Midseason Highs and Lows
The question of which team is No. 2 in the league is more compelling than asking who's No. 1, considering that the Bulls, who were 42-9 at week's end, rendered the point moot early in the season. Herewith, SI's midseason rankings, which are not merely a look at the standings but a projection of who will be in what place when the season ends.
1. Bulls—Chicago will not eclipse the alltime best season record of 69-13 (set by the 1971-72 Lakers), but the Bulls will lose only about 15 games.
2. Trail Blazers—With a talent-laden roster, Portland is clearly the league's second-best team, but it just isn't as mentally tough as Chicago, and at this point the Trail Blazers would fare about as well in a championship series against the Bulls as the Lakers did in losing in five games last year.
February 24, 1992
3. Spurs—Any team with David Robinson can realistically think about getting to the Finals, but it cannot hold realistic thoughts about winning them without a proven outside shooter.
4. Suns—Except for a bad first month of the season, Phoenix quarterback Kevin Johnson could have joined teammates Jeff Hornacek and Dan Majerle at the All-Star Game in Orlando. The Suns could move up if any of the top three teams loses a key player to injury.
5. Jazz—A familiar refrain: Utah just doesn't have enough depth to win it all.
6. Knicks—True, Pat Riley-has New York's players believing in themselves. But the Knicks' 106-85 home loss to the Bulls last week shows they're not title contenders.
7. Warriors—Rockin'-and-rollin', center-less Golden State will keep everyone interested right through its elimination in the second round of the playoffs.
8. Cavaliers—Yes, Cleveland is rejuvenated now that it's healthy. But shouldn't the Cavs be putting a little more pressure on the Bulls, whom they trailed by 8½ games at week's end?
9. Lakers—Even with center Vlade Divac expected to return in a couple of weeks after back surgery, how good can Los Angeles be without Magic Johnson?
10. Celtics—If Larry Bird and Kevin McHale ever get healthy, Boston could put pressure on both the Knicks and Cavs in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But that's a big if, and the Bulls are out of reach.
11. Pistons—Orlando Woolridge recently got a two-year, $5 million contract extension that will keep him in Detroit until 1995. Whoopee!
12. 76ers—Charles Barkley's talent alone keeps Philadelphia from sinking even lower.
13. Rockets—With the exception of Otis Thorpe and, lately, Hakeem Olajuwon, none of last season's darlings has stepped up his game.
14. SuperSonics—A few weeks ago, when George Karl came in from Spain to coach Seattle, he forgot himself and spoke in Spanish to his players during his first game. Spanish. English. These guys have trouble understanding basketball in any language.
15. Pacers—They might be coming together: for the sake of coach Bob Hill's job security, they'd better do it soon.
16. Bucks—They will have to try hard to miss landing the East's final playoff spot. But they're capable of doing just that.
17. Clippers—Watch out next year. Sound familiar?
18. Heat—Hold on to that playoff fever just one more year, Miami fans.
19. Hawks—Atlanta will sink three places in the East without Dominique Wilkins, who's out for the rest of the season with an injury.
20. Nuggets—Dikembe Mutombo has carried Denver out of the depths.
21. Kings—Slowly but surely, a solid nucleus is forming.
22. Bullets—Coach Wes Unseld is doing an excellent job with an injury-riddled club, but some hard questions—in particular about the injured Bernard King, the overweight John Williams and the underachieving Ledell Eackles—remain.
23. Nets—All the talk of coach Bill Fitch's tenuous future was being heard again after New Jersey had lost nine of its last 11 games through Sunday.
24. Hornets—Franchise bedrocks Larry Johnson and Kendall Gill will have some new playmates next season.
25. Mavericks—The question is whether Dallas will have to surrender either of its backcourt aces, Derek Harper and Rolando Blackmail, to start over.
26. Magic—Much needs to be done if there's to be a Tomorrow Land down in Orlando.
27. Timberwolves—It's a good thing management got that old hard-liner Bill Musselman out of there, eh? Under new coach Jimmy Rodgers, Minnesota was a league-worst 9-40 at week's end.
Nets assistant coach Tom Newell has an excellent idea for resuscitating the increasingly insipid Slam Dunk competition at the NBA All-Star Game. Newell proposes an alley-oop competition involving two-man teams, one player a feeder, the other a slammer. "Most of the great dunks come off great feeds, anyway," says Newell. "That's what really gets the crowd going." If the league adopts Newell's plan, perhaps some superstars would consider getting involved again. Think of the possibilities: John Stockton to Karl Malone; Terry Porter to Clyde Drexler; Johnny Dawkins to Charles Barkley; Scottie Pippen to Michael Jordan (and vice versa). The most interesting team could come from the Celtics, where a 6'9" Larry Bird could set 'em up for the 6'1" Dee Brown, the 1991 Slam Dunk champion.
Son Knows Best
For what is believed to be the first time in professional basketball, a father matched X's and O's against his son last Saturday night. It happened in the CBA when 64-year-old Mauro Panaggio, coach of the Rock-ford Lightning, took on his son, Dan Panaggio, 37, coach of the Quad City Thunder. Dan defeated his dad 104-101, but that was to be expected—the Thunder is the CBA's best team, with a 34-10 record through last weekend, while the Lightning has been struggling (16-25).
It wasn't Dan's first success at his father's expense: He broke scoring records once held by his father at SUNY-Brock-port. The elder Panaggio, however, is still the CBA's alltime winningest coach, with a career record of 321-184 at week's end. He went 132-88 at Quad City from '87-88 to '90-91, and Dan was his assistant there for the last three of those seasons. Dan became the Thunder's coach when Mauro decided to retire at the end of last season. However, after Rockford got off to a 3-15 start this year, team owner Rick Holtzman put in a call to Mauro, who replaced former Celtic assistant Lanny Van Eman on Dec. 21. Since then the Lightning has gone 14-11.
Duck's Worth Plummeting
After the 1987-88 season, Trail Blazer center Kevin Duckworth won the NBA's Most Improved Player award. He averaged 15.8 points and 7.4 rebounds and was Portland's bright spot in an otherwise disappointing first-round loss to Utah in the playoffs. Having battled a weight problem for much of his life, Duck worked diligently to get into shape and seemed to have found a happy home in Portland. But though the Trail Blazers have taken a big step forward since then, Duckworth has gone backward. Through Sunday he was averaging only 10.8 points and 5.9 rebounds this season, and with increasing frequency he has found himself on the bench, watching Cliff Robinson play center for Portland in crunch time. At week's end, in fact, the Blazers were still trying to trade Duckworth before this 'Thursday's deadline, though takers were not lining up at the door.
And so it is that Portland's 7-foot, 290-pound tower of Jell-O emerged as the dubious winner of this week's SI poll, which asked the question: Who is the most disappointing nonrookie in the NBA? Duck had some competition—coaches and general managers nominated eight other heartbreakers—but he emerged with a clear plurality, garnering eight of 22 votes. A few teams, it should be noted, were skittish about answering the poll, possibly because the question hit too close to home.
"Duckworth is a guy who, if he's in shape and playing well, can be a tremendous force in the league," said one general manager from the Central Division. "The Blazers are getting by without a major contribution from him now, but if they're going to win a championship, Kevin's got to step up his game." An Eastern Conference coach was more blunt: "Duckworth has enormous talent, but he's not using it. He's on my all-Ken-L-Ration team."
The main challenges to Duckworth came from the 76ers' Charles Shackleford (four votes), whose alleged rebounding skills are but a distant rumor so far, and from the Timberwolves' Thurl Bailey (three votes). Benoit Benjamin of the Sonics got two votes. One vote each went to Eackles, Bo Kimble of the Clippers. Jon Koncak of the Hawks, Chuck Person of the Pacers and Brian Shaw, recently traded by the Celtics to Miami for Sherman Douglas.