Foreign Fling a Flop?
While the Bulls continue their multimillion-dollar courtship of Yugoslav star Toni Kukoc, the argument over whether foreign players will ever make a real impact in the NBA rages on. Most teams now have at least some semblance of a European scouting operation, yet the foreign players currently making major contributions in the league number exactly one—Vlade Divac, the Lakers' starting center.
That doesn't matter, says Sonics general manager Bob Whitsitt. "It's a new development that's significant, and though we don't know what the long-term ramifications are, we'd better be ready," adds Whitsitt, who this season hired a full-time European scout for the first time.
Others agree with Whitsitt, and the general feeling is that the mining for foreign nuggets will go on. Warrior coach Don Nelson, who has been one of the leaders in the European manhunt, believes that the foreign players who have entered the NBA are being judged too quickly. "It's different for them than for guys coming out of college, who spent their whole lives thinking about playing in the NBA," says Nelson. "This is new ground for players from other countries. They need time."
February 25, 1991
So far the foreign talent has been somewhat disappointing. Golden State's Sarunas Marciulionis is a solid player, "one of the meanest, toughest players in the league," in the words of mean and tough Minnesota coach Bill Musselman. But Roonie, as the Soviet guard is known around Warriorland, will have to improve a lot to be an All-Star, as many predicted he would be, and also to justify a contract that is costing the Warriors about $1.3 million this year. Another Soviet player, Alexander Volkov, hasn't helped Atlanta at all, though, in fairness, he has been beset by wrist injuries. Onetime Soviet phenom Arvidas Sabonis, who could never be coaxed into coming to the U.S. by the Trail Blazers, is playing in Spain. Portland did get the highly regarded Yugoslav Drazen Petrovic to sign his name to a megabuck contract (he'll also make about $1.3 million this year). Petro never panned out, though, and the Blazers sent him to New Jersey last month.
Even Divac sometimes drives his teammates to distraction with inconsistent effort. Indiana president and general manager Donnie Walsh is an advocate of foreign scouting but says flatly, "All the foreign players are liabilities on defense."
Nevertheless, the Kukoc watch goes on. The Bulls are reportedly offering the 6'10" point guard, who has been compared with Magic Johnson, a six-year deal worth about $15 million. Most observers feel the Bulls arc wasting their time because a team in the Italian Professional League, Benetton Treviso, has offered Kukoc a contract worth a reported $5 million per year.
San Antonio general manager Bob Bass, for one, feels the world will keep on spinning if Kukoc stays in Europe. "He seems very talented when you watch him," says Bass. "But Zarko Paspalj was on the same team as Kukoc when we scouted him, and Zarko looked great, too." In the NBA, however, Zarko was a zero, playing in just 28 games for the Spurs last season before being waived.
In Atlanta, new coach Bobby Weiss arrived this season with a smile, a low-key attitude, and a plan to turn one of the NBA's worst passing teams into a team that used, of all things, an offense called "the passing game."
In Minnesota, Musselman began the season with the same kind of controlled, conservative offense that had kept his expansion team competitive, if not very exciting, in its inaugural season of '89-90.
In Denver, the Rocky Mountains reverberated with the echoes of coach Paul Westhead's controversial high-speed gospel: "We will run for 48 minutes! We will full-court press for 48 minutes! We will not stop! And we will not be deterred by our critics!" Or words to that effect, anyway.
What a few jolts of NBA reality will do. Weiss's Hawks quickly returned to running set plays that utilize the abilities of All-Star forward Dominique Wilkins, Musselman has allowed talented second-year point guard Pooh Richardson to open the Minnesota throttle, and West-head has given up on the idea of applying 48 minutes of full-court pressure.
The results in all cases have been positive, yet only Weiss seems comfortable with his decision.
"I wasn't going to take us down for the sake of running my system," says Weiss, "so I junked it."
The Hawks won four of their first five games by playing the passing game, a system that depends on constant motion, quick cuts, reads and short passes. Weiss embraced it partly because, as he says, "It's fun to play and fun to watch," but it was neither when the Hawks then dropped nine games in a row, lost confidence in the system, and began playing one-on-one basketball. "It didn't surprise me," says Weiss. "At the first sign of trouble that's what players do. They revert." So did Weiss, and now Atlanta runs set plays almost exclusively. And the Hawks, who at week's end stood at 27-23, are headed for the playoffs after missing them last season.
It was certainly not an easy moment for the hard-boiled Musselman when on the evening of Dec. 30, he handed Richardson the ball and said, "Let's run." In Minnesota's previous 12 games, 10 of them losses, the Timberwolves had averaged only 86.6 points, and Richardson and shooting guard Tony Campbell had voiced dissatisfaction with Musselman and the team's style. In that night's game against Seattle, Minnesota scored 126 and won by 20. Since then, the Wolves have averaged 106.2 and have a 16-33 season's record, the best of the four expansion teams.
Yet Musselman talks almost longingly about the old days—last season, that is, when his scrappy first-year club with the deliberate offense surprised a lot of teams by winning 22 games.
"We played as hard defensively as a team could possibly play," says Musselman. "We would've run ourselves out of a chance to win in a lot of those games. Anyway, I don't buy the theory that people don't like low-scoring games. Fans like close games. And we gave our fans a lot of them last year just because we played under control."
Musselman acknowledges, however, that holding fan interest was at least a minor consideration for upping the tempo. And he reminds everyone that should the need arise, the Wolves can return to the same conservative philosophy that produced a league-low average of 95.2 points per game last season.
Change was hardest on Denver's Westhead. He had thumbed his nose at the NBA theory that to succeed, a team has to play tough, half-court defense at least some of the time.
Then, on the evening of Jan. 12, West-head, staring into the abyss of an eight-game losing streak and a league-worst record of 6-28, told his players to scrap the press in favor of a tough, half-court, help-out D that hadn't been seen in Denver all season. The Nuggets have adhered to that basic defensive plan since and as of Sunday stood at 14-35, not good but not embarrassing.
But constant full-court pressure is still most definitely in Westhead's playbook. "I saw the full-court pressure not working for reasons," he says. "One, we had a lot of injuries, and two, we just weren't making enough athletic moves to give it a chance to work." And he still sounds vaguely contemptuous of a league that doubted his system from the beginning, a league in which, according to Westhead, "everyone has the same plays, and the same routine, and they all want to get in the same groove."
Westhead denies the change was made at the behest of Nugget general manager Bernie Bicker-staff and says that the concept of full-court, 48-minute defensive pressure combined with frenetic, take-the-first-good-shot-you've-got offense will be back in Denver's training camp next season.
"It was a hard decision," says West-head, "because in my heart I know that I'm right."
Future Hall of Famer Larry Bird and rookie Dee Brown walked into a Boston Celtics shootaround in Seattle last week, and a local camera crew began scrambling to set up. "There he is!" said one of the crew members excitedly, pointing to...Dee Brown.
"It's been different, that's for sure," said Brown. "More autographs, more attention, more everything."
"It" was Brown's victory on Feb. 9 in the NBA's All-Star Slam Dunk Championship, in Charlotte. Brown kept his eyes closed on his final slam, which runner-up Shawn Kemp of Seattle called "the most incredible dunk I've ever seen," but cynics said he had them wide open when he pumped up his Reebok sneakers before each dunk. Brown had signed a three-year endorsement deal with Reebok before the season, and observers wondered what financial rewards Brown reaped as a result of his pumping up.
The answer is, nothing. Yet. Reebok is considering a Brown poster and a TV commercial, both built on his slamming success, but a company source said the rookie received nothing extra for the pump ploy. Brown has said that his idea for the pumping evolved out of conversations with teammates Kevin McHale and Brian Shaw, and not Reebok officials.
In truth, Brown's success caught all parties by surprise. Though Brown had won the slam-dunk contest at the Orlando Classic last summer, he did not anticipate even being invited to the NBA event. Thus, winning it was not even one of the performance bonuses negotiated into his Reebok contract.
"It really surprised me that so many people got upset about the pumping up," said Brown. "I didn't do it because I expected to get something."
Maybe not. But something is sure to come.
Who is the most meddlesome owner in the NBA? We use that term even though it infuriates Hawk president Stan Kasten.
"You mean the guy owns the team and he's meddling?" says Kasten sarcastically. "Gee, I thought if you owned the team, you could do what you want."
Well, yes, you can. But the American sports landscape is littered with owners who meddle in personnel matters and strategic decisions while possessing little knowledge of the sport. That is their right. It also happens to be stupid.
Everyone around the NBA agrees that there is no owner nearly as meddlesome as the 76ers' Harold Katz. "Harold gets involved in every aspect of the operation and makes no bones about it," says the Pacers' Walsh. Katz is a full-time NBA junkie, a slave to his satellite dish, on which he'll even watch such late-night offerings as the Clippers at Sacramento. The recent trade that sent center Mike Gminski to Charlotte and forward Armon Gilliam and center Dave Hoppen to Philly was made not by the general managers but by Katz and Hornet owner George Shinn. It's not the first trade Katz made, and it won't be the last.
We will not, however, bestow on Katz the title of worst owner in the NBA. Though his treatment of individuals leaves a lot to be desired—"He knows players, but he doesn't know people," says one rival Eastern Conference general manager—his knowledge of the game is undeniable, and his energies are directed almost 100% toward the team. The worst owner in the NBA has to be a man who meddles and doesn't know the game.
Our choice: Donald Sterling of the Los Angeles Clippers.
"Sterling will talk to anybody," said one NBA executive who knows him well. "We'd go to lunch and he'd ask the waiter what he thought. The problem was, he usually took the waiter's advice."
Sterling once tried to cut the Clipper trainer out of the budget, wondering why assistant coaches couldn't tape ankles. He has repeatedly bungled draft choices. And he has habitually undermined coaches. He has been a whopping success as a real estate magnate in Southern California...and a flop as an NBA owner.
Shinn draws honorable mention honors in the worst owner derby. His participation in every aspect of his team's operation is almost as obtrusive as Katz's with the Sixers, yet he doesn't have the Philly owner's knowledge of the NBA. When the Hornet basketball staff was planning its strategy for the expansion draft three seasons ago, Shinn happened by and heard them discussing Vinnie Johnson, the Pistons' estimable sixth man.
"Is he a starter?" said Shinn.
"Well, no," answered one of the coaches. "But he's...."
"Then I don't want him," said Shinn. "I'm not paying that kind of money for a bench warmer."
End of discussion about Vinnie Johnson. The Hornets picked Dell Curry from Cleveland. He's a starter, but he's no Vinnie Johnson.
At the other end of the performance spectrum is the Pistons' Bill Davidson, whom we single out as the NBA's best owner. Davidson is not involved on a day-to-day basis with his team and does not profess to be an NBA expert. He consults with general manager Jack McCloskey regularly, opens up the checkbook when it's necessary, doesn't panic during the tough times and doesn't thrust himself into the spotlight.
Dan The Man
Ricky Pierce, who was traded from Milwaukee to Seattle over the weekend for Dale Ellis, and Phoenix's Dan Majerle both fill sixth-man roles and are effective for entirely different reasons. Pierce, a swingman who made the Eastern Conference All-Star team this season, is, in the words of one coach, "an offensive assassin." Majerle, another swingman, makes his impact by being a hard-nosed defensive player, a tough rebounder, and a fearless dive-on-the-floor scrapper whose style suggests that of a football roverback.
Which one would teams rather have?
Majerle won our poll, which was conducted before Pierce's trade, by a vote of 12-8. Abstentions (not counting Milwaukee and Phoenix) numbered five, since many coaches and general managers said they could not choose between the two.
The word "score" was invariably used by those who favored Pierce, who at week's end was producing 22.5 points per game in just 28.8 minutes. Initially, at least, the Sonics were thinking of keeping him in that role, even though they have another of the league's better sixth men in Eddie Johnson. Could it be that the Sonics will try to trade Johnson or Pierce?
"You like to have any player in this league who can score," said one Eastern Conference coach, who voted for Pierce in our poll. Added an Eastern general manager: "Despite the fact that Majerle has all the qualities coaches talk about, the one thing Pierce can do, score points quickly, is so overwhelming that you have to take him."
Then why did Majerle win the poll?
"Dan's the type of guy who cannot score a point but will still win games for you," said a Western coach. "There is only one other player in the NBA who has come off the bench with that kind of impact, [Detroit's] Dennis Rodman."