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PIPPEN'S BACK DOOR PLAY GIVES BULLS ROOM TO MANEUVER

Trained heathens like myself, with a little direction from accomplished, in-bounds puppeteers, interpret Scottie Pippen's begrudging promise not to withhold his services from the Bulls when healthy two-to-three weeks from now as follows:

By wisely reversing his grievous, late November position -- thus removing the branding iron from Jerry Reinsdorf's bullhead -- Pippen has provided an honorable way out of an onerous situation for both the owner and himself.

Given Pippen's original position never again to suit up for the Bulls, Reinsdorf was determined not to become a hostage to the holdup man's demands. Under those circumstances (or any, for that matter; that's why so much animosity exists between the two parties), Reinsdorf refused to deal with him, or deal him.

Now there's room for private negotiation. Yes, Pippen is ready to repledge allegiance to teammates and the coaching staff. Yes, he's prepared to go all-out to win a sixth title. But only as a last resort. Believe me, Pippen will not be happy doing it.

If forced to play out his contract as a Bull, "so be it," Pippen said glumly at Friday's impromptu press gathering. At the same time, if the compensation is right, I submit, Pippen, indeed, may get his still unmodified trade wish before the Feb. 19 deadline.

Which is why every Western Conference championship contender should be smothering the Bulls with affectionate offers in hopes of topping the Lakers' bid of All-Star Eddie Jones and draft choices.

The Bulls are strongly considering such a trade for a number of reasons:

Despite Jones' suspect physical and mental toughness and other flaws, he is guaranteed to prosper playing alongside Michael Jordan for the remainder of their title crusade.

Jones is 26; Pippen is 32.

Jones has two contract years remaining after this one; Pippen is a free agent and Reinsdorf has no plans to re-sign him.

Acquiring Jones would allow Chicago to add a fairly dependable piece as one of its rebuilding blocks without greatly affecting the salary cap (Jones' salary is $3 million plus) during the rebuilding process.

If you want my biased opinion, the only surprise regarding Pippen's latest pronouncement in front of a mob of media, was Johnnie Cochran's non-appearance. Still, he wants us to know he thinks Pippen's rushed decision to return to the lineup is racially motivated.

One more thing before I forget, Horace Grant says he's played his last game as a Bull.

Raptors in a bind with Stoudamire

If your team flaunts a fairly young, above average ball handler (qualifying as a true point guard is apparently unnecessary) who's under contract past this season (preferably much longer), the Raptors would like a word with you -- if they haven't already dialed to check out the possibility of exchanging overpaid free agent-in-waiting Damon Stoudamire.

So far, the list includes the 76ers (Allen Iverson), Nets (Sam Cassell and another starter), and the Blazers (Kenny Anderson) with additional calls on tap. Unless terribly distressed with the caretaker you've got, why give him up for someone who's going to cost infinitely more to re-sign, if that's even conceivable?

Meanwhile, undercapped teams lacking playmakers with punch can merely wait until the summer to take a run at Stoudamire.

In other words, maybe the Raptors aren't hurting as badly as Patrick Ewing's Hand-Me-Downs -- as evidenced by Saturday's 97-94 Knicks' home loss -- but there's no question, they're in a barbed wire bind concerning Stoudamire.

In order to cut their losses, in all likelihood, they'll have to accept far less than equal value for their prized possession. And if Stoudamire is no longer untouchable, imagine how available everyone else is on Toronto's roster.

For example, Marcus Camby is being shopped -- not at unreasonable prices, I must say -- all over the league. With that in mind, you'll be startled to learn John Calipari rejected the opportunity to reclaim his UMass star, not once, but twice in the last few weeks.

That's not even the most stunning news. According to sources, Calipari declined because of whom the Raptors insisted on in return. None other than Jayson Williams. The same player who almost tormented Calipari (and vice versa) into nearly giving him away to several different teams last summer.

First the Raptors offered Camby and Walt Williams for Jayson and Kendall Gill. When Calipari said no, the Raptors offered Camby even up for Jayson. That's how far the Nets' power forward/interim center has moved up in his coach's estimation.

And it's not as if Calipari is opposed to reuniting with Camby, not the easiest guy to coach or motivate. Again, those same sources indicate Calipari would love to have him. If the Raptors would take, say, Chris Gatling or Gill, in addition to a No. 1 pick for Camby, they almost assuredly could strike a deal.

Warriors .500 without Sprewell

The Warriors are 6-6 since Latrell Sprewell was bounced from the league for attacking P.J. Carlesimo. Column castigator Frank Drucker blames the team's misfortune squarely on P.J.'s shoulders. "Had he provoked Sprewell into choking and punching him earlier, they'd been in the thick of the playoff race." Sprewell now knows he made a big mistake by assaulting his coach.

To his credit, Sprewell has been very encouraging to Ewing. Latrell told Patrick he'd been glad to teach him how to palm a throat with his off hand.

Free throws

Iverson says the Sprewell incident never would have happened if P.J. had had an entourage. . . . The Lakers want to hire Kareem as a special assistant to work with the younger players on how to wave off reporters after the game. . . . Here's a safe bet: The Boulder, Colo., police will make an arrest in the JonBenet killing before the Nuggets get good. Maybe GM Allan Bristow is the lead investigator in that case. . . . Oliver Miller disproves the theory that one player is not bigger than the league. . . . Jeff Van Gundy says the Knicks will be lucky to play .500 ball until Pippen comes back.

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