Big Men, Big Scorers
THE TOP three scorers in the league at week's end, the Magic's Shaquille O'Neal, the Spurs' David Robinson and the Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon, were all centers, which might not seem like such a big deal until you note that no center has led the NBA in scoring since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it with the Bucks in 1972. Since then, guards have won the title 13 times and forwards eight.
So why the change? The short answer is that Michael Jordan, who won the scoring title the last seven years, finally gave someone else a chance by retiring (during that span, Moses Malone was runner-up to Jordan twice). The longer answer has to do with topflight centers' now being almost as plentiful as outstanding shooting guards and small forwards were a few years ago. The ranks of shooting guards have been thinned by retirement (Jordan's) and tragedy (the deaths of Reggie Lewis and Drazen Petrovic), while age and injuries are slowing down others, such as 31-year-old Trail Blazer Clyde Drexler and 30-year-old Piston Joe Dumars. Small forwards have also been hit by the retirement of Larry Bird and the injury woes of players such as Chris Mullin of the Warriors.
Meanwhile, good centers are proliferating, and teams are modifying their offenses accordingly. "As centers get more mobile, they can face the basket a little bit more," says Robinson. "It makes their game a lot more threatening. It turns the center into a more effective weapon in the offense."
And the decline in the number of top shooting guards and small forwards has opened the way for power players, regardless of position, to take over more of the scoring load. Six of the top seven point producers in the NBA are centers or power forwards. That's all fine, but as the NBA leans in the direction of brute force, and players like Drexler and 34-year-old Dominique Wilkins of the Hawks approach the end of their careers, for the first time in years the league lacks a majestic, in-the-air innovator in the tradition of Baylor, Erving and Jordan.
The Poor Get Poorer
Laker general manager Jerry West thinks the SuperSonics, who were 27-5 through Sunday, have a good chance to win an NBA-record 70 games, which would surpass the 69-13 mark of the 1971-72 Lakers, for whom West played. West is right: Seattle is capable of breaking the record, which is both an indication of how good the Sonics are and how bad much of the rest of the league is.
There were nine teams—the Mavs, the Clippers, the Lakers, the Timberwolves and the Kings in the West, and the Celtics, the Pistons, the Bucks and the Bullets in the East—that had a winning percentage of less than .400 through Sunday. When a third of the league qualifies as an easy touch, putting together long winning streaks suddenly becomes a matter of winning just a few tough games and a bunch of easy ones. The season is less than half over, and already four teams—the Bulls, the Hawks, the Rockets and the Sonics—have had winning streaks of 10 or more games. Houston tied a record for wins at the start of the season (15) and fell one win short of tying the 1969-70 Knicks' record start of 23-1. Five teams, the four with the long winning streaks and New York, are on a pace to win 60 games.
"The league has deteriorated," says Barkley. "You have bad general managers drafting bad players. It's like the NFL. The older players are moving on, and the younger ones aren't there yet. You look at some of the guys starting in this league these days and it makes you shake your head."
The reason for that, in the view of some observers, is that the NBA has expanded too fast. "Put a player like Alonzo Mourning or Shaquille O'Neal or Larry Johnson or Christian Laettner on Boston or Detroit, and it's just as strong a league," says former Celtic Kevin McHale. "But now the league is expanding again [to Toronto and/or Vancouver in 1995-96], and it will only get worse."
NBA coaches like to say that getting to the free throw line is essential to a team's success, but apparently they need to remind players that making the shots once they get there is even more important. Foul shooting has taken a significant plunge this season: It's down 2.0% from last season's 75.4% average. No team had shot less than 70% from the line since the Heat did so in 1989-90, but at week's end four clubs, the Warriors, the Clippers, the Magic and the Bulls, were under 70%.
Several top players are having a hard time at the line, including, through Sunday, Bulls Scottie Pippen (57.5%) and Horace Grant (49.4%), Hornet Larry Johnson (64.7%), Piston Isiah Thomas (68.5%), Sonic Gary Payton (54.3%) and Barkley of the Suns (65.0%). But collectively, Golden State is having the most difficulties at the line. The Warriors' 65.7% at week's end was the league's worst, and three starters—Chris Webber, Billy Owens and Victor Alexander—were shooting less than 60%.
Golden State's foul shooting has been so inaccurate that coach Don Nelson is trying a new approach, which he calls visual positive reinforcement. The Warriors are producing a personal videotape for each of the struggling players that shows him shooting a perfect free throw, over and over again, from a variety of angles and set to music. In addition to the regular free throw shooting Golden State does at practice—players like Owens shoot about 100 free throws—each Warrior who is shooting below 70% from the line is supposed to go to a secluded area for about 20 minutes a day to watch the tape. "We don't expect this to be a cure-all," Nelson says, "but this is a system that has worked in other sports as well as basketball. If you can get that perfect form locked into your mind, you can train your muscle mass and brain mass to work together to re-create it."
It's just a thought, but maybe some of the Warriors should be trying to re-create somebody else's free throw form.
There's hope for all those players around the league who are picking up splinters as the 10th or 11th men in a nine-man rotation. All they have to do is look at players like Bullet forward Don MacLean or 76er guard Dana Barros.
MacLean, a second-year forward, has made the most dramatic transformation. Washington's trade of forward Harvey Grant to the Blazers for center Kevin Duckworth gave an opening to MacLean, who averaged 6.6 points and less than 11 minutes per game last season, and he has taken advantage of it. At week's end he was the Bullets' second-leading scorer, with a 17.9 average, including a 30-point performance on Jan. 13 when Washington surprised the Rockets 120-102.
A trade also opened the way for Barros, a 5'11" point guard who was sent to Philadelphia during the off-season after four mostly inactive seasons in Seattle. The Sondes liked Barros but had no room for him in their crowded back-court. With his quickness and outside shooting he has forced the Sixers to make room: On Nov. 27, he displaced Johnny Dawkins as the starting point guard. His catch-and-shoot jumper with .5 of a second left, which beat Indiana 104-102 last Friday, was one of the memorable plays of the season.
Barros could have been speaking for MacLean as well as himself when he said, "I'm just thankful I'm getting the opportunity. It feels like it's been a long time coming."
Line of the Week:
Kenny Anderson, Nets
FG M-A: 1-11; FT M-A: 2-2; A: 16; TP: 4
Anderson's line against the Bullets on Jan. 11 would have been a good example of how a point guard doesn't have to score much to help his team win—if New Jersey hadn't lost the game 115-100.
With Jordan retired, centers like Robinson have become pivotal figures in the NBA scoring race.