What's wrong with the Pistons? Grant Hill tried to answer that
question from reporters 30 or 40 times, in polite, respectful
fashion. Then, last Saturday in an interview with SI, the
All-Star forward, angry with what was quickly becoming a lost
season in Detroit, dispensed with good manners and deplored the
state of his team. Two days later Doug Collins, Detroit's coach
for 2 1/2 seasons, was fired and replaced by assistant Alvin
After winning 54 games in 1996-97, the Pistons were expected to
be contenders for the Eastern Conference title. But at week's
end, after dropping four of their last six, they had slid to
21-24 and were tied with the Celtics for the 11th-best record in
"You know what's wrong with us?" said Hill, also voicing the
thoughts of several teammates. "We're not that good. My first
couple of years here, we took some steps in the right direction.
But now it's like we're going backwards. This is the most
frustrated I've ever been in my career."
At the center of Detroit's storm was Collins, the fanatical
coach who demanded perfection and was relentless in his pursuit
of it. No one questioned Collins's exceptional knowledge of the
game, but players found it difficult, and in some cases
impossible, to respond to his frenetic style. Sources told SI
that in at least two meetings with owner Bill Davidson, Hill
recommended a coaching change.
When asked about those meetings, Hill bristled. He acknowledged
that he had huddled with Davidson, but he wouldn't divulge the
substance of their conversations. "If the owner wants to meet
with me, then of course I'm going to sit down with him," Hill
Hill has no interest in being lumped with Penny Hardaway, who
has been branded as the spoiled athlete who led last season's
palace revolt that brought down Magic coach Brian Hill. The
difference, as several Pistons sources attest, is that Grant
Hill worked hard at trying to peacefully coexist with Collins.
But the relationship of the coach and his superstar suffered a
crippling setback in the aftermath of a Jan. 24 NBC interview in
which Hill declined to endorse Collins. Six days later Hill was
called into his coach's office, and the two engaged in a heated
discussion that ended when Hill uncharacteristically shouted
back at Collins. "There's no going back with those two now,"
reported one member of the Pistons afterward.
In the meantime Hill's performance was suffering on the court,
where at week's end, though he was averaging 21.5 points, his
field goal percentage was 43.6%, down from 49.6% last year. Some
of the same media members who once embraced Hill as the "next
Michael Jordan" are now dismissing him as overrated. But what
they fail to note is that a considerable amount of talent has
left Detroit over the last two years, leaving Hill to carry too
much of the load.
In '95-96 Hill, shooting guards Joe Dumars and Allan Houston,
and power forward Otis Thorpe were the core of an up-and-coming
club. But Houston bolted to the Knicks as a free agent two
seasons ago, Thorpe was shipped off to the Grizzlies last summer
in the wake of his highly publicized clashes with Collins, and
Dumars, his best years behind him, has struggled with injuries.
Also, center Terry Mills, who last season helped with the
long-range attack, left the team as a free agent for the Heat.
The December acquisition of shooting guard Jerry Stackhouse from
the 76ers has helped put more points on the board, but he's a
scorer, not a shooter. "So now we're a bunch of clones," Hill
said of the club Gentry inherits. "We've got all
slashers"--Stackhouse and guards Lindsey Hunter and Malik
Sealy--"and no deep threat to keep the defense honest."
The Pistons thought they had upgraded the team by signing
free-agent center Brian Williams, whom they were banking on to
provide a physical presence up front. But according to team
sources, Williams has been a major disappointment, providing
neither toughness nor intensity despite averaging 17.2 points.
His teammates and coaches are frustrated because Williams misses
too much practice due to various minor ailments.
In one respect Detroit's decline has taken pressure off Hill: He
is no longer referred to as the next Jordan, a burden that's
been transferred to 19-year-old Lakers star Kobe Bryant. Is Hill
relieved? "In some ways, I'm kind of jealous," he said. "Kobe is
in such a great environment. I'd love to see what it's like to
be around three other All-Stars [Shaquille O'Neal, Eddie Jones
and Nick Van Exel]."
Hill won't know anytime soon. Dumars, the only other current
Piston ever to make an All-Star team, will retire this summer,
leaving Hill to wonder how--and when--Detroit can turn it around
again. "I know I'll be criticized until I win a championship,"
he said. "That's how it was with Michael and Hakeem. But it's
hard to watch us get further away, instead of closer to that
SAN ANTONIO SKYLINE
One morning last month, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich put 7-footers
David Robinson, Tim Duncan and Will Perdue on the same team
during a shootaround and ran a couple of plays for his Triple
Towers. Perdue, whose playing time to that point was minimal,
was hopeful the exercise would lead to a larger role, but
Popovich didn't use the combination in a game. "I figured he'd
never go with it," Perdue says.
But after forward Sean Elliott went on the injured list on Jan.
21 with an injured quadriceps tendon in his left leg, Popovich
decided to think big. In the first seven games using the new
starting lineup, the Spurs were 6-1, with Perdue averaging 9.1
points, 12.0 rebounds and 1.14 blocks.
The move also has allowed the Spurs to showcase Perdue, who has
been on the trading block since last summer. In the past San
Antonio has offered him to the Hornets for guard Dell Curry,
talked to the Nets about exchanging him for guard Kendall Gill
and tried to pry guard Chris Carr from the Timberwolves, but
none of the three teams wanted to deal. The Pistons offered
Sealy, but San Antonio wants a shooter.
No other team has ever regularly started a trio of 7-footers, so
Perdue was enjoying his place in history. "Now Pop is a genius,"
says Perdue. "It only took him 42 games to figure it out."
IVERSON IRKS BROWN
After notching victories over the Lakers and the Bulls earlier
in the month, the 76ers reverted to form when they finished
January with five straight defeats. After a 102-86 drubbing by
the Rockets at the CoreStates Center last Saturday, coach Larry
Brown laid much of the blame for the U-turn on point guard Allen
Iverson, who had just 10 points (on 3-for-14 shooting) and five
assists. "He's taking jump shots, and he's not a jump shooter,"
Brown said. "When was the last time you saw him take a
pick-and-roll and get to the rim?"
Although Brown emphasized that the team's recent woes weren't
the fault of any one player, he also criticized Iverson for not
doing more to get the ball to his shooters. Shooting guard Jimmy
Jackson, for instance, took only four shots in the second half
against Houston after scoring 12 points to stake Philly to a
43-39 halftime lead. Moreover, Brown noted that Iverson didn't
force a single turnover against the Rockets' 6'6" rookie guard
Iverson, who averaged 25.3 points and 7.6 assists from Jan. 12
through Jan. 18 to earn NBA Player of the Week honors, told
reporters last week he was upset about being snubbed for the
All-Star team. In the three games after learning he wasn't
selected as an Eastern Conference reserve, however, he shot
poorly and failed to dish out more than six assists in any game.
In short, he made the All-Star voters look smart. --M.B.
Line of the Week
Timberwolves guard Stephon Marbury, Jan. 30 against the Lakers:
44 minutes, 11-22 field goals, 7-10 free throws, 35 points, 12
assists, 4 rebounds, 6 turnovers. On a rampage since he was
passed over by coaches for a reserve spot on the Western
Conference All-Stars, Marbury scored 21 points in the third
quarter as he took out his frustration on the Lakers, though not
on All-Star selectee Van Exel, who missed this game with a
strained left hip flexor.
Around the Rim
Whichever team signs Raptors point guard and
free-agent-in-waiting Damon Stoudamire will have to include an
escape clause that could free him after two or three years.
"Consider it a requirement," says the disgruntled Stoudamire,
who at week's end was still waiting for a possible trade....
Atlanta's unhappiness with the play of forward Christian
Laettner prompted Phoenix to offer forwards Cedric Ceballos and
Mark Bryant for the power forward. The Hawks declined but will
listen to offers for Laettner.... Something to watch for on
Sunday should this All-Star Game be Jordan's last: He needs 40
points to tie Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most career points in
All-Star Game history.
For more NBA news from Jackie MacMullan and Phil Taylor, go to
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH HEAVY DUTY Hill (33) has grown weary of carrying the offensive load--and the weight of being tabbed the next Jordan. [Grant Hill and others in game]
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER [Mitch Richmond and others in game]
NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND
Elie's Bonus of Contention
Houston swingman Mario Elie, one of two remaining members of the
Rockets' 1994 and '95 championship teams (center Hakeem Olajuwon
is the other), has made it clear that he, too, is ready to move
on. The Rockets' poor performance this season has hurt him in
two ways, diminishing his chances of winning a third ring and of
cashing in on a clause tied to the team's record. For two years
Elie has had a bonus clause in his contract worth $600,000 that
kicks in when Houston (or whatever team he's playing for) wins
its 52nd game. The Rockets were 57-game winners in '96-97 but at
week's end would have had to win 31 of their remaining 38 games
for Elie to collect his bonus this season.
For two seasons Trail Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis has been a
reliable presence on a volatile Portland roster. But perhaps he
has been counted on too heavily in recent weeks. First-year
Trail Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy had played him 30 minutes or
more in 10 of the team's last 15 games through Sunday. Last
week, though, Sabonis missed two games due to back spasms. Look
for Dunleavy to begin monitoring the minutes of the injury-prone
Bulls forward Toni Kukoc always has said he'd rather be a
starter than a sixth man. While Scottie Pippen was sidelined for
the season's first 35 games after toe surgery, Kukoc averaged
32.3 minutes, 14.2 points, 4.7 assists and 4.3 rebounds in a
starting role. But with Pippen's return, Kukoc is a reserve
again, and his playing time (20.4 minutes) and production (8.0
points, 2.6 assists, 3.1 rebounds) have dropped off markedly. If
Pippen and coach Phil Jackson leave Chicago at the end of the
season, as expected, Kukoc, who has often been the target of
Jackson's ire during his five seasons with the Bulls, could be
the biggest beneficiary.
Jazz forward Karl Malone is suffering from ligament damage to
the middle finger of his right (shooting) hand. Utah teammates
report Malone experiences considerable pain when he shoots, but
at week's end the injury hadn't stopped the Mailman from
averaging 17.9 shots and 25.9 points a game or from shooting
52.3% from the field.
Royalty at Home, Peasants on the Road
Consider the Kings the sultans of schizophrenia. At week's end
Mitch Richmond (right) and mates were 16-8 at ARCO Arena but
3-19 on the road, for a home-away winning percentage
differential of .531. Still, as listed here, Sacramento is on
pace to be only ninth among the teams with the largest
differential since the advent of the 82-game schedule in
1967-68. The biggest spread ever was .677, achieved by the
'56-57 Philadelphia Warriors: 26-5 (.839) at home and 5-26
TEAM BEST PLAYER HOME AWAY DIFFERENTIAL
Nuggets Alex English .854 (35-6) .220 (9-32) .634
Kings Antoine Carr .585 (24-17) .024 (1-40) .561
Nuggets David Thompson .878 (36-5) .341 (14-27) .537
Celtics Kevin McHale .780 (32-9) .244 (10-31) .536
Hawks Dominique Wilkins .756 (31-10) .220 (9-32) .536
Sonics Jack Sikma .780 (32-9) .244 (10-31) .536
Hawks John Drew .829 (34-7) .293 (12-29) .536
76ers George McGinnis .829 (34-7) .293 (12-29) .536
Kings Mitch Richmond .667 (16-8) .136 (3-19) .531
Magic Shaquille O'Neal .951 (39-2) .439 (18-23) .512
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU
SEATTLE AT SAN ANTONIO
Remember the Alamo--or better yet, Remember Key Arena! That
could be the rallying cry for the Spurs, who were routed 94-74
in Seattle on Nov. 21, the last time these Western Conference
powers met. Sonics forward Vin Baker outscored San Antonio's
stellar frontcourt tandem of Tim Duncan and David Robinson
22-17. For Seattle the game is the second of four in a rugged
five-night stretch: Feb. 10 in Houston, Feb. 13 against the
Lakers in L.A. and Feb. 14 at home against the Jazz.