Pipe Down, Pippen
Was it really just a few weeks ago that Bull forward Scottie Pippen was king of the NBA mountain? He had assumed the mantle of leadership in Chicago—from the retired Michael Jordan—so deftly that he was rising fast in the Most Valuable Player race, and he had capped a brilliant first half of the season by winning the All-Star Game MVP award. But since then, things have gone sour for the Bulls in general and Pippen in particular.
Through Sunday, Chicago had lost eight of its last 11 games, including four in a row at home, dropping its record to 37-21. The ugliest of the recent losses was an 89-81 defeat at home by the Cavaliers in which Bull coach Phil Jackson started Toni Kukoc in Pippen's regular small forward spot and moved Pippen to shooting guard. Kukoc missed all nine of his shots, Pippen didn't much appreciate having to chase smaller, quicker guards on defense, and Jackson acknowledged that the experiment had "failed miserably."
Part of the Chicago Stadium crowd apparently agreed, because they booed the Bulls on occasion. The reaction didn't seem particularly directed at Pippen, but he took it personally. "I have been here seven years, and I have never seen a white guy get booed in the Stadium," he said after the game, apparently forgetting the harsh treatment white teammate Will Perdue has received from time to time. "It seems to be that when things go bad, and the ball is in your hands and you don't score, then the fans take over. But Toni was 0 for whatever tonight, and I never heard one fan get on him." After cooling off for a day, Pippen didn't exactly back away from his comments. "I pretty much apologize for it, to some extent." he said.
Pippen's outburst was just the latest example of what appears to be his resentment of Kukoc. Pippen has said that he will understand if Chicago management makes forward Horace Grant the highest-paid member of the team in order to keep Grant when he becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season; but Pippen has also made it clear that he'll be one unhappy Bull if Kukoc, who can become a restricted free agent after the season, winds up with a bigger salary than his as well. "I think I deserve to be the highest-paid Bull," says Pippen, who under his current contract will make $3 million this season (tops on the team) and $2.1 million next year.
He's right, but his timing is terrible. Just when the Bulls should be focusing on their battle with the Hawks (41-16 at week's end) and the Knicks (38-19) for the best record in the Eastern Conference and home court advantage in the playoffs, Pippen, their leader, is causing unnecessary distractions. Jackson admits that the Bulls' chemistry is "touchy" right now. It's Pippen's job to alleviate that problem, not contribute to it. He would be wise to listen to the words of a certain struggling outfielder for the Chicago White Sox. "That's what other teams want to see," Jordan says, "because they think you're weakening. Other teams are thinking, O.K., they're coming unraveled. It's nearing the stretch run, and other teams are looking for that crack. He got some things off his chest, now go back to playing solid basketball."
The Timberwolves are headed yet again for the lottery, where they have ended up each of the previous four years of their existence. But that's the least of what Minnesota fans are talking about these days. The questions of the moment are, Who will leave town first: Christian Laettner or Chuck Person? Or will the team go all at once?
Laettner, the Wolves' second-year forward and best player, has had a string of run-ins with his coaches and teammates, the most recent of which involved his cursing at assistant Bob Weinhauer, which earned him a one-game suspension. Laettner, however, isn't the only Timber-wolf with a temper. Rookie Isaiah Rider got into the act last week, spitting on the court in Atlanta and knocking a cup of water off the scorer's table onto the floor because he was upset at being forced to the bench with two quick fouls in the opening minutes of the first quarter. Rider took his time heading to the bench, where he got an earful from coach Sidney Lowe. "As a rookie," Lowe said afterward, "you don't have the right to do that."
Laettner's name was tossed around before the trading deadline last month, but he and Rider are likely to be with the Timberwolves far longer than Person, who's unhappy with his playing time. "They might as well tie my hands behind my back, leave me on the side of the road and feed me to the crows," Person told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "There's got to be a change. Someone's got to go."
It could be the entire franchise. Less than four years after opening the $104 million Target Center, Minnesota owners Harvey Ratner and Marv Wolfenson say they're losing about $10 million a year on the arena because of high mortgage payments, and they want a public buyout of the building. Rather than continue to lose money, the owners have said, they will move the team. And the Timber-wolves don't lack for suitors. Ownership groups in New Orleans, San Diego and Nashville have shown serious interest in the team.
NBA commissioner David Stern has said the league would like to see the club stay in Minnesota, but he has warned that if the Timberwolves leave, Minnesota fans shouldn't expect a replacement anytime in the near future. Losing the franchise would be a blow to the fans, especially just a year after the North Star hockey franchise moved to Dallas. But considering the Wolves' history of futility and turmoil, some Minnesota fans might consider Stern's comment more of a promise than a threat.
Picking Up the Pace
While the Bulls and the Knicks (4-5 from Feb. 15 to Sunday) have struggled since the All-Star break, several other teams in the Eastern Conference, including the Nets, the Heat, the Magic and the Cavaliers, have hit their stride. Few teams have been hotter than the Pacers, who through Sunday had won 14 of their last 17 and nine in a row at home. When the Pacers' record hit 29-25 last week, it was the first time since February 1990 that they had been as many as four games over .500.
Guard Reggie Miller has been shooting the lights out, as usual, but two of the keys to the Pacer run have been 7'4" center Rik Smits and 6'10" forward Derrick McKey. Smits averaged 19.2 points and 8.3 rebounds in February, compared with his career averages of 13.3 and 5.6, respectively, and McKey has shown that the trade last November that brought him to Indiana from Seattle in exchange for forward Detlef Schrempf wasn't the Sonic steal that many observers first thought. In the most recent meeting between the Sonics and the Pacers, on Feb. 20, McKey had 27 points, nine rebounds and five assists (compared with six, five and two for Schrempf) in a 101-95 Indiana victory.
Smits, who has long been the key variable for the Pacers, had five straight games in double figures in both points and rebounds until back spasms forced him to the bench early in a game against the Nets last week and kept him there for last Saturday night's 90-88 loss to the Hawks in Atlanta. He played well against Knick center Patrick Ewing in the playoffs last year, enabling Indiana to extend New York to four tough games in the opening round. Coach Larry Brown was looking for more of the same from Smits early this season, but Smits didn't deliver right away. "I've been up and down with Rik," Brown says. "But he's really come on, and our guys have confidence in him now."
But the Pacers' February run—like most of the hot streaks in the NBA this season—has been heavily influenced by a relatively weak schedule that included only seven teams above .500. This month should provide a better indication of Indiana's progress, because it plays 12 teams who, at week's end, had winning records, eight of them with marks of .600 or better.
Line of the Week
Avery Johnson, Warriors
FGM-A: 10-13; A: 12; TP: 23
Johnson's performance in Golden State's 120-107 win over the Suns in Oakland came in a matchup against Phoenix guard Kevin Johnson, who was hampered by a thigh bruise and missed 13 of his 16 shots. It was the first meeting between AJ and KJ since KJ, annoyed at not being named to Dream Team II, sarcastically wondered in January if AJ or Laker Nick Van Exel would be named to the NBA All-Star team instead of him. KJ sent AJ a letter about three weeks ago explaining that no insult was intended, and the two guards have patched things up. But although the letter must have made AJ feel good, his line probably made him feel even better.