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Inside The NBA

Feb. 24, 2003
Feb. 24, 2003

Table of Contents
Feb. 24, 2003

Inside The NBA

Snappy Comeback

This is an article from the Feb. 24, 2003 issue Original Layout

Miscast in Philly, Matt Harpring is flourishing in his new role
in Utah

Matt Harpring is flattered to be the leading candidate for the
NBA's Most Improved Player Award, but the Jazz small forward
takes some issue with the designation. Harpring doesn't think
he's any better than he was last year--he just thinks he's found
a more suitable fit for his talent after a frustrating 2001--02
season with coach Larry Brown in Philadelphia. "I always knew I
could play," says Harpring. "But you've got to have a coach who
has confidence in you."

At week's end the 6'7", 230-pound Harpring was averaging 18.4
points per game and 50.7% shooting, both career highs, while
helping the Jazz to a 31--21 record, sixth best in the West. His
emergence is all the more impressive considering that in previous
stints with Orlando, Cleveland and Philadelphia he had a
reputation as a high-energy defender and rebounder but just a
so-so scorer. It makes Harpring wonder how much talent is
squandered because players are forced to accept diminished roles.
"There are 29 NBA teams and maybe two scorers on each," Harpring
says. "The rest of the guys in the league had better be good role
players, because otherwise they're not going to step on the
court."

Harpring was confused about his role last year in Philly, where
he says he was told to idle on the perimeter and keep the lane
free for Allen Iverson. "You have a coach telling you at
halftime, 'You're not a shooter, I told you to defend and
rebound,'" he says. "It makes it hard to hit an open shot."

Now Harpring, a nonstop runner who loves cutting to the basket,
has found his niche in Utah, where veterans John Stockton (No. 1
alltime in assists), Mark Jackson (soon to overtake Magic Johnson
as No. 2) and Karl Malone reward him with passes. "You'd think
this would be a good situation for him, the way he moves without
the ball and the way they like to set picks, but you can never
know for sure until you see how all the talents fit together,"
says Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who watched Harpring hit a
game-tying three-pointer with 0.1 of a second remaining to force
overtime in Utah's 103--101 win over the Rockets last week. "It's
the beautiful thing about this game that you can't predict."

Harpring isn't worrying too much about how his role might change
if Stockton, Jackson and Malone retire or move elsewhere as free
agents this summer. For now he's just enjoying his breakthrough
season. "Shooters become good shooters when they're allowed to
get into the rhythm of the game," Harpring says. "It's hard to be
a good shooter when you touch the ball once and then you don't
touch it again for seven minutes."

Labor Talks
An Early Start to Avoid a Stoppage

Commissioner David Stern and players' union chief Billy Hunter
surprised many during the All-Star break when they announced that
they would meet in April to begin negotiations on a new
collective bargaining agreement. Their goal is to shake hands on
a deal long before the current contract expires at the end of
next season. (It could be extended for an additional year at the
owners' option.) "I don't think the league could survive another
bloody fight," says Hunter, referring to the six-month lockout in
1998--99. "But if we're put in the position where we have to
fight, that's what we'll do."

The detente began when Hunter okayed an extension of the first
round of the playoffs to a best-of-seven format, in return for
concessions by owners that will allow veterans to report to
training camp three to five days later than they had in the past.
Stern had sought the playoff extension last year but was rebuffed
by Hunter, which led to an icy five months when the two didn't
speak. "I'm telling the players that they have to be sensitive to
economic and political circumstances--the economy hasn't bottomed
out yet, and the country is on the verge of war," Hunter says.
"We can't afford to have fans disconnecting with the players."

While the average NBA salary has almost doubled under the latest
contract, to $4.6 million, Hunter concedes that the players'
share of revenues has dropped 6% over the last two seasons
because of two negotiated provisions: the owners'
budget-balancing "escrow fund," to which players have been
obliged to contribute 10% of their salaries, and the impending
luxury tax, which Hunter criticizes as a clumsy device that has
had a chilling effect on free agency. He and his fellow lawyers
in the union's 17-person New York City office are working on
alternatives that they hope will boost player movement.

Near the top of Stern's wish list is a minimum age of 20 for
players, which would stop high school stars from jumping to the
NBA (though it would not take effect until after LeBron James
makes his move to the pros). Last week several agents were
hinting that the union had already agreed to the age limit, a
claim Hunter says is premature. "I'd assume that G.M.'s are
telling the agents that there's going to be a trade-off," Hunter
says. "Maybe the league is going to make me an offer I can't
refuse."

Foreign Affairs
The Hazards of Overseas Travel

Here's an example of the trials and tribulations involved in
evaluating European players: At least seven NBA scouts attended a
Euroleague game last Thursday in Siena, Italy, to study three
young prospects who play for the Montenegrin club KK Buducnost.
The scouts walked out of the gym shaking their heads after
Buducnost suffered a Euroleague-record 112--49 blowout. Two of
the NBA prospects--7'5" center Slavko Vranes and 6'7" small
forward Aleksandar Pavlovic--went scoreless in eight minutes.
Zarko Cabarkapa, a 6'11" forward who must overcome concerns that
he's too soft for the NBA, scored only eight points in 31
minutes. The NBA experts had traveled a long way to see
horrendous performances.

"A hazard of making European trips is that you may get a game
like this, or the game might be canceled or moved, or the player
you've come to see doesn't get minutes," says an NBA scout who
was in Italy. "The good thing was seeing how big these guys are,
how well they move, how quick they are. You can watch a ton of
games on tape, but it doesn't do you any good if you haven't seen
the players in person."

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Harpring, who excels at cuts to the hoop, has thrived in Utah's pass-happy offense.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECKCOLOR PHOTO: ICON SMI NBA bird dogs want a good look at Cabarkapa, which is easier said than done.

around the Rim

The Celtics have gone out of their way to be patient with
underachieving big man Vin Baker, who's averaging just 5.9
points and 3.9 rebounds. His former employers suggest Boston
try a tougher approach. "Every time we got mad and confronted
him, he responded with a big game," says a Sonics
insider....The downside of extending the first round of the
playoffs to best-of-seven is that it will produce even fewer
upsets. The NBA postseason is already the most predictable in
pro sports: Over the last 23 seasons just seven franchises have
won titles. Compare that with baseball, where 17 different
teams have won the World Series over the same span.... Kobe
Bryant wasn't in the first group of players named to the
Olympic team because he's been slow to sign the standard USA
Basketball marketing contract required of all Olympians. Bryant
takes greater personal interest in his marketing than any
player this side of Michael Jordan, and he's in the middle of
negotiating a new sneaker deal. "It's going to get done," says
Bryant, reaffirming his promise to spend the next two summers
playing for the U.S. "I'm there."...Power forward Danny
Fortson is trying to make the best of a season spent at the end
of the Warriors' bench. "You give me $5 million this year to
sit, basically just a fan, front-row tickets," says Fortson. "A
lot of people would love to have that job."

scout's Take

On the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, who last week became the first player
since Michael Jordan in 1986--87 to score 35 points or more in
nine straight games:

"People ask if Kobe is the next Jordan, but I don't think you can
compare the two. Kobe at 24 has been winning championships at a
much younger age than Jordan won his. Still, Jordan used to score
whenever he wanted to, which is what Kobe's doing now. I've never
seen him have a run like this, but he's doing it because his team
has needed it so desperately. He pretty much single-handedly put
them on a seven-game winning streak and back into playoff
contention. Last week Denver threw three defenders at Kobe, and
he still beat them. If he keeps playing like this, he's going to
be completely worn out. But I think you're going to see his
teammates--Shaq, Robert Horry, Brian Shaw--stepping up and
following his example."

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