Bench press

IT REMAINS TO BE SEEN whether the NBA's new labor agreement will create the improved competitive balance between big- and small-market teams that commissioner David Stern wanted. What's already clear: The time lost to labor talks has done a number on competitive spirit.

Every NBA coach has his own ideas about how to deal with a lack of prep, practice and recovery time for four straight months, but several admit that pulling out the stops to win every game simply isn't prudent. Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, facing his ninth game in 15 days on Jan. 8 -- with 7,374 miles of air travel squeezed in between -- made a pregame decision before facing the coltish Kings on their home floor that, no matter what happened, he was not playing anyone more than 15 minutes in the first half. "I don't think I've ever done that before," he says, "but I didn't want to worry about our minutes situation in the second half. And the last few games, I hadn't done a good job of reading our players."