A Rocket Booster?
Nearly everyone was smiling in Houston last week when the defending NBA champion Rockets acquired eight-time All-Star guard Clyde Drexler, along with forward Tracy Murray, from the Trail Blazers in exchange for power forward Otis Thorpe and a conditional draft pick. Drexler was happy that Portland finally accommodated his demand for a trade; Rocket fans who remembered Drexler's days as a star for the University of Houston were delighted to see him back in town; and Rocket center Hakeem Olajuwon, Drexler's Phi Slamma Jamma teammate in college, was positively giddy over the reunion.
But the trade may have made the Rockets less likely to be wearing championship smiles again in June. This season the 32-year-old Drexler, who through Sunday was averaging 21.4 points and 5.1 assists, has proved that he still has enough glide to help Houston in the backcourt. But the loss of Thorpe, one of the best rebounding forwards in the NBA, could come back to haunt the Rockets in the playoffs. Consider some of the power forwards playing on Houston's fellow Western Conference contenders: Charles Barkley of Phoenix, Shawn Kemp of Seattle, Karl Malone of Utah and Dennis Rodman of San Antonio. The Rockets, who had rebounding shortcomings even with Thorpe in their lineup, probably will have to deal with at least two of those four if they are to reach the NBA Finals again. Will Carl Herrera and Pete Chilcutt, who are expected to split the minutes created by Thorpe's departure, be up to that task?
"It might work out, but right now I can't say I love the trade," says Rocket forward Mario Elie. "All I know is we're going to miss O.T.'s 10 boards a game." (Actually, Thorpe averaged a still-potent 8.9 rebounds for Houston.) The Rocket brass realizes that Thorpe's absence creates a hole, which is why at week's end Houston was still looking for frontcourt help before this Thursday's trading deadline. A deal involving Houston guard Vernon Maxwell and Net power forward Jayson Williams was rumored, then denied.
The acquisition of Drexler and the Maxwell trade talks demonstrate that the Rockets are afraid to depend too heavily on the volatile Mad Max for another championship run. If his latest offense—going into the stands in Portland to punch a heckler on Feb. 6—wasn't the last straw, its aftermath may have been. Maxwell, who was suspended for 10 games and fined $20,000 for the incident, twice failed to show up for practice last week.
The first absence was chalked up to miscommunication, with coach Rudy Tomjanovich explaining that Maxwell thought the suspension meant he couldn't be around the Rockets at all. But there was no such excuse for the second absence, and Tomjanovich was not pleased. "I don't know what it is Max is going through," he said. "But he's a member of this team, and he should be here."
Casting a Giant Shadow
One thing is already evident about new Warrior coach Bob Lanier's style: He likes to stand during games, from the opening tip until the final buzzer. Lanier is 6'11" and 280 pounds, and his presence on the sidelines means the bench is no longer the best seat in the house for Golden State players, who have nicknamed their new coach the Eclipse. And even though he's 46 years old and 11 years removed from his Hall of Fame playing days, "there aren't too many guys who can whip his butt," says Golden State center Victor Alexander, himself an imposing 6'10", 265 pounds.
Maybe Lanier, a Warrior assistant who became a head coach for the first time—albeit on an interim basis—when Don Nelson resigned last week (page 80), can intimidate Golden State into better performances. It's worth a try, since nothing else has shaken the Warriors from the trancelike state they've been in since the Nov. 17 trade of power forward Chris Webber to the Bullets for small forward Tom Gugliotta and three future first-round draft choices. Through Sunday, Golden State had lost 33 of its last 41 games.
"It's a difficult situation, no question," Lanier says. "A few months ago this seemed like the most solid franchise in the world, with the most solid coach in the world. I've never seen anything like what has happened to this team."
The Warriors evinced signs of life after Lanier took over, beginning with a stirring 139-128 overtime defeat of the Suns last Friday in Phoenix. The next day Golden State sent Gugliotta to the Timber-wolves for rookie forward Donyell Marshall, the fourth pick of last June's draft. The athletic Marshall seems a better fit for the Warriors' open-court style than Gugliotta, who never appeared comfortable with Golden State.
But Lanier's chances of returning as the Warriors' permanent coach will depend less on which players he puts on the court than on how hard he gets them to perform. "It's my job to get this team to play with passion for the game," he says. Of course, Lanier can fall back on the intimidation factor. And any lethargic Warrior is likely to find out how dangerous it is to stare directly up into the Eclipse.
There are rumblings in Detroit that Piston rookie forward Grant Hill is—you may want to sit down for this—not perfect. Hill received some gentle criticism when he received permission to skip a Piston practice on Feb. 13 to fly from the All-Star Game in Phoenix to New York for appearances on CBS's Late Show with David Letterman and ESPN's ESPY awards show. He added to the stir when he told Letterman that he would want to play for his father, Calvin, if the older Hill ever bought an NBA franchise. Calvin was part of a group that tried unsuccessfully to buy the Bullets two years ago.
These are not exactly major offenses; in fact, they're not even minor ones. But Hill had so unfailingly said and done precisely the right thing for so long that even the hint of a misstep raised eyebrows.
So far it seems that Hill, the leading vote getter in the All-Star balloting, has only one major flaw: an inability to say no to the many requests for his time. "It seems like everybody wanted me to do something at the same time," he says. "But with the All-Star Game over, it'll definitely slow down." As for his comments to Letterman about playing for Calvin, Grant says that Piston fans need not worry. "He's not going to buy a team," Grant says. "But Dave asked the question, and I sort of ran with it."
And if you're wondering whether Hill found it hard to concentrate on basketball alter that whirlwind weekend, the answer is no. He woke up at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday to catch a flight from New York back to Detroit for a morning shootaround, then made 11 straight shots and scored 25 points in a 106-94 victory over the Knicks that night. But later in the week there was evidence that the pressure of having his every action and utterance dissected finally was wearing on him. In two games (both Piston losses), Hill, who through Sunday was averaging 18.2 points, scored only 12 at Chicago and 10 at Charlotte.
Line of the Week
Trail Blazer center Chris Dudley, Feb. 14 against the Mavericks: 2-8 FG, 6-6 FT, 10 points. A perfect night from the free throw line is a rare occurrence for Dudley, the worst foul shooter in league history (minimum: 900 attempts) and a man whose previous best perfect game at the line was a 5-for-5 performance in 1990. He entered this season, his eighth in the NBA, having made 45.6% from the line and was at 49.6% for the season through Sunday. But the Yale graduate has been working hard on his foul shooting after practice with Blazer assistant coach Johnny Davis, and it's paying off: On Friday he made all four of his foul shots against the Sonics, and through Sunday he had made 20 of his last 26 (76.9%).
Olajuwon (top, left) and Drexler are aiming to share a title, a goal that eluded them as Cougars (left).
[See caption above.]
Lanier (with Tim Hardaway) hopes to make the Warriors as deadly as Dudley's newfound foul shot.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
[See caption above.]