The Rookie Report
The idea that Nugget rookie Dikembe Mutombo is a better center than either the Spurs' David Robinson or the Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon is ridiculous. But that doesn't change the fact that the native of Zaire, an escapee from John Thompson's offensive prison at Georgetown, might be the Western Conference's man in the middle when the starting lineups are announced for the All-Star Game, on Feb. 9. At week's end Mutombo was leading Robinson and Olajuwon in the public balloting, a sign that fans are always ready to embrace a new kid on the blocks. Mutombo was the last of four "can't-miss" picks of the 1991 draft, and his inspired play (18.8 points, 13.2 rebounds, 2.6 blocks) has already forced Kings general manager Jerry Reynolds, whose team selected Billy Owens with the third pick, to admit he made a mistake.
"Mutombo changed the whole conference by being another impact seven-footer," says Reynolds, who dealt Owens, whom he couldn't get signed, to the Warriors on Nov. 1 for guard Mitch Richmond, center Les Jepsen and a future draft choice. "You have to give the Nuggets credit. They were the smart ones."
The same, it seems, cannot be said of the Nets, who used the second pick to get Kenny Anderson, signed him to a five-year, $14.5 million contract, then promptly sat him on the bench. But though a battle of wills between New Jersey coach Bill Fitch and Anderson has a lot to do with the rookie's relative inactivity, it is also a fact that incumbent point guard Mookie Blaylock has become an effective NBA starter. By the end of the season, Anderson may be very attractive trade bait, and though it would be overstating the case to call the drafting of Anderson a wise move by the Nets, it's too early to tell exactly how it's going to shake out.
It's not too early, though, to call No. 1 pick Larry Johnson of the Hornets and Owens—not exactly a mistake—future All-Stars. "Johnson is a remarkable player, one of the most fundamentally sound rookies I've ever seen," says Sonics interim coach Bob Kloppenburg. Others agree. And the 6'9" Owens is comfortably punching the clock in Don Nelson's factory of interchangeable parts at Golden State, having played every position except point guard.
On most draft lists, the can't-miss group was followed by the dueling Smiths, guard Steve and forward Doug. The former has surpassed all expectations as a 6'7" quarterback for the Heat, to the point that there is suddenly a rash of NBA execs claiming, "Hey, behind Johnson and Mutombo, I had Steve Smith rated third!" It has been a different story for Doug, who reported to the Mavericks late and out of shape and has not played himself into the good graces of coach Richie Adubato. The Mavs, 12-26 at week's end, might as well find out if Smith is as good as advertised by playing him. After April 19, the last day of the regular season, they aren't going anywhere except home, and Adubato isn't likely to be calling the shots.
A few other first-round rookies are at least as good as advertised, and that is by no means a backhanded compliment: the Nuggets' Mark Macon (No. 8), the Hawks' Stacey Augmon (No. 9), the Cavaliers' Terrell Brandon (No. 11), the Knicks' Greg Anthony (No. 12) and the Pacers' Dale Davis (No. 13). Only the Celtics, with their steal of the versatile Rick Fox at No. 24, distinguished themselves in the latter stages of the first round.
Losers? The Timberwolves appear to have wasted the No. 7 pick on 7'2" Luc Longley of Australia, who has played atrociously, making both Felton Spencer and Randy Breuer seem passable by comparison. And the Magic may have blown it with power forward Brian Williams, the No. 10 pick. He has been bothered by injuries, but he didn't show much when he was healthy.
Finally, a special citation to the Bullets, who turned an unknown and undrafted Coppin State player, Larry Stewart, into a solid rebounding power forward. Stewart is a product of the same Philadelphia high school, Dobbins Tech, that sent Bo Kimble and the late Hank Gathers into the basketball world. Another undrafted rookie free agent, small forward David Benoit of Alabama, is playing c apably as part of Utah's eight-man rotation.
Poll: Dikembe by a Landslide
Mutombo has a stock answer when asked about his chances of being voted Rookie of the Year. "I don't know who is my contender," he says. "I think I'm by myself." He is correct if one believes this week's SI poll of coaches and general managers, which asked: Who deserves to be the Rookie of the Year? Mutombo received 21 of 26 first-place votes, while Johnson collected four and Steve Smith one.
If anyone in the league has doubts about that threesome, he has not revealed himself publicly. But the biggest surprise, clearly, is Mutombo, whose offensive abilities were "camouflaged at Georgetown," as Orlando assistant Brian Hill puts it. (That happened to someone else, too, didn't it? Fellow by the name of Ewing?) "Dikembe gets double-teamed, even triple-teamed, night in and night out," says Nugget coach Paul Westhead, who sacked his racehorse offense to build a system around Mutombo. "I love Dikembe, absolutely love him, but Larry Johnson's the total focal point of that team," says Sun coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, one of the four who voted for Johnson. "He's the best basketball player among the rookies."
The Rebounding Menace
If there were a vote for the league's most irritating player, the Pistons' Dennis Rodman would clearly be a shoo-in, even considering the reputation of teammate Bill Laimbeer. Sure, Laimbeer has the Academy Award flop on defense going for him, but Rodman has the peacock strut, the waving fists, the cocky, elbows-up trot and the Academy Award flop. "Man, sometimes I just feel like killing that guy," says one Eastern Conference coach.
But everyone, including Rodman's detractors, concedes that he has turned himself into one of the league's two or three best rebounders, and most observers agree that he could develop into one of the best rebounding forwards in NBA history. At week's end the 6'8" Rodman led the league with a 17.3-rebounds-per-game average, about a full rebound better than the runner-up, the Hawks' seven-foot Kevin Willis. No one has come close to averaging 17 rebounds since Moses Malone, then with the Rockets, got 17.6 per game during the 1978-79 season. Among players of Rodman's size, the best mark ever was the 17.4 average in 1956-57 of Maurice Stokes, a 6'7" forward with the Rochester Royals. Though forwards have become more of a rebounding force in the modern era—Truck Robinson (15.7 in 1977-78), Charles Barkley (14.6 in '86-87) and Michael Cage (13.03 in "87-88) have all won rebounding titles from that position—none of their averages came close to Rodman's current mark, which, astonishingly, is nearly five rebounds better than his career-best of 12.5 last season.
Can he keep it up? Why not? The biggest factor in his increased rebounding is his increased minutes. Coming into this season, Rodman averaged only 26.3 minutes per game over his five-year career. At week's end he was up to 38.7 for '91-92. Piston coach Chuck Daly would still rather employ him as a kamikaze sixth man, but circumstances—the Pistons aren't as deep as they once were—have forced Daly to start Rodman on a full-time basis and keep him on the floor.
And the other factors that make Rodman lord of the boards?
•His knowledge of his limitations. "I think he realizes that once he stops rebounding and playing defense, he's out of the league," says Sonics forward Eddie Johnson.
•The Pistons' offensive system and Rodman's role in it. "Detroit tends to generate predictable shots," says Bulls coach Phil Jackson. "And Dennis primarily works the baseline, close to the basket, looking specifically for rebounds and not for shots." (Indeed, Rodman's average of 7.7 shots per game through Sunday was among the league's lowest for players with appreciable minutes.)
•His insatiable thirst for the ball. "He's an uncanny player, and I think it's just his relentless pursuit," says Scott Layden, the Jazz's director of player personnel. "He gets his hands on another five to eight balls a game that aren't credited as rebounds for him, and his team ends up with some of those, too." Adds an admiring Cage, "I appreciate his focus, because that's what I do."
•His talents and instincts. Rodman is an athlete who probably could have been a national-class sprinter or long jumper. Spur vice-president of basketball operations Bob Bass is so impressed with Rodman's abilities, in fact, that he compares him to...Willie Mays? "I really believe that when the ball is two feet out of a shooter's hand, Rodman has the judgment to know if it's going to be short, long left, short right, whatever," says Bass. "He gets the best jump on the ball in the NBA, just like Willie did in baseball."
Rodman first made his mark as an on-the-ball defender, but there are those around the league who now feel he's overrated in that aspect of the game, both because of his excessive flopping (taking a deliberate dive to draw a charging call) and because his reputation as a defensive specialist gives him carte blanche to put both hands on his opponent and thus limit drives to the basket. But no one denies Rodman's ability as a rebounder. The Hawks' Dominique Wilkins puts it best: "Dennis is the damnedest player I've ever seen. He gets you pissed off all the time, but he's one rebounding fool."
As for Rodman, he would like to become even more foolish. "My goal," says Worm, "is 18 rebounds a game."
The Same Old Song
The strains of Goodbye Larry, Kevin and Robert were first heard in the spring of 1987, after the aging and injury-depleted Celtics dropped a six-game championship Finals to the Lakers. The refrain continued, in varying levels of volume, through the succeeding years as both Larry Bird (115 missed games over four seasons) and Kevin McHale (34 missed games) broke down, and Robert Parish, 38, became the oldest player in the NBA. Now it is January 1992, and, as inconceivable as it may sound, the situation is still unresolved. At week's end, both Bird (sore back) and McHale (tear in right calf muscle) were on the injured list, and Parish had just returned to action after missing two games because of a badly sprained left ankle. The threesome, still the heart and soul of the team, has appeared on the court together in only 18 of the Celtics' 38 games.
Worse for the Celtics, the future seems highly uncertain. To the extent that the Bird situation is readable—the average turnip is more communicative than an injured Bird—it appears that the three-time MVP is almost ready to return to action. Officially, his injury is still being considered the result of a fall in practice on Dec. 3. But Bird, 35, underwent an operation for a herniated disk in the off-season, and only lately have team officials conceded that his back may be suffering some residual lack of structural strength. McHale, 34, has had a dizzying number of foot and ankle ailments in recent years; it seems that every time he compensates for one malady, another arises in a different area. And Parish—have you heard?—is not getting any younger.
The Celtics' backcourt situation is uncertain, too. After dealing Brian Shaw to Miami in exchange for Sherman Douglas on Jan. 10, Boston is the only team in the league with three smallish point guards—Douglas, John Bagley and Dee Brown, who has not played this season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on Oct. 30 for torn cartilage in his left knee. (Brown is expected to return soon after the All-Star Game.) Though it was widely accepted that Shaw had lost some confidence and would never return to the high level of play he displayed in the first half of last season, the Douglas deal nevertheless surprised some Celtics insiders and did not draw unanimous assent from the coaching staff. Will Douglas, who owns a new $2.1 million-per-year contract, be happy in a backup role if he cannot supplant Bagley? And what happens when Brown, the best of the trio, returns? One scenario holds that Brown, whose long arms and jumping ability make him more like 6'5" than 6'1", will play a lot at shooting guard, enabling Reggie Lewis to move to small forward to replace, or give added rest time, to Bird.
Ultimately, everything comes back to the Big Three. Logic says that the Celtics cannot endure another season of uncertainty and that they need to rebuild the team around Lewis and Brown. So, you read it here first: This season will mark the swan song of Bird, McHale and the Chief.
Unless, of course, they return.