THE NBA

April 07, 1991

A Rookie Pay Scale?

Big money. Small performances. That sums up the feeling of team executives about most of this year's rookie class.

The Hawks, for example, are paying guard Rumeal Robinson, the 10th pick in the 1990 draft, about $4.29 million over four years, even though there are serious doubts that he ever will be a productive NBA player. The Clippers are giving guard Bo Kimble, the eighth pick, about $7.25 million over five years and front-courtman Loy Vaught, the 13th pick, about $4.1 million over four years; the jury is still out on both. One has to go all the way to the 15th pick—Rocket guard Dave Jamerson, whose contract is worth about $3.75 million over four years—to find a rookie who is not making at least $1 million a year; Jamerson, who was drafted by the Heat and traded to Houston, is your basic noncontributor.

Even those teams satisfied with their picks are worried about the possibility of soaring rookie salaries ruining team salary structures for years to come. Because of salary-cap restrictions, the Nets' ability to get a strong supporting cast for forward Derrick Coleman, the No. 1 pick in the draft, who will probably be named Rookie of the Year, will be severely hampered by the $3 million or so they will be paying him in each of the next five seasons.

"I'm one who believes you reward players who have gotten it done year after year," says Nugget general manager Bernie Bickerstaff. "I definitely think there should be some kind of control over what we pay rookies."

If that sounds as if club executives are thinking about trying to negotiate a rookie pay scale into the next collective bargaining agreement, which will begin with the '94-95 season, well.... "It may be the only way to pay the veteran players under the cap," says Hawk president Stan Kasten. Adds a general manager, who requested anonymity, "A pay scale is necessary. It's upsetting the salary scale for everybody. It's a destructive path."

So what does Charles Grantham, the executive director of the players' union, think? "Forget it!" he said. "The idea is just another example of teams trying to put restrictions on themselves by putting restrictions on players. I hate to come off sounding like I don't appreciate their problems. I do. But, ultimately, it is their problem, not ours."

And in all likelihood it will continue to be the clubs' problem, because even NBA negotiators are not inclined to push for a rookie pay scale in the new agreement.

"While a rational case could be made for a rookie pay scale, it has always been a firm tenet of the players' association that all negotiations must be individual ones," says Gary Bettman, the league's general counsel. "Therefore, I don't see it becoming a reality." Translation: The NBA would not mind a rookie pay scale, but it is unlikely to fight the players on that issue. Grantham has lately been talking about abolishing the salary cap altogether, and the league will gear up to battle that idea.

At any rate, many observers believe that rookies in the 1991 draft class will be the last to receive megabuck contracts. The movement to limit rookie salaries is strong, and so is the reality of huge, long-term veteran salaries that will eat up increasingly large percentages of teams' salary caps. "I don't think lower rookie salaries is something that has to be legislated," said one general manager. "Something's got to give soon, and I think it will be the big money for unproven first-year players."

The flip side of taking a hard line on rookies, of course, is the possibility of losing them to the popular European leagues. Says Kasten, "We have to have the courage to let some of them go for a year or two."

It will be interesting to see if teams have the guts to let a couple of their picks eat pasta or paella for a while.

A Close Rout

The subjects of this week's poll of NBA coaches are two of the league's best assist-men—the Jazz's John Stockton, who at week's end led the league with a 14.3 average, and the Suns' Kevin Johnson, who was fourth with 10.2. After the Lakers' Magic Johnson, who is usually placed in a class by himself because of his height (6'9"), the 6'1" Stockton and the 6'2" KJ are generally considered the best play-makers in the game. Which of the two would coaches rather have if they had to make a choice?

Well, KJ won 16-5 (Cotton Fitzsimmons and Jerry Sloan, Johnson's and Stockton's coaches, respectively, were excluded from the balloting, and four other coaches abstained), but because so many respondents had trouble deciding, the result was rather like that of the tennis player who wins in straight sets but needs a tiebreaker in each of them. The Spurs' Larry Brown was one of those who abstained, laughing as he did so. "I laugh because that's a ridiculous question," said Brown, when asked whether he would take Stockton or Johnson. "I love ice cream, and that's like choosing between my two favorite flavors."

Nevertheless, the vast majority of coaches stepped bravely up to the dairy counter and made a choice. Most of the KJ voters cited his shooting skills as the decisive factor. "They both do so many things for you, but you know Kevin can always score," said Maverick coach Richie Adubato. The five Stockton voters invariably pointed to the Jazzman as being the purer point guard. "When a point guard has himself as the leading scorer of the team, somehow that doesn't make sense to me," said one Western Conference coach. "KJ is the Suns' leading scorer [a 22.0 average], while both Karl Malone [28.8] and Jeff Malone [18.3] score more than Stockton [17.2]."

For the most part, though, coaches really sweated over this one. "It's just that KJ's a little better in every area," said one coach. "A little bit quicker, a little better shooter, a little better defender, a little more athletic. But it almost hurts to pick one or the other."

The Assist Test

Let's keep the discussion on assists. Most NBA players feel that the crediting of assists has become more consistent over the last few years, but the fact remains that there is no more subjective statistical category in basketball.

A player is supposed to get an assist, according to the NBA Statisticians Manual, "if and only if the player scoring the goal responds by demonstrating an immediate reaction to the basket." An assist will not be given "if continuity was broken by the receiver's action to get position on an opponent." A particularly troublesome area is deciding when an assist should be given on an entry pass into the pivot. Says the handbook: "An assist may be credited on a pass to the pivot shooter, provided there is an immediate reaction on the part of the pivot shooter in attempting to score."

Those are noble attempts at interpretation, but in practice a statistician must make split-second decisions, and factors like "continuity" and "immediate reaction" are difficult to define uniformly. Therefore, it would be naive to think that human considerations do not sometimes come into play, and the general feeling is that official scorers, who are provided by the home team, are more likely to give assists to the local players.

"It definitely varies from city to city," says Magic, who at week's end needed just 76 more assists to break Oscar Robertson's NBA career record of 9,887. "You can pretty much count on cities with guys in the top 10 having official scorers who are aware [of the rules governing assists]. Everywhere else you can't be sure." Johnson specifically mentioned L.A., Utah, Phoenix and Detroit as cities where assists are credited properly.

To find out how varied scorers' interpretations of the assist rules can be, SI asked three team statisticians to attend other teams' games and check their own assist tabulations with those of the official scorers. Here are their findings:

•Sacramento scorer Alan Romeri agreed completely with the official assist totals in the Trail Blazers-Warriors game at Golden State on March 19. Another Sacramento scorer, Gary Allen, gave one assist fewer than the official tally to Warrior Tim Hardaway during the Denver game on March 21. Midway through the second period, the Warriors' Sarunas Marciulionis took a pass from Hardaway, hesitated for a second, took two dribbles to his left and shot a jumper. Hardaway got an assist from the home scorer, but Allen felt one was not deserved.

•Leonard Leto, the Clipper statistician, differed slightly in his assist tabulations from the official count during two Laker games at the Forum—against San Antonio on March 17 and against the Clippers on March 19. In the first of those games, Leto said, an assist given to the Spurs' Terry Cummings should have gone to David Wingate. And in the Laker-Clipper game, Leto felt that an assist credited to the Lakers' Byron Scott should have gone to Sam Perkins. Leto felt even more strongly about his conclusions after checking television replays.

"It's really just an honest mistake by the scorer," said Leto. "On the Scott play, the scorer could only see a 4 on a jersey and thought it was Scott. Perkins wears 14. We usually don't have a monitor for replays, and sometimes it's hard to pick out numbers quickly."

Also, in each game, Leto's stats showed three fewer assists for the Lakers. In all six instances, the official scorer felt that a pass led directly to a score, while Leto felt that the pass receiver did too much on his own to justify recognizing the passer.

Leto's conclusion? "I think scorers do a fairly accurate job with assists," he said. "But we absolutely tend to err on the side of the home team, if only because we're more familiar with those players."

The Foreign Report

There has been much talk about the improved play in Europe, thanks largely to contributions by former NBA players. But do not for one minute mistake Europe for the NBA. Or even the CBA.

Exhibit No. 1 is Walter Berry, who is now employed by Atletico Madrid in the Spanish League.

In three seasons with the Trail Blazers, Spurs, Nets and Rockets, Berry proved that he didn't have the work habits, the overall skills or the unselfishness to be a top NBA forward. In Spain, however, Berry was averaging a league-high 34.3 points and 11.9 rebounds through last weekend.

Exhibits 2, 3 and 4 are Mike Mitchell, Jay Vincent and Darryl Dawkins. Mitchell and Vincent, washed up as NBA forwards, were averaging 35.0 and 25.4 points, respectively, for Napoli Basket and Philips Milano. Double-D, everyone's favorite enigma in the NBA, might be the best center in the Italian League, with scoring and rebounding averages of 30.8 and 11.3, respectively, for Auxiulium Torino. And let's not forget the perennial exhibit—Bob McAdoo. The 39-year-old McAdoo has pumped in 36.7 points per game for Filanto Forli.

"Berry is typical of the ex-NBA guy in Europe," says one NBA general manager. "There are a lot of NBA teams that wouldn't mind having him but wouldn't pay that kind of money [Berry's salary is estimated at $800,000 a year]."

Vinny Del Negro, a former King, fits into that category, too. Del Negro was averaging about 27.6 points per game for Benetton Treviso, and he and Knorr Bologna's Micheal Ray Richardson are considered the best point guards in Italy. But though Del Negro would be of value to some NBA teams, he couldn't command anywhere near the $1 million he now gets.

There is one expatriate who does interest some NBA teams—former Net forward Charles Shackleford, who was averaging 30 points per game for Phonola Caserta this season. Shack's youth (he's 24) and rebounding ability (he was leading the Italian League with 16.4 per game) make him a much hotter property than any other American in Europe. Piston general manager Jack McCloskey recently went to Milan to scout Shackleford, who could conceivably command from some NBA team a salary comparable to the $800,000 he gets from Caserta. But many NBA folks are still bothered by unresolved questions about Shackleford's attitude and allegations by ABC's World News Tonight that Shackleford and others may have shaved points while playing at North Carolina State.

Tim's Sad Song

Arguably the season's most sagacious trade was made by the Rockets, who on Sept. 27 dealt oft-injured center Tim McCormick and guard John Lucas, now retired, to the Hawks for guard Kenny Smith and guard Roy Marble. Smith has proved to be one of the NBA's most surprising players this season (page 54), while through Sunday, McCormick was averaging only 4.7 points and 3.1 rebounds as a sometime starter at center. NBC broadcaster Marv Albert recently said that the Rockets got Smith "for a song," prompting an Atlanta reporter to ask the personable McCormick what particular song title best fit him.

Before McCormick could respond, Hawk video coordinator and scout Jack Nolan answered for him. "I guess it must have been the Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song," cracked Nolan.

PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHBecause of his scoring—and, obviously, soaring—ability, KJ outpolled Stockton. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERThe Big O's alltime record for assists will soon be passing into Magic's hands.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)