Power Trip WHY IS THE NBA'S WESTERN CONFERENCE SO MUCH BETTER THAN THE EAST? BECAUSE THAT'S WHERE THE NASTIEST POWER FORWARDS LIVE. JOIN US ON A HEAD-BANGING TOUR

March 18, 2002

Pity San Antonio reserve forward Malik Rose. As the Spurs' 6'7"
defensive specialist, he draws such choice assignments as
chasing 7-foot Dirk Nowitzki around the three-point arc,
preventing hyperactive Kevin Garnett from catapulting for a
follow-up dunk, holding his ground against 256-pound bulldozer
Karl Malone and keeping 6'10" Chris Webber from floating up for
a near-automatic jump hook with either hand. And that's not even
counting the nights Rose spends battling the multitalented
Rasheed Wallace or the powerful Antonio McDyess or the
relentless Elton Brand or the extra-long-limbed rookie from
Spain, Pau Gasol. "Every game I have a hell of a defensive
assignment," says Rose, who doesn't even get a break in
practice, where he has to guard the best player in the NBA not
named Shaq, 7'1" Tim Duncan.

What all of Rose's nightmares have in common is not only that
they're power forwards but that they also play in the Western
Conference, which means he must face each of them at least three
and as many as five times a season. The position is so deep in
the West that five of those fours made the All-Star team in
February, though to provide room for them all, coaches had to
classify Nowitzki--perhaps best suited to play small forward--as
a center. If anyone has a prayer of toppling the 330-pound
O'Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers in the postseason, it's likely
to be a team with one of these littler big men plying his
assorted skills.

Power forwards didn't used to be so versatile. A decade ago they
were the guys who weren't massive enough to play in the pivot or
mobile enough to play on the perimeter; instead they were left
to handle the dirty work of collecting rebounds, constructing
screens and planting elbows into opponents' sternums. A few
relied on finesse in the low post (Kevin McHale comes to mind),
but for the most part they were blue-collar bruisers who acted
crazy or played dirty or--better yet--did both. (See Rodman,
Dennis.)

Nowadays, souped-up older models like Malone have been joined by
a crop of lanky, loping giants such as Garnett, Gasol and Wallace
who can dribble like point guards, defend like centers and shoot
like swingmen, forcing opposing coaches to play matchup roulette
in hopes of stopping them. The constant clash of limbs and egos
is what inspired SI to head out on a 10-day excursion at the end
of February in search of the best four play the league has to
offer.

Rasheed Wallace @ Elton Brand

It is two hours before tip-off at the Staples Center, and Brand
is practically duct-taping himself together in the Los Angeles
Clippers' locker room. After guarding Nowitzki and Duncan in the
last three days, his injury tally includes a bruised left hip, a
sore left knee and a torn tendon in the middle finger of his
right hand. Even so, he won't consider sitting. "There's no such
thing as a night off in the West," says Brand, wincing as he
tests his finger. "I feel I have to play hurt just to give our
team a chance against these guys."

The guy tonight is the Portland Trail Blazers' Wallace, 27, who,
when he keeps his head screwed on, is one of the league's few
unstoppable players. To prepare for him, Brand spent the
afternoon watching a tape, put together by assistant coach Rex
Kalamian, that features Wallace's five toughest moves. Included
are his baseline spin move from the left block, his one-dribble,
midrange pull-up jumper and his step-out three-pointer. The 6'11"
Wallace is so deadly from downtown that the 23-year-old Brand's
primary mission, according to Kalamian, is to "stay attached" to
him.

Early in the game Brand does just that, shadowing Wallace on the
perimeter and bumping him off the post. At the other end the
Blazers frequently use 6'11" Dale Davis to guard Brand in order
to keep Wallace from accumulating fouls--a not uncommon practice
among the coaches of the elite fours. Davis helps Wallace stay
out of foul trouble but has little luck keeping Brand off the
boards. In the first quarter Brand slithers baseline, holds off
a defender with his left hand and tips the ball in with his
right. A few plays later he gets another offensive rebound and
then another. (Through Sunday's games he led the NBA in
offensive boards, averaging 4.7.) At 6'8", the Not-So-Big E is
as active a post player as there is in the league, a warrior who
relies on hustle, muscle and heart. Portland forward Shawn Kemp
calls him "the most old school of the young guys."

That resilience helps Brand snag 16 rebounds, but it becomes
clear that no amount of desire can make up for a bum finger. At
one point in the second half he misses three straight putbacks.
Wallace, meanwhile, is heating up, twice burying his one-dribble,
Downy-soft turnaround jumper, which he holds so high that Brand
would need a pogo stick to block it. Still, the Clippers hang
around, and with six minutes left in the game, they briefly grab
the momentum after Wallace begins debating a foul call. Without
hesitation the crowd begins to chant, Give him a T! Give him a
T!, with all the gusto of rock fans requesting Free Bird. The ref
obliges, awarding Wallace, the Ted Williams of the technical, his
league-leading 22nd of the season.

Shortly thereafter an ailing Brand heads to the bench, done for
the night. Strangely, the Blazers don't go to Wallace, who barely
touches the ball on four critical possessions at the end of the
game. As is often his custom, he stays on the perimeter, content
to watch as his teammates take the big shots. Though the Blazers
pull out an 80-79 win, one is left to wonder just how good
Wallace would be if he played with the hunger of his Clippers
counterpart.

Kevin Garnett @ Tim Duncan

This is the marquee matchup--the battle for bragging rights
between the best in the West (chart, page 108). When these two
met 19 days earlier, they trash-talked at spittle-spraying range
until both got the heave-ho in the third quarter. The display
wasn't unusual for Garnett, a one-man McLaughlin Group on the
court. But the face-off was a rare departure for Duncan, as
unflappable a player as you'll find in the NBA. Before the game
both stars diplomatically dismiss talk of bad blood, though
Garnett is wearing a camouflage T-shirt as he does so. "Fatigue
is fashion," he says. "Y'all read Vogue."

Any notion that this is just another game between the Spurs and
the Minnesota Timberwolves dissolves when, with the Alamodome
roaring, Garnett nearly decapitates referee Hue Hollins with one
of his Mr. Fantastic arms in his enthusiasm to get to the
opening tip. Throughout the first quarter Garnett remains
supercharged, pulling down rebounds, pinning shots against the
glass and running the floor at breakneck speed, once even
blowing past the Spurs' Maserati-quick 19-year-old point guard,
Tony Parker. The performance is typical for Garnett, who may be
the closest thing there is to a 6'11" Swiss Army knife: He's
capable of defending any position and playing it as well. (At
the Sydney Olympics he beat each of his U.S. teammates in games
of full-court one-on-one.) Garnett is one of only seven players
in NBA and ABA history to average 20 points, 10 rebounds and
five assists in more than one season. The scary part, of course,
is that he's only 25 years old.

As good as Garnett is, though, it is Duncan whom the majority of
Western counterparts consider to be the preeminent power forward,
and he shows why in the second quarter. In a five-minute span he
takes Garnett down to the block twice, using head fakes and
footwork to dunk on him both times, hits a foul-line jumper and
connects on a textbook baseline turnaround. His moves are so
efficient that Shaq has dubbed him the Big Fundamental. "Two
dribbles and a jump hook or a bank shot," says Rose. "There's
nothing you can do."

Duncan is also staggeringly consistent: Since coming into the
league in 1997-98 he has accumulated more double doubles (270)
than any other player and is once again leading the league this
season, with 50 through Sunday. (Joining him in the top six were
Western cohorts Garnett, Brand and Nowitzki.) Although Duncan
might have been a center in another era--or even now, if he
weren't teamed with David Robinson--that's not to say he isn't
as skilled as players like Wallace and Nowitzki. "Tim has the
green light to shoot threes," says Spurs assistant coach Hank
Egan. "He just chooses not to."

Garnett, for his part, chooses otherwise and does so twice in
the third quarter, connecting both times. He finishes with 30
points, 11 rebounds and five assists to Duncan's 25, six and
five. Although the one-on-one duel is pretty much a draw--Duncan
abuses Garnett inside but can't keep up with him on the
perimeter--the T-Wolves pull away for a 112-88 victory. Asked
after the game if this one meant a little more than usual,
Garnett shakes his head. "Nah, that's for you guys in the media
to decide," he says as the tinny sound of Nas's Stillmatic
blares from his DVD player. Then, as if to hint at his real
answer, he winks and breaks into an expansive grin.

Karl Malone @ Chris Webber

It's 70 [degrees] in February, there's no traffic and, as the
only pro sports team in town, you are utterly adored by the
fans. Clearly it is good to be a King, especially at Arco Arena,
where Sacramento is 28-2 heading into tonight's game. In the
visitors' locker room the Utah Jazz's staff hands out
personalized scouting reports on each King. For Webber, the
breakdown lauds his baby hook, points out that jumpers account
for 62% of his shots and warns that he is--and this is
underlined--an underrated passer.

The last of those weapons is evident early in the game when
Webber snares a rebound, takes a dribble and fires a 40-foot
bounce pass that somehow ends up in Mike Bibby's hands for a
layup. Later he drops a no-look job over his shoulder to Vlade
Divac, redirects the ball like a volleyball setter to a cutting
Peja Stojakovic and loops one over the defense's head to Doug
Christie. "Chris has that gift of God or, if not God, of DNA,"
says Sacramento assistant Pete Carrill. "He sees everybody. Some
guys play their whole lives and never figure it out."

For Webber, who never really found a comfort zone with the
Golden State Warriors or the Washington Wizards, this Sacramento
squad perfectly complements his skills. Everyone on the team
loves to pass--Bibby even has team dime tattooed on his
back--and everyone can finish, too. "There are times [on other
teams] where I wouldn't pass to a guy if I didn't think he was
going to make it," says Webber, who at week's end was averaging
4.5 assists to go with 23.9 points and 10.2 rebounds, "but
that's not a problem here."

On this night the Kings aren't just the better shooters, they're
the better team, and they run out to an early lead and never look
back. The 6'9" Malone settles mainly for jumpers and has no
answer for Webber's quickness when he is matched up against him
inside. Twice Webber is able to spin past Malone, once for an
easy dunk and once for a soft floater. Nevertheless, Webber has
nothing but praise for Malone. "He still runs the floor faster
and faster every year, and his jump shot only gets better," says
Webber. "Just the fact that he's been able to do what he does for
so long, so consistently--it's made me set higher standards for
myself."

Pau Gasol @ Karl Malone

Sometimes a guy just can't catch a break. Two nights after a
17-day, Olympics-mandated road trip that ended with his
40-minute slam-dance with Webber, Malone has to cover the
Memphis Grizzlies' 7'1" Gasol, who in his first season ranks in
the top 15 in 10 categories. It is no way to treat a 39-year-old
man.

But then, as is apparent early in the first half when he tears
after a loose ball like a blitzing linebacker and throws it
downcourt for a layup, Malone is no ordinary 39-year-old huffing
down the court on bad knees. As finely conditioned an athlete as
has ever played the game--the Denver Nuggets' team doctor says
the only guy he's ever seen who's even close is retired forward
Kevin Willis--Malone can often be found lifting for an hour on
the morning of a game. His "off days" are spent in the Wasatch
Mountains, snowshoeing or on grueling straight-line hikes (no
trails allowed). Says Utah assistant coach Mark McKown, "He
needs a strength coach like Einstein needed a math tutor."

Malone's exceptional fitness (4% body fat) will enable him, in
all likelihood, to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record of 38,387
points sometime during the 2004 season. Though Malone has said
he'll retire if he ever has to come off the bench, that doesn't
seem likely to happen anytime soon, considering he was averaging
23.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.9 steals at week's end.
Certainly, his game has changed some--he shoots more jumpers,
and the Jazz's offense doesn't flow through him as often as it
once did--but he can still finish inside and move anybody out of
the blocks with his forklift of a lower body. When he covers the
Mailman, Rose's top priority sounds less like a tactic than a
plea: "Guard against getting a foul called."

While Malone has old-school muscle, Gasol is as new school as
they come. Agile and versatile, he makes up for his wispy frame
with praying mantis arms that seem to unfold to the rafters.
They collect rebounds like flypaper and on most nights allow him
to play not only above the rim but also above everyone else on
the court. In one memorable sequence this season he used this
length to throw down a Statue of Liberty dunk over Duncan and
Robinson.

In the third quarter at the Delta Center, Gasol makes another
rewind-worthy play. Picking up a loose ball, he gallops along the
right sideline and steams into the lane, where Malone tries to
cut him off. Sensing the defender, Gasol stops his dribble, goes
around his back and then tries to slam it home over 7'2" Greg
Ostertag and 6'9" Andrei Kirilenko. He misses the jam but
impresses both the crowd and, to an extent, Malone, who later
says of the move, "The operation was a success, but the patient
died."

The clanked dunk epitomizes Gasol's night. Neither he nor the
injury-plagued Grizzlies ever get on track. Malone racks up 10
points and nine assists before sitting down early as the Jazz
cruises to a 114-70 victory. After the game Malone is asked, in
light of the onslaught of young players like Gasol, whether he
considers traditional low-post forwards like himself to be a
dying breed. He nods. "No doubt, no doubt," he says, then
smiles. "Remember though, I ain't through just yet."

Dirk Nowitzki @ Antonio McDyess

Three days later at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Nowitzki is
warming up an hour before tip-off. As he moves around the
three-point arc, he sends the ball hissing through the net with
a soothing regularity--hitting four, five, six in a row. His
form is so flawless and his mechanics so consistent that he
resembles a giant German Juggs machine, only instead of
fastballs he spits out one perfect jumper after another.

At 23 Nowitzki is already not only the best shooter of the
Western forwards--"a three's a layup for him," says Duncan--but
also the most frustrating matchup. That's because he's just as
capable of going to the basket as spotting up from 25 feet, a
concept that would have seemed ludicrous for a 7-footer 20 years
ago. Can you imagine Abdul-Jabbar unspooling three-balls?

To defend Nowitzki, big guys must ignore their cardinal rule of
defense: Sprint back and protect the rim first. "It goes against
everything you've ever been taught," says Mavericks forward Raef
LaFrentz, who used to draw Dirk duty before being acquired from
the Denver Nuggets in late February. "You're constantly
thinking, Goddam, where's he at?"

It is much easier to locate (if not defend) the Nuggets'
McDyess, 27, a throwback forward whose domain is either near the
rim or, more often than not, suspended somewhere above it.
Exceptionally strong (at 6'9", 250 pounds, he leg-presses 650
pounds), he uses his power to squeeze down on opponents and his
absurd hops--he has a 42-inch vertical leap, 47 inches with a
step--to rise over them for dunks or high-extension turnaround
J's, which he prefers to take spinning to his right.
"Athletically, pound-for-pound, there's not a better power
forward than Antonio," says Dallas assistant coach Donnie Nelson
as he watches McDyess warm up.

Indeed, until knee surgery sidelined him for the first 54 games
of the season, McDyess was busy establishing himself as one of
the best power forwards, period. Last year, after starring on
the gold-medal-winning 2000 Olympic team, he earned his first
All-Star berth and averaged 20.8 points and 12.1 rebounds. Even
now, in only his second game back from rehab, he is too powerful
for Nowitzki, who vainly tries to front him as McDyess
establishes inside position. Despite lacking his usual
explosion--"My jump is only in the high 20s right now," he
estimates mournfully--McDyess scores 12 first-half points on a
variety of seal-off post moves, spin-and-catch alley-oops and
baseline 15- to 17-footers.

The defense is equally unequal to the task at the other end,
where the Nuggets seem to have completely forgotten the rule for
Nowitzki: Stick to him like a remora at all times. Twice in the
first half he drops in transition three-pointers. When Denver
tries a smaller defender--in this extreme case, 6-foot Tim
Hardaway--Nowitzki immediately backs him down and shoots over
him, exhibiting a post-up game that, though it is still not his
strong suit, has improved considerably since last season.

Denver stays with Dallas and forces overtime before falling
116-110. After the game a drained McDyess--who finishes with 16
points and nine rebounds in 25 minutes--showers and drives
straight to the airport to board a flight for the following
night's game in Utah. Pondering the prospect of facing Malone in
less than 24 hours, McDyess can only chuckle ruefully. "It's
tough," he says. "Even when I'm 100 percent, I gotta bring my A
game every night or I might get embarrassed by these guys. To
tell the truth, a day off wouldn't be so bad right now."

Considering life in the never-can-rest West, he's doubtless not
the only one who feels that way.

COLOR PHOTO: ANDY HAYT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Brand (42) spent an afternoon watching video of Wallace to prepare for their battle. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Rated by their peers as the two best fours in the game, Duncan (left) and Garnett played to a draw. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Malone (far right) proved to be no match for the much quicker Webber near the basket. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH At age 39 Malone relies on old-fashioned muscle while the new-school Gasol is agile and versatile. COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO McDyess (24) was able to abuse Nowitzki down low but couldn't stop him outside.

Fantastic Fours

The power forwards in the Western Conference are so talented
that, of the top nine, only one--Pau Gasol, a rookie--hasn't
been named an All-Star in the past two years. So how to
determine who's the best? Very subjectively. Here then, with
their skills rated from best (1) to ninth best, is one man's
power ranking. --C.B.

Shooting Passing Heart
Post-up Rebounding Defense Total
Tim Duncan 1 5 1 3 1 2 13
Kevin Garnett 4 3 4 2 2 1 16
Chris Webber 2 6 5 1 6 5 25
Elton Brand 3 8 2 8 4 4 29
Karl Malone 6 4 7 4 8 3 32
Dirk Nowitzki 8 1 6 5 9 6 35
Antonio McDyess 7 7 3 9 3 7 36
Rasheed Wallace 5 2 9 6 5 9 36
Pau Gasol 9 9 8 7 7 8 48

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)