HEAD OF THE CLASS
As a scintillating NBA freshman class heads into the homestretch
of the 1996-97 season, debate continues about who should be
named Rookie of the Year. First, there's the spectacular yet
flawed 76ers point guard Allen Iverson, who, Charles Barkley
suggested, should be crowned Playground Rookie of the Year. Fed
up with criticism of his play, Iverson declared last month that
he would not speak to the press for the remainder of the season,
but his agent, David Falk, quickly persuaded him that this was
no way to win an honor voted on by the media.
Raptors big man Marcus Camby has made meritorious contributions,
yet early-season injuries hurt him in this race. Timberwolves
point guard Stephon Marbury has helped turn hapless Minnesota
into a playoff team, but he has to share the credit with
teammates Kevin Garnett and Tom Gugliotta.
Grizzlies forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim is the real deal on the
worst team in the NBA (and one that plays after most East Coast
voters have gone to bed), and Nets guard Kerry Kittles has been
a consistent performer on a club rocked by erratic play and
roster turnover. As New Jersey showcases Jimmy Jackson for yet
another trade, Kittles's playing time is bound to suffer.
So what's a voter to do? Celtics rookie forward Antoine Walker
has the solution: Pick him. "I'd be killing myself if I said I
shouldn't win," Walker says. "I've worked as hard as anyone
else. Look past the hype, and see who is producing." At week's
end the 6'9" Walker was averaging 34.0 minutes, 16.0 points, 8.9
rebounds and 1.26 steals per game. And although his natural
position is small forward, he has played all five spots for the
Celtics, who have lost a league-leading 312 man-games to injury.
"He has shown every skill you can think of," says Boston coach
M.L. Carr. "Not one guy has been asked to do more for his team
So why is Walker such a dark horse in the rookie race? For
starters, the Celtics are horrible and have had limited national
TV exposure. Through Sunday, Boston was 11-46, including a
13-game losing streak, and it has a shot at finishing the season
with the league's worst record. But that merely puts Walker in
the company of Abdur-Rahim, Camby, Iverson and Kittles, whose
teams are also lottery bound. Perhaps more important, the Boston
organization is conservative when it comes to marketing, and it
plans only a reserved campaign to promote Walker. Falk, who
represents Walker and Kittles in addition to Iverson, has had
his staff press the Celtics to push harder for their young star.
"M.L. told me they'll back me, but I understand how it is,"
Walker says. "The Celtics are used to winning. They're used to
having Hall of Fame players. I don't want any special favors."
ROCKY MOUNTAIN 'BYE?
New Nuggets general manager Allan Bristow completed a flurry of
trades before the Feb. 20 deadline to give Denver about $5.5
million in cap money to spend this summer. But the real work is
just beginning, and not only because Bristow must find a point
guard to replace Mark Jackson (dealt to the Pacers) and run the
Nuggets' up-tempo offense.
The two most valuable members of the team, forwards LaPhonso
Ellis and Antonio McDyess, can become free agents in the summer
of '98. Sources say McDyess is inclined to leave. Ellis, who
went on a four-game tear starting Feb. 21 (28.5 points and 8.0
rebounds), was upset when Jackson was shipped out, and he
privately questions the direction of the Denver franchise. The
Nuggets quietly offered Ellis a seven-year extension last season
while he was recovering from knee surgery, but the forward
refused to sign when the team, at the last minute, withdrew a
clause that would have allowed him to become a free agent after
four seasons. Denver can pick up an option on Ellis for $3.6
million next season, but if the Nuggets do that rather than
propose a more lucrative extension, he will likely bolt in '98.
Bristow acknowledges that he's had preliminary discussions with
Ellis about a new contract. "I don't want to jeopardize LaPhonso
being here," he says. "But we have to find ways to increase our
talent, and that might require a little give-and-take on both
sides. It's a process."
The process includes dealing with McDyess's agent, Arn Tellem,
whom Bristow once put in a choke hold during heated contract
negotiations for guard Kendall Gill when Bristow was the
Hornets' general manager. Both men insist that the incident is
behind them. "I'm no threat," Bristow says. "Too old and too
Tellem retorts, "Tell Allan I'm bringing in [my client] Albert
Belle as my bodyguard."
OPEN MOUTH, INSERT FOOT
Utah fans, Jazz officials and forward Karl Malone are all
steaming over remarks about their state made by Mavericks guard
Derek Harper. When asked last week why he had declined a trade
to the contending Jazz (for Greg Foster, Jamie Watson and a
first-round pick) and elected to stay with Dallas, Harper
replied, "You go live in Utah."
Jazz sources say that when the Mavericks played in Utah on Feb.
15, Harper told a number of Jazz players that he would love to
finish the season with them. "That's an out-and-out lie," Harper
says. "One of their equipment guys said he heard Utah was
interested in me, and I told him I wanted to play for Houston."
The Rockets offered Brent Price to the Mavs for Harper but would
not give up Mario Elie.
"I'm sorry how this came across," Harper says, referring to his
statement about Utah. "I wasn't trying to dis the state or the
Jazz. I gave a flippant answer to a question. But what it came
down to was, the people most important to me--my family--wanted
to stay in Dallas."
This is the second time Harper has spurned Utah. Last summer,
when he was a free agent, the Jazz offered him a two-year, $5.2
million contract. Harper's top choices were Miami and Orlando
(he went to high school in Florida), but those teams couldn't
carve out cap space for him. Around the same time, the Rockets
asked him to be patient while they tried to use Sam Cassell as
trade bait to acquire Charles Barkley from Phoenix, but Harper
felt he couldn't wait. He signed with Dallas, the club that
drafted him in 1983, for two years and $2.9 million. Harper
accepted such short money, sources say, because he was assured
he would receive a front-office or coaching position when his
contract was up.
What Harper can forget about is a championship ring--which, for
many years, he said was his goal. "I played for the championship
in New York," he says of the '93-94 Knicks, who lost to the
Rockets in the Finals. "We didn't win, but I was there. It
wasn't meant to be."
LINE OF THE WEEK
Portland guard Kenny Anderson, Feb. 28, versus Utah: 44 minutes,
11-16 field goals, 5-6 free throws, 30 points, 12 assists.
Anderson led the Blazers to a 115-105 win over Utah.
AROUND THE RIM
Through Sunday the Magic was 6-1 since Brian Hill was replaced
as coach by assistant Richie Adubato. Two players say they had
pushed for Hill's dismissal because they felt that without a new
coach they couldn't finish the season strong and prove that they
could win without Shaquille O'Neal....David Robinson could be
healthy by mid-March, leaving San Antonio in a quandary. On the
one hand, the Spurs are an abysmal 13-44, and the fans are
calling for the Admiral. On the other hand, keeping him out
enhances the team's chances of landing the No. 1 pick in the
draft. Don't count on seeing Robinson in uniform again this
season.... After the Lakers shelved the
Kobe-Bryant-as-point-guard experiment, they tried to make time
for Bryant at shooting guard, but veteran Byron Scott responded
to the challenge by shooting 55% from the field over 11 games.
"Byron simply won't let me play Kobe," said coach Del Harris,
after Bryant logged DNP's against Houston and Washington and
played one minute against Atlanta last week. "You can't steal
time from a guy going that good." During the stretch that Scott
shot 55%, Bryant shot 32%.
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBA PHOTOS In his first year in green, Walker has played all five positions for a Boston team that needs a lift. [Antoine Walker in game against Atlanta Hawks]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER McDyess (24) is said to be leaning toward leaving Denver. [Antonio McDyess in game against Boston Celtics]