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Original Issue


Point, Counterpoint

After the dust had settled from the Great Point Guard Shuffle last week, there hadn't been all that much shuffling, and almost all those involved had gotten what they wanted. The Pistons' Isiah Thomas and the Magic's Scott Skiles got to stay put, the Mavs' Derek Harper got to leave that wreck of a team, and Dallas got to add to its stockpile of six first-round draft choices in the next four years. And although the Knicks may not have gotten exactly what they wanted—which was Thomas, but only at the right price—the 32-year-old Harper, an experienced hand who can play defense and has an outside shot that has to be respected, should be able to fill their needs.

Harper, who went to New York from Dallas for forward Tony Campbell and a conditional 1997 first-round choice, doesn't make the Knicks front-runners for the championship by any means, but he gets them back to where they were before Doc Rivers went down with a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 16. (Harper is a natural replacement: He and Rivers were even born on the same day, Oct. 13, 1961.) New York is a solid favorite for the Eastern Conference title again and is on equal footing with the Big Three in the West: the Rockets, the Sonics and the Suns. There are those who think Harper's game has slipped, but that's mostly because he has been playing with the woeful Mavs. Harper, who hasn't averaged less than 16 points per game in any of the last seven seasons, should fit in nicely with the Knicks' defensive style and help open things for center Patrick Ewing inside.

Would Thomas have helped New York more? Probably. The Knicks are a veteran team, but without Thomas they still don't have a player who has ever reached the NBA Finals. The prospect of Thomas, who led Detroit to two NBA crowns, in ruthless pursuit of one last title was an intriguing one, but he was understandably more interested in taking care of his long-term future than in one more grasp at glory. Thomas took the rumor of his trade to the Knicks—which was never as close to completion as reports suggested—and parlayed it into a lucrative commitment from Detroit. With that kind of wheeling and dealing, Thomas seems clearly suited to take over the Pistons' basketball operations, as it appears he will after he retires.

Skiles had been prominently mentioned in the trade rumors, but he wanted to stay with the Magic. Orlando, however, still wants to turn over the point guard spot to rookie Anfernee Hardaway and eventually move Nick Anderson from small forward back to off guard, which would make Skiles the odd man out. And teams such as the Bulls and the Spurs are still looking for backcourt help.

While Skiles's future can be described as unsettled, the Mavs' can be said to be hopeful. And the Knicks aren't concerned with looking any further ahead than the Finals in June. At least they'll know they did everything they could to get there.

Take a Bow

The Bulls have survived the retirement of Michael Jordan, and, with a 21-10 record through Sunday, they are also talking seriously about again advancing to the Eastern Conference finals or beyond. With center Bill Cartwright, guard John Paxson and forward Scott Williams all on the injured list for all or part of the season, Chicago has gotten surprising contributions from journeymen like guards Steve Kerr and Pete Myers and center Bill Wennington.

But most of the credit for the Bulls' success must go to Scottie Pippen. Chicago was stumbling along at 5-7 when Pippen returned from an ankle injury on Nov. 30 and led them to a 132-113 rout of Phoenix with 29 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. The Bulls haven't looked back since, winning 15 out of 18. The day Jordan announced his retirement, Chicago coach Phil Jackson told Pippen, "The saddle goes on your back. We're going to ride you." But Pippen has carried the Bulls without trying to replace Jordan as a scorer. He has been content to be more of a choreographer, making sure the ball and his teammates keep moving. "If you look at what I've done statistically over the last few years, nothing has dramatically changed," he says. "I'm not trying to be Michael. I don't need to be for this team to win."

But Pippen has assumed Jordan's mantle in at least one area—blasting the Chicago front office. He lashed out at Bull vice-president of basketball operations Jerry Krause for allowing the Knicks to get Harper, whom the Bulls had also pursued. "We have guys with trade value, and if we're going to be better, if we're going to contend, we have to do something," he said. It was reminiscent of the way Jordan ripped Krause for not acquiring Walter Davis three seasons ago. Krause probably didn't mind Pippen's tirade too much. It must have seemed like old times.

Behind the Numbers

What would Magic center Shaquille O'Neal rather do—face Hakeem Olajuwon in the Finals or Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 3? O'Neal, who through Sunday was leading the NBA in scoring with a 28.3 average, is having a sensational year statistically, but at times he gives the impression that he's more concerned with being a celebrity than a champion.

Shaq talks occasionally about looking for movie roles—he has said he would love to be a villain in a Schwarzenegger film—but the doubts about his commitment stem not so much from what he says as from what he does. After a 95-93 loss to the Bulls on Christmas Day, O'Neal was grinning in the locker room as television reporters filmed him trying on a huge fur coat. When Orlando visited New York two weeks later, part of Shaq's pregame preparation was singing rap tunes with teammate Dennis Scott in the locker room. Then, against the Knicks' Patrick Ewing, he got into early foul trouble and had only four points and no rebounds in the first half. Although O'Neal rallied to finish with 26 points and five rebounds, compared with 26 and 19 for Ewing, there was some question whether he had entered the game, which the Magic lost 100-95, mentally ready to play.

A few days after the defeat by New York, O'Neal, who has complained ever since his final year in college at LSU that opponents get away with overly physical play against him, became angry at the way teammate Keith Tower was bumping and leaning on him in practice and fired a punch at Tower's face. Afterward Skiles tried to get the two players to shake hands, but Shaq refused.

And in last Saturday's victory over the Bullets—in which he had 29 points and 19 rebounds—O'Neal, who was fined earlier this season for blasting the officiating, was slapped with two flagrant fouls plus a technical for encouraging the crowd in Orlando to voice its disapproval after the first flagrant call.

Even with O'Neal's gaudy numbers, the Magic was only 18-13 at week's end. The NBA certainly hasn't been all fun and games for the 21-year-old Shaq, which explains why, less than halfway through his second pro season, he's already looking ahead to early retirement. He was talking about Ewing recently when he said, "He's still a great player, even at 31. I know for a fact that I won't be playing at 31."

Don't Bet on Toronto

At the moment, all bets are off on the Toronto expansion franchise that was scheduled to begin play in 1995. The NBA awarded the franchise in November on the condition that the province of Ontario remove the league's games from its sports lottery, which generated approximately $50 million in profits for the province last year. It appears unlikely that Ontario officials will agree to that provision, and it's almost certain that NBA officials won't back down. "Nothing's changed," NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said after his second meeting with the attorney representing the province. "I'm less optimistic, frankly."

The NBA has been considering awarding a team to a Vancouver ownership group to go along with the Toronto franchise, but if the Ontario lottery issue can't be resolved quickly—league officials would like to have the matter settled by the time the Board of Governors meets at the All-Star Game next month—the NBA could decide to bring only Vancouver into the league. British Columbia officials have indicated a willingness to remove NBA games from their lottery in order to secure the franchise for the province's largest city.

But the league probably won't settle for vague assurances that something can be worked out in British Columbia, not after misreading the situation in Ontario. If Toronto loses its franchise, it's possible the NBA will delay expansion altogether.

Line of the Week

Dennis Rodman, Spurs:

FG M-A: 1-5; Reb. O-T: 10-23; TP: 2

It's only fitting that our first statistical Line of the Week award should go to Rodman. Given his rebounding ability and aversion to shooting, we may eventually have to rename the award in his honor. The Worm gets it this week for his Jan. 6 line in a 102-98 San Antonio loss to the Warriors.

Rodman has complemented his strange stats with even stranger behavior. "Our lockers are side by side," says Spur center Jack Haley. "I've been here almost a month now, and I think we've said hello maybe twice. He doesn't speak to anyone on the team. He doesn't hang with anyone on the team. He walks into the locker room right before the game. He will not touch a ball before we play. No warmups. His theory is, why should he warm up if he doesn't shoot?"

When Rodman was ejected from a Jan. 2 game against the Lakers, he at first refused to leave the court and then flung an equipment bag as he finally departed. But he doesn't think he went over the edge. "If I went over the edge," he explained, "that means you've got to come and get me, put me in a straitjacket, take me to the hospital." The season's still young, Worm.



After Thomas took care of business, New York got Harper to fill a tall order.



[See caption above.]



Despite his sensational stats and stature, Shaq's commitment to basketball is open to question.