In the NBA asylum, the wing that holds the unsigned rookies was filled to capacity throughout the exhibition season. In fact, six of the top 13 picks from the 1991 draft missed last weekend's season-opening games, and two others, forward Larry Johnson of the Charlotte Hornets and guard Mark Macon of the Denver Nuggets, played just after signing contracts. There was much breast-beating by coaches and general managers, as well as the usual saber-rattling by agents, in the weeks preceding opening night. But when all the young pilgrims are safely gathered in—probably before the winter storms begin—do you know how much difference they will make in the NBA's balance of power? Absolutely none.
By June 1992 the only two teams still playing will be veteran groups that don't count a whit on the contributions of rookies—the defending-champion Chicago Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers. The fully loaded Blazers didn't even bother with a first-round pick—they traded it to Sacramento, which drafted forward Pete Chilcutt—while the Bulls will find playing time for forward Mark Randall only because free-agent frontcourtman Scott Williams is unsigned and 1989 first-rounder Stacey King may be a washout.
The other contenders for the NBA title are similarly unburdened with tenderfeet. Contender No. 3, the Los Angeles Lakers, traded away their first-round pick (to Golden State, which selected center Shaun Vandiver, who promptly fled to Europe), although they will be asking for lots of help from two second-year players, guard Tony Smith and frontcourtman Elden Campbell. No. 4, the Phoenix Suns, also gave away their first-round pick (ultimately to the Los Angeles Clippers, who used it to draft forward LeRon Ellis). No. 5, the San Antonio Spurs, also dished off their pick (to the Orlando Magic, who chose Stanley Roberts) and even got rid of a likely eternal rookie, the lovable center Dwayne Schintzius (who's now with the Kings). No. 6, the Utah Jazz, will get something, but not much, out of its first-rounder, point guard Eric Murdock; he plays the same position as John Stockton, after all. No. 7, the Detroit Pistons, traded away the 19th pick in the first round (which turned out to be guard LaBradford Smith) to the Washington Bullets by way of Dallas and Denver. And No. 8, the Boston Celtics, started a rookie last Friday, forward Rick Fox (the 24th pick in the draft), only because free-agent swingman Kevin Gamble did not sign until two days before the opener. Don't look for Fox to be too wily during the season.
Get the idea? In the family picture, rookies are the great-aunts and third cousins hidden in the back row.
That means precious little, however, to all those lowly franchises that can't begin to think of having a renaissance without their young painters in the fold. The absentees are all players who can make a big difference, although only New Jersey Nets guard Kenny Anderson and swingman Billy Owens—traded last Friday from the Sacramento Kings to the Golden State Warriors for guard Mitch Richmond, center Les Jepsen and a future draft choice—are potential franchise types. (Owens signed on Saturday but didn't play; forward Doug Smith of the Dallas Mavericks did the same.) Unsigned as of Sunday were Minnesota Timberwolve center Luc Longley, frontcourtman Brian Williams of the Magic and Indiana Pacer forward Dale Davis.
The media and the fans have a tendency to overreact to protracted negotiations, even though everybody knows virtually all the rookies will eventually sign. Before the Owens trade, Arn Tellem, the agent for the former Syracuse star, described the fruitless negotiations between himself and the Kings as "Clarence Thomas versus Anita Hill." (He didn't say which side was which.) None of the rookies were talking about playing in Europe, and none, presumably, want to stock shelves or get a pizza route for a living. But the fact remains that this season was unprecedented for the number of longtime holdouts. For all the hue and cry about difficult negotiations last year, the only first-round pick who wasn't signed by opening night was forward Terry Mills, then with Denver. (And the world wasn't exactly waiting with bated breath for him to put his name on the dotted line.) "It's not a crisis situation," said Gary Bettman, the league's senior vice-president and general counsel, when asked about the sometimes frustrating contract talks, "but, yes, it is highly unusual."
As well as highly understandable. After consecutive years in which team salary caps increased by $2 million and then by $2.6 million—which permitted teams to offer rookies hefty deals while retaining their highly paid veterans—NBA clubs suddenly found themselves with far less room to maneuver after the cap increased by only $629,000, to $12.5 million per team, for this season. Agents knew this was the case, but that didn't stop them from making outrageous demands. Then, too, some teams are finally taking a foot-stomping position: Doggone it, rookies just aren't able to make much of a difference anymore. The reasons that NBA rookies have a difficult time are almost countless: the larger number of games played in the pros, the greater amount of travel, the demands of man-to-man defense in comparison to the zone defense often played in college, the more physical nature of the pro game, the much more complicated play-book, etc. Atlanta Hawks point guard Rumeal Robinson, who was lost in space throughout his 1990-91 rookie season, believes that the failure of the rookies is a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, coaches believe rookies will fail and therefore treat them as if they will fail, thereby dooming them to fail.
"I'm the type of player who has to be on the floor, in the middle of everything," says Robinson. "So the absolute worst thing is when they limit the things they let you do. That sends the message that you can't do the things that got you here, the things that made you a player in the first place. What was toughest for me—and, I think, for most rookies—is when you don't play. That takes you out of things mentally, and then you almost can't help but fail."
Perhaps Messrs. Johnson, Anderson and Owens will be different. But even if they prove to have the right stuff, their teams, with the exception of the Warriors, do not have what it takes to get near the playoffs. Here are the teams that do.
In the East they are, in order of conference finish: the Bulls, the Pistons, the Celtics, the Knicks, the 76ers, the Cavaliers, the Bucks and the Pacers. And in the West: the Trail Blazers, the Lakers, the Suns, the Spurs, the Jazz, the Rockets, the Warriors and the SuperSonics.
Since repeating is no longer a big deal (both the Lakers and the Pistons did it in the four years before the Bulls won the championship last season), there is no reason, barring serious injury, that Chicago cannot do it. Yes, the Bulls were extraordinarily fortunate last season when starters Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant and John Paxson missed only seven games between them. But with the maturation of the second unit during postseason play, coach Phil Jackson should be able to buy more rest for all of the starters. And, the 34-year-old Cartwright excluded, all of the starters are young enough to be fresh for the playoffs. Portland—and Portland alone—has the talent to beat the Bulls. But the Blazers are still a year away from finding out exactly how to do it.
Herewith a look at all the teams in the league, from strongest to weakest.
The Playoff Teams
The Bulls' assistant coach Johnny Bach pondered the difficulty of successfully defending the championship. "Well, it's like what Liz Taylor's seventh husband said: 'I know what has to be done. I just don't know whether I can make it interesting.' " What has to be done is not much. The Chicago defense—intelligent at the same time that it is predatory—is state-of-the-art, and the offense is versatile, able to both milk the clock with assistant Tex Winter's triangle formation and score in bunches whenever Jordan and Pippen find the open spaces. MVP Jordan promises individual improvement in turnovers (202 last season) and free throw percentage (.851). Only the possibility of clashing and clanging egos can wreck this team, and, indeed, Jackson knows that his toughest coaching task is in front of him, not behind him.
Sixty-three! That's a number that hits the Blazers with all the force of a Cartwright elbow. How did Portland win 63 games in a strong Western Conference in 1990-91 and still end the season on such a sour note? "Everybody keeps talking about how we blew it in the playoffs," says backup guard Danny Ainge, "and all we keep thinking is, Hey, we won 63 games, so something was awful right here." And it will be right again. From one through 12, the Blazers are again the most talented team in the league. Having learned some hard lessons in its conference playoff loss last spring to the Lakers—the value of concentration and the importance of executing a half-court offense, to name two—Portland should be able to make it past L.A. The Blazers won't win 63 again, but they will be a stronger playoff team. Not strong enough, however, to beat the Bulls.
3. L.A. Lakers
The major reason Los Angeles did not run as much last season was not that rookie coach Mike Dunleavy preferred a careful, half-court offense. It was that quarterback Magic Johnson was simply out of gas from playing 37 minutes a game. With added reserve help from guards Sedale Threatt and Tony Smith, the 32-year-old Magic's tank should be full, and the Lakers will be more like the uptempo Lakers of old. Still, L.A. desperately wants to get younger. That's why the Lakers were pursuing Washington's overweight forward, John Williams. If the team doesn't get some more help, it won't have quite enough in the reserve tank to get by the Blazers.
Yes, Phoenix blew it with forward Xavier McDaniel, for whom the Suns traded early last season in the hope that he would be the final ingredient in a championship mix, and ended up trading him to the Knicks for next to nothing. But it was not a fatal mistake. Phoenix needs to determine whether or not the high-scoring Kevin Johnson-Tom Chambers duo is good enough to produce a title. It won't happen this year.
5. San Antonio
Point guard Rod Strickland just doesn't get it, does he? With David Robinson in the pivot, he has a real chance of winning a title and establishing himself as an NBA presence. Instead, as of Sunday he was holding up the Spurs in a pointless salary dispute that could only be destructive. Sign on the dotted line, Rod, and head for HemisFair Arena immediately, before you lose all of your credibility.
Like Larry Brown at San Antonio, Utah coach Jerry Sloan is talking about using a Doug Moe-style passing game, though how he proposes to play it with immobile center Mark Eaton bolted in place is not completely clear. But the Jazz can't help but be formidable with Olympians Karl Malone and Stockton, and they're looking for an All-Star season from guard Jeff Malone and help off the bench from rookie David Benoit, a 6'8" small forward who played in Spain last year.
Anyone who says he has a fix on this team is having delusions. Everyone knows how much coach Chuck Daly will miss the contributions of Mr. Instant Offense, guard Vinnie Johnson (who was an unsigned free agent as of Sunday), but don't underestimate the loss of free-agent forward James Edwards (he was traded to the Clippers), whose methodical low-post game jump-started the Detroit offense almost every night. Still, the Pistons' demon defense will keep them in most games, and the NBA world might finally get to appreciate the versatile talents of former Bullet Darrell Walker, who joins Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars in another formidable three-guard rotation.
If the Celtics can get something out of their young and inexperienced front line consisting of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, perhaps.... Just kidding. What new can be said about this golden oldie of a team? Only that the injury to Dee Brown, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee last week and is out indefinitely, is a huge blow. The Celtics won 56 games last season, and notwithstanding Jordan's comment that "Larry Bird will be better, and the Celtics will be better," it will be quite an accomplishment if Boston matches that level of success.
During the off-season Hakeem Olajuwon journeyed to Saudi Arabia and prayed at Mecca. His chances of making it to the NBA version of Mecca for the second time (Houston lost in six games to the Celtics in the 1986 Finals) are not good. But the Rockets at long last seem to have a stable backcourt, with starters Kenny Smith and Vernon Maxwell and backup Sleepy Floyd wrapped up in long-term deals, and last year's surprise team could surprise again.
10. New York
The Knicks may be one of the NBA's most interesting teams in spite of opening-weekend losses to the Magic and the Heat. New coach Pat Riley called first-round draft-pick guard Greg Anthony "a young Maurice Cheeks" (which is fortunate, because the Knicks traded away the old Maurice Cheeks), and Anthony, not Mark Jackson, is clearly the point of attack. "What we did in the past in L.A. will work here," says Riley. It may not work as well, but it will work. The Celtics had better watch their backs.
The return of Johnny Dawkins at the point—if he indeed is healthy after a severe knee injury—ensures that the Sixers will improve on their 44-38 mark of last year and thereby make the once proud Atlantic Division proud again. But the jury is still out on whether Charles Barkley will accept new starting center Charles Shackleford into the fold, and we already know what he thinks of forward Armon Gilliam: not much.
The Cavs hope to get a present for Christmas in the form of quarterback Mark Price—that's the target date for his return from knee surgery. Until then, rookie Terrell Brandon will at least hold the fort, while coach Lenny Wilkens hopes that the wave of injuries that plagued the Cavs the last two seasons has subsided. Cleveland could conceivably jump to as high as third in the conference if a healthy Price can join a healthy Brad Daugherty at center and Larry Nance and Hot Rod Williams at forward.
All that stood between Del Harris and three seasons of disaster when he was coaching Houston from 1979-80 to '81-82 was the hardest-working man in the low-post business, Moses Malone. So perhaps Harris, now the Milwaukee coach, cannot be blamed for his plan to revolve his offense around the now 36-year-old Malone. "He has the heart of a lion," says Harris of Moses. And Malone has now roared for eight teams—Utah and St. Louis in the old ABA, and Buffalo, Houston, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta and Milwaukee in the NBA.
Bob Hill, the Pacers' coach, led the NBA in preseason gushing: "Chuck Person is like a little kid at Christmas." "Rik Smits had a terrific summer." "Sean Green [a rookie swingman from Iona] has NBA written all over him." Well, who can blame Hill, whose runnin'-and-gunnin' Pacers nearly upset the Celtics in the Eastern Conference playoffs last May behind Person and high-scoring guard Reggie Miller? But unless the 7'4" Smits has a terrific winter on the defensive boards (you need the ball to fast break), the running Pacers will once again be also-rans.
15. Golden State
The thinking always was that if general manager-coach Don Nelson was going to break up Run TMC (guards Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond and forward Chris Mullin), he would get a big-time center in the exchange. Evidently Nelson feels that Owens is good enough to take the Warriors to the next level. Maybe, but many others aren't even sure Owens will be as good as Richmond.
The Sonics are more or less the Indiana of the West, an unpredictable band that could either self-destruct or flex considerable muscle and move up in the pack. Coach K.C. Jones needs to find enough shots for both guard Ricky Pierce and forward Eddie Johnson, erstwhile sixth men whom Jones plans to play together; enough motivation to keep cruise-control frontcourtmen Benoit Benjamin and Derrick McKey interested; and enough confidence to make forward Shawn Kemp, who turns 22 on Nov. 26, the main man.
The Nonplayoff Teams
17. L.A. Clippers
One wonders how enthusiastically NBA veterans Edwards, who has two championship rings, and guard Doc Rivers will perform in reserve roles. But coach Mike Schuler plans to start Olden Polynice at center and a possibly rejuvenated Gary Grant, who lost 25 pounds during the off-season, at the point. With guard Ron Harper and forwards Charles Smith, Danny Manning and Ken Norman, the Clips definitely have the talent to be a playoff team, but they still have to find the formula to put it all together.
No team did more extensive off-season remodeling than Atlanta, which parted company with six established NBA players (Rivers, Moses Malone, John Battle, Spud Webb, Tim McCormick and Sidney Moncrief). Star forward Dominique Wilkins admits that adjusting to all the new faces is difficult for him. And it's going to be even more difficult if the young backcourt of Rumeal Robinson and rookie Stacey Augmon can't get him the ball.
Do we shed a tear for Dallas, now that talented frontcourtman Roy Tarpley has taken a called third strike in his battle with drugs and alcohol? Or do we blast the Mavs for staying with the troubled star too long? Dallas had better hope that young Doug Smith can compensate for some of Tarpley's lost talent. If he can't, this will be a franchise on the way down.
20. New Jersey
One of the best lines of the exhibition season came from New Jersey coach Bill Fitch: "We've got a long way to go just to get us to last year, and last year was good enough to get us into the lottery." So why will the Nets improve on their 26-win season of '90-91? Because Rookie of the Year forward Derrick Coleman will be even better, Anderson will eventually sign and make a difference (not a large one at first, but a difference), and guard Drazen Petrovic will make an impact as a scorer.
Here's one to take to Vegas: Sacramento will improve on its road record of 1-40 last season. (The Kings should be no worse than, say, 5-36.) When the competitive Richmond meshes his game with that of second-year forward Lionel Simmons, and when Webb gets comfortable running the offense, this will be a franchise on the way up.
The team has stuck to its plan of building with young players. And that strategy will begin to pay off this season when holdout guard Sherman Douglas signs, permitting rookie Steve Smith to work his way into the league at a more studied pace.
Coach Matty Guokas had hoped that Roberts would help. But when he reported at 315 pounds and did not deliver much in the exhibition season, it was journeyman center Greg Kite to the fore once again. Barring a vast improvement from swing-man-shooter Dennis Scott, Orlando will not match its 31 wins of last season.
What mastermind in the front office chose this season to unveil the new slogan, "You gotta believe"? What Washington coach Wes Unseld has to believe is that he'll be lucky to win 25 games, five fewer than last year. As this season began, forwards Bernard King and Mark Alarie and rookie guard LaBradford Smith were injured, John Williams had been suspended for being overweight, and Unseld seemed to be losing patience with guard Ledell Hackles. The good news in Washington? Boy, those Redskins really look like a Super Bowl team.
The kind of half-baked, full-court comic relief provided by coach Paul Westhead's shoot-within-four-seconds attack of last season is over, and a plan to build the offense around center Dikembe Mutombo is in place. Pencil this guy in for Rookie of the Year, and pencil in last season's worst team (20-62) for a few more wins.
Former coach Bill Musselman is gone, and so are the shackles around the legs of open-court-oriented point guard Pooh Richardson. Only one hitch—Musselman's boring system was the main reason Minnesota overachieved its way to 29 wins last season. Good luck, new coach Jimmy Rodgers—you're going to need it.
Here's the who's-in-favor-and-who's-out-of-favor list in Charlotte. Out: frontcourtman J.R. Reid, guard Muggsy Bogues and, possibly, guard Rex Chapman. In: guard Kendall Gill, forward Johnny Newman and, of course, Larry Johnson. Allan Bristow has moved from the front office to the bench. Before this season is over, he may well be ranting and raving and tearing at his clothes like Moe, his old boss in Denver.