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One way to cash in: Don't do anything

We tend to do stories about gratitude and thanks at this time of year. Vin Baker's ongoing -- it will always be ongoing -- recovery from alcoholism is one such story. Here's another: the number of players, and there are a lot of them, who have every reason to be eternally grateful because they (a) aren't playing or (b) can't play but (c) are all earning sizable paychecks this season nonetheless. The Celtics have one such fellow: Chris Mills. He may be the only player in the history of the franchise who was a two-time Celtic while never appearing in a regular-season game. Rick Pitino signed him in the summer of 1997 and then traded him during the exhibition season. He was acquired again in the Antoine Walker deal and he will not play a second for the team this season while pocketing a cool $6.6 million (the last year of the seven-year deal Pitino gave him). He is injured, and the Celtics have absolutely no interest in him playing this season (insurance will pick up roughly 80 percent of his contract if he can't play).

Mills has plenty of company around the NBA. With the sudden retirement of Alonzo Mourning last week, the Nets will now pay more than $19 million to two players, Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, who won't play for them this season. Mutombo was bought out and released. Chris Childs is still on the Nets' books for $1.45 million. Across the Hudson, the Knicks are paying $4.4 million to Travis Knight, also in the seventh year of a sweet deal that Pitino gave him. (That's one reason the league may press for a four-year maximum on contracts in the next collective bargaining agreement.)

The Portland Trail Blazers are paying Shawn Kemp nearly $15 million -- and Kemp isn't even in the league. Matt Maloney is still on Houston's payroll for more than $6 million this year and next, even though he hasn't been a Rocket for years. Michael Dickerson is likely finished because of injury, but the Grizzlies still owe him a staggering $37.5 million (which, hopefully for Memphis's sake, insurance will pay). The congenitally frugal Clippers waived Wang Zhi-Zhi, although they owe him more than $4 million. The Bucks are still paying Jason Caffey and Anthony Mason more than $8 million although neither is on the roster.

Hey, it's good work if you can get it, and every single player who's getting the money got it fair and square. The Sixers acquired Todd MacCulloch in 2002 -- and soon learned to their horror that he is probably finished because of a foot injury. He is into Year 3 of a seven-year deal worth more than $30 million.

MacCulloch made one of the great financial scores when he left the Sixers as a backup to Mutombo to sign with the Nets. His one year in New Jersey coincided with the arrival of Jason Kidd, the return of Kerry Kittles, and a trip to the NBA Finals.

"Things have worked out amazingly," he said. "I've gotten to travel the world, play in the Olympics and play in the NBA, play in the Finals. All those experiences and all the teammates, I'm thankful for everything that's happened and everything that will happen."

Does he ever have one tiny ounce of guilt in cashing his check?

"It's one of those things where we get paid a ton of money," he said. "No one's going to ask for less. You get as much as you can. But you do sometimes feel a little bit guilty, even if you're healthy. But if you are healthy and you're playing, then you can kind of rationalize it: This is what they want to pay me and I'm able to do my job.

"When you're injured and you're not able to do that, it's great to have the security of a guaranteed contract. At the same time, it's difficult to be receiving so much money, feeling like you're not fulfilling [your job]. But it's something that's sort of beyond your control.

"It seems like an enormous amount of money, when, from the outside, you're not really doing anything for it."

Over there

Celtics general manager Chris Wallace hit nine games in 12 days on his recent swing through Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia. He said he's probably in for at least two more trips overseas, and director of basketball operations Danny Ainge has indicated he, too, will probably make at least two such trips this season. "Everyone is extensively scouting Europe," Wallace said. "In any kind of meaningful game, there is at least one NBA team represented." Wallace said that of the nine games he attended, there were NBA scouts at all but one -- and at one game, there were 18 scouts. "It's like going to a Kansas-Missouri game, or UConn-Syracuse, except the postgame pasta is better," Wallace said. There's another difference beside the food. You go to a game in Europe and you're never sure if the guy you're going to see will play. Or for how long. Or in what role. "You went to see Kansas last year and you knew that Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison were going to play and you knew what role they'd play and that'd be a constant," Wallace said. "In Europe, sometimes they'll hold guys out, sometimes it's a punitive thing, you never know." Among the players Wallace saw who figure to be first-round picks next June were Tiago Splitter, a Brazilian who plays in Spain, Predrag Samardziski, a 7-footer who plays for Partizan Belgrade, and 7-foot Kosta Perovic, who also plays for Partizan Belgrade. Splitter plays for Tau Ceramica, a powerhouse team that features Argentine bulldog forward Andres Nocioni and Lithuanian sharpshooter Arvydas Macijauskas, who just had his free throw streak stopped at 91 in a row. Macijauskas will be a hot commodity next summer. Because he is 23, and past his draft-eligible age, he will be a free agent. Nocioni is in the same category; you wonder how teams miss guys like this, particularly in the second round of drafts. Wallace can't comment on any of the players until they officially enter the draft. Already, however, the word is out that, for the third time in the last four years, a high school kid will be the No. 1 overall pick. This year's prep phenom: 6-11 Dwight Howard from Atlanta . . . On the overseas theme, former Celtic Acie Earl, a.k.a. Mr. October, is playing in Austria, of all places. Earl signed on with little-known Traiskirchen, and, according to a report on eurobasket.com, more than 1,000 showed up to see his debut. Earl had 12 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, and 5 blocked shots, but the Lions lost, 114-99, and dropped to 2-6. Austria is famous for a lot of things, but high-caliber hoops is not one of them. "The basketball there isn't the greatest," said Celtics guard Mike James, who played a year in Austria (1998-99 for St. Polten). "There is some good competition, but overall, it's not the best. Playing in Austria is more like a league where you're starting your career and you don't have that many choices, or you're at the end of your career and you still have a love for the game and you still want to play and get paid. You're not going to get paid like you're in Spain or France or Italy. But the pay is still good. You can survive." Earl, of course, was the Celtics' No. 1 in 1993 (Dave Gavitt's last, as it turned out) and played two seasons in Boston. He since has played for the Raptors, Bucks, and teams in France, Turkey, Poland, and Russia. For two years, he held the house record at the FleetCenter for most points (40) by a Celtics opponent.

No snap judgments

If you're wondering what Baron Davis thought when he heard the news that he'd be coached in New Orleans this year by Tim Floyd, well, he was willing to cut the ex-Bulls coach some slack. "I give everybody a chance," Davis said. "I didn't know him. I didn't know what he had to offer. I don't hold grudges against anybody." Davis said things are definitely different, however, after Paul Silas. "Everything is different," he said. "It's a totally different feel. It's a totally different system. It's a system we're still learning. He's just a different coach as far as game preparation, his game-time decisions, his game coaching situations. I'm not saying it's good or bad. It's different." For his part, Floyd remains grateful that there was one person out there who was willing to give him another chance after his disastrous stint with the Bulls. "I had no idea where I would end up," he said. "I'm still glad that I did it [coach the Bulls]. I'm glad I didn't walk away from the obvious. It was a tough job to go into. A lot of people said it was the most difficult job anyone ever walked into in pro sports. Phil Bengtson [who succeeded Vince Lombardi in Green Bay] would probably argue with that. But it was right there with that. I just kept my eyes open after I left." Floyd said after leaving the Bulls, he had college opportunities and also an offer to be an assistant in San Antonio. "Nothing felt exactly right," he said. "When this opportunity came, it was a no-brainer. We were living in New Orleans. I had friends and family there. I love the city. And they had a good team. I was holding out for that. Having gone through what I went through in Chicago, I wanted some type of opportunity to win quickly, because that was more losing than a man should go through." . . . John Nash, the new general manager of the Trail Blazers, saw a lot of Charles Barkley when he was in the front office in Philadelphia. He thinks he sees some of the same things in emerging star Zach Randolph. "He's Barkleylike in some ways, although Zach is a good 6-8, 6-9," Nash said. "He's a quick leaper like Charles was. He's off the floor before most guys come down. He can dribble. He's not as good a passer as Charles, and he relies more on his moves than his strength, although he is strong. He's a scoring machine. He's a rebounding machine. He's a high-minutes guy. He's our best player. Rasheed Wallace is a talent, but, night-in and night-out, Zach has been our best. And he is going to get better."

In the Kings' castle

The Sacramento Kings are picking up right where they left off last season when Eastern Conference teams stop by ARCO Arena. The Kings went 15-0 against the East at home last season and thus far are 6-0, winning by an average of 17 points. They'll go for No. 7 tonight when the Nets make their only visit . . . Thanks to a schedule quirk, new Bulls coach Scott Skiles will have a few days of practice before coaching his first game. The Bulls last played Wednesday; their next game is tomorrow night. The Bulls have not won since beating the Celtics in Boston Nov. 12, and have won only once at home -- on Halloween against the Hawks. Meanwhile, Chicago is coming off a trip on which it lost to five Western Conference teams (Suns, Lakers, Kings, Mavericks, Spurs). The Bulls are 0-21 in their last 21 road games against the Western Conference . . . Former Celtic Danny Fortson, now with Dallas, was suspended three games for a flagrant foul that resulted in Suns rookie Zarko Cabarkapa breaking his right wrist. Cabarkapa will be out at least six weeks, and the incident infuriated Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, who called Fortson "a thug. He's always been a thug." Colangelo wields considerable influence in the NBA and vowed to push for a lengthy suspension for Fortson. Three games is not what he had in mind.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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