DEALS AND STEALS THE NBA'S OFF-SEASON BEGAN WITH MOVES DEFT (SUNS), DUMB (CLIPPERS) AND PERHAPS DEVIOUS (HEAT)

July 09, 1995

There are more question marks facing the NBA these days than
there are on the Riddler's bodysuit. The most pressing, of
course, concern the league's increasingly messy labor situation.
But there are plenty of others involving meat-and-potatoes
basketball matters that fans probably care more about.

1. Why did the Chicago Bulls give B.J. Armstrong away?

Apparently the Bulls want to see how many key players from their
1991 to '93 championship teams they can lose without getting
anything in return. When the Toronto Raptors took Armstrong,
whom Chicago had surprisingly left unprotected, with the first
choice of the expansion draft, he joined forwards Horace Grant
and Scott Williams on the list of valued players who have left
the Bulls without Chicago receiving any compensation.

That's not to say there weren't reasons to leave Armstrong
unprotected. Here, according to Bull sources, was Chicago's
thinking: The 6'2" Armstrong's difficulty in guarding quick
point guards or taller shooting guards, and his inability to
penetrate, had become unaffordable liabilities. At the same time
he quietly made known his displeasure over dwindling playing
time -- from 33.8 minutes a game in 1993-94 to 29.9 after the
All-Star break last season -- and restrictions on his offensive
role imposed by coach Phil Jackson after Michael Jordan's return
in March. Armstrong made $2.8 million last season, to be
essentially a spot-up shooter. Steve Kerr can do that just as
well, if not better, than Armstrong and for far less money: He
made $620,000 last year.

That's why Armstrong was expendable. Why was he sent packing via
the expansion draft instead of by a trade? The answer: Unless
the Bulls could get the established power forward they wanted
for Armstrong, which they quickly found out they couldn't, they
really didn't want another player. They would rather have
Armstrong's salary slot to sign a free-agent big man, to re-sign
unrestricted free-agent center Luc Longley or to renegotiate the
contract of disgruntled All-Star forward Scottie Pippen, who
earned a paltry (for a superstar) $2.2 million per season.

Don't feel bad for Armstrong. Toronto general manager Isiah
Thomas is ready to fulfill his request to move to a contender by
trading him, probably to the Golden State Warriors. One rumor
had Armstrong heading to the Bay Area for a package including
forwards Victor Alexander and Carlos Rogers.

2. If the Phoenix Suns aren't the smartest team on draft day,
who is?

Let's just say you can make a very strong case for Phoenix as
the team that does the most with the least. The Suns have long
had a knack for uncovering gems, although they have rarely
picked high in the draft, and they may have done it again this
year with forwards Michael Finley of Wisconsin (21st overall
pick) and Mario Bennett of Arizona State (27th). The 6'7" Finley
could turn out to be a Cedric Ceballos-like scorer at small
forward, and the 6'9" Bennett, who may have been overlooked by
other teams because of an old knee injury, became the Suns' best
shot blocker the minute he was chosen. The Suns, who are
perennial title contenders, also have drafted Dan Majerle (14th,
1988), Kerr (50th, 1988), Ceballos (48th, 1990), Oliver Miller
(22nd, 1992) and Wesley Person (23rd, 1994).

The New Jersey Nets, conversely, often manage to waste prime
draft choices, but they may have picked a winner this year.
Thanks to a potentially arthritic left knee, which scared off
some teams, UCLA forward Ed O'Bannon was still available when
New Jersey picked ninth, and for once the Nets did the right
thing: They grabbed him. The Nets, a team of head cases, need
sound minds as badly as sound bodies, and the mature,
workmanlike O'Bannon is definitely one player who won't make
coach Butch Beard reach for the Excedrin. But even if his knee
does turn out to be troublesome, don't rip the Nets. This was a
gamble they were wise to take.

The Philadelphia 76ers made a smart move by making no move.
There was talk that the Sixers would trade one of their good
young forwards, Sharone Wright or Clarence Weatherspoon, to move
up from the No. 3 spot and take the player they badly wanted,
North Carolina's Jerry Stackhouse. But Philly did nothing. The
76ers guessed correctly that the bumbling Los Angeles Clippers,
drafting one spot ahead of them, would pass on Stackhouse. Sure
enough, the Clips continued to bumble (more on that later), and
the Sixers grabbed Stackhouse, a big guard who should be the
next Rookie of the Year.

Maryland forward Joe Smith, the No. 1 pick, won't make as much
of an immediate impact as Stackhouse, but he eventually should
solve the Warriors' shortcomings at power forward.

3. Are the Clippers the dumbest team in the league on draft day?

Isn't that obvious by now? The Clippers had the second pick.
They could have chosen Stackhouse, the dynamic player they need
to help turn around their moribund franchise, or they could have
extracted a king's ransom from several teams for that No. 2
choice. Instead they chose to take highly regarded Alabama
forward Antonio McDyess, only to trade him within an hour (along
with guard Randy Woods) to the Denver Nuggets for forward Rodney
Rogers and the rights to guard Brent Barry, the 15th pick.

"This may be hard for you guys to believe, but there wasn't that
much interest in [teams trading up for] the pick," says Clipper
coach Bill Fitch. Maybe. But instead of keeping a player whom
most rate a potential star, the Clips took a question mark in
Barry and a decent power forward in Rogers, who happens to play
the same position as Los Angeles's best player, Loy Vaught. Go
figure.

4. Why should every NBA fan learn to pronounce Danilovic?

As my colleague Alexander Wolff reports from Athens: With the
preeminent basketball player on earth a converted goalkeeper
from Lagos, Nigeria, it wasn't particularly remarkable that
seven NBA teams sent scouts to the European Championships, which
ended here on Sunday. In fact, it was more noteworthy that there
weren't more bird dogs prospecting the territory that produced
three second-round picks in the draft: swift, soft-handed 6'10"
forward Dragan Tarlac, a naturalized Greek of Serb descent
(drafted No. 31 overall by the Bulls); versatile 6'8" guard
Dejan (White Magic) Bodiroga of Yugoslavia (taken by the
Sacramento Kings with the 51st pick); and 7'2" shot-blocking
specialist Aurelius Zukauskas of Lithuania (drafted by the
Seattle SuperSonics at No. 54 and then traded to the Milwaukee
Bucks for point guard Eric Snow of Michigan State). "You're
foolish not to expand your horizons and look at new markets,"
says former Warrior scout Donn Nelson, who served as an
assistant coach with the Lithuanian team, which last week
qualified for next year's Summer Olympics in Atlanta along with
the teams of Croatia, Greece and Yugoslavia (the latter won the
European title by beating Lithuania 96-90).

Even with its high-powered scouting systems, the NBA's approach
overseas can still be embarrassingly unscientific. In 1992
international basketball let loose a collective howl of laughter
when the Minnesota Timberwolves signed Latvia's Gundars Vetra, a
6'6" swingman who couldn't even get his shot off in Europe. Last
month the foreign basketballers yukked anew when the Suns signed
(to a two-year deal with an option for a third) Stefano Rusconi
of Italy, a 6'9" center with lousy work habits. And when the
Sonics last week chose Zukauskas, a 22-year-old factory worker
from Klaipeda, much of the NBA assumed--and USA Today
reported--that Seattle had actually taken 7'1" Zydrunas
Ilgauskas, who's known in Lithuania as Bolas for his resemblance
to pipe-stem 7'7" former NBA center Manute Bol.

So, does that mean if you've seen one shot-blocking Lithuanian
seven-footer, you've seen 'em all? The Portland Trail Blazers
are fervently hoping that's not true. They were on the verge of
finally retaining the services of massive 7'3" former Soviet
Olympic star Arvydas Sabonis, whom they had drafted nine years
ago, when the owners' lockout last week placed a moratorium on
all new contracts. Assuming he eventually puts his name on a
pact, Sabonis figures to be a backup center for the Blazers.
Luckier was the Miami Heat, which has already signed last
season's European Player of the Year, 6'7" Predrag Danilovic
(pronounced duh-NIL-oh-vich) of Yugoslavia, to a four-year deal.
Swingman Danilovic is a slasher and scorer, a Jeff Hornacek type
(only larger), and he could supply the Heat with firepower off
the bench.

With the NBA already boasting both the Australian-born Longley
and Venezuela's Carl Herrera, who last season was a Houston
Rocket and is now a free agent, it's simply a matter of some
team signing 6'8" Chinese star Ma Jian for every nonpolar
continent to be represented. Don't bet against it happening: The
expansion Vancouver Grizzlies share a city with North America's
second-largest Chinatown, and the Clippers already broadcast
some of their games in Mandarin.

5. Is there any chance Pat Riley will become the best-dressed
guy in Miami since Don Johnson left town?

Not without a fight from the New York Knicks, he won't. Riley
resigned as coach of the Knicks on June 15 with a year left on
his five-year, $6 million contract, and he cannot take another
NBA coaching job without New York's permission until that
contract expires. (At week's end the Knicks were reportedly
close to signing former Warrior coach Don Nelson to succeed
Riley.) Although Riley is said to be looking for a loophole that
would release him from New York's hold, it seems unlikely that
he will coach the Heat next season unless Miami compensates the
Knicks with either a player or a draft pick.

New York made it clear that it wasn't in a magnanimous mood when
it filed tampering charges against the Heat after owner Micky
Arison and executive vice president Dave Wohl publicly declared
their interest in Riley. Said Dave Checketts, president of
Madison Square Garden, parent company of the Knicks, "This may
be the most blatant example of tampering I have seen in 12 years
in the NBA." As punishment for that alleged violation,
Checketts reportedly has asked that the league throw the book at
Miami and compensate New York with $10 million and two
first-round draft choices. And when the Heat asked the Knicks
last week for permission to talk to Riley, New York said no.

Why are the Knicks so obstinate? First, they aren't thrilled at
the prospect of Riley taking over a team in their own Atlantic
Division. They would also derive satisfaction from forcing Riley
to sit out a year, since Riley angered Checketts by stating that
he resigned because management wouldn't give him as much control
as he thought he needed.

But assuming the proper compensation is offered, New York would
be wise to let Riley go. The aging Knicks could angle for a 1996
first-round draft choice--and even with the peerless Riley
coaching the hapless Heat (32-50 last season), New York could
end up with a very juicy one. Despite its statements to the
contrary, Miami management wants Riley badly enough to give up
that much in return.

COLOR PHOTO:DAVID E. KLUTHOSlippage in his play and his high salary made Armstrong (10) expendable, while Finley (24) should help the Suns keep rising. [B.J. Armstrong] COLOR PHOTO:BRUCE L. SCHWARTZMAN [See caption above--Michael Finley] COLOR PHOTO:SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBA PHOTOS The slashing Danilovic, who has been one of Europe's hottest players, will now add his firepower to the Heat. [Predrag Danilovic] COLOR PHOTO:ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS Presto: No. 2 pick McDyess was a Clipper. Change-o: He capped off his draft day as a Nugget. [Antonio McDyess wearing Los Angeles Clippers baseball cap] COLOR PHOTO:NOREN TROTMAN/NBA PHOTOS [See caption above--Antonio McDyess wearing Denver Nuggets baseball cap]

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