveals the other side of the world. Mao still graces the money. Millions of children still show up at school wearing little red scarves. And there's still only one path to becoming a player in China: the system.

For some, the system starts in Shenyang, a drab northeastern province capital that had its heyday 400 years ago. Now, little distinguishes it except the world's biggest steel factory and an enormous statue of the Chairman in the central square. Shenyang has largely missed out on China's prosperity. Time here has passed slowly.

The local sports school is a case in point. The relic from a long-ago era, when "Learn from the Soviets" was a national motto, stands across a wide avenue from a Tire Town (spelled out in English letters). It's a conglomeration of gray, boxy apartment blocks with cobalt-blue windows, smokestacks on both sides and large Chinese characters on a fence out front that say, "Study Hard, Practice Hard, Be Honest and Innovative."

Pole-vaulters, weightlifers and table tennis players lend the facility the feel of a scale-version Olympic village. If you're from these parts and have a future in basketball, this is your first stop. Days start at 5:30 a.m, with exercise and running. Classes and practice go until dinner. Lights out by 9. The routine is six days a week, 50 weeks a year. Each of the 140 students, some as young as 9, have been pretested to predict eventual height.

The dining hall is airy and unadorned except for a wall-mounted TV that usually blares Japanese cartoons and two flanking posters of Kobe Bryant (still popular, despite the stories the kids here have been reading). Boys scoop rice from a huge iron bowl, then carry their tray of eggs, lamb soup, cabbage salad and noodles to one of the crowded round tables. "We have three maxims here," coach Wang Ping says. "Live together. Practice together. Study together."

Coach Wang, a dark-haired man in his 40s with a lazy eye and a welcoming smile, is the school's dean. Perhaps to counteract any impression that his players are harvested on hydroponic farms, he notes that the coaches are also teachers and the curriculum includes Confucius. "First you learn to be a man," he says. "Then you play basketball."

Nine- and 10-year-old men?

Wang concedes the transition can be difficult; for most boys, it's their first time away from home. But that's how it's done. It's a small sacrifice for a greater good. "They get used to it," he says.

Song Yubo, a fuzzy-headed 10-year-old, comes into the dining hall toting a Mickey Mouse backpack. "It was hard at first," he agrees. "I really missed my father and mother. I even cried in my bed." But now he sees his parents every Sunday and isn't at all unhappy. He feels special. "I'm going to be a basketball star," he whispers.

At an afternoon practice, Song and his mates play with heart. The gym echoes with their whoops and cries as they race up court, dribble behind their backs, twirl the ball on their fingers and sink foul shots, swish, swish, swish -- the ball drawn to the net like a magic trick. Coach Wang is admiring: "These little guys treasure their chance. If the pros only had their spirit, China basketball would improve."

So why hasn't it? If they start so young, why aren't the Chinese yet among the best in the world? Why does a Chinese player have to be seven feet tall to get noticed by the NBA? Wang laughs. "That's a big topic around here," he says. "We're not behind at age 10. It's later. We're world leaders in table tennis, because quickness and agility are Asian characteristics. But the yellow man doesn't grow like the black man."

A strange argument, considering the 7-foot-5 Yao, but Coach Wang isn't talking just about height. He's talking about the athleticism, the speed, the hops. He's talking genetics, DNA. You hear the explanation all over China, from coaches, players and fans: a "superior quality of birth," or "better genes," give the African-American the edge.

The tone isn't altogether bitter. There is a fascination with black culture -- a hip-hop craze is currently sweeping the nation -- not to mention a hefty dose of national insecurity. As one Shanghai cab driver summed up: "How can we compete? They play like they're disco dancing."

The level of awe can be comical. At the public courts by the old People's Stadium, William Nesmith, an American from South Carolina who works here for a U.S. company that makes automotive seats, sits down after competing on the losing side of a three-on-three. William doesn't scrape six feet, and at 44, he's not as quick as he used to be. But he's probably the only black guy within a thousand miles. Cautiously, a teenager approaches him. "NBA?" the boy asks.

Nesmith says the issue isn't DNA. It's game: "Nobody's holdin' their man, no defense. Nobody's takin' it to the hoop ... just kickin' it out. Ain't no competitive spirit."

Back at the sports school, practice has ended. It's already dark as the boys return to the dorm. Out front, a single bulb lights a lone pay phone. Up on the fifth floor, you feel like you're on a submarine. In Song's room, as in all the rooms, there is no TV, no toys, just a pair of metal bunk beds and one of Song's roommates mopping the floor, his flip-flops leaving prints on the wet tile.

If there's time before sleep, Song might borrow a GameBoy, plop on his bed made up with Pikachu sheets and play Super Mario. Or maybe he'll do some homework. But mostly the kids sit around and chat. Song and everyone else here -- and nearly everyone in the system -- is an only child, the product of the government's zero-growth policy. Otherwise brotherless, they now belong to a brotherhood, one bound by a half-court heave of a dream. No matter who you ask, that dream is the same: play in the U.S., play in the NBA.

This desire, stoked by Yao's success and so many NBA broadcasts, may be the surest sign the monolithic system is fraying. Song himself is sure he'll be a point guard for the Bulls. "I'll buy a big beautiful house for my parents in Chicago, then houses for my other relatives. Until then, I'll stay here."

You can't skirt the issue. As scouts scour the plains of Mongolia for the next Yao, his success threatens to stereotype a whole country as nothing but an untapped mine of giants. Then again, with its 1.3 billion people making up 21 percent of the world's population, you have to figure China has at least enough centers for every team in the NBA.

"It's simple Darwinism," says Terry Rhoads, an American in his late 30s, at his office in Shanghai. The distance between Shenyang and Shanghai is roughly the same as that from Boston to Atlanta, but staring out Rhoads' windows at this city's retrofuturistic Jetson spires, it's another world. The tropical sky -- it is 15 degrees warmer here -- is punctured by construction cranes. The city's dialect is virtually unintelligible to northerners.

Rhoads was a marketing director for Nike in China for eight years until he started his own sports marketing company 12 months ago. He helped arrange for Yao to play in Nike events in Paris in 1997 and Indianapolis in 1998, in effect setting the stage for Yao's NBA arrival. "The true sign of a country's basketball system isn't its centers," Rhoads says. "It's what they do with their forwards and guards." Don't get him started on what the Chinese do with their forwards and guards, not unless you want to hear about coaching methods from the '50s and a phenomenal waste of talent.

On a warm, weekday, October afternoon, those outmoded methods are on display at the Shanghai Technical Sports Institute. This is Yao's old stomping ground, but a dark shadow has draped the bucolic campus since he left. Inside the gym, the ball clangs against the rim again and again as the junior squad of the Shanghai Sharks trains; there's not a dunk in sight. The once all-powerful Sharks were 1115 last season, finishing 11th out of 14 teams. Worse, one fan gripes, "they're boring."

Under a Chinese flag that looms over the court, coach Tang Tao grinds out serial cigarette butts on the hardwood. Stretching the length of the court, an enormous banner reads: "Only those who endure the suffering others cannot will know the happiness others cannot." The words have a particularly grim relevance for Sun Xiaoyang, a 17-year-old on the junior team. Unlike most of his teammates, who are tall but razor-thin, the 6-5, 190-pound small forward actually looks like a player. But that wasn't enough to get him on the starting five last season, or on the court much at all for that matter. By all accounts, his game has stalled since he's been here.

By the looks of things, Sun hasn't turned it around. He's stripped of the ball, has a pass stolen, runs listlessly up the court. "He has love for the game, but it's not enough," Coach Tang says. "With his body, he should be on the pro team. But his skills are weak. He lacks basketball consciousness. Why pass now? Why stand there? He must play harder. Maybe he has to suffer more than others. If he doesn't, he'll never make it."

There is plenty of opportunity to suffer on this court. Tang calls a drill in which the players take a charge. One after another, the boys face their man under the basket, set their feet then get shouldered in the chest by the ballhandler and sent sprawling. The Sharks can't shoot, but they can take a hit. This might be what Rhoads was talking about when he said, "It's heartbreaking. You've got diamonds in the rough, and they get sanded away until nothing is left."

In China, the traditional route into basketball is hereditary; children of players become players. But Sun's parents aren't players. They're not even tall. If you ask his mother, Ye Dong Hong, she'd just as soon her boy became a professor. But she and her husband, a driver for a local company, are support-him-whatever-he-does types. Only once did Sun's college-educated parents intervene -- his first year of middle school, when his grades dipped. "We gave him an ultimatum: 'work on your studies or choose basketball as a career,' " Ye Dong Hong says. Sun chose basketball. He was 13.

"The first toy my father bought me was a small basketball," Sun says. "From that first moment I was addicted. I couldn't live without it." He pauses. "I made a decision on an impulse."

And if it doesn't work out? Sun won't think about that. The system might be fraying, but the tradition of perseverance is intact. "I chose this path," he says. "I have a responsibility to pursue it to a good end."

On the oily, green-gray Pearl River, boats slide past the Guangdong Sports Institute on Ershadao Island. This is the south of China, much closer to the jungles of Vietnam than to the bustle of Beijing. By 9 o'clock on this late-September morning you're already drenched in sweat. Fitting, because for Chinese basketball players, this is the hot zone. And that too makes sense, because Guangzhou, a thriving megacity (pop. 6.6 million) near Hong Kong, is the traditional beachhead of foreign influence in China. Currently, it is home to the country's best pro team and latest basketball dynasty-in-the-making, the Guangdong Tigers.

At a plastic table on the wharf, Chen Jianghua's leg bounces under the table like he might just blast off. Chen is the one-in-a-billion find, the wonder kid of China. He led the Tigers' junior squad to an undefeated season this past spring, and is a member of the 2008 Olympic hopeful team. At 15 and only 6-2, he is already being discussed as an NBA prospect, possibly the first Asian point guard to make the jump. "I'm different from the others," Chen says. "I play a different style. I attack with inspiration."

He admits to picking up some of that style from those NBA telecasts, more from his two trips to America. Clearly, something Western has rubbed off. In a photo of his first trip, to a Nike tournament in Portland in March 2002, he smiles from beneath a buzz cut. Now his hair is a devilish porcupine shag. He wears baggy jean shorts that say "Snoop Dogg" up the leg and the latest sneakers sent to him by Rhoads' company. "The kid oozes attitude," Rhoads says. "He's got the mojo."

But even here, what is cultivated aren't spins or dunks or the fist-pumping aggression of those who have the mojo. Coaches at the Institute instill the "European style," an egalitarian effort. The style informs the officiating as well. When Chen spins down the lane and draws contact, more often than not the calls will go against him. It's as if fouls are called to weed out suspect attitudes. "They say my play is too exaggerated," Chen says. "I want to attack, one-on-one, one-on-two. I understand the coach wants me to improve my weak points, but I want to show my advantages."

For now, Chen's willingness to express himself, with the ball and without it, sets him apart. By 14, it had already earned him a reputation as a malcontent. Staring out over the water toward the Institute where he lives, Chen says, "We put a lot of attention on teamwork, but not on personal progress. Maybe I'd have a better chance training in the U.S."

That's not going to happen. The Chinese Basketball Association recently refused to let 21-year-old Xue Yuyang, a 7-1, 235-pound center for Hong Kong's Flying Dragons, play in the States after he was drafted by Dallas and traded to Denver, citing a "lack of experience." In truth, ever since Wang Zhizhi, the first Chinese player in the NBA, decided to stay in the U.S. in the summer of 2002 rather than return home to train with the national team, the rules have changed. "Now," Chen says, "you're lucky to get one or two months in the U.S."

Chen's family lives in an apartment in Panyu, a city 30 miles south of Guangzhou, but they are not city people. The Chens are from Shenzhen, and from the eel-fishing boats on the South China Sea. "I'm not well-educated, all I can do is fish," says his mother, Huang Huanjin. "I didn't lead such a good life. So seeing my son become famous, I am happy."

A short woman in a floral shirt with sun-baked skin, Chen's mother says she had no idea her son would become an athlete. "He was so short, so thin," she says, "I was afraid he wouldn't make it, that he wouldn't get a chance to play." But she's come around. She recalls watching Chen compete in Shenzhen last season. "When he went into the game," she says, "it changed. He showed his beautiful moves. The game became exciting."

Still, her ambitions for her son remain simple: "If he can show his potential, no matter where, I'll be happy. If he can't play basketball, he can always help us with the fish."

Of course, the hooks and nets that interest Chen won't snare eels. When Chen visits home over the National Day vacation, he joins in a friendly game of four-on-four on the concrete courts at Panyu Middle School where he once played. He's in an awkward spot. The last thing he wants to do is show off in front of peers he left behind. Then again, who wants to lose?

He tries nothing fancy, no flying moves to the rim, no ankle-breaking crossovers. Instead, he sticks to long jump shots. He flings one from outside, misses. He misses another from 15 feet. A third misses too. It's like he's doing it on purpose.

But the fourth is a thing of beauty, a shot flicked quickly from deep behind the 3-point line, a shot with virtually no arc that slashes through the net. And in that single instant you see the thoroughbred in him unleashed, all the minute movements coming together, the feet, the hands, the eye, the wrist. Like Yao's fist-pump, the shot is an assertion that can no longer be held down. It is a declaration of independence.

It says China is ready for the next great leap forward.

This article appears in the Dec. 22 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

12-26-2003, 11:03 PM
The only question is their defense, and it will be that way until this team can defeat the Lakers or Spurs. Both of those teams can defend it a lot better than the Kings and pose the biggest obstacle to them Sacramento's hopes of getting to the finals. I keep repeating this, but no team has won the title without their best players being dominant on the defensive end. Will the Kings be the first to buck the trend? We'll have to stay tuned for that one.

The same question could be posed about the Mavericks.