To Hill And Back
Can Tracy McGrady salvage the season for the Magic after
another Grant Hill injury?
The holidays weren't so happy for the Magic, which two months
ago had hopes of reaching the Finals. For the second straight
season Orlando stumbled into the new year with a sub-.500 record
(15-17) and the sobering knowledge that Grant Hill, who
underwent season-ending surgery on his left ankle on Dec. 19,
won't be coming to the rescue.
It's a bad case of deja vu for Tracy McGrady, who a year ago
overcame Hill's absence and the team's 14-16 start to carry
Orlando into the playoffs with a 43-39 record. Last season the
6'8" McGrady attacked nonstop and forced opponents to play at
his frenetic pace, but his task is more complicated this time.
The off-season acquisition of free agents Patrick Ewing and
Horace Grant--brought in mainly for their playoff
experience--has changed Orlando's scrappy, heart-and-hustle
approach of recent years. "We have more skilled guys who are
less athletic," says coach Doc Rivers, "and they need Tracy to
set the table for them."
It's asking a lot of a 22-year-old in his second year as a
starter to shine individually while incorporating teammates into
a set offense. McGrady, though, sees that new role as the next
step in his development. "I definitely have to lead every
night," he says. "What I need to do is trust my teammates. Last
year I felt I had to take most of the key shots, but it can't
always be like that."
Rivers wants to see McGrady become more consistent at setting
picks, playing fierce defense and establishing a Jordanesque
standard of all-out play. "It provides a huge lift when a guy as
talented as him is diving for loose balls," says forward Pat
Through Wednesday, McGrady had scored 20 points or more a
league-leading 25 times despite missing three games and half of
the preseason because of back spasms, a result of his admittedly
lax approach to stretching. "We've seen a healthy Tracy for only
10 games this year," Garrity says.
McGrady hopes to get help from 6'8" Mike Miller, the 2000-01
Rookie of the Year, who added 12 pounds of muscle while working
out with McGrady and trainer Wayne Hall last summer. Though
Miller was averaging 16.3 points and shooting a respectable
45.2% through Wednesday, Rivers describes him as a defensive
liability and "a reluctant scorer at times, which is strange for
such a good shooter."
The 21-year-old Miller acknowledges that the Magic needs him to
develop quickly. Last week he helped force the Pistons' Jerry
Stackhouse into missing his last eight shots in an 87-78 Orlando
victory that snapped a three-game losing streak. "It's his
time," McGrady says of Miller. "He wouldn't get this opportunity
if Grant [Hill] was here."
One player who might have helped in Hill's absence was forward
Bo Outlaw, who was traded to the Suns on Nov. 16, 10 days before
Hill reinjured his ankle. "What Bo brought to this club--his
rebounding, defense, enthusiasm and energy--is something we
can't get back," says Grant. The trade made sense at the time.
By shedding Outlaw's $6 million salary, the Magic can go $13
million to $16 million under the cap after next season, when
Hill and McGrady will be the only players under long-term
contracts. The list of potential free agents for the summer of
2003 includes Tim Duncan (who came close to signing with Orlando
two summers ago), Baron Davis, Jason Kidd, Antonio McDyess,
Andre Miller, Jermaine O'Neal and Theo Ratliff. At this point
the only other teams who are likely to have enough cap room to
offer a huge contract to a free agent are the Bulls, the
Clippers and the Spurs.
If Hill somehow recovers from the third operation on his left
ankle in 20 months to join McGrady and a big-time free agent in
2003-04, the Magic will have a trio the equal of any in the
league. During his 14 games this season Hill led the Magic with
8.9 rebounds per game and was second in scoring (16.8 points)
and assists (4.6) while helping at point guard. It's no
coincidence that only a week after Hill went down, 33-year-old
playmaker Darrell Armstrong started experiencing back problems.
"I hate it," Rivers says, "but we can't ask Darrell to press the
ball the way we like to because he's struggling physically."
While the Magic look to 2003 as their next window of
opportunity, a bigger date may be looming in the summer of 2004,
when its lease at the TD Waterhouse Centre expires. Team owner
Rich DeVos, who claims to be losing $10 million annually,
stopped campaigning for a $75 million renovation after the Sept.
11 attacks and has no plans to renew his efforts. An NBA source
who knows DeVos says that rather than threaten to move the team,
he is more likely to put it up for sale and let someone else
fight for an improved building. If DeVos were to sell to an
owner less willing to pay for top talent, that could set the
franchise back as much as Hill's injuries have.
Adjusting to Zone Defenses
The Shrinking of The Guards
Fans of Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson won't like it, but
here it comes nonetheless--a backcourt of miniature point
guards. The trend is catching on in Philadelphia, Utah and
Dallas. "I don't see any downside," says 76ers coach Larry
Brown, who is intent on pairing 5'11" Speedy Claxton with 6-foot
Allen Iverson as often as possible.
This shrinking of the guards is viable because of the new rules,
which permit defenses to ignore players who can't score and
swarm those who can. Playmaking is at such a premium that
coaches have lowered their sights, deploying anyone who knows
how to attack the basket. "As much as they might have to give up
at the defensive end," Brown says of the small backcourts, "they
can make it up on the offensive end and in other areas, such as
The new rules have forced even the league's most predictable
team to change its M.O. The Jazz's bread-and-butter two-man game
with John Stockton and Karl Malone has become harder to execute
because Malone can now be doubled before he gets the ball. "The
rules have hurt our team the most," says coach Jerry Sloan, who
has tried to take pressure off Malone by surrounding him with a
small lineup of scorers and passers, including a backcourt of
the 6'1" Stockton and 6'2" John Crotty. Utah may appear
vulnerable defensively with that lineup, but Crotty views it as
an advantage for the Jazz. "Teams see the mismatch, and they'll
start trying to attack me and shut down their normal offense,"
Crotty says. "It takes them away from what they want to do."
One of the most effective minibackcourts is the Mavericks'
tandem of 6'3" Steve Nash and 6-foot Tim Hardaway. The
three-second rule prohibiting shot blockers from lurking under
the basket has opened up lanes for Nash, who drove inside then
kicked out to Hardaway for huge three-pointers in recent
victories at Minnesota and San Antonio. Says Timberwolves coach
Flip Saunders, "They put you in a bind because Nash can score on
those drives so you've got to account for him. But he's actually
more dangerous finding Hardaway for the three."
Last season the Hornets reached the second round of the playoffs
despite pairing 6'3" Baron Davis with 6'1" David Wesley. Still,
it's unlikely that a small backcourt will survive defensively in
a playoff series against a team like the Lakers, with 6'7" Kobe
Bryant, or the Kings, with 6'6" Doug Christie, or the Spurs,
with 6'8" Steve Smith. "At some level you're going to have to
pay on the defensive end," says Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who
notes that small guards have trouble covering the court,
switching and contesting shots. "You're going to see the big
backcourt come right back into this league very soon. There's no
doubt about it."
Antonis Fotsis of Memphis
It's Still Greek To Him
At 20, 6'10" rookie Antonis Fotsis is learning the NBA game from
the end of the Grizzlies' bench. Fotsis is the first Greek
native to play in the league and, in some respects, the Todd
Marinovich of European basketball.
His father, Vangelis Fotsis, was a star 6'3" guard in Greece.
Vangelis became one of the country's most respected basketball
coaches, but he refused high-profile jobs that would have taken
him from his family, especially his first-born son. "Antonis was
raised from the day he was born to become the first Greek player
in the NBA," says his agent, Joel Bell, who insists that Fotsis
will succeed where Marinovich failed because of the warm
relationship between Antonis and his father. "Vangelis was
intent on raising him as a son, not just as an athlete."
Vangelis routinely sent his young son to a personal trainer.
When Antonis was 10, he was enrolled in ballet class for three
years to improve his footwork. "Of course, I didn't like the
ballet so much, but I wasn't thinking about that," Antonis says.
"I was thinking about what I had to do to become a better player."
Fotsis was a point guard until he was 17; in the next three
years he grew 10 inches to his current height. As a power
forward last season he helped his Greek club, Panathinaikos, to
the European final four, though his father believes Antonis's
future in the NBA is at small forward or shooting guard. The
Grizzlies chose Fotsis No. 48, but he probably would have gone
higher had his club's extended playoff run not prevented him
from working out for NBA teams last spring before the draft. He
showed that he was serious about the NBA by accepting a rookie
wage of $332,817, compared with the $1 million or more he could
have earned in Europe this season.
Through Wednesday, Fotsis had played in only five games, but in
practice he often wins the team's shooting drills. His parents
and younger brother have moved with him to Memphis, and after
lunch Antonis and Vangelis usually go to a gym for more
practice. Grizzlies coach Sidney Lowe does not want to
discourage the extra work, but he says, "I hope that he's not
wearing out Antonis, so that if he does get in a game, he's not
Play of the Week
To T, or Not To T
It usually doesn't pay to argue, but Phil Jackson had the last
word on a controversial play during the Lakers' 101-90 loss at
Golden State on Dec. 26. Jackson was assessed two technical
fouls and ejected for complaining after the referees failed to
give Los Angeles enough time to replace Devean George, who had
been ejected with 4:57 remaining. After Jackson sent Kobe Bryant
out to explain the error, the referees responded by revoking the
technicals and the ejection, restoring 7.0 seconds to the game
clock and taking away the three-pointer made by the Warriors'
Larry Hughes in the interim. "I've seen a lot of strange
things," said Jackson, "but nothing like that."
around the Rim
With Shaquille O'Neal expected to skip the world championships
in Indianapolis this summer, the U.S. is preparing to enter a
major tournament without a true center for the first time since
the Summer Olympics in 1968. Power forwards Antonio Davis and
Jermaine O'Neal have already been named to the team, and
insiders say that Chris Webber, Antonio McDyess, Shareef
Abdur-Rahim and Elton Brand are the leading candidates to fill
the last three big-man slots....Michael Jordan's appearance in
Charlotte on Dec. 26 resulted in the Hornets' first
regular-season sellout since March 2000....The Spurs' 22-7 start
through Wednesday has something to do with good timing. Among
those who have sat out games against San Antonio: Jordan,
Abdur-Rahim, Steve Francis and Allen Iverson....Upset with his
declining play and his team's horrendous start, the Heat's Brian
Grant responded by hacking off half the length of his dreadlocks
before his wife arrived home and stopped him. "I've told them to
change the routine," coach Pat Riley said, "but that might be
over the top."...Tim Floyd's resignation from the Bulls on
Christmas Eve leaves the Hawks' Lon Kruger as the league's only
former college coach who was hired without having first done a
stint in the pros....Several of his fellow coaches believe that
the primary obstacle Bill Cartwright faces as Floyd's
successor--Chicago's unimposing roster aside--is his soft, raspy
voice. They point out that the 44-year-old Cartwright, who has
undergone five throat operations, will have trouble
communicating with his players in the game's noisiest moments.
Then again, the Bulls, who won two of Cartwright's first three
games, may excel because he won't be yelling at them.
On the Knicks under coach Don Chaney, who took over for Jeff Van
Gundy on Dec. 8 and was 3-8 through last Wednesday's games.
It's easy to see why Jeff decided to leave. Their one big
player, Marcus Camby, gets injured when the wind blows. Mark
Jackson keeps talking about how he wants to be a head coach when
he retires, which makes him harder to deal with because he
thinks he knows best. Allan Houston, who's making $100 million,
has no gumption. Latrell Sprewell does things his way--he comes
to the arena only 45 minutes or an hour before the game, he
changes plays after they've been called by the coach or the
point guard, and it looks to me as if he decides when to come
out of the game. They're trying to open up the offense, but
they're using a lot of energy to run and score when they should
be applying it at the defensive end, the way they used to. The
fact that they're losing a lot of close games suggests that they
aren't in good condition. It's just a really difficult team to