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01-12-2004, 12:59 PM
Ben Wallace is driving the Pistons

Before things spiral even further out of control and the media just hand Isiah Thomas' Knicks the Eastern Conference, you might want to check those box scores again.

The ex-bad boy has stirred things up in New York, but it's Thomas' former teammate, Joe Dumars, who appears to have the most realistic shot at tackling the Pacers and Nets for the Eastern Conference crown. After a terrible December swoon that prompted Dumars to defend his moves this summer to Insider, the Pistons are firing on all cylinders, winning eight straight games.

In Insider's Week 11 wrap, we explore the Pistons' sudden hot streak, the possible end of the Jazz's Cinderella run, Jim Jackson's stellar week in Houston, Lamar Odom's bid for the All-Star game and the future worth of Suns center Maciej Lampe.

Big Ben Fueling the Pistons
Three weeks ago the Pistons looked like a team on the ropes, and GM Joe Dumars was on the defensive. His team had lost seven of its last nine. The Pistons had cracked 90 points just once in the past 13 games. Larry Brown, who was supposed to fix the Pistons' stagnant offense, appeared instead to have made it even worse. Up-and-coming players like Darko Milicic, Tayshaun Prince and Mehmet Okur weren't progressing at the pace some thought they would. Milicic, the No. 2 pick in the draft, was averaging a DNP for the season. The team's confidence seemed shot.

What was going on?

"Growing pains," Dumars told Insider in December. "I thought we'd struggle at some point early. We've got a new coach, a new system, young players and some new players. We had a tough schedule. I was a little surprised by the way we played coming out of the gate and started to believe that maybe we wouldn't have to struggle the way we thought. Now we've hit a slide. I'm assuming we'll continue to struggle a bit until we really learn Larry's offense."

Dumars says the Pistons' early success was a product of them knocking down so many shots.

"We were shooting well at the start," he said. "When you do that, you look good. When the shots stop falling, players have to decide what to do next. Everyone on the team had learned option number one on offense. But option two and three? We're still struggling with that. Guys freeze up a little bit. Nothing's natural. I finally told them this week just to loosen up a bit and play. Eventually they'll get comfortable with the offense and will quit looking so confused out there."

Now, after an eight-game win streak has vaulted the Pistons to the second-best record in the East, those concerns seem to have melted away into the distant past. Those same confused Pistons seem to have figured out how to put the ball in the basket again while maintaining that trademark defensive intensity that propels everything they do.

While they're still no offensive juggernaut, the team has surpassed 90 points in four of its last eight games, including dropping 115 on the Mavericks Sunday night.

"We're getting better," Brown told the Detroit News. "Guys are falling into their roles and there have been some areas that we've really improved in. We've rebounded better. We've defended better. And offensively, we've gotten a better feel for what we are trying to do."

Ben Wallace
Power Forward
Detroit Pistons

36 9.9 13.3 2.0 .422 .548

Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton continue to be the main guns on offense, but the contributions of three other players on the offensive end, Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and Chucky Atkins, are also fueling the Pistons' run.

Brown made it a point in training camp to get Wallace more involved in the offensive mix. The initial experiment had mixed results. In November, Wallace focused so much on his offensive production that his rebounding numbers and his shooting percentage plummeted. It wasn't really until mid-December that the two time Defensive Player of the Year started to get comfortable in his new skin.

"Ben's taken his offense very seriously this season, and it shows," Billups told the Detroit News. "It opens up a lot of things when Ben is scoring, or even if the defense really has to go over and guard him. You see other teams now starting to guard him a little closer. Ben's doing a good job, and I think he's just starting to see what he really can do out there. He's finding his range and feeling out the situations."

Wallace scored a season-high 17 points and grabbed 13 rebounds Sunday against the Mavericks. He also has had nine double-doubles in the last 14 games and is averaging 10.6 points and 14.8 rebounds since Dec. 12. Brown thinks Wallace is just now scratching the surface.

"It does a lot of good for our offense as a whole for Ben to be part of things more," Brown said. "Ben is an excellent passer. He can handle the ball like a two (shooting guard) or three (small forward). He can run the floor. He can shoot. He has all the components you need to be a good scorer in this league.

"It's an adjustment for Ben to think of himself as a scorer, since he's usually been so defensively focused. But he can do more than that to help us.

"I think we're really going to see the major progress from Ben over the summer when he's working on it even more. I think he's going to take a huge leap then, and next season we're going to see even more from him."

The team is also seeing more out of second-year forward Prince and back-up point guard Chucky Atkins.

Tayshaun Prince
Small Forward
Detroit Pistons

37 11.1 5.2 2.6 .455 .754

Prince looked like he had the potential to be a big-time scorer in the league after a stellar playoff performance last season. But he got off to a slow start this season, averaging just 10.1 ppg and 4.1 rpg in December. However, in his last five games, Prince is averaging 13.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.6 spg and 1.6 bpg on 44 percent shooting.

Atkins has rebounded from a slow start to 10.6 ppg on 44 percent shooting from the field. Over the course of the past few weeks, he's been the team's most consistent 3-point shooter, shooting 40 percent from behind the arc.

All of the winning should help quash the rumors that Dumars is thinking about blowing up the young nucleus of this team. Two weeks ago a bad rumor started floating around the league that Dumars was packaging Hamilton and Darko. Not only is the deal implausible from a salary-cap standpoint (Hamilton is a base-year player) Dumars continues to insist that he's not interested in moving his talented young players.

"You can take it to the bank that we're not remotely thinking of doing anything with those two guys," Dumars told Insider late last week. In fact, Wallace, Hamilton, Billups, Okur, Prince, Darko and the Pistons' other first-round pick last year, Carlos Delfino, aren't going anywhere unless Dumars gets blown away with an All-Star caliber player in return.

With that strong of a corp, and with the success the Pistons have shown already this season, you can understand why Dumars is so optimistic.

"I know patience can be a dirty word in this business," Dumars told told Insider in December. "But at the very time people are writing that our window is closing, I'm telling you it's just now starting to open. They gave me that award last year because we surprised a lot of people and turned around a pretty bad team quickly. But I've done more this summer than I did last year. It's just going to take a little longer to see the results. But when they come, we won't be happy just to be in the Eastern Conference Finals."

Those words have never looked truer than they do right now.

Jazz's Cinderella story over?

Word that top forward Matt Harping will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his knee Saturday comes as a huge blow to the Jazz.

After most writers (including Insider) predicted that the Jazz would end the season with the worst record in the NBA, the Jazz have been the feel-good story in the first half of the season. Before losing Harpring on Jan. 3rd, the Jazz were 17-15, eclipsing the win total many had predicted for the entire season.

The team has gone a respectable 2-2 since Harpring's absence, but it's going to be virtually impossible for the team to replace what Harpring gave them every night.

"It's a big loss for us," Greg Ostertag told the Salt Lake Tribune. "Even when Matt had an off-night shooting, he still did a lot of things to help the team. Hopefully it's something he can recover from."

Two guard DeShawn Stevenson has taken the bulk of Harpring's minutes and has put up solid numbers (16 ppg, 6 rpg on 57 percent shooting). Reserve guard Raja Bell is also seeing a little more time. His 25-point, six-rebound performance against Dallas last Monday propelled the team to victory. Rookie Aleksandar Pavlovic has also seen a boost in minutes and had a big 12-point, seven-rebound game versus the Hawks on Saturday.

Andrei Kirilenko
Power Forward
Utah Jazz

36 15.9 7.9 3.2 .464 .807

Will that be enough to keep the Jazz playing .500 ball? The answer probably rests with Andrei Kirilenko. Kirilenko has been the team's most important player so far this season, but his numbers have been down since Harpring's absence. With no one else for the defenses to really key on, Kirilenko has seen the first steady streams of double teams in his career. The result has been a dip in scoring average to 13.2 ppg on just 34 percent shooting from the field in his last four games.

If Kirilenko wilts under the additional load, the Jazz could be in trouble. Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor says help isn't on the way.

"We've got 15 players, and they only allow you 15, so I'm not sure what we can do," he said. "We'll keep monitoring what comes up trade-wise, but we're not going to trade the future for the present."

Action Jackson

Are the days of the Rockets' offensive woes starting to heal? After starting the season with 27th-ranked offense in the NBA (and the second-ranked defense), the Rockets have begun to increase their scoring output of late. The team is averaging 91.7 ppg over its last nine up from the 85.3 ppg it put up in the first 27 games.

Jim Jackson
Houston Rockets

35 11.3 6.0 2.7 .413 .806

Thank forward Jim Jackson for the bulk of that increase. He's averaging 20 ppg and 7.8 rpg over his last four while shooting a sizzling 61 percent from the field and an even hotter 63 percent (17-27) from 3 point land. An additional 15 ppg and 7.8 rpg from Maurice Taylor in January have also helped lighten the scoring load that Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Yao Ming have been forced to carry alone up until this point.

The Rockets have won four of their last six, but after a tough loss at home to the Celtics on Sunday, you wouldn't know it from listening to coach Jeff Van Gundy.

"Again we played with zero team energy to win," Van Gundy told the Houston Chronicle. "I think pretty much until the fourth (we had no energy). But anybody can get desperate in the fourth. That performance out there is why we are who we are, and why we are where we have been. That's who we are.

"I need to find the answer, because here we are, revisiting the same issues. It's just disappointing. Like I said, it's not new. It is what it is. We are who we are. But I know this, we can't stay who we are and do anything significant."

Van Gundy's wrath seems partly directed at Yao Ming, whose play and energy has fallen off dramatically in Janaury. Yao is averaging just 10.2 ppg in January, causing some in the league to wonder whether all that basketball he played for the Chinese national team is starting to catch up with him.

"He just looks dead out there most nights," one Houston scout remarked. "That's not going to earn him any love from Jeff."

Odom an all-star?

Lamar Odom an all-star? It could and should happen this season. Only two other power forwards in the East, Jermaine O'Neal and Ben Wallace (though the all-star ballot still inexplicably lists Wallace as a center even though he hasn't played the position in two years), have had better seasons than Odom. But after that?

Lamar Odom
Miami Heat

36 16.9 9.3 3.9 .412 .731

No one else has really come close. The Nets' Kenyon Martin, the Hawks' Shareef Abdur-Rahim and the Raptors' Donyell Marshall are all having decent years, but Odom's been better. Since a Dec. 3rd game in Detroit, Odom has been a rebounding machine, averaging 10.5 rpg in December and a whopping 11.8 rpg through the Heat's first five games in January. He's also been averaging 18.2 ppg during that month-and-a-half stretch and an impressive 4 apg.

Those numbers are amazing coming from a guy who averaged just 6.6 rpg for the Clippers last season and has never averaged over 7.8 rpg in his career. Odom's ability to adjust from a 3-point shooting, passing wing man into a legit power forward in the East speaks volumes about his talent and a new found toughness.

Since Odom began to board, the Heat have been 10-10, not numbers that blow you away, but in the East and given the Heat's history, impressive nonetheless. We know he won't be voted in. But if the coaches don't put him in as a reserve it's only because a checkered past has tainted them from seeing the obvious -- Odom is a changed player and a changed man.

Lampe the steal of the deal?

Now that Suns head coach Mike D'Antoni has had a chance to look at new center Maciej Lampe, he's wondering aloud why the Knicks ever agreed to give him up.

"I really like him. He has a lot of talent," D'Antoni told the Arizona Republic. "This kid is going to be really good. He just needs more age. As a coach, I know I can give him more years. We'll just have to wait awhile. But he has all the skills.

"He needs to get stronger (upper body) and get experience. He has some things that you can't teach, like a feel for the game and shooting ability. It's a lot easier to wait and let him mature than it is to reconstruct the game. He already has the game."

How does he compare with another former Suns "project," center Jake Tsakalidis?

"We're talking Mars and Venus," D'Antoni said. "We're talking about two different planets. This guy has unbelievable skills. I liked Jake, but Jake was more robotic. This guy is a basketball player. You can't teach the talent he has."

Given the Knicks' need, long term for a center, the inclusion of Lampe in the deal was curious. According to sources, Thomas essentially gave away Lampe after Suns GM Bryan Colangelo inquired.

"Isiah didn't like him. Period," one source told Insider. "He didn't really value him. He gave him away. The Suns would've made the deal without Lampe. I think he made a huge mistake. Down the road, Lampe could've been the answer for them in the middle."

On paper at least, the move is very curious. The Knicks have three centers on their roster -- Dikembe Mutombo, Michael Doleac and Cezary Trybanski. None of them figure into the long-term future of the franchise. Mutombo will likely retire when his contract ends after next season. Doleac hits the free-agent market in July if he isn't traded first and Trybanski, from all accounts, won't ever be a dominant center in the league. With the Knicks locked into so many long-term cap deals, Thomas won't have the room or the draft position to get a great center to patrol the middle anytime soon.

It's probably just a matter of time before Thomas marks the loss of Lampe as the first mistake of his tenure in New York.

Peep Show

Los Angeles Lakers: If it never rains in California, then how come it's pouring now? Shaq is out injured with no definite signs he's getting better. Karl Malone is out injured with signs that he'll be out even longer. "We just have to live with it. I'm not going to express disappointment," coach Phil Jackson said in the L.A. Daily News. "When he's back, it's the right time. I don't even want to talk about it until it's a reality." And now comes news that Gary Payton has a sinus infection that has kept him out of practice and that Horace Grant has flown home to take care of his ailing father. "We have not heard anything from him since (Sunday morning)," team spokesman John Black said.

Orlando Magic: Lee Nailon may not be starting for the Magic these days, but considering that he started the season on the Atlanta Hawk roster before being waived, he's not complaining. "Whatever minutes I was going to get, I was going to try to make the best of them," he said in the Dayton Beach News before helping the Magic stop a six-game losing streak with a win over the Wizards Friday night despite the fact that he hasn't been able to practice since joining the team. "It's difficult because of all the sets and stuff like that," he said. "I'm still learning them. I know a few of them. But my main thing is if you go out and play hard, that'll limit some of the mistakes."

New York Knicks: Not everyone was sad to see Antonio McDyess leave the Garden. In fact, Kurt Thomas, who had lost his job to McDyess and was looking to get out of New York, has now changed his tune. "Definitely," he said to the New York Post about re-signing with the Knicks. "I've been here six years. I love New York. It's great." Of course, he also mentioned that he'd love to play for the Mavericks while the Knicks are still rumored to be shopping him to Portland to the likes of Rasheed Wallace.

Philadelphia 76ers: It's been almost a year since Todd MacCulloch has put on a Sixer uniform and actually played a game, but he has enough problems right now dealing with the tingling in is feet that make it impossible to even run. "I won't give up probably until I felt that everything has been exhausted that comes to me -- ideas, suggestions and treatments from people," he said in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I guess when that runs out, I would have to say, 'OK, I've tried everything that I'm aware of and I don't seem to be getting any better . . . But retirement? No, I'm not ready." MacCulloch has been diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a condition that affects balance and is both progressive and, to this point, incurable. "It is playing with my mind," he said. "I go through mood swings where I feel like everything is going to go all right. Then I go through other times where I find it very hard to be watching. I find myself to be wondering how and why this happened. So it does mess with your mind quite a lot to be so close to what I was doing and just wonder why it hasn't gotten better over time, and why it's still persistent."

Boston Celtics: Officially, Vin Baker is off suspension. Unofficially, head coach Jim O'Brien has no idea when he will use him on the floor. "I guess the first chance I'll get to see him on the court will be at shootaround in Milwaukee," said O'Brien in the Boston Globe. "I really don't have any plan to utilize him in Milwaukee. We've been practicing and playing and we'll just have to let him get back into the scheme of things. I don't have any choice [but to play it by ear]. It's pretty much wait and see, see how Vin is performing in practice and the time that he gets in games. If he earns a lot of playing time, he's going to get it."

Phoenix Suns: The smoke is clearing and the East Valley Tribune is reporting that the Suns are finally settling on a starting rotation of recently rehabbed Amare Stoudemire, rookie Leandro Barbosa at the point, Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion and Jake Voskuhl. "We have to have a commitment to it, and stay the course," head coach Mike D'Antoni said.