A prominent NBA coach who believes his job is in jeopardy agreed
to help compile a list of his peers who might be fired or might
switch jobs at the end of the season. After only a few moments
he realized it would be faster simply to list the handful of
coaches who have job security. "O.K.," he said, "there's Pat
Riley, and who else?"
Good question. The 1996-97 NBA season has been marred by a
stunning lack of respect for coaches, from, to cite just two
examples, the players' revolt in Orlando, which triggered the
removal of Brian Hill, to the behavior of Portland guard Isaiah
Rider, whose repeated violations of team rules have helped put
P.J. Carlesimo on the hot seat.
No such antics have gone on in Miami. At week's end the Heat had
won 11 of its last 12 games and, with a 56-18 record, appeared
to be peaking as the playoffs approached. Miami has also
regained the services of swingman Dan Majerle, who was out from
Jan. 8 to April 1 while recuperating from back surgery, and
center Alonzo Mourning, who had missed 13 games with a torn
plantar fascia tendon in his right foot.
The Heat's success is remarkable, considering that it was
written off as a serious contender last summer after
commissioner David Stern nullified Miami's contract with coveted
free-agent power forward Juwan Howard and Riley failed to win
over point guard Gary Payton, who re-signed with the Sonics.
Riley replaced Howard with a free agent with much more modest
credentials, P.J. Brown, who has responded with a career season.
Riley also challenged point guard Tim Hardaway to dispel his
image as a malcontent with a bad right knee. Hardaway regained
All-Star status and at week's end had missed no games because of
Riley rounded out his roster with hungry players like Isaac
Austin and Voshon Lenard, who have had a huge impact on the
performance and personality of this close-knit team. Why do the
Miami players listen to Riley, when many of their peers around
the league aren't listening to their coaches? "Because he makes
you the best you can be," says Mourning. "The last thing you
want to do is disappoint him. I'd do anything for him, because I
know he'd do anything for me."
The Heat's ability to win on the road has been amazing. Last
Thursday's 92-78 victory over the Pacers upped Miami's record in
away games to 29-9, the best in the NBA through Sunday, and
enabled Riley to establish a career high in wins on the road.
Even his storied Lakers teams didn't win 29 road games; the
champion Lakers of 1986-87 came closest, going 28-13 outside the
One reason for the Heat's great road record may be that Riley
whipped the team into excellent condition early in the season,
while most other teams were playing their way into shape. During
a six-game road trip in November, Miami went 6-0. But the Heat
has continued to play well on the road all season.
Riley was feeling so good about his team last week that he
mentioned in passing that he wanted Miami to finish the season
with a better record than that of the Western Conference-leading
Jazz. By doing that, the Heat would have home court advantage in
the playoffs against every team in the West--assuming Miami got
to the Finals.
There is, of course, a little obstacle called the Bulls, who
were on pace for another 70-win season and had all but clinched
home court advantage throughout the postseason. The Bulls may
have even given themselves a boost last week by signing
center-forward Brian Williams for the remainder of the season.
Williams was a big loser in last summer's free-agent bidding: He
asked the Clippers, his former team, for a seven-year, $101
million contract, but their final offer was $16.8 million over
four years, which he rejected. He underwent arthroscopic surgery
on his right knee in September and, because no team felt
comfortable offering him an overwhelming deal, he sat out until
Riley, who had pursued Williams, says he was surprised by the
signing. "We talked to him a month ago. He told us he was not
going to come back this year at all," Riley told the Fort
Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel last week.
"Not true," says Williams's agent, Dwight Manley. "The last time
I talked to Miami about Brian was three months ago. I played
phone tag with them a month ago, but we had no dialogue. We did
not mislead anyone."
Because of salary cap limitations, neither the Heat nor the
Bulls will be in a position to sign Williams this July, when
he'll again be a free agent asking for $100 million. "Brian will
be the most desirable free agent on the market," says Manley,
"and now he has the stage to prove it."
That stage will become infinitely more visible if Chicago and
Miami meet in May.
FORGET '97, BRING ON '98
A Western Conference general manager who will have cash to spend
this summer on signing one or more free agents was asked whom he
might pursue. "Nobody," he answered. "I'm saving my money."
He's not alone. Many executives say they plan to hoard funds for
the blockbuster free-agent class of 1998, which should include
the Bulls' Scottie Pippen, the Magic's Anfernee Hardaway, the
Warriors' Joe Smith and the Nuggets' Antonio McDyess. As a
result few general managers foresee this year's free agents'
getting deals like the seven-year, $35 million contract Seattle
gave underachieving center Jim McIlvaine last July. That could
be sobering news for free agents such as Williams, Sacramento
power forward Brian Grant and Orlando guard-forward Nick Anderson.
Grant makes $1.3 million but hopes to vault into the $7 million
to $8 million-a-year range as a free agent. His best bet for a
good bump is the Kings, who have borrowed money from the city of
Sacramento to stay at Arco Arena. The Kings realize they need
both Grant and leading scorer Mitch Richmond to keep their team
competitive. There's only one problem: Richmond, who makes $3.5
million this season and will average $2.75 million for the next
two seasons, is unhappy with his current deal and would be even
unhappier if he were suddenly earning less than Grant.
Anderson, who is making $3.8 million this season, will quite
likely take a pay cut unless he stays with the Magic. He
originally thought he might be able to get Allan Houston-type
money--Houston, a shooting guard, got $56 million over seven
years from the Knicks last summer--but that was before Anderson
reached April shooting only 40.1% from the field and 40.5% from
the line and averaging 12.4 points a game. Even at that, Orlando
is willing to give Anderson a slight increase with an eye toward
eventually moving him to small forward.
LINE OF THE WEEK
Bullets center Gheorghe Muresan, April 3, versus Bulls: 37
minutes, 11-16 FG, 2-4 FT, 24 points, 13 rebounds. The 7'7"
Muresan, whose play has been criticized most of this season, was
a key to Washington's 110-102 upset of Chicago.
AROUND THE RIM
Expect Shaquille O'Neal back soon. He spent much of last week
doing intensive drills with former Lakers great Magic Johnson
and scrimmaging with Johnson's touring team. Those who have seen
the big fella report he's trim, thanks to his cutting back on
eating red meat while sidelined with a fractured bone and
partial tear of the lateral collateral ligament of his left
knee....A source close to the situation says that of the 27 NBA
referees still under investigation for allegedly changing
first-class airline tickets for coach tickets and pocketing the
difference without paying taxes on it, only 15 face the
possibility of being indicted for tax fraud. The other 12
officials have learned they are under investigation for civil
complaints (which involve fines but no trial or sentencing).