Inside The NBA

May 27, 2002
May 27, 2002

Table of Contents
May 27, 2002

Si Adventure

Inside The NBA

Rocket Power
Houston defied the odds and won the lottery jackpot--the No. 1
pick in the draft

This is an article from the May 27, 2002 issue Original Layout

Golden state G.M. Garry St. Jean leaned over a sink on Sunday
and threw cold water in his face. He had just been dealt another
bad break, this time at the NBA draft lottery. The Warriors have
been cursed since the 1994 falling out between the team's star
(Chris Webber) and its coach (Don Nelson) led to the departure
of both men and set the franchise back years. That was followed
three years later by Latrell Sprewell's attempt to strangle
coach P.J. Carlesimo, and lately the frustrated efforts of St.
Jean to get more out of the dazzling young talent he has spent
the last five years assembling.

Golden State won only 21 games this season, tying Chicago for
the worst record in the league, but that gave the Warriors and
the Bulls the most Ping-Pong balls in Sunday's lottery drawing.
Yet Houston, despite having the fifth-worst record and a slim
8.9% chance of winning, watched its number come up and will have
the first pick in the June 26 draft. Chicago has the second pick
and Golden State the third. That means St. Jean will have to
make an expensive swap with the Rockets or the Bulls to get 7'5"
Chinese center Yao Ming or Duke point guard Jay Williams, who
could instantly resolve the Warriors' playmaking and shooting
woes. The Rockets almost certainly won't draft Williams: They
already have an All-Star point guard in Steve Francis. But if
Houston believes Yao has the potential to become another Hakeem
Olajuwon, whom the Rockets drafted with the top pick in 1984,
they will surely grab him.

If the Rockets are interested in trading the top pick, Golden
State wouldn't be the only potential suitor. The others would
include Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Golden State, Phoenix, Miami
and New York (though the last two would have little to offer in
trade). Things could get interesting as draft preparation enters
its final month. Here are the top teams to watch:

No. 5 Denver--This has the makings of a promising stretch for
the Nuggets, who could have as much as $30 million in cap room
to spend in 2003.

No. 4 Memphis--Jerry West will be looking for the best player
available. Caron Butler of UConn? Drew Gooden of Kansas? Nene
Hilario of Brazil? Fortunately for the Grizzlies, West is the
league's best evaluator of talent.

No. 3 Golden State--If St. Jean can't move up, he'll probably be
looking at Duke forward Mike Dunleavy, a consensus high lottery
pick. "That wouldn't be bad," said St. Jean, his face
brightening at the thought.

No. 2 Chicago--G.M. Jerry Krause is said to have fallen in love
with the idea of a frontline of 7'5" Yao, 7'1" Tyson Chandler
and 6'11" Eddy Curry. He also is a fan of Williams's. As a third
option, he figures to have $6 million under the luxury-tax
threshold this summer, which would allow him to package the
draft pick in a trade for veteran help.

No. 1 Houston--Last year the Rockets gambled three first-round
picks on a draft-night trade for Eddie Griffin, whom they hadn't
worked out. Coach Rudy Tomjanovich and G.M. Carroll Dawson will
be looking to make the most of this pick, conventional wisdom be

Houston's ascension to the No. 1 pick this year was more
complicated than the coin flip it won in 1984 to beat out
Portland for the right to choose first. Wary of accusations of a
fixed lottery if New York were to win (such conspiracy theories
cropped up when the Knicks won the 1985 lottery and snared
Patrick Ewing), the league invited an SI reporter and three
other media representatives behind closed doors to witness the

The ceremony was similar to the state-run lotteries that are
broadcast throughout the country. A briefcase was brought in,
and its plastic lock was snipped off as representatives of the
13 lottery teams sat watching in a small upstairs room at the
NBA Entertainment headquarters in Secaucus, N.J. Fourteen
numbered Ping-Pong balls were removed from the briefcase and
dropped one by one into a clear plastic lottery machine, where
they floated like popcorn seeds in a hot-air popper. All but one
of the 1,001 possible combinations of four numbers were randomly
assigned to the 13 lottery teams, with the worst teams getting
the most combinations. Balls bearing the numbers 13, 8, 11 and 4
came up first, matching one of the 89 combinations assigned to
the Rockets. Nelson Luis, Houston's director of team
communications, didn't react to the winning combination until an
NBA executive confirmed it. Luis then threw a victory punch and
said "Yes!" before settling back into his chair, not wanting to
gloat. The Rockets won't have time to celebrate until draft day.

Mavericks Need To Get Defensive
Dallas's Top Priority

After watching his Mavericks lose in the second round for the
second straight year, owner Mark Cuban is convinced that Dallas
needs to improve defensively. But he doesn't want to break up
his nucleus and doubts that bringing in a player or two will
drastically alter the team's mentality. In fact Cuban admits
that the timing of his trade for Raef LaFrentz and Nick Van Exel
hurt the team defensively. "It's hard to have great team defense
when the team has only 35 games together," says Cuban, who
believes that the best defensive teams have "guys who have
played together for years. Just adding one defender doesn't
change that."

Cuban thinks the Mavs already have a potential defensive leader:
team co-captain Michael Finley. At 29 he is still young and
athletic enough to make the transition from scorer to total
player that his idol, Michael Jordan, made in his mid-20s. Mavs
insiders say Finley, the oldest regular starter on the team, is
the Mavs' one player capable of leading by defensive example.
"His leadership skills are expanding daily," says Cuban. "He has
gone from being quiet--he would rarely say anything
game-related--to being a player who will stand up in front of
the team and give direction. I expect that, next year, that
ability will grow to the next level."

If he does emerge as the Mavs' leader, Finley will have to
maintain order in a locker room brimming with talented players
who are privately dissatisfied with their minutes. Remove Finley
from the equation, and Dallas could suffer a Milwaukee-esque
meltdown. "He's the one guy on the team, when he opens his mouth
everybody shuts up and listens," says a Dallas insider.

This was a trying season for Finley. For the first time in his
seven-year career he was sidelined by injury. When the Mavs went
12-1 while he recovered from a strained left hamstring, he heard
his name mentioned in trade rumors. "People who know me knew I
was not a happy man this year," Finley said. That was not
apparent in the second round of the playoffs, when he
contributed 24.6 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. But Dallas
lost that series in five games, in part because of porous
defense. (The Kings averaged 112.8 points per game.)

The Mavs could help themselves by signing an intimidator, such
as Clippers center Michael Olowokandi, a restricted free agent.
But Cuban can only offer the $4.5 million exception, and the
Clippers would surely match that. Barring a trade, Dallas will
probably add a physical role player like Kevin Willis.

The final step for many talented teams is learning to play
championship-level defense. "You just have to be motivated to
play hard defensively," Finley said last week as he emptied out
his locker for the long summer ahead. Consider at least one
Maverick motivated.

Atlanta's Knight In Shining Armor
The Hawks Beef Up

After the death of scouting director Gary Wortman two years ago,
the Atlanta Hawks tried to make do with an undersized front
office of G.M. Pete Babcock, two full-time scouts and one
part-timer. "We feel we work better as a small group, but it was
getting to be too much," Babcock says. "The game has expanded to
the point that you have to look around the world for players,
plus you now have more players coming out of high school."

This spring the Hawks sought to expand in the biggest way by
trying to hire former Lakers exec Jerry West. "I told our people
that if there was a way for us to hire Jerry we should do it,
even if I had to leave," says Babcock, who is good friends with
West. But West chose to join the Memphis Grizzlies instead. To
make room for him, the Grizzlies fired G.M. Billy Knight.

Last week the Hawks hired the highly respected Knight as
director of basketball operations. It didn't hurt that Knight
had made a trade last year with Babcock that helped both teams,
sending Shareef Abdur-Rahim and the draft rights to Jamaal
Tinsley to Atlanta for Lorenzen Wright, Brevin Knight and the
rights to Pau Gasol, who became Rookie of the Year. "We saw that
Billy's two draft pickups, Gasol and [Shane] Battier, turned out
to be such great rookies," Babcock says. "Billy is going to be a
great help."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH If the Warriors don't deal their No. 3 pick, they might well snag Duke forward Mike Dunleavy.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Finley's (4) a proven scorer, but can he lead Dallas to better team defense?