- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

The Mavericks have decided to express an interest in the zone defense this season, the precursor to their NBA-best 38-10 record through Wednesday.
This is not necessarily a ticket to the NBA Finals in June, barring a development before the trade deadline Feb.20.
Shawn Bradley is barely breathing, and Raef LaFrentz is barely adequate. The two add up to a hole in the middle. The hole is not too noticeable in the regular season, often because of what passes as the competition.
The Mavericks score enough to frighten the flawed, the sad and the clueless. None of them will be around by the time the playoffs strike an ultra-serious note in the conference semifinals.
That is where the Mavericks finished last season. That is where they could finish this season, assuming the 7-foot-6 Bradley remains limited to tripping under his own power.
Unlike Bradley, the Lakers have joined the ranks of the functional, and just in time, 47 games into their 82-game pseudo-snooze. The Lakers are destined to eliminate one of the playoff aspirants, the Rockets, Suns, Timberwolves or Jazz. They also are destined to pose a thankless first-round playoff meeting for one of the top seeds. If it turns out to be the Mavericks, that would be too funny, considering the thought of the Gumby-like Bradley in a short series against Shaquille O'Neal.
By the way, is there a better all-around player than Kobe Bryant in the NBA?
The desperate attempt to bring Tracy McGrady into it was not fair to Horace Grant. He lost his job with the Magic because of it. Bryant is adept in all phases of the game, defense as well as offense, and even plays a respectable point guard at times. McGrady is awfully good, no doubt, just not awfully motivated on defense. The debate ends there, if debate is the right word.
McGrady is a top-five player in the NBA, No.5, in fact, by the subjective tenets of this space, after O'Neal, Bryant, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. The next five, if you insist: Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett, Gary Payton, Jermaine O'Neal and Steve Nash. Go ahead, you can argue it. That is the fun.
Michael Jordan and the Wizards are somewhere in the playoff mix, just not certain if it matters to a compelling degree if the reward is New Jersey or Indiana.
The rush to push Jordan out the door has been one of the low-level sentiments of the season, expressed mostly because he is not what he once was. OK. What is the point? Jordan is still an All-Star and still one of the most captivating players in the NBA. The quality of Washington's basketball life is certain to diminish with his departure.
The remarkable grittiness of the Pistons has gone almost unnoticed outside Detroit. Yet their 32-15 mark is in the company of the Nets and Pacers, improbable as that is. The Pistons are on pace to win 55, 56 games after going 50-32 last season and trading Jerry Stackhouse to the Wizards for Richard Hamilton last September.
It is funny how it sometimes works with trades. Stackhouse remains a more complete player than Hamilton on so many levels: a stronger defender, a better passer, a more able finisher going to the basket and tougher. Remember Stackhouse's forearm blow to Paul Pierce's midsection in Boston?
Yet because of the respective situations of the teams, Hamilton is living well in Detroit, while Stackhouse is feeling the burden of a team not being where it was expected to be after 49 games. Stackhouse also is feeling slighted, as he has every right to feel, after not being selected to appear in the All-Star Game in Atlanta this weekend.
Speaking of which, let's not go there with Vince Carter.
On second thought, as prone to injury as Carter is, you would think he would have had the good sense to tweak another body part, thereby abdicating his starting position in the All-Star Game to Jordan and opening the roster to a more deserving player, such as Stackhouse. As an added bonus, NBA observers would have agreed not to roll their eyes this one time.
Stu Jackson, head of the NBA's burgeoning anger-management issues, probably needs the festive spirit of the All-Star Game more than the players. It is becoming harder to keep up with all the suspensions and fines, plus whether the punishment fits the crime.
Jackson probably is just tired, not unlike many of the teams in the NBA.

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