SI's Marty Burns tackles three issues from around the league:
Has Kobe finally caught up to MJ?
Kobe Bryant AP
If youíre talking about the current Michael Jordan, then, yes, for sure. If youíre talking about the vintage Jordan, letís not get carried away just yet. Kobe still has to do this for a few more years to catch up to His Airness.
Still, there is no denying that Bryant has been on an absolutely Jordan-like tear. Over his last seven games, all Lakers victories, he has averaged 42 points on 51.3 percent shooting while doing his customary work on defense and on the backboards. During that span, Bryant has averaged 12.2 free throws and 3.5 assists. Like MJ during his live-wire days in the late '80s, he is making it look way too easy.
Bryant even took a page right out of His Airnessí book Wednesday after he got bopped in the mouth by Denverís Donnell Harvey just seconds into the game. Instead of getting mad, he got even. Bryant punished the Nuggets with a season-high 51 points on an assortment of breathtaking shots -Ė just like the way MJ used to fight back against the Bad Boys.
As great as Kobe has been playing, the Lakers are still a bit concerned. One reason heís on a roll is because Lakers coach Phil Jackson has been allowing him to do more. The Zen Master admits, however, that his team will need to ease the burden on Bryant and get back to its inside-out game more with Shaq if it wants to be at its peak for the playoffs.
Which team is playing Letís Make A Deal?
Shareef Abdur-Rahim Ron Turenne/NBAE/Getty Images
If there is a GM playing the role of Monty Hall before the Feb. 20 trade deadline, itís Atlantaís Pete Babcock. He already is on record as saying he will listen to any calls, and that no player on his roster is untouchable. Though Babcock insists he isnít necessarily looking to make a change, he clearly is feeling the heat to do something.
Unlike most other clubs looking to deal, the Hawks have assets. Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Glenn Robinson, Theo Ratliff and Jason Terry all could help a club looking to add a key piece to make a title run. Abdur-Rahim is particularly attractive, since heís just 26 years old, can draw double teams in the low post and has a contract that expires after the 2003-04 season.
If Babcock decides to break up his core, however, he is going to want to clear cap space for next summerís free agent market. That means he needs to get back a player in the final year of his contract. Portlandís Scottie Pippen, Philadelphiaís Derrick Coleman, Seattleís Kenny 7nbsp;Anderson, Clevelandís Tyrone Hill and even Miamiís Alonzo Mourning all have been mentioned as possibilities.
If Babcock canít find something he likes there, the Hawks could become a conduit in a three-way trade. The Heat, Knicks, Blazers and Magic are all desperately trying to make a move. It is quite possible Babcock will be the one who helps make this yearís blockbuster deal go through.
How is Pat Riley holding up amid all the losing?
Pat Riley Victor Balidzon/NBAE/Getty Images
Other than blaming the refs for everything except the humidity in Miami, heís doing just fine. While clearly frustrated by yet another dismal season, Riley says he has not lost his love for coaching or desire to stay on the bench. Before the season he admitted this season was going to be a rebuilding campaign.
Though Riley did broach the subject of retirement last season, he has since attributed it to frustration. He has two years left after this season on the 10-year deal he signed in 1995 and says he intends to honor it. Considering he gets an ownership stake when those 10 years are completed, he has heavy financial incentive to stick it out.
As for his cracking on the refs, chalk it up to gamesmanship. After his earlier outburst this year, in which he said the refs were out to get him, his team began a parade to the foul line. In fact, the Heat were averaging 16.7 free throw attempts per game before his tirade; in the next 28 games they averaged 21.8 attempts per game.
"Patís smart, man," Hornets forward Jamal Mashburn, a former Heat player, said over All-Star Weekend when asked about Rileyís criticism of the zebras. "You donít read the Art of War without having a plan. He made [those comments about the refs], and the next game he got what he wanted.Ö Heís trying to do whatever he can to help them win."