ON MAY 7, 1994, Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo lay sprawled on
the floor of the Seattle Coliseum, cradling a basketball and
weeping unabashedly over Denver's upset of the Western
Conference's No. 1 seed, the Sonics, in the first round of the
playoffs. His team, Mutombo tearfully exulted, had climbed all
the way back from its nadir--a 20-win season in 1990-91.
Not so fast. A year ago, the Nuggets underachieved in the
regular season--they went 41-41--and were swept in the first
round of the playoffs by the Spurs. This season Denver, with a
30-41 record through Sunday, is in danger of missing the
playoffs. That dubious achievement would make the Nuggets the
NBA's biggest bust of 1995-96. "This has been a total
disappointment," Mutombo said last week. "This is supposed to be
a team on the rise. I was sure we would win at least 50 games.
Basketball used to be fun. No more."
Denver has struggled because of inconsistency at point guard.
The Nuggets have also suffered from the cumulative effects of
off-season trades that sent two solid veterans, forward Rodney
Rogers and center-forward Brian Williams, to the Clippers for,
among others, heralded rookie Antonio McDyess; from complaints
by forward LaPhonso Ellis about not starting; and from the
controversy sparked by guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf's refusal to
stand for the national anthem. "Then there are the things you
don't even know about," says Mutombo. "For four years, we worked
on a particular defense, and this year? We come out with a new
one. [Denver has moved from straight-up coverage to switching
off more.] Why? Why do we mess up the good things we have?"
While the trades of Rogers and Williams disrupted the Nuggets'
short-term chemistry, McDyess's long-term potential is
tantalizing. Yet Mutombo is irked that he was not consulted by
management before the transaction. "When you work for the Denver
Nuggets," he says, "you are not included."
Mutombo, a five-year veteran who will be a free agent this
summer, has never been comfortable with general manager-coach
Bernie Bickerstaff's vision of his center as a 7'2" rebounding
and shot-blocking wizard whose offense should be secondary. Now
Mutombo wonders if it's time to move on. "I know things will be
good for me, if not in Denver, then somewhere else," he says.
Mutombo's agent, David Falk, insists his client is speaking out
of frustration. "Unless something totally out of line happens in
negotiations," says Falk, "I fully expect Dikembe to remain with
Although Mutombo is on course to lead the league in blocked
shots for the third straight season (through Sunday he was
averaging 4.59 a game), this has not been his finest year. His
rebounding average (11.7), points per game (11.0) and field goal
percentage (.501) are down from last season, and early last
month Bickerstaff sat Mutombo for the final 14 1/2 minutes of a
game against San Antonio. The following day Mutombo and
Bickerstaff met privately for an hour. Both emerged declaring
they were on the same page, yet Mutombo's unhappiness was
bubbling to the surface again last week, and Bickerstaff didn't
appreciate the timing.
"We all have to look in the mirror and collectively accept
responsibility for this season," says Bickerstaff. "No one
should escape that--not the coaches, not the players. What we
need to do, Mutombo included, is ask ourselves, What can I do to
get us in the playoffs?"
It's the time of year when teams with fading playoff hopes
assume the tank position and slide to the bottom of the
standings, angling for a better shot at a high pick in the draft
lottery. But this season the Bullets, 4 1/2 games out of a
playoff spot with 10 to play at week's end, don't have the
option of packing it in. Washington, which hasn't been to the
postseason in eight years, gave up its first-round pick when it
acquired point guard Mark Price from the Cavaliers in September.
Besides, the Bullets desperately want to make the playoffs
because 1) the players guaranteed it in November, and the fans
expect it; and 2) team officials are concerned that another
letdown will affect ticket sales and marketing when the team
moves to a new, $180 million downtown Washington arena in the
fall of 1997.
"There's no question we're under some pressure here," says
Bullets general manager John Nash. "It would be very prudent for
us to make the playoffs for fiscal reasons. Lending institutions
look at revenue streams, which [are enhanced by] postseason play."
Because of a season-long epidemic of injuries, the Washington
front office holds coach Jim Lynam blameless for the club's
33-39 showing through Sunday. Lynam's future seems especially
secure in light of the assertion by All-Star forward and
free-agent-to-be Juwan Howard that "Coach Lynam is a reason I'd
Yet sources say that if Howard leaves, Nash could lose his job.
There already has been talk that Nash, formerly general manager
in Philadelphia, will join old friend Pat Croce, the new
president of the downtrodden Sixers, as his general manager.
Croce has touched base with other pals with a Philly connection,
including Magic G.M. Pat Williams (he needs a change of
scenery), Orlando vice president John Gabriel (his contract is
up, and he's intrigued with the ultimate rebuilding job) and NBC
analyst Matt Guokas (interested in a G.M. job only).
LINE OF THE WEEK
Rockets forward Mark Bryant, March 27 versus the Mavericks: 28
MIN, 12-18 FG, 6-9 FT, 30 points, 11 rebounds. Even though
Houston lost 117-114, Bryant's effort was heroic because he was
anchoring an undermanned starting five that included CBA
importees Sam Mack and Tracy Moore, plus veterans Chucky Brown
and Kenny Smith. Rockets mainstays Sam Cassell, Clyde Drexler,
Mario Elie, Robert Horry and Hakeem Olajawon all were down with
AROUND THE RIM
Look for the Pacers to move reserve point guard Haywoode Workman
in the off-season to open up playing time for rookie Travis
Best. "I've got to get [Best] minutes," says coach Larry Brown.
"I love everything about Travis, but then I look down the bench
and see Haywoode and remember what he's done for us. I'm torn
every night." ... The Lakers voted unanimously to strip Cedric
Ceballos of his co-captaincy for going AWOL. And on the road
trip that followed Ceballos's March 25 reinstatement, he stayed
on a separate floor from the rest of the players.... The Celtics
are now thinking they might have overpaid free-agent guard Dana
Barros (six years, $20 million), who was averaging 12.7 points
and 4.11 assists through Sunday. Boston should check with
Washington, which still wants the three-point specialist.... At
week's end Raptors point guard Damon Stoudamire was on course to
play 3,270 minutes this season. At that pace he'll be the
sixth-most-used rookie in NBA history, behind Elvin Hayes
(Rockets, 1968-69), Lew Alcindor (Bucks, '69-70), Walt Bellamy
(Packers, '61-62), Wilt Chamberlain (Warriors, '59-60) and Jerry
Lucas (Royals, '63-64).
COLOR PHOTO: NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS Denver's fall to far below .500 has irked Mutombo--maybe to the point of no return.[Dikembe Mutombo being guarded by Patrick Ewing]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK At his current scatlike pace, the diminutive rookie Stoudamire will end up in a playing-time pantheon. [Damon Stoudamire guarding Seattle SuperSonic]