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02-25-2004, 01:16 PM
Nets' Frank enjoying the moment

Apparently, winning every single game isn't quite enough for the New Jersey Nets' front office.

Since taking over as head coach of the team, Lawrence Frank has gone 13-0, winning by an average of 12.7 points per game as the Nets have gone from a mediocre 22-20 to 35-20 and second-place in the Eastern Conference.

They are, no doubt, the hottest team in the NBA, an almost certain playoff contender and, perhaps, the favorite to return to the NBA Finals for the third year in a row.

The problem, though, is that Frank is still listed as the "interim" head coach and does not have a contract that extends beyond this season.

"I don't have any concern about that," said Frank in the New York Daily News. "The only concern that we have is the team. We're not concerned about contracts, whatever. It's totally irrelevant to what we're trying to get done."

But ESPN understands the magnitude of the 13-0 streak, the longest in professional sports history by a new coach. They sent their Outside The Lines crew over to the Nets' locker room to get the story. CNBC was already there, as was CNN.

Interim coach Lawrence Frank's stock elevates with each record-setting Nets victory.
Perhaps they've forgotten that they are, indeed, the New Jersey Nets, proud owners of a 903-1,279 franchise record. In their 27 years as an NBA club, they've had only nine winning seasons. An average season has them finishing at 34-48.

They almost lost Jason Kidd to free agency last year. They could lose Kenyon Martin the free agency next year.

This year, they are on course to go 53-29, which would be the best season record in franchise history.

Or maybe they've forgotten that Frank's best friend is Andy Miller. You might not know him from Adam, but Kevin Garnett does. He's the agent who got KG the highest salary in NBA history, a contract that will pay the Timberwolves forward $28 million this season alone.

More than Shaq. More than Tim Duncan. More than anyone else in the entire NBA.

Maybe you haven't heard that, as an 11-year-old, Frank saved up his paper route money to buy a video recorder to tape Knicks games so that he could sketch out plays. Or, as the Baltimore Sun continues, he coached the local Catholic Youth team despite being Jewish. Or that he was his high school's assistant coach despite being cut three times from the team. Or that he went to Indiana not to play but to learn coaching from Bobby Knight.

This guy was born to coach. All he wants to do is coach. You get the distinct feeling that he would be just as happy to coach a pee wee team as any NBA team so long as it was basketball.

How about the Hawks? Or the Celtics? Or the Sixers? Or the Bulls? Or the Magic?

And that's just the Eastern Conference jobs that will be available this summer.

So, the problem isn't that Frank looks perfectly at peace with himself and his situation. The problem, for Nets fans, anyway, is that the Nets' front office also looks at peace despite the situation.

"That will take care of itself," Nets CEO Rod Thorn said.

Bucks could stop here

It isn't the Knicks or the Raptors or the Heat who are going to catch the Bucks.

It isn't the scoreboard or the standings, but rather the clock.

After a 54-game season still in the unfolding in which they've scratched and clawed to an impressive 29-26 record to come within half a game of the fourth seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks now face the toughest March schedule in the Eastern Conference.

One-half game. Point zero, zero, nine percentage-wise behind the New Orleans Hornets.

But that could mean all the difference in the world.

The Hornets, on the other hand, face five straight opponents who have sub .500 records. Then, after a game in Houston, they get another five opponents with sub .500 records. This is key for them. They're currently the fourth-seeded team in the Eastern Conference but only a half game ahead of the aforementioned Bucks, who not only have a four-game road trip to open the month of March but also a five-game West Coast trip near the end of it with four of their six homes games against teams with winning records.

Now, home-court advantage may not mean a lot to the Hornets with a decent 13-15 road record, but it would be a world of difference to the Bucks, the current fifth seed and, as it stands now, their first-round opponent.

The Bucks are 21-7 at home and 8-19 on the road.

And may have come within half a game of reaching the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Eastern Conference March Schedules

1. New York Knicks
Strength of Schedule: 12 (6 road, 5 quality, 1 b2b)
Don't get too excited New Yorkers. This is just the chewy center. To get to March, the Knicks have four straight road games through the Western Conference, the toughest against the Kings to start off, the easiest supposedly being against the 18-40 Suns. But that game comes less than 24 hours after the playing in Sacramento and comes against some former teammates who may not like Marbury basking in all the Eastern Conference limelight while they wallow in the Western Conference cellar. And after they finish off this cream puff of a month (in which 4 of their 6 road games are against non-playoff teams) they get five road games in their final seven games to finish off the season. After all the hype, they maybe 3 from claiming home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but they're also only three games from being eliminated.

2. New Orleans Hornets
Strength of Schedule: 14 (7 road, 3 quality, 4 b2b)
See above.

3. Miami Heat
Strength of Schedule: 15 (5 road, 7 quality, 3 b2b)
Eight of the Miami's first nine games are at friendly American Airlines Arena, where the 25-33 Heat are 17-11. And then three of their four road games to close out the month are against the Wizards, Magic and Hawks with a home game against the Bulls somewhere in between. Believe it or not, we may have two Van Gundys, or is it Van Gundies, in the postseason. They may be six games out of the fourth seed but they can use this schedule to put some cushion between them and elimination. Currently, they are the eighth seed with only 1 games between them and Cleveland.

4. Detroit Pistons
Strength of Schedule: 16 (8 road, 6 quality, 2 b2b)
With February games against the Bulls, Hawks and Clippers, the Pistons should be able to build up some momentum to tackle the four-game road trip through the West that awaits them in March, only one of which is against an opponent with a winning record. But they're going to need all of that plus some when they get back. Starting March 18, they've got six straight games against teams either in the playoffs or scratching to get in. But they have plenty of wiggle room. They're seven games from catching the Pacers, so the best they can do is the third seed. And that's pretty safe since they're four games ahead of the Bucks and the fifth seed. But this, again, is about momentum.

5. Philadelphia 76ers
Strength of Schedule: 16 (7 road, 6 quality, 3 b2b)
This migth mean something if the Sixers were the eight or even ninth seed. But as we speak, they are the 10th seed, which doesn't make Allen Iverson's shoulder feel any better. And without Allen Iverson, it isn't even going to matter that four of their first six games of March are at home (with one road game against the Bulls) or that the four immediately following them are on the road against playoff bound teams. For the record, the Sixers are only 1 games behind the Heat for the eighth and final playoff spot. For the real story, check with the Sixer trainer.

6. Toronto Raptors
Strength of Schedule: 16 (7 road, 6 quality, 3 b2b)
The number of road games isn't staggering. They can deal with six opponents with winning records. Even the three back-to-back sets can be dealt with. The hard part about the Raptors' schedule in March is that they don't get a break in between the tough games to take a breath. What should be their easy stretch of the month, a four-game homestand between March 10 and 19, comes against two teams that will be fighting for playoff berths themselves in the Cavs and Jazz. Sure, they've got the Wizards and Bulls and Hawks on the schedule, but those games are always sandwiched against contending teams and never in bunches. They've got a three-game cushion between them, the seventh seed, and the Heat, the eighth seed, and may need all of it to squeeze in the postseason.

7. Cleveland Cavaliers
Strength of Schedule: 17 (7 road, 7 quality, 3 b2b)
It is Feb. 24th and let me say this loud and clear. The Cavs must win Feb. 27 in Orlando. They must win March 1 in Chicago. They must win March 3 against the Hawks at home. The Cavs are currently the ninth-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, 1 game behind the Heat, who have a relatively easy March schedule. So, they may actually be chasing the Raptors, who are four games ahead of them in Lose column. And after those three must-win games, 10 of their next 13 games are against teams that are either in the playoffs or fighting like them to get in. Now repeat after me. The Cavs must win on . . .

8. Boston Celtics
Strength of Schedule: 19 (6 road, 9 quality, 4 b2b)
The Celtics can beat the Bucks this Wednesday. They can beat Toronto in a home-and-home series to close out February. They can beat their next two opponents at home, especially considering that they're the Magic and the Wizards. That's five winnable games as they stand two games out of the eighth seed. But why should we care when all evidence says that Danny Ainge doesn't? Of course, the rest of the March schedule is a dark alley with guys like Shaq, Tim Duncan, KG, Jermaine O'Neal and Jason Kidd around every corner, but who really thinks they're going to put up a fight to even get there?

9. Indiana Pacers
Strength of Schedule: 19 (9 road, 7 quality, 3 b2b)
This is nothing more than Al Harrington's trial by fire. The Pacers didn't add Rasheed Wallace. They didn't hire a new coach to spur them on to a 13-game win streak. They don't have Karl Malone ready to come off injured reserve. What they do have is a seven-game stranglehold on the Eastern Conference with the next closest opponent, the Nets, actually having a tougher March schedule than they do. So, with Ron Artest healing up, this is Harrington's chance to shine and become that extra boost the Pacers are going to need to get by the 'Sheeds and Lawrence Franks and Mailmen of the playoffs. But have no doubt this is going to be a trial with a four-game West Coast swing, home games against the Blazers and Kings and Mavs and then a back-to-back tooth and nail scrap with the Bucks to end the month.

10. New Jersey Nets
Strength of Schedule: 19 (10 road, 6 quality, 3 b2b)
This isn't a schedule. This is Lawrence Frank's victory tour. Win No. 14 should come against the Raptors tonight. And if he can get No. 15 in Minnesota and No. 17 against the Lakers, then the four-game Western Conference road trip ain't gonna matter. They'll be bulletproof by then. But if not, we're gonna see how good a coach Frank really is because there isn't going to be a lot of time to pick his team up and dust them of should it falter in March, which includes an away game in Madison Square Garden and a three-game trip almost immediately following. And while the opponents don't seem too intimidating, it will be the Nets' ninth road game in 25 days (stretching from San Francisco to Miami to Boston to L.A.) with one more to go to finish the month.

11. Milwaukee Bucks
Strength of Schedule: 20 (10 road, 7 quality, 3 b2b)
See above.

Reversal of fortunes in East
By Greg Anthony

How can the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, teams with almost identical records, be heading in such dramatically opposite directions?

The Cavaliers, after three very impressive wins over San Antonio, New York, and New Orleans, are doing it in a variety of ways. They have depth, size and the ability to score inside and out. While there was, and still is, talk of trading Zydrunas Ilgauskas, his improved play is one of the main reasons this team is on an upswing.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Cleveland Cavaliers

56 14.5 8.2 1.4 .477 .709

When you can consistently score in the paint, it takes a great deal of pressure off your perimeter game by giving your role players rhythm shots and driving angles on the perimeter. A productive big man puts teams on the defensive. They either have to double team him or be in a constant state of help. Either way it creates opportunities, and the Cavaliers have been effective of late in converting.
Cleveland's depth is really paying big dividends, as well. Carlos Boozer is developing into an All-Star caliber power forward who teams now have to find a way to stop. Jeff McInnis is providing solid play at the point, and other guys continue to step up when given a chance. The most recent example is Jason Kapono, who contributed 19 big points off the bench in Monday's thrilling comeback against the Hornets.

Not only have the Cavaliers won three in a row, but look at the quality of their opponents during this stretch. This team is gaining confidence every time it takes the floor, and each player seems to have an understanding of what his individual role is and what it takes to win consistently in this league.

The scary thing is these guys will only get better with more experience, and yet I still see them making the playoffs this season. That would be quite an accomplishment for a team that, at the start of the season, looked like it would be fighting for the top pick in the draft again.

Not coincidentally, Cleveland's rise -- and Boston's fall -- started shortly after the December trade that sent guard Ricky Davis to the Celtics. Cleveland was only 6-18 at that point, and Boston was 12-13. Since the trade, the Cavaliers have gone 17-16, while the Celtics have won only 11 times in 32 games.

Paul Pierce
Shooting Guard
Boston Celtics

58 23.0 6.5 5.1 .401 .839

Which is why the outlook is not quite as rosy in Boston, where the frustration is starting to set in. Paul Pierce is publicly complaining about the state of the team's roster and the fact that this is a team not unlike the Orlando Magic -- a team with some talent but no direction nor confidence. And Pierce knows that once you get on a losing bandwagon it's hard to get off.

The Celtics have a lot of issues. Losing Raef LaFrentz for the season was a huge setback, as was the Vin Baker debacle. But the plan is to rebuild through the draft, and Boston has three picks in the first round this June. The problem is that while there is some young talent in the draft, there don't appear to be any impact players, which could lead to a long and frustrating rebuilding process.

I'm sure Danny Ainge has a method to his madness. I'm just not sure if the Boston fans have the patience to sit by while it develops. This team is probably three years away from contending again. Do you think Paul Pierce wants to be a part of that type of transition?

There is some hope that a favorable ruling in the Vin Baker case could give them a chance to participate in the free-agent market this July. Plus they will have the mid-level exception to use, and perhaps some of their young players can start to show some consistency over the season's final months. But the hardest thing to do in sports is win, and guys that they are counting on -- Chris Mihm, Davis, Jiri Welsch and Marcus Banks -- have not had that experience yet. Getting it can be very difficult.

Is it possible for the lowly Magic to actually catch the C's in number of wins? Most people never saw the Magic's demise coming. Remember, Orlando almost knocked the Pistons out of the playoffs last year, and it appeared entering this season that their roster had improved. But you lose a few games, your confidence starts to erode, and suddenly you look up and find you have the worst record in the league.

This stretch will test the Celtics' toughness and character. Remember, they are going through this without a coach who can offer stability, so things could get far worse before they get better. I'm not saying rebuilding is wrong in Boston, but it sure can be painful. And it sometimes takes a lot longer than expected.

Peep Show

Orlando Magic: Tracy McGrady is eligible for a contract extension this August. He just isn't sure he wants it. "I've got to wait and see what happens this summer and next season before I do anything," McGrady told Florida Today. "I don't necessarily want to be a free agent, but I've got to wait and see what changes are going to come around here. I just can't go through this again -- all this losing." Of course, he can still opt for the security of high income until the year 2010 by signing with the Magic or he can take his chances with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Either way, McGrady says the ball is in the Magic's court. "The ball is out of my hands now," McGrady said. "It's in management's hands now."

New York Knicks: Dikembe Mutombo isn't tired of shooting baskets or blocking shots. He's tired of waking up every morning to find out some young player has taken his position because he is, simply, younger. "I'm feeling like I have enough of this game," Mutombo said in the New York Times. "Just 13 years, man, you're getting tired of this." And he's tired of hearing this. "He's not what he was five years ago," Knicks head coach Lenny Wilkens said. So the 37-year-old will ask and answer this question one more time. "I have a question about it," Mutombo said. "If there's a sense of the direction that the team must go, I will respect that. Then I will have to make my own decision, if I want to keep playing or what I want to do."

Golden State Warriors: Center Erick Dampier can also opt out of his contract this summer and says money isn't everything. "I haven't been to the playoffs and I'm not getting any younger," he said to the Indianapolis Star. "I'm to the point now where I want to win games." And he knows the easiest way to twin as a team and as an individual is to get to the inferior East. "I'd have a chance to be an All-Star," he said. "How many centers are there in the East? Not to take anything away from Jamaal Magloire. But he made the All-Star team in the East, so I know I can definitely (succeed)."

Boston Celtics: Vin Baker, through his people, contends that the Celtics still owe him $36 million. His people also contend that they want the matter settled quickly because Baker still wants to play. "Our focus now is to get clarity on whether Vin can sign with another team," said Baker's agent, Aaron Goodwin, in the Boston Herald. "It's more than interest from other teams at this point," Goodwin said. "I'm regularly talking to other teams about Vin . . . But the Celtics will still pick up the $36 million, regardless of where he goes. What we're doing right now is making sure that nothing changes as far as that goes." Baker's team hopes to start the process within 30 days. "He's working out, and he's keeping himself prepared," Goodwin said. "I want people to understand that regardless of what Boston is saying, he's ready. His spirits are good. Strangely enough, though he's been wronged by the Celtics, Vin is in great spirits."

Miami Heat: Lamar Odom is just happy to be involved in an NBA playoff race for the first time in his career. "To find myself in position to make the playoffs feels great," he told the Sun Sentinel. "I feel really happy and proud to be a part of it. I've been watching playoff basketball probably since I was about 8 years old, 9 years old, really understanding what was going on. This is a special moment for a guy like me, who's been watching all his life. Playing yourself into this feels good." Because he certainly knows how it feels to play in March and April when you've already been eliminated. "Those games are like the worst games to play in," he said. "They're meaningless. Nobody cares."