MONROE notes: Cavs, Nuggets play for pride

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Mike Monroe

Since LeBron James put on such a spectacular show in the McDonald's high school All-Star game Wednesday, I thought it appropriate to take a look this week at the LeBron Derby. In other words, are the Cavs a solid lock to have the worst record in the league, or is there a chance Cleveland's recent surge might enable the to slide down to last place in the entire league? And does it really matter? The answers are: yes, and yes. Nobody whose opinions I respect thought Cleveland had the worst talent in the league when play began five months ago. Pretty much all of them believed the had less talent than any team in recent memory. Now we've got a real race between those two for the worst record in the league and the 25 percent chance at winning the draft lottery — in other words, the draft rights to LeBron James — that goes with it. Every other team entered weekend play with at least 22 wins, so it's clear the race for last is between the and Cavs. Heading into weekend play, the had recorded some unexpected victories over Utah, Boston and Golden State, and gotten up to 14 wins for the season. But in the last week Denver also knocked off both Boston and Milwaukee and now has 16 wins. Some fans of the two teams may be hoping for the worst — one fan had a sign at a recent game that read: Losses = LeBron — but the players sure don't want to stigma of having been part of the worst team in the league. "If they win, it puts the pressure on us," forward told The Denver Post. "We have to put the pressure back on them. We never talk about it. We never say, 'Cleveland's catching us, so let's get on it.' We just take care of ourselves." The have the added incentive of trying to surpass the franchise's all-time mark for single-season futility, 15 wins. "I'm definitely not trying to have the worst record in the league," Cleveland forward told The Cleveland Plain Dealer. "But it seems like every time we win, they win. We don't want to end in last, and we want more than 15 wins." Said : "It's important to catch Denver to prove to ourselves that we're not a last-place team. We're better than the way we've been playing. We've got to put our minds together and play like we need to play." How about a neutral third party to assess which team is most likely to finish last? Here's assistant coach Walker D. Russell: "Keith (Smart) is doing a great job, but Denver will finish ahead of Cleveland because the always play hard," Russell said. "If you play hard, you'll always have a chance at winning." Ouch! What does that say about the players? Don't think the player personnel types for the two teams necessarily look at the worst record as a good thing, either. I was watching the McDonald's game with assistant GM David Fredman on Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center, and after one particularly spectacular play by James I hinted to Fredman that maybe it was time the start giving lots of rest. "No, no, no," Fredman said. "I still want to win every game. I really do. "There are only two things I want to finish last in, and one of them is dying. The other isn't this season's standings, either." Besides, the team with the second-worst record in the league gets a 20 percent chance at coming up with the winning combination in the lottery, which has been a number-combination drawing since 1995. And since the change in 1995, the team with the worst record has yet to get the first pick. Numerologists might say the worst team is "due" to get the pick, but as anyone who ever has bought a lotto ticket knows, each new drawing is a new event, unaffected by past drawings.

Iverson improves his aim

Everyone seems to have the MVP race narrowed down to , and . But given the way has played since the All-Star break to lead the ' surge back into contention for the Atlantic Division title, I think he merits consideration, too. The only knock I've ever had about Iverson's game related to shot selection, and he has been much more judicious in choosing when, and from where, to shoot in last the six weeks, during which the Sixers have been 17-4. His long-range jumpers have decreased, while his drives to the basket have increased and his shooting percentage is up to 43.9. When you take shots as often as Iverson, it's huge when you start making more of them. Ironically, Iverson credits Larry Brown for the improvement. Seems Brown convinced him his speed and quickness make it impossible for defenders to stay with him when he goes to the basket. Thus, fewer long-range jumpers, more short to mid-range shots and a higher percentage of makes. "He always tells me, 'Don't settle, don't settle for shots,'" Iverson said. "He doesn't feel like anybody can stop me from getting a short jumper, so take the short jumper instead of just facing up and taking a long one. A lot of times I kind of get to the point where if a guy plays off me, and I can get the shot wherever I'm at on the floor, then I'll take it. But, most of the time, it always works his way." Philadelphia enters weekend play only a half-game behind the for the Atlantic lead and just three games behind for best record in the East. If the Sixers should earn the No. 1 seed in the East, I'll have to give Iverson strong consideration for MVP. There's little doubt in my mind is MVP of the , but I don't expect he will get many MVP votes, even though guard recently gave him a strong endorsement as such. "You take him away from the , and I'm pretty sure they aren't the best team in the East," said Rose. "If you go by what he does for a team and what he has done for the league, from a rebounding standpoint, from having a good attitude, playing hard, stealing the ball and being a consummate teammate, then he wins the MVP hands down." Unfortunately for Wallace, and every other defensive-minded player, MVP always recognizes offense. Ditto in baseball, football and hockey. Said GM Joe Dumars: "The standards of an MVP have always been, primarily, based on offensive numbers — in whatever sport. That's why it's so hard to have defensive players in football get MVP. In baseball it was hard for guys like Ozzie Smith to be MVP because they made their livings by being defensive. Ben falls into the same category." Guess that's why the NBA created Defensive Player of the Year, which Wallace will win again, in a walk.

Pierce rips defense

Speaking of defense, what happened to the ' emphasis on stopping opponents, the hallmark of their run to the Eastern finals last year? Their recent slide can be traced directly to their inattention to defense. pulled no punches in assessing his team's lackadaisical approach in recent games: "We prided ourselves last year on being one of the top two or three defensive ballclubs in the league, and that's just not where we're getting it done. It's just something that has to come from within. "It's hard to say that we play with the same pride as we did last year." Ouch!

Stasticial surprise

Continuing to "D" up ... Guess which team leads the league in opponents' field-goal percentage? It had been the for the past several seasons, but this year it's the . That's right. The , whose opponents have shot only 42 percent this season. "I listen to all the so-called experts on TV saying we don't defend," coach Rick Adelman said. "San Antonio is a great defensive team, but we have been right there with them all year, so we must be doing something right. Said : "The rap on us is we don't play defense. We laugh at that and just try to stay under the radar. But you can't run if you don't play defense, and you know we like to run."

Parker deserving of Most Improved

And speaking of postseason awards ... I haven't thought much about them, other than MVP, but my pal Johnny Ludden of the San Antonio -News points out that deserves to be considered for Most Improved Player. Indeed, Parker's scoring is up six points a game from his rookie season and he's running the team a lot better than he did last year. "That young man definitely has something special to his game," Dallas coach Don Nelson said of Parker. "He has all the in-between shots, the vision. He is quite a find for San Antonio." Considering that I usually exclude draft lottery and prefer to vote for players who truly have improved their games, rather than show statistical gains based on a change in situation, I will have to give Parker a long look. For me, it's between Parker and Utah's , who not only benefited from being on a new team but clearly worked hard in the off-season to improve his perimeter shooting.

Wilkens should watch out

News: GM Glen Grunwald gets thumbs-up from ownership group as "the man is going to take us into the new year, the new era. We are committed to Glen. We believe in him." Views: Heads, up, Lenny Wilkens. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is extending Grunwald's contract, which was about to expire, and saying he will decide Wilkens' fate. I'm guessing they told him that the contract extension came with a caveat: Dump Wilkens, who has one year left on his deal. Larry Tannenbaum, head of the ownership group, gave a strong hint changes were mandated. "I can tell you next year will be different," Tanenbaum said. "It will not be like this next year. We cannot accept the status quo." Wilkens remaining on the bench would be, well, status quo. If Wilkens does get the gate in Toronto, remember that Elgin tried to hire him to coach the back in the 1990s, but couldn't get a deal done because owner Donald T. Sterling was vacationing in France when the went after Wilkens and signed him.

Divac grieves for slain countryman

Last week was a rough one for Sacramento center , from Yugoslavia. His country's prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, was killed by assassins in his homeland. Divac and Djindjic were friends. "I knew him very well," Divac said. "He liked sports a lot. He was a very positive guy. I visited him last summer three or four times, and once ate dinner with him and his family at their home." It was at Djindjic's behest that Divac chose to represent his country in the World Championships last summer in Indianapolis. Divac had participated in many international competitions through his career and, after a long NBA season, could have used a rest over the summer. "I talked to (Djindjic), and he told me it would be great if I could play (for Yugoslavia) one more time," Divac said. "He thought we had a good chance to win. Maybe so did I." I saw how the thousands of Yugoslavians who made the trip to Indianapolis for the World Championships celebrated in the streets of Indy, so I can only imagine what the celebration was like in Belgrade when the team returned home. According to Divac, more than 100,000 people filled the center square in the city. Djindjic was part of that celebration. Divac said his friend made a tremendous positive difference for Yugoslavia. "I don't worry about my country now," he said. "I know the people there understand (Djindjic) paid the price for everybody. It looks like the result will be they will clean the country of the criminal element — the Mafia and everybody. It is just too bad the price he had to pay was his life." can be reached at his e-mail address,
Tagged: Celtics, Bulls, Cavaliers, Nuggets, Pistons, Clippers, Lakers, Timberwolves, Nets, 76ers, Kings, Spurs, Jazz, Raptors, Juwan Howard, Ben Wallace, Jalen Rose, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Jumaine Jones, Chris Webber, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Indiana, Denver, Brown, Howard, Detroit, Baylor

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