Who is the most underrated player, and who gets the least out of
Cavaliers point guard Andre Miller is cited so frequently as
underrated that he almost ceases to be. At the All-Star break he
was leading the league in assists (10.4 per game), which is all
the more impressive given that his fellow starters are Jumaine
Jones, Chris Mihm, Lamond Murray and Wesley Person. "He's one of
the better point guards in the NBA--not just the East," says one
Eastern Conference executive.
Miller received five votes, most in our poll. The others
receiving multiple votes--Mavericks guard Steve Nash, Celtics
forward Paul Pierce, Kings forward Peja Stojakovic and
Timberwolves guard Wally Szczerbiak--were each selected to the
All-Star team for the first time, suggesting that perhaps they're
not all that underappreciated. One Eastern Conference coach
mentioned Pierce's All-Star teammate in Boston, power forward
Antoine Walker, long considered by many to be an underachiever.
"The fans and the media beat him up early in his career, but he
gets 20 [points] and 10 [boards] consistently," the coach says.
"The Celtics are running their offense through a four."
And who are the underachievers? The players cited most often were
Trail Blazers forwards Shawn Kemp and Rasheed Wallace (five
mentions each) and a perennial favorite, 76ers forward Derrick
Coleman (four). A six-time All-Star, Kemp was averaging only 13.1
minutes at the break and is a shadow--albeit a vast one--of his
former self. "A good player is hidden in there somewhere," says
one Western Conference G.M. "In 1996 he was considered one of the
two best players in the league," says one Eastern Conference
exec. "Now look at him." The tempestuous Wallace missed making
the All-Star team after being selected the past two seasons. His
response? "They freed me for the weekend to party." Says a
Western Conference G.M., "That dingbat should be one of the great
players. The elevator's not stopping on every floor."
If Shaq were sidelined for the playoffs, which team would
dethrone the Lakers?
Of our 29 respondents, 20 picked the Kings; only the Spurs
(4 1/2), the 76ers (two) and the Bucks (a half) received other
votes. (Two panelists abstained.) Some of it may be wishful
thinking: With a league-high seven players scoring in double
figures, Sacramento displays many of the traits--shooting,
teamwork, a willingness to fast-break--that make the game
appealing. If Shaq's arthritic right toe is unbearably painful
come April, the Kings might be the prettiest champion since Bill
Walton led the Trail Blazers to the 1977 title. "Sacramento's
style is fun," said one Eastern Conference G.M., "and it's tough
to prepare for."
The Kings had a league-best 37-12 record at the break, and while
they may be a year or two from peaking, they do possess the
ingredients of a champion. Peja Stojakovic has become an All-Star
complement to Chris Webber at forward, and their potential
Kobe-stopper, Doug Christie, is having his finest year. If O'Neal
is healthy, they have no answer for him, but then who does? "Shaq
plays at a higher level in the postseason," Webber says. "We
would have to hold him to 30 points and 15 rebounds, instead of
40 points and 20 rebounds."
Could Webber & Co. unseat a Los Angeles team at full strength?
The Lakers have a daunting advantage on D: They ranked second in
defensive field goal percentage (42.1) through Sunday, while
Sacramento was 13th (43.9). To succeed, the Kings would have to
1) milk the pick-and-roll, which is a strength for both Webber
and center Vlade Divac and a relative weakness for Shaq; 2) take
advantage of the new rules, which prohibit O'Neal from camping in
the paint, by using their passing skills to reverse the ball and
keep him on the weak side; and 3) force a quick tempo to beat
Shaq downcourt for easy baskets. "You know why [the Kings] are so
tough?" says a Western Conference G.M. "Their point guard, Mike
Bibby, is their worst passer, and he ain't bad."
The Kings will have that toughness tested as they try to hold
their 2 1/2-game lead over L.A. while playing 18 of their final
33 games on the road, where they were 12-11 before the break.
The Lakers are still getting accustomed to guard Mitch Richmond,
power forward Samaki Walker and point guard Lindsey Hunter, whom
coach Phil Jackson believes may be better as the starter, with
Derek Fisher taking charge of the second unit.
After a 16-2 start the two-time champions have gone 17-11.
They've also lost five games to last-place teams. That may be no
more significant than Muhammad Ali's putting on a few pounds
between successful title defenses--or it may mean L.A. is
vulnerable. "Sacramento has the best chance of winning, including
the Lakers," said an Eastern Conference G.M. "The Kings now have
the maturity. They've stepped out of the Lakers' shadow and
realized what they can do." --Ian Thomsen
How far will Michael Jordan take the Wizards?
Before the season, most observers agreed: Michael Jordan was too
old and would have too little help to lift Washington out of the
lottery slums. What's more, the pundits posited, once Mike's
pride had taken enough hits, he would slink back into retirement
because of a convenient groin pull or some other phantom injury.
That was before Jordan led Washington to a 26-21 record at the
All-Star break, which tied the Pistons for fifth best in the
East. According to our poll, MJ will drag Washington's cast of
castoffs into the postseason "like Jack LaLanne holding the rope
in his teeth," as one Eastern Conference G.M. put it. Only three
respondents figured the Wizards' run would end with the regular
season, while 18 predicted Jordan would reach the first round;
three believed he'd even go beyond that. (Five were undecided.)
Said a Western Conference executive, "[The Wizards will reach]
the second round if they're healthy." --Chris Ballard
Whom would you pick for the major awards?
Jason Kidd NETS
Beyond the assists (9.9 per game, second in the league at the
All-Star break), rebounds (7.1) and scoring (14.3), these are the
numbers that explain why Kidd received 20 votes: Last season the
Nets finished 26-56; thanks to Kidd's leadership New Jersey was
an Eastern Conference-best 32-15 through Sunday. The last time
the Nets were this much fun to watch, the team played with a
red-white-and-blue ball. Kidd's abysmal 37.7% shooting prompted
some to vote for Shaq (who was second with seven), but when you
can dominate on both ends of the court without taking a shot--as
only Kidd can--that's a minor deficiency.
Rookie of the Year
Pau Gasol GRIZZLIES
The teams that doubted whether the 7-foot Spaniard could play
are taking one--Pau!--right in the kisser. Gasol, who received
20 votes, ranks among the top 13 in rebounds (8.8), blocks
(2.37) and field goal percentage (52.5). He uses both hands
deftly, doesn't force shots and, for a player two years removed
from averaging 4.2 points for FC Barcelona, has grasped the
nuances of the NBA remarkably fast. "He's got all the tricks
down around the basket," says a Western Conference G.M., "and
he's a lot tougher than most Europeans." Pacers point guard
Jamaal Tinsley was a distant runner-up, with four votes.
Coach of the Year
Byron Scott NETS
What gets Scott the nod is not simply the unexpected turnaround
in New Jersey but also the way he has implemented a complex
motion offense and, as one Eastern Conference coach puts it,
"made a selfish team into a five-man unit." Placing second to
Scott's 12 votes was Flip Saunders (10), who gets credit for
exploiting the new zone-defense rules more than any of his peers.
Defensive Player of the Year
Dikembe Mutombo 76ERS
Even at the doddering age of 35, the four-time Defensive Player
of the Year was named on seven ballots because he can still
dramatically change a game by controlling the lane and
neutralizing his opposing number. Timberwolves forward Kevin
Garnett placed second with four votes. Surprisingly, Pistons
power forward Ben Wallace, the league leader in blocks (3.19),
received only one mention.
Most Improved Player
Kenyon Martin NETS
Wally Szczerbiak TIMBERWOLVES
Each player received five votes. Martin, the top draft pick in
2000, was a borderline disappointment as a rookie, averaging 12.2
points. This season he has emerged as a defensive stopper with a
much improved mid-range jumper who led the Nets in scoring at the
break, with 15.9 points a game. Since moving from small forward
to shooting guard, Szczerbiak, a first-time All-Star, has given
Minnesota a second scorer alongside Garnett. Endowed with the
sweetest of strokes, Szczerbiak has added 5.1 points to his
scoring average (19.1) and is shooting 51.3% from the field, tops
among backcourt players.
Quentin Richardson CLIPPERS
At the break the Clippers' 6'6", 223-pound guard, who received
six votes, had led his team in scoring more times--11--than any
other bench player. After adding 10 pounds over the summer, he
has become a formidable inside-outside threat, capable of taking
his man off the dribble, scoring in the low post and hitting the
three. Another 21-year-old, Pacers forward Al Harrington, placed
second with four votes, though he tore his right ACL on Jan. 23
and is out for the season. While Harrington's scoring average
rose more than five points from last season (to 13.1), it's his
defense that draws the high marks. Says one Eastern Conference
coach, "He's played Michael [Jordan] the toughest of anyone."
Executive of the Year
Rod Thorn NETS
Guard, coach, team president, league executive--Rod Thorn has held
as many NBA jobs as a man can without putting on a bear costume
and dunking off a trampoline. However, while his latest
incarnation as president-general manager-miracle worker for the
Nets earned him votes from 19 respondents for executive of the
year, many fans remember Thorn only as the NBA's executive vice
president of basketball operations, a position he held from 1986
to 2000. "I get recognized all the time on the train home because
of that," says Thorn, who lives in suburban Rye, N.Y. "People
say, 'You're the a------ who suspended so-and-so,' because we got
the Knicks a bunch of times."
These days New York fans have a different reason to detest Thorn:
They have to crane their necks to look up at his team in the
standings. Defying all expectations--SI, for one, picked New
Jersey to finish 12th in the East--the Nets have an Eastern
Conference-leading 32-15 record at the All-Star break. On Feb. 4,
after blowing out the team with the NBA's best record,
Sacramento, 117-83, Kings forward Chris Webber called New
Jersey's point guard Jason Kidd one of the league's two
untradable players, along with Shaquille O'Neal. Told of the
comment the next day, the 60-year-old Thorn smiled and shook his
head. "That's amazing," he said in his West Virginia drawl of his
prized off-season acquisition, which cost him Stephon Marbury.
"You can make a case that both teams got what they needed."
Thorn is very polite, but so far it is clear that the Nets got a
whole bunch more of what they needed than Phoenix did. As much of
an impact as the Kidd deal has had, though--and it's hard to
overstate its significance--it was only the most dramatic part of
Thorn's extensive rebuilding plan. When he took over in New
Jersey, in June 2000, the team was a disjointed, prideless,
snakebit mess. After identifying rebounding, defense and team
chemistry as the Nets' major shortcomings, Thorn has hired a
coach who believes in discipline and an up-tempo offense (Byron
Scott), dealt the team's most selfish player (Marbury) for the
league's foremost chemist (Kidd), signed an emerging young center
as a free agent (26-year-old Todd MacCulloch), used the No. 1
draft pick in 2000 to land the team's leading scorer (forward
Kenyon Martin) and traded down in the '01 draft to build his
bench, picking up sixth man Richard Jefferson and center Jason
In a basketball market rife with second-guessers, Thorn's moves
have drawn only praise. "I know we're not supposed to compliment
the Nets," says Knicks president and general manager Scott
Layden, "but he's done quite a job."
Thorn prefers to share the kudos, heaping praise on Scott and
Kidd, crediting the return of oft-injured guard Kerry Kittles and
saying he's been merely "fortunate to be in the right place at
the right time." His track record suggests otherwise. After all,
before he was recognized as the A------ Who Suspends Knicks,
Thorn was known as the Man Who Drafted Michael Jordan, which he
did as G.M. of the Bulls in 1984.
Now, if he can only get fans to recognize him by his latest
unofficial title: the Guy Who Resurrected the Nets. --C.B.
What or whom should the NBA get rid of to improve its image?
Answers ranged from tattoos to the media to guaranteed contracts.
The most common response was bad officiating, which was on three
ballots. Receiving not a vote, on the other hand, was the
referees' primary critic, that chest-pounding, milk-shake-serving
scourge of the league office, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
While no sweeping conclusions should be drawn from this, it is
increasingly clear that Cuban's is not a lone voice in the
wilderness. Two seasons ago five players and coaches were fined
some $60,000 for ripping refs. In 2000-01 there were 26 critics,
who were fined a total of $600,000. Through the All-Star break,
those numbers were 12 and $605,000 (although $500,000 of that
came from Cuban). He has hired a research firm to log every call
made by every official in every game this season to show the
enormous differences in the way they blow their whistles (chart).
Cuban believes such inconsistency among refs--even veteran
ones--breeds confusion among players and damages the product. He
is also convinced that one man, supervisor of officials Ed Rush,
cannot effectively manage 59 refs, and that the league needs an
outside agency to monitor its officiating system.
The NBA, which also logs every call, says that its system works
and that some discrepancy in the frequency of calls by officials
is to be expected. Deputy commissioner Russ Granik agrees that
certain discrepancies are now too great but says that Rush's
staff (which includes three deputies) along with Stu Jackson, the
league's senior vice president of basketball operations,
constantly review calls with the refs. "The goal is not to get
every official blowing the whistle the same way," says Granik.
"It's to get everybody within a range so they're performing
properly. By and large, we think that's happening."
As long as coaches and players complain to reporters immediately
after defeats rather than in measured tones at calmer moments,
the NBA will attribute the gripes to frustrations boiling over
from the heat of battle. However, that argument doesn't apply to
Cuban, who has been emboldened by his growing popularity. At a
recent Mavericks game in Denver, one fan shoved a program into
his face and said, "I know you want to sign on this." The program
was turned to a page headlined REFEREE SIGNALS.
While no owners have publicly supported Cuban's stance on the
refs, he has many off-the-record advocates. "A billion-dollar
industry is being influenced by incompetent officials," says an
Eastern Conference coach, who believes many of the league's
younger referees aren't up to the task. "You have these great
players, and Moe, Larry and Curly are running the show." Adds an
Eastern Conference assistant, who was shocked to discover how
little experience some referees have, "There isn't a coach in the
league who doesn't know that what Cuban is saying is true."
"Cuban will stop his criticism of the refs," says one league
official, hinting at even stronger disciplinary measures.
"Believe it." Cuban is sure that he's waging the good fight, and
he says that he won't quit. Ultimately, the resolution may
depend on just how loud his chorus of supporters grows. --Jack
Cuban Whistle Crisis
Here is a sampling, culled from Mark Cuban's data (through Jan.
18), of common calls and the refs who are most and least likely
to make them.
MOST CALLS PER GAME LEAGUE AVERAGE FEWEST CALLS PER GAME
Tom Washington, 17.3 13.9 Gary Zielinski, 10.1
Bennie Adams, 0.70 0.30 Courtney Kirkland, 0.08
Nolan Fine, 0.13 0.02 37 tied with none
Ron Olesiak, 0.46 0.21 Five tied with none
Hue Hollins, 1.68 0.51 Nolan Fine, 0.04
Down by two points with five seconds left, whom do you want to
take the last shot? Down by three points?
The vast majority of our panel selected the slashers over the
sequoias when faced with a two-point deficit and five ticks
remaining. (Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal each received a
solitary mention.) The winner, garnering 12 votes, was Kobe
Bryant, who has bailed out the Lakers at the end of more than a
few games. "He can shoot," says one Eastern Conference coach,
"and he'll make the play if defenders come to him." Adds a
Western Conference G.M., "It used to be Jordan, but now it's
Kobe." (Jordan placed second with six votes.)
When it's a three-pointer that's needed, three of our panelists
still picked Bryant, two fewer than chose Reggie Miller, whose
greatest-hits collection of last-gasp threes for the Pacers would
be a boxed set. The winner? Bucks All-Star guard Ray Allen (six
votes). Allen is not only accurate--he was connecting on 43.5% of
his threes at the All-Star break--but also has the athleticism to
get clear looks. "He's got range," says one Eastern Conference
executive. "And he gets that shot off against anyone."
After Shaquille O'Neal, which player would you take to build a
Because NBA honchos tend to develop repetitive Shaq Syndrome
when asked to identify the league's most coveted franchise
player, we eliminated him from consideration. With O'Neal out,
Tim Duncan's name came up the most (14 times). "Duncan (right)
has great character, and he comes to play every night," says one
Eastern Conference coach. Others praised Duncan's complete post
game, his passing ability and the fact that, as a Western G.M.
put it, "he's already proven that he can win it all."
The runner-up, with six votes, was Kevin Garnett, who was
extolled for his versatility, enthusiasm and leadership. Jason
Kidd received four nods, while two votes went to Tracy
McGrady--"because he can do so many things in so many ways"--and
two to Kobe Bryant, whom one Western Conference source picked
because "he's got what Michael Jordan had: He flat-out wins games
for you at the end."
Speaking of Jordan, he got one vote, from an Eastern Conference
coach (no, not Doug Collins). "He'll sell out 41 arenas, and he
can play multiple positions," said the coach. "He'll make role
players better, and he's the one thing every coach is dying to
have: a leader in the locker room. You're obviously getting on TV
a lot--that means guys want to play for you. And what's he playing
for, $1 million? That's practically nothing." --C.B.