Friday, November 28, 2003
Worth the weight
By Marc Stein
The question still comes in all the time. It floated into our e-mail portal again before the holiday, even though there's no question it has been addressed here before.
So who's your favorite team, Stein?
Since this is clearly a matter of considerable interest, let's proceed with a quick review to avert any further confusion.
Favorite NBA team: Buffalo Braves.
Favorite basketball team still in existence: Cal State Fullerton.
Favorite professional basketball team still in existence: Maccabi Tel-Aviv.
Ultimate favorite professional team/life-or-death rooting interest: Manchester City.
City actually made it a tough Thanksgiving. After going to great lengths to import the satellite feed of Thursday morning's UEFA Cup tie in Poland -- thank you, Eppy -- I was subjected to a limp nil-nil draw at tiny Groclin, bringing an empty halt to our first passage into European competition in 25 years.
Of course, on the day after Thanksgiving especially, there is one other team I (and all of you) can appreciate and celebrate. It's not easy to feel good about yourself so soon after all that carb-loading, so maybe a detailed breakdown of this team can serve as an inspiration. A source of hope.
It's the Stein Line All-Slimmed-Fast Team.
It's a group of guys who have noticeably shed excess poundage just since last season and whose games have picked up as a result. One-by-one they are:
Baron Davis, New Orleans.
Approximate weight loss: 10 to 15 pounds.
What he's doing with his newfound thinness: Reports started circulating in the summer, around the time of Magic Johnson's annual charity game, that Davis was looking better than ever. "Cut up" is how one witness described it. The first month of the season has only confirmed those reports, with Davis quickly vaulting into the league's top five in scoring (25.0), assists (8.1), steals (2.9) and minutes (40.4). The Hornets, as a result, are off to an 11-5 start despite the injury absence of Jamal Mashburn, with Baron transforming the team from a slow-down, post-up operation to a team that scores in transition and bombs away from outside. To wit: Baron has hit 61 triples already ... nearly double the total of the league's No. 2 triples hitter (Miami's Eddie Jones, with 32). Yet, sadly, there's no magic pill that gets results like Davis got over the summer. He worked out for several hours a day, five or six times a week, with a personal trainer. Davis also hired a chef to prepare healthier meals because he realized it was no fun playing overweight, which meant playing with a bad back and sore knees.
Rodney Rogers, New Jersey.
Approximate weight loss: 25 pounds.
What he's doing with his newfound thinness: Pickings (Bad Pun Alert) are slim at the guard spots, because guards generally don't lose enough weight to get noticed. Baron, for example, hasn't so much slimmed as he has toned up and tightened. Rogers, by contrast, has dumped a significant amount of girth, after swelling to nearly 300 pounds last season. And since he has been known to make 3s, we place him in this shooter's spot in spite of a thumb injury that has limited Rogers to just three games so far this season. After Alonzo Mourning's sudden retirement this week, the Nets are essentially relying on the same players who made it back to the NBA Finals last June, with no prominent additions. Rogers, though, is coming off the worst season of his career, setting him up to have the impact of a newcomer this season. The Nets need as much off their bench as they can muster and they're hoping Rogers, after an offseason of sweat and discipline with a merciless trainer in New Orleans of all places, can still provide some bench punch at 32.
Udonis Haslem, Miami.
Approximate weight loss: 20 pounds.
What he's doing with his newfound thinness: We have to fudge (Bad Pun II) here as well because the Clippers' Glen Rice, who could have filled this spot or allowed Rogers to slot in here, has barely had a chance to show off his newfound thinness because of ongoing knee issues. Haslem is actually a power forward, but he might have the best story in the group next to the guy we did put at the four, so you have to make room for him. After four seasons at the University of Florida, a career that started with Haslem carrying some 275 pounds on a (barely) 6-foot-9 frame, the Miami native went unselected in the 2002 draft. That forced him to spend last season in France, where he dropped down under 250 pounds and seasoned his game a bit. The result? Haslem is the league's top rookie rebounder at 7.9 per game, along with 8.8 points per game to rank sixth among rookie scorers. Those numbers make this free-agent find the pleasant surprise of the Heat's otherwise downbeat start, giving fellow rookie Stan Van Gundy an unexpectedly solid stop-gap starter in place of the injured Caron Butler.
Vin Baker, Boston.
Approximate weight loss: 15-20 pounds.
What he's doing with his newfound thinness: Impressing everyone, that's what. We've said it before and we'll say it again: It's too bad the NBA doesn't have a Comeback Player of the Year trophy, because Baker and Toronto's Vince Carter would be staging quite a tussle for it. Impressive as Carter as has been, single-handedly carrying a bunch of guys who can't score, Baker has been even better, given what he's coming back from: alcoholism. Playing in a tough town and in a league where skeptics have lined up to say that he'd never make it back -- or that this can't last -- Baker has actually been the most dependable Celtic so far. Paul Pierce still needs more help than he's been getting with Antoine Walker gone, but it's impossible to expect more from Baker than his nightly contribution of 15.7 points and 7.2 rebounds, considering how big he had gotten and how far he had fallen. Baker is also shooting 54 percent from the field and 77 percent from the line, after averaging a whopping five points and four boards last season. Those pictures of a skinny Vin Man are no mirage. Hopefully neither is this start.
Shaquille O'Neal, L.A. Lakers.
Approximate weight loss: 30-50 pounds.
What he's doing with his newfound thinness: No one knows exactly how many pounds O'Neal has dropped, but you can click on his ESPN.com player profile for an idea. Check out O'Neal's head in that picture and how de-carbed he looks now (we're insanely jealous) after living up to his promises to Phil Jackson and Mitch Kupchak and getting back down into the 340-pound range. Although O'Neal is still suffering from chronic heel and knee soreness and has missed the past two games with a calf injury, there's no disputing that this is the best he has looked physically since the first of L.A.'s three consecutive championships, with an assist to his personal trainer. Cleveland's DeSagana Diop worked his way into consideration for the All-Slimmed-Fast Team with his own shedding of 40-something pounds, in a bid to make folks stop calling him a bust, but O'Neal has to be the center on this squad. A point you can expect him to try to prove with a vengeance Friday night in his first showdown of the season with San Antonio's Tim Duncan.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.