Weekly Countdown

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No, we didn't lift this "Countdown'' gimmick from Keith Olbermann ...

5.As someone who must be managed. During the Kings' 101-97 loss at Denver last Saturday, Sacramento point guard Beno Udrih called out "Aggie.'' It was a new play designed for Artest to go under the basket. But Artest didn't know the play. Instead, he clapped and waved for Udrih to pass the ball to him on the wing.

"Aggie!'' Udrih shouted to Artest.

"Give me the [expletive] ball!'' shouted Artest in return.

But Udrih refused, turning instead to run a pick-and-roll. Artest responded by calling an injury timeout, and this is when the NBA playing experience of rookie coach Reggie Theus became crucial.

As Udrih and Artest quarreled near the team bench, Theus stepped in between them to put a stop to it.

"What I said [to Artest] was, 'Don't call timeout again, that's not your job,' " Theus said. "I wanted to make sure that these guys stopped the conversation. I told them, 'If you guys wanted to talk longer, you should have called a full timeout. You called a 20[-second timeout], so we've got to get back out there -- so let's finish it later.'

"And then I grabbed Beno and I told him, 'If he calls you off something, there's a reason. Don't force-feed it. Understand your personnel. That's your job.' And he goes, 'OK, I understand.' "

This was not the first time Artest has impulsively called timeout over his three seasons with the Kings. The lesson to any contender interested in trading for Artest over the next two months is that he needs to be coached by a strong personality who will stand up to him, look him in the eye and speak to him directly.

"Meeting Ron head-on is what he wants,'' said Theus, who averaged 18.5 points and made two All-Star teams in 13 NBA seasons. "For all of the things that people have said about Ron, I've never heard one person say he's not a good guy.''

Which is not to say that they haven't had their scrapes in Theus' short time with the Kings.

"I think there's probably been three or four times that, under different circumstances, it turned into something that wasn't pleasant,'' Theus said. "But he and I are getting a dialogue now, and he knows I'm not going to flip out on him. And he knows respect is given but respect is expected back, and I think that it works for him.''

4. As a versatile star who impacts winning. Through Thursday, the Kings were 2-6 without Artest this season and 6-7 with him. The latter record is impressive, given the first-year status of their coach, the late arrival of Udrih off waivers from Minnesota and injuries to their starting backcourt of Mike Bibby (out until January after undergoing preseason thumb surgery) and Kevin Martin (sidelined four-to-six weeks by a strained right groin suffered Dec. 4).

More important is the illness to Artest's daughter, 4-year-old Diamond, who according to Artest has been given a 90 percent chance of surviving kidney cancer. Her condition is further complicated because she was born with one kidney, forcing doctors in Indiana to shrink the tumor with chemotherapy before deciding whether to operate.

Despite his personal worries, the flights back and forth to visit his daughter and the untidiness of his rebuilding team, Artest is averaging 19.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.1 blocks in 40.7 minutes.

"He needs to do what he's doing for his family, and that's a serious situation,'' Theus said. "He has gone back and forth [to Indiana] where he could have missed games. But he has been here to play, so that tells me he wants to be here.

"He's better than I thought he was,'' Theus added. "He affects the game on both ends, and there's only about four or five guys that do that.''

But problems arise when Artest falls into the trap of comparing himself to Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. In the past, he has been carried away with demanding opportunities to showcase himself as an elite scorer in the league.

"I let other people say it,'' he said of comparisons with Kobe and LeBron, "and other people have been saying that. They compare me to the same level and it's definitely a compliment.''

Does he hold himself to their elite standard?

"Definitely, definitely, definitely, and I work so hard I deserve to be held in that category,'' he said. "That's what I work for anyway. You want to be able to give yourself a shot if you want to compete with those guys. Unless you got three of those types of players on your team or two All-Stars on your team, you got to make yourself into one so you can compete.

"If you're on a team with the best players, then you find a way to fit in and win a championship. If you're on a team and you're the best player, you've got to find a way to win a championship with your team. At the end of the day, I'm thinking about a championship, whatever I've got to do.''

So ambitious is Artest that he takes on too much responsibility to the detriment of the Kings.

"When Theus calls the play and it isn't for Artest, he's so reluctant to let them get into a play he's not involved with,'' said an NBA advance scout who has been studying Artest recently. "He'll be running down the floor and he should go through to the opposite corner, but instead he'll turn and post up. He might be open and he definitely is good enough that he can be effective in a quick post-up, but that's not the play. I can't tell you how many times that happened.

"He is playing like a very selfish player right now,'' the scout continued. "Maybe he doesn't like the team, or he doesn't think the team is good and so he has to put up numbers to make up for it. I knew he was a time bomb in the past, but I always respected his game. But he has gone down a notch or two because of the selfish attitude.''

3. As a lockdown defender. "We've put him on everybody,'' Theus said. "I particularly think of him guarding [Knicks center Eddy] Curry and [Timberwolves center Al] Jefferson, two huge guys and neither one could get to the basket while Ron was on him. They were on the block and he matched their strength. He's guarded [Tim] Duncan. At some point in the game, you'll see him guarding four of the five positions.''

At 6-7 and 250 pounds, Artest is in his best shape in years. As his weight approached 270 amid his league and team suspensions from 2004 to 2006, he appeared to be morphing into a power forward. But now he's regained his frightening status as a small forward in a middle linebacker's body.

But again there is another side to this. During the Kings' 90-78 loss Wednesday at Boston, the Celtics decoyed Paul Pierce as the screener in the pick-and-roll, leading to a pair of layups. Why? Because Artest was locked in a duel with Pierce and the Celtics were convinced -- correctly -- that Artest wouldn't leave Pierce to help on the play. That's the kind of defensive judgment Duncan wouldn't make.

2.As a prospective free agent. While the rest of the league may frown at Artest, the Kings have a different view of their one-time All-Star. Artest spent last summer on goodwill missions to Africa and Honduras in addition to extensive charity work in the United States

"There are a lot of opinions out there, and when we're 8-13, anyone can pick out any number of things about our team and say, 'That's the problem,' " Kings president Geoff Petrie said. "He's a very good player obviously, and he's got this history that he is attempting to put behind him. He did a lot of terrific community service work this summer over and above things that may have been required of him because of some of his parole things [Artest was sentenced to 100 hours of community service after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge involving a dispute last March with his wife]. He just needs to keep doing that stuff and maintaining some relative balance, and in time he'll make some inroads there.''

Until his improved behavior remains steady for a long time, Petrie acknowledges, "No one wants to give him credit for it and no one really believes.''

Artest can opt out this summer, and he is of two minds about walking away from the $8.5 million he'll be guaranteed next season by seeing through his current contract.

"If I opt out, $8 million is a lot of money,'' he said. "It's not as much as my potential. But it's a lot of money. And you want to get your maximum worth, of course.''

Artest appears to be relatively underpaid at his current $7.8 million salary. Considering that he's missed 113 games over the previous three seasons -- due almost entirely to suspensions from the 2004 brawl in Detroit, his 2005 demand to be traded by the Pacers and the violent incident involving his wife that led to suspensions both last season and last month -- his actual per-game salary over that period is equivalent to that of a max $12 million player. (Even though Artest wasn't paid during the bulk of his suspensions, his salary remained on the team's books with long-term cap implications.)

Though Artest was suspended for the opening seven games this year, Kings co-owner Joe Maloof has a better feeling about him than other executives around the league.

"He's had an All-Star, almost-MVP season as I look at it,'' Maloof said. "He's been great in the community, and this summer with the things he did, and he's been great with the young players. I want to see if we can figure out how to keep him. But he has to be aware, when he signs a contract, that he's got to stay the way he's staying right now.''

In short, the Kings would explore signing Artest to a contract rich with incentives that would provide them with a financial escape if he wrecks his career again.

"We have to sit down and talk to him, we have to look him in the eye and we have to have some reassurances, or we have to be protected in some way,'' Maloof said. "That's what I think. If we're putting a lot of money into somebody, we have to get reassurances back. From what I can see, he's been fabulous. Now if he stays on track ... ''

When I run Maloof's idea by Artest, he nods in agreement.

"Oh they have to, they have to,'' Artest said. "Totally have to, and that's totally important and I totally agree.

"They got to have protection because of my history, you know? They have to. I'm all about the team. It's like if I own the team and a player gets injured, you've spent $15 million or $20 million a year [on this guy] but you can't get no other players. It's incentives -- some players don't need them. Tiger Woods don't need no incentives, you know? But I guess Ron Artest does.''

1. As a hungry player. With that statement, Artest opens a new realm of opportunity for himself. If he is indeed willing to negotiate a contract in which a significant amount is tied to incentives, he'll have more teams willing to gamble on him long term.

"I wish [the NBA salary system] was more like, you don't get nothing till you win a championship. I'm that type of player, you know?'' he said. "Because that's what I want, a championship. I just know I'm going to get it. I'm destined to get it. I think God put me in the situation to get a championship in Indiana a couple years ago, and I messed that up. But I believe he gives second chances, and I believe I'm destined to get one of those rings.''

Petrie and the Maloofs are going to spend the next two months evaluating their team. At 28, Artest is the eldest in a group of intriguing players that includes Martin, John Salmons, Udrih and rookie Spencer Hawes. The Kings are expected to entertain offers for Bibby and rejuvenated center Brad Miller before the Feb. 21 trading deadline. Artest will be available too, but he may harder to pry away from Sacramento because his salary is low in relation to his talent.

Now imagine if Artest were to move to Miami to join Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal. He could make all the difference there, as he could if he were to go to Denver or New Jersey or the Lakers.

"I earned the chances,'' Artest said of his opportunities to contend with Indiana, "and I messed it up. I took it for granted. I'm not going to take those things for granted anymore. So when I'm in that situation and getting that opportunity again, I'm going to be able to take advantage of that opportunity.''

4. Where is Andrew Bynum on your list of most improved players? Your article has no credibility.-- George, Seattle

I didn't rate Bynum because most of his improvement is based on increased playing time. On a per-minute basis, he's scoring and blocking shots at roughly the same rate as last year. The one area that has escalated is his rebounding.

Most of the responses questioned why I failed to acknowledge Clippers center Chris Kaman among the most improved. The big difference between them and George of Seattle is that their arguments were, dare I say it, credible.

3. What's up with MVP Dirk Nowitzki this season? He doesn't look like the same player, and now Josh Howard seems to be emerging as the Mavs' focal point on offense. What are your thoughts on how Dirk has responded after struggling in the playoffs last season?-- John Gordon, New Mexico

Everyone saw how Golden State succeeded in limiting Nowitzki in the first round of the playoffs last season, and now defenses are turning him into a passer. He's trying to do the right thing -- his 3.8 assists per game are a career high -- but his teammates haven't figured how how to swing the ball back around to him, and on top of that he's shooting a nine-year low of 29.5 percent from the three-point line. There isn't an opponent that wouldn't prefer to see Howard (22.2 ppg) outscoring Nowitzki (21.4), which is why the Mavs are third in the Southwest at 14-9.

Coach Avery Johnson learned from San Antonio that it's OK to lose a few games early while learning how to win the bigger games later. But what if this group can't adapt?

"Jason Kidd could be the missing piece for them,'' said a scout who has been following the Mavericks. "They don't have a true point guard. When they can't get into offense they take a lot of bad shots, which surprises me with Johnson as their coach. But if you look at their shot chart or their selection for a game, it's not impressive.

"Kidd would push them and they would have to worry about nothing but getting down the floor. They'd get all the easy baskets they need and they wouldn't have to be so structured in the half-court. Kidd isn't a good shooter in the half-court, but he hits big shots.''

Dallas is deep enough to assemble a deal for Kidd, who has let it be known that he wouldn't mind returning there.

"The Mavs should be thinking hard about giving up anybody but Nowitzki or Josh Howard in a trade for Kidd,'' the scout said. "And maybe they shouldn't be opposed to putting Howard in the package.''

2. There was a poll question on your site this week asking which player from the 2006 draft class would be the first to make an All-Star team. What would be your guess?''-- Kenny S., Las Vegas

The obvious choice is Portland power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who was averaging 18.7 points and 7.7 rebounds before he was sidelined with plantar fasciitis this week. The All-Star competition at his position is thinning: Kevin Garnett has already left the West, and who knows where Shawn Marion will wind up after this season. Aldridge could be in contention as early as next season, when he'll look even more impressive with Greg Oden joining him on the floor -- and he'll receive a lot more TV attention than Toronto's Andrea Bargnani or Memphis' Rudy Gay.

Aldridge's teammate Brandon Roy will have a harder time becoming an All-Star as a wing player based on the competition at his position. Also, because of his all-around style of play, he may not be recognized until the Blazers become a contender.

1. If Rasheed Wallace has such awesome basketball IQ, why didn't he guard Robert Horry in the 2005 NBA Finals? Remember in overtime of Game 5 when Horry inbounded the ball and Sheed left him and then Horry got the ball back and made the game-winning three? What genius leaves ROBERT HORRY open for a game-winning three? He's made a living making them.-- Steve Brown, Three Rivers

On the play in question, Horry inbounded to Manu Ginobili, who was screened into the corner. With Tayshaun Prince caught up momentarily in the screen, Wallace left Horry to help defend Ginobili. In hindsight, it's clear that Prince would have been able to recover in time to defend a shot from Ginobili; instead, Ginobili recognized Wallace's blunder and passed to Horry for the go-ahead three-pointer with 5.8 seconds remaining in San Antonio's 96-95 win. As soon as Wallace entered the locker room, he apologized to his teammates and coaches, admitting that he had been warned to stay with Horry.

I offered up Steve's question to a league personnel scout who has reviewed the play many times.

"That's a pretty good question,'' he said. "Rasheed knew he made a mistake as soon as he left Horry. To be fair, it was an instinctive move Rasheed made. The proper basketball move in that situation is that you always jump to the ball. You're supposed to jump to the ball every single time the pass is made, so in that sense he made the right move. But in terms of the scouting report, he obviously didn't do the right thing.''

For whatever it's worth, this personnel man agrees with the advance scout who originally credited Wallace with a high basketball IQ.

"I'm not going to say he's never gotten emotional to the point where it's cost him,'' the personnel scout said. "On that play in the Finals, you can see that the Pistons' spacing on the floor was terrible and Rasheed was reacting to that by following a basic fundamental. But in that particular case, the bigger fundamental was, Don't leave Robert Horry.''

That's what you get for correctly answering this week's briefer-than-normal quiz.

3.Whose fortunes have fallen the most?

(a) Stephon Marbury(b) Antoine Walker(c) Steve Francis(d) Kenyon Martin(e) Bonzi Wells


Walker was a three-time All-Star with Boston and an NBA champion with Miami, but since being traded in October he's averaged just 10.8 points and 22.3 minutes for the league-worst Timberwolves. Why has Walker's career collapsed prematurely at age 31?

"He didn't work on some things,'' a longtime league scout said. "I can't understand how a guy can shoot threes like he used to be able to, and now he's inconsistent and on top of it he can't shoot free throws (Walker hits 53.8 percent from the line after going 43.8 percent for Miami last year). To me, it's just a lack of concentration and work. He has good rotation, good fundamentals on some parts of his shot; he's not always squared up at the foul line, and not always is his elbow under his shot like it should be, but those things are easily corrected. So why doesn't he correct them? This is your livelihood. But his idea of working at the game is going five-on-five in a pickup game. What he needed was to become a very good shooter -- that was his potential. And now he's a poor shooter and a horrendous free throw shooter.

"I remember when that kid had it all -- he could pass, he could score, and not only could he rebound but he could take it and run the break. Now he can't throw the ball in the ocean anymore. The point is that you've got to be able to evaluate yourself, see what your weakness is, then work on that weakness so you have skills to keep you in the league as you get older and physically challenged.''

2. True/False: The Celtics landed Kevin Garnett because Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale are best friends.


But not in the sense that McHale was looking to do Ainge a favor. My understanding is that Ainge was able to keep the trade conversations flowing because he talks to his friend on a regular basis. And whenever he could, Ainge would bring up the possibility of trading for Garnett.

Now, was their friendship the main reason the trade happened? Of course not. It went down because the Celtics had the draft picks and Theo Ratliff's expiring contract that were attractive to Minnesota owner Glen Taylor, as well as the low-post player in Al Jefferson who was important to McHale.

Note also that Garnett's agent, Andy Miller, believes the friendship was an impediment because it prevented both teams from engaging in the gamesmanship and deception that greases so many other trades. Ainge and McHale were too close to lie to each other, and Miller believed their honesty made the negotiations more difficult.

"They know each other really well, and I thought that was a liability because they negated each other,'' Miller said. "There was no B.S. One of them couldn't pretend that he really liked a player because the other one knew the truth already.

"When McHale and I would evaluate Garnett's priority list [of teams he was interested in joining], the biggest factor for McHale was finding the youngest asset that had the most impact to him. From the Lakers to Phoenix to Boston to Chicago to Dallas -- every time a player came up in the conversation, Al Jefferson would become a major component for McHale. He'd say, 'Al is better than so and so.'

"McHale is very loyal to Minnesota and Glen Taylor, and he wouldn't do anything that wasn't in their best interests first.''

But it was also natural for McHale to seek out Jefferson. McHale was a low-post Hall of Famer, and there was no better low-post prospect available than Jefferson.

"When he looks at players,'' Miller said, "McHale often looks at guys he can be an adviser or mentor to in their development."

1. Kings owners Gavin and Joe Maloof are embarking on a new business venture. Is it:

(a) Professional skateboarding(b) Caffeinated beer(c) Pain-free bikini waxing(d) The first gas-powered parachute(e) They're going to buy Sports Illustrated (including the Web site)


The Maloofs will put on the largest three-day skateboarding festival ever this summer at the Orange County Fairgrounds near Los Angeles, offering more than $400,000 in prize money. They're calling it the Maloof Money Cup, with $100,000 alone going to the winner of the U.S. Pro Street Championship.

"Whenever I looked out the window, I saw kids skateboarding,'' Joe Maloof said. "When I was a kid, you'd see kids playing catch with a baseball or a football or even a frisbee. But every kid today is skateboarding, and it's not just a sport. It's a lifestyle.''

Over the last year, Maloof would go on typically informal fact-finding missions while driving around Las Vegas or southern California.

"He would see groups of five kids and he would get out and talk to them about skateboarding,'' said Kings VP Troy Hanson, who works closely with the Maloofs. "He'd ask them why they like skateboarding so much, who are their favorite skateboarders. Then he gave them each $100 for talking to him and he'd go on his own way.''

"I tried skateboarding when I was a kid,'' Maloof said. "There was a place in Albuquerque called Kistler-Collister; it was a shopping center and it had an underneath parking garage. I went flying down the ramp and hit one of those drainage pipes that was sticking up. I must have flew 100 feet and landed on my face.

"When I saw Jake Brown fall 45 feet,'' Maloof said of his infamous collision off the mega ramp at the X Games last summer, "I realized not only is this a lifestyle but these guys have some guts. It can be very dangerous and you have to be skilled to pull these tricks off. These are very skilled athletes, though I don't know that they like to be called athletes.''

Maloof is hoping to create a tie-in between skateboarding and the NBA.

"We want to try to make this an annual first-class event, and I think the NBA should do something with it,'' he said. "Let met tell you why: Why fight it? These kids are going to be future customers. When they hang up their skateboards, they're going to be watching the NBA, the NFL or NHL. Why not have an affinity for NBA because you were brought up watching NBA?

"I'd like to talk to the NBA and say, 'You guys shouldn't fight trends like this. Join them. Be part of it. Learn what kids like this are doing, because they're your future customers and season-ticket holders. Why isolate them?' ''

2.What was I thinking when I forecast 27-year-old Luis Scola to become Rookie of the Year? He's averaging 6.5 points off the bench for the Rockets, while Kevin Durant is going off for 20.6 a night with Seattle.

1. What could I possibly have been thinking when I picked the Knicks to finish sixth in the East? Sen. Larry Craig didn't blunder so badly. Dick Cheney was more accurate in his prediction that we would be greeted as liberators. Imagine my humiliation with every Knicks loss to Seattle (in which Durant scored 30) or against Philly or against Philly again.

The only kind of mistake possibly more embarrassing would be to settle a sexual-harrassment case for $11.5 million after enduring weeks of agonizingly public testimony in a hopeless trial ... but why raise such an obscure comparison? No company could be so dumb as that.

"The only player I love watching is Steve Nash. Everybody talks about how exciting the NBA is, but most of it is athleticism and muscle-flexing and posing after the same kind of dunk you've seen a thousand times already. What about ball skills, imagination and trying to do something you've never seen anybody do before? I'd rather see a little cleverness from Steve than another guy trying to bump his head on the rim.

"The one thing I would ask Steve if I could is, Is he enjoying himself out there? The big mistake is to assume that it's as much fun as he makes it look. Because if he isn't loving it, then what was it all for?''

-- Peter Press Maravich, 1947-1988