Opposing coaches and players approach Lakers coach Del Harris
gingerly--"like I have a terminal illness," he says. Through
Sunday, Los Angeles had won 16 of its last 18 games and
completed a 4-0 swing through the Eastern Conference, yet
Harris's future was in doubt, hinging on how deep into the
postseason he could take a team with a nucleus of players whose
average age is 25.6. Would only a championship save him? Would a
trip to the NBA Finals be enough? Would an appearance in the
Western Conference finals allow him keep his job?
Curiously, Harris is not the only top coach facing an uncertain
future. Phil Jackson of the Bulls, George Karl of the Sonics and
Jerry Sloan of the Jazz must either mend relations with their
front offices or make impressive playoff runs to keep their
jobs. These coaches had four of the league's five best records
at week's end, and each had a trip to the Finals on his resume.
"I'm comfortable with whatever happens," Harris says. "Maybe it
sounds idealistic, but whenever one door closes for me, another
seems to open."
Though at times the Lakers show an appalling inability to play
team basketball, their talent is second to none. Harris
recognizes, however, that athleticism is not enough. "There are
a lot of talented people in prison," he says. "There are
talented people who can't hold a job. In many ways the tag of
'talent' is a curse for us. You need a certain number of
disappointments before you realize that opportunities don't come
that often. You need a measure of maturity before you start
setting aside individual goals, because they don't matter--only
Harris can't understand why people in the basketball world
aren't more patient. "Four or five years ago, everyone was
saying Jerry Sloan was boring," he says. "They said Utah would
never get to the Finals with Karl Malone and John Stockton.
Three or four years ago, they had given up on Seattle--there was
no way they'd get back to the top with George Karl. But look
what happened when those franchises stayed with it. We took away
most of Utah's main plays last season in the playoffs, but
because the Jazz know each other so well, they found ways to
beat us with 10 seconds on the shot clock."
Lakers forward Rick Fox, who played alongside veterans Larry
Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish on the Celtics, believes
his current teammates lack the concentration needed to take a
title. "I'm worried about it," he says. "We all should be. We
don't do the same things night in and night out. Sometimes we're
great in the half-court, but the next night we're terrible.
Championship teams get to the point where execution is second
nature. We don't have that."
How can L.A. compensate for a shortage of experience? "We have
to be hungrier," says 19-year-old Kobe Bryant. "That makes up
for a lot. But I don't doubt this team. We'll get there one day.
It's not a matter of if but when."
That is of little solace to Harris, for whom it's probably now
CENTER OF ATTRITION
Nets center Jayson Williams broke his right thumb on March 27,
and while he can't grip a ball yet, he can run up and down the
stairs of Giants Stadium. So he does--again and again and again,
working out the frustration that's been building since March,
when New Jersey went 4-10 and began frittering away its apparent
lock on a postseason berth. After challenging the Heat for the
Atlantic Division lead in January, the Nets are fighting the
Magic and the Wizards for the eighth and final playoff spot in
Although Williams and two other key players, Keith Van Horn and
Rony Seikaly, were sidelined by injuries at various times in
March, Williams blames the team's slide on the front office,
which publicly discussed the possible acquisition of Magic star
Penny Hardaway before the Feb. 19 trading deadline. "Management
doesn't understand the locker room," Williams says. "When you
start talking about trading someone, players take it personally.
They won't work as hard, because they feel betrayed. Our guys
have stopped playing with the same energy. If you are going to
trade somebody, then just do it."
Williams, the team's centerpiece, was enjoying the finest
all-around season of his eight-year career (12.9 points and 13.6
rebounds a game) before he was hurt. "He's the best offensive
rebounder in the world, but it's more than that," says Nets
coach John Calipari, pointing to their 117-106 loss to the
Lakers at home, a game in which Shaquille O'Neal scored 50
points. "If Jayson was playing, someone would have gotten hurt.
He never would have allowed Showtime on his floor. He would have
knocked someone into the third row."
After clashing repeatedly with Calipari last season, Williams
spent much of All-Star weekend talking Calipari up to future
free agents such as Hardaway. "I'd grade Cal an A plus this
year," Williams says. "Last year, I would have graded him a P
for punch--because that's what I felt like doing to him."
Williams, who will be a free agent this summer, grew up in New
York City and still has strong family ties to the area. If the
Nets promptly make an offer in the $10 million-a-year range,
he's unlikely to bolt for the Suns or the Sonics, who, according
to league sources, are among the dozen teams prepared to take a
run at him. "It has to be done on July 1," Williams says. "If
the Nets offer me fair market value on that day, all that needs
to be done is the paperwork. But if it starts taking a few days,
then I'm looking around, and I might see something else that I
He was mildly peeved when the Nets acquired Seikaly. "Let's not
be foolish," Williams says. "They got him in case I bolt." But
Williams and Van Horn have vowed to try to stick together, and
the rookie's presence will encourage Williams to stay put.
"We've taken 75 percent of that black-sheep image away from New
Jersey this year," he says. "By next season it will all be gone."
A playoff appearance would help the team finish reforming that
image. But even if the Nets lock up the final spot, Williams is
unlikely to play. "I want to find a way to get there just to
give Jayson a chance," Van Horn says.
"'Cause if we don't," adds point guard Sam Cassell, "he'll never
let us forget it."
The Denver Debacle
ELLIS DOWN BUT NOT WANTING OUT
Time is winding down for the Nuggets, who at week's end had nine
wins, tying them with the 76ers of 1972-73 for the fewest
victories in a year. Still, LaPhonso Ellis wishes he could
extend his team's hapless season. His ruptured right Achilles
tendon has finally healed, his timing is coming around, and,
since he will be a free agent this summer, he wants to improve
on the worst stats of his six-year career (13.8 points a game on
39.9% shooting through Sunday).
There's also the matter of earning that 10th win. "I've tried to
isolate myself from all the hoopla, but it's hard," Ellis says.
"I don't want Denver's name to be associated with something so
negative. The urgency to win is there."
What has been absent is continuity in Ellis's game. He admits
that he came back too soon from his surgery on the tendon last
April--he shocked everyone by suiting up on opening night--and
suffered another blow when he learned in early February that
team vice president Allan Bristow was shopping him around.
Nuggets owner Charlie Lyons intervened and called Ellis to tell
him he wasn't going anywhere. Then he fired Bristow.
Teams that covet the 6'8", 240-pound Ellis--such as the Rockets
and the Pacers--wonder why he is being used so much on the
perimeter instead of in the post, where he has often overpowered
other small forwards. "I have asked the same thing time and time
again," Ellis says. "Who knows? I haven't shot the ball well. I
never found my niche in our offense."
Team and league sources expect first-year coach Bill Hanzlik to
be replaced at the end of the season. Veteran guard Bryant
Stith, who has three years left on his contract, wondered aloud
last week if it was also time for him to move on. But Ellis, who
is free to walk, says he wants to be part of Denver's
turnaround. "It's not just about basketball," he says. "It's
about a community my family loves and a franchise that's a part
of me. I know the Denver Nuggets are better than this." So is
Line of the Week
PORTLAND PICKUP PAYS DIVIDENDS
Trail Blazers forward Brian Grant, April 3 versus the Mavericks:
44 minutes, 9-12 field goals, 2-4 free throws, 20 points, 20
rebounds. This was what Portland expected when it signed Grant,
26, to a seven-year, $63 million contract last August. His seven
offensive boards helped build the Blazers' 44-29 margin on the
glass in a 109-102 win.
For more NBA news from Jackie MacMullan and Phil Taylor, go to
NOTE FROM THE UNDERGROUND
Patrick for President
Though he was a leader in the unsuccessful fight to decertify
the union in 1995, the usually low-key Patrick Ewing was a
surprise choice when he was voted in by his peers as president
of the players' association last September. Union executive
director Billy Hunter had avidly urged Ewing to run for months,
though, and in chats before Bulls games he had tried to persuade
Michael Jordan to serve as vice president. "I thought I was
getting somewhere when I got into the back room with Michael and
Ahmad [Rashad]," Hunter says. Ewing ran for the post thinking
Jordan would be his sidekick, but His Airness declined, citing a
packed schedule. "By the time Mike bowed out," says Hunter,
"Patrick was too pumped to change his mind."
AROUND THE RIM
The pain in Pacers center Rik Smits's feet has intensified, and
his usual cure-all (rest) has not proved effective. Though Smits
had sat out Indiana's last five games through Sunday, the
soreness was worse than ever. "Even driving hurts," he says, "so
I'm trying to use cruise control as much as I can."...
Somebody's production on the Sonics was bound to tail off after
the acquisition of Vin Baker, and it's been that of shooting
guard Hersey Hawkins. At week's end he was averaging 10.7
points, down from 13.9 last season, and his field goal attempts
per game had dropped from 9.7 to 7.8. Hawkins's reaction: So
what? "It's always been a struggle for coaches to get me to
shoot," he says....
The Spurs are on course to break the 26-year-old record for
opponents' field goal percentage, a stat that the NBA began
keeping in 1970-71. Through last Sunday, San Antonio was holding
teams to 40.8% shooting....
The Heat is concerned that Jamal Mashburn, out since Feb. 23
with a fractured right thumb, might not be ready for the
For those of you scoring at home, here's a breakdown of the
seven games that Isaiah Rider has been suspended by the Trail
Blazers this season: three for spitting at a fan, two after
being convicted of marijuana possession and pleading no contest
to possession of an illegal cell phone, one for walking off the
Rose Garden court before the end of a game against the Lakers
and one last week for being late for practice. The grand total
of Rider's lost salary: $359,387.
How far have NBA offenses fallen this season? At week's end,
Michael Jordan was the lone member of the 2,000-point club, and
only one other player--Karl Malone (1,944)--seemed likely to
reach that mark. Since 1959-60, when the schedule grew from 72
to 75 games (it expanded to 82 games in '67-68), only three
seasons have yielded as few as two 2,000-point scorers.
Season 2,000-point scorers Total points
1997-98* Michael Jordan, Bulls 2,147
1975-76 Bob McAdoo, Braves 2,427
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lakers 2,275
1967-68 Dave Bing, Pistons 2,142
Elgin Baylor, Lakers 2,002
1966-67 Rick Barry, Warriors 2,775
Oscar Robertson, Royals 2,412
* Through Sunday's games.
L.A. LAKERS AT SAN ANTONIO
Shaquille O'Neal returns to the Alamo City, where he attended
Cole High, to take on David Robinson and the Spurs in a battle
of Western Conference rivals. O'Neal, who was snubbed when he
tried to meet Robinson while in high school, would love to exact
revenge and keep alive the Lakers' hopes of gaining the best
record in the West. The Admiral, joined by Tim Duncan and Will
Perdue in the Spurs' Triple Towers frontcourt, would love to
give Shaq another cold shoulder with a victory.