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thebac
02-23-2004, 12:39 PM
What happens next in the NBA?

Eighteen hours after Joe Dumars pulled off the trade of the year, NBA GMs were still picking themselves up off the floor.

"Unbelievable," one GM told Insider.

"I've never seen a more lopsided deal in my career," another moaned.

"They're morons," claimed another executive referring to Danny Ainge and Billy Knight. "I can't believe they just did that."

"Detroit just shifted the balance of power in the East," another said. "I think they just became the team to beat."

The reverberations from the last blockbuster in what has been an enormously busy trading season were still being felt as the night wore on. Two Eastern Conference teams in particular, the Pistons and Knicks, have fortified their teams while another East team, the Hawks, called it quits.

What do you bet that Knight is hanging out with Howard Dean in Vermont tonight? The Hawks, with all of their assets, will walk into the summer with Jason Terry, two first-round picks and a large pile of rubble to rebuild. Our guess is that Knight won't be there to see it.

What's gone down in the past few weeks will not only have ramifications on the playoff race, but on what's shaping up to be one of the busiest offseasons in NBA history.

Now that the hangover has subsided, here's the breakdown . . .

THE SEASON

The East is now wide open. With Ron Artest now out indefinitely, the Nets surging under Lawrence Frank, the Hornets getting healthy and the Pistons, Knicks and even the Bucks fortifying their positions, we should be in for a real treat the last trimester of the season.

Joe Dumars has put Detroit in position to make a run at the Eastern Conference title.

Much is going to depend on how quickly the Pistons, Knicks and Bucks can integrate their new talent. The Pistons are six games back from the conference-leading Pacers, but have a favorable schedule and a new low-post man (Rasheed Wallace) to fix their only real weakness.

The Hornets are sitting nine games behind the Pacers, but should be much stronger with Jamal Mashburn back in the lineup. The Bucks will also improve with Keith Van Horn in the lineup, but again, there will be an adjustment period.

The Knicks have been adjusting on the fly, but with the trade rumors now over, I think they'll settle down and really start playing inspired basketball.

Those six teams seem like a lock for the playoffs at the moment. Good luck trying to pick which one comes out of the East. I think you could make an argument for all six teams, though I'm leaning toward the Pistons at this point.

The bottom is going to get ugly. The Magic didn't do enough to turn their season around. Is it just me or does Tracy McGrady look likes he's ready to kill someone? The Sixers are in the same boat with Allen Iverson. If the Hawks win another game . . . I'll be stunned.


The West, on the other hand, did relatively little. The Jazz probably helped preserve a .500 season by adding Gordan Giricek and Tom Gugliotta. In my mind the playoff race there is almost over. There's a pretty big gap between the eight seed, Denver, and the ninth seed, Seattle. The Sonics had a chance to really improve but balked at several interesting trade scenarios. The Blazers are coming together at the right time, but I have a feeling that the dissension with Zach Randolph isn't going away any time soon.
Chris Webber's return should have a major impact at the top of the standings. The Kings have the best TEAM in the NBA right now, and Webber's ability to fit in should make the transition pretty seamless.

The Lakers are getting healthy again, which makes them pretty dangerous, but will they have played together long enough to make a difference?

Minnesota will have chemistry issues once Wally Szczerbiak and Michael Olowokandi return. The Grizzlies probably missed an opportunity to become more dominant by adding Erick Dampier, but I don't blame Jerry West for balking at what the Warriors were asking for Damp. Jeff Van Gundy still has to find a way to get along with Steve Francis, but our guess is that they get that taken care of.

The bottom won't be nearly as bad in the West. The Suns, Clippers and Warriors will jostle for last place, but with little remorse. Both the Suns and Clippers will have windows to improve dramatically this summer. The Warriors? Well . . . they feel at home at the bottom anyway.

THE FALL GUYS

There have already been a record number of coaches fired and it doesn't look like the end will come soon.


The Hawks' Terry Stotts may have just been handed the worst team ever. He has more tenure than any other coach in the East, but there's about a 99.9 percent chance that he'll be looking for work this summer. Billy Knight should probably join him.

The Sonics' Nate McMillan has grown frustrated with the direction his team is heading in. McMillan was holding out hope that GM Rick Sund could move Vladimir Radmanovic, who has no business playing the four, for a real power forward. Will the frustration get the better of him? The players could revolt and Sund may have to send Nate packing.

The Magic insist that Johnny Davis is their man, but with the rest of the Titanic about to sink in the next 30 or so games, it's hard to believe anyone is going to survive in Orlando. GM John Gabriel is going down with the ship, and unfortunately, Davis will probably be right there with him.

The Celtics' John Carroll is as good as gone. The Celtics are getting shakier by the day, and you know that Danny Ainge is itching to bring in his guy to start putting together the pieces.

The Sixers will try to get permission from the Blazers to land Maurice Cheeks this summer. Chris Ford is already in Allen Iverson's doghouse. AI is so tough to move, it probably makes more sense to bring in a coach who can co-exist with Allen. Billy King, on the other hand, probably won't be around long enough to make that decision. The Sixers are a mess and his inability to get something done by the trade deadline just emphasizes it.

The Mavericks are the other team to watch. They have supersized expectations and Mark Cuban won't hesitate to pull the plug on Don Nelson if he feels there's a guy out there who can get more from his team.

Who's going to replace all of those guys? Jim O'Brien, Doc Rivers and even Byron Scott will probably land jobs this summer in the coaching ranks. Possible replacement GMs? Pistons V.P. John Hammond (who turned down the Portland job last summer), and Pacers assistant GM David Morway are at the top of the class. The Pistons and Pacers have become models of how to rebuild without blowing things up and both guys played a big part in their team's success. Both will be getting long looks from a couple of teams contemplating a change.

THE DRAFT


Start with the expansion draft set to be held on June 22. Every team is allowed to protect only eight players, meaning that several teams are going to have some tough choices. For teams that have eight or fewer players on their roster, they must leave one person unprotected. Expect a lot of side deals with the Bobcats as teams try to wiggle and get more cap space.
You could definitely see a team like the Suns (with Jahidi White), the Wizards (Christian Laettner) or the Pistons (with Elden Campbell) try to move a player in the expansion draft to get more room. What is the Bobcats' incentive? Promises of picks, players or both. They'll be in the driver's seat and could really shake things up just days before the draft.


The Celtics now have three first-round picks (their own, the Mavericks' and the Pistons'). The Jazz have three (their own, the Rockets' and likely the Knicks'). The Blazers have two (their own and Memphis'). They now become the power brokers as the draft approaches. With so many young players and international players in this year's draft, it makes little sense to have all of those picks. Expect them to use the picks as bargaining chips this summer.

This is a good year for bigs in the draft, if you don't mind them coming so young. There will be Emeka Okafor (6-foot-9), Dwight Howard (6-11, 18-years-old), Pavel Podkolzine (7-4, 19 yrs), Kosta Perovic (7-2, 19 yrs), Andris Biedrins (7-0, 18 yrs), Peja Samardzski (7-0, 18 yrs), Ivan Chiriaev (7-1, 18 yrs), LaMarcus Aldridge (6-11, 18 yrs.), Robert Swift (7-1, 18 yrs), Rafael Araujo (6-11, 23), Ha Seung Jin (7-3, 18 yrs.) and possibly big guys like Colorado's David Harrison (7-0) and Michigan State's Paul Davis (6-11). That's good news for a lot of vertically challenged teams in the lottery.

Expect the theme of this year's draft to center on the high school kids. As many as eight of them could slip into the first round this year -- a record. Scouts are also predicting another 10 international players to make it into the first round. That really puts a squeeze on the college players who could be looking at a record-low eight spots this year. What does that mean? With no LeBron in the high school class of 2004, this is a prospect draft, meaning no first-year impact players this year with the possible exception of Arizona's Andre Iguodala, St. Joseph's Jameer Nelson and possibly Duke's Luol Deng, if he puts his name in the draft.

THE SUMMER

Several GMs are now predicting that with the increased revenue the league is seeing this year, the cap could raise to $46 or $47 million next year. They also believe there will be no luxury tax for the 2004-05 season, which frees folks up significantly.

The players in free agency? Assuming there's a $46 million cap, the Jazz will have roughly $28 million in cap room. The Hawks are looking at around $20 million. The Nuggets will have between $17 million and $24 million depending on what they do with Marcus Camby. The Clippers will have around $15 million. The Spurs should come in at around $12 million. The Pistons are now looking at roughly $9 to $11 million in cap space. The Suns could are also looking to be in that $9 to $11 million range. And don't forget the Bobcats, who could have as much as $24 million under the cap.
What does this mean? We'll probably see some intense bidding wars and see higher contracts this year than in the past few offseasons. With so much money out there, it's going to be a lot easier for free agents to leave the nest and much tougher for teams to match their restricted free agents.


Re-signing Mehmet Okur is the Pistons' top priority.

The Pistons may be the center of the universe again. All eyes will be on Rasheed Wallace and Mehmet Okur in Detroit. Both are top-six free agents this year.

Here's the bad news for those thinking that Thursday's trade means that one of them is available. Pistons president Joe Dumars wants to re-sign both Wallace and Okur this summer if they both get along over the next 30-plus games.

Sources claim that Wallace has already sent out feelers about staying in Detroit, quashing the notion that he'll only play for the Knicks next season. With the Pistons looking at between $9 and $11 million in cap room, can Joe D get it done?

The Pistons probably have the cap space and flexibility to work something out. If they can get Okur to sign for the mid-level exception (expected to be around $5.1 to $5.5 this year) then they can use their Bird Rights to get Wallace. If Okur is commanding more money on the open market, the Pistons can always try to package a few more players to a team with cap space to get far enough under to sign them both this summer.

That's bad news for just about everyone in the East.


The Kobe Bryant situation is going to be a mess. If the trial isn't over by the summer, does a team really risk throwing a huge contract his way if he's headed off to jail? It could really slow things down, and who has the patience to wait around for a long shot?

Other top free agents like Steve Nash, Antoine Walker and Emanuel Ginobili are probably staying put. Kenyon Martin will probably be the best guy who's actually available on July 1st. After that guys like Quentin Richardson, Jamal Crawford and possibly Erick Dampier will be the best available.

Looking for some mid-level free agent bargains? Here's an early list of who might sign with your team even if it's over the cap: Vlade Divac, Gary Payton, Marcus Camby, Stromile Swift, Antonio McDyess, Brent Barry, Carlos Arroyo, Gordan Giricek, Etan Thomas, Rodney White and Adonal Foyle.

Kings must develop inside presence

Nowadays, the Sacramento Kings live by Peja Stojakovic and die by Stojakovic.

And why not.

The all-star shooting guard is a legitimate MVP candidate this season. He is the third-highest scorer in the league at 25.3 points per game. He is the best free-throw shooter in the league at 92.3 percent. He is the best 3-point shooter in the league with 151 triples while shooting 43.1 percent. He's also shooting 48 percent from the field to go along with a career-high 6.2 rebounds per game and career-high 1.4 steals.

And to top it all off, the Kings have the best record in the league at 38-14.

That's the good news. And there's lots of it.

But here's the bad news glossed over by all of the former.

The Kings lost Thursday night, 92-75, to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the most anticipated game of the week. But, then again, it was just another game in just another week in a very long season if it weren't for some peculiar statistics that are becoming routine.

"How badly we played," said Kings guard Bobby Jackson in the Sacramento Bee. "I don't remember the last time we played like that. And we still had a chance to win the game. That's the scary thing about it. You have to take the bad with the good."

Well, here's the bad.

Peja Stojakovic
Small Forward
Sacramento Kings
Profile


2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM PPG RPG APG FG% FT%
51 25.3 6.2 2.3 .480 .923

Thursday night, Stojakovic went 5-for-15 from the field while the team, as a whole, went 30-for-89 from the field (33.7%) and 3-for-15 from 3-point range (20%) to score a season-low 75 points in four quarters.

But the very game before, against the Boston Celtics, the Kings went 47-for-84 from the field (56%) and 16-for-30 from long range (53.3%) while Stojakovic shot 8-for-14 for 57.1 percent to score 127 points in four quarters.

Sometimes it can take only two days to show the dangers of relying on the outside shot.

And sometimes it takes three days.

On Jan. 4 versus the Seattle Sonics, the Kings shot 52-for-89 from the field (58.4%) and 12-for-23 from 3-point range (52.2%), while Stojakovic went 9-for-17 for 52.9 percent, to score 130 points.

But on Jan. 7, against those same Sonics who had time to adjust their defensive scheme, the Kings shot 32-for-85 from the field (37.6%) and 6-for-25 from 3-point range (24%), while Stojakovic went 5-for-14 for 53.7 percent, to score only 93 points.

That's a difference of 37 points in only three days against a non-playoff team, which we could simply right off if it weren't for Thursday night's game and the fact that it's happened before in this season.

On Jan. 29, against the Spurs, the Kings shot 37-for-74 from the field (50%) and 9-for-14 from 3-point range (64.3%) while Stojakovic shot 6-for-14 for 42.8 percent to defeat the defending champs.

But on Feb. 6, a week later against those same Spurs, the Kings shot 30-for-81 from the field (37%) and 6-for-18 from long range (33.3%) as Stojakovic went 6-for-18 for 33.3 percent and the team lost.

Of course, much of this has to do with the absence of Chris Webber, who was injured and is now suspended, though this is nothing new to the Kings as their leader has missed 122 games in the six seasons he has been in Sacramento.

In fact, he has never played more than 76 in any one season and that was his rookie year 11 seasons ago. This year, he's missed a career-high 52 games and will miss at least six more games due to the suspension, meaning that he won't play until March 2.

And all of this seems so deceiving when looking at the Kings overall record.

As Sacramento Bee columnist Mark Kreidler points out:

"Lost Chris Webber for 20 games at the outset of the 2001-02 season. Went 15-5. Lost Mike Bibby for 27 games at the outset of the 2002-03 season. Went 21-6. Went 10-5 without Webber last season, 8-2 without Peja Stojakovic, 14-9 without Bobby Jackson. Went 37-13 without Webber to begin this season, took an All-Star break, watched Brad Miller suffer the most ludicrous injury yet, learned Webber would tack on another eight games to his collective down time, beat crummy Boston to move that mark to 38-13."

And everything's been fine and dandy so far.

"The schedule's not gonna stop," head coach Rick Adelman said in the Bee. "It didn't stop for the Lakers when they had injuries, and it's not going to stop for us. It's a definite load for our team, but it is what it is. ... The margin for error is going to be a little less than what it was, but we're still pretty darn good offensively, and we've got to find a way to bust through some of these games."

Brad Miller
Forward-Center
Sacramento Kings
Profile


2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM PPG RPG APG FG% FT%
50 15.0 10.8 4.7 .513 .785




Webber averaged 23 points per game last year as the team scored 101.7 per game. This year, the Kings are scoring 105 a game as new King Brad Miller has made up 15 points a game while Stojakovic has increased his scoring by 6.1 points (from 19.2 to 25.3) to account for 21.1 of Webber's missing 23.

The problem, though, is that they don't print up T-shirts or hand out rings for regular-season champions. Over the last three-and-a-half seasons, the Kings have won a remarkable 213 games of 298. By comparison, the Lakers have won 197 games of 298 while the Spurs have won 212 of 300 games.

But the playoffs are a completely different story as the Lakers, in that span, have won two titles and the Spurs the other while the Kings have yet to even make it to the NBA Finals.

And don't think that's going to change this year in spite of the great record, the great shooting and the great Stojakovic.

Over his playoff career, Peja has averaged only 16.7 points per game on 42 percent shooting. Miller has averaged only 9.2 points per game on 46 percent shooting. Of course, those players are now at the peak of their careers and should increase those numbers by this year's participation but that doesn't change the fact that they perform worse in the postseason than they do during the regular season.

Even scarier is that you can also add in Webber's numbers to that indictment.

By comparison, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon (the lead players who have won the last 13 titles) all have higher scoring averages in the playoffs than they do during the regular season.

And, by comparison, none of those players rely on the outside shot.

They are able to change and adapt and rely on drives to the bucket for higher percentage shots and increased trips to the free-throw line as playoff series get tighter and tighter the longer they go on.

But these are the Kings we have grown to love. Or hate. Minus, of course, 58 games from Webber this year with an all-star season of Miller added in and lots and lots of Stojakovic as the trading deadline come and goes with the Kings standing atop the league standings with the best record in the league.

"I was going to dance with the guys I brought," president Geoff Petrie said shortly thereafter.

Comfort Zone

Photo shoot over, Vince Carter is bundling up for the frigid Toronto air this mid-January afternoon when he notices some Polaroids on the studio's blond-wood table. They're all of him, a rough draft of what the photographer had in mind. One in particular stops him. Staring out is a preview of when his playing days are long over, dim light and shadows conspiring to make Carter appear twice his about-to-turn 27 years. And the smile is not his trademark toothy, 500-watt version, but a weary old-man-on-a-park-bench grin. It's no stretch to imagine slippered feet and a slight paunch below the photo's bottom frame. Half-man, half-a-grazing.

Carter isn't ready to hang 'em up yet, of course. He still toys with the idea of entering one more dunk contest, firm in the belief he has a few more aerial wonders to perform. Nor has he abandoned the idea of winning a ring. But having already been feted as the Next Coming, and subsequently dismissed as the Latest Disappointment, he'll work off his own definition of success from here on out, thank you very much. It's a definition that includes walking in his college graduation in Chapel Hill. And getting engaged to his college sweetheart, former Tar Heels cheerleader Ellen Rucker. And having kids and being able to play with them, pain-free.

And it includes loving that he gets to play basketball for a living.

Here's what it doesn't include: going for a few more dunks if it means risking his knees, or a few more wins if it means playing in pain, or declaring his team's superiority and then backing it up. Because he's tried all that. Playing hurt only earned him ridicule, and a bad right knee that came out of favoring the left one, and then a bad left ankle from favoring the right knee. Speaking up made him look foolish, because the Raptors didn't back up his playoff vow two years ago until after Vince called it a season and underwent knee surgery. And none of it got him closer to a ring.

"You can spend the rest of your life trying to please everybody and forget about who you are," Carter says. "But it's a conflict of interests. You start to worry about the wrong thing, and then you lose focus of the big picture, which is playing basketball. I have this job because of what I can do, and I'm going to do it. If you don't like it, I'm sorry. I hope you change your mind."

Then again, maybe you're one of those who made him the top All-Star vote-getter for the fourth time in five years (Kobe was tops in '03). That's a level of popularity attained only twice before, by Dr. J and Michael Jordan. Fans don't seem to care that he's four years removed from winning the 2000 dunk contest and nearly three away from that epic playoff battle of 50-point performances with Allen Iverson. Or that he has no championship ring or scoring title. Maybe it's because he has no arrest record or illegitimate children, either.

"I'm trying to figure it out like everyone else," he says of his All-Star reign. "To me, popular is Allen Iverson. He's the guy I'd expect to lead in votes. I don't know the how and why, but I smile every night when I think about it."

There are others who don't understand it either, only it doesn't tickle them nearly as much. For a middle-of-the-pack team in the East, Carter's next-MJ talent provides the Raptors with an edge that can put them over the top on any given night. But Carter can't be counted on to put his team on his shoulders. Every possession in the rugged East is as much a chance to wear down the opponent or draw a foul as it is to score a stylish two points. Carter can play that style, and often does, just not always, which may explain why the Raptors have hovered around .500 all season. With Toronto's fate riding on how much Vinsanity rules, it can drive a coach or teammate crazy when he appears to downshift, even for a quarter.

Case in point: the Raptors are in Detroit on a Wednesday night in January to face a Pistons team that had won nine in a row, including the last three by an average of 16 points. Vince is in attack mode tonight, which means the Pistons can't stop him. He hits three lay-ups, a pair of driving midrange jumpers and five of seven free throws to carry the Raptors to an 11-point halftime lead.

And then someone else comes out of the dressing room wearing No.15 for the second half. His third-quarter approach consists of off-the-dribble fadeaway jumpers fired early in the shot clock from just inside the arc. If there's a holy trinity of don'ts in the NBA, that's it. The Pistons roar back. For each VC fling, Toronto coach Kevin O'Neill has a different response. There's the tortured snarl, the pirouette, the head-and-shoulder slump. He gestures to head athletic therapist Chuck Mooney to include the last misfire in the next day's tape session. Finally, O'Neill outright pleads: "Vince, listen to me, drive it!"

By now, the Raptors' lead is gone, and it's a seesaw game. The real VC makes some cameos. When he attacks, the Pistons send him to the line or double-team him, and when they do he finds an open teammate. Just like that, the Raptors are ahead again. But when he relies on his jumper, Detroit invariably scores off the long rebound. During a timeout with just under two minutes left, Milt Palacio, Toronto's backup guard, says, "Vince, you've got to drive." Carter responds, "There's nowhere to go!"

Despite the protest, he tries, and is rewarded with two buckets in the paint. But it's too late. Detroit holds on, 95-91.

Neither the process nor the outcome matters to Debbie Bjorgaard and her 11-year-old son, David, sitting six rows behind the Pistons bench. Tonight's tickets are a gift from mother to sonCarter is his favorite player. David is easy to spot among the sea of Pistons fans; he's the one wearing the No.15 Raptors jersey. "It's one of the jerseys I can let my son wear," Debbie says. "He has Kobe's, too, but we've had to put that away."

This is the type of respect Carter craves. And he's even beginning to get it from his current teammates, who are learning to appreciate the way Carter conducts himself. At least he no longer hears that he lacks leadership skills, a frequent refrain from one-season wonders like Keon Clark and over-the-hill veterans like Antonio Davis. (Clark left as a free agent two years ago; Davis is now in Chicago.) Newcomers Jalen Rose and Donyell Marshall are more than happy to share the load with Carter. "When you play against him, you're just worried about his scoring," Rose says. "But he can also dribble, pass and shoot. And I've found out he's a good teammate. He doesn't consider this a one-man show."

Of course, Carter's skills have always been above reproach. It's his heart that's been suspect. The night after the Pistons loss, the Raptors are in New Orleans. Carter takes off for a dunk but comes up short and lands out of bounds, clutching his right knee. No one on Toronto shows any concern. Even when he's helped to the bench, and then to the locker room, the Raptors go on, business as usual. Morris Peterson, meanwhile, limps around on an ankle that had him on crutches the night before, logging 39 indispensable minutes in a 78-74 overtime win. "Soldiers don't sit," he says later.

That works for O'Neill, who has hung a "MEN WORKING" sign on the door leading to the Raptors' practice court. But publicly, O'Neill accepts that his star doesn't have a hard-hat mentality. "I just see him as a young player who is still developing," O'Neill says. "The burden of a star can sometimes be overwhelming. Everyone expects you to come through every time. You can't."

Carter understands that now. More than that, he's comfortable with it. It doesn't hurt that expectations have slipped. The Raptors, once dark-horse title contenders, will be lucky to make the playoffs. Carter, the leading scorer on the gold medal-winning 2000 Olympic team, was a prequalifying fill-in last summer for the 2004 squad. His jersey is still a top-20 seller, but it was once one of the top two. Though he still has a signature Nike shoe, LeBron is now clearly the center of Nike's basketball universe. "This is a great position to be in," Carter says. "I don't have to be considered the best player, I don't have to be the most popular. Being in the middle is great for me."

Heretical as it sounds, Carter will no longer buy into the play-like-there-is-no-tomorrow credo. Play hard? Sure. Chase a title? Super. Destroy your body and forfeit the pleasures of a normal life for the sake of winning, when there's no guarantee that will be enough? No thanks. "The thinking with the doctors and teams is to get you healthy and back on the court," says Michelle Carter, his mother and business manager. "But the great misnomer is 'healthy.' They patch you up. I tell Vince to listen to his body. You're Vince, I say, not invincible."

It would be easier to convince the Carters that their priorities are out of whack had Vince not been so electric for Team USA in Puerto Rico. After taking the entire summer off to rest his surgically repaired knees and gimpy left ankle, he was the VC of old. So when he began the regular season cracking off three 30-plus games in the first seven, the great expectations returned. His average field goal attempts, up from 21st to eighth in the league, and free throws per game, up from 57th to 16th, suggest he's being more aggressive than last season. If the Raptors haven't scared anyone yet, it may have as much to do with adjusting to a new defensive system and a sideline full of injuries (to Palacio, rookie sensation Chris Bosh and Michael Curry) as with Carter's performance.

It's possible the source of Carter's All-Star popularity is selfishness. Maybe the masses think that, by making sure he's around All-Star Weekend, there is at least the chance of getting another demonstration like the one that earned him the half-man, half-amazing tag. They want to see him hang from the rim by his elbow after jamming the ball with his entire arm inside the basket, as he did at the 2000 dunk contest. Could it be that in Carter's case, the promise of style has trumped the potential of substance?


"If you're starting a team, there are probably eight or nine guys you'd take ahead of him," Rockets GM Carroll Dawson says. "But this is a league where athletic ability has moved to the forefront. You come to watch people do what you can only dream about. And he does that, maybe better than anybody."

Mom prefers the new Vince precisely because she wants him able to do what everybody else can. She sees Raptors GM Glen Grunwald hobbling around on a bad knee, injured after his playing days at Indiana U. were over, and pities him because he can't play with his 18-month-old son. She sees a different future for her own son. "I don't want him to live for this moment," she says. "I want him to live for a moment in 2012."

Similarly, forfeiting a few hours of rest before the seventh game of the 2001 Eastern Conference semifinals to walk in his graduation ceremony remains, to this day, a no-brainer.

"I wouldn't trade seeing him come down the stairs in his gown for all the money in the mint," Mrs. Carter says. And whatever his scoring average, she doesn't think it can match the value of Vince personally answering e-mails submitted to his website every few weeks.

"A lot of people take a guy being genuine and humble for being soft," Rose says. "That's a mistake. A lot of people want the things he has, and I like the way he handles them with humility."

Funny how stuff like that can still matter. Djanka, the studio manager at the photo shoot, knows nothing about basketball, but she too has an opinion about Carter. "That face," she says sharply, jabbing at the Polaroids, "will sell a lot of magazines. You know why? Sincerity. If you've been around this business for a while, you know what sells. People look at the eyes. They know a good soul when they see one."

"That," she says, finger poised to squash Carter's mug again, "is a good soul."

Scoring numbers can be deceiving

Does it really matter if Allen Iverson is leading the league in scoring at 27.43 points per game if, between Dec. 12 and Jan. 3, he actually averaged 0.00 points per game as the Sixers went 3-7 in that span to fall to 22-31 on the year and a half game out of the playoffs?

With Iverson, the Sixers are 19-24 and, by that percentage, are a half game ahead of Boston for the final playoff spot.

But look even closer.

In those seven games that the Sixers lost in the stretch that Iverson was injured, their average margin of defeat was 6.5 points while the leading scorer for the Sixers averaged 20.2 during that span, which is a 7.2 drop from what Iverson averages as their leading scorer.

Do the math, carry the cornrow and realize that the top scorer on any NBA team is only valuable if he is actually on the floor playing for that team.

So this week, instead of just analyzing the top scorers in the NBA by calculating their averages based on the games they've participated in, we figured out their scoring averages based on the total number of games their teams have played.

So, while Iverson is at 27.4 for the 39 game he's played in, he's only at 20.1 for the 53 games the Sixers have played.

Here's how the rest of the scorers fared.

Most Reliable Scorers

1. Tracy McGrady, Orlando Magic
True PPG: 25.2 (1,362 points in 54 team games)
His first season in Orlando, T-Mac played in 77 games. The following season, he played 76. Last year, he played in 75. At his current pace, he will play in about 76, but all signs indicate that it could also be 74 or 73 or you get the picture. With his chronic back problems, he's never played more than 79 games in a season in his career and, to add insult to injury, he's never had to shoot more to get less. Even last year, he averaged 24.1 shots per game to eventually lead the league in scoring at 32.1. This year, he's shooting the ball 24.7 times a game and averaging 27.2. The added strain, the added frustration, the added number of double-digit losses may be too much to bear. But, then again, that second scoring crown could be his sole motivation. On the NBA's list, he's 0.2 points behind Iverson. On this list, he's 5.1 points ahead of him.

2. Peja Stojakovic, Sacramento Kings
True PPG: 24.9 (1,246 points in 50 team games)
Missing games was never a major problem for Peja, but playing injured was. Year after year, international tournament after international tournament until, finally, the best shooter in the game takes the biggest shot of his NBA career and airballs it from the wing during the 2002 Western Conference Finals against the Lakers because his ankle is so tweaked he can barely walk without leaning. This year, he's not only injury free, he's pain free, shooting a blistering 48 percent from the field, 42 percent from 3 and 92 percent from the line. You try and figure out which category isn't his career high considering that only two players in the entire league have taken more 3-pointers. He was an all-star at 19.2 points per game last year. So what does that make him at 25.4 points per game this year?

3. Kevin Garnett, Minnesota Timberwolves
True PPG: 24.7 (1,287 points in 52 team games)
If leading the team in scoring, rebounding and steals while placing second in assists and blocks isn't enough, then, certainly, being first in rebounding in the entire league while placing fourth in scoring and seventh in blocks should. But if not, realize that this guy has carried this load for 52 of the team's 52 games, starting with 39 minutes a game in November and currently running at 39 minutes a game in February. And get this. Despite the current trend of big guys shooting more and more triples, KG is posting a career high in scoring by launching fewer and fewer bombs. In nine seasons, he's missed only 11 games, and have we mentioned that he's also leading the team in minutes played placing him eighth overall in the league?

4. Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics
True PPG: 23 (1,242 points in 54 team games)
The next-highest scorer on the Celtics has been with the team for only 29 games. The next-highest scorer behind him will be released any day now after playing in only 37 games. That leaves only one player on the entire roster averaging more than 10 points a game. That leaves Paul Pierce taking tougher and tougher shots when and if he can even get them off. Believe it or not, he is actually taking fewer shots per game this year than he has in the last two when Antoine Walker was on the team to keep him from being double and triple teamed. Forget Gang Green. This is a one-man purple heart.

5. Michael Redd, Milwaukee Bucks
True PPG: 21.9 (1,118 points in 51 team games)
They finally turned this lefty loose and look what he does. Yes, he's a starter now. Yes, he's a Top 10 scorer. Yes, he's an all-star. And, NO, he hasn't missed a single game this season or last season despite jumping from 28 minutes a game to 37. And don't think this kid wasn't ready for it. He took 2.2 free throws last year in reserve and drilled 80 percent of them. This year, he's taking 4.7 free throws a game out front and in charge, drilling 88 percent of them. Last year, he tallied 1,241 points as the best sixthman in the game. This year, he's at 1,118 with 31 games still to go.

Least Reliable Scorers

Gilbert Arenas, Washington Wizards
True PPG: 8.6 (431 points in 50 team games)
Gilbert Arenas played in 82 games last year, started 82 games last year and walked away with the Most Improved Player award for the season after averaging 18.3 points per game. This year, he's averaging 18 points per game again but has played in only 24 games and started only 23. He's actually missed more games than he's played, which makes it kinda tough to not take him off this list entirely and simply throw him on the scrap heap with Chris Webber, Grant Hill, Antonio McDyess, Jamal Mashburn and teammate Jerry Stackhouse. But he signed the whopping new contract after only his second year and I assume he's still cashing the checks in his third.

Ray Allen, Seattle SuperSonics
True PPG: 11.8 (616 points in 52 team games)
Ray Allen went his first five years without missing a single game. But in his last two and a half, he's missed 44. Now, that may not affect Western Conference coaches who still voted him onto the All-Star team despite missing 25 games this season, but it is it going to put a serious hurt on his scoring average for this list. He shot 43 percent last year from the field and is shooting 43 percent from the field this year. He shot 37 percent from long range last year and is shooting 37 percent from long range this year. The obvious difference is that, last year, he took 1,363 total shots. This year, if he maintains his current pace and doesn't miss another minute to injury, the most he'll take is 1,066.

Shaquille O'Neal, Los Angeles Lakers
True PPG: 14.5 (729 points in 50 team games)
Shaquille O'Neal has never played 82 regular-season games in a season. It's been 10-and-a-half years since he's played 81. As a Laker, he's averaging only 64 games a year. At his current pace, he'll be lucky to play in 58 this year. Add in Kobe, Karl and Payton and it's easy to see why the All-Star MVP is on pace to score the fewest amount of points in his career (20.8 points per game this year compared to 27.3 career) while taking the fewest amount of shots (13.2 per game this year compared to 18.7 on his career).

Allan Houston, New York Knicks
True PPG: 14.7 (799 points in 54 team games)
Former Knick leading scorer Allan Houston, meet current Knick leading scorer Stephon Marbury. And if you thought it was tough leading the team in scoring while injured, try leading the team in scoring with Starbury, Penny and a rejuvenated Kurt Thomas all on the floor despite being healthy. Since coming to Knicks in 1997, Houston missed only 10 games. This year alone, he's missed 13 and counting with a Madison Square Garden Renaissance in full swing. There's a new boss in town, a new center and, apparently, a new best player.

Elton Brand, Los Angeles Clippers
True PPG: 14.9 (764 points in 51 team games)
How does a career 20 and 10 guy averaging 20.1 and 11.7 on the season with almost three blocks per game on 51 percent shooting miss an all-star selection Well, he misses 13 games at the start of the season after busting his foot in the first game of the year after tallying 21 points, 15 boards and eight blocks in that game on 58 percent shooting. By those averages, that's 261 points, 152 rebounds and 38 blocks that might have made a substantial difference on the Clippers' 6-7 record while he was gone.

Peep Show

New Jersey Nets: Team president Rod Thorn has two reasons to disagree with Byron Scott's claim that the team didn't play hard for him. "If the team didn't play hard for Byron, we wouldn't have been to the finals twice," said Thorn in the New York Times. "For whatever reason, we've just been playing better, shooting the ball better, defending better. I can't say it's any one thing. I think by and large our players play very hard all the time. Maybe the energy level isn't quite the same when things aren't going well. I would never say the team didn't play hard for Byron. The success we had with Byron shows that." But Scott sees and says differently. "I've heard those things as well, and being on the outside looking in, watching some of the games, now it looks pretty obvious to me now as well, too," Scott said.

Los Angeles Lakers: After three ejections in 10 games and four for the season, Gary Payton admits that it's time to chill out. "I know when it's time to cut it out and leave it alone. I'm going to leave them (referees) alone," he said in the Los Angeles Daily News. "It's coming towards playoff time, I'm just going to have to walk away from it. I'm going to still talk. I'm just going to talk to my teammates now. I'll talk to my teammates and have fun that way." But he said his latest antics did not include a biting incident with Speedy Claxton as some believed. "We held each other, we grabbed each other, we went into the (table), and it was over," Payton said. "And all of a sudden, we're getting pushed and everybody's falling ... and then we get ejected for no reason."

Dallas Mavericks: That sigh of relief coming from Dallas is Antoine Walker happy to be still in a Maverick uniform. "No question it is [a relief] for everybody," he said in the Dallas Morning News. "Our goals are set very high here. And I like this group of guys. I'm enjoying my time here, and I want to get the opportunity to see how it all works out. I think we got a shot at this whole thing, but we can't really tell about this team until the playoffs." Walker has been in a shooting slump as of late and worried that the tem might ship him off. "I'm getting good shots; I'm just not making them," he said. "With so many scorers here, you have to just keep playing and do the other things. I'm more disappointed with myself because I'm trying to get more consistent, but I'm going through a tough stretch. You don't want to go through these times and hopefully, they don't last very long."

Miami Heat: You can't keep a good man down and Caron Butler says that he's a good man. "I've told coach and everybody in this organization, 'I'm not going to be broken,' '' said Butler in the Miami Herald during a season full of injuries and dissapointments. ''This team needs me more than ever. Everybody else is playing up to par. Guys are really stepping up. As far as an energy standpoint, I am, too. But there's still a gap in the scoring department, and I have to be a little more productive out there. That's a challenge I really accept.'' And his teammates agree. ''Look at him,'' center Brian Grant said. "He's out there now putting up extra shots. He comes in early, gets treatment, he's doing everything he has to do. A lot of guys go through [injuries] and they don't do that. They just sit around feeling sorry for themselves. But not Caron. He's doing everything he can do. Some guys want things to be given to them. He's working for it.''

Toronto Raptors: Chris Bosh may be only a rookie, but he's also the best post player on the Raptors roster and the one they'll miss while he's on inured reserve. "Without a doubt Chris has been asked to do too much," said head coach Kevin O'Neill in the Toronto Star. "Ideally you would like to bring Chris Bosh off the bench, in an NBA situation, in his first year, and play him 15 to 18 minutes a game behind two to three experienced post guys. I look at Chris and I don't know how much he'd be playing for the Knicks. I don't know how much he'd be playing for Detroit. I don't know how much he'd be playing for Philly even. If I had different choices, I'd do that. But I think it's in our best interests to play him these kinds of minutes."