SPURS GET THE BOOT
It's hard to decide which was more surprising: that the Spurs,
facing playoff elimination in the Western Conference semifinals
last Thursday, lost a deciding Game 6 to the Jazz by 27 points
or that after the blowout San Antonio's All-Star center (Saint)
David Robinson, who was plagued by foul trouble all night,
criticized official Steve Javie--and used mildly off-color
language to do it.
"I'm really pissed off about tonight because I think Steve Javie
has brought this personal crap to the game all year long," said
Robinson, whom Javie ejected from a game on March 2. "I think
tonight was just garbage. I thought that third call [Robinson's
third personal, an offensive foul called with just 14 seconds
gone in the second quarter] was garbage. I don't appreciate
that. I think that was personal."
Just as in 1995, when the Rockets knocked the higher-seeded
Spurs out of the playoffs in the conference finals, San Antonio
rendered a splendid regular season (59-23) meaningless with an
anemic showing in the postseason. Robinson & Co. have long been
criticized for being too soft because they are routinely
outmuscled by opponents. After the series against the Jazz, the
Spurs' mental toughness came into question as well.
"We all know there's a difference between the playoffs and the
regular season," says San Antonio general manager Gregg
Popovich, "but there's absolutely no reason for a team that won
59 games to lose three games [in the series against Utah] by an
average of 26 points. It's humiliating. And it's unacceptable.
I'm dumbfounded by that. It requires some tough questions that
can't be swept under the rug."
Asked what specifically he had in mind, Popovich replied, "If I
know what's good for me, I won't answer that now. I'll meet with
the coaches and the players first. But I'll tell you one thing:
You can't chalk this up as a growing process. That's total bull."
San Antonio's early exit does not help the case of Spurs coach
Bob Hill, who has a year remaining on his contract. Hill was
hoping to negotiate an extension this summer, but that won't
happen now. Popovich has always publicly supported Hill, yet
observers have long noted their contrasting styles--Popovich is
blue-collar, Hill is white-tab collar--and were wondering aloud
again last week how much longer the two can peacefully coexist.
On the court, even if Popovich wants to shake things up, his
hands are tied by the salary cap. He has committed an average of
$13.6 million a season through 1999-2000 to Robinson and $5.2
million per through 2000-2001 to All-Star forward Sean Elliott.
Add forward Charles Smith, whose salary will tie up an average
of $4.1 million a season through 1999-2000, and there's not much
loose change rattling around the Alamodome.
KARL: A YEAR OFF?
When the Sonics lost Game 2 of their Western Conference
opening-round playoff series at home to the Kings, the silence
in Seattle was deafening. Was Seattle, which was shocked in the
first round by the Nuggets two years ago and the Lakers last
year, headed for another quick fold? Had the floor fallen from
beneath coach George Karl?
Then the Sonics ran off six straight wins over Sacramento and
Houston, and now that they are in the Western Conference finals,
Karl's popularity is soaring. Last week Seattle finally picked
up the option on his partially guaranteed contract for next
season. Sonics president and general manager Wally Walker says
he plans to sit down with Karl this summer and talk about a
contract extension, but it might be a tough sell. Those close to
Karl say he's convinced that Seattle's ownership was
clandestinely discussing potential successors as recently as
three weeks ago (which the Sonics deny), and that unless the
Sonics' offer is an impressive one--including big money and lots
of security--he'll seriously consider taking a year off from
Karl says he's "happy and hopeful" of completing a new deal with
Seattle, although he admits the uncertainty about his future has
been difficult. "I believe in loyalty," he says. "I want it to
work out here, but I think there needs to be some commitment."
And if there isn't, would he in fact sit out a year? "It's a lot
closer to the truth than people realize," he says. "I have a
12th-grader at home who would love to spend the year with me.
People think I'm just saying that, but nobody knows what I'm
going to do. Sometimes a year away from all of this sounds like
the best thing."
If Karl were a free agent, he would attract offers. The Hornets,
for one, would have loved to hire him. Would the Sonics release
Karl from the option year if so requested? "I'm unwilling to
deal in the hypothetical," answered Walker.
NEW YORK STATE OF MIND
With the Knicks possibly dropping as much as $9.5 million under
the salary cap, expect some significant changes in New York this
summer. A replacement for coach Jeff Van Gundy, however, does
not appear to be one. The Knicks, whom the Bulls eliminated from
the playoffs on May 14, need new players, not a new coach. And
last week All-Star center Patrick Ewing threw his considerable
support behind Van Gundy, who replaced Don Nelson on March 8 and
went 13-10 during the rest of the regular season. Ewing's
1995-96 salary of $18.7 million shrinks to $3 million next
season, thus making him tradable--but he won't be sent packing,
either. The New York front office already rejected the idea of
jettisoning Ewing when it fired Nelson, who favored such a move.
"I hope Patrick Ewing finishes his career in a Knicks uniform,"
says general manager Ernie Grunfeld.
New York does hope to move at least one and preferably two
players from among forwards Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley and
guard John Starks. When the Knicks were peddling Starks just
before the trading deadline in February--and they were offering
to absorb a large chunk of his salary if that would help to move
him--there were no takers. The New York roster is screaming for
a consistent scorer; the Knicks like free-agents-to-be Reggie
Miller (now with the Pacers), Juwan Howard (Bullets), Allan
Houston (Pistons) and Latrell Sprewell (Warriors).
The Knicks will also be on the lookout for a starting point
guard. Free agent Derek Harper, who will turn 35 in October, has
probably played his last game for New York. "It's highly
unlikely Derek will be back," says his agent, George Andrews.
"The Knicks have had all season to do something, and they still
haven't made him an offer. It's gone beyond disrespectful."
Harper would consider returning to his home state, Florida,
where he could be reunited with former Knicks coach Pat Riley in
AROUND THE RIM
Panathinaikos of Greece won the European championship behind the
play of former Hawks star Dominique Wilkins and ex-Celtic Stojko
Vrankovic, but Panathinaikos officials were seething after
Wilkins bolted the team last week in the middle of the Greek
championships to have his strained left Achilles tendon checked
by doctors in the U.S. Wilkins is scheduled to make $3.5 million
next season, but a buyout might be in the offing. Meanwhile
Vrankovic, a 7'2" center, is being wooed by the Bucks and the
Cavaliers. Cleveland is the front-runner, particularly if Chris
Ford winds up as the Bucks' coach. He and Vrankovic clashed when
Ford coached Boston....Sources say the Rockets have interest in
dealing for the Suns' Charles Barkley and might be willing to
part with forward Robert Horry to get him....Look for the
Hornets to buy out 42-year-old center Robert Parish for $1
million instead of picking up his $3 million option.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH The Spurs' Robinson (50), who came down hard on the referees, was himself too soft on the court. [David Robinson and other San Antonio Spurs players in game against Utah Jazz]
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Despite cast changes, Ewing will remain New York's leading man.[Luc Longley and Patrick Ewing]