Originally created 02/12/02

Sheridan on Basketball: Second half of NBA season



PHILADELPHIA -- Now that he has left town, Kobe Bryant won't be booed again for at least six weeks.

No, he's not returning to Philly. But he does have an upcoming trip to Sacramento.

The NBA's best players departed the City of Brotherly Love (or No Love, in Kobe's case) on Monday to get ready for the unofficial second half of the season.

For Bryant, that meant a cross-country flight with the All-Star MVP trophy in his luggage as he returned to Los Angeles for the Lakers' game against Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards.

The two-time defending champions are 2 1/2 games behind the Sacramento Kings in the Pacific Division, and their remaining schedule includes a five-game Eastern road trip later this month and a four-game swing to the East in early April.

"Every game is a home game for us," Shaquille O'Neal said. "Except Sacramento."

The Lakers don't have to travel to the frenzied bandbox known as Arco Arena until March 24. The teams will meet one more time after that - on the final night of the season, April 17.

Those dates loom large because the Kings, who have owned the league's best record for the better part of a month, are widely considered the team with the best chance to knock off the Lakers in a seven-game series - but only if they finish the season with a better record than Los Angeles and gain the homecourt advantage.

The next big date on the NBA calendar is Feb. 21, the trading deadline.

A total of four deals involving 22 players went down on deadline day last year, including the blockbuster that sent Dikembe Mutombo from Atlanta to Philadelphia and helped propel the 76ers to the NBA Finals.

There aren't a lot of 7-foot-2 centers to be had this time around, although there is one center - Denver's Raef LaFrentz - who is atop the Most Likely To Be Dealt list.

The Nuggets have been shopping LaFrentz and point guard Nick Van Exel around the league, and the Portland Trail Blazers have emerged as the leading contender to acquire the two of them, according to a Western Conference executive who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Portland is willing to send Damon Stoudamire and Bonzi Wells to the Nuggets for LaFrentz and Van Exel, but the Nuggets want a big man back in return and will likely press for Dale Davis to be included in the swap. Denver would toss Tariq Abdul-Wahad into the deal to make it work under salary cap rules.

The Indiana Pacers, along with at least three other teams, are also chasing LaFrentz.

In the Eastern Conference, the New York Knicks have been trying the hardest to pull off a deal, but team president Scott Layden has been learning that there is very little interest in anyone on his roster other than Latrell Sprewell and Othella Harrington.

The Knicks are coming out of the All-Star break nine games under .500, desperate to do something to ensure that they do not miss the playoffs for the first time since 1987. They are in the unfamiliar and uncomfortable role of playing second fiddle in the metropolitan area to the upstart New Jersey Nets, the biggest surprise in the league thus far.

Nets point guard Jason Kidd said the teams he worries about most in the East are the Wizards and the 76ers.

"I'm just happy to be on the same level as the Sixers in terms of someone worrying about us," Jordan said. "I'm pretty sure everyone's nervous in terms of what we're capable of achieving, and that's good. I like that.

"I like when they've got to look over their backs. And if that's the case, they're going to be hearing footsteps," said Jordan, whose team comes out of the All-Star break with the league's longest current winning streak - five games.

The West has five teams - the Lakers, Kings, Timberwolves, Spurs and Mavericks - trying to finish in the top four to ensure homecourt advantage in the first round. Beneath them, there are five teams - Phoenix, Utah, Seattle, the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland - competing for the final three postseason berths.

The East is shaping up as a 12-team race for the eight playoff spots, with New York and Miami having the most ground to make up.

The Wizards have risen to third place in the Atlantic Division and fifth place in the conference.

"Philly's the team to beat," Jordan said. "I'm not going to sit here and say we can contend with them in a seven-game series. I'd like to think that if we can continue to progress and maybe make a move or two, we could make a run at it. But getting to the playoffs is still our first goal. To contend for the Eastern Conference final, that's a dream that's so far away, we don't want to jump ahead of ourselves."