Not So Golden State

Despite suffering through what seems to be their annual rash of injuries—the worst of which was the loss of guards Tim Hardaway and Sarunas Marciulionis, both of whom had season-ending knee operations—the Warriors were a surprising 37-27 through Sunday. But lately coach Don Nelson hasn't been able to enjoy being a Coach pf the Year candidate. He has been too busy fighting the growing perception that his players are on the verge of mutiny.

The team's problems came to light last month when the San Jose Mercury News reported that 6'10" rookie Chris Webber, a natural power forward who was upset over having to play center, had had shouting matches with Nelson and was considering exercising the clause in his contract that allows him to become a restricted free agent after this season. And last week 6'9" Billy Owens, who wants to play small forward, told reporters that he didn't like being used at power forward and center. Nelson was so irritated that he took Owens out of the starting lineup for four games, making him back up small forward Chris Mullin.

Nelson insists that the only real problem is in the minds of reporters, who, he believes, have made too much of the sort of routine run-ins that occur on every team. "All of a sudden I can't coach anymore, I'm going to be fired, or whatever the rumors are, when all I've done is reprimand a couple of young players who challenged my authority," Nelson says. "I haven't lost this team. I'm really proud of the year we're having."

But there are plenty of signs that the Warriors' internal conflicts are more serious than Nelson admits. Webber, for instance, denies that he wants out of Golden State but says ominously that "things are definitely going to happen in the off-season. Something has to happen."

What seems to anger Nelson most is that one of his players apparently has leaked some of the information about team conflicts to reporters. Nelson has referred to this unnamed source as a Judas. Last week the coach closed practices to reporters for the rest of the season, and lie has restricted media access to players before and after practice.

Nelson is known for his low tolerance for challenges to his authority and public airings of team grievances. In short, he's a coach from the old school. However, today's young stars know that the heavy investments their teams have made in them give them a measure of power, and they aren't afraid to complain to the press. It's apparent that coaches—even the best coaches, such as Nelson—who refuse to adjust to the new facts of NBA life are fighting a losing battle.

Starks Reality

When the Knicks found out last week that guard John Starks's torn left knee ligament will keep him out for the rest of the regular season, his backup, 23-year-old Hubert Davis, suddenly became very important to New York's championship plans. Will he be up to the challenge? Pacer guard Reggie Miller seems to think so. "It's a lot tougher for me to cover Hubert, because he's more fundamentally sound and more under control than John," says Miller. But then Miller has never been one of Starks's greatest admirers—remember the head butt Starks gave him in the playoffs last season?—so perhaps some opinions from more impartial observers are called for.

"Losing Starks hurts the Knicks' depth, obviously, but people around the league think an awful lot of Davis, especially for a second-year guy who really hasn't had consistent playing time," says a Western Conference coach. "Everybody who talked to New York about deals last summer wanted him in any package. Davis came into the league as just a shooter, but now he can put the ball on the floor and get to the basket pretty well too. He's a better outside shooter than Starks in terms of consistency. This might be the opening he needs to establish himself."

An Eastern Conference coach went even further. "Here's what I think happens," he says. "Davis shows he's a legitimate player over the last 20 games of the season and the first round of the playoffs. Then Starks comes back, he's out of sync and he struggles. The Knicks don't get the title. Maybe they don't even get out of the East. Then when the Knicks go shopping in the off-season, they're willing to give up Starks to get a small forward."

But not everyone is convinced that the Knicks will be able to do so well without Starks. "Davis isn't the defensive player Starks is in terms of one-on-one or team defense," says an Eastern Conference coach. "One of the keys to the Knicks is that they rotate and recover so well out of the double team, and Davis doesn't do that nearly as well as the rest of their starters. And if they have to go to [Rolando] Blackmail for any period of time, they're in trouble, because he just can't defend against people anymore. If they can keep up their defensive performance with Davis, I'll be surprised."

So far they've been able to. Last week the Knicks, who had won nine straight games through Sunday, tied an NBA record by holding eight opponents in a row to fewer than 90 points. Still, there are those who think the Knicks will have problems if Starks isn't close to 100% by the second round of the playoffs. "Getting Davis this kind of experience could be good for the Knicks in the long run, but let's face it, the Knicks aren't getting any younger," says a Western Conference coach. "They don't have a lot of years left to make a run at the title with this group. The last thing they care about right now is the long run."

Rating Without Jordan

The retirement of Michael Jordan hasn't made the slightest dent in the NBA's Sunday national television ratings. Jordan is attempting to hit baseballs instead of jump shots these days, but NBC's average numbers through last week, a 4.9 rating and 13.0 share, are identical to last year's. The same is true at TNT, where last season's average 1.8 rating and 2.9 share for weekday telecasts have become a 1.8 and 3.0 so far this season. (A rating point is equal to 942,000 viewers.)

Of course, television ratings are just one of many ways to measure the league's popularity, but they do indicate that the NBA, without Jordan, still has enough stars to maintain fans' interest. Jordan's old team, however, isn't quite the TV draw it once was. National ratings for the Bulls' telecasts are far more dependent on Chicago's opponents than they were when Jordan was playing. Bulls games on NBC against a pair of high-profile teams, the Suns and Knicks, did slightly better than the league's overall average, but a game against the less glamorous Cavaliers was well below the norm, with a 3.6 rating and 11.0 share. Still, the Bulls can point to Jordan's spring training performance at the plate and note that at least their numbers are better than his.

Line of the Week

Shaquille O'Neal, Magic FTM-A: 12-12

The rest of Shaq's line in a 100-98 win over the Mavericks on March 16—34 points, 21 rebounds and five blocked shots—wasn't so bad, either, but for him those numbers are becoming the norm. Making all 12 of his free throws, however, is anything but routine for O'Neal, who is a 54% free throw shooter this season. NBA officials would like to see O'Neal at the foul line for Dream Team II this summer. But O'Neal has an endorsement contract with Pepsi, while one of the Dream Team sponsors is McDonald's, which sells Coke. NBA executives have been meeting with Pepsi officials in hopes of reaching a compromise—one that ensures O'Neal doesn't appear by himself on Dream Team II merchandise distributed by McDonald's—before March 28, the date on which the final two spots on the team are scheduled to be filled.

PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHAlthough they're still talking, Nelson and Webber haven't been seeing eye to eye lately. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHWith Starks on the shelf, Davis finds himself playing a bigger role in New York's title hopes.
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