Injuries have become the great equalizer in the National Basketball Association this season.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks and Philadelphia 76ers -- three teams that had legitimate aspirations of winning division titles -- have lost one or more key players for whom they have not found suitable replacements.
Cleveland lost point guard Mark Price (knee surgery) for the season Nov. 30, and has been minus forward John "Hot Rod" Williams since he suffered a foot injury Nov. 16.
The Cavaliers have won only two of 11 games since Price went down, slamming his knee against the scoring table while diving for a loose ball.
"I have no second thoughts about what I did," said Price. 'I don't know any other way to play. If I didn't play that way, I probably wouldn't have made it in the NBA in the first place."
The Mavericks have gone into a similar slide after a season-ending injury to power forward Roy Tarpley Nov. 9. He had been averaging 20.4 points and 11.0 rebounds in triggering a 4-1 Mavericks start.
That same week, key backcourt reserve Fat Lever suffered a less severe knee injury and could return in late January. With Tarpley and Lever missing, the Mavericks have gone 5-13.
"When I watch 'A Christmas Carol' and see Tiny Tim on crutches, it reminds me of my team," said Mavericks coach Richie Adubato.
The 76ers lost playmaker Johnny Dawkins for the season Nov. 8, when he tore up his right knee, but have stayed on the heels of the first-place Boston Celtics mainly on the strength of forward Charles Barkley's overpowering play and the surprising consistency of veteran point guard Rickey Green.
But Philadelphia's 18-8 record is somewhat misleading. The 76ers have yet to make an extended Western swing.
Injuries are nothing new for the Cavaliers, who lost 154 player-games to injuries last season, with center Brad Daugherty, who missed the first 41 games, as the main casualty. This season, they already have lost 60 player-games.
"I've never experienced anything like we've been through the past two years," said Cavaliers general manager Wayne Embry. "Williams may be back in three or four weeks, but Price is the guy who makes this team go. We can't replace him."
The Cavaliers found a stopgap in Darnell Valentine, who had been playing in Mexico, trying to climb back into the NBA. Embry has little choice but to look for bargains as replacements.
"We're already $3 million over the salary cap because of Williams [he is earning $5 million this year]," Embry said. "Then, the other problem is expansion. With 27 teams, there just aren't many quality point guards available."
Cavalier attitude: Guard Ron Harper, involved in the controversial trade last year by Cleveland to the Los Angeles Clippers for the rights to forward Danny Ferry, still is angry over the way his lifestyle has been portrayed by Cleveland officials.
In the January issue of Sport magazine, Harper, recovering from knee surgery, said: "I know they didn't trade me because I couldn't play basketball. Cleveland didn't like the way I was hanging out in nightclubs. They say the people I talked to were selling drugs. I'm not going to ask people what they do before they talk to me."
Moe-mentum: Indiana general manager Donnie Walsh said he talked with longtime friend Doug Moe about becoming the Pacers coach before firing Dick Versace, who was replaced last week by assistant Bob Hill.
Miami heat: Head coach Ron Rothstein recently got a vote of confidence from Miami managing partner Lewis Schaffel after the Heat losing streak stretched to 10 games before Sunday's victory over the Utah Jazz.