An Eastern Conference coach went even further. "Here's what I think happens," he says. "Davis shows he's a legitimate player over the last 20 games of the season and the first round of the playoffs. Then Starks comes back, he's out of sync and he struggles. The Knicks don't get the title. Maybe they don't even get out of the East. Then when the Knicks go shopping in the off-season, they're willing to give up Starks to get a small forward."
But not everyone is convinced that the Knicks will be able to do so well without Starks. "Davis isn't the defensive player Starks is in terms of one-on-one or team defense," says an Eastern Conference coach. "One of the keys to the Knicks is that they rotate and recover so well out of the double team, and Davis doesn't do that nearly as well as the rest of their starters. And if they have to go to [Rolando] Blackmail for any period of time, they're in trouble, because he just can't defend against people anymore. If they can keep up their defensive performance with Davis, I'll be surprised."
So far they've been able to. Last week the Knicks, who had won nine straight games through Sunday, tied an NBA record by holding eight opponents in a row to fewer than 90 points. Still, there are those who think the Knicks will have problems if Starks isn't close to 100% by the second round of the playoffs. "Getting Davis this kind of experience could be good for the Knicks in the long run, but let's face it, the Knicks aren't getting any younger," says a Western Conference coach. "They don't have a lot of years left to make a run at the title with this group. The last thing they care about right now is the long run."
Rating Without Jordan
The retirement of Michael Jordan hasn't made the slightest dent in the NBA's Sunday national television ratings. Jordan is attempting to hit baseballs instead of jump shots these days, but NBC's average numbers through last week, a 4.9 rating and 13.0 share, are identical to last year's. The same is true at TNT, where last season's average 1.8 rating and 2.9 share for weekday telecasts have become a 1.8 and 3.0 so far this season. (A rating point is equal to 942,000 viewers.)
Of course, television ratings are just one of many ways to measure the league's popularity, but they do indicate that the NBA, without Jordan, still has enough stars to maintain fans' interest. Jordan's old team, however, isn't quite the TV draw it once was. National ratings for the Bulls' telecasts are far more dependent on Chicago's opponents than they were when Jordan was playing. Bulls games on NBC against a pair of high-profile teams, the Suns and Knicks, did slightly better than the league's overall average, but a game against the less glamorous Cavaliers was well below the norm, with a 3.6 rating and 11.0 share. Still, the Bulls can point to Jordan's spring training performance at the plate and note that at least their numbers are better than his.
Line of the Week
Shaquille O'Neal, Magic FTM-A: 12-12
The rest of Shaq's line in a 100-98 win over the Mavericks on March 16—34 points, 21 rebounds and five blocked shots—wasn't so bad, either, but for him those numbers are becoming the norm. Making all 12 of his free throws, however, is anything but routine for O'Neal, who is a 54% free throw shooter this season. NBA officials would like to see O'Neal at the foul line for Dream Team II this summer. But O'Neal has an endorsement contract with Pepsi, while one of the Dream Team sponsors is McDonald's, which sells Coke. NBA executives have been meeting with Pepsi officials in hopes of reaching a compromise—one that ensures O'Neal doesn't appear by himself on Dream Team II merchandise distributed by McDonald's—before March 28, the date on which the final two spots on the team are scheduled to be filled.