Inside The NBA

March 08, 1999

SAM'S JAM
The woeful Nets are irked at ailing Sam Cassell

Last spring, after the Bulls swept a gritty Nets team in the
first round of the playoffs, Michael Jordan predicted that coach
John Calipari's boys were going places. He didn't mean the depths
to which they'd fallen at week's end: the cellar of the Atlantic
Division. Through Sunday, New Jersey was on a six-game losing
streak and, at 2-10, off to the franchise's worst start since it
joined the NBA in 1976. What has happened to the team that
exhibited so much promise that free-agent center Jayson Williams
re-signed for six years, without so much as a sidelong glance at
suitors who were proven winners?

Some of the Nets' woes can be traced to a demanding early
schedule and an avalanche of injuries--to Williams, guard Sam
Cassell, forward Chris Gatling, guard Kendall Gill, guard Kerry
Kittles and center Rony Seikaly. But Gatling, Gill, Kittles and
Williams have all been in the lineup during the losing streak.
New Jersey has simply forgotten how to win, and as the losses
pile up, the discord within the locker room is mounting. Gatling
asked for a trade last week and was criticized by his teammates
for his timing. Gill had to cope with trade rumors (again),
though there was no truth to reports that he would be sent to
the Warriors for John Starks.

Cassell's prolonged absence may be causing the most stress. He
sprained his right ankle in the opener and has been hurting ever
since, prompting him to fly to Houston last Thursday to seek a
second opinion. Nets sources say some of his teammates are
questioning Cassell's willingness to play. "I know guys are
ticked off about it," says Calipari, "but you can't question a
guy's heart. I can't, and another player can't. I'm telling you,
I believe Sammy is hurt. The kid can't cut."

Cassell did play in an 82-74 loss at New York on Feb. 23, but
only because Calipari cajoled him into trying. He delivered 18
points and five assists in 33 minutes but was in agony after the
game. "I've tried to play through this, and it's pushing me
backward," Cassell says. "Now guys want to question how bad I'm
hurt? Well, they should say it to my face, man to man. Don't
give me this crap about how other guys are playing hurt and I'm
not. They don't have the responsibilities I have--to run the
offense, to push the ball, to take the big shots. I've played
hurt and given them 18 points on a bad ankle. They play hurt and
score five points in 30 minutes. They're just looking for a
scapegoat."

Even Cassell's harshest detractors would have to agree that New
Jersey's fortunes depend on him. With Cassell sidelined, the
Nets can't implement the up-and-down style that made them so
successful last season. That faster pace is what makes their
small lineup so effective. The falloff is particularly evident
in the performance of Williams (7.5 points a game), who,
Calipari explains, "is an energy player and needs to feed off
the flow of our tempo." Calipari considered slowing the pace
until Cassell returns and going to a bigger lineup, with Jim
McIlvaine in the middle, Williams at power forward and Keith Van
Horn at small forward. "But when Sam comes back, we won't have
any practice time because we're playing all these games,"
Calipari says. "Without practice time, it would be hard to go
back to pushing the ball."

So the Nets limp on, struggling to score points, blowing
fourth-quarter leads and shooting 38.9% from the field,
second-worst in the league. Calipari believes he will survive
these struggles, even amid rampant speculation that his job is
in jeopardy. He can exercise an escape clause in his contract at
the end of this season, but vows he's not going anywhere.
"Unless they move the team to Hades," Calipari says, "I'm
sticking this out."

His most formidable challenge will be to bridge the gap between
Cassell and his teammates. Cassell has always been viewed by
other Nets as Calipari's guy, since it was the coach who
re-signed him as a free agent before last season and gave him
control of the offense. In return Cassell turned in career bests
of 19.6 points and 8.0 assists a game. Yet teammates say Cassell
remains a reluctant practice player and has not been diligent
enough about receiving treatment for his ankle.

"The game is won on the court," Cassell says. "I was on a team
in Houston that didn't have the best talent, but we won a
championship because if someone got hurt, someone else stepped
up and said, 'I'll make up for it.' On this team we lose a
couple of games, and guys start looking to point fingers,
instead of looking in the mirror and saying to themselves, What
can I do to make the team better?"

That point is hard to argue. When it's game time, Cassell has
proved himself to be as tough and as fearless as any player the
Nets have had. Yes, he needs to be reined in at times. Last
season if Cassell became selfish with the ball, he knew Sherman
Douglas was poised to replace him. But Douglas signed with the
Clippers, and Cassell's new backup, Eric Murdock, does not
qualify as the same kind of threat.

Cassell, who says his doctor in Houston believes he has torn
ligaments in his ankle, is clear on what he needs to do: rest
and get completely healthy, rather than try to play at half
speed. "I'm going to get myself right," he says. "I don't have
anything to prove to anybody."

The New Labor Deal
STAY-IN-SCHOOL INCENTIVE

Remember the new collective bargaining agreement, the one in
which there are only minute details left to be worked out? When
the deal is finally done, SI has learned, it will be accompanied
by a side letter that could bind a first-round pick who leaves
school after his freshman year to the team that drafts him for
five years (including two option years), rather than the four
provided by the new agreement. Players who jump to the NBA from
high school will be bound to their clubs for up to six years.

That side letter will only go into effect, however, if the NCAA,
the NBA and the players' association can agree on the details of
an incentive plan to encourage players to remain in school.
Negotiations are in their infancy, though league attorney Joel
Litvin, union deputy counsel Hal Biagas and NCAA
representatives--among them Kentucky athletic director C.M.
Newton, former North Carolina coach Dean Smith and Virginia AD
Terry Holland--met in Chicago on Feb. 4 to discuss the
possibility of offering loans to players who agree to stay in
college instead of jumping to the pros.

The need for such incentives became more apparent than ever
after the rookie pay scale was instituted in 1995, and the
number of underclassmen declaring for the draft increased
significantly. "Players started coming out even earlier, because
they wanted to complete their rookie-scale obligations as
quickly as possible," Litvin says. "That was not an optimal
situation."

At the Chicago meeting the NCAA discussed offering personal
loans of $20,000 to $25,000 a year to potential first-round
picks to keep them in school, with the NBA and the union
splitting the cost. The union didn't like that idea, correctly
pointing out that such a small sum would not serve as a
deterrent to players who have a chance to become instant
millionaires.

The union also believes that players who earn their degrees
should not have to pay back the loans. "If a student-athlete
stayed in school for an additional three years, should he then be
asked to pay back $75,000 after generating an untold amount of
revenue for his school?" asks Biagas. "Our thought was if he
committed to staying in school for those three years, perhaps
there should be some loan forgiveness."

All the parties involved say they are a long way from nailing
down the particulars, and they will meet again within a month.
The league would like to have the new rules in place by the June
30 draft, but there are many issues to iron out. What would
happen, for instance, to the player who stayed in school four
years, accrued more than $50,000 in loans, suffered a
career-ending injury and was then saddled with debt he could not
repay? "That's a fair question," Litvin says. "We haven't gotten
that far yet."

The Struggling Spurs
MR. ROBINSON'S NEW NEIGHBOR

When the Spurs acquired veteran guards Steve Kerr and Mario
Elie, David Robinson was hoping they would spark an offense that
labored to score last season. What he didn't count on was Elie's
attempting to light a fire under him by publicly saying the
Admiral didn't play with enough passion. If that criticism has a
familiar ring, it should: Former Robinson teammates Antoine
Carr, Doc Rivers and Dennis Rodman have also said as much.

Robinson may have grown accustomed to such remarks, but that
doesn't mean he likes them. "I think this whole passion thing is
so overstated," he says. "It's just like in a marriage. Sure,
passion is nice, but it's just as important to have commitment
and faithfulness. All that jumping up and down stuff, it's not
me. I'm not a rah-rah kind of guy. I figure what I've done in
the league speaks for itself.

"It's not like Mario and I have had time to get to know each
other intimately. But I don't really care what he says, as long
as he wants to win."

Elie was recently plugged into the starting lineup to replace
struggling shooting guard Jaren Jackson. Robinson, too, has
started slowly, leading to speculation he might be injured.
("I'm not," he says. "My knee was a little sore. That's it.")
The synergy he and Tim Duncan generated on the front line
through the second half of last season has not manifested itself
in 1999. At week's end Robinson's averages had declined to 15.7
points and 9.8 rebounds a game (from 21.6 and 10.6), Duncan's
scoring was down to 18.7 points (from 21.1), and the Spurs were
6-8.

Robinson has uncharacteristically found himself in foul trouble,
a signal his conditioning may be off. Meanwhile, the days of
Duncan's seeing single coverage are over, and he has reacted
poorly to the onslaught of defenders who trap and jostle him.
"In some respects Tim is back to square one," says coach Gregg
Popovich. "We've almost had to start over in terms of kicking
the ball out of double teams and creating the proper spacing."

While San Antonio works out the kinks in an entirely new outside
game (which includes small forward Sean Elliott, who missed most
of last season with injuries), Robinson absorbs the blame for
the team's slow start. That, too, has become a recurring theme.
"People don't seem to realize that David has taken over
defensive, rebounding and shot-blocking responsibilities,"
Popovich says. "They only look at his points, but some of his
offensive load will shift to Tim as the years go by."

If Duncan has been frustrated by teams' redoubled efforts to
stop him, it would be hard to detect his response on the passion
meter. Someday, someone will make that an issue. For now, it's
the Admiral's cross to bear.

A Fine Line
FILLING THE VOID

Nuggets forward Antonio McDyess, Feb. 28 versus Vancouver: 41
minutes, 16-25 field goals, 14-18 free throws, 46 points, 19
rebounds, 4 blocks. Promising to do more in the wake of the
season-ending knee injury to promising rookie big man Raef
LaFrentz, McDyess had a career high in points, and matched the
NBA high this season. More significant, he led Denver to a
116-112 victory.

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

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Williams, one of the many Nets nursing injuries, has been in the middle of the team's struggles. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH

Around The Rim

Think Rick Mahorn is feeling old? Upon signing with the 76ers
last month, the 40-year-old Mahorn revealed that he had attended
high school with teammate Allen Iverson's mother, Ann, in
Hartford....

Dallas forward Samaki Walker, whose playing time has diminished
because of coach Don Nelson's dissatisfaction with his defense,
has asked for a trade. Walker will become a free agent this
summer unless the Mavericks sign him to a new contract. They
hadn't offered him one at week's end, but word out of Dallas is
that Nellie won't pull the trigger on a trade because he still
believes that Walker, the Mavericks' first-round selection in
1996, has a promising future....

While some veterans reported to NBA camps as much as 40 pounds
overweight, Bucks rookie forward Robert Traylor checked in at
282, some 45 pounds lighter than he was in his pizza days at
Michigan. Traylor has been so impressive that Milwaukee coach
George Karl has replaced Ervin Johnson with Traylor in the
starting lineup....

The Bulls will raise a banner honoring Phil Jackson on May 5,
but they should consider raising one for assistant coach Tex
Winter (page 95) as well....

Those close to Karl Malone say he's disappointed that he wasn't
asked to be part of the 2000 Olympic team in Sydney....

Toronto point guard Alvin Williams continues to struggle,
prompting the Raptors to turn to Micheal Williams, who was
stashed on their injured list.

Triple-Double W's

Last Thursday four players--the Pacers' Mark Jackson, the Suns'
Jason Kidd (with ball, above), the Rockets' Scottie Pippen and
the Kings' Chris Webber--had triple doubles, tying an NBA
single-day record. Each member of the quartet led his team to
victory, prompting the question, Does a team usually win when
one its players has a triple double? Here are the five players
with the most triple-double games over the past four seasons and
their teams' record in those games. --David Sabino

TRIPLE W-L IN
PLAYER, TEAM DOUBLES THOSE GAMES PCT.

Grant Hill, Pistons 27 18-9 .667
Jason Kidd, Mavericks, Suns 19 15-4 .798
Clyde Drexler, Rockets 6 5-1 .833
Shawn Bradley, 76ers, Nets, Mavericks 6 2-4 .333
Mark Jackson, Pacers, Nuggets 5 4-1 .800
Total 63 44-19 .698

Torch SONGS

TIMBERWOLVES AT SONICS
Sunday, March 7

SEATTLE'S GARY PAYton and Minnesota's Stephon Marbury might be
the two best point guards in the Western Conference, but you
wouldn't think they're neck and neck based on their head-to-head
stats. In their last three meetings the Glove has held Marbury
to an average of 10.3 points on 24.1% shooting. Payton,
meanwhile, has scored 26.3 points a game and shot 54.8% from the
floor.

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)