With the halfway point of the NBA season approaching, the league's build-up to the All-Star Game is beginning. Contestants for the slam-dunk competition and the rookie game have been selected, and Thursday starters will be announced for the Feb. 13 game in Minneapolis.
Who belongs? Let's just say there will be several choices that would have been laughable two years ago. But here's one man's list, with my starters listed first at each position:
* Center: Shaquille O'Neal, Orlando Magic; Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks.
* Small forward: Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls; Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks.
* Power forward: Horace Grant, Bulls; Charles Oakley, Knicks; Derrick Coleman, New Jersey Nets.
* Shooting guard: Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers; John Starks, Knicks.
* Point guard: Kenny Anderson, Nets; B. J. Armstrong, Bulls; Mark Price, Cleveland Cavaliers.
I never thought I would pick three Bulls for an all-star team this season. But who would have predicted Chicago to be at the top of the Central Division without Michael Jordan?
My biggest apology would go to Clarence Weatherspoon, the Philadelphia 76ers forward who is having a solid season. Maybe a healthy Larry Johnson will return to all-star form next season for the Charlotte Hornets.
And it's hard to pick a team without either of the Detroit Pistons' guards, but neither Joe Dumars nor Isiah Thomas is having a worthy season.
* Center: Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets; David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs.
* Small forward: Charles Barkley, Phoenix Suns; Danny Manning, Los Angeles Clippers; Clifford Robinson, Portland Trail Blazers.
* Power forward: Karl Malone, Utah Jazz; Shawn Kemp, Seattle SuperSonics.
* Shooting guard: Latrell Sprewell, Golden State Warriors; Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Denver Nuggets; Mitch Richmond, Sacramento Kings.
* Point guard: Kevin Johnson, Suns; John Stockton, Jazz.
It's a versatile team, with all the forwards except Malone able to play either position.
Despite their quick starts, notice the Rockets and Sonics have just a single representative. It shows unselfishness on those teams, where players have made personal sacrifices for the good of the team.
Of course, these picks mean absolutely nothing, with the fan vote sure to produce some surprises (the Washington Bullets' Calbert Cheaney, for instance, was running fourth among forwards last week).
Feeling the Heat
Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if their state counterparts, the Magic, weren't in second place in the Atlantic Division and talking of one day competing for an NBA title. But members of the Miami Heat these days are finding themselves in the hot seat.
Before beating the Washington Bullets, 113-80, on Sunday, the Heat had lost seven straight games. After the Heat lost by 20 points to the Pistons last Friday -- three nights after blowing a 19-point lead in a loss to the Clippers -- Heat managing partner Lewis Schaffel promised "some dramatic changes."
When looking at the Heat's talent, it's hard to blame Schaffel for being upset. Steve Smith, Glen Rice and Rony Seikaly seem more than enough to form the nucleus of a successful team. Getting the team -- which has played selfishly at times -- to mesh has been a problem.
"We do have a lot of talent, but in some cases you have to have a little bit more than talent," Rice said. "In some cases you have to have guys willing to dive on loose balls, to do the little things. We don't have that now."
To address that problem, the team scheduled a 15-minute meeting Saturday that turned into a two-hour discussion. The next night the Heat beat the Bullets by 33 points, the team's second biggest margin of victory, for coach Kevin Loughery's 600th career win.
Whether the talk turns the team's fortunes around remains to be seen. Regardless, one player said he's ready to abandon ship. Former Bullets center Manute Bol said he's tired of "watching a lot of games" from the bench and intends to leave the NBA at the end of the season.
"No more NBA for me," Bol said. "I think I can still help the team, and I have respect from a lot of players in the league. I've been sitting on the bench since October. I don't want to end my career this way."
Give the 7-foot-7 Bol credit: He lacks a game, but he doesn't lack confidence.
The nixed Knick
Isiah Thomas will be be watching the advancement of the Knicks carefully.
Thomas reportedly was on the verge of being traded to New York earlier this month, but opted to stay with the Pistons after the promise of a front-office position. The Knicks got Derek Harper instead, and are expected to make a strong push for the NBA title.
"I'd be lying if I told you I didn't fantasize what it would be like throwing the ball to Patrick Ewing or playing for the championship again," said Thomas, who won two titles in Detroit. "The reality of it just wasn't meant to be.