Making Do Nicely
When the league's preeminent center, Akeem Olajuwon of the Rockets, suffered a fractured orbit around his right eye on Jan. 3, Houston appeared to be headed for lotteryland. In seasons past, Olajuwon never lavished much flattery on his teammates, and after a 97-94 road loss to the last-place Kings on Jan. 21, even Rocket coach Don Chaney was denigrating them. "We're not any better than Sacramento without Akeem," Chaney said. "Sooner or later these guys are going to have to face that reality."
Instead, the ragtag Rockets have given reality a facial. At week's end Houston was 14-10 since Olajuwon's injury, and 31-23 on the season. That was good enough to keep the Rockets in seventh place in the Western Conference and solidly in the playoff picture.
The key elements of Houston's success have been Larry Smith, a 6'8", 33-year-old forward-center; Otis Thorpe, a steady power forward; Vernon Maxwell, a shooting guard bought from San Antonio last February for a reported $25,000; and Kenny Smith, a playmaker who has been traded twice in the past 12 months. "It's as if we're a team of misfits, patched together," says Chaney. "But who knows how chemistry develops?"
Larry Smith, a former Warrior who was signed as a free agent before last season, has been the biggest surprise. Through Sunday he was averaging 14.6 rebounds (and 5.0 points) and had pulled down 20 or more boards in eight games since Olajuwon's injury. He was also playing 35 minutes a game. A relentless worker skilled at making up for his relative lack of height by using his gluteus to the maximus, Smith has Rocket fans wearing hard hats to honor his blue-collar style. And Smith's attitude—his nickname is Mr. Mean—has rubbed off on Thorpe, who was averaging 21.5 points (on 57.5% shooting) and 11.5 rebounds in the post-Olajuwon era.
The backcourt, a perennial sore spot for Houston, suddenly looks promising, with Maxwell and Kenny Smith. Smith's arrival in November from Atlanta enabled the Rockets to move Sleepy Floyd to the bench and give themselves a formidable three-guard rotation. Smith can create (7.1 assists so far this season) and score (17 points per game).
Olajuwon could return as early as Feb. 28. Recently he has said all the right things about team unity and has even offered to come off the bench. "I'm looking at Akeem as fuel injection to a car," Chaney says. "We're cruising now, but we have a guy coming back who can propel us even farther."
A Lotto Uncertainty
Predicting who will be the 11 lottery picks for the June draft is tricky, but here goes. Start with five consensus choices in the senior class: Georgetown center Dikembe Mutombo, UNLV forwards Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson, Missouri forward Doug Smith and Michigan State guard Steve Smith. Add New Mexico center Luc Longley. Then figure that two of the top three nonseniors—Georgia Tech playmaker Kenny Anderson, LSU center Shaquille O'Neal and Syracuse swingman Billy Owens—will go pro. That makes eight.
The remaining three picks may well be a combination of senior sleepers (Iowa State's 6'9" senior center, Victor Alexander, perhaps) and other players who choose to come out early, such as Ohio State sophomore guard Jimmy Jackson, Georgetown junior forward-center Alonzo Mourning and Missouri junior guard Anthony Peeler. While most NBA executives aren't overly impressed with the lottery crop, Scott Layden, the Jazz's director of player personnel, is upbeat. "I've counted 12 to 15 guys we'd like to pick in the first round," he says. "As you get closer to June, we'll add five or six underclassmen. We're also going to come up with guys who, at this time of year, we didn't think of as first-rounders. It always seems to get better the closer you get to the deadline."
The bizarre-injury-of-the-season award goes to Kings rookie forward Lionel Simmons. On Feb. 20, days after he was named Player of the Week, Simmons got tendinitis in his right wrist and forearm and missed two games. The cause of the tendinitis was revealed last week: Simmons had been playing too much Nintendo Game Boy. "It's not unusual for Lionel to be focused on something," says Sacramento general manager Jerry Reynolds. "But to hurt himself like that?"
Seattle's Bold Move
The trading deadline passed at 9 p.m. EST last Thursday with only one significant deal: center Benoit Benjamin went from the Clippers to the Sonics for center Olden Polynice and first-round picks in 1991 and '93 or '94. By deciding to skip the bidding for Benjamin when he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, Los Angeles chose to continue its never-ending search for tomorrow. It has now stockpiled six first-round picks for the next three years.
Seattle, which failed to make the playoffs last season, needed to peddle for the present. Sonics president Bob Whitsitt has retooled his team over the past several months, first dealing Xavier McDaniel to the Suns for Eddie Johnson and two No. l's, and then trading Dale Ellis to the Bucks for Ricky Pierce. Acquiring Benjamin gives Seattle the oomph it needs in the middle.
True, Seattle is callow; four of its starters—Benjamin, forwards Shawn Kemp and Derrick McKey and guard Gary Payton—average just 23.3 years old. However, coach K.C. Jones has veterans in Pierce, Johnson, Michael Cage and Nate McMillan (average age: 29.3). That mix means Big Ben will only have to play, not lead—a role he never fulfilled in his laid-back days in L.A.
Flash back to the Clippers' home loss on Dec. 14,1988, to the Heat, which had entered the game winless in its first season in the league. A half hour afterward, L.A. forward Ken Norman was slumped over in the locker room, still in his uniform, while Benjamin was in his street clothes and ready to go. Spying the disconsolate Norman, Big Ben said, "You've got to learn to be more casual."
They are 6'7", 25-year-old shooting guards on the spindly side who were first-round draft picks in 1987 and have the same first name. The Pacers' Reggie Miller emerged as an All-Star last season by averaging 24.6 points and making a league-high 150 three-pointers. The Celtics' Reggie Lewis has blossomed this season; having shifted from small forward, he was averaging 18.7 points and 5.2 rebounds through Sunday. Such similar bios boded a close call in our poll of general managers and coaches, and it was. Of those voting, nine preferred Miller, eight went with Lewis, and two viewed them as similar as Siamese twins.
Those favoring Miller like his touch from behind the arc (61 treys, to zip for Lewis this season) and his knack for getting to the foul line (403 free throws, versus 236). "That's a part of the game that's underrated, getting to the line, especially when you're as good [91.3%] a foul shooter as Miller is," says one coach.
Some voters took into account the Reggies' respective teammates. "I've got to go with Miller," said one general manager. "As good as he is now, if he were with [the Celtics], he'd be...whew!"
Lewis, who's only Boston's third-leading scorer, received support for things he docs that don't show up on the stat sheet. One assessment: "Lewis is a more complete player, and he's maybe a little more team oriented." Another: "Lewis can play two positions, and he can help you without scoring points."
"Reggie Lewis is more versatile, but Reggie Miller is tough—he doesn't back away from anybody," says Bernie Bicker-staff, the Nuggets' general manager and one of the two fence sitters. In '87, neither Miller nor Lewis won a Reggie referendum. In the draft that year, the Clippers picked 6'7" shooting guard Reggie Williams—now with Denver—ahead of them both.
The high-handed play of Larry Smith (right) is a big reason Houston is winning without Olajuwon.
NATHANIEL BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS
The Pacers' Reggie (right) squeaked by the Celtics' Reggie.