Inside The NBA

February 22, 1999

GETTING TO POINT A
Top free-agent guard Kevin Johnson is on the speed dial of many
G.M.s

Free-agent point guard Kevin Johnson is watching a lot of NBA
games on television these days, methodically surfing the
channels, evaluating his suitors, trying to imagine himself
wearing this or that uniform.

His phone rings every day. He could have played for Sacramento
yesterday, and he could play for Golden State tomorrow. The
Clippers, Knicks, Lakers, Pistons, Rockets and Sonics have all
called. But, still, he just won't make a commitment. "For me to
play again, it has to be a great situation," Johnson says. "I'm
not going to play just to play."

The optimal situation probably slipped away early in the
free-agent frenzy, when the Lakers, a contending team close to
Johnson's Sacramento roots, told KJ they would love to have him
and would pay him the veterans' exception of $1.75 million. "It
was a great opportunity," he says, "but the Lakers wanted to
move quickly, and I wanted more time to evaluate everything."
L.A. signed veteran Derek Harper instead.

KJ, who made $8 million last year, knows he'll make
significantly less this year--if he signs--and insists that
money is not his primary motivation. The ring's the thing, so
when Seattle talked about bringing him in to back up perennial
All-Star Gary Payton, Johnson listened. The hitch: Payton plays
workhorse minutes, and the Sonics worried about how KJ would
handle fewer minutes and fewer shots. Those doubts have also
been raised in Houston, where a team that has Scottie Pippen,
Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley doesn't need another scorer;
it needs a guy who can get those players the ball and then get
out of their way.

KJ waves off those misgivings. "I can adapt my game," he says.
"My goal is to win a championship. Whatever I have to do to get
there is fine. I think I proved that last year when I played so
much two guard for Phoenix. I didn't like playing there at all,
but I did it because it was what the team needed."

The Pistons like KJ, but they, too, are seeking a pass-first
guard. Nevertheless KJ has been studying the Pistons via his
dish, and he wonders if they have what it takes to go all the
way. "I'm trying to figure out the direction they are going in,"
he says. "Are they looking for a point guard who can spot up the
way [Lindsey] Hunter does? Do they want Grant Hill to handle the
ball as much as he does now, or would they like someone else to
help him?"

In handicapping contenders for the title--and for his
services--Johnson has made one firm determination. "In this
shortened season it will be hard for teams who haven't been
together very long to do well in the playoffs," he says, "and
the Pistons made a lot of changes." New York, which has also
shaken up its roster, had expressed interest in Johnson, but
team sources say the only way KJ will become a Knick is if
either starting point Charlie Ward or backup Chris Childs goes
down with an injury or Childs is traded. Seattle has not shut
the door on Johnson, but its interest wanes with each
three-pointer that falls for rookie Moochie Norris (page 84).

Although KJ has no firm timetable, he knows that the longer he
waits, the less likely he is to sign with anybody. Yet he
continues to deliberate, continues to work out on his own at the
downtown YMCA in Phoenix. One twisted ankle or tweaked knee
could immediately change the complexion of a contender, so KJ
sits back in front of his television and waits. He admits that
he's a bit surprised by how ragged the play has been in the
early going. "There are a lot of nights," KJ says, "when I'm
watching those games and I'm glad I'm not in them."

The No. 1 Update
THE CANDY MAN CAN, EVENTUALLY

If you were one of the precious few who watched the Clippers
lose at home to the gutted Bulls on Feb. 7, you probably
concluded that everything is "same as it ever was" on the bad
ship Clipper. L.A.'s other franchise stumbled out of the blocks
with an 0-5 record, but a closer look at the league's most
maligned franchise reveals a novel sentiment: hope.

The inexperience of the Clippers' (and the '98 draft's) No. 1
pick, center Michael Olowokandi, is apparent, but so is his
aggressiveness in games and in practice. Teammates say the Candy
Man is fiercely determined to prove his standing as the top pick,
even if it takes some time.

It will. The fundamentals of basketball are still a mystery, at
times, to Olowokandi, who had played only 77 games in his life
before being drafted. In a recent game two Clippers had an
opponent double-teamed in the post. Olowokandi was so intent on
getting a blocked shot that he moved over for the triple team,
leaving his own man wide open on the weak side. It was a
fundamental error that could have been disastrous late in a
tight game. Such mistakes are easily corrected by
instruction--and experience. Meanwhile the rookie has surprised
new coach Chris Ford with his exceptional quickness and agility
around the basket, which Olowokandi attributes to his years of
playing soccer in his native Nigeria and in England, where he
went to boarding school.

Ford is even more impressed with Olowokandi's steep learning
curve. At practice one day Ford noticed that Olowokandi, who
shot .466 from the line in college, had a hitch in his motion,
so he pulled the rookie aside and worked with him for 10
minutes. Ford says he then stood there amazed as Olowokandi made
the adjustment and knocked down eight free throws in a row.

The challenge, of course, is to keep all the
Clippers--especially Olowokandi--upbeat until their hard work
translates into wins. Veteran point guard Sherman Douglas should
make a big contribution when he gets himself into game shape,
and Ford plans on doing his part by taking a kinder, gentler
approach with his new team. "I find myself teaching more than I
ever have," he says. "These guys are willing to say they don't
have all the answers. They want help. That is refreshing."

Olowokandi has taken his time adapting to Los Angeles. He still
doesn't have his driver's license but plans to get one soon.
Teammate Darrick Martin serves as his chauffeur to and from
practices and games, an arrangement that has worked out well for
both. Most of the time. As the Clippers gathered at the airport
to embark on their first road trip, a head count confirmed that
one guy was missing. "Coach!" screamed Martin, jumping up
suddenly. "I forgot Michael!"

No matter. The rookie, ever the quick study, had wedged himself
into a cab and arrived with two minutes to spare.

Caution: Snapping Ligaments
WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH, THE TOUGH GET HURT

After scrutinizing the preseason workouts of small forward Jamal
Mashburn, any thoughts Miami president and coach Pat Riley had
entertained of trading Mashburn vaporized. "I was going to ride
him like a horse," Riley says. "I had him down for 40 minutes a
night."

Instead Mashburn hyperextended his left knee on Feb. 9 and is
out for four to six weeks. To compound Miami's misfortune,
shooting guard Voshon Lenard underwent surgery for a stress
fracture in his left leg on Feb. 12 and is likely gone for the
year.

The moment Mashburn went down, the whispers started: Riley, a
conditioning drill sergeant, had pushed his players too hard in
the abbreviated preseason. Never mind that Lenard's injury
occurred before he reported or that Mashburn was in the best
shape of his career when he suffered a freak injury. "To tell
you the truth, I'm kicking myself in the ass for not pushing
them harder," Riley says. "We backed off because we knew some of
our guys weren't in great condition. We actually spent more time
than we ever have walking through drills."

Riley is certain that the combination of a long layoff and a
short training camp will result in more players than ever being
sidelined. "You're going to see hamstrings, groin pulls, stress
fractures, things like that," he says. "You've got guys who were
doing next to nothing for 8 1/2 months. Like Voshon. I think he
did very little."

Shaquille O'Neal was doing plenty--he spent much of his summer
strengthening the abdominal muscles that caused him to miss 22
games last season--but found himself sidelined for one game last
week with a groin pull. Trainers around the league say that no
conditioning regimen can prepare a body--even a 315-pound
body--for the pounding O'Neal takes under the boards. Add a game
or two a week to the usual workload, and injuries seem inevitable.

Ironically, one statistic that's down this year is the number of
players on the injured list, but there's an easy explanation: The
NBA allowed teams to expand their rosters from 12 to 14 for the
first two weeks, and those extra players filled the void left by
downed players. That temporary roster expansion ends on Friday,
and NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik says at least one club
has asked the league to extend it for the entire season. "There's
virtually no chance of that happening," he says.

Riley, meanwhile, thinks the injury bug may actually help one
team. He posits that the foot injury that knocked Latrell
Sprewell out of the Knicks' starting lineup will make them a
better team down the road. "It's a blessing in disguise," Riley
says, offering what is either a perceptive insight or a deft
elbow to the head of his former team. "Now they can play their
normal backcourt of Ward and [Allan] Houston and move Larry
Johnson from the power forward back to the three spot. They
start Kurt Thomas at the four and bring Marcus Camby off the
bench. I love Kurt. If he stays healthy, he's another [Charles]
Oakley.

"Now they can justify bringing Sprewell off the bench when he
comes back."

Kobe or Not Kobe?
THAT IS NO LONGER THE QUESTION...

When informed on opening night that starting small forward Rick
Fox would not be able to play because of a problem with his
orthotics, Lakers executive vice president Jerry West mused, "I
hope everyone realizes that once we let Kobe [Bryant] into the
starting lineup, we'll never get him out."

West, as usual, was prophetic. Bryant had 25 points and 10
rebounds against Houston that night and has added four more
double doubles since, which is five more than he had coming into
this season. Furthermore, at week's end Bryant--whose career
high for rebounds was eight--was averaging 9.0 boards a game.
The stat-sheet number that most impressed his teammates? Five
assists against the Nuggets.

West and coach Del Harris took a lot of heat last season from
fans--and from Lakers owner Jerry Buss--for keeping Bryant out
of the starting lineup. While West and Harris both recognize
Bryant's extraordinary talent, they did not want him to get too
stuck on himself, as so many budding stars have done (e.g.,
Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury and Jerry Stackhouse). Bryant
showed troubling symptoms of self-absorption when he tried to
turn last year's All-Star Game into a one-on-one duel with
Michael Jordan. He got shredded by Jordan on the court and
ripped by teammates afterward.

That backlash did little to temper Bryant's confidence, proving
that youth--and otherworldly hang time--mean never having to say
you're sorry. Shortly before this season began, Bryant was asked
if he regretted his actions at the All-Star Game. "Absolutely
not!" he answered. "I'd do it all over again. I had a blast in
that game. I'm sorry if some guys didn't like it, but this is
who I am."

It goes without saying that Bryant will most likely continue to
be a starter for the next, oh, 15 years or so.

A Fine Line
JOE KLEINE, PHOENIX SUNS

Suns coach Danny Ainge is paying his players $100 per offensive
charge they take this season. Says backup center Kleine, "I'll
take a charge for $100...$200 if it's Oliver Miller."

For the latest scores and stats, plus Marty Burns's exclusive NBA
team rankings, check out www.cnnsi.com.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Johnson has turned his back on several teams that he doesn't consider serious contenders. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Once Olowokandi (34) masters the fundamentals, other centers may not be able to touch him. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH

AROUND THE RIM

Look for Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who stuck with the U.S.
team for the world championships last summer even though the
locked-out pros bailed, to be named this week U.S. Olympic coach
for the 2000 Games in Sydney....

Guess what Pacers rookie Al Harrington, who was drafted out of
high school, did when teammates demanded that all newcomers sing
their college alma mater's fight song: He belted out the Barney
theme song....

Opposing coaches impressed with the Sixers' fast start are
crediting Larry Brown with a subtle move that is paying off in
wins: He's having Eric Snow bring the ball up more often, which
enables Allen Iverson to set up in the corner, where he's in
prime position to catch and shoot or to wreak havoc by going
baseline....

Pistons center Bison Dele has ticked off teammates by giving
what they consider a less than total effort in practice. Maybe
that's why backup center Eric Montross, who was on the trading
block in the preseason, is no longer being shopped....

Donyell Marshall, who seemed to have pulled his career out of
the garbage disposal last year, is chafing about all the bench
time he's getting and plans to ask Golden State for a trade.
Cleveland coach Mike Fratello is willing to look into a Marshall
for Bobby Sura swap, but sources say Cavs president Wayne Embry
has vowed to nix any trade involving Marshall....

Said Celtics center Dwayne Schintzius after breaking his nose
for the second time in three weeks, "I just can't get a break."

SHOOT! DARN!

Thanks in part to the NBA's radically abbreviated training
camps, shooting has gone from bad to worse. Scoring is down
nearly five points per team per game (95.6 to 91.0) from last
season, underscoring a four-year slide in all major shooting
categories. Moving quickly to stay in front of this trend,
Orlando has dropped its Free Big Mac Magic # from 99 points to
90 this season. Did somebody say airballs?

FG% FT% 3FG%

1995-96 46.2 74.0 36.7
1996-97 45.5 73.8 36.0
1997-98 45.0 73.7 34.6
1998-99 42.4 71.4 32.7

BRICK OF THE WEEK

When asked about the six-year, $70.9 million contract extension
that Bucks' guard Ray Allen signed last week, Milwaukee forward
Glenn Robinson said, "Keep us together and keep improving, and
maybe we can be like Pippen and Jordan." Down, Big Dog! Let's
see you make the playoffs first.

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)