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02-02-2006, 05:39 AM
Whoops... 'NBA Inside>r<' was what I meant to put on the thread title...

Could things get worse for Knicks? Yes

By Chris Sheridan
ESPN Insider

NEW YORK -- Larry Brown received the loudest ovation of the night, but he had to get ejected to beat out Kobe Bryant.

New York's latest loss, a 130-97 drubbing that eclipsed the Knicks' previous worst loss this season (26 points), was appalling on so many levels, it was hard to find a fan not shaking his head while streaming toward the exits at the end of the third quarter. Bryant was serenaded with a chant of "M-V-P" by the few who stuck around until the end, almost all of them Lakers fans.

A new low for the Knicks for sure, but don't believe for a second that things can't get worse.

If the past-half decade of futility has taught anybody anything when writing about the Knicks, it's that one must be careful when declaring they've hit rock bottom. Invariably when someone says it, the ensuing events make last week or last season look rosy by comparison.

"I went shopping today, and people kept coming up to me on the street, saying, 'You're going to score 90 tonight. You're going to score 100 tonight.' You know how crazy that sounds?" Bryant said.

The Knicks' 30th loss of this lost season was so dreadful, it was pitiful. Bryant went to the free throw line 26 times, making 23, and stayed in the game past the midpoint of the meaningless fourth quarter just to be certain he made it to 40.

If the idea of opposing players shamelessly padding their stats wasn't humiliating enough for the Knicks to stomach, they can play back a tape of the first half and listen to the ovations Bryant was receiving from the Madison Square Garden crowd. And if the sound of the home crowd giving its love to an opposing player wasn't sickening enough, there's always the video of Monday night's lethargic loss to the Hawks to turn their collective stomachs inside-out.

"Their organization, it's a matter of being patient," Bryant said afterward, oozing with a false sincerity that fooled absolutely no one. "They'll get back to the top. This period they're going through now, though, it sucks."

When you've sat through the Felton Spencer/Travis Knight era, the "We Want Lampe" chants at the draft, the Don Chaney and Lenny Wilkens firings and countless mind-numbing Scott Layden press conferences, you have a whole different perspective on what sucks and what really sucks. But make no mistake, this is as sorry of an era as anything the franchise has been through lately. Possibly ever.

The degree of quit displayed by the Knicks against the Lakers was so disheartening that Brown got himself tossed by referee Steve Javie midway through the third quarter. Bryant had been parading to the free throw line all night, the discrepancy so glaring that the Knicks posted each team's attempted foul shots on the scoreboard each time one of the teams went to the line. The Lakers ended up with a 58-24 advantage from the line, meaning Kobe himself had more makes and attempts than the Knicks did as a whole.

Brown was serenaded with a chant of "Larry, Larry" as he exited through the tunnel and breezed past team president Isiah Thomas, whose days only get worse as his level of job security sinks along with his reputation. The sexual harassment allegations made against him by a former team executive kept the tabloids busy all last week, and the dirty laundry being slung by both sides resulted in a photo of Thomas' illegitimate "love child" adorning the front of the New York Post on Monday morning -- a prelude to Tuesday morning's back page screamer: "Kobe vs. Quitters."

Clearly, Thomas' second honeymoon is over, his days as Knicks president appearing numbered. Ironically, though, the sexual harassment case might have actually bought him some time. The thinking here is there's no way Cablevision owner James Dolan would sack Thomas at this point -- even using his failed basketball moves as the reasoning -- because of the effect it would have on the sexual harassment lawsuit.

But with the team barely treading water in the two-plus years since he arrived, with this year's draft pick already traded away (and next year's, too), it's not hard to foresee Thomas being shown the door the day after the regular season ends, with Dolan handing control over personnel matters to Brown. After all, Brown's the only person -- aside from Kobe, of course -- getting cheered at the Garden these days. Too bad he's having to get thrown out just to endear himself to the fans.

Maybe this really is rock bottom.

Chris Sheridan, a national NBA reporter for the past decade, covers the league for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.

Which teams blew it by passing on Paul?

By Chad Ford
ESPN Insider

Hindsight is always 20-20 after the NBA draft. That said, the more this season progresses, the harder it is to figure out what NBA GMs were thinking when they passed on Wake Forest sophomore point guard Chris Paul in last year's draft.

By March of his freshman year, NBA scouts were already calling him the best college point-guard prospect since Jason Kidd. He had a stellar sophomore season and looked great in workouts, but somehow a number of teams passed up the chance to draft him or to trade for the opportunity to take him.

Paul ended up going No. 4 to the Hornets, but as many as seven other teams had a shot at him before the draft. Most of them have to be kicking themselves now, as Paul has led the Hornets out of the cellar in the West and could be an All-Star in his rookie season. And he's only 20.

Looking back to last June, let's ask the question GMs don't want their fans to ask: Who could have had Paul, and why didn't they take him?

The breakdown:

Milwaukee Bucks
How they could have picked Paul: Held the No. 1 pick in the draft

The skinny: It looks as though the Bucks never seriously considered Paul. They quickly narrowed their list down to two players: Utah big man Andrew Bogut and North Carolina forward Marvin Williams. Both Bogut and Williams filled needs, while Paul happened to play the same position as two promising young players for the Bucks: T.J. Ford and Mo Williams.

The verdict: While it looks as if neither Ford nor Williams will be as good as Paul, passing on Paul wasn't a major mistake, given the other holes the Bucks had to fill. Bogut appears to be a solid big man, a rare commodity in the draft. You can't really say the Bucks blew it.

Atlanta Hawks
How: Held the No. 2 pick in the draft

The skinny: Amazingly, when draft day rolled around, it looked like the Hawks weren't seriously considering Paul with the No. 2 pick. Sources close to the Hawks told Insider around draft time they were deciding between Marvin Williams and Illinois point guard Deron Williams. That's odd, because of all the players in the draft, Paul best fit the Hawks' biggest hole. The team desperately needed (and still needs) a floor leader who can push the ball up the floor.

The verdict: With a track record that now includes letting Chris Paul slip through his fingers, it's hard to see how Atlanta GM Billy Knight will keep his job much longer. Marvin Williams might turn out to be the best player in the draft someday, but Knight probably won't be around to take the credit. Williams' skills duplicate almost all the strengths of the other players on the roster. Don't forget, if Knight had decided to draft for need, chances are he would've drafted Deron Williams over Paul. Had the team drafted Paul and added Joe Johnson, it would have one of the best backcourts in the NBA and a much better record than it does now.

Portland Trail Blazers
How: Originally held the No. 3 pick in the draft

The skinny: The Blazers did consider drafting Paul with the No. 3 pick, but ultimately decided they had their point guard of the future in Sebastian Telfair. They eventually traded the pick to the Jazz for the No. 6 and No. 27 picks in the draft. They used the No. 6 pick on high school phenom Martell Webster. GM John Nash said after the draft that had the Blazers kept the pick, they still would've drafted Webster at No. 3.

The verdict: Like Knight in Atlanta, Nash has blundered in Portland and might lose his job by summer over errors like passing on Paul. Nash said in an interview after the draft that he believed Telfair was "ahead of the curve" in comparing him to Paul. That clearly hasn't been the case. There isn't an NBA scout I've talked to who thinks Telfair is in the same league as Paul as a point guard or as a prospect. The Blazers missed badly on this one. Their love affair with high school stars, Telfair and Webster included, has left them in the NBA cellar.

Utah Jazz
How: Acquired the No. 3 pick in the draft from the Blazers

The skinny: The Jazz struggled with the decision between Paul and Deron Williams up until the day of the draft, but ultimately decided Williams was a better fit in their system. He was bigger, scouts saw him as a better shooter and defender, and he seemed a little more comfortable in the half-court game. Paul's style of play -- he gets the ball up and down the court quickly -- and his occasional defensive lapses didn't seem as good a fit in head coach Jerry Sloan's system.

The verdict: The jury's still out. A lot of scouts loved Williams and agreed with Utah's assessment that he was a better fit in their system. Williams is having an inconsistent rookie season, but there's nothing to suggest that he won't become a great player with more time. Still, you have to wonder whether the Jazz overthought this. I have a hard time believing, after watching them both play this year, that Williams will overtake Paul as the best point guard to come out of this draft.

Charlotte Bobcats
How: Could have acquired the No. 2 or No. 3 pick in the draft via trade for the No. 5 and No. 13 picks

The skinny: The Bobcats got unlucky on lottery night, slipping from the prospective No. 2 pick to the No. 5 pick because of some bounces of the ping-pong balls. GM Bernie Bickerstaff had his eye on two franchise-type players all year -- Marvin Williams and Paul. Either would've fit a need, complemented Emeka Okafor and been wildly popular with Charlotte's fans because of their local ties. Both the Hawks and the Blazers were willing to deal their pick to Charlotte, but Bickerstaff felt that, as an expansion team, the Bobcats could not afford to give up two lottery picks for one player.

The verdict: Bickerstaff made his first major blunder for the Bobcats. The two players the Bobcats got, Raymond Felton and Sean May, were also North Carolina favorites, but neither has the star potential or local popularity of Paul. This is an example of when being conservative doesn't pay off. An expansion team needs star players to build around, and Paul would've been the cornerstone. Felton and May? They both have talent, but the chance that either becomes an NBA All-Star is slim.

Toronto Raptors
How: Could have acquired the No. 3 or No. 4 pick in the draft via trade for the No. 7 and No. 15 picks

The skinny: The Raptors, like the Bobcats, overvalued the multiple picks they were getting in the draft. They had a star power forward, Chris Bosh, to build around and desperately needed to add a point guard and center to complete the puzzle.

The verdict: We saw it on Thursday when the Raptors fired GM Rob Babcock. Charlie Villanueva and Joey Graham weren't bad picks. But Villanueva plays the same position as Bosh. The Raptors' point-guard troubles have been temporarily solved by the stellar play of Mike James, but he's an unrestricted free agent this summer and will likely bolt Toronto (or be traded first). Had the Raptors added Paul, it might have been enough to save Babcock's job and convince Bosh that the team is heading in the right direction. Even more important, it would've made them better. Paul would've had the same impact in Toronto that he's having for New Orleans/Oklahoma City. Babcock's blunder may have been the biggest of them all -- Paul could've saved his job and given Raptors fans a reason to care again.

Boston Celtics
How: There was talk around draft time of a trade that would've sent Paul Pierce to Portland for the No. 3 pick in the draft and the nonguaranteed contract of Nick Van Exel.

The skinny: Danny Ainge labeled the rumor of the trade "ludicrous." However, sources from both teams have said it was considered. The Blazers would've done it in a heartbeat, because they had coveted Pierce for some time and felt they already had their point guard of the future in Telfair.

The verdict: The Celtics should've pulled the trigger. The team is clearly rebuilding. While Delonte West has played well for Boston this year at the point, he's no Chris Paul. West would be a stellar sixth man. Paul and Al Jefferson would have given the Celtics a very young inside-outside combo that would've been awesome down the road. As it stands, the Celtics are running to stand still. Eventually players such as Jefferson, Kendrick Perkins and West are going to be good. But by the time they get there, will players such as Pierce and Wally Szczerbiak (who are both 28) still be good enough to help them win a championship? A deal like this could've set the clock back a bit, shored up their talent base and given the Celtics some cap flexibility in the free-agent market.

Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.

Hawks are banking on Williams' potential

By John Hollinger
ESPN Insider

Marvin Williams or Chris Paul?

That question, unfortunately, is likely to hang over Williams and the Hawks for much of the rookie forward's career. While Atlanta has struggled to get consistent point guard play, Paul unexpectedly has the Hornets in playoff contention and could snag an All-Star berth. As Chad Ford notes in his Tuesday column, Atlanta was one of the teams that passed on Paul in the 2005 draft. Meanwhile, Williams is averaging a modest 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game off the bench for Atlanta.

But hold the comparisons right there.

"You can't compare," said Hawks coach Mike Woodson. "Because Chris is a point guard and Marvin is a 3, sometimes he plays 4. They're totally different games. Chris has played a lot more minutes than Marvin has played, so therefore his numbers are a lot better than what Marvin's are. Eventually Marvin's numbers will go the other way."

Indeed, one problem for Williams has been getting playing time in Atlanta's crowded forward rotation. The Hawks would like to play Williams at small forward, but with Al Harrington, Josh Smith and Josh Childress also on the roster, that's sometimes easier said than done.

"It's tough," said Woodson. "You can't play everybody 40 minutes. ... He's probably frustrated because he probably hasn't played the minutes he expected to play or would want to play. But for the minutes he's played, he's played well for our ballclub."

More than playing time, what separates Williams and Paul is the difference in experience. Just 18 months ago, Williams was dominating inferior competition in the sleepy Puget Sound port of Bremerton, Wash. Williams is 13 months younger than Paul -- he won't turn 20 until June -- and has seen much less high-level game action. Paul had two seasons at Wake Forest to run the show, while Williams came off the bench in his only season at North Carolina.

Additionally, the 6-foot-9 Williams has yet to fill out physically, making his adjustment to the man's world of the NBA that much tougher. That's one reason he didn't turn pro directly out of high school, even though he could have been a lottery pick.

"It's a different game," said Williams. "It's definitely an adjustment. [The year of college] was huge. I mean, huge. ... I had the opportunity to go to the NBA out of high school and I turned it down. A lot of my classmates did [come out], like Josh Smith. I just didn't feel mentally ready for that jump coming out of high school."

"He just hasn't had a lot of opportunities to play basketball," said Woodson. "You figure just high school and then a year of college basketball, and now he's playing in the pros. But he has all the qualities of being a nice 3 and a 4 because I think he's going to get bigger [physically]."

While he might be short on experience, the talent is there. The scouts I talk to still are in love with Williams' potential, and in recent games his performance has improved considerably. After shooting 37.3 percent from the field in November, he upped the mark to 49.0 percent in January, while averaging a more respectable 8.5 points and 4.8 boards. And with his gorgeous jumper, it's only a matter of time before he becomes a devastating 3-point threat. Right now he's shooting that shot from a few feet inside the 3-point line, but once he starts getting an extra point on those shots it will be a much more effective weapon.

"We're very pleased with Marvin's progress as a player because he can't help but get better," said Woodson. "I think the upside for him is going to be good because he does a little bit of everything. He defends, he rebounds, he can make a shot, he runs the floor well. There are a lot of good qualities in his basketball game. But he still has a lot of things he's got to learn before he gets to that upper tier."

To sum it up, then: When you include Williams' steeper learning curve, it's not that surprising that he's so much further behind Paul as a rookie. Perhaps the Hawks wonder what might have been if they had taken Paul, but they realize they hardly blew it by taking Williams. Yes, Paul might be making an immediate trip to the All-Star Game, but few basketball people would be surprised if Williams is joining him in a few years. And if it works out that way, the Hawks needn't lament passing on Paul.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. His book "Pro Basketball Forecast: 2005-06" is available at Amazon.com and Potomac Books. To e-mail him, click here.

02-02-2006, 05:45 AM
'Birdman' has colorful past, poignant present

By Chris Sheridan
ESPN Insider

By the time Chris Andersen is eligible to return to the NBA, his arms should be as colorful as those alternate road uniforms he used to wear for the Hornets.

There's a fascinating human interest story behind the first player banned from the league for a major drug policy violation since Stanley Roberts in 1999.

Andersen is the son of a second-generation Motor Maid, a woman who grew up on Harley-Davidson motorcycles. His mother, Linda, could probably tell you where Sturgis is before she could tell you who Stockton was. She brought young Chris along when she went for her first orchid tattoo, later adding hummingbirds and butterflies, and Andersen returned the favor the first time he had ink injected under his skin.

Chris Andersen
Before now, Chris Andersen was best known for his failed dunks.

But Andersen spent 3 of his formative years without his mother. His father, an artist, put him and his sister, Tamie, into a group home when he was 11. It was either that or a military school, because dad was heading off to New York to try to sell his paintings.

Linda regained custody after initially being unable to find them and brought them back to rural east Texas, where she would pick 14-year-old Chris up from school on her chopper. Andersen's mom took her Harleys seriously, mind you, because it ran in the family. She says her mother (Andersen's grandmother) was riding the back of a Harley when pregnant with her.

Andersen eventually became one of 34 members of the Class of '97 at Iola High School, and after a year and a half of community college, he ditched his letter of commitment to Clyde Drexler's University of Houston Cougars and decided to go for the money by playing professionally in China, where he faced Yao Ming before hardly anyone in America had heard of him.

Andersen eventually played minor league ball in North Dakota and New Mexico before the Nuggets saw him in a summer league tryout. Known as "The Birdman," he was a hit with the free-spirited home fans in Denver and later New Orleans and Oklahoma City, and gained some national fame (or shame), by missing his first seven attempts at the dunk contest in Denver last year. (A year earlier, he spiked his hair for the dunk contest in L.A.)

Andersen apparently failed a drug test last week, testing positive for one of the so-called "drugs of abuse" (including heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, LSD and PCP) that bring an automatic two-year banishment.

No one has said exactly which substance Andersen tested positive for, but the players' union has filed a grievance on his behalf. Citing strict confidentiality rules that have cost high-ranking people their jobs when breached in the past, the union has not even disclosed the grounds for Andersen's appeal.

Under league rules, the four-year, $14 million contract Andersen signed over the summer is now null and void. If his dismissal is upheld and he misses two seasons, the Hornets will have first dibs on Andersen should he be reinstated. If they were to want to bring him back, they'd have to tender him a contract at his old salary of $3.5 million.

Not to be trite, but it really is a shame that Andersen just threw away more than $12 million. He seemed like a good guy every time I spoke to him. We once discussed the specifics of his tattoos, how one arm was tattooed with the Chinese symbols for good, the other with the symbols for bad. He also had the outlines of a few new tattoos on his arms and shoulders, explaining that it was an ongoing process to have all of the colors filled in. He expected it to take years, but I guess he'll have the extra time for it now.

Chris Sheridan, a national NBA reporter for the past decade, covers the league for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.

RIP Birdman :(

02-02-2006, 06:27 AM
Chat with Marc Stein

Welcome to The Show! On Tuesday, ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein will drop by to talk about the NBA season!

SportsNation Marc Stein: Hello, all. Welcome back. Let's get right to the questions as we all celebrate the fact that no one has to ask where Artest is headed.

Drew, NY: When everyone mentions MVP's there is always this off-the-top of the head list of Billups, Nash, Dirk, AI, Kobe...Lebron is mentioned some of the time. But with what he has been doing lately by taking a team without Hughes (his #2) and putting it on his back has been incredible. I know he gets a lot of attention already, but how can he not be in the top 3 or 4 names mentioned for MVP? 31 / 7 / 6 / 1.7 / 50% from the floor. Are you kidding me? Monster numbers from a team player.

SportsNation Marc Stein: LeBron is ahead of AI on my ballot, but the Cavs haven't won enough overall. If they end up winning 50-plus, LeBron will be in the discussion. But Kobe has been that little bit sicker individually and the other three (Nash, Dirk and Billups) are driving the top teams. I also wonder whether Duncan, by season's end, will force his way into the conversation as usual. Parker has been the best Spur so far, but it's hard to put him in the top five because he gets to play with Duncan. But I've heard numerous folks mention that TD looked really good against KG on Saturday night. If that was an indication that his mobility is coming back, that'll be another guy who could bump LeBron down the list a bit.

Brian (Memphis): People that follow the NBA know that Pau Gasol deserves a spot on the All Star team. Whether there is a spot for him is another question. Do you think he makes the squad this year?

SportsNation Marc Stein: I thought Pau was going to have trouble even before the Grizz started sliding. If the Grizz don't halt the slide, I think he'll miss out again. There is no question he has taken a step forward, but there are so many forwards in the West that Pau's unflashy game gets overlooked.

Sharad, Princeton NJ: Hey Marc, PLEASE tell me Okur will make the All-star team, 19 and 10 from a Center, seriously, what more do you guys want?

SportsNation Marc Stein: No chance. Far better chance that Dirk or Gasol will be picked as a reserve center to make more room for all the forwards. I'd expect the coaches to vote for Kirilenko before Okur.

Eric (Dallas, TX): Why is no one giving the Mavericks their props? I feel like most Seatle Seahawk fans: our team doesn't receive ANY respect! When, noticed I said "when" and not "if" we win the Western Conference, people, especially Charles Barkley, will be jumping on the Dallas Mavericks bandwagon just as they jumped on the Dallas Cowboys bandwagon 14 years ago.

SportsNation Marc Stein: Why would you send me a question like this when I just led the Power Rankings with praise for how well the Mavs have been playing? I have them ahead of the Spurs in the rankings. I can't give them bigger props than that.

Noah (Indiana): Will the Clippers resign Cassell at the end of the year, or try to get something out of him in a sign-and-trade?

SportsNation Marc Stein: The Clips told Cassell before the season that they'd bring him back if things went well. I'd say things are going reasonably well and he's the most influential member of that team personality-wise. I expect him to be back . . . although the cynic would say that it's better to keep signing him to one-year deals because he plays with such a chip when he's in a contract year.

John (Detroit): Is there any truth the rumors lately that Joe D is finally looking to move Darko? The Pistons' bench isn't as bad as some make it out to be, but another piece would certainly help.

SportsNation Marc Stein: Yes and no. Joe has to listen to Darko offers because it's hard to see how the Pistons are going to be able to pay all five starters at least $10 million a year and then re-sign Darko, too. They've got to take care of Ben and Chauncey first, so you're obligated to see if there's a Darko offer that makes sense. But nothing presented so far has tempted Detroit. From what I've been told, Detroit wants to keep Darko as long as it can to A) give him every last chance to become the player he was projected to be and B) because the Pistons still believe he will be a productive NBA player and might wish someday (even though we're probably talking three or four years from now) that they still had Darko and Okur.

Reggie (Orlando): Marcus Banks and Mark Blount had nice games last night. Was this simply a *revenge*-type scenario against the Celtics or can these guys help get the Wolves into the playoffs?

SportsNation Marc Stein: I'm more apt to believe in Blount. KG minimizes his weaknesses and Blount, if nothing else, can score. That's why Minnesota wanted him so bad. Kandi (and Rasho before him) didn't score enough.

Greg (Denver, CO): OK, no one really believes that Philly is better off without Iverson, but the last two games have shown improved teamwork on offense and simply better defense in general. Would the Sixers consider trading AI now and rebuilding knowing that it might be the best way for guys like Iguodala, Salmons and Dalembert to grow? The current formula simply isn't working.

SportsNation Marc Stein: If the Sixers ever got to the point of moving AI, I just can't see it happening at midseason. It would be a monumental change in philosophy and a controversial (to put it mildly) sell to the people of Philadelphia. to go that route . . . and don't forget that finding a taker isn't exactly a snap because of AI's age and contract. I've always believed Atlanta should do whatever it could to get Iverson because he's the kind of Vick-esque personality (bigger, actually) who could sell out Philips Arena. But, please, let's get real. Two good games -- no matter how good Philly's defense was in those two games -- are not going to convince the Sixers to turn around and say: "Yup, it's time to move a guy who's probably more popular than Dr. J ever was and who's still producing at a monster level."

Jayme, NH: Hey Marc, do you see Theo Ratliff Getting Dealt before the Trade Deadline?

SportsNation Marc Stein: Blazers have had opportunities to move him to New York. But now that the Knicks' season is essentially over -- if it ever got started -- I'm not sure New York will resuscitate its interest. Unless the Knicks are sure Theo could mesh well will their kids, and unless the Knicks are sure they've got kids they can build around, do you burn an expiring contract to get him?

Christian (Culver City, CA): Will the Lakers be aquire someone before the trade deadline looms? Phil Jackson has mentioned before that the Lakers are one player away from contending with the elite teams of the west.

SportsNation Marc Stein: Phil was talking about Artest and he was overstating it. They're more than one player away.

Anthony (Chicago): Marc, as a journalist do you have any thoughts on the Oprah/Frye matter?

SportsNation Marc Stein: When was Channing on Oprah? I thought Tony Parker would be on first.

KJ (Kent, Ohio): Hey Marc: Are you willing to admit live on this forum that you have a bias against LBJ? You say he hasn't done it in the post-season, but the MVP is a regular-season award! And you say Kobe has been "sicker" individually? OK, but LBJ's team has a better record. And then LBJ dominates the floor against Nash and Phoenix. What more does he have to do this year?

SportsNation Marc Stein: What I have a bias against is turning one game into anything more than one game, like you're trying to do with Sunday's Cavs-Suns game. We've gone over this a zillion times, but team success will always be the biggest factor on my MVP ballot. The Cavs, until this recent win streak, were sliding toward .500. Even without Hughes, I expect more. LeBron, remember, has teammates like Ilgauskas and Marshall who are a fair bit better than the options surrounding Kobe these days. So LBJ is fifth on my ballot at the season's midpoint behind Kobe at No. 4. Nash is No. 1 because he has the Suns on a better-than-50-win pace without Amare and has helped SIX teammates score at a career-best rate. No. 2 Nowitzki is the only every-night lock on a team that might pip San Antonio for the top seed in the West. No. 3 Billups is the spark and conscious for a team that will probably post one of the best records of all-time. Kobe moves up IF the Lakers get close to 50 wins because the rest of his team is so weak. For LeBron to go higher than No. 5, Cavs probably have to win 55-ish games. That's the way it is on this ballot.

Greg (Atlanta, GA): Marc - big win for the Hawks last night over the Knicks. What do you see them doing with Al Harrington or any other possible moves before the deadline? Seems like if they are going to let him go, they need a PG or big man in return. What do you think? Also, Tony Delk is supposidly healthy and has been inactive all year. What are they going to do with him?

SportsNation Marc Stein: They want picks. Multiple firsts. They also think they can get more for Harrington in the summer. But it's not inconceivable that Atlanta will get a good offer in the next 20-plus days. They've told Al they want to re-sign him but I agree that it's more likely he gets moved. It's simply more likely in July than now.

Ammer, Toronto: Who do you think will be the next GM for the Raptors and will Sam Mitchell still be coaching this team next season?

SportsNation Marc Stein: I don't know if they have the money -- or the situation -- to tempt Kiki, but that would be a dream scenario for the Raps. Sam might start next season but, naturally, a new GM would be expected to bring in their own coach.

Ben (NYC): Let's settle it. What would be more revered and celebrated if both were to happen: if Kobe scored 101 this year, or if the Pistons won 73?

SportsNation Marc Stein: I know where you're going with this one. I'd love to say Detroit winning 73. But I'm guessing I would be proven incorrect. Sad but true. Individual glory tends to grab most of the glory in the modern world. Good one.

SportsNation Marc Stein: Good question to end on, too. We'll do it again next week. Thanks as always for all the good questions.