PASSING THE BUCK
When Bucks forward Vin Baker studies his newspaper, he lingers
over the box scores of the Bullets, in particular the numbers
put up by Washington's two young frontcourt stars, Juwan Howard
and Chris Webber. "They're just like us," Baker says. "Lots of
expectations and no results."
If the season had ended on Sunday, Baker, averaging 21.6 points
and 10.5 rebounds, and his fellow forward Glenn Robinson, 21.0
points and 6.4 rebounds, would have gotten high marks for
statistical accomplishments but low grades for failing to lead
their team to a postseason berth. Underachieving Milwaukee had
lost 12 of its last 15 games and was 28-39, eight games and
three spots behind the eighth-place Cavaliers in the Eastern
Conference playoff race. The 33-35 Bullets were 3 1/2 games
behind Cleveland for the final conference postseason slot,
though Howard and Webber had combined for 38.6 points and 17.9
rebounds a game.
With Milwaukee on pace to miss the playoffs for the sixth
straight season, observers around the league are openly
wondering whether the Bucks need to make a major,
chemistry-altering move--perhaps even trading Baker, an All-Star
the past three years, or Robinson, the first player picked in
the 1994 draft. According to sources, Milwaukee owner Herb Kohl
isn't yet ready to pull the trigger on a deal involving either
of his forwards. But he is frustrated, especially because this
season began with great optimism. After 1995-96, when they
finished 25-57, the Bucks brought in a new coach (Chris Ford),
solid veterans (forward-center Armon Gilliam and center Andrew
Lang) and a top rookie (guard Ray Allen, the fifth overall pick
in the '96 draft). But as the season wore on, it became clear
that Milwaukee had two significant shortcomings: It plays
horrendous defense and doesn't have strong leadership.
At week's end Bucks opponents were shooting 47.2%, the
third-highest percentage in the league. Milwaukee doesn't
consistently perform such defensive fundamentals as sealing off
the baseline or putting a hand in the face of a three-point
shooter. And the Bucks can't seem to discern the difference
between a smart foul and a boneheaded one. "It's no big secret,"
says Milwaukee point guard Sherman Douglas, "that we've got guys
out there who are completely lost." Too often Robinson is one of
them. Although his offensive skills can be dazzling, he often
doesn't rotate properly on defense and has trouble shutting down
opposing small forwards.
As for leadership, the 25-year-old Baker says he has tried to
fill the vacuum. "Glenn and I have been given a leadership role
very early in our careers," Baker says. "We haven't had the
luxury of riding on someone like Hakeem [Olajuwon]." Ford, who
played with Larry Bird in 1980-81, when the 24-year-old Bird led
the Celtics to a championship, doesn't buy that. "You can't keep
saying, 'Oh, they're young kids,'" Ford says. "This is supposed
to be their team. It's time to act like it."
Surprisingly, the demanding Ford has had a better relationship
with the reticent Robinson, who last season battled with coach
Mike Dunleavy (now Milwaukee's general manager), than with the
emotional Baker, a fan and media favorite. Baker and Ford
acknowledge there have been disagreements as well as a number of
meetings to address them. "We're O.K.," Baker says. "We both
just want to win."
For the foreseeable future, neither Baker nor Robinson can
simply up and leave Milwaukee. Robinson's 10-year, $68.2 million
contract runs for seven more seasons. Baker can't exercise an
escape clause in his 10-year, $16.2 million pact until the
summer of 1999. Baker, who grew up in Connecticut, makes no
secret of his interest in the Celtics, yet he says his career
won't be a success unless he helps Milwaukee become a title
contender. "I don't want to be one of those guys who opts out as
a failure," he says.
Bulls trainer Chip Schaefer was watching television last week
when Heat coach Pat Riley appeared on the screen. Riley
explained that center Alonzo Mourning, who had been out since
Feb. 21 with a torn right plantar fascia, had begun working out
with the Heat and was a little sore, but his return was imminent.
"The minute I heard that, I thought, Uh-oh," says Schaefer, who
has been treating Chicago forward Toni Kukoc for a right plantar
fascia injury most of the season. "If Mourning is still sore, it
could mean trouble. With this injury you are always walking that
tightrope. You want to rest the foot to the point where you
eliminate all pain, but you also want the player to maintain
some kind of conditioning."
The plantar fascia is a connective tissue that extends from the
bottom of the heel bone to each of the toes. It serves as an
elastic support for the bottom of the foot, especially the arch.
Recently it has been a figurative Achilles' heel to some of the
NBA's most prominent players. The latest to go down with a
plantar fascia injury, to his right foot, is the Hornets'
Anthony Mason, who left Charlotte's 100-97 win over the Raptors
last Friday in the third quarter; Mason is expected to be out
two to three weeks. Mourning had missed 13 games before he
played 33 minutes, scored 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds
in Miami's 113-108 victory over the Timberwolves on Sunday.
Kukoc had missed 11 games since going on the injured list on
March 3, although he began light workouts last week.
The possible causes of a plantar fascia injury include trauma
(as in the case of Kukoc, who suffered an ankle sprain and
altered his running style as a result), sudden weight gain, poor
shoe support or excessive wear and tear. Treatment generally
includes anti-inflammatory medication, stretching and, most
important, rest. Surgery is rarely required; Warriors guard Mark
Price is one of only three NBA players known to have gone under
the knife for a plantar fascia injury.
Why are there so many cases of plantar fasciitis? NBA
old-timers, especially, have no shortage of explanations.
Celtics president Red Auerbach, for instance, blames new sneaker
models, which he says are long on style and short on support. In
truth, there probably were as many plantar fascia injuries 20
years ago as there are today, but without MRIs to detect them,
they simply took on a different name. "Back then," says
Schaefer, "a plantar fascia injury was a 'sore foot.'"
Maybe in his next job Garry St. Jean, deposed last week after
nearly five seasons as the Kings' coach and replaced by
assistant Eddie Jordan, will get a first-rate starting point
guard, which he never had in Sacramento. Perhaps at his next
stop St. Jean will have more say about whether he wants a player
like guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was acquired by the Kings
last summer and who helped ruin Sacramento's team chemistry. It
will help, too, if St. Jean doesn't have a club that leads the
league in games lost to injury, as the Kings did in three of his
seasons there. And it will be nice if he has a star with a
take-charge personality; Sacramento's best player, guard Mitch
Richmond, though an All-Star performer, doesn't possess that
Sources say that even before St. Jean was fired, Mavericks
general manager Don Nelson, with an eye toward replacing Jim
Cleamons, was wondering about St. Jean's availability; no formal
contact was made because St. Jean was still under contract. The
same sources say Nelson is also interested in speaking to
University of Utah coach Rick Majerus, like St. Jean a former
LINE OF THE WEEK
Sonics point guard Gary Payton, March 18 against the Bulls: 50
minutes, 3-16 field goals, 6-7 free throws, 14 points, 12
rebounds, 14 assists, 6 steals, 6 turnovers. Payton's poor
shooting and uncharacteristic number of turnovers offset his
considerable accomplishments in this game and were key factors
in Seattle's 89-87 overtime loss.
AROUND THE RIM
Next summer Trail Blazers backup center Chris Dudley will
exercise an option in his six-year, $24 million contract and
become a free agent. This is a smart move worthy of a Yalie:
With the Knicks' Patrick Ewing and the Lakers' Travis Knight
likely to re-sign with their clubs, the 32-year-old Dudley may
be the best big man on the open market. When he signed his
current deal, he got a lot of heat about being overpaid. Now he
stands to make much more. Would Detroit be interested?...As Suns
coach Danny Ainge continues to go with small lineups, 6'7"
forward Cedric Ceballos continues to have his minutes cut, a
situation that has Ceballos sulking again.... If you're
wondering why the Nuggets are lusting after Raptors point guard
Damon Stoudamire, whom they are hoping to sign as a free agent
in 1998 if he becomes available, one motive may be stability, as
evidenced by the list of the nine players who have (so far)
played the position for Denver this season: Jerome Allen, Elmer
Bennett, Melvin Booker, Anthony Goldwire, Mark Jackson, Jeff
McInnis, Eric Murdock, Kenny Smith and Brooks Thompson.
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER Baker (right) doesn't get many leadership points. [Vin Baker in game]
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER With this summer's free-agent pickings at center likely to be slim, the Blazers' hardworking Dudley may reap another bonanza. [Chris Dudley in game]