Six teams with questions down the stretch

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We have reached a busy time on the fluid calendar of the NBA. The leading event in this prevailing hubbub was, of course, the league's All-Star Weekend in Dallas, which was somewhat overshadowed by news and/or rumors provoked by the always popular NBA Trading Deadline.

But we also feel duty-bound to remind basketball fans that we've reached the unofficial put-up-or-shut-up time for several teams. It should be noted that this critical juncture is not exclusive to franchises requiring an inordinate amount of victories for inclusion in title talk. Teams in that predicament will be included in this review, but so will -- for completely different reasons -- the New Jersey Nets.

Anyway, our lineup includes the San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Sacramento Kings, Nets, Chicago Bulls and even the Cleveland Cavaliers.

We'll begin with the Spurs, who -- in recent seasons -- have been among the league leaders in teams needing to get their acts together about now.


Due to the championship pedigree of their core players and head coach Gregg Popovich, we're always reminded that the Spurs have the emotional wherewithal to muster an exceptional playoff run.

But this year's team -- currently sitting in a three-way tie for the fifth position in the Western Conference's playoff lineup -- seems a bit reluctant to step up and be counted. For the record, there have been injuries and the ring leader (Hall of Fame post man Tim Duncan) is becoming an old, but capable, war horse.

With those variables to deal with, the Spurs now need a greater commitment on defense -- their league rank of 10th in defensive efficiency is five spots lower than they finished last season. This includes more lockdown efforts from first-year Spur Richard Jefferson, who largely has been considered a major disappointment at both ends of the floor.

In addition to a revival from RJ, Popovich might consider increasing minutes for bench sniper Roger Mason Jr., who has lost 10 minutes per game from last season's average of around 30. While he won't provide much of a defensive upgrade, it's hard to imagine San Antonio not being better served with Mason playing ahead of the aging Michael Finley and the unremarkable Keith Bogans.

While a string of victories could propel the Spurs into a first-round series at home, a downward surge could bump them into the ping-pong ball derby in Secaucus.

Duncan, who is averaging four fewer minutes per game than his career average, may have his playing time adjusted accordingly.


My pre-season choice of Rasheed Wallace as most influential newcomer among contending teams really looks sharp right now, doesn't it?

Well, 'Sheed still could have quite an impact on the Eastern Conference power struggle ... if head coach Doc Rivers keeps him on the bench a lot more often. OK, Wallace could decide to cool it with the 3-point salvo (he's succeeding at a 29-percent clip and has shot three times more threes than free throws) and actually start to rebound.

But the C's and their fans should focus more on the return to physical form of Kevin Garnett, the sore wheel of Paul Pierce and the efforts of first-year Celtic Marquis Daniels. The minor dilemma could be Daniels' impact on the minutes devoted for Tony Allen, who is a solid player at both ends and at least understands his limitations (he's only unloaded three threes this season).

As for the trading deadline, Boston personnel boss Danny Ainge still wouldn't mind finding a backup for point guard Rajon Rondo and continues to mull offers on a potential blockbuster deal involving the huge, expiring contract of Ray Allen.


For the rest of this season, the Miami franchise will attempt to keep Dwyane Wade from walking off the court most nights with bitter beer face. A pair of pre-All-Star Weekend victories may portend good things in the near future, but the roster certainly seems to lack the gusto capable of helping Wade pull the Heat into the second round of the playoffs.

As a major Free-Agent-In-Waiting, Wade must decide which course of action will keep him engaged on the court ... and in a Heat uniform next season. If Heat king Pat Riley makes a deadline move, he'll have to hope that the subsequent acquisition will mesh well enough with his existing star for Wade to sign on for the future.

If he holds off on making a move and saving cap space for the July free-agent bonanza, will Miami win enough the rest of this season for Wade to remain positive about the Heat's future? Remember, even though Wade insisted that he's on fine terms with young head coach Erik Spoelstra, that dynamic could influence Riley into a move as could the performance of second-year power forward Michael Beasley. Beasley, who has yet to register as a legitimate shotgun-rider for Wade, is the only viable deadline-trading chip Riley has.

By the way, as for this season's on-court issues, the three-headed point-guard monster of Mario Chalmers, Carlos Arroyo and Rafer Alston hasn't added up to any playmaking salvation. A little clarity at that position might go a long way.


Can the Kings win games with Kevin Martin and Tyreke Evans in the lineup at the same time? That's what team president Geoff Petrie must figure out, and don't expect him to decide before this week's trading deadline. According to various reports, Martin is a trade target for a few teams, but little substance has been offered for him in any deal lobbed at Petrie.

So, even though Evans -- who emerged as the NBA's top Rookie of the Year candidate while Martin was out with an injury -- has been less effective since Martin returned, the struggling Kings should be obliged to see how the rest of the season turns out before giving up a valuable asset for much less than what summer market value might yield.

But it might help if Martin and Evans weren't sharing the backcourt. Yeah, they both thrive as scoring options from the two-guard spot, with Evans' ability to slash and either finish or distribute making him an option at point guard. But aside from their offensive productivity suffering during this learning curve together, the Kings are getting hurt on dribble penetration at the other end.

Although Beno Udrih isn't exactly Greg Anthony as an on-ball defender, he can stay in front of some point guards. In a three-guard lineup, Martin or Evans would need to defend against small forwards. Evans is more robust against those potential post-ups and would be impossible to guard during the ensuing cross-match situations. Any team attempting to abuse Evans down low would be taken off the dribble in retaliation.

With no playoff chase to ruin, head coach Paul Westphal should explore all lineup options -- he's tried most of the others -- before the Kings even think about unloading Martin. Considering a smaller lineup might be easier if big man Spencer Hawes rebounded his position a little more vigorously.


With four victories before the All-Star break and 10 as the history-sidestepping target, the Nets are proceeding into their near future with general manager Kiki Vandeweghe learning on the job as interim head coach.

Most league observers agree that while they're pitifully young, the Nets have enough good players to win at least a bit more often. With new ownership moving in and cap room aplenty due this summer, upper management (that's president Rod Thorn) must decide if these players are developing under Kiki or getting gun shy through all of the beat downs.

Will this soured culture prevent the franchise from using gobs of money to hire a really good player or two? We can suppose that money can overcome all evils, but the Nets also must demonstrate enough of a bright future for a really smart button-pusher to be hired as their next coach.

Free agents must decide if being wooed by the worst team in league history (if that occurs) makes them silly for considering the Nets or truly great when they choose New Jersey and lead the team to a whopping 20 victories next season.

To help avoid this crisis, it might help go inside to Brook Lopez even more than they already do.


Currently crouching in eighth place (one game under .500) in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls simply must weigh the pros and cons of moving reportedly desirable pieces named Kirk Hinrich and Tyrus Thomas.

While neither is a make-or-break performer in their own lineup, Hinrich -- considered a superb combo-guard reserve by a couple of contending teams -- eats big minutes for the Bulls. He can defend two positions and usually hit an open jumper at a reasonable rate. Thomas adds a touch of shot blocking and toughness for the Bulls inside, and those qualities make him of great interest to a few teams with most of their puzzles already solved.

The Bulls will be careful not to mess up their salary-cap structure even though last year's big deadline deal (which brought in Brad Miller and John Salmons) was quite a boon to their closing kick.


The question for the Cavs is chemistry. With LeBron James working both sides of the floor in MVP fashion, Cleveland has won 13 games in a row and owns the league's best record.

But even though Shaquille O'Neal has provided near-the-basket intimidation, the Cavs still are considered vulnerable to the concept of the "stretch four" position. One reported option is acquiring 33-year-old Antawn Jamsion and his big deal from the sinking Washington Wizards. Jamison can stretch the floor as a shooter and will do his best on the boards.

Another rumored option is Phoenix Suns four-man Amar'e Stoudemire, who reportedly would prefer working in Miami ... if not staying in Phoenix. Stoudemire, whose contract has a player option for big money next season, is much younger and capable of huge scoring nights. Would Cleveland need that with LeBron on the floor? Would the Shaq-Amar'e, court-spacing experiment work better in Ohio than it did in Arizona? Would Stoudemire, who has developed into a real deadeye from mid-range, really space the floor enough and would he inspire LeBron to re-sign with the Cavs?

Or will the Cavaliers leave well enough alone and stand pat?

At least we won't have to wait much longer before finding out.