Larry Brown has always run basketball's best fast break—a couple of years and I'm outta here—but the only place the second-year INDIANA PACER coach is going this year is to the top of the Central Division.
Pacer president Donnie Walsh made sure of that with two off-season moves. First he renegotiated the vagabond coach's contract, extending it another year through 1999 and deleting the escape clause that Brown could have exercised after this season. Brown seems—egad!—content; a moment of silence, please, for America's real estate agents.
Then Walsh provided his longtime friend with a consistent point guard in Mark Jackson, who had played for Brown on the Los Angeles Clippers. Jackson's arrival represents the final stage in the evolution of a cocky but clueless team into a mix of veterans and rising stars with championship potential. The Pacers play smart. They play selflessly. And, at last, they play defense. The Pacers allowed 97.5 points a game last year, eighth best in the NBA, and came within a game of reaching the Finals, their best NBA postseason performance, so the state motto—Indiana, Home of the Uncontested Layup—no longer applies. "Pacer fans don't have to hide in the closet anymore," Reggie Miller says.
After missing the playoffs with a .500 season, the CHARLOTTE HORNETS will noiselessly shadow the Pacers. The emphasis is on quiet. The Hornets—led by leading lips Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning—are among the trash-talkingest teams in the league, and the front office has privately told the players to keep the intensity but lose the attitude. Johnson, loquacious since his UNLV days, was especially tart-tongued last season, maybe out of frustration resulting from a back sprain that limited his effectiveness and forced him to miss 31 games. Then a sprained left foot sidelined him in this fall's training camp. Grandmama, what big medical charts you have.
The Hornets now have a grandfather to escort Grandmama. Robert Parish, 41, signed on to spell Mourning at center, and in the preseason the Chief frolicked like a kid, even though his first grandchild was born shortly before camp opened. With 5'10" Michael Adams over from Washington as 5'3" Muggsy Bogues's backup, Charlotte has the smallest point-guard duo since the peach-basket era. The Hornets can pound it inside to Mourning; loose three-point bombers Dell Curry, Hersey Hawkins and Adams; or let Johnson, once his foot heals, win games with his ferocity.
The ATLANTA HAWKS won 57 games last season, which failed to impress at least one man who had a close look—Danny Manning. Manning spurned Atlanta's seven-year, $35 million offer and signed with the Phoenix Suns in hopes of winning a championship. "I don't think the loss of Manning will affect us at all," says Craig Ehlo, who will miss the first two to three weeks after surgery on his right knee. "Danny did a lot of good things, but he's replaceable." Newcomers Tyrone Corbin and Ken Norman will try to prove that.
The Hawks have a league-high $3.2 million salary slot to fill, maybe with a proven scorer to supplement the contractually challenged Kevin Willis, who bolted training camp for six days in an unsuccessful effort to renegotiate. The 7-footer rebounds well and has a nice shooting touch but doesn't pass well when double-teamed, something Miami and Indiana exploited in the playoffs. Mookie Blaylock and Stacey Augmon are superb backcourt defenders, but someone please tell Augmon that when he has got the ball, he's allowed to go to his right once in a while.
The CHICAGO BULLS move to the United Center, a delicious irony for a team torn asunder when Scottie Pippen, peeved that coach Phil Jackson had called a play for Toni Kukoc instead of Pippen, staged a sit-down strike with 1.8 seconds left in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against New York. Pippen and Kukoc continued to keep their distance during the preseason, although when they do have a heart-to-heart, they can discuss plenty, such as why the Croatian sixth man will make an average of $4.3 million per season over the next six years while perennial All-Star Pippen gets a mere $2.6 million per year for the next four.
These are not your old Air Bulls; Pippen is the only remaining starter from the team that won the 1992 title. Michael Jordan is chasing curveballs, Bill Cartwright has joined the Seattle SuperSonics, and John Paxson has retired. Horace Grant signed with the Orlando Magic for a little less money than Chicago gave Clipper free-agent Ron Harper, a 19-point scorer but a so-so perimeter shooter who must curb his freelancing instincts in the Bulls' highly structured triangle offense. Free-agent power forward Larry Krystkowiak can't be expected to replace Grant's 15.1 points and 11 rebounds a game.
The aging CLEVELAND CAVALIERS have lost 1) Larry Nance to retirement, 2) off-guard Gerald Wilkins for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in a preseason game and 3) center Brad Daugherty indefinitely with two herniated disks in his lower back, aggravated in September when he bent down to pick up his shoes. The Cavs are looking like the Cadavers, but the NBA Rules Committee has given them a hand. If the new hand checking rule is strictly enforced, as promised, it should aid Cleveland more than any other team because the Cavs have a fabulous point guard combination in Mark Price and Terrell Brandon. Without defenders mauling him and with Brandon spelling him, Price should get his 20 points in 25 or 30 minutes and be fresh for the playoffs—if the Cavaliers get there.
The absence of Daugherty hurts, but the Cavs went 18-11 at the end of last season without their five-time All-Star. John (Hot Rod) Williams is versatile enough to move into the middle. Michael Cage, an unrestricted free agent from Seattle, and fifth-year man Tyrone Hill give Cleveland some other big bodies. "We have a lot of flexibility," coach Mike Fratello says.
After bottoming out at 20 victories, the DETROIT PISTONS lost Isiah Thomas—he gave up his job as G.M. without portfolio to run the expansion Toronto Raptors, who won't debut until next season—and brought in seven new players. The cornerstone is rookie Grant Hill, who is talented and charismatic enough to start a new winning tradition. Any advice for the youngster? "Sure," says Oliver Miller (page 132), a free-agent center who came to the Pistons from Phoenix. "Don't hurt yourself when you land."
Hill joins straight-arrow Mark West, another ex-Sun center, and Dream Team Her Joe Dumars as first-team All-Nice Guys. "There are no jerks on this team," Dumars says. Miller and West should fill the defensive void at center created by Bill Laimbeer's sudden retirement 11 games into last season. With Lindsey Hunter learning at the point and swingman Allan Houston vowing to be more aggressive at both ends, these nice guys won't finish last.
Glenn Robinson, the No. 1 overall pick by the MILWAUKEE BUCKS in last June's draft, sniffed at the Bucks' offer of $60 million for nine years. He must be hearing high-pitched noises, detectable only by Big Dogs, telling him to hold out for $100 million for 13. Considering the franchise is worth only $75 million, Robinson seems a tad out of line. Then again, he might be able to beat the Bucks one-on-five.
Milwaukee hasn't made the playoffs since 1991 and won't this season—with or without Robinson. Forward Vin Baker and point guard Eric Murdock, who will miss as many as 15 games after being poked in the right eye in the preseason, can't carry the Bucks alone. Off-guard Todd Day has been a disappointment, and Baker might often have to play out of position at center because the other options are rookie Eric Mobley and 36-year-old Alton Lister. With Robinson, though, the Bucks would be intriguing. Without him they would be a dog's breakfast.