The fight club?

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:20 AM ET

When the going got rough last season, Raptors coach Kevin O'Neill and general manager Glen Grunwald turned on each other like a pair of rams in springtime.

Is the same thing happening this season? Are general manager Rob Babcock and coach Sam Mitchell trying to run each other out of a job, as one senior NBA columnist suggested this week?

When a team suffers through a disappointing season, club officials sometimes turn on each other in order to survive professionally. That was certainly the case with O'Neill and Grunwald last season, before both eventually were given the axe.

Officially, Babcock and Mitchell claim to be on the same page. But you have to wonder.

Mitchell has increasingly bemoaned the lineup he has been given this season and you know he wasn't impressed in February when his GM backed Rafer Alston after Mitchell banished the volatile point guard to the dressing room during a game in Cleveland.

The one man who would know if the outspoken coach and guarded GM were not getting along would be team president and CEO Richard Peddie, who has been the subject of recent termination rumours, along with Babcock.

Peddie insisted yesterday that while Babcock and Mitchell still have much to learn in their respective jobs, their relationship is "very professional."

"I've not seen (any tension) at all," Peddie said. "But, of course, there is tension across the company because we have (31) wins. We're all feeling the pressure."

There is talk that the Raptors would be interested in Detroit Pistons vice-president John Hammond for the GM job if Babcock should get his walking papers after the season. Hammond received serious consideration from the Raps last year before Babcock was hired.

KING JAMES NOT HAPPY

There is growing speculation that Cleveland superstar LeBron James will opt to leave the Cavaliers when his contract expires after two more seasons.

James is none too happy with the situation in Ohio, particularly with the firing of coach Paul Silas last month and the benching of starting point guard Jeff McInnis. There are rumours that new owner Dan Gilbert is thinking about firing GM Jim Paxon, and that also doesn't sit well with James, who has watched his team lose 16 of its past 23 games heading into play last night and is in danger of missing the playoffs.

The second-year NBA star is one of the biggest draws in the league and his star power would skyrocket further if he ended up playing in a big market such as New York or Los Angeles.

"We lost our coach; we get new players; we get new ownership, and now Pax might get fired. It has been difficult," James said recently. "We stopped playing our No.1 point guard (McInnis) for no reason, and that messed up some chemistry.

"We're losing games, and there's not a reason, there was never a reason why Jeff wasn't playing."

James doesn't appear particularly thrilled with interim coach Brendan Malone either. During a loss against the New Jersey Nets recently, King James openly questioned his coach while walking off the floor, screaming "get this defence fixed!"

There is speculation in Cleveland that Gilbert will try to get Miami president Pat Riley to run and/or coach his team next season. That would be expensive, as Riley is said to receive 10% ownership of the Heat if he stays with Miami next season and Gilbert would have to match that.

SHAQ THE FRONT-RUNNER

The MVP race is heating up and more and more NBA insiders have Shaquille O'Neal, not Canadian Steve Nash, pegged as the league's top man.

Bill Simmons, basketball guru for ESPN, is one of many wags who believe Shaq should get the nod over Victoria's Stevie Wonder, pointing out that the Heat is on track to win 20 more games compared to last season, while the Shaqless Lakers will lose about 20 more this season.

Nash, said Simmons, is a liability on defence, while adding that the league's other top point guards, including Mike Bibby and Jason Kidd, would have Nash-like seasons playing with a lineup in Phoenix that includes Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Quentin Richardson.

There is even talk around the league that Nash is receiving undue consideration for MVP award because of the colour of his skin -- something Simmons brought up in a column recently.

AROUND THE RIM

- There's talk that long-time Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, who is experiencing his his first losing season in his 17-year stint with the Jazz, is thinking of retiring when the season is over. The 63-year-old Sloan has been through a lot, with the death of his wife, Bobbi, last year from pancreatic cancer ... Tim Duncan, who hasn't played for the Spurs since spraining his right ankle on March 20, had a good workout on Sunday and may be ready to suit up this week. Duncan's presence could mean the difference between an early playoff exit for San Antonio or an appearance in the NBA final ... Putting a damper on rumours that Shaq's stomach virus is nothing more than an excuse for the big guy to get some rest before the playoffs, coach Stan Van Gundy has claimed that Shaq has lost 12-15 pounds because of the ailment.

MJ IN A BUYING MOOD

- Michael Jordan is reportedly ready to buy the Milwaukee Bucks, although the cost of an NBA franchise is starting to get out of his price range, with some teams now worth up to $400 million US. Jordan tried to buy the Bucks a few years ago but wanted to move the club, which Milwaukee owner Herb Kohl didn't want. Kohl still doesn't want to sell his team to anyone looking to move it. There's talk that Jordan could buy Orlando or New Orleans and move that franchise to Las Vegas, which is something commissioner David Stern doesn't want.


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