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Inside The NBA

March 04, 2002
March 04, 2002

Table of Contents
March 4, 2002

Inside The NBA

Putting In the Fix
Minnesota is the place where cast-off players often go to
rediscover their games

This is an article from the March 4, 2002 issue Original Layout

Marc Jackson, the 27-year-old center who spent the last 4 1/2
months being miserable on the Warriors' bench, should fit in
quickly with the Timberwolves. Give us your malcontents,
journeymen and underachieving No. 1 draft picks, says
Minnesota's vice president of basketball operations Kevin
McHale--and we'll beat you with them. "It doesn't make any
difference to me what a player did before he came here," says
McHale. "All I care about is what he does after he gets here."

Before joining the T-Wolves in 1995-96, coach Flip Saunders
spent seven years in the CBA, where he worked with players who
had lost confidence or failed to fit in. In Minnesota he has
regularly turned players who couldn't find a niche elsewhere
into consistent contributors. "Every two or three weeks I get
the players together, and I talk to them one by one about the
things we want them to do," he says. "I want the whole team to
hear it, so everyone can get an idea of how we're supposed to
work together."

Saunders's most valuable retread this season has been point
guard Chauncey Billups, the No. 3 pick in the 1997 draft who
failed to catch on with four teams before signing with Minnesota
last season at the bargain price of $7.4 million over three
years. With starter Terrell Brandon undergoing season-ending
knee surgery last week, the Timberwolves, 37-18 at week's end,
fifth best in the league, are counting on Billups to quarterback
them deep into the playoffs.

The first adjustment Saunders made for Billups was to simplify
the offense. It hasn't hurt the T-Wolves, who at week's end were
19-8 when Billups started, as opposed to 18-10 under Brandon.
Billups is less consistent than Brandon, but he's more
explosive, especially from the three-point line. After Saunders
criticized his shot selection at halftime on Feb. 19 in Dallas,
Billups came out and scored a franchise-record 24 points in a
quarter--including five threes--to ignite a 117-100 comeback win
over the division-leading Mavericks.

Billups's career-high 36 points that night were timely given the
absence of Kevin Garnett, who was attending his grandfather's
funeral in Greenville, S.C. It was Minnesota's second win
without Garnett in 13 games over seven years. "My problem with
Chauncey is that sometimes he's too focused on running the
team," McHale says. "I tell him, 'Once you've initiated the
offense, you've done your thing. When the ball comes back out,
you've got to be aggressive and look to score.'"

The Timberwolves are the first team to accept Billups for the
hybrid that he is: a lifelong point guard with a scorer's
mentality. Celtics coach Rick Pitino gave up on Billups as a
playmaker only 51 games after drafting him. "He told me he
wanted to win right away," says the 6'3" Billups, 25, who went
to the Raptors in the seven-player trade that brought Kenny
Anderson to Boston. In January 1999 Toronto dealt Billups to the
Nuggets in what amounted to a homecoming; he had been a
second-team All-America at Colorado. However, in order to unload
Ron Mercer, Denver needed to include Billups's salary in a
five-player swap with the Magic in February 2000.

Billups says these "humbling experiences" made him a better team
player. "A guy who is on his second or third team realizes his
limitations," McHale says. "Nothing against the draft, but you
win with experienced players, guys who know the league and have
had their ass handed to them a few times. They aren't saying, I
have to prove who I am. They're saying, I have to prove I belong
on this team--and the way you prove it is by winning."

A prime example is Joe Smith, who in his first three years, with
the Warriors and the 76ers, failed to live up to expectations
that came with being the first pick in the '95 draft. "You're
expected to be the savior of the organization right away," says
Smith, who last summer signed with Minnesota for a reasonable
$34 million over six years. "When you're a young player, you
don't realize that you can only succeed as part of a team."

The T-Wolves' reliance on other teams' castoffs has been a
matter of necessity. This was a franchise burned by the
departures of Stephon Marbury and Tom Gugliotta and stripped of
three No. 1 picks for the under-the-table deal they made with
Smith in '99. If Minnesota advances past the first round of the
playoffs for the first time in franchise history, it will be
because All-Stars Garnett and Wally Szczerbiak are surrounded by
a tightly knit band of discards, including Anthony Peeler, Gary
Trent, Sam Mitchell, Felipe Lopez and the 6'10", 270-pound
Jackson, who was dealt 10 minutes before the trading deadline
last Thursday and now could supply much-needed low-post scoring.

Saunders felt he had to chastise his players after their
lackluster 89-83 loss at Houston last Thursday, but he
understood their malaise. To acquire Jackson the T-Wolves had to
give up the popular backup center Dean Garrett (as well as a
second-round pick in 2007). It says everything about Minnesota's
camaraderie that Garnett and his teammates were upset by the
trade of Garrett, who had washed out several times before
finding a home with the Timberwolves. In the end that
togetherness is going to win a lot more games for Minnesota than
it loses.

All-Star Steve Francis
His Head Aches, But He Plays On

Of all the ills that have befallen the Rockets this season--and
for an injury-riddled team that was 20-35 at week's end, there
have been plenty--the most disturbing has been point guard Steve
Francis's mysterious headaches. He suffered them occasionally
last year, but since returning in December from a monthlong foot
injury they have come like tidal waves.

That's why his backup, Moochie Norris, looks deep into Francis's
eyes several times a game. "There was one time when he made a
sensational move, and we had to yell at him to shoot it because
he didn't realize he was so wide open," says Norris. "I'm
worried that he could run into a screen and hurt himself."

"He's a guy who can jump really high, and sometimes he's out
there when he's dizzy or he has blurry eyesight," says Houston
trainer Keith Jones. "What if he misjudges the rim or mistimes
his jump?"

Through Sunday the 6'3" Francis had missed five games because of
the headaches, but he had also played at least 23 times with
them. Before Francis's second game back after the foot injury,
Rockets G.M. Carroll Dawson recalls seeing him lying in a
darkened training room with cold compresses on his head. "On a
scale of five, the pain was about 3 1/2," recalls Francis, who
tied his career-high of 36 points that night against the
Pistons, including the first buzzer-beating, game-winning shot
of his three-year career. Says Dawson, "It was one of the
greatest performances I've ever seen because of the condition he
was in."

Francis, who started in his first All-Star Game last month, says
he was initially worried that he may have had a life-threatening
condition. Since January at least a dozen specialists have
examined his teeth, sinuses, eyes and brain and have scrutinized
his diet and tested him for allergies. Although news reports
have commonly referred to his ailment as migraine headaches,
Jones says, "we have not had any doctor diagnose migraines."

As of last Friday the working diagnosis was that Francis was
suffering from a vestibular weakness, which results in vertigo.
He then began therapy at Texas Medical Center in Houston with
Kathleen Deyo, a neurological physical therapist who is teaching
him to compensate for an imbalance in his inner ears. "In a
stadium, with the crowds, excitement, the lights and all of the
movement, a person with this weakness can suffer from motion
sickness," says Deyo, who successfully treated Astros pitcher
Billy Wagner for a different form of vertigo after he was hit in
the head by a batted ball in 1998.

Francis's team of doctors believes there may be another
explanation for his symptoms, which is why the Rockets are
wiling to support his leaving the team to visit the Mayo Clinic
in Rochester, Minn., for further examinations. While Houston
players had missed 199 games because of injuries through Sunday,
young forwards Kenny Thomas and Eddie Griffin have made the most
of their increased minutes, raising hopes that the team will
surge into the playoffs next year if Glen Rice, Maurice Taylor
and others recover from injury.

But the real inspiration has come from Francis, who has been
fighting his way onto the court for a team that is going
nowhere. At week's end he was averaging 21.8 points, 7.6
rebounds and 6.6 assists to lead the team in all three
categories. "I look at it as a test from the devil," Francis
says. "I've got to play because my team really needs me. There's
nothing else I'd rather do than play."

The Jalen Rose Trade
A Deal with the Future in Mind

Imagine you are running the Pacers. In the summer of 2003 you
could be comfortably under the anticipated luxury-tax threshold
of $57 million and have close to $34 million to spend to re-sign
as many as six key free agents. How will you divvy up the money
among Jermaine O'Neal, Reggie Miller, Brad Miller, Jonathan
Bender, Ron Artest and Jeff Foster? Who will stay, and who will
go? "We're hoping to keep them all," says G.M. David Kahn.

O'Neal is likely to receive the maximum salary of around $11
million. That will leave $23 million for Reggie Miller (who will
earn $12 million next season), Brad Miller ($4.8 million),
Bender ($3.2 million), Artest ($1.9 million) and Foster ($1.6
million). It's unlikely the Pacers will be able to satisfy them
all--unless Reggie Miller, 36, decides to retire.

By trading Jalen Rose to the Bulls last week--along with Travis
Best and Norm Richardson for Artest, Ron Mercer, Brad Miller and
Kevin Ollie--the Pacers shed the remaining five years and $72
million of Rose's contract, giving them room to maneuver.
Creating salary space was a bigger impetus for the deal than any
conflicts between Rose and coach Isiah Thomas, who in a
seven-game stretch two months ago benched his leading scorer for
the fourth quarter five times.

However, there is no doubting that Thomas was the big winner in
the trade. Artest, Brad Miller and forward Al Harrington, who is
expected to return next season after undergoing knee surgery in
January, should provide the tough defense that Thomas desires.
The presence of Miller at center solidifies Indiana's rotation,
with O'Neal's shifting to power forward and Foster's coming off
the bench. On the other hand the trade of Rose means that Thomas
must now develop a go-to player who can take his man off the
dribble.

Play of the Week
Split Decision

On Feb. 19, with 1.2 seconds remaining and the Lakers trailing
the visiting Celtics 109-108, Kobe Bryant took the inbounds
pass, pump-faked and swished an 18-footer as the buzzer sounded
and the Staples Center crowd erupted. Referees Sean Corbin, Bob
Delaney and Phil Robinson huddled and--based largely on Corbin's
judgment--made the unpopular but ultimately correct decision
that Bryant shot the ball too late. College officials are
allowed to look at replays to review calls involving the clock,
but NBA referees have no such luxury. "Everybody in the crowd
thought it was good, two officials thought it was good," said
Bryant two days later, after seeing the replay. "He guessed, and
he just happened to get it right."

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Billups failed to fit in with four teams, but the T-Wolves are happy to have a scoring point guard.COLOR PHOTO: BILL BAPTIST/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Despite his vertigo, Francis continues to lead the Rockets in points, assists and rebounds.COLOR PHOTO: GREGORY SHAMUS/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Moving Rose and his enormous contract to Chicago freed up cap room to re-sign younger Pacers.

scout's Take

On the Celtics, who acquired Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk from
the Suns for Joe Johnson, Milt Palacio, Randy Brown and a
first-round pick in the June draft:

"This reminds me of those steals Red Auerbach used to pull off.
Without dealing anybody from their rotation, the Celtics added
two guys who score in double figures. Rogers and Delk shouldn't
hurt Boston's chemistry because they know how to defend, and the
Celtics are very serious about defense. You can see in their
rotations that they know what they're doing and that they
believe in it, from Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker on down. It's
a disciplined commitment to defense that I haven't seen
Milwaukee make yet. I was thinking that the Celtics would
contend for the conference title in two years, but now I'm
thinking they might this year."

around the Rim

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar believes he faces a tougher road to becoming
an NBA coach than Doc Rivers and Byron Scott, who got jobs when
their playing careers were fresh in the public mind. "I retired
13 years ago, so there isn't any momentum for me," says
Abdul-Jabbar, who last week signed to coach the USBL's Oklahoma
Storm this spring. "But I learned a lot about winning, and I
want to teach players to use their heads as much as their
athletic ability." ...Unhappy with the play of point guards
Derek Fisher and Lindsey Hunter, the Lakers have not ruled out
bringing back the retired Ron Harper if an injury opens up a
spot on the roster.... A key to the Celtics' five-player swap
with Phoenix was that it permitted them to unload their No. 1
draft choice this June. Without the pick, Boston will go into
the summer with a payroll of $51.7 million, just below the
projected luxury tax figure of $52 million.... The Suns'
decision to rebuild with a pair of first-round selections makes
sense when you look at their draft record over the last eight
years. Their late first-rounders include Wesley Person, Michael
Finley, Steve Nash and Jake Tsakalidis, plus Shawn Marion, who
was the No. 9 choice in '99.... In other years the Heat would
have used the $3.3 million trade exception it picked up in the
Tim Hardaway deal last summer, but coach Pat Riley says he will
probably let it lapse out of fear of the luxury tax.