No 2003 lottery pick has played less than Pistons 7-footer Darko Milicic (left), who fears that his game has regressed. "I used to enjoy coming to the games," says Milicic, 19, who at week's end had played only 258 minutes in the NBA. "Now my mind is like, I'm not going to play, I'm just going to come here." Milicic's only hope is to practice so hard that he forces coach Larry Brown to play him or trade him.... On Saturday the gym in Jackson, Miss., will be brimming with scouts eager to see 6'4" Lanier High guard Monta Ellis face 6'3" rival Louis Williams of South Gwinnett High in Snellville, Ga. Both could be drafted this year.... Few midseason coaching hires have been better prepared than Mike Fratello, who at week's end had returned the Grizzlies to playoff contention by going 13--6. Being a protégé of Hubie Brown gave Fratello insight into the previous regime, and he stayed current with the league by broadcasting 116 games last season for TNT and the Heat. "That kept me close enough to have a feel for the players and the style of coaches," Fratello says.


On the Knicks' Stephon Marbury (right), who recently called himself the NBA's best point guard:

"You can't be the best point guard if you've never won a playoff series. Look what happened to the last two teams that traded Marbury--Jason Kidd instantly turned the Nets around, and now Steve Nash is doing the same thing for Amare Stoudemire and those guys in Phoenix. Marbury could be the best because he sees the floor very well, he's tremendously athletic, he's a better shooter than Kidd, and he's stronger than Nash. He cheats himself by not making the commitment to improve his teammates and by rarely playing defense, which shows poor leadership."


3. Don't forget about the Mavericks. Their vastly improved defense--they were holding opponents to 43.0% shooting through Sunday, sixth lowest in the league--could make Dallas the Spurs' top challenger in the West.

2. My view of the MVP race thus far: 1. Steve Nash; 2. Tim Duncan; 3. Shaquille O'Neal.

1. How the NBA misses Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, all of whom would have ripped Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady for admitting that they dogged it for their former teams. Unless some of today's stars learn to call them to task, immature players will continue to hurt the league's image.

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