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Another job for Mr. Fix-It

He's back, as you figured he would be. George Karl has returned to the NBA and, based on his track record, we should expect (a) the Denver Nuggets to embrace him and win for him now and (b) the Denver Nuggets to willingly drive him to Stapleton International Airport at some point down the road.

That is George's history. Come to think of it, that's probably the history of a lot of NBA coaches.

But if George still has his fastball, you can expect a quick turnaround in Denver. The Nuggets, with Kenyon Martin, Carmelo Anthony, Andre Miller, and Nene, represent one of the NBA's most disappointing stories this season. Fortunately for them, Karl is a master at resolving such situations.

In the middle of the 1991-92 season, Karl was in Spain when he got a call to come and coach a notoriously underachieving Seattle SuperSonics team. The team, with a young Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp as its stars, was rudderless at .500, after going .500 the year before, all on the watch of the benevolent K.C. Jones.

In came Karl, and not a moment too soon. Seattle went 27-15 the rest of the way and made the playoffs.

"I've had 10 coaches in my 14 years, and in terms of X's and O's, and in getting you prepared, I can't think of anyone better," said Dana Barros, who was on that Seattle team. "He was like a Bill Belichick in terms of preparing you to take advantage of the other team's weaknesses. We must have had 50 new defensive schemes after he got there."

And, Barros said, the preparation continued after Seattle made the playoffs. The 47-win SuperSonics upset the 55-win Golden State Warriors in the first round before falling to Utah in the second round.

"We weren't as good as a lot of the teams we beat, including the playoffs, but we beat them," Barros said. "When you had all that time to prepare, it was no contest."

So, Dana, was there a big difference between Jones and Karl? "Definitely," Barros said.

Karl got a 63-19 year out of Seattle in 1993-94, but the team was stunned in the first round of the playoffs, blowing a 2-0 lead on the Nuggets. The Sonics were everyone's favorite to win the NBA title that year. They got to the NBA Finals in 1996, but had the misfortune to be playing the 72-win Chicago Bulls.

Soon, things unraveled in Seattle -- Karl feuded openly with general manager Wally Walker -- and Karl surfaced in Milwaukee. Prior to his arrival, the Bucks had gone through seven straight seasons in which they had neither made the playoffs nor won more than 36 games. In Karl's first season in Milwaukee, the team went 28-22 (the lockout year) and made the playoffs.

"He came into Milwaukee and changed the whole mind-set there," said Michael Curry, the veteran Indiana forward who was with the Bucks at the time. "Before he got there, it was, `The Milwaukee Bucks are no good and don't know how to win.' He changed that, throughout the organization. He was positive about Milwaukee basketball. That transformed everything."

In 2001, the Bucks took the 76ers to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. In 2002, they were everyone's favorite to win the East and were 10 games over .500 on March 1. Then the team imploded and didn't even make the playoffs. Soon Karl was gone.

That's how it goes with George, which the folks in Denver surely understand. The Nuggets are getting a terrific coach. They're getting a coach who specializes in taking over underachieving teams and getting the most out of them. They're also getting a coach who, history says, eventually will alienate himself from the team.

But, according to Barros and Curry, the Nuggets also will be getting a guy who knows his stuff, a guy who will have his team prepared, and a guy who will push all of their buttons.

"He makes the game a lot of fun and he's going to always challenge you to be the best player you can be, mentally and physically," Curry said. "Some people might have a problem with that but, personally, I think that's great. He's going to make you buy into his style and philosophy. That's what coaching is all about."

Payton headed for parts unknown

Last Tuesday night in Charlotte, before the Celtics beat the Bobcats, Gary Payton was contemplating his soon-to-be-over life as a Celtic, saying, "Two more weeks? Three more weeks?"

He knows. Everyone knows. What he doesn't know yet is where he's going to end up. Payton thinks Minnesota and Sacramento are possible destinations. Asked about that, one general manager said, "Minnesota is desperate to make a deal." But would the Timberwolves be desperate enough to take on Payton, who is in the last year of his contract?

Kevin McHale, the Wolves' vice president of basketball operations, was asked last fall for his thoughts on Payton coming to Boston. "That can either be really, really good or really, really bad," he said.

Well, it hasn't been really, really either. Payton hasn't whined, moaned, pouted, demanded to have the ball all the time, or mouthed off. That's good. And he is an upgrade at point guard. That should be good. But the Celtics are still under .500 with not a single significant injury over the first half of the season. (Al Jefferson's was in Game 42.)

No, it's not all on Payton, far from it. But he knows he's a short-termer here. All he wants is a chance to play for a winner. Could he end up in Denver, where he would be reunited with George Karl, one of his admirers from days gone by? A Payton-for-Voshon Lenard/Skita Tskitishvili deal works under the cap and would allow Andre Miller to move to shooting guard. Tskitishvili's deal is up at the end of the year (though he supposedly has a big upside, it hasn't materialized in Denver) while Lenard, out for the year, has one year and about $3.2 million left.

Lakers' fortunes will affect Celtics' plans

With Kobe Bryant out for a while longer with his sprained ankle -- although he probably will be back by the time the Celtics visit the Lakers Feb. 22 -- it is worth remembering that the Celtics do have a Lakers No. 1 pick, courtesy of the Gary Payton deal.

The pick is protected, however. Should the Lakers not make the playoffs, the Celtics would not get it this year. If the Lakers do make the playoffs, then the Celtics get the choice. Otherwise, the pick is protected through the first 10 in 2006 and through the first five in 2007. After that, all bets are off.

"I think if we get the pick this year, that would be great," said Danny Ainge. "But I'm not worried. Whatever year we get it, it'll be good."

The Celtics-Lakers game is the first for both teams after the All-Star Game, so it might well be Bryant's first game back. He is not expected to play on an upcoming road swing that features visits to Houston and to four Eastern Conference cities, including Detroit and Cleveland.

The Lakers have played only 17 road games, tied with Chicago for fewest in the league.

Etc.

Ticketed for Beijing in 2008

You think the coach of the Lithuanian national team doesn't already have a seat warm for this guy? Zygis Sestokas is a 6-foot-5-inch shooting guard who plays for the Statesville Christian School in North Carolina. Last Tuesday night, he dropped 76 points on Covenant Day to set a state scoring record, which is pretty impressive given that immortals such as Michael Jordan, James Worthy, M.L. Carr, and Cedric Maxwell all played high school ball in North Carolina. Sestokas made 14 of 21 3-pointers (showing his true Vilnius heritage) and was 13 of 17 from 2-point range. Alas, he made only 8 of 14 free throws (showing his darker US side) but he also had 11 rebounds and 6 assists. He's a senior, and several Division 1 schools apparently are showing interest. My guess is that Lithuanian national coach Antanas Sireika is keeping an eye on him as well.

Back in front

The Trail Blazers have had about as much luck playing the Spurs recently as a wounded wildebeest has against a hungry lion. When the teams met last Monday in the Rose Garden, the Blazers not only had lost five in a row to the Spurs, they had never led in any of those five games. They had gone 279 minutes 57 seconds without leading the Spurs -- not even 2-0. Alas, all good things (or bad things, depending on your view) must come to an end. A mere 24 seconds into last week's game, Joel Przybilla dunked off a feed from Nick Van Exel, and the Spurs' non-leading streak was over at 280 minutes 21 seconds. Portland also went on to win the game. Oh, happy day.

Anger management

Speaking of those fun-loving Blazers, forward Darius Miles is the latest Portland player to show off his Algonquin Club side. Miles mouthed off to Maurice Cheeks -- they cannot possibly pay Cheeks enough to coach that crew -- and was suspended two games for, among other things, "insubordination." Early last season, Bonzi Wells went off on Cheeks and was suspended two days. He was subsequently dealt to Memphis.

Time is running out

The Kings were spanked twice last week by the Spurs but are a solid second behind Phoenix in the Pacific (and would be right on Seattle's neck if they were in the Northwest). But Chris Webber played only 13 minutes against the Spurs a week ago and then sat out the next game (Tuesday against the Nets) with an ankle injury. He returned Thursday, playing 32 minutes in a 90-80 loss to the Spurs. Peja Stojakovic sat out Thursday's loss with a bad back. Those are not good signs for the window-is-closing-and-might-already-be-closed Kings. The Thursday night game started a stretch in which Sacramento will play 14 of 19 on the road. Eight of the roadies will be against Eastern Conference teams, including a Feb. 13 appearance in the FleetCenter.

Getting down to business

The Pacers' Michael Curry, who is president of the NBA Players Association, said he is optimistic that the union and the league can avoid a lockout for next season. The current collective bargaining agreement expires July 1. "There are going to be a couple of meetings before the All-Star break and probably a couple more during the break and maybe by then a framework will be in place," Curry said. "We're working hard. But we all understand that if we don't have a new deal by next July 1, then there will be a lockout. I think both sides are going to work hard and make the compromises needed to get a deal."

Turnovers are a problem

If you're still wondering if or when an Atlantic Division team will make a break, here are the thoughts of Nets coach Lawrence Frank. "All of the teams in the division are still feeling their way because of all the changes they made," Frank said. "I think we'll all be playing our best basketball as the season progresses." Four of the five teams in the division have new coaches since last year; the Knicks already have made a change, while Doc Rivers, Sam Mitchell, and Jim O'Brien are all in their first year with their new clubs. The one team that didn't change coaches, the Nets, has dealt with radical personnel changes, from the summer giveaways of Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles to the season-ending injury to Richard Jefferson to the unsettling situation of Jason Kidd to the acquisition of Vince Carter. In other words, Frank may be right. Things should settle down soon. Let's hope so. What does it say when those "coveted sixth seed" positioning stories are starting to appear at the halfway point of the season?

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

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