The Pacific Division is the NBA's doughnut shop. It's stocked with good-looking teams, each with a hole in the middle. None has a center it can put on the floor for 40 minutes every night without misgivings, and although the top three teams should all amass gaudy regular-season records, they will do so largely by spreading frosting over their weaknesses in the pivot. This is the only division that has had three teams win at least 50 games in each of the last five seasons. But in the postseason, opponents have found that Pacific teams have soft, creamy fillings where their hearts ought to be: The division has produced the team with the league's best record in four of the last five seasons but has no championship to show for it.
The PHOENIX SUNS (page 86) appear ready to change all that if, of course, forward Charles Barkley's troublesome back is as pain-free in May and June as it is now. The Suns will try to make do in the middle with a pair of aging backup centers, Joe Kleine and Danny Schayes, and creative use of their forwards, including A.C. Green and free-agent acquisitions Danny Manning and Wayman Tisdale. But with its depth and versatility, Phoenix should cause more matchup problems than it will face. And the new rule reducing bumping and hand checking on defense is a godsend for a finesse team like the Suns and its small, quick point guard, Kevin Johnson.
Phoenix is in for a battle from the SEATTLE SUPERSONICS if the Sonics can keep from battling each other. After winning a league-best 63 games in the last regular season, Seattle suffered the trauma of a first-round upset loss to the No. 8—seeded Denver Nuggets in the playoffs, which triggered a franchise breakdown. Sonic president Bob Whitsitt left in a messy dispute with owner Barry Ackerley, and coach George Karl almost followed Whitsitt. Guards Gary Payton and Ricky Pierce had several confrontations during the playoffs, prompting the trade of Pierce, plus the rights to draft choice Carlos Rogers and two future picks, to Golden State for guard Sarunas Marciulionis and forward Byron Houston.
The Sonics also bruised the egos of two of their best players by nearly trading them. On draft day last June, at the 11th hour, Ackerley backed out of a deal with the Chicago Bulls that would have sent forward Shawn Kemp to the Chicago Bulls for Scottie Pippen, and the Sacramento Kings turned down Seattle's offer of guard Kendall Gill and a first-round draft choice for Mitch Richmond. Then, in the preseason, Gill wanted a minimum guarantee of minutes (he didn't get it), and Kemp wanted a revised contract (he got a $20 million balloon payment, due in 2003-04). The Sonics could use a true center—second-year player Ervin Johnson might be too green and 37-year-old Bill Cartwright, a free-agent pickup from Chicago, too gray—but a good psychologist might help even more. The loss of popular assistant coach Tim Grgurich, who left during the preseason to become coach at UNLV, makes things even more unsettled. "Let people think we're crazy, let them think we're psychos," says Payton. "They'll find out that once we step between the lines, we're still the Sonics."
If Seattle's discontent does affect its play, the talent-rich GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS could be ready to move up. The Warriors have a deep team that lacks only—all together now—a genuine center. Coach Don Nelson will use forward Chris Webber, the 1993-94 Rookie of the Year, in the middle when necessary, but Golden State is hoping the need doesn't arise too often. Others who will see time at center include Victor Alexander, 7'7" Manute Bol (back for his second Warrior stint), Chris Gatling and, if the Warriors can sign them, rookies Carlos Rogers and Clifford Rozier. That's not the most imposing group, but the Warriors make up for it everywhere else. Tim Hardaway (page 144) and Latrell Sprewell in the backcourt, Webber and Billy Owens at forward and veterans Chris Mullin and Ricky Pierce off the bench give Golden State a nucleus that should make it one of the division's big three. (Alas, the historically snakebit Warriors continue to suffer major injuries, the most recent being Mullin's chip fracture and sprained ligament in his left knee, which will sideline him six to eight weeks.) But until the Warriors prove they can handle the Suns or the Sonics, both of whom have beaten them consistently the last two seasons, Golden State will remain an entertaining team stuck in the wrong division.
The PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS are in the right division but the wrong era. If the Blazers could just travel back in time a few years, guards Clyde Drexler (now age 32) and Terry Porter (31) and forwards Jerome Kersey (32) and Buck Williams (34) would be in their primes instead of in various stages of decline, and Portland would be preparing for another run at a championship instead of a probable early-round playoff exit.
New coach P.J. Carlesimo, lured from Seton Hall with a five-year, $7 million contract, will have to adjust to the NBA while his team continues to change the emphasis from its veterans to its young players, especially forward Clifford Robinson and guards Rod Strickland and James Robinson. "I told Rod to make his reservations for Phoenix [for the Feb. 12 All-Star Game]," says former Blazer star Jim Paxson, now a Portland scout. But the Blazers have a spot reserved in the middle of the pack, and there will no doubt be nights when Carlesimo wishes he were coaching against Villanova.
Carlesimo is the kind of so-called name coach that most observers expected the LOS ANGELES LAKERS to pursue after Magic Johnson decided not to return this season. Instead L.A. went for low-profile veteran NBA coach Del Harris. The team has tried to make a good first impression on him. In the off-season, inconsistent center Elden Campbell hired a track coach to help his conditioning, guard Anthony Peeler lost 12 pounds, and point guard Nick Van Exel, who made only 39.4% of his shots last season, vowed to concentrate on running the team instead of scoring.
What the Lakers still don't have is a solid rebounder up front, because free-agent forward Horace Grant resisted Johnson's pleas and signed with the Orlando Magic. But they did get a scorer in forward Cedric Ceballos (19.1 average), acquired in a trade with Phoenix. Ceballos's partner at forward will be 7'1" Vlade Divac, who has been moved from center and sometimes tries to play like a guard—with predictable results (nine for 47 in trey attempts last season). Van Exel is disappointed that the three-point line was moved in, he says, "because Vlade is going to shoot more."
While Laker fans can console themselves in these lean times with memories of the Showtime days, fans of the SACRAMENTO KINGS can only look back fondly on the 1985-86 season, the last time the Kings won more than 29 games (they were 37-45). It's not much, but it's all they have. The only reason to pay attention to the Kings this year is to follow the remarkable comeback of point guard Bobby Hurley, severely injured in a car accident last December. In the preseason Hurley flashed some of the skills he displayed as an All-America at Duke.
Look for the Kings, bedraggled as they are, to run away and hide from the LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS in the standings. That's how bad the Clipper roster looks. Loy Vaught is a hardworking forward, guard Harold Ellis was a pleasant surprise last season, and second-year guard Terry Dehere has offered bursts of scoring. Other than that, well, new coach Bill Fitch, at his fifth NBA stopover in 22 years, must truly love this game to have taken this job.
College grad Carlesimo faces a crash course in the NBA.
ROCKY WIDNER/NBA PHOTOS
Hurley is already the comeback story of the year.
4. Trail Blazers