If a winner—and the word is used gingerly—emerged from either of the bitter negotiations that involved two of the NBA's better young point guards, it was probably San Antonio. While restricted free-agent Rod Strickland sat out the season's first two months and groped around for a multiyear offer that would pay him more than $2 million a season, the Spurs hobbled along at point guard with Avery Johnson, Tom Garrick and Morlon Wiley, none of whom reminded anybody of Bob Cousy. Although Strickland is clearly among the top 10 point guards in the league, he just as clearly has one of the 10 worst reputations for irresponsibility, and the Spurs were quietly confident that Strickland would not get a big-money offer. And he didn't. Finally, on Dec. 23, a somewhat chastened Strickland signed a one-year deal with San Antonio for about $1.3 million, a rock-bottom price for someone of Strickland's talent.
But what about Strickland's counterpart over in Miami, Sherman Douglas? Shouldn't he be considered a winner after the Heat on Dec. 28 matched the seven-year, $16.6-million offer sheet thrown at Douglas by the Lakers? Not really. For one thing, Douglas had turned down a better deal, worth about $10 million over four years, that had been put on the table by the Heat last spring, because he felt his value on the open market would be greater than that. He was wrong. And in his eagerness to leave Miami and make a name for himself in L.A., he repeatedly trashed the Heat. It remains to be seen whether both sides can put the animosity behind them and whether Miami can find a place for Douglas to fit snugly back into the rotation.
That won't be easy, considering the impact made by the Heat's 6'7" rookie point guard, Steve Smith. Miami would love to trade Douglas for a quality power forward, but his new contract, which includes a trade-veto clause for one calendar year, makes that difficult. Coach Kevin Loughery could bury Douglas on the bench, but that would be wasting his talent as well as giving him the opportunity to rip apart the Heat from within. Miami could play Douglas extensively for shopping purposes, but that would retard Smith's development. Loughery could move Smith to shooting guard and return Douglas to the point, but Smith has already said, "I want to play point guard." And, indeed, the biggest reason that NBA observers consider the future of the Heat to be hot is the presence of a quarterback whose size, talent and unselfishness is evocative of another Michigan State product, Magic Johnson. Miami followed conventional NBA logic in matching the Lakers' offer, i.e., sign your restricted free agents so they don't get away for nothing. But maybe, just maybe, the Heat should have let Sherman march right out the door.
The Plane Truth
The Pistons of the late '80s established a style of ball control and defense that was much emulated around the league. But their most enduring legacy might well be Roundball One, the jet they began using during the 1987-88 season. Eleven other NBA teams now either own a plane or charter one on a full-time basis: the Bulls, the Cavs, the Celtics, the Hornets, the Kings, the Knicks, the Lakers, the Pacers, the Sonics, the Trail Blazers and the Warriors. And almost every other NBA team charters some of the time, usually after back-to-back games or during long road trips.
From the players' perspective, having their own plane is no longer a luxury but a necessity, because it affords them greater comfort, convenience and privacy. The Spurs began the season with a plan to charter only occasionally, but franchise center David Robinson, proving that the pen is at least as mighty as the jump hook, took care of that. On Nov. 25, an open letter from Robinson appeared in both San Antonio daily newspapers—he had dictated it to those papers' beat reporters the night before—that castigated owner Red McCombs for not making a commitment to chartering. Robinson's letter said in part, "Do they [the Spur management] want to be like Chicago or just another good team making a few dollars?" An executive of another Western Conference team, speaking anonymously, even agreed with Robinson: "You don't want your star thinking that you're treating him like a second-class citizen while expecting him to perform first class." Sources close to the Spurs now say that McCombs is about to announce a plan to charter all the time.
The lone holdouts still flying strictly commercial are the Nuggets and the Rockets. And Houston is rethinking its position after a travel agent inadvertently booked the Rockets on a commuter airline—the kind that is definitely not made for seven-footers—for a Dec. 30 flight from Milwaukee to Cleveland. Chartering full-time adds between $400,000 and $800,000 to a team's normal airline travel budget of about $500,000, considerably less, as we've seen, than the price of a disenchanted point guard. Look for the trend toward full-time chartering to continue, if only because coaches love it and push for it as much as players do. The Lakers' Mike Dunleavy, for example, estimates that chartering is good for six or seven victories over the course of the season because the players are better rested. And the Warriors' Don Nelson says that having rested players "upgrades the games, which I think is good for the league as a whole." Teams also use charters to squire around their fat-cat corporate sponsors and team executives. And in the age of AIDS, clubs like the idea of getting their players out of town right after a game instead of letting them spend a night on the town and then get up for an early airline departure.
The Scoring Race
His style is so freewheeling and spectacular and, yes, so unpredictable and (at times) immature that it's difficult to think of him as aging. But Jacques Dominique Wilkins of the Hawks turns 32 on Jan. 12, making him the senior member of the estimable quintet (which also includes Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin and Clyde Drexler) chasing the 1991-92 scoring title. At week's end Jordan, in pursuit of his sixth scoring crown in a row, was leading the second-place Wilkins by only 10 points, 882-872. Look for them to battle it out for the rest of the season. 'Nique won his only scoring championship in '85-86, when he averaged 30.3 points per game, but he knows that title carries an asterisk—that was the season Jordan injured his knee and played in only 18 regular-season games.
Actually, Atlanta coach Bob Weiss had planned to reduce Wilkins's minutes—and, consequently, his scoring average—this season in deference to his age, but, instead, Wilkins is averaging nearly 40 minutes and battling Jordan basket for basket. When they met on Dec. 26 in Atlanta, there was much on-the-court jawing.
"Hey, you're going to steal my scoring title," Jordan said to Wilkins at one point.
"No, it's all yours," answered Wilkins. "I don't want it. I just want to win your NBA title."
As Wilkins knows, he has almost no chance at the latter. And wresting the scoring crown from Jordan's bald head will be no easy matter, either. Though Jordan professes not to care about it, keeping his reputation as the NBA's premier point producer is important to him. More significant, Wilkins has to battle harder to get his big scoring nights than does Jordan, who is a better jump shooter and dribbler, as well as a steal-oriented defender who gets many more breakaway dunks. Even Wilkins says, "Michael will get it [the scoring lead] back anytime he wants to. Can't nobody stop him."
When Rod Thorn, the NBA's vice-president of operations, isn't reviewing game films to assess fines, perhaps he is watching Columbo reruns. At any rate, he sleuthed out that the Knicks, the Hornets and the Rockets had breached the basic bargaining agreement between the league and its players by practicing on New Year's Day.
Inspector Thorn had heard rumblings that a couple of coaches were planning to fit in practice sessions amid the bowl games in violation of the contract, which stipulates that teams on the road may practice on Dec. 25 and Jan. 1 but that coaches may not call in players from their homes. And he knew he had to pursue the investigation when a tipster whom he will not identify phoned to inform him that New York coach Pat Riley had called a Jan. 1 practice at the Knicks' Purchase, N.Y., practice facility. Within an hour Thorn had his confessions, and on Thursday the NBA announced that each of the three clubs would be fined $10,000.
Footnote: The three teams that worked out on Jan. 1 all lost on Jan. 2. Is there a moral here?
The question for SI's first weekly poll of 1992—Which team has been the most disappointing so far?—brings no shortage of nominees. Among the NBA's elite, neither the Trail Blazers (20-11 at week's end) nor the Spurs (16-14) have played up to expectations, and against all odds, three of the league's four expansion teams, the Hornets (9-24), the Magic (6-24) and the Timberwolves (5-24), have been worse than anyone expected. But the clear winner in the voting of coaches and general managers was the Pacers, whose 13-19 record put them down there among Eastern Conference also-rans. That was not the way it was supposed to be for Indiana, which was expected to build on last season's solid playoff performance against the Celtics. Eleven voters named the Pacers as the most disappointing, followed by the Magic (six votes), the Trail Blazers and the Spurs (two each) and the Timberwolves (one). A few coaches declined to answer. "I'll coach my own team," said Lenny Wilkens, whose Cavaliers (21-9) are doing what many expected Indy would do. "I'm busy enough doing that." Among those coaches and execs who do have enough spare time to think about the Pacers, here is a sampling of comments:
"They can't rebound, and they don't defend."
"They have too much talent to be struggling the way they have."
"It's just not working with what they have. I don't see how they can stay together much longer."
There are those who feel the Pacers can turn it around, but not too many observers are betting on anything magical happening in Orlando. "They're one of those teams that went backwards, and they're not young," said one Western Conference exec of the Magic.
The only individual willing to cast his ballot publicly was Nugget coach Paul Westhead, who voted for the Spurs. "I'd have to say their record is a disappointment for a team everyone thought was going to be very good." Ditto for the Trail Blazers, even though one of the Western coaches who voted for them said that they're "still the team to beat."
As for the Timberwolves, the Western Conference coach who voted for them said, "They had a lot of player turmoil, and that was supposed to be the reason they got a new coach. So they get a new coach and come right back with more player turmoil."