Changes At the Top
The rebuilt Pacers have yet to hit their stride
Unlike the post-Jordan Bulls, who have started from scratch, and
the '80s Celtics, who stuck to the bitter end with their
veterans, the Pacers have taken the middle road: They are trying
to rebuild from a position of strength. Few NBA finalists have
undergone more changes than Indiana, which has three new starters
and a rookie coach. At week's end the Pacers had tried nine
starting lineups and, at 15-19, clung to a half-game lead for the
last playoff berth in the East. "Our goal is to be the best team
in the conference for the second half of the season," says coach
Isiah Thomas. Is that reasonable? "In the East, yeah, it is."
Indiana has been shaped by two out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new
swaps, which have had mixed results. Just after the 1999 draft,
the Pacers sent 6'9" veteran Antonio Davis to the Raptors for the
rights to 6'11" high school phenom Jonathan Bender, who at week's
end was averaging only 3.8 points on 31.5% shooting. However, the
swap in August of power forward Dale Davis, 31, to the Trail
Blazers for untested Jermaine O'Neal, 22, paid off instantly. The
6'11" O'Neal is an explosive leaper with uncanny timing for
blocking shots. In a few years he will be a star; in the meantime
his averages of 13.4 points and 9.6 rebounds are comparable with
the numbers the 31-year-old Davis put up last season.
In Indiana's biggest win of the season, a 93-91 overtime victory
at Sacramento last Friday, O'Neal had team highs of 20 points, 16
rebounds and five blocks. The Pacers withstood several runs and
seemed to come together--age differences be damned. (The team has
six players 23 or under and, lately at least, three starters 34
or over.) "We finally showed ourselves that we're capable of
playing at an elite level," says Thomas.
Trying both to build a team for the future and stay in postseason
contention would be a hard juggling act even for a veteran coach.
Though forwards Bender, 19, and Al Harrington, 20, have
struggled, Thomas had played them a combined 29.3 minutes per
game through Sunday. Power forward Jeff Foster, 23, has proved a
dependable rebounder (5.2 in 15.3 minutes per game), but his
playing time has fluctuated. Fourth-year forward Austin Croshere,
whom Indiana re-signed for $51 million over seven years, was
shooting only 37.5% and had been unable to land a steady role.
"I've had to set pride aside and do what's best for the team,"
says Thomas, whose difficulties were compounded by a hellish
schedule of 17 games in December.
Management is sensitive to the feelings of All-Star guard Reggie
Miller, who spent 13 seasons trying to reach his first Finals. He
was disappointed when team president Donnie Walsh dealt Dale
Davis and let go point guard Mark Jackson. "If the young guys
don't work hard, I'll have a problem with Donnie for doing it,"
Miller warned at the start of the season. "A lot of young players
are not committed to winning. They're committed to buying cars
and jewelry and making rap videos."
Apparently the youngsters have been trying their best, because
Miller hasn't groused since then. Despite his volatile behavior
on the court, Miller--who was raised in a military family--isn't
one to complain or cause controversy off the court, even after
seeing his shot attempts drop 20.5% since Jalen Rose returned
from a broken left wrist. "The first 10 games we didn't have
Jalen, and we were depending on Reggie," Thomas says. "Am I going
to ask Reggie, at 35, to carry the load for 82 games? That's
crazy. We know he's going to be there when we need him in the
At week's end the Pacers had lost 14 of 24 games since Rose's
return, calling into question Thomas's decision to start the 6'8"
Rose at the point. In fact, the majority of the point guard
minutes are going to 5'11" Travis Best, who is playing the best
ball of his six-year career. Still, even Walsh admits that the
Pacers aren't as finely tuned without Jackson at the controls.
"They don't seem to run a lot of plays," says an opposing team's
scout, "and they're sloppy with the plays they do run."
For all their ups and downs, Indiana might be a good bet to
return to the Finals if center Rik Smits, who retired in
September, were to come back. For now, the 7'4" Smits plans to
remain active only on the Dutch team. "Do I think Rik's return is
imminent?" says Walsh. "I'm not sure. He's said he might want to
come back, and I would leave the door open. But he's not the kind
of guy you keep calling to see if he's ready to come back. If he
wants to do it, he'll let us know."
Warriors' Surprising Center
Drafted in '97, Top Rookie of '01
Late in the second quarter of last Saturday's Warriors game at
New Jersey, Golden State rookie center Marc Jackson dropped in a
feathery 19-footer from the top of the key. Moments later he
nailed a shot from the same spot--en route to a game-high 29
points--causing an exasperated fan behind the Nets' bench to
throw up his hands and yell, "Who the hell is this Jackson guy?"
It's a good question, and one that has plagued the rest of the
league since Dec. 8, when the 26-year-old Jackson entered the
Warriors' lineup after injuries had sidelined Erick Dampier,
Adonal Foyle and Danny Fortson. At week's end, Jackson had
averaged 18.9 points and 9.4 rebounds as a starter while shooting
55.9% from the field and 83.3% from the line, numbers that make
him the clear Rookie of the Year favorite. For a franchise that
has been cursed with pivotitis for two decades--remember Chris
Washburn, Uwe Blab, Les Jepsen and Todd Fuller?--Jackson is
providing the best center play since Robert Parish in 1979-80.
"It'd be nice to say we knew all along that he would play like
this," general manager Garry St. Jean says, "but why fib? We knew
he was good, but this good? No way."
Jackson, 6'10" and 270 pounds, has shooting range almost out to
the three-point arc. Initially, teams were giving him looks from
the outside, but now "there's no more test phase," he says, and
opposing centers come out on him immediately. This has freed up
the low block for forward Antawn Jamison and created passing
lanes for Jackson from the high post. "Marc's got great hands and
he makes good reads," says coach Dave Cowens. "He keeps teams
from fronting Antawn and giving him a hard time."
Jackson hasn't come out of nowhere, just Spain. He declared for
the draft as a junior at Temple in 1997 to make money to help out
his family. Golden State chose him 38th, but without a
first-round pick's guaranteed contract, he went overseas. "I had
to take the best offer," says Jackson, "so as soon as that last
pick of the first round went, my agent was on the phone to
Armed with a $700,000 contract, Jackson headed for Turkey and, a
year later, to Spain. In addition to polishing his moves, which
had been restricted by John Chaney's regimented,
back-to-the-basket Temple offense, he shed 20 pounds and lowered
his body fat to 9%. "In Spain, I would practice from 9:30 to noon
with my team," says Jackson. "Then in the evenings, from six to
8:30, I would practice with a second-division team in the same
city whose coach allowed me to guard twos and threes." In
addition, Jackson would go one-on-one full-court against his
team's point guard, sometimes hiding the poor man's car keys so
he couldn't leave without chasing Jackson end-to-end.
Before finally choosing to attend Warriors training camp in
October, Jackson had studied the game as well. As a sophomore at
Temple he used the school's editing room to make a two-hour tape
of the offensive moves of top college players, and he would watch
it daily. After graduating, he began his Karl Malone collection,
an 800-tape library of Jazz games that he keeps at his house in
Mount Laurel, N.J., and uses to help imitate the Mailman's
position-based, ground-bound moves.
Will the team be able to re-sign its overnight sensation? Unless
the Warriors use their mid-level cap exception--approximately $4.4
million--they can give him only a 20% raise on his rookie minimum
salary of $317,000, to $380,000, because Jackson hasn't been in
the league long enough to earn his Larry Bird rights. St. Jean
has indicated he will make Jackson the exception, even though the
team has $49.5 million tied up in Dampier and Foyle. Jackson,
though, will likely be offered far more in the free-agent market.
Nevertheless, he seems inclined to stay by the Bay. "I really
like the Warriors, the front-office staff and the coaches," says
Jackson. "And I will remember they gave me a shot." --Chris
Nick Anderson, 12th Man
A Class Vanishing Act
How can a healthy 6'6" swingman who had averaged double figures
in each of his 11 NBA seasons suddenly find himself on the end of
the bench? That's been the spot recently for Nick Anderson, who
started 72 games for the Kings a season ago but at week's end was
last on the team in scoring with 1.9 points in only 8.1 minutes
per game. "It's O.K.," says Anderson, 32, whose shooting from
both the field and the line has deteriorated in recent years.
"I've got a song playing in my head, by Toni Braxton: 'Just be a
man about it.'"
Anderson has lived up to the lyric. Often he is the first King
off the bench during timeouts to congratulate teammates or offer
advice to his replacements, Doug Christie, Peja Stojakovic and
Hedo Turkoglu. "When I came into the league, the Magic moved
Reggie Theus out for me to play, but I can't say it isn't hard
after starting for 11 years," says Anderson. "My mom sometimes
doesn't want to come to the games because she knows I won't play.
I tell her, 'Hey, Mom, things change. This is all going to work
There is a practical reason for this refusal to make waves. "I
want to be a coach at this level," says Anderson, whose contract
ends after next season. "I'm trying to be a professional about
the whole thing. That's how I want people to remember me--as a
Outside the Box Score
The Kick of Time
Trailing 81-78 with two seconds left in last Thursday's game in
Miami, the Nets inbounded to Stephon Marbury for a potential
game-tying three. The pass from the sideline was low, and Heat
forward Bruce Bowen kicked the ball out of bounds--a violation if
done intentionally, but the refs didn't call it, and time
expired. Even if the call had been made, the clock would have
stopped at the time of the kick, still costing the Nets precious
tenths of a second.
For scores, schedules and stats, plus the latest news and
analysis from Phil Taylor and Marty Burns, go to
Around The Rim
Now is the perfect time to buy the Celtics. The resignation and
buyout of president and coach Rick Pitino means that a new owner
could install a top-management team without paying off any
contracts. Boston chairman Paul Gaston, who rarely attends games,
has been listening to bidders; according to league sources, he's
asking in excess of $300 million. Among Gaston's most zealous
pursuers is Larry Bird, who would serve as front man for a new
Keith Van Horn, out since fracturing his left fibula on Oct. 17,
made a triumphant return to the Nets' lineup last Saturday,
pouring in 19 points in 24 minutes against the Warriors. He also
energized fellow forward Kenyon Martin, who scored 18. Said Van
Horn of the rookie, "It was the best I've seen him play this
With wins at Utah and Sacramento to lift their road record to
15-4, best in the league at week's end, the 76ers are raising
hopes that the East would stand a chance of pulling an upset in
the Finals.... Good luck to Michael Jordan in trying to trade
the Wizards' enigmatic 34-year-old point guard, Rod Strickland,
who was charged on Sunday with driving under the influence. The
last time Strickland was on a team that won a playoff series was
Rockets forward Walt Williams
"I write 4 U POPS 43-92 on my shoes because those were the years
my father, Walter Sr., was born and died. I also write 40 on the
back of my shoes, because that's my teammate Shandon Anderson's
number, and his mother passed away during preseason. My father
was my biggest supporter. I remember times when I played at
Crossland High in Maryland, I would look over in the stands at
him and it would bring a big smile to his face. He was also my
toughest critic. Even now I feel like he's out there with me, and
I miss him a lot."
On Blazers forward Scottie Pippen, who was averaging 10.4 points
"At the start of the year he wasn't into it. Maybe there was a
carryover from the way Portland's season ended last year against
the Lakers. He was also trying to get his teammates involved,
especially with two more All-Stars in Dale Davis and Shawn Kemp;
it's a big job keeping everybody happy on that team. Now it looks
like the joy is back for Scottie--he's looking for his shot and
playing with more energy. Don't forget, he can still defend as
well as anybody. He's got the speed, the length and the smarts,
and he can guard three positions, which is pretty good for
somebody who's 35."