DERRICK'S THE ONE
I am not crazy about the idea of choosing the Nets' Derrick Coleman as the NBA's Rookie of the Year. He engaged New Jersey in a protracted preseason contract battle, ultimately holding up the Nets for about $15 million over five years, an absurd price for any young, lefthanded frontcourt player not named David Robinson. Coleman subsequently said that he might like to renegotiate the contract after two years. And he has already stated, "I am the franchise."
Nevertheless, I hereby jump the gun and name Coleman, the first pick in the 1990 draft, Rookie of the Year (box, below). Unequivocally. And, barring injuries more serious than the sprains to his left knee and left ankle that he has suffered so far this season, I expect almost every other voter to do the same when he or she submits a Rookie of the Year ballot in March. Sure, we're only talking about New Jersey here, but Coleman is the franchise. He's a strong rebounder (a team-leading 10.2 a game through Sunday) and the Nets' second-leading scorer (15.7) behind Reggie Theus (18.7).
Still, like all rookies, Coleman has drawn mixed reviews. While Cleveland Cavalier coach Lenny Wilkens said of him, "I like his personality for the game," another coach, speaking anonymously, declared, "He's a great talent but a funny kid." And he wasn't referring to Coleman's one-liners.
Predictably, Coleman and his coach, Bill Fitch, will not be exchanging Valentine's Day cards next month. "Yeah, Derrick's mad at me right now," Fitch said last week, "because I've been talking about what horrible shape he's in." Coleman denies he is out of condition, but he has missed five games this season because of those nagging injuries. Nugget rookie Chris Jackson, the third draft pick behind Coleman and the Sonics' Gary Payton, has had ups and downs with his bosses, too. After Jackson complained about playing time early in the season, Denver general manager Bernie Bickerstaff said, "Chris should stop bitching and start working." For the most part, he has.
This time of year the phrase tossed around most often about the newcomers is, "They've hit that rookie wall." The Hawks' Rumeal Robinson has hit it particularly hard, perhaps even knocking himself unconscious; after starting at point guard early in the season, he has disappeared into the Land of Deep Garbage Time.
But there have been pleasant surprises: Foremost among them are guard Dee Brown of the Celtics, forward Lionel Simmons and guard Travis Mays of the Kings, and 7-foot, 270-pound center Felton Spencer of the Timberwolves. The steal of the 1990 draft may have occurred in the second round when the Suns landed guard Negele Knight. It's hard to show much when Kevin Johnson is playing ahead of you, but Knight has proved to be a capable, confident backup.
It's time for the NBA Competition Committee to expand the rosters for the All-Star Game from 12 to 14 or 15 players. Consider the plight of Trail Blazer point guard Terry Porter, the quarterback—some say the MVP—of what is unquestionably the best team in the NBA, who has only an outside shot of being among the Western Conference All-Stars. Porter would be a shoo-in in the East, where there is just one All-Star point guard, Isiah Lord Thomas of the Pistons. But in the West, Porter is boxed in by the Lakers' Magic Johnson, the Suns' Kevin Johnson and the Jazz's John Stockton. Is Porter better than any of them? Not really. And is he better than Portland running mate Clyde Drexler, who also figures in the backcourt picture? Not really.
If Porter does make the All-Star team as a fifth backcourtman behind that formidable foursome, it would leave no room for the Warriors' Tim Hardaway, whom some observers—though not this one—believe to be better than Porter.
To correct such injustices, Golden State coach Don Nelson advocates two All-Star games, one for each conference. A more realistic hope for players like Porter is that the rosters will be expanded. After all, major league baseball invites 28 players from each league to its All-Star Game, while NFL Pro Bowl rosters feature 42 players each.
HOPE FOR VISA PROBLEMS
Congratulations and bonne chance to coach Mike Dunleavy and his Lakers, who have been selected to participate in the 1991 McDonald's Open, in Paris. The last three NBA coaches who made the trip abroad for this preseason tournament were the Celtics' Jimmy Rodgers, the Nuggets' Doug Moe and the Knicks' Stu Jackson. All were subsequently fired.
Take a moment, if you will, to raise a glass to the following NBA players—former NBA players, that is: Pat Cummings, Jazz; T.R. Dunn, Nuggets; Jim Farmer, Sixers; Avery Johnson, Nuggets; Pete Myers, Spurs; Kelvin Upshaw, Mavericks; Reggie Williams, Spurs; Leon Wood, Kings; Mike Woodson, Cavaliers; and Howard Wright, Magic. All were waived by Dec. 24, the 55th day of the NBA season.
Any player on a roster after 55 days must be paid for the entire season, even if he is later waived. So it has become the custom for some teams to set high-priced bench players adrift before their full financial commitments kick in and to replace them with lesser lights. Everybody is aware of the system, but that didn't make it a more joyous holiday for the castoffs, particularly old pros such as Cummings, Dunn and Woodson. Celtic forward Dave Popson was more fortunate. He was waived so that swingman Derrick Smith could be added to the roster, but after Smith was placed on the injured list on Dec. 27, Popson was signed for the duration of the season.
Each season the 55th day falls around Christmas, and even a superstar like Philadelphia's Charles Barkley, who is never likely to be in such a situation, thinks this is heartless. "We should redo the date for guaranteeing contracts," says Barkley. "You can't cut guys on Christmas. We should make the date the beginning of the calendar year."
Some of those waived this Christmas will probably be signed as 10-day players, but, as of last weekend, only Upshaw was back as a temp, with Dallas. And when Fat Lever comes off the injured list, Upshaw will probably have to hit the road again.
WHITHER DALE ELLIS?
It seemed as though the Sonics had stolen Dale Ellis from the Mavericks when, in July 1986, Seattle picked him up in exchange for a washed-up Al Wood. Now, one has to wonder. True, Ellis is a classic NBA two-guard, a player who can both post up an opponent and bust him from three-point range. But a pattern of off-the-court misadventures—drunk driving charges, well-publicized marital difficulties and clashes with teammates, including a fistfight with forward Xavier McDaniel on Nov. 21—have severely undercut his value around the league. When, in an effort to improve team chemistry, the Sonics traded McDaniel to the Suns last month, many observers wondered if Seattle had really wanted to deal Ellis but couldn't find any takers in a league wan' of his reputation.
Well, it's not quite that simple. For one thing, the Sonics were disenchanted with McDaniel's offense. Remember when the Pistons unloaded Adrian Dantley midway through the 1988-89 season, even though Dantley had excellent numbers? The move was made because AD's penchant for holding the ball had thrown his teammates off their game. McDaniel's style is similar to Dantley's; Ellis, by contrast, takes only what the offense gives him and doesn't force much.
However, to say that the Seattle brass preferred Ellis to McDaniel is simply not true. The Sonics tried to trade Ellis over the summer and failed. But when circumstances forced them to get rid of one player or the other, they took the best deal they could get. It wasn't much: Seattle got forward Eddie Johnson and two first-round draft picks for McDaniel. Ellis hasn't been blackballed by the NBAs other teams, but judging from some of the comments made about him, he's not exactly on anyone's A list, either.
"I don't think they'll ever be able to trade Dale," says one coach. "I just don't think a solid team will give up anything for him."
Says another coach, "On the court I'd love to have him, but I don't think I want to deal with the other days of the year. There has to be something very wrong."
Ellis does get support, albeit some of it backhanded. Milwaukee Bucks coach Del Harris casts a semipositive vote: "The recommendation I hear is that he's a better guy than you'd be led to believe." Charlotte's Gene Littles says, "I think Dale needs new scenery. He's one of the best guards in the league, and with a new team he might have a new lease on life."
CHOICES: A POLL
The names of two young small forwards—the Bulls' Scottie Pippen and the Pistons' Dennis Rodman—are on the board, but you can't have both. Which one do you choose? In what will be a regular feature of this column, I asked that question of either the coach or the general manager of every NBA team (excluding the Bulls and the Pistons). Eliminating the cowardly abstentions, I came up with these results:
Western Conference: Rodman 6, Pippen 6.
Eastern Conference: Rodman 5, Pippen 3.
Total: Rodman 11, Pippen 9.
Two coaches mentioned Pippen's tendency to mimic teammate Michael Jordan, but they came to different conclusions about it. "He's obviously following the right guy," said the Nets' Bill Fitch. But another of the Eastern Conference coaches said, "If they ever make The Michael Jordan Story, Pippen might get the title role. I think he gets distracted, though, in trying to be a little too much like Michael."
Those who favored Rodman liked his defensive skills, his toughness and his unselfishness. "Rodman is the ultimate team player," said the Spurs' Larry Brown. "Night in and night out, he just kills himself every minute of every game. That's an unbelievable quality in any player."
THE SUN KINGS?
Plugging away at the bottom of the Continental Basketball Association standings, way behind the perennial powerhouse Albany (N.Y.) Patroons (22-4 at week's end), are the Yakima (Wash.) Sun Kings (6-20). As a public service, SI gives answers to some of the questions you've been asking about the Sun Kings—or would have been asking, had you ever heard of them before reading this.
Q. Where is Yakima?
A. It's in south central Washington, about 140 miles from Seattle and 190 from Spokane. The city, which has about 50,000 people, got its name from Native Americans who still live in the area.
Q. Where do the Sun Kings play?
A. At the 6,100-seat Yakima Sun Dome located on the Central Washington Stale Fairgrounds.
Q. What does the sun have to do with all this?
A. Well, Yakima's area of the state, sometimes called the Palm Springs of Washington, is relatively sunny and dry—compared with Seattle, anyway—and is a prime fruit-growing region.
Q. So what is the team mascot, a Sun King (whatever that might be)?
A. No, it's Louis (pronounced LOO-ee) the Lion.
Q. And why is that?
A. Because a local journalist, Jim Scoggins of the Yakima Herald-Republic, did some research and discovered that King Louis XIV of France was called the Sun King. Get it? "It is a bit of a reach," admits Dennis Rahm, the Sun Kings' director of publicity, "but it's a great mascot."
A son, Adam, was born on Dec. 27 to Dallas Maverick coach Richie Adubato and his wife, Carol. Adubato is 53 years old. In February, Milwaukee coach Del Harris, also 53, and his wife, Ann, will celebrate the first birthday of their son, Dominic Charles. And Atlanta coach Bob Weiss, 48, and his wife, Tracy, have Stuart Davis, 2, and Grace Louise, 10 months. We have no idea what this means, other than that perhaps the NBA season is not quite as arduous as advertised.
THE SHOPPING CART
Among the names being tossed around as trade bait are Chuck Person and LaSalle Thompson of the Pacers, Greg Anderson and Jeff Grayer of the Bucks, A.C. Green of the Lakers, Scott Skiles of the Magic, Michael Smith of the Celtics, Gary Grant of the Clippers, and Nate McMillan of the Sonics. And you're welcome to make an offer for the Kings' Ralph Sampson.
LIFE ON THE PINE
Scott Hastings, a Piston reserve forward, reports: "I'm sitting on the bench next to Mark Hughes before our game in Cleveland last Friday. All of a sudden this bird flies over—for some reason there are always birds living around Richfield Coliseum—and, well, lets loose. So the Brotherhood—that's me, Mark, Tree Rollins and Lance Blanks, the Pistons that hardly ever play—puts towels over our heads when the game starts. Just in case. What kind of bird was it? I don't know; I didn't bring my National Audubon Society book, I will next time."
First-year man Payton runs the SuperSonics' attack and his motor mouth.
NAT BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS
The brash Coleman, a powerful rebounder and dangerous scorer, has lived up to his top billing in the draft.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
Porter found his way past the Suns' Tim Perry, but will he find his way to the NBA All-Star Game?
DAVID E. KLUTHO
Poll-winner Rodman earns respect with aggressive defense against the likes of 76er Barkley.
The Rook book
How the first-round draft picks—listed in order of choice—are faring
1 DERRICK COLEMAN
Unquestioned king of the rookies.
2 GARY PAYTON
Talented but misguided. Talks trash.
3 CHRIS JACKSON
Call him Mr. Inconsistent.
4 DENNIS SCOTT
Can't put the ball on the floor.
5 KENDALL GILL
Star potential as a two-guard.
6 FELTON SPENCER
7 LIONEL SIMMONS
Sacramento's best move since, er....
8 BO KIMBLE
Bo doesn't know defense. Yet.
9 WILLIE BURTON
Poor shooting (.418) has hurt him.
10 RUMEAL ROBINSON
Poor grasp of the pro game.
11 TYRONE HILL
Another rebounding fool.
12 ALEC KESSLER
Has medical school to fall back on.
13 LOY VAUGHT
Better than anyone thought.
14 TRAVIS MAYS
Best move since drafting Simmons.
15 DAVE JAMERSON
Supposed sleeper has been in a coma.
16 TERRY MILLS
Didn't he go to Europe?
17 JERROD MUSTAF
They may as well start him.
18 DUANE CAUSWELL
Could be a James Donaldson type.
19 DEE BROWN
Fundamentally sound in Celtic mold.
20 GERALD GLASS
Is scorer Tony Campbell expendable?
21 JAYSON WILLIAMS
Needs work on team game.
22 TATE GEORGE
Twelfth man. Enough said.
23 ANTHONY BONNER
Well, three out of four isn't bad.
24 DWAYNE SCHINTZIUS
Pretty good game, bad haircut.
25 ALAA ABDELNABY
Well-liked but little used.
26 LANCE BLANKS
Shoots a lot of them (.387).
27 ELDEN CAMPBELL
Versatility makes him trade bait.