Break up the Pacers?
True, Indiana was one win away from the NBA Finals in each of
the previous two seasons, but this spring the Hawks, seeded
sixth in the Eastern Conference, eliminated the third-seeded
Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. In that series
Indiana looked lost without All-Star guard Reggie Miller, the
team's scoring leader (21.1 average in 1995-96), who did not
make an appearance until the deciding Game 5 because of a
fractured right eye socket.
Now the franchise finds itself at a crossroads. Miller will
become a free agent on July 1. So will frontcourt regulars
Antonio Davis and Dale Davis. Unlike Miller, both Davises had
mediocre seasons. Team president Donnie Walsh says he's
confident he'll re-sign all three players, but even if he does,
can the Pacers contend for a championship?
Apparently coach Larry Brown doesn't think so. Sources say
Brown, who is prone to doubts about the potential of whatever
team he coaches, was so despondent over the Pacers' early exit
and lack of consistent scoring that he urged Walsh to split up
the relatively young nucleus of Miller, the Davises, forward
Derrick McKey and center Rik Smits. (All but Miller are in their
20's.) Walsh intends to do nothing of the sort.
"We never had a chance to be the team we'd thought we would be
this season," says Walsh. "Smits was never Smits. He was hurt
all year [ankle and leg injuries]. Then, finally, when we
started to come around, Reggie went down."
Whether or not Miller stays, there will be a changing of the
guards, or at least of the guards' rotation. Rookie point guard
Travis Best, who was used sparingly in the regular season but
showed considerable moxie against Atlanta, looms large in the
team's future. Brown has vowed to "hand the kid the ball" next
season--meaning the Pacers will try to move one of their other
veteran point guards, Mark Jackson (unlikely, with two years
left at $2.9 million and $3.2 million) or Haywoode Workman, who
will draw interest because he plays tough defense and is a
bargain at an average salary of $1.29 million over the next
Last week Brown, unwittingly or otherwise, further muddled the
Pacers' future. He was named a candidate for the coaching job in
Dallas, even though he has three years remaining on his
contract with Indiana.
According to Walsh, when he called Mavericks general manager
Norm Sonju to recommend Pacers assistant Gar Heard for the
Mavericks job (vacant since Dick Motta quit on May 1), Sonju
inquired about Brown's status "in general terms."
"I told him I thought Larry was happy where he was, and if he
made a move, it would have to include part ownership," says
Walsh. "Norm never asked for permission to talk to Larry, and I
didn't think much about it until I picked up my paper and saw
Larry listed as one of their top candidates."
In a subsequent call to Sonju, Walsh was assured it was all a
"misunderstanding," and that Dallas's new ownership, headed by
Ross Perot Jr., had not contacted Brown.
Funny how those "misunderstandings" have dogged Brown for much
of his career. He was vacationing in Phoenix when asked by The
Dallas Morning News about the Mavs job, and instead of
immediately dismissing it as a possibility, Brown said he was
both "flattered" and "embarrassed." Naturally that fueled
speculation that the nomadic Brown (who has held eight coaching
jobs, both college and pro, since 1972) was ready to move on.
Sonju, quickly recognizing that Brown's name on the list of
coaching prospects could result in a tampering charge, sent out
a release last Friday insisting Brown was never a candidate.
Sure, and Perot's dad never wanted to be president of the United
Meanwhile Brown's public waffling undermined his close friend
Walsh, who earlier this season backed him when his players were
on the verge of revolt because of Brown's relentless
browbeatings. On Monday, Walsh and Brown sat down for what Walsh
called "a little talk" about all that had occurred.
Even after 13 seasons in the NBA, Larry Brown still hasn't
learned to live by a rather simple motto: Just say no.
CLAIMS ON CLEAMONS
Jim Cleamons, in his seventh year as a Bulls assistant coach and
a perennial candidate for vacant head-coaching positions, is in
the thick of yet another run for the championship, and his
presence on the Chicago bench could hurt him as he again tries
to land a head job. Cleamons has drawn interest from both
Charlotte and Dallas, but Bulls general manager Jerry Krause
forbids his employees to interview for other jobs while the team
is still competing.
In contrast Spurs assistant Dave Cowens was given the full
blessing of general manager Gregg Popovich when he asked for
permission to meet with Hornets officials last week, though San
Antonio was still alive in the playoffs at the time. Next up on
Charlotte's list was former Boston coach Chris Ford, who was
scheduled to meet with Hornets vice president of basketball
operations Bob Bass on May 14. Sources say the Hornets are still
holding out hope for Seattle coach George Karl, who would be
their top choice. Karl can't talk until the Sonics, who on
Sunday completed a sweep of their Western Conference semifinal
series with Houston, conclude their postseason.
Milwaukee has also been making discreet inquiries about Ford,
who was on new Sixers general manager Brad Greenberg's list of
coaching candidates to replace John Lucas (fired on Monday).
Vancouver coach Brian Winters, who played eight seasons in
Milwaukee, has surfaced as a potential Bucks candidate, but as
of late Monday afternoon Grizzlies general manager Stu Jackson
said that the Bucks had not called to ask permission to speak
In Dallas former Suns coach Paul Westphal met for more than four
hours on Saturday with Mavericks officials, complete with a
helicopter escort by Perot from his North Dallas offices to his
private ranch. One team source said Westphal was "extremely
impressive" in his interview. He should be considered the early
front-runner--if the Mavericks really have gotten over their
fixation on Brown. In the meantime, Brad Davis, Motta's
assistant and onetime heir apparent, had an interview on Monday,
but it was merely a courtesy. If Dallas could entice Kentucky
coach Rick Pitino to stop by, however, that interview would be
far more than a courtesy. Pitino had been adamant about his
plans to stay in Lexington next season, but that was before
sophomore Antoine Walker walked into his office and announced
he was going pro. As a result, Pitino's name has also surfaced
again in New Jersey.
AROUND THE RIM
Portland point guard Rod Strickland, long at loggerheads with
coach P.J. Carlesimo, has said he doubts he'll be back with the
Blazers next season. But that will depend on Portland president
Bob Whitsitt, who has attached a high price tag to Strickland
and won't trade him unless he gets equal value. Also, any team
that deals for Strickland should be prepared to offer him an
extension on his contract, which has two years left, at $2.6
million and $3 million. Portland will keep forward Dontonio
Wingfield, who played for the league minimum last season
($225,000), but the Blazers are not likely to exercise their
option on 36-year-old Buck Williams, whose $3.4 million salary
is considered too steep....Here's one more reason that the
Suns' Charles Barkley, who is once again hinting at retirement,
should play next season: He's five assists shy of becoming the
fourth player in NBA history to score 20,000 career points, grab
10,000 rebounds and dish out 3,500 assists. The other three?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain....
What's really absurd about Dennis Rodman? It's his demand for
$10 million a season from the Bulls, especially considering that
some of his key teammates don't want him back at any price.
Hasn't he paid attention to the strained negotiations between
the team and coach Phil Jackson? Jackson doesn't want to be the
highest-paid or the most powerful coach in the league, but he
would like more input in personnel matters (he doesn't even have
carte blanche in picking his assistants) and compensation
somewhere in the $2 million-a-year range. Team sources say the
Bulls stopped at $1.5 million.
COLOR PHOTO: NOREN TROTMAN/NBA PHOTOS Even if Miller (opposite, top) and the Davises (Dale, below, and Antonio, 33) stay put, Indy's title prospects are in doubt. [Reggie Miller standing on sideline in suit]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above--Dale Davis wearing face mask in game]
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBA PHOTOS [See caption above--Antonio Davis in game]