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AROUND THE RIM
The best news out of Denver: The phenoms are for real. While the NBA has often made the mistake of trying to turn immature players into icons, the players with four years' experience or fewer who made their All-Star debuts-- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Manu Ginobili, Amare Stoudemire and Gilbert Arenas--are spectacular athletes who would rather win games than hijack them. "They're interested in playing the right way and moving the ball, being unselfish, competing and playing defense," said West coach Gregg Popovich. Added elder statesman Shaquille O'Neal, "They remind me of myself--humble guys, fun to watch."... Though Grant Hill (above) scored only six points for the East, his wife, Tamia, did a spectacular rendition of the Canadian national anthem. "Somebody in our family had to perform well," said Hill.... The Cosmo Kramer Slam Dunk Award goes to Hornets forward Chris Andersen, who required 16 attempts to complete his first two dunks. Steve Nash handled the ball better with his head (setting up Suns teammate Stoudemire's alley-oop) than Andersen did with both hands.
On teams to watch down the stretch: "A lot of people in the league think Phoenix and Seattle are fake contenders. They're right about the Sonics--their lack of defense and size is going to get them knocked out in the first round--but wrong about the Suns, who play much better defense than they get credit for. The most intriguing dark horse in the West is Memphis, especially if Mike Fratello can turn Pau Gasol (right) into a go-to guy. But I don't see anybody in the West beating San Antonio. In the East, Indiana will turn it around over the next two months. The Pacers won't earn one of the top three seeds, but Rick Carlisle, Jermaine O'Neal and their experienced bench will give them enough to join Miami and Detroit as the teams to beat."
Will the NBA please consider the following improvements to All-Star Saturday night?
3. Make the Slam Dunk competition more compelling by raising the rim three inches after each round.
2. Replace the Shooting Stars competition with a game of H-O-R-S-E involving stars from the past, present and the WNBA--and use a five-second shot clock to keep the rounds moving.
1. Kill the Skills Challenge for a one-on-one tournament with three-minute games and a 10-second shot clock. Matchups I'd want to see: Tyson Chandler versus Earl Boykins, Allen Iverson versus Stephon Marbury and, of course, Shaq versus Kobe.