THE UNTOUCHABLE

As the Feb. 19 trading deadline approached, many Knicks fans were
furious that one deal, for point guard Damon Stoudamire, had
fallen through and another, for shooting guard Mitch Richmond,
remained a pipe dream. They were especially enraged at what
killed both trades: the refusal of New York's front office to
part with off-guard Allan Houston. Sure, he's a nice guy and, as
Pacers scout Al Menendez notes, "a picture-perfect shooter when
he's on." But at week's end Houston was averaging 16.2 points on
highly imperfect 43.0% shooting from the floor, and he had too
often demurred rather than delivered at crunch time. Allan
Houston untouchable? Has general manager Ernie Grunfeld gone
soft?

No. Grunfeld is doing exactly what he should do: hold tight to
one of the best young two guards in the league. SI asked NBA
scouts and executives to assess Houston's value, and while some,
such as Nets G.M. John Nash, feel Houston is too passive to be
regarded among the elite shooting guards, most believe he is a
star in the making.

Here's why Houston is so coveted: He's only 26, has good size
(6'6", 200 pounds), is sound defensively, makes intelligent
decisions, steers clear of trouble off the court and, despite
his placid demeanor, competes ferociously. He's also locked up
for another five seasons at $8 million per, an eminently
reasonable sum in today's NBA. What's more, Houston has shown he
can rise to the occasion. In the playoffs he has scored 20.7
points per game, 6.3 more than his career regular-season average.

"People question Allan, but he's not afraid to take the big
shot--and take the criticism if he misses it," says Grunfeld.
"In a city like New York, you can't do that without some
toughness."

Quick--name the most lethal marksmen in the game. Michael
Jordan, Glen Rice, Richmond, Reggie Miller, Jeff Hornacek and
Dale Ellis have one thing in common: They're all over 30. Who,
besides Houston, has the touch to succeed them? Second-year men
Ray Allen and Kerry Kittles are possibilities, but they're
unproven. Wesley Person strokes it well, but Houston is the more
complete player.

So why hasn't he performed better for the Knicks? Houston does
not like to discuss his right wrist--"Nobody in New York wants
to hear excuses," he says--but it hasn't healed fully since last
June, when he had surgery to repair partially torn ligaments. He
can bend the wrist only halfway, which has cut down his shooting
range by as much as three feet. "You kind of get used to it,"
Houston says. "Sometimes I hit a couple of shots, then miss a
couple and find myself saying, 'If my wrist was 100 percent, I'd
be on fire right now.' But there's no point to that. It's not
healthy."

Many players, including Detroit's Grant Hill, believe Houston
erred when he fled the Pistons as a free agent in 1996. The
Knicks do not have anyone who can penetrate to draw the defense
and then kick the ball back out to Houston as well as Hill did.
And Houston hasn't stepped up his scoring in Patrick Ewing's
absence because it's hard for a perimeter player to thrive
without a post-up threat who attracts double teams. As Utah's
vice president of operations, Scott Layden, says, "If a team
doubles Chris Dudley [Ewing's replacement], it should seek
counseling."

Houston concedes that he had to adjust to playing in New York,
where every win--and loss--is colossal. "The other night I had a
stretch where I missed a few shots, and some of our fans
starting chanting, 'We want Mitch, We want Mitch,'" he says.
"Last year it would have rattled me. This year I laugh it off."

Van Exel's New 'Tude
'IT WAS TIME TO GROW UP'

Lakers point guard Nick Van Exel guarantees that he will have no
run-ins with coach Del Harris for the rest of the season. Why
should we believe him?

"Because the most important thing I've learned is to respect
Del's position," Van Exel says. "If he asks me to do something I
don't want to do, so what? I've got to do it anyway. Once I
understood that, I found it a lot easier. I was tired of
fighting myself, fighting Del, fighting the officials. It was
wasted energy."

Another sign of maturity: Van Exel has received no technical
fouls this year, after having been assessed 10 last year. That
turnaround in attitude helped him earn his first All-Star
selection. At week's end he was also averaging 14.8 points per
game and shooting 40.4% from three-point range, and he had a
league-best 4.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. The only blemish
on Van Exel's otherwise flawless behavior this season appeared
last month in a game against Phoenix, when he briefly pouted
over Harris's suggestion that he improve his shot selection.

That incident immediately conjured up images of last year's
playoffs, when Van Exel ripped Harris's strategy and the team
imploded. Following L.A.'s loss to Utah in the Western
Conference semifinals, Lakers general manager Jerry West forced
the two men into a meeting room, and Van Exel emerged promising
to undergo counseling during the summer. "I knew it was
something I needed to get done," Van Exel says. "The hardest
part was getting myself in there. But I had to. It was time to
grow up."

In his counseling sessions Van Exel learned how to resist
battling authority and how to improve his self-control in other
areas. "We talked about relaxing, letting things go," Van Exel
says. "I know that's been one of my weaknesses. But I think I've
shown that I've got a handle on this."

West told Van Exel in November that he could make the All-Star
team if he cleaned up his act. He is fiercely protective of Van
Exel and has faith in his guarantee that he will have no more
flare-ups with Harris. "I don't care what anyone says," West
says. "This is a good kid. The only thing he's guilty of is
wanting to win too much."

Who knows whether Van Exel's new persona will hold up under the
pressure of the playoffs. Harris continues to profess that he
has a new relationship with Van Exel, but, say team sources, he
still has doubts. Van Exel and Harris have suffered their worst
moments in the postseason, when everything is on the line and
the coach does not look to Van Exel for the big shot or the big
play.

"I'm telling you, I can't see anything bad happening," Van Exel
says. "Things have already been tight around here, with Shaq
being out and with some of the losing streaks we've had. I can't
tell you our team won't have rough times, but I will tell you it
won't be because of me."

The Disaster Plan
ATLANTA LOOKS IT UP

The Hawks had a scare on their Feb. 2 charter flight from Miami
to Orlando when stormy weather forced the DC-9 to abort a
landing only 200 feet above the runway. The plane, which was
carrying the Atlanta players, coaches and a dozen staffers,
eventually touched down safely, but not before terrifying all
involved. Steve Smith called it "the scariest experience" of his
life. General manager Pete Babcock admitted that after the
flight, he pored over the NBA operations manual in search of
procedures for replacing a team lost in a disaster.

Babcock learned that if five or more players were to die or be
dismembered in an accident, the league would conduct a "disaster
draft" in which the affected team would select replacements from
other teams' rosters. Teams would be allowed to protect only
five players, but they could not lose more than one. "We've had
the plan forever," says NBA spokesman Chris Brienza. Thankfully,
it's never been implemented, but, Brienza says, "you've got to
have it, just in case." --Marty Burns

Line of the Week
FINLEY'S FINISHING TOUCH

Mavericks forward Michael Finley, Feb. 13 against the Pacers: 57
minutes (double overtime), 13-36 field goals, 3-5 free throws,
32 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists. Two nights after having an
apparent game-winning three-pointer against the 76ers wiped out
because referees ruled that time had expired, Finley again
nailed a last-second trey--this time it counted--to stun Indiana
85-82 and halt Dallas's 22-game losing skid on the road.

For more NBA news from Jackie MacMullan and Phil Taylor, go to
www.cnnsi.com

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN LOOKING SHARP Houston's floor game and shooting touch have teams tempting the Knicks with sweet deals. [Allan Houston in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH EX CHANGE After seeing a therapist last summer, Van Exel has exhibited more self-control. [Nick Van Exel in game]

NOTE FROM THE UNDERGROUND

All-Star Spree
During all-star weekend in New York City, a smiling Latrell
Sprewell was seen signing autographs and posing for photos.
While he insists that he regrets choking Warriors coach P.J.
Carlesimo, sources close to the recently completed hearings on
his suspension say Sprewell has shown little remorse. They also
say that when Golden State coaches and officials testified at
the hearings, Sprewell glared at them.

AROUND THE RIM

After being dealt to Portland last Friday in the six-player swap
that sent Kenny Anderson to Toronto, Damon Stoudamire quickly
sought assurances from the Trail Blazers that they wouldn't
unload J.R. Rider.... Add the Rockets to the list of teams with
$1 million salary-cap exceptions that will make a run at Latrell
Sprewell if his suspension is reduced and he's allowed to finish
the season with a new club.... The Nuggets are considering
signing former Celtic Dino Radja, who has been toiling for
Panathinaikos in Greece. Radja would like to show NBA teams that
his balky knee can hold up; Denver needs an inside scorer to
avoid finishing with the worst record in league history....
League sources say the players' union is willing to add
marijuana to the NBA's list of banned substances in the next
collective bargaining agreement, in exchange for another
noneconomic concession, such as establishing a process that
gives players the right to immediately appeal league fines or
suspensions.... Dallas rejected Milwaukee's offer of Andrew Lang
for Dennis Scott.... Don't expect New Jersey to lock up Kerry
Kittles with a lucrative extension this summer. The Nets want
one more season to assess his value.... The Heat's interest in
Mitch Richmond never waned, but Miami's eagerness to deal Jamal
Mashburn did. Mashburn may have turned in the finest month of
his career before he went down with a broken right thumb last
Friday that may keep him out for the rest of the season. In that
15-game stretch Mashburn, whom Celtics coach Rick Pitino hotly
pursued, averaged 15.7 points per game.

ON TAP

Feb. 22
SAN ANTONIO AT PHOENIX
America West Arena

It's Small Ball versus the Triple Towers in this matchup of
Western Conference title hopefuls. The Suns, behind guards Jason
Kidd, Rex Chapman, Kevin Johnson and Steve Nash, won the teams'
first two meetings easily, so the Spurs will need bigger efforts
from their 7-footers: David Robinson, Tim Duncan and Will
Perdue. If the playoffs started this week, these rivals would
meet in the first round.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)