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Saunders takes charge

It was an odd thing to be asking about a coach in the second year of a four-year contract, especially one who had won a franchise-high 64 games last season. Still, given the way things ended, it seemed like a legitimate question to pose to Pistons president Joe Dumars.

Is Flip Saunders on trial this season?

"Not at all," Dumars said.

Dumars' support of Saunders, the man he hired to replace Larry Brown after the Pistons had won the championship in 2004 and made it back to the Finals in 2005, never waned last season. When Ben Wallace got into a snit with Saunders and refused to enter a game in Orlando last April, Dumars backed the coach. When Wallace and other players (Antonio McDyess, Tayshaun Prince) publicly complained during the playoffs, Dumars had Saunders' back, again.

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Knicks' Thomas on the spot

The NBA season opens Tuesday with at least a dozen coaches on the hot seat, though perhaps none more so than New York's Isiah Thomas, who replaced Larry Brown with a mandate to improve or leave.

"Every coach will tell you he is on the hot seat," says Thomas, "but I guarantee you mine gets the most attention."

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Spurs picked by GM's to win another title

Rev up the bandwagon, put the champagne on ice and start planning the river parade.

The Spurs are winning the championship.

Well, at least that's what 12 NBA general managers think. In the league's annual GM survey released last week, the Spurs were picked as the team most likely to win the title. They received four more votes than Dallas, which beat them in last season's Western Conference semifinals and eight more than Miami, which won the championship.

Unfortunately for the Spurs, the league's top decision makers aren't exactly a bunch of well-dressed prophets. Those asked to participate in the survey are the same guys who sign Jeff McInnis then act surprised when he can't co-exist with either his teammates or coach; give $29 million to Jerome James; and, according to local legend, pass on Josh Howard to spend a weekend with Jason and Joumana Kidd.

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Bryant Uncertain

Kobe Bryant jumped and got rebounds during Sunday's scrimmage at Staples Center.

But Bryant also limped up the court at times and admitted he didn't completely "trust" his surgically repaired right knee.

Bryant still didn't commit to playing or not in the season opener Tuesday night at Staples Center against the Phoenix Suns.

The knee has improved, but Bryant was emphatic when asked how much he could trust it.

"Not much," Bryant said. "You kind of put your foot in the water and see if it's cold. It's kind of doing that a little bit. Like trying to turn the corner, but not really trying to turn the corner and then seeing what that feels like. Then it's like, 'that felt OK.' The next time I can turn it a little sharper and a little quicker. It's kind of like trying to gauge it like that."

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Practice gets better for Bryant

Trust issues for the Lakers? Indeed.

Kobe Bryant answered "not much" when asked how much he trusted his surgically repaired right knee.

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Hodge will be set free next summer

As if it weren't tough enough already, Julius Hodge's road to having a stable NBA career got more difficult Sunday.

The Nuggets exercised the fourth-year contract option of guard J.R. Smith and the third- year contract option of forward Linas Kleiza. However, the Nuggets did not take Hodge's third- year contract option. So the 20th overall pick in the 2005 draft will be a restricted free agent next summer.

"I just look at it definitely as some weight off my shoulders," Hodge said. "Now I can basically focus primarily on the season and getting better each and every day. As long as I'm the first guy in the gym every day and the last to leave and I know I'm the hardest worker on the team, I know I'm going to get better. When I get my opportunity, I'm going to make the best of it."

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Cavaliers enter new stratosphere

Starting this week, the Cavaliers' honeymoon is over.

That doesn't refer to the end of the preseason. It means the end of their underdog status.

No more will the expectations be reasonable for the Cavs and LeBron James; the bar set in the mediocrity of just making the playoffs. Not even the silver elite status of reaching the conference semifinals will be deemed appropriate.

Those tickets have been punched and the pats on the backs awarded. Since James' arrival in 2003, the Cavs have constantly dealt with increasing expectations. But the target was always much bigger. Now they are expected to make the NBA's final four or it will be considered somewhat of a letdown, a spinning of the wheels.

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Pacers: Ready or not, roster to be cut to 15 today

With the NBA's deadline for achieving a 15-man roster looming at 6 p.m. today, the Indiana Pacers' brain trust has some difficult decisions to make.

Seventeen players, all owning guaranteed contracts, participated in Sunday's practice at Conseco Fieldhouse, leaving various options for meeting the cutoff.
Cut two of them? Find a multi-player trade that reduces their numbers? Trade one or more for a draft pick?

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Buss feels good about Lakers

On a beautiful, clear Sunday, Lakers owner Jerry Buss sat in his home Sunday and discussed many topics regarding his team.

The most notable things he had to say?

He will talk to Coach Phil Jackson about a contract extension.

His relationship with Kobe Bryant has grown, and he wants Bryant to retire a Laker.

He has no plans of selling the team and envisions his son Jim one day taking over.

He believes the Lakers can soon compete for a championship.

He has no qualms with how General Manager Mitch Kupchak has done his job.

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Transition game for Lakers

Jerry Buss sat back in his jeans, casual shirt and an unlaced pair of high-tops, perched comfortably in his living room and flanked by an army of Remington statues as he discussed the future of the Lakers.

He acknowledged starting the gradual process of transferring control of the team to his daughter, Jeanie, and son Jim. He said he wanted the recently repaired Phil Jackson to stay beyond the length of a contract that ends after next season. He spoke glowingly of General Manager Mitch Kupchak and firmly maintained he is two-thirds of the way to a championship blueprint with Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom in the fold, lacking only a "dominant center."

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Buss still starry-eyed over his Lakers

There is a part of Jerry Buss that can remember marveling as he walked down Hollywood Boulevard as a younger man. There is a part of him as well that can remember setting out to build a basketball team that encompassed everything great about Los Angeles.

Both parts will come together today as Buss, entering his 27thseason as owner of the Lakers, will be honored with the 2,323rd star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions in helping build the Prime Ticket television network.

That the Lakers have become almost as synonymous as the movie and television stars in the city's identity was not lost on Buss. One day after he is honored at the corner of Hollywood and Highland, the Lakers will open another season at Staples Center.

"I guess this to me is a vindication of the fact I was able to do that," Buss said, "and it makes me very happy."

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Livingston aims for Kaman-like contract next season

Everyone in the Clippers organization is happy that Chris Kaman signed a five-year, $52.5 million contract extension.

But one player watched the process with an especially keen eye: Shaun Livingston.

Livingston will be in a similar position as Kaman next year, and he is hoping that he can follow the center's trail and get an extension, even when the Clippers will be in no immediate danger of losing him to free agency.

"I would love the same situation to happen with me as it did with Kaman," Livingston said Sunday. "But it's about both parties. I have to perform, and then they have to perform."

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Barrett gets final roster spot over Schenscher

The Bulls finalized their 15-man regular-season roster Sunday when they decided to keep guard Andre Barrett over center Luke Schenscher.

Schenscher, who played 23 games with the Bulls last season after joining the team as a free agent March 5, was considered the front-runner for the final vacancy. But Barrett overcame concerns about his 5-10, 173-pound frame with impressive play throughout training camp. The former Seton Hall guard averaged 4.7 points and 1.8 assists in 10.5 minutes in six preseason games.

The Bulls become Barrett's fifth NBA team. He played parts of the last two seasons splitting 57 games with Houston, Orlando, Phoenix and Toronto.

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Roster spot goes to Barrett

Soft-spoken and small, Andre Barrett left the Berto Center on Sunday with the Bulls' 15th roster spot, beating out 7-foot-1-inch Luke Schenscher, who was waived.

"It feels real good," Barrett said. "It shows my hard work paid off. [My trainer] put that mentality into my head to come into training camp and play like I'm going to make the team. He said sometimes I lacked that attitude and confidence."

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Questions, questions, questions … so let’s try to answer some

Here are the 20 most compelling questions about the NBA season, which tips off Tuesday with the Bulls taking on the defending champion Heat in Miami:

1. How much will the Pistons miss Ben Wallace?

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Quentin, Knick who sticks

Isiah Thomas' best move may turn out to be not trading Quentin Richardson.

With Jared Jeffries injured and Jalen Rose about to be exiled from New York, Richardson is expected to be named the Knicks' opening night starter at small forward.

Over the summer, Thomas considered trading Richardson to Portland for Darius Miles and talked to the Sixers about a possible deal for Chris Webber. But prospective teams were scared off by Richardson's back problems and his subpar first season with the Knicks. But Richardson is a strong defender and he could help open the floor if and when he regains his shooting touch.

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Cavaliers enter new stratosphere

Starting this week, the Cavaliers' honeymoon is over.

That doesn't refer to the end of the preseason. It means the end of their underdog status.

No more will the expectations be reasonable for the Cavs and LeBron James; the bar set in the mediocrity of just making the playoffs. Not even the silver elite status of reaching the conference semifinals will be deemed appropriate.

Those tickets have been punched and the pats on the backs awarded. Since James' arrival in 2003, the Cavs have constantly dealt with increasing expectations. But the target was always much bigger. Now they are expected to make the NBA's final four or it will be considered somewhat of a letdown, a spinning of the wheels.

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Knicks' Dynamic Backcourt Duo Runs Wild

Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis formed a strong friendship off the court over the summer and in the Knicks' final preseason game Friday at The Meadowlands, they showed how dangerous they can be as an on-court tandem.

Francis (39) and Marbury (24) combined for 63 points in the Knicks' 138-121 loss to the Nets, both players thriving in the transition offense, slicing to the basket at will.

Nobody knows if the Knicks' defense will be competent enough to make them a playoff team when the season opens Wednesday in Memphis, but they should have an explosive offensive club spearheaded by the Marbury-Francis backcourt.

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Cuban inspiration behind new rule?

The NBA has implemented a code of conduct for owners that goes into effect when the regular season opens Tuesday, according to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

Cuban, who was fined $250,000 during the NBA Finals for what the league called "several acts of misconduct" and has repeatedly drawn the ire of commissioner David Stern, said he has no idea about the code of conduct's content. But it was approved last week at the Board of Governors meeting -- perhaps with Cuban in mind -- and is designed to muzzle owners who cross the line in criticizing the NBA.

Cuban said Stern gave him no clear-cut answers as to the repercussions for owners who break the new code.

"When asked what the specifics of it were, the commissioner was unable to give any details," Cuban said. "So I really don't know."

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Injuries could be big pains

The Dallas Mavericks, if you believe what you read and hear, won the Western Conference championship last season after beating the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the playoffs. And they beat the Spurs, supposedly, because Dallas coach Avery Johnson went to a small lineup against San Antonio.

This was news to Tim Duncan.

"He's the coach of the year," Duncan said recently of his former teammate, tongue in cheek. "So, obviously, that was the move that won the series. I thought it came down to a Game 7 overtime, but that's just me."

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