So, once Dennis Rodman has endeared himself to Chicago by
dangling a replica of the Sears Tower from his nose ring; and
once Kendall Gill has defrosted the icy stares of his former
Charlotte teammates--the ones he never got along with--who are
once again his current Charlotte teammates; and once John (Hot
Rod) Williams has acclimated to Phoenix, where the initial
reaction from Sir Charles was less than sunny, what will all the
momentous swaps of early autumn amount to in this 50th NBA
season? For one thing, the Bulls, the Hornets and the Suns will
contend mightily for the championship along with half a dozen
other teams in what will be the most wide-open title chase in
years. As for 10 other things that will come to pass in
1995-96, you can bank on the following.
1. The first coach to be fired will be M.L. Carr ... by M.L. Carr.
As the Celtics' director of basketball operations, Carr hired
himself to succeed Chris Ford on the bench, even though the only
coaching Carr had ever done was in pickup games. It's not that
total tyros never cut it in the NBA; Pat Riley was a Laker color
commentator before taking over in L.A. in 1981-82 and winning
the first of his nine straight division titles. It's just that
if Carr's acumen as G.M. is any indication, his coaching is less
likely to resemble that of Red Holzman than of Red Klotz.
Last year, Carr believed that if he signed his veterans to
healthy long-term deals, they would put aside their squabbling
over minutes and focus on basketball. That worked to some
extent, as the Celts squeaked into the last playoff spot. But it
also allowed Carr to avoid addressing the team's fundamental
problem: There's no cluster of stars to build around. Acquiring
them would mean a near-total overhaul, and by adding bantam
point guard Dana Barros to their current cast with a six-year,
$21 million deal, the Celts will have little room to maneuver
under the salary cap next year, when several franchise types
will be free agents.
Inevitably, the coach is the one who pays the price for a team
with gaping holes on its roster. Who better to pony up than
Carr, who created them?
2. Toronto will win 12 games; the other expansion franchise,
Vancouver, will not.
Which is not to say that the Raptors are a better team than the
Grizzlies. But playing in the Eastern Conference, Toronto gets
four dates to Vancouver's two with such eminently beatable
opponents as Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New Jersey and
Atlanta. The Grizzlies have a similar two-to-one edge with only
two relative cream puffs: the Clippers and the Timberwolves.
After languishing with Golden State as a rookie, forward Carlos
Rogers will break through as a budding star this season in
Toronto. But the Grizzlies have a deeper team and, in 7-foot,
292-pound Bryant Reeves, the biggest future star. Reeves will
also be half of the most intriguing new matchup in the league,
sure to be billed as The Battle of the Buzz Cuts: Get ready for
his clash with former Big Eight rival Greg Ostertag, a 7'2"
279-pounder who will open the season as the Jazz's center.
3. The best grab of another team's free agent will prove to be
Utah's signing of Chris Morris.
The Jazz was also bargaining with ex-Portland guard Terry
Porter, whose team-spirited attitude and playoff experience
would make him a natural fit off the bench. But the upside with
the maddeningly inconsistent Morris is greater. By signing him
to a reported three-year, $8 million deal, the Jazz took a
gamble, but it is one that will upgrade the team immensely.
At 6'8", the 29-year-old Morris has the physical skill to match
any 3-man's in the league. He was taken fourth by the Nets in
the 1988 draft and showed flashes of championship-caliber ball
in New Jersey's five-game, first-round loss to the Cavaliers in
1992-93. Now, sprung from the directionless Nets, out to prove
his worth and cast in a well-defined role with the Jazz, Morris
should flourish. He is three years younger than Porter and can
even fill in at 2-guard, which he did often last season.
This signing will actually make two teams better: New Jersey has
smoothly replaced an unhappy camper with businesslike rookie Ed
4. Detroit's draft-day deals will translate into a playoff berth.
When the Pistons invited Wyoming center Theo Ratliff in for a
predraft visit, he thought they had designs on picking him in
the second round. But new coach-G.M. Doug Collins coveted
toughness, and in the 6'9 1/2" Ratliff, who's No. 2 alltime in
blocked shots in the NCAA, Collins saw a budding minister of the
interior. So he gambled, trading to Portland what would amount
to the Nos. 8 and 19 picks, plus forward Billy Curley, for power
forward Otis Thorpe and the 18th choice, which he used to get
Detroit thus added some Bad Boy-style nastiness to a core of
skilled open-court players that includes Grant Hill, Allan
Houston, Joe Dumars and Terry Mills. Furthermore, in acquiring a
championship-winning veteran like Thorpe to help groom the raw
Ratliff, Collins sent a signal that he isn't content simply to
stockpile draft picks; he's poised to turn things around now.
5. Houston will break its own three-point records.
The Rockets may not look the same with their new pin-striped
unis of red, midnight blue and metallic gray, but they'll be
launching the same bombs from outside the arc. Last season they
set league records for treys attempted (21.4) and made (7.9) per
game. This season expect even more, especially from Robert
Horry, who will have greater offensive freedom as the
near-regular small forward (last year he spent a lot of time out
of position at power forward), and from swingman Clyde Drexler,
who will be on the roster from the opening tip-off (he hit 60
threes in just 35 games as a Rocket last season). Moreover,
Houston signed guard Eldridge Recasner, the 1994-95 MVP of the
CBA, who canned 49.4% of his three-pointers last season with the
Yakima Sun Kings.
6. No rookie imported from abroad will have a substantial impact.
History tells us that the best talents from overseas have taken
anywhere from one year (Chicago forward Toni Kukoc) to three
(the late Net guard Drazen Petrovic) to hit their strides. This
season, as many as six new foreign-born, non-NCAA-trained
players figure to make opening-day rosters, but only three are
likely to get enough minutes to even establish themselves.
Arvydas Sabonis, the 7'3" Lithuanian Olympic hero, will serve as
Chris Dudley's foil in Portland. Dudley rebounds and defends but
poses no threat as a scorer; Sabonis has no inside presence but
is savvy with the ball in his hands. After several leg
operations and six years of playing two games a week in Europe,
he'll be hard-pressed to hold up under the NBA grind. Vincenzo
Esposito, a 6'3" guard from Italy, will try to emulate his idol,
Petrovic, as a long-range bomber for the Raptors. But don't
expect him to be as effective as Petro in creating his own shot.
If any Euro can make headway, it will be Heat guard Predrag
(Sasha) Danilovic. He's a big-time scorer who has the mentality
to defend, which is essential in impressing coach Pat Riley. But
Miami has a logjam of perimeter players, so when it comes to
playing time, Sasha will suffa.
7. Knick fans holding $1,000 courtside seats will spend entire
games on their cellular phones just to relieve the boredom.
New York management was shrewd to double the price on its
sideline sight lines in the off-season, before the glamour crowd
realizes what it's paying for. The aging Knicks stand only the
slightest chance of making it to the Eastern Conference finals.
And even if new coach Don Nelson can coax some magic out of
enigmatic forward Charles Smith and out of point guard Charlie
Ward, who languished under Riley, the Knicks still rank near the
bottom of the league in charismatic players.
The few times Madison Square Garden has really rocked in recent
years have been during one of New York's suffocating
fourth-quarter defensive stands. Under Nelson, such D will be a
memory, which translates into precious little bang for the
courtside buck. Thus filmmaker Spike Lee will be tossing away
$41,000 per ducat this season for a team that's on the wane.
8. Denver's Bernie Bickerstaff will win the NBA Executive of the
Year award--thanks to rookie power forward Antonio McDyess.
Bickerstaff's draft-day deal with the Clippers, in which he gave
up forward Rodney Rogers, center Brian Williams and No. 15 pick
Brent Barry for No. 2 pick McDyess, Randy Woods and Elmore
Spencer, will enhance the Nuggets' interior defense and toughen
Denver up for a playoff run.
And the other 1995-96 awards will go to ... Chicago's troika of
Michael Jordan (MVP), Scottie Pippen (defensive player of the
year) and Kukoc (sixth-man award); point guard Jalen Rose of
Denver (most improved player); 76er swingman Jerry Stackhouse
(rookie of the year); Golden State's Rick Adelman (coach of the
year) and Detroit forward Grant Hill (All-Star Game MVP).
And in the oughta-be-an-award category for meritorious
achievement by a CBA dues-payer (let's call it the John Starks
Trophy), this year's honors will go to Warrior guard Ryan
9. Washington will be the most improved team in the league;
Cleveland will have the biggest decline.
The trade for Cavalier point guard Mark Price and the addition
of rookie center Rasheed Wallace should be enough to boost the
Bullets near .500; last season they won just 21 games. Dealing
away Price for a first-round pick didn't damage Cleveland too
badly because Terrell Brandon proved last season he can run the
team. But when the Cavaliers then unloaded 6'11" Hot Rod
Williams to Phoenix for Dan Majerle, Antonio Lang and a No.
1--even with no NBA-caliber center to replace him--it sent up a
two-word signal around the league: fire sale. The Cavs won 43 in
1994-95; they won't win 25 in '95-96.
10. The Bulls will defeat the Suns in the NBA Finals.
These two teams might well have met for the championship in
June, but Phoenix lost forward Danny Manning to a knee injury
and Chicago did not get Jordan back soon enough for him to work
the kinks out of his game. Manning will be back by late December
or early January and playing in a beefed-up frontcourt that
includes Charles Barkley, A.C. Green and Williams. With Majerle
dealt and shooting guard Danny Ainge retired, however, swingman
Wesley Person will be under much more pressure to deliver from
the outside than he was last season as a rookie. If Person
falters, look for the Rockets to win the West for a third
Even before the Bulls acquired power forward Dennis Rodman from
the Spurs for center Will Perdue, they had a reasonable shot at
winning it all. Turnovers and missed shots down the stretch by
Jordan cost the Bulls two or three wins in their second-round
playoff loss to the Magic, and what more frightening force is
there in the NBA than His Airness with a little something to
prove? Now, with Rodman, Jordan and Pippen, the Bulls have three
of the best defenders of all time. And defense, as the Rockets
have reminded us, wins championships. Chicago in six.
COLOR PHOTO: STEVE LIPOFSKY Count on it: Carr (left) will break down in Boston, Rogers (below) will roll with the Raptors, and Morris will make sweeter music with the Jazz. [M.L. Carr]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: MANNY MILLAN (2)[See caption above--Carlos Rogers; Chris Morris]
COLOR PHOTO: NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS The forecast: (from left) Ratliff will push the Pistons, Drexler will rain threes, Sasha will sit, the Knicks will fleece Spike, and Rose will blossom. [Theo Ratliff]
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above--Clyde Drexler]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERTO SERRA/GRAZIA NERI [See caption above--Predrag (Sasha) Danilovic]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (2) [See caption above--Spike Lee; Jalen Rose]
COLOR PHOTO: NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS Sure things: Wallace (left) will make it harder to stop the speeding Bullets, and Rodman's arrival will mean a hair-raising season in Chicago. [Rasheed Wallace]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL SMITH [See caption above--Chicago Bulls logo dyed into Dennis Rodman's hair]