Ira Winderman: O'Neal, James invaluable

A midseason look at where the NBA's other hardware is headed, while acknowledging that any championship parade will not be scheduled on eastern daylight time.

Most Valuable Player

Jermaine O'Neal.

Blasphemy, giving the league's top honor to someone from its lesser half? Perhaps. Yet while Indiana has built the bulk of one of the league's top records mostly against inferior Eastern competition, O'Neal stands as the game's best young two-way player, on a team that, beyond Ron Artest, hardly overwhelms with its roster.

Over the first half of the season, O'Neal has been the Tim Duncan of the East. Of course, Duncan remains the Tim Duncan of the West. But he's had his turn, so consider it along the lines of: Sure Michael Jordan should have won every year, but we recognized the value of diversity.

Others in the current top-five for consideration, from this view, are Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Baron Davis and Peja Stojakovic. Yup, no mention here for Shaq, who seems to have little interest in regular-season anything.

Seems nothing's changed

A pregame meeting between Blazers general manager John Nash and Dallas director player of personnel Donnie Nelson ended at odds, with both teams agreeing to abandon trade talks, but the Blazers' struggles continued with a 108-104 loss at the Rose Garden, their eighth loss in nine games.

Nash and Nelson met for about 20 minutes -- until pregame introductions -- before emerging with smiles, both content to move on with their seasons, which are heading in different directions.

"If it could mesh, we would have meshed by now," Nash said of the trade talks. "It seems like we have spent a lot of time talking, and we have been unable to come to a common ground."

So a deal with Dallas is dead?

"Dead is a strong word," Nash said. "I think it's safe to say there is nothing imminent."

Raptors reach out to Oakley for late-season help

The search for another big man has led the Raptors to contact an old, familiar, often-cranky veteran:

Charles Oakley.

Two team sources confirmed yesterday that the Raptors have called the cantankerous power forward to see if he'd be able — or interested — in helping Toronto over the final three months of the regular season.

The 39-year-old power forward has been working out on his own and hopes to land with some NBA team for a final playoff push either later this month or around the Feb. 13-15 all-star break.

The Raptors, who are now using a front-court rotation of Chris Bosh, Donyell Marshall, Lonny Baxter and, sometimes, Michael Curry, are most concerned about whether Oakley's skills have diminished to the point where he wouldn't be able to help at all.

The 6-9, 250-pound, 18-year NBA veteran always keeps himself in good shape and would lift the Raptor basketball IQ by a huge amount if he joins the team but if he can't play, it could become a distraction.

Orlando's Juwan Howard, a college teammate of Raptor Jalen Rose, is in play, according to a variety of NBA sources, and Toronto might have some interest, according to one source. However, Howard is in the first year of a six-year, $35 million (all figures U.S.) contract that would pay him $7.3 million when he's 37 years old.

The Magic, who have the worst record in the NBA at 10-30 before last night, are looking to divest high-priced players. The Raptors could offer a package of expiring contracts and Lamond Murray, who has four fewer years on his deal that Howard, and make the salaries match.

Along with Howard, other NBA big men on the market include Phoenix's Jahidi White, a huge centre who doesn't possess the kind of basketball smarts the Raptors would want, and perhaps San Antonio's Malik Rose, who has fallen out of favour with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

Doctor: Chance he could play

Four weeks after Alonzo Mourning had a kidney transplant, he is craving a workout.

He tells his doctor that he wants to run and lift weights. By the end of this season, perhaps he will want to play basketball, too.

For now, Mourning must continue to rest. He cannot participate in any physical activity for at least another two weeks, but his recovery has gone so smoothly that his doctor, Gerald Appel, says there is a chance that Mourning will be able to return to the NBA and rejoin the Nets.

''As well as I've known Alonzo the last three and a half years, I know that it's in the back of his mind.'' Appel said. ``So it has to be in the back of my mind, too.''

Stern's Concerns

Commissioner David Stern had some interesting thoughts on his long-held belief that the NBA should have an age minimum.

"I want to say gingerly that in my experience as commissioner age was not a factor in judgment in whether you should throw somebody through a plate-glass window (Charles Barkley), kick a photographer in the groin (Dennis Rodman) or other behavior defined as anti-social.

"I’d like to marshal every argument in favor of my point of view that it’s a good thing that players don’t come into the league at such a young age. But I also realize that the evidence is all over the lot.’’

Atlanta teen Dwight Howard is expected to be the third prep star to be taken with the No. 1 overall pick when the June NBA draft rolls around.

That’s not quite as alarming to Stern as it used to be. He says he’s not concerned about such talents as LeBron James, Tracy McGrady and Kevin Garnett.

Instead, it’s the elementary school kids with unrealistic dreams that bother Stern most.

"There are going to be huge numbers of kids whose parents are already approaching me and telling me, ‘He’s 11 years old, and he can bounce the ball extremely well, and he ain’t going to college because he thinks he’s going to go to the NBA.’ And I emphasize the use of the word ain’t.

"Everyone knows that the chances of that young man becoming a rocket scientist are better than making the NBA.

"It just doesn’t make me feel great having a system that sort of encourages kids to focus on only one thing. But I’ve been a lone voice on this.’’

White lets game do the talking

Rodney White's future remains as uncertain as his stat line, which continues to zig and zag with the best of them.

The Nuggets' swingman may have the most deceptive scoring average on the team. His 7.4 points per game hides the fact he could be good for the 23 he scored against Boston in December or the nine combined points he scored during Denver's three-game road trip last week.

White's name hasn't surfaced publicly in trade rumblings in recent weeks, but that doesn't mean he feels any more secure about his status with the team.

"I still hear trade rumors," he said last week. "I try to just focus on game by game and let my agent focus on that. That's what I pay him for. Let's just see what happens from here."

"We haven't really pursued anything with Rodney," Vandeweghe said. "I like Rodney. I like him as a player. I like him as a person. He has worked very hard this past month, and I think he has shown a lot of improvement.",...898544,00.html

Van Exel takes time to rest

Nick Van Exel knew his painful left knee was affecting his play. He just didn't realize how much until his phone rang Wednesday night.

"I was talking to a buddy of mine," Van Exel recalled of the cross-country conversation. "(He said,) 'You got your shot blocked by Jason Williams and Earl Watson' (in the Memphis game Monday night)."

The veteran point guard thought about that for a second and drew the obvious conclusion: He needed to take some time off.

After discussing it with coach Eric Musselman at Thursday's shootaround, Van Exel placed himself on the injured list.

The team's second-leading scorer will be eligible to return to the active roster a week from today, but that seems unlikely. If nothing else, Van Exel promises to be patient this time, saying he will work on strengthening the muscles around the surgically repaired knee.

"I'm so frustrated right now, not helping the team, it's killing me," he said of a recent stretch in which he failed to hit at least half his shots in 11 consecutive games. "I don't know how long I'm going to be out."

Jamison's fine with role as sixth man

On Oct. 20 -- eight days before the season opener against the Lakers in Los Angeles -- the Mavericks picked up three-time All-Star forward Antoine Walker in a trade with Boston. Walker immediately moved into the starting lineup, and Jamison became the early season favorite for the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award.

At the time, Jamison embraced the deal. He said Walker's arrival not only added another weapon to a team fill with weapons, but that moving to the bench also allowed him to adopt a score-first, everything-else-second approach.

Three months later, he's still fine with it.

"I just looked at it as a situation where I get the opportunity to win a lot more," he said. "When you're on a team like this, you need certain guys to sacrifice and I didn't really think it was a problem."

Jamison said the toughest adjustment he has had to make coming off the bench has been adjusting to the flow of the game.

"When you come off the bench, the game already is at a certain tempo that you have to try and match," Jamison said. "After four and a half years as a starter, coming off the bench was definitely something new and something that I had to get comfortable with all over again.

"I'm happy, man. I can't complain at all. Things happen for a reason, and hopefully I'll be here for a while and we can get things rolling."

Loss leaves Pop peeved

After keeping his team in the locker room for more than 20 minutes following its 89-79 loss to Indiana, Gregg Popovich finally emerged with a sandwich in his left hand and fire in his belly. He said the loss was the most disappointing of the season because it was not unlike the one the Spurs suffered two nights earlier to Minnesota.

For that, he faulted nearly everyone in uniform. And himself.

"I've let the team down from a coaching standpoint in that I have not been demanding enough or made enough people responsible to compete and perform a certain way during practices and shootarounds," Popovich said. "I've been too patient, too lax, too ready to just assume things are going to get better as people spend more time here.

"That isn't good enough. That lies strictly with me. In that regard, I've let them down significantly. That will be changing immediately."

Chris Tomasson: Camby prefers Nuggets; they like him

Why would Camby opt out?

"He wants to sign a long-term deal," Kaplan said. "Marcus wants to be in one spot. He wants to know where he's going to be playing."

But would Camby be willing to take a pay cut? He doesn't sound all that enthralled with that prospect.

"I'm not looking to take one, but that's (Kaplan's) job to get it done," he said. "I have to worry about playing."

Kaplan talks about Camby signing a contract similar to the seven-

year, $68 million deal Sacramento big man Brad Miller got last summer. But Miller this season is making $7 million, which, at last look, is less than what Camby is now getting.

"It's unlikely he would take significantly less (for next season), but I could see a situation where he might make nominally less," said Kaplan, who believes Camby could be in a better overall situation if he has the security of a long-term deal.

If Camby opts out and then doesn't get a deal he likes from the Nuggets, his options could be Phoenix, the Clippers or Utah, teams that figure to be $7 million or more under the salary cap. Other teams likely wouldn't be able to offer more than the midlevel exception of $5 million.

"Wherever the price is right," Camby said. "But my first choice is to stay in Denver."

Rodman as a mentor in NBA?

Although he'll turn 43 come May and hasn't played in an NBA uniform in nearly four years, Rodman left one courtside observer convinced Friday night that he can hang with most power forwards in the league and teach the league's barely-out-of-their-teens- and-younger set more than a thing or two about how the game is supposed to be played, in the process.

"The Lakers could use him right now, especially with Karl Malone out (on the injured listed),' Sean Higgins said, smiling and shaking his head in admiration, no doubt, for what he just seen of Rodman, although the Higgins-coached Fresno team lost in the process in the Pyramid, 130-110.

"He can still rebound his butt off and frustrate opponents, especially the young guys,' Higgins said.

"And, with the nature of the game now, with so many young guys who still have so much to learn about the game is supposed to be played? Yes, he can play.'

When Higgins came into the league (in 1990, with the San Antonio Spurs), "there were so many guys in the league, 10- to 15-year veterans, who could teach you how to play,' he said.

"Now, who are those 19- or 20- year-old guys in the NBA learning from? They're 'learning' it from guys who are 21 or 22. Now, if you've been in the NBA for three or four years, you're a 'veteran."