Is Mark Jackson's grumbling about minutes sinking the Pacers?
Remember when all the pundits--including the ones at this
magazine--were ready to give Indiana the 1999 NBA championship
by acclamation? The Pacers, coming off an exhilarating
seven-game series with the Bulls in the 1998 Eastern Conference
finals, were deep, hungry, committed and so unselfish that they
were the NBA poster boys for team harmony. "Well, that was last
year," says Indiana executive vice president and coach Larry
Bird. "The honeymoon is over."
The Pacers could still finish with the best record in the East,
but Bird says their biggest strength last season--team
chemistry--is rapidly developing into their most troubling
weakness. "Playing time is a problem now," the coach explains.
"Guys are bitching about their minutes, and if we don't get it
straightened out, we can forget about winning anything."
As he did last season, Bird uses 10 players a night. Veterans
Chris Mullin and Mark Jackson start, but it's rare for either to
be on the floor in the fourth quarter. Mullin's minutes at small
forward have been gobbled up by Jalen Rose. Jackson shares the
point with Travis Best, who, in Bird's platoon system, gets the
call in the second and fourth quarters. Jackson often sat during
the fourth quarter in the conference finals against Chicago
while Best broke down Bulls defenders with his speed and played
the kind of defense that makes coaches get all warm and fuzzy.
After that series Bird praised Jackson for the sacrifices he had
made, calling him "one of the best leaders I've ever been around."
Both Mullin and Jackson concede that it's tough to sit during
crunch time, but, according to team sources, Mullin has accepted
his role, while Jackson has not. Jackson admits that he hates to
sit, but he insists it has not affected his attitude. "I doubt
our coach wants someone to be happy about sitting," says
Jackson. "I want to play, but I have too much respect for Coach,
too much respect for myself and this team, to say something or
blow up. I'm not going to do anything that will cost us a
That's the right thing to say, but Jackson's unhappiness has
irked some teammates, although star shooting guard Reggie
Miller, his closest friend on the club, sides with Jackson. "I
think my not playing bugs Reggie because he wants to win,"
Jackson says, "and he likes our chances when I'm out there."
At week's end Miller's scoring was at a 10-year low (18.3 points
a game), and he was shooting a career low from the field
(44.3%). When told that some league observers wonder what's
amiss with the Pacers, Miller retorted, "Let them wonder. The
[other teams in the playoffs] still have to come through us."
That has hardly been a daunting task this year. Indiana is one
of the worst rebounding teams in the league, and it has
struggled to contain top small forwards such as Detroit's Grant
Hill and Boston's Antoine Walker. Derrick McKey handled those
defensive chores last season, but he missed the first 37 games
of this season with tendinitis in his right knee. His return
paid dividends quickly. In McKey's sixth game back, on April 21,
Milwaukee small forward Glenn Robinson torched the Pacers for 17
points in the first 14 minutes before Bird beckoned McKey from
the bench; Robinson scored just 10 points the rest of the way
(only four of them against McKey), while McKey had 15 points,
five rebounds and two steals.
McKey's return exacerbates tension over minutes, however, and as
the playoffs approach, the subplots abound. Will Miller find his
stroke? Can Rik Smits withstand the constant pain in his feet?
Is Jackson a leader or a complainer? "You can say last year was
too good to be true," Bird says. "I don't believe that. If we
concentrate on winning and forget the rest of this crap, we'll
be right there again."
The Ax Falls in New York
ERNIE EARNS A DEMOTION
Former Knicks president and general manager Ernie Grunfeld
insists he never saw it coming. He knew his boss and friend,
Madison Square Garden president and CEO Dave Checketts, was
unhappy with New York's mediocre showing on the floor. Grunfeld
knew that friction between himself and coach Jeff Van Gundy was
an issue. Anyone with two eyes and a New York Post could see
that the media were clamoring for heads to roll. But Grunfeld
thought he was safe. So why was he demoted 42 games into a
50-game season? Checketts saw the Knicks were slipping out of
playoff contention and needed to shake up the players, so he
picked the fall guy whose exit would cause the least turmoil on
the floor. With the Grunfeld-Van Gundy conflict rendered moot,
the players could concentrate on making the playoffs, which
might be what's required for Checketts to save his job.
You can criticize Grunfeld for overpaying Chris Childs, whom he
signed as a free agent in July 1996, but at the time the Knicks
desperately needed a point guard. Overpaying Charlie Ward this
past winter to play that position, however, is another matter.
You can also debate the merits of trading for Larry Johnson or
the deal that sent John Starks, Chris Mills and Terry Cummings
to Golden State for Latrell Sprewell, but Grunfeld's downfall
really began the day he swapped veteran Charles Oakley for
underachiever Marcus Camby.
Before you tab that trade as Grunfeld's biggest blunder, wait a
couple of years, because it was made with the future in mind.
Grunfeld had two goals last off-season: make his teams 1)
younger and 2) more athletic. He reasoned that with some young
legs to run with Johnson and Allan Houston, the Knicks could
begin shifting to an up-tempo style. Camby and Sprewell were
born to run. Ewing wasn't, and Grunfeld's plan was to begin to
de-emphasize Ewing's role.
A great plan except for one hitch: Van Gundy was violently
opposed to giving up Oakley. He argued that Ewing would only be
around for a few more seasons, so why not ride him to the max?
When Grunfeld made the deal anyway, Van Gundy welcomed the
physically and emotionally fragile Camby by criticizing his
effort from the first week of camp and buried him on the bench.
So New York did not go up-tempo, Camby has made only a marginal
contribution, and the Knicks have lived--and too often
died--with Ewing's fallaway jumper. Oakley would be a better fit
for the way Van Gundy wants to play, but does even the most
ardent Knicks fan really believe Oakley could turn this ragtag
bunch into contenders? He's good, but he's not that good. "I
felt that getting Camby made sense," Grunfeld says. "It didn't
work out, but if I had to do it over, I'd make that trade again."
Checketts isn't sure he would. "It's pretty clear it didn't work
out," he says. Checketts will travel with the team over the
season's final weeks to spend time with Van Gundy and study the
chemistry in the locker room. His biggest challenge will be to
define a new role for Ewing, who must be told it's time to
relinquish his mantle as the leader of the offense. "That has to
happen," Checketts concedes but isn't sure that now is the right
time. "I don't think Patrick has been Patrick this season. He
hasn't been healthy. It's still too early to suddenly change our
entire game plan."
Might have been nice if somebody had passed that news along to
Grunfeld before he got fired.
The Hornets' Best
SILAS FINALLY GETS BENCHED
After enduring 16 years as an NBA player, three seasons as coach
of the Clippers (1980 to '83) and more than 800 games as an
assistant, Paul Silas knew the league like Huck Finn knew the
Mississippi. But time and again the voice at the other end of
the line sounded the same note: "Thanks for interviewing with
us, Paul, but we've decided to go in another direction." By
Silas's count, there were seven such conversations over the past
seven years--two with Seattle and one each with Boston, Chicago,
Cleveland, New Jersey and Sacramento. Discouraged but not
defeated, he waited patiently for another chance to guide a team
in the league he understands inside and out.
When the moment finally came, it was under less than optimal
circumstances. On March 7, Dave Cowens, Silas's former Celtics
teammate and his longtime friend, quit as coach of the Hornets.
The team was 4-11, Anthony Mason was on the shelf with a torn
biceps, and All-Star Glen Rice was about to be dealt to the
Lakers for Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell. Silas, the top
Charlotte assistant, was offered the job on an interim basis at
a salary of $525,000, which made him the lowest-paid coach in
the league (just as Cowens had been before him). He jumped at
the offer. "No doubt it was a tough situation," says Silas, "but
I wasn't going to wait another 16 years to prove what I could do."
Even the self-assured Silas couldn't have predicted the dramatic
turnaround that followed. Faster than you can say Alexander
Julian, the Hornets became the league's hottest team. Through
Monday they had won 10 of their last 12 games and trailed the
Knicks by a game and a half for the final Eastern Conference
playoff spot. Playing tighter on defense and looser on offense,
the Hornets have gone 18-11 since the 55-year-old Silas took
over. The number of plays they run had gone from eight under
Cowens to, in essence, 1.5: Dribble-drive and either shoot or
dish. "It's a fun run right now, and it all starts with Paul,"
says forward Chuck Person. "He's all business when we're
playing, and he's a great friend when we're not."
It's not just the wins that have generated local buzz. An antsy
retiree who grew up in Wilmington, N.C., is inching ever closer
to buying a 50% stake in the team. Michael Jordan's presence
would be a colossal shot in Charlotte's arm, especially given
the fans' loathing of tightfisted owner George Shinn. How many
free agents would jump at the chance to sign with the Hornets if
the man cutting their checks was the greatest basketball player
While Jordan and Shinn dicker over the price of Jordan's share
(Shinn says $80 million, Jordan says much less), they have
already agreed to expunge the scarlet I from Silas's title and
offer him a long-term contract.
Given Silas's success, however, the question remains: Why did it
take so long for him to get a second chance? Charles Barkley,
who played under Silas in Phoenix, puts it bluntly, if perhaps a
bit simplistically: "Paul should have gotten a job a long time
ago, but he didn't because he is black." True, the coaches who
spin most readily through the revolving door don't look much
like Silas. What's more, when those precious few opportunities
for minorities have been passed out, they have often been
Band-Aid jobs. Three of the league's four black coaches--Silas,
the Raptors' Butch Carter and the Pistons' Alvin Gentry--started
on an interim basis in the midst of disastrous seasons. They
survived, but as Butch Beard, Gar Heard and Eddie Jordan can
attest, when you're a black coach and fail to work miracles,
it's a long time before you're back on anyone's speed dial.
"You would think that [race] wouldn't be an issue," says
Atlanta's Lenny Wilkens, the NBA's winningest coach, "but it is,
particularly with certain owners."
Silas was also dogged by a charge--always leveled
anonymously--that he didn't work hard as an assistant coach.
Someone should have checked with Nets center Jayson Williams,
who credits Silas's incessant drilling with making him an
All-Star. Or with Kings center Vlade Divac, who perspired in a
lonely gym for countless hours under Silas's tutelage. "I'm
still so offended by that [rumor]," says Silas, his sheepish
grin gone, his usually slitlike eyes wide open. "I tried to
erase that stigma for a lot of years by just plugging away. Now
that I'm here I want to stay in the loop."
--L. Jon Wertheim
Big D in Portland
THE BLAZING REBELS
If defense wins championships, it's no wonder that Western
Conference contenders pale at the thought of tangling with
Portland, particularly when former UNLV teammates Greg Anthony
and Stacey Augmon are on the floor.
Both have dramatically improved their play this season and have
become two of the toughest defenders in the NBA. Through Sunday,
Portland had held opponents to 41.3% shooting. Coach Mike
Dunleavy says that's because Anthony and Augmon wear down
opponents with their end-to-end pressure.
Anthony signed with Portland after seeing little action last
year backing up Gary Payton in Seattle. Much like Orlando point
Darrell Armstrong, Anthony turns to java and sugar for his
pregame jolt and even keeps coffee behind the bench so he can
slurp some instant caffeine during the action.
Augmon has been with the Blazers 2 1/2 seasons. He was rescued
from the Pistons in January 1997, after he fell out of then
coach Doug Collins's rotation. Augmon came to Portland and was a
solid reserve last season, but no one was expecting him to have
the kind of impact he's had this year.
Both Augmon and Anthony give credit for their success to
Portland assistant Tim Grgurich, who was the top assistant to
former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian when the two Blazers played
there. Grgurich is one of the most respected assistant coaches
in the league because of his enthusiasm and patience while
working with players--which explains why a bidding war among
half a dozen teams erupted over Grgurich's services last summer.
Portland won out by offering him $800,000 a season. For that
Augmon is grateful. Under Grgurich's watchful eye he has
regained the intensity and defensive prowess that made him the
ninth pick in the 1991 draft.
"He's become invaluable," Dunleavy says. "Before the season, if
Augmon was mentioned in a trade, I had no problem with it. Now?
I wouldn't give him up for anything."
A Fine Line
VLADE DIVAC, KINGS
April 24, versus Dallas: 42 minutes, 10-15 FG, 8-10 FT, 28
points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists. Although he hadn't slept well
since learning that his brother had been drafted into the
Serbian army, Divac helped knock off the Mavericks 105-102 to
keep the Kings in position to steal the final playoff spot in
Send your NBA questions to Phil Taylor at www.cnnsi.com.
Around The Rim
Ask Atlanta vice president and G.M. Pete Babcock what separates
his Hawks from the elite teams, and he'll give the answer his
players don't want to hear: "We're not tough enough." This
too-nice rap is particularly vexing to center Dikembe Mutombo,
who has been portrayed as an elbow-swinging assassin since he
broke the noses of Nets big man Jayson Williams and Cleveland
center Vitaly Potapenko early in the season, then knocked out a
tooth of New York guard Chris Childs on April 9. He was fined
$7,500 for that incident. "I have never tried to hurt anyone,"
Mutombo says. "My team asks me to play tougher, and when I do I
Tim Thomas, who came to Milwaukee on March 11 from Philadelphia,
may have been averaging only 6.6 points and 2.3 rebounds a game
at week's end, but Bucks coach George Karl says he's expecting
much greater production next season, when Thomas will have had a
full training camp to learn Karl's system. "I keep waiting [to
hear] what's supposedly wrong with this kid," says Karl. "All I
see is a 6'9", 6'10" guy who can play every position. I love
This summer will be put-up-or-shut-up time for Toronto's Charles
Oakley, who has repeatedly said he'll play for less money to
join a contender. The Lakers have his name near the top of their
wish list, but it's extremely unlikely they'll have anything
more than the veteran exception ($2 million) to offer him. L.A.
has started five players at power forward this season.
BRICK OF THE WEEK
"God has put a lot of confidence in me," Penny Hardaway said in
early April. Well, He who giveth can also taketh away, as
Hardaway has learned--the hard way. The Magic's reluctant point
guard was 2 for 13 with 6 turnovers in a 103-86 loss to the
Sixers on Sunday, and in Orlando's last five games through
Monday, all defeats, Hardaway shot 20 of 69 (29.0%) and
committed 15 turnovers. A week ago Orlando had the best record
in the East; as of Monday it was just a half game ahead of the