Kings in the Making
The dramatic improvement of the Kings this season was best illustrated by two plays in the first quarter of the game at ARCO Arena on Jan. 5. Piston rookie forward Grant Hill was soaring to the hoop for what seemed sure to be a resounding slam, but Sacramento rookie forward Brian Grant swatted the ball out-of-bounds. Four minutes later, when Hill went loping in for another dunk attempt, the Kings' other rookie forward, Michael (Animal) Smith, fouled him hard.
"No easy layups here," Smith said after the game, which Sacramento won 94-88. "The Sacramento Kings aren't going to back down from anyone this year."
Last season the Kings were among the NBA leaders in easy layups allowed. They finished 25th in defense (surrendering 106.9 points per game), 16th in rebounding and near the bottom of the league in self-confidence. They tried to outrun and outshoot opponents, which worked only 28 times—the eighth straight season in which they won fewer than 30 games.
On June 1 the Kings hired Geoff Petrie from the Portland Trail Blazers to be Sacramento's vice president of basketball operations. "When I got here, people were really demoralized," Petrie says. "It was like, 'We can't ever be any good.' Now they know that there is hope. They know we can get better."
They didn't know it would happen this quickly, however. Through Sunday, the Kings were 17-13; last season they didn't get win 17 until Feb. 18. "And we've given seven games away because of inexperience," says center Olden Polynice. Twice they beat the SuperSonics, who before this season had won eight straight against Sacramento. Other shocked victims are also getting the message that the Kings are solid, though it has taken awhile to register: After Sacramento beat the Suns on opening night, Phoenix forward Charles Barkley, who didn't play because of injury, expressed embarrassment about losing to the "sacrificial lambs."
The battering rams is more like it these days. Petrie's plan to upgrade the defense was installed in training camp and enthusiastically endorsed by All-Star guard Mitch Richmond, a 23-ppg scorer whose increased emphasis on D was emulated by the rest of the Kings. Through Sunday, Sacramento was tied for seventh in the league in points allowed (98.1 per game).
The biggest reasons for the turnaround have been Grant and Smith, who have brought energy, size and toughness to a front line that had been notoriously soft. The 6'9", 254-pound Grant, selected eighth overall out of Xavier in the 1994 draft, was averaging 12.2 points and 6.3 rebounds at week's end. He has become the Kings' best low-post player. "He has unbelievable quickness inside," said Detroit coach Don Chancy after Grant had 24 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks in that Jan. 5 game.
Unlike Smith, Grant doesn't have a nickname, though he was called General at Xavier because he's from the same town, Georgetown, Ohio (pop. 3,627), as Ulysses S. Grant. "People think all the Grant stuff around town is for me, but he was there long before me and will be there long after me," Grant says with a smile. "Maybe they'll call me General up here someday. That comes when you're a leader. Now I'm just Grant. Some people call me and Michael Beauty and the Beast, but even though I have more finesse than Michael, Beauty hasn't stuck. I guess because I like to mix it up, too."
Smith, a Providence alumnus who is 6'8" and 230 pounds, isn't nearly as graceful or skilled as Grant: His 8.1 points and 6.2 rebounds a game were the result of his strength and hunger. "To him," says King coach Garry St. Jean, "there's a big steak silting up there on the rim." Says Polynice, "He's George (the Animal) Steele from the World Wrestling Federation. But he's a good animal."
And Sacramento is suddenly a pretty good team.
Journey to Nowhere
On Jan. 7 the 76ers' road trip from hell finally ended—and not a moment too soon. The longest trek in the league this season began on Dec. 22 in Charlotte and closed in Utah, with slops in Boston, Portland, Seattle, Sacramento, Phoenix and Los Angeles. The Sixers did get home for Christmas Eve but then left Philly on Christmas Day, stopped in South Dakota for two hours for refueling, arrived in Portland and went straight to practice.
The 76ers finished the trip with a 2-6 record—the wins came against the Celtics and the Blazers—to bring their overall mark to 10-21. Other than Philly point guard Dana Barros, who was averaging 19.1. I points and 7.9 assists through Sunday and is performing like an All-Star, and forward Clarence Weatherspoon, no Sixer fared well on the trip.
Seven-fool-six center Shawn Bradley played especially poorly, prompting Philadelphia owner Harold Katz to blast him for not living up to expectations dial earned him an eight-year, $44.2 million contract as the second pick in the 1993 draft. In the eight games Bradley averaged only 5.8 points (on 35% shooting) and fouled out three limes, to bring his season's total to 11 disqualifications. That matched the NBA high for all last year. It also put Bradley on a pace to smash the league record of 26 disqualifications in a sea- son. set by Don Meineke of the Pistons in their 69-game 1952-53 season. Historically, Philadelphia centers are at the other extreme: Wilt Chamberlain. Moses Malone and Mike Gminski played in 962 games as Sixers and never fouled out.
Perhaps it's lime to realize that Bradley is still three years away from being an effective all-around center. Even after strenuous attempts to add heft and muscle, the 248-pound Bradley is still extremely thin and weak. He is no threat in the low post; in fact, the 76er offense is often run with him standing out at the three-point line to draw the opposing center away from the basket. The Sixers hope Bradley will eventually bulk up like 7'4" Pacer center Rik Smits, who was slender his first few seasons but now is sturdier and very tough to handle down low.
Will Clyde Glide?
A sad situation has developed in Portland, where guard Clyde Drexler, the best player in frail Blazer history and a certain Hall of Famer. has demanded to be traded because of what he sees as a lack of respect accorded him by Portland's new management (not including, Drexler stresses. first-year coach P.J. Carlesimo). Part of Drexler's beef" concerns money—with his reported $1.6 million salary, he is only the eighth-highest-paid Blazer. Also, he was angered that he first learned of his near-trade to the Heal last summer from an ESPN report rather than from team officials. He then privately asked new general manager Bob Whitsitt to trade him, but no action was taken. Last week Drexler lashed out publicly, saying, "I want to get out. Anything that means leaving here will make me happy." Even if that means going to a noncontender.
It appears that the Blazers will do everything they can to accommodate Drexler before the trading deadline on Feb. 23. At 32 he is no longer the flying, slam-jamming Clyde the Glide of three years ago, but at week's end he was still averaging 23.3 points a game. And he retains the skills to boost a borderline team into the playoffs—or turn a contender into a champion. The problem is a balloon payment in his contract next year, when he's due to make $8.75 million. "He'll be unmovable next year," one general manager says. Still, a trade might occur because Trail Blazer owner Paul Allen is so loaded that he would, if the right deal came along, pay part of Drexler's 1995-96 contract. And Drexler has hinted that he would alter next season's contract to facilitate a trade.
Line of the Week
Sonic guard Gary Payton on Jan. 4 against the Cavaliers: 14-14 FG, 3-3 FT, 32 points. Only three other players in history have gone 14 for 14 or better: Chamberlain (four times: 18, 16, 15, 14), Bailey Howell (14) and Billy McKinney (14). Chamberlain did it in three consecutive months in '67.
Around the Rim
Milwaukee's Glenn Robinson, the NBA's No. 1 draft choice, was the Rookie of the Month for December, and deservedly so, since he averaged 21.9 points and 6.7 rebounds. But he began January by committing nine turnovers and getting no rebounds in a Jan. 3 loss to Utah. Through Sunday he was leading the league in turnovers with 119—some feat for a 6'8" forward.... On Sunday against the Pistons 6'8" Magic swingman Dennis Scott, who had played 147 minutes coming into the game, finally got his first offensive rebound of the season.... Phone call overheard in the press room at ARCO Arena on Jan. 5: "Grandma, I just fed food to a guy named K.C. Jones. Ask grandpa who he is."
Grant (below) and Smith have added backbone to the once spongy Sacramento frontcourt.
If he has his druthers, disgruntled Blazer icon Drexler will be soaring up and away from Portland.
NOREN TROTMAN/NBA PHOTOS
Bradley, here tussling with Utah's Felton Spencer, isn't pulling his weight for Philly.