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Inside The NBA

July 06, 1998
July 06, 1998

Table of Contents
July 6, 1998

Inside The NBA

A PERFECT 10
The Celtics were delighted when Paul Pierce's draft stock slipped

This is an article from the July 6, 1998 issue

Because teams like to posture, misdirect and outright lie when
fielding queries about their plans for the draft, the final 48
hours before the selection process begins are usually cluttered
with disinformation. This year was no different. As the June 24
draft approached, general managers insisted that Kansas forward
Raef LaFrentz was too slow, North Carolina power forward Antawn
Jamison was too short and St. Louis shooting guard Larry Hughes
was too young (19) and too skinny (185 pounds). Amid all that
poor-mouthing, nobody identified Kansas small forward Paul
Pierce as a player who was slipping. In fact, in four teams'
mock drafts that were made available to SI, Pierce was projected
to go second in two of them and third in the others.

But Pierce had to wait until the Celtics took him with the 10th
pick to escape the dreaded green room, the angst-ridden holding
tank for potential top picks at the draft site, in this case
General Motors Place in Vancouver. As the names of Michael
Olowokandi (taken first), Mike Bibby (second), LaFrentz (third),
Jamison (fourth) and even Hughes (eighth) were called, the 6'7"
Pierce sat stone-faced, struggling to fathom the turn of events.
Boston coach Rick Pitino had been so sure he would have no shot
at selecting Pierce that he had neither worked him out nor
called Kansas coach Roy Williams to inquire about him. "I'm in a
state of shock right now," Pitino said minutes after making the
pick.

Almost immediately after Pierce began dropping, rumors spread
around the league that he had poor training habits and that his
postseason workouts had been lackluster. (Nuggets general
manager Dan Issel had called him a terrific scorer who "might be
a little soft" shortly before the draft.) Yet Pierce fell mainly
because 1) he had told the Raptors, choosing No. 4, and the
Kings, picking No. 7, that he didn't want to play for them, and
2) he didn't fit the needs of the other teams with choices high
in the order.

The Sixers, selecting eighth, already had Tim Thomas at small
forward and needed backcourt help. The Bucks, at No. 9, had a
deal with the Mavericks to take 20-year-old German star Dirk
Nowitzki, and then trade him and Notre Dame forward Pat Garrity,
the 19th pick, for Michigan power forward Robert Traylor, whom
Dallas had chosen at No. 6. The Warriors nearly selected Pierce
fifth, but ended up drafting North Carolina swingman Vince
Carter so they could swap him to the Raptors for Toronto's
pick--Jamison--and cash.

"That talk about Pierce is baloney," says Golden State general
manager Garry St. Jean. "He had a great workout with us. He
might have more ability to score than any other rookie because
he can drift and shoot, can come off the screen, can break you
down off the dribble and can go down to the box and score."

Then why didn't the Warriors take him? "In the end," St. Jean
says, "we thought Jamison was a special guy."

So Pierce wound up as a tantalizing consolation prize for
Pitino, who had coveted Nowitzki. The 6'11" forward handles the
ball like a shooting guard and had impressed Pitino during a
secret workout the coach set up in Rome in early June. Few doubt
Nowitzki will inject life into the Mavericks--if he suits up for
them next season. His German club coach, Holger Geschwindner,
says that Nowitzki plans to sign with Italy's Kinder Bologna.
"He will not be available to any NBA team until 2000,"
Geschwindner says. "I explained that to all the teams."

Nevertheless, Mavericks owner Ross Perot Jr. and general
manager-coach Don Nelson flew to Germany the day after the
draft, and brought Nowitzki back to Dallas in hopes of hammering
out an agreement. For the Mavs, his presence next season is key
in more ways than one: After acquiring Garrity, they dealt him,
forward Martin Muursepp, guard Bubba Wells and their first-round
pick next June to the Suns for Steve Nash, one of the most
sought-after young point guards in the league. Without Nowitzki
in the lineup, that 1998 pick could be a high lottery selection.

The Lockout
NO RESOLUTION IN SIGHT

The NBA has wisely waged its labor battles in the off-season,
always resolving matters before the regular season starts. Is
the league's unblemished streak of not losing a game because of
a work stoppage about to end?

On Monday the board of governors decided to lock out the players
until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, and word
is the owners have urged commissioner David Stern to maintain a
tough stance in their bid to get a hard salary cap. That will
not be a tall order for Stern, who is still steaming from the
players' decision to boycott the world championships in Athens
this summer. Stern tried lobbying Grant Hill to turn the tide,
but Hill, who wanted to play, recognized the wisdom of showing
solidarity with his peers.

No one is expecting a speedy end to the strife. While the league
hauled in $1.7 billion in total revenue last season, the owners
and the players' union disagree over who is reaping the
benefits. The league says 13 teams are losing money, with more
projected to join them. After completing its audit, the union
says that only four franchises--the Clippers, Hawks, Pacers and
Warriors--are losing money, and that because of new arenas,
three of them (excluding the Pacers) figure to improve their
balance sheets considerably in the next two years. There is no
arguing that the average NBA salary in 1997-98 was $2.6 million,
up 50% over the last five years.

The owners want a hard cap that includes modification of the
Larry Bird exception, which allows a club to re-sign its own
free agent at any salary it wants. The players vehemently oppose
any changes to that rule. They also are against the proposal to
lengthen a rookie's first contract from three years to five,
with the first three still guaranteed but the other two
conditionally guaranteed. The union wants to raise the $272,250
minimum salary for veterans. It also wants the team exception,
which enables each club to sign one free agent for $1 million
every two years, to become an annual option with the salary
raised to $2 million or $3 million. The owners oppose those
proposals.

It is difficult for fans to embrace either side's cause,
especially when ticket prices have become prohibitive. For now,
they can pity the organizers of the world championships, who had
promoted the tournament and built their schedule around the
marquee attraction: a U.S. team of NBA superstars.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO TASTY DISH Some teams deemed Pierce soft, but his feel for the game was never doubted. [Paul Pierce receiving pass in game]

AROUND THE RIM

In trading Charles Oakley to the Raptors for Marcus Camby last
week, the Knicks rid themselves of $10 million that counted
against the cap (though they'll pay the Raptors $8 million
toward Oakley's 1998-99 salary) and got a shot-blocking
center-forward 10 years younger than Oakley. But look for New
York to keep close tabs on Camby's willingness to play hurt and
to hit the weights....

Sources in Denver say that general manager Dan Issel would
prefer not to coach the Nuggets as well, but he's unimpressed by
the other candidates who are available. Issel is thinking about
giving the job to Mike D'Antoni, Denver's director of player
personnel and assistant coach....

Though the Celtics continue to deny it, they were shopping
forward Antoine Walker and talked to the Warriors about a deal
for Latrell Sprewell and the No. 5 pick in last week's draft.
But the Celtics also wanted Golden State to assume the hefty
salary-cap baggage of Pervis Ellison, Greg Minor and Dontae
Jones....

Upon learning that NBA players wouldn't participate in this
summer's world championships, Rudy Tomjanovich and Del Harris
wanted to resign as coaches of the U.S. team, but they were
persuaded to remain by top league officials....

Add the Sixers to the list of teams curious about free-agent
center Matt Geiger. The Magic remains a strong suitor, but the
Celtics have backed off and are leaning toward re-signing Popeye
Jones instead.

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