Inside The NBA

January 27, 2003

School of Hard Knocks
The Pacers are learning fast thanks to the oft-criticized Isiah
Thomas

No coach draws more fire than the Pacers' Isiah Thomas, who over
the last two years has been accused of everything from laziness
to encouraging thuggish play. Those shots (mostly from anonymous
league sources) draw angry retorts from team president Donnie
Walsh, who argues that Thomas should be congratulated for keeping
the young Pacers in the playoffs as they rebuilt following their
run to the 2000 Finals under Larry Bird. "I said to Isiah, 'What
did you do to piss people off?'" says Walsh.

Thomas took the insults as the highest compliment. "I heard those
things," he says, "and that's when I knew I was on the right
track. This is a very competitive league, and when you're doing
things the right way, the other 28 teams say things to try to get
inside your team and tear it down, but that only made me more
stubborn about what I was doing."

Much of the credit for Indiana's 29--11 start should go to
Thomas, the leading candidate for the Eastern Conference
coaching spot in the All-Star Game. (Byron Scott, whose Nets were
28--11 at week's end, is ineligible because he led the East last
year.) The Pacers are no easy team to coach--with the exception
of 37year-old Reggie Miller, they average just 3.2 seasons of NBA
experience--but Thomas has them all on the same page. The
read-and-react offense he installed this season had produced 98.8
points per game through Sunday (No. 4 in the league), with five
players averaging double figures. The offense also takes pressure
off point guard Jamaal Tinsley, the No. 27 pick in the '01 draft,
who at week's end ranked sixth in the league with 7.5 assists per
game. "When he experiences failure," says Thomas, "we don't beat
him up for it."

Though Thomas disputes that he doesn't work hard--and team
insiders, citing his zealous film study and year-round devotion
to his job, back him up--he is happy to hear that his methods
aren't popular. Some rivals equate the physical play of swingman
Ron Artest and center Brad Miller with the chippiness of Dennis
Rodman and Bill Laimbeer, who with Thomas developed into the Bad
Boy Pistons of the late 1980s. "He's got some beasts out there
who are about to really hurt somebody, and he just sits back and
chuckles with that smile of his," Mavericks coach Don Nelson says
of Thomas. "He's got a great basketball team, and he deserves a
lot of credit for getting them to play the hard, hustling style
he wants. But he's trying to mold them into the old Pistons. The
difference is that the Pistons were physical, and these guys are
just plain dirty."

Both Walsh and Thomas scoff at that charge. "We don't play
rough," says Thomas, whose team, through Sunday, ranked 12th in
personal fouls and 13th in disqualifications.

Recalling that it took his Pistons five heartbreaking postseasons
to reach the Finals, Thomas is prepared to watch his young team
suffer through a tough learning experience in the playoffs. At
the same time, it's hard to find an Eastern team other than the
Nets with a better chance of getting to the Finals. "I wouldn't
be surprised [to make it]," Thomas says. "Our guys are so far
ahead of where they should be. When they get to the point where
they know what to do just by looking at each other, that's when
it's going to be really, really good."

U.S. Olympic Squad in 2004
Will Pierce Pay For Playing?

Celtics All-Star guard Paul Pierce senses that his reputation is
suffering, and he is willing to take drastic steps to fix it.
"Maybe I'll call David Stern," he says.

If he does get the commissioner on the phone, Pierce says he will
ask to play for the U.S. team at Athens in 2004 as well as in the
Olympic qualifying tournament this August in Puerto Rico. Pierce
would seem to be an obvious choice: He's the league's
fifth-leading scorer (25.6 points per game at week's end), and he
led the U.S. in scoring (19.8 points) and was third in assists
(3.9) at the World Championships in Indianapolis in August. While
selection committee chairman Stu Jackson maintains that Pierce is
a candidate for the team, other sources close to the committee
say that Pierce has little or no chance because they believe he
was a negative influence last summer. They note that he played
selfishly and bickered too often with teammates. Pierce also
publicly criticized coach George Karl, which didn't sit well with
the committee.

Pierce is frustrated that USA Basketball was on the verge last
week of announcing that Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Jason
Kidd and Tracy McGrady have been selected to the Olympic team.
"These are the same guys who said no last summer," Pierce says.
He believes that he is taking too much blame for the team's three
losses and humiliating sixth-place showing in the worlds. There's
no doubt that U.S. team was assembled with little regard for the
shooting ability and all-around play demanded by the
international game, and that it needed Pierce to score. Says
Pierce, "I think I'd have a better chance [of making the Olympic
team] if I hadn't played then."

Sale of the Suns
Colangelo Plots His Exit Strategy

Looking to buy a successful NBA franchise in a high-growth,
warm-weather market with a 30year tax-free lease on its arena?
The Suns are available, with one proviso: You must be patient.
Owner Jerry Colangelo is looking to take on a minority partner
who will have first option to buy the team in five to 10 years.
"I'm at the age where I'm thinking about an exit strategy," says
Colangelo, 63, who sets the team's value at between $400 million
and $450 million. That means a 49% stake in the Suns will cost a
minimum of $200 million. Only three NBA franchises--the Celtics,
the Mavericks and the new team in Charlotte--have sold for more
than that.

Colangelo denies rumors circulating throughout the NBA that he
wants to sell the Suns now. "I've been talking about this off and
on for a couple of years," says Colangelo, whose 34year reign
with one franchise is second only to the 52 years that Red
Auerbach has spent with the Celtics. "There have been some
catastrophes where people had to sell franchises because of bad
estate planning. I want to avoid that, but at the same time I'm
going to be in control of the franchise for as long as I'm
active."

For the latest NBA news plus analysis from Jack McCallum, go to
cnnsi.com/basketball.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN The rough play of Jeff Foster (above, right) and his mates has Thomas catching flak. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (THOMAS) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

scout's Take

On the Kings, who in a recent seven-day stretch whipped the Nets
and the Mavericks by a combined 65 points:

"They're holding teams to 41.8 percent shooting [second best in
the league], and they're doing it while good defenders like Scot
Pollard and Bobby Jackson are out with injuries. When those guys
get back, Hedo Turkoglu becomes their 10th or 11th man, which
gives them truly frightening depth. Teams that run, like Dallas
and New Jersey, have no shot because the Kings do that better
than anyone. Your one reasonable hope is to beat them in the
post, which is why the Lakers and maybe the Spurs are the only
teams that have a chance to stop them."

around the Rim

Realizing Grant Hill's injured ankle and uncertain future might
make Orlando less attractive to the big men who are free agents
this summer, the Magic is aggressively pursuing a trade for an
inside player.... The NBA's seven-game suspension of Rasheed
Wallace for threatening a referee should persuade the Trail
Blazers to trade him to regain credibility with their fans....
Two ideas from a memo suggesting ways to emphasize team play sent
league-wide last week by Hawks G.M. Pete Babcock: 1) Replace the
All-Star Game with a minitournament involving the four teams with
the best records; and 2) outlaw contract incentives for
individual achievement and replace them with a bonus for every
player based on his team's victories.... Misunderstandings are to
be expected in this era of foreign players. "Take your time!"
Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders yelled to Yugoslav rookie guard
Igor Rakocevic during a win last week over the Clippers.
Rakocevic responded by calling timeout.

SI's U.S. Olympics Squad

Here's the 12-man roster we'd like to see in 2004--including Paul
Pierce (above)--chosen from those players interested in going to
Athens.

Centers Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett

Forwards Elton Brand, Antonio McDyess, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine
O'Neal, Antoine Walker

Guards Pierce, Mike Bibby, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd

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)