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Before we answer any of those questions, allow us to interject one more:
Does anyone remember when all of us know-it-alls were saying that the Pistons and new coach Flip Saunders wouldn't be judged until the playoffs anyway?
Didn't think so.
Now that they've started 25-4 and sentenced themselves to daily comparisons with Michael Jordan's 72-win Bulls, these Pistons are scrutinized every night, even if it's a Tuesday night in January against the Orlando Magic. They don't lose very often, if you haven't heard, but what they have already lost is the luxury of a spotlight-free 82 games to soak in Saunders' system and work up to a long postseason run.
The Pistons, if you haven't heard, are pretty good at neutralizing distractions. Perhaps you recall the endless stream of Larry Brown questions they waded through last spring.
Something else you should know: Detroit never believed it could wait until May or June to start playing championship ball.
Not after a Game 7 in San Antonio that the Pistons will never forget.
"We gotta start winning now," Ben Wallace says. "I think the best teams are the ones that start winning early. The big motivation is that we would have loved to have that Game 7 in Detroit."
Said Chauncey Billups: "It matters. The regular season matters. We learned that last year. Being two minutes away from a championship and losing on the road, that's why we came back this season so focused. We want home-court advantage."
That's what drives the Pistons, not catching the Bulls. "As an organization," said team president Joe Dumars, "we honestly have not said one word about trying to win 70 games. We have one goal and one mission." Lots of hunger, too.
Not that the vigorous appetite should be terribly surprising. The team that loses in the NBA Finals always has the hunger advantage in the following season. How many times during the Lakers' three-peat run did we chide them for waiting to flip the proverbial switch? How many times did we accuse the Pistons of the same thing after their championship? As Tim Duncan announced on the first day of Spurs training camp: "The year after the championship is usually the toughest." The Pistons, though, have exceeded even the most hopeful expectations for early-season intensity, even if it's also true that proving they can win it all without Brown fuels the group even more than anyone lets on.
Says Dumars: "I'm very pleased with the start, but I'm even more pleased with the focus and seriousness."
Don't forget the versatility. Freed from the restrictive nature of Brown's offense, in which the Pistons were required to run down the shot clock and discouraged from improvisation, they're looking like the Spurs of last season. Capable, in other words, of running with Phoenix or grinding it out in an 80-point Finals game.
There are trouble spots, sure. The biggest worry has to be Murphy's Law: Detroit has consistently dodged long-term injuries with this group, which can't happen forever. It'll also be interesting to see how the Pistons respond to their first dip in form -- based on the premise that it's coming soon -- and the recent string of power forwards (Elton Brand, Pau Gasol, Zach Randolph, Ike Diogu, Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard) to punish Detroit's vaunted interior defense.
Yet for all the concern about how draining it'll be for its fearsome starting five to make the push for 70 wins or more, Dumars is probably happiest to talk about this little nugget.
"Our starters," he reminds, "are playing fewer minutes than they did last season."
Add it all up -- and factor in the distinct lack of quality teams these days to inflict losses -- and it sounds like this is the best team Detroit has seen since its back-to-back Bad Boys. Better than the previous two teams, no matter where they finish win-wise.
"I can't say that [compared] to the championship year yet, because I don't know how this season is going to turn out," Billups said. "But if I can say one thing about our other two teams, our offense was our [weak spot]. We were too predictable. We only scored 80, 85 points a game. Now we don't have that problem any more."
• Talk back to Marc Stein | The Daily Dime gang
• Dimes Past: January 1 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6
Knicks coach Larry Brown, according to team sources, has not abandoned hope that team president Isiah Thomas and the Portland Trail Blazers will embrace the idea of swapping Antonio Davis' expiring contract for Blazers center Theo Ratliff, who has two seasons left on his contract after this one. Larry is apparently the only one, at this point, who wants this deal.I can understand his interest in a defensive-minded center he knows from their Philly days together, but Larry also has to see that the Eddy Curry-Channing Frye combo holds more promise than any other department on the Knicks' roster and that it's not going to be easy to ditch an out-of-shape, suspended Jerome James in Year 1 of James' five-year, $29 million contract. Parting with a valuable trade chip for another center, then, is questionable. When the Knicks do move Davis and/or Penny Hardaway's expiring contract, they simply can't afford another miss.
This might end up being the only excitement in Washington if the Wiz continue to surrender points in the 120s, but have you been tracking Gilbert Arenas' numbers?Arenas' scoring average, as always, is on the rise. This will be the fifth consecutive season, in a six-year career, that he has raised it. There's more, though. Arenas' recent flurry of 91 points in back-to-back losses hiked it to a new stratosphere: 29.7 ppg.
Which means the NBA suddenly has four legitimate threats to average 30 points for the season, which has only happened once in league history. The four scorers are: Allen Iverson (33.2), Kobe Bryant (32.7), LeBron James (30.5) and Arenas.
In 1961-62, when Philadelphia's Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points, five more players averaged 30-plus points: L.A.'s Elgin Baylor (38.3), Chicago's Walt Bellamy (31.6), St. Louis' Bob Pettit (31.1), Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson (30.8) and the Lakers' Jerry West (30.8).
The league hasn't had three 30-ppg men in the same season since 1981-82: San Antonio's George Gervin (32.3), Houston's Moses Malone (31.1) and Utah's Adrian Dantley (30.3).
Davis also won't be protesting if Chris Mullin can concoct a deal that gets Artest to Oakland soon.
Turns out Davis and Artest are pals.
"I've known him since high school," Davis said. "We're actually friends. I know that any team he goes to, he's going to make them a lot better."
Asked if he fears Artest's impact on locker room chemistry, Davis laughed.
"I'm not scared of Ron-Ron," he said. "I've known him since my junior year of high school. We played AAU ball against each other, we got drafted together [in 1999]. We've got a nice little history."
Yet that was rendered a secondary issue when the Grizzlies lost Gasol favorite Damon Stoudamire to a season-ending knee injury. Taking a four-game win streak into the weekend, including victories over Seattle (road) and Memphis (home) sans Stoudamire, provides only temporarily consolation unless the Grizz can keep winning without him.
"We don't want to think about it too much," Gasol said, "because it hurts. It's really sad the way he went down."
If he doesn't lower those demands, chances are we won't see Spree anywhere this season and maybe that's what he wants.
One man's take on the month-long Ron Artest trade watch, culled from Dimedom's web of front-office executives, coaches and scouts:
"Why is it taking so long? On one hand teams are thinking, 'Why should we give up a front-line asset for a guy [Artest] who's such a problem that the Pacers want nothing more to do with him?' On the other side, I'm betting that the Pacers are starting to get over their initial anger about the trade demand. Artest put the Pacers in a tough spot, but the owners there must be telling Donnie Walsh to take his time and look for a good basketball deal -- not just a deal that has a financial [benefit]. "If it were up to some of the coaches out there, I'm sure we would have seen a deal by now. Phil Jackson, George Karl, Mike Dunleavy, Dwane Casey -- none of those guys are afraid of Artest. But it's not because every coach thinks he's the one guy who can finally get through to Artest. What's the average life span of an NBA coach these days? It's only 12-18 months anyway."
From the Stein Line e-mailbag:Ray (Chicago): When will people (and sports writers) accept the fact that the Shaq who destroyed the Nets and Pacers in the Finals is gone forever. You keep hearing people say, "If Shaq is 100 percent, Miami can beat anybody." He's not going to reach 100 percent, because he's 33 years old and out of shape. His best is probably 70 percent of vintage Shaq at this point. Your thoughts? Stein: I don't hear anyone in the national media suggesting there's a chance we'll see Shaq in 2002 shape at playoff time. Miami isn't banking on that anyway. I'd say 70-80 percent of vintage Shaq, as you describe it, is the Heat's target range, alongside a full-strength Dwyane Wade and a pecking order in support of the two stars that's established and clicking by then. The problem in the playoffs last spring is that Shaq wasn't even playing at 70 percent capacity. Nor was Wade. Offer up Shaq at 70-80 percent by this May and I'm sure Pat Riley would snap your hand off.
|JAN. 3: ANDREI KIRILENKO VS. LAKERS|
Can anyone stuff a box score like Andrei Kirilenko?Utah's wiry swingman filled up every category Tuesday night against the Kobe-less Lakers, recording 14 points, eight rebounds, nine assists, seven blocks and six steals in a 90-80 triumph.
It was the third time in Kirilenko's career that he had 10-plus points and at least five of everything else. It was also just the second time since 1973 -- when the NBA first began officially recording steals and blocks -- that a player put up a 6 or better in those five areas.
The only other such performance known to man (apologies to Wilt Chamberlain and any other pre-1973 contenders) came from Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon in March 1987, when Dream had 38 points, 17 boards, 12 blocks, seven steals and six assists in a double-OT victory over Seattle.
Kirilenko wreaked his havoc in 42 minutes.