A NET GAIN
Last summer, after John Calipari arrived in New Jersey from
UMass, one of his first acts as coach, executive vice president
and would-be savior of the Nets was to telephone his players and
share his master plan with them. More than half never returned
his call. Then, in November, when guard Vincent Askew publicly
attacked the new regime, Calipari quickly shipped him to the
Pacers in exchange for forward Reggie Williams, who at week's
end had played in only 13 games because of leg injuries. A
number of Calipari's NBA peers, undoubtedly envious of his fat
five-year, $15 million contract, spread the word that the
college guy had been snookered by his supposed pal (and former
boss at Kansas), Pacers coach Larry Brown.
Nobody's laughing at the college guy anymore. After his savvy
general manager, John Nash, worked the phones and placed before
him a staggering trade opportunity with the Mavericks, Calipari
immediately rubber-stamped it, and in a matter of hours on Feb.
17 they had revamped one of the league's sorriest franchises.
New Jersey secured both talent and depth by dealing two
underachievers--center Shawn Bradley and forward Ed
O'Bannon--and guards Robert Pack and Khalid Reeves to Dallas for
scrappy point guard Sam Cassell, sometimes explosive shooting
guard Jimmy Jackson, All-Star center Chris Gatling, physical
center Eric Montross and streak-shooting swingman George McCloud
(who later was shipped to the Lakers for center Joe Kleine and
two draft picks). Moreover, the Nets freed up nearly $14 million
in cap money for the summer of 1998, when members of the first
rookie-salary-cap class will become free agents.
Yet Calipari's work has only begun. Sources close to Cassell,
Gatling and Jackson say none wants to stay in New Jersey.
Calipari is unfazed. "Some won't have any choice but to stay,"
says the coach. "And, once they do, they'll see we've upgraded
our locker room, we're building a new training facility and
we're working on getting our own plane."
Cassell, for one, will listen to Calipari's entreaties. Reached
late Friday, Cassell said, "I like what John is trying to do. He
was one of the best college recruiters in the country, so I've
told him, 'C'mon, sell it to me.'" The sticking point may be
Cassell's price. He will be a free agent this summer and has
already talked about wanting between $5 million and $7 million a
season--a hefty raise from the $1.235 million he is earning now.
Team sources say the Nets will not pay him anywhere near his
asking price. If Cassell walks, New Jersey will use his money to
lure a less expensive replacement.
The new Nets will play out the season (New Jersey lost two of
its first three games after the trade, and at week's end its
record stood at 16-38) and perhaps establish value for future
deals. Nash said 21 teams contacted the Nets before last
Thursday's trade deadline, and New Jersey received "reasonable"
offers for each new member of its roster. According to team and
league sources, one serious suitor was Cleveland, which tried to
pry away Jackson by offering guard Bobby Phills. But the Nets
also wanted Phoenix's 1997 first-round pick, which Cleveland
owns, and/or either of two rookie big men, Vitaly Potapenko or
Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The Trail Blazers were willing to work out a
package for high-scoring forward Clifford Robinson, and the
76ers dangled forward Clarence Weatherspoon and/or swingman
Jerry Stackhouse for Jackson. The Hawks and the Suns wanted
McCloud, but the Nets opted for the Lakers' first-round choice
this June and for Kleine, a big body and solid locker room
presence who provides yet more cap room. (His $1.2 million
contract is up this summer.)
Meanwhile, around the league there was collective
head-scratching at the purge by new Dallas general manager Don
Nelson, hired on Feb. 7. Not one Mavericks player, coach or
executive remains from last season. While most observers
wondered if Nellie had been basking too long in the sun on Maui
(he has a home there), Rockets forward Charles Barkley leaped to
his defense. "Everyone is saying he's screwing up that team,"
said Sir Charles. "But let's get one thing straight: They were
already screwed up. So let's don't act like he's trading away a
playoff contender." (At week's end the Mavs, who had lost three
of four games since the trade, were 18-34.)
Nelson said his mission was twofold: to acquire the 7'6"
Bradley, through Sunday the league's leading shot blocker (3.91
average), and to eliminate disruptive elements from the locker
room. Nelson has long been enamored of big men with
shot-blocking capabilities. (Remember, he had 7'7" Manute Bol
for two seasons at Golden State.) Despite Bradley's
inconsistency and rail-thin body, he's only 24 years old and
Nelson believes he will grow as a player, particularly since he
played only one season of college basketball, at BYU. As for the
Mavs' team morale, friends of Nelson's say his disputes in
Golden State with Chris Webber and in New York with Patrick
Ewing have made him extra sensitive to backbiting and locker
room criticism. Nelson called the players he traded a bunch of
"f------ babies," which annoyed the players, who claim Nelson
entered the Dallas locker room only once before drawing his
conclusions. "I'd like to have a little conversation with
Nellie," says Cassell. "He's saying things to justify the trade.
And maybe he has a problem with some of those other guys, but
don't label me like that. What did I ever do to him?"
Dallas fans are wondering the same thing.
POINT OF RETURN
Last June the Pacers traded veteran point guard Mark Jackson to
the Nuggets with the idea of handing the ball to second-year
point guard Travis Best. But injuries to center Rik Smits and to
Best's veteran backup, Haywoode Workman, left the team--and
Best--reeling. So last Thursday the Pacers reacquired Jackson,
the league assists lead-er with a 12.2 average at week's end, by
giving up Vincent Askew, whose contract is up this summer, and
swingman Eddie Johnson, whose pact is only partly guaranteed
next season. The deal clears almost $3 mil-lion in cap room for
the Nuggets and gives the Pacers back their floor leader, albeit
with some extra baggage: a three-year, $9.3 million extension
given to Jackson by former Denver general manager Bernie
Bickerstaff, who recently bolted to coach the Bullets.
And what of Best? "We haven't given up on Travis," insists
Pacers president Donnie Walsh. "We made it clear to Mark that we
wanted him back, but at some point he would serve as a mentor or
a backup to a young guy we think has a great future."
LINE OF THE WEEK
Hornets forward Anthony Mason, Feb. 17 against the Magic: 11-11
field goals, 6-7 free throws, 28 points, 12 rebounds, nine
assists. Mason, still steamed at being left off the Eastern
Conference All-Star squad, took it out on Orlando in a 124-110
AROUND THE RIM
The early front-runners to replace Magic coach Brian Hill, who
was fired on Feb. 18, and his interim successor, Richie Adubato,
are deposed Spurs coach (and former Orlando assistant) Bob Hill
and Chuck Daly. "I've always said I'm 99 and two-thirds percent
sure I'll never coach again," says Daly, "but then Mike Ditka
and Dick Vermeil come back [to the NFL], and it just messes the
whole thing up."... Don't panic yet, Heat fans. Although the
torn plantar fascia tendon in center Alonzo Mourning's left foot
was projected to keep him out for six weeks, Miami officials are
hoping it will be closer to three. Better yet, of the 20 games
Mourning might miss over six weeks, 12 are at home, a mere eight
are against teams with winning records, and only one game is
likely to be against an elite center (the Rockets' Hakeem
Olajuwon).... The grumbling in the Sixers' locker room about
rookie coach Johnny Davis grows louder each day. Just a
suggestion, fellas: Check the mirror first.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Montross (left) and Gatling give the Nets new depth up front. [Eric Montross and Chris Gatling in game]
COLOR PHOTO: GLENN JAMES/NBA PHOTOS In his first three Mavs starts, Bradley rewarded Nelson with double-doubles in points and boards. [Shawn Bradley in game]