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...the notion that Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy would never
diminish Patrick Ewing's role?

The theory was, Van Gundy was so loyal to Ewing, without whose
support he might never have been named coach five years ago,
that he wouldn't make Ewing a secondary offensive threat when he
returned from his torn left Achilles tendon. In fact, the
Knicks' attack still revolves around guard Allan Houston and
forward Latrell Sprewell. Van Gundy even jabbed at Ewing for
being unprepared after a loss to the Magic last week. All of
which might explain why Ewing has talked openly about finishing
his career elsewhere, and New York may be willing to accommodate

...Michael Olowokandi?

It's easy to disappear when you're a Clipper, but Olowokandi has
done it in record time for a No. 1 draft pick. When they chose
him in 1998, the Clippers thought they had a center who would
develop into a franchise player, but his numbers (9.5 points,
8.6 rebounds through Sunday) look more like a backup's.
Olowokandi's footwork has been sluggish at both ends of the
floor. One of the few things he has quickly mastered is fouling
out, which he has done seven times this season, relegating him
to perhaps the most obscure place in the NBA: the Clippers' bench.

...the small forward position?

Remember when almost every small forward fit a clearly defined
profile: a finesse player, armed with a jump shot and
ball-handling ability, who was bigger than a shooting guard but
smaller and smoother than a power forward? Larry Bird, Julius
Erving and Mark Aguirre gave way to Scottie Pippen, Grant Hill
and Glen Rice as classic threes. But the definition of the
position has expanded to include the undersized, such as the
Knicks' 6'5" Sprewell, and the center-sized, such as the Bulls'
6'11" Toni Kukoc. When muscular, physical players such as
Charlotte's Anthony Mason and New York's Larry Johnson and
long-limbed shot blockers such as Minnesota's 6'11" Kevin
Garnett and Portland's 6'11" Rasheed Wallace can man the spot,
it appears that the term small forward has lost all meaning.

...Indiana's youth movement?

The young legs of Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender, both 19,
were supposed to help the Pacers stay ahead of teams such as the
Knicks, who in last year's playoffs made them look like
candidates for the rest home. But after coming back from a
broken left wrist on Dec. 7, Bender had played in only nine
games through Sunday, while Harrington has gone from sixth man
to forgotten man. (He had logged more than six minutes only
twice since Jan. 12.) "One day they look great, and the next day
they look like they should be back in high school," says Pacers
coach Larry Bird, who is likely to lean even more on his
veterans as the playoffs approach.

...the fans?

Only 12 of the 29 teams have a higher average attendance than
they did last year, and half of those teams opened new buildings
this season. That leaves only six same-building clubs--the
Blazers, Bucks, Kings, Knicks, Raptors and Timberwolves--that
have avoided a decline. Television ratings are also down sharply
(27.8% on TNT, 18.6% on NBC). The 2.3% drop in attendance last
year could be attributed to resentment because of the lockout.
This season fans seem to be staying away because of rising
ticket prices, and for a reason that's even more troubling to
the league: apathy.


1. Allen Iverson will lead the 76ers into the Eastern Conference

The favorites in the East all have serious flaws: The Heat is
vulnerable as long as point guard Tim Hardaway is hampered by
gimpy knees, which he probably will be for at least the rest of
the season; some of the Pacers' key players (Mark Jackson, Rik
Smits) are slow and getting slower; and the Knicks' offense goes
into hibernation for long stretches. The time is ripe for an
upset or two by a young, energetic team, and Philadelphia
(26-21, sixth in the conference through Sunday) fits that
profile. Iverson is the kind of explosive scorer who can make
the difference in a short series, and with their defense-minded
role players the Sixers will be a handful for any of the Eastern

2. This will be Hall of Fame coach Lenny Wilkens's last season
in Atlanta.

An underachieving, uninspired bunch last season, the Hawks made
sweeping changes over the summer, among them trading for guard
Isaiah Rider and forward Jim Jackson. The result: The Hawks are
still an underachieving, uninspired bunch. The belief is growing
that the club needs a more fiery coach than the 62-year-old
Wilkens, who has never taken Atlanta past the second round of
the playoffs in his six seasons there. Wilkens's stature--he has
more wins than any other coach in NBA history (1,169 at week's
end)--and class make it difficult for the Hawks to fire him, but
if he can't energize the team in the second half, he could take
them off the hook by stepping down.

3. The Kings will be exposed in the playoffs as pretenders to the

Sacramento has lived up to its billing as the NBA's most
entertaining team, but the players haven't grown up yet.
Although they lead the league in scoring, the Kings also
surrender more points per game than anyone, and the playoffs
don't favor teams that like shootouts. Second-year point guard
Jason Williams epitomizes the club's style: flashy but
inconsistent. For every wraparound dish that leads to a layup,
he launches an ill-advised shot or forces a pass into traffic.
Until Williams matures, and until Sacramento discovers the
wonders of defense, the Kings will be a crowd-pleasing show that
closes early in the postseason.

4. Mark Cuban will sell the Mavericks and become Dennis Rodman's

Cuban, the Mavs' new owner, has shown an unhealthy fascination
with Rodman almost from the moment he bought the team on Jan. 14
for $280 million. He even invited the Worm to stay in the guest
house of his 24,000-square-foot mansion in Dallas while they
worked out a deal that will pay him $463,410 for the final 38
games and that allows him to show up later than his teammates
for games. Why Cuban would go to such lengths to attract a power
forward no other team wants (despite Rodman's insistence that he
had a choice of teams to join) is anyone's guess. What is clear
is that if his pursuit of Rodman is indicative of the kind of
judgment Cuban is going to show in running the Mavericks, Dallas
fans are in for more losing--and lots of it.

5. The Trail Blazers will win the title.

Portland was the league's steadiest team in the first half of
the season largely because no one complained about the even
distribution of playing time, at least not very loudly. Portland
seems determined to avoid the squabbling that contributed to its
playoff demise against San Antonio last year. If they can
maintain that harmony, the Blazers should be able to handle all
comers. They have the size to match up with the Spurs, the
quickness to keep up with the Lakers and the sheer talent to
clean up against everyone else, including the Knicks in the

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN Finals bound? Brian Grant (44) and the Blazers could hold a board meeting with the Knicks in June.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH MVP Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers. Through Sunday's games, he ranked second in the league in scoring (27.7), rebounds (14.2) and blocks (3.47). If Shaq should slip, Kings power forward Chris Webber could steal the prize.




COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Goal Oriented Iverson is not the least bit shy about shooting, and the Sixers will live or die with his offense.

All the Kings' Men

They're more good fellows than goodfellas, but Sacramento
reserves (from left) Lawrence Funderburke, Darrick Martin, Jon
Barry, Predrag Stojakovic and Scot Pollard have performed so well
together as a second unit this season that they've earned the
nickname the Bench Mob. Here's a ranking of all the NBA benches,
which takes into account their productivity as well how they
grade in cohesiveness, versatility and their sudden impact on the
game. --M.B.


1. Trail Blazers 30.6 A+ Detlef Schrempf and Brian
Grant lead NBA's most versatile reserve corps

2. Pacers 34.3 A A little bit of everything in
Travis Best, Austin Croshere and Sam Perkins

3. Kings 33.2 A With Barry as Godfather, this
Bench Mob is a well-organized hit

4. Spurs 31.1 A- Terry Porter, Jaren Jackson
helped hold down fort with Sean Elliott out

5. Magic 51.8 B+ This band of no-names
regularly outscores mediocre Magic starters in games

6. Knicks 25.2 B- When healthy, Marcus Camby can
alter course of game from any frontcourt spot

7. Raptors 33.9 B Fire and ice: Tracy McGrady
complements savvy vets Kevin Willis and Dell Curry

8. Suns 31.0 B+ Good mix of skill and brawn,
typified by Rex Chapman and Rodney Rogers

9. Bucks 27.4 B+ Sixth man Tim Thomas gets
boost from Danny Manning, Vinny Del Negro

10. Heat 27.5 B Promising point guard Anthony
Carter and Otis Thorpe lead second unit

11. Lakers 25.5 B Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Robert
Horry play supporting roles in Shaq and Kobe Show

12. Timberwolves 28.8 B+ Joe Smith, Anthony Peeler,
Wally Szczerbiak heat up cold northern nights

13. 76ers 29.8 B Larry Hughes and Co. helped
Sixers survive rash of early-season injuries

14. SuperSonics 26.1 B+ Loss of Vernon Maxwell to
injury hurts, but Rashard Lewis eases the sting

15. Hornets 29.8 B+ Baron Davis is explosive, but
they sorely miss Bobby Phills

16. Cavaliers 32.9 C+ Wesley Person and Andre Miller
can provide effective one-two backcourt punch

17. Pistons 20.7 B Jerome Williams making strong
bid for Sixth Man Award

18. Celtics 29.2 C+ Tony Battie has been surprise
for Gang Green bench warmers

19. Jazz 30.8 C Howard Eisley's a keeper, but
this Jazz ensemble lacks pop

20. Nuggets 27.0 B- Chris Gatling, George McCloud
provide firepower, but inside muscle is lacking

21. Hawks 25.5 C+ LaPhonso Ellis lends stability
to inexperienced group

22. Nets 29.0 C+ Familiar names (Johnny Newman,
Scott Burrell), but only Jamie Feick has been consistent

23. Mavericks 26.5 C- Even Dennis Rodman can't dress
up this outfit, led by Cedric Ceballos

24. Rockets 39.3 C- Streak-shooting Cuttino Mobley
has been one of few bright spots

25. Clippers 24.6 C- Tyrone Nesby, Eric Piatkowski
head up otherwise lackluster unit

26. Grizzlies 20.8 C Dennis Scott and Antoine Carr
bring grizzle but little sizzle

27. Wizards 36.3 D Richard Hamilton had better
supporting cast at UConn

28. Warriors 33.7 D- Terry Cummings should say a
prayer for this group

29. Bulls 33.0 F Two words: Will Perdue

SI Player Ratings

Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan, the top two players in last
season's ratings*, led again at their respective positions
through Sunday. Not far behind them was small forward Kevin
Garnett, who was hitting 44.4% of his three-point shots and
handing out 4.8 assists per game. Elton Brand was not only the
top-ranked first-year player but also No. 16 in the league.


1. Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers 72.1 1
2. Alonzo Mourning, Heat 57.3 6
3. Dikembe Mutombo, Hawks 48.2 13
4. David Robinson, Spurs 42.6 22
5. Vlade Divac, Kings 36.9 46


1. Tim Duncan, Spurs 65.0 2
2. Karl Malone, Jazz 59.6 4
3. Chris Webber, Kings 58.7 5
4. Elton Brand, Bulls 45.5 16
5. Antonio McDyess, Nuggets 45.1 18


1. Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves 64.4 3
2. Grant Hill, Pistons 53.4 9
3. Vince Carter, Raptors 52.4 10
4. Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Grizzlies 51.8 11
5. Glenn Robinson, Bucks 45.2 17


1. Michael Finley, Mavericks 53.9 8
2. Jerry Stackhouse, Pistons 44.9 19
3. Ray Allen, Bucks 44.9 20
4. Allen Iverson, 76ers 43.6 21
5. Allan Houston, Knicks 40.7 25


1. Gary Payton, Sonics 56.4 7
2. Jason Kidd, Suns 50.9 12
3. Stephon Marbury, Nets 48.1 14
4. Sam Cassell, Bucks 47.0 15
5. Nick Van Exel, Nuggets 39.6 29

* The SI Player Rating Formula:
{[2 x (Field Goals Made + 3-pts. Made + Assists + Blocks + Off.
Reb.)] + [1.5 x (Def. Reb. + Steals)] + Total Points + FTM - (2
x TOs) - (Missed FTs + Missed FGs + Missed 3-Pts.)} / Games Team
Has Played


Lamar Odom, Clippers. It's a tight three-man race, but the
versatile 6'10" Odom edges out Rockets point guard Steve Francis
and Bulls power forward Elton Brand because he does a little bit
of everything.

Tracy McGrady, Raptors. He's the classic, instant-offense
reserve, scoring 14.0 points in only 26.7 minutes per game.
(Shot-blocking Knicks forward Marcus Camby would have been our
choice, but after partially tearing his right ACL on Sunday, he
may miss eight weeks.)

Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks. Coach Don Nelson had predicted the
7-footer would be last season's Rookie of the Year. If Nowitzki
had played this well--17.6 points, 6.2 rebounds per game through
Sunday--Nelson might have been right.

Eddie Jones, Hornets. At week's end Charlotte had given up 98.2
points per game when Jones, the league leader in steals (3.00)
was in the lineup; in the 10 games their shooting guard missed,
the Hornets surrendered 106.7.

Paul Silas, Hornets. Despite Bobby Phills's death and another
accident in which Eldridge Recasner was seriously injured in a
car driven by Derrick Coleman, Charlotte is still in the hunt
for a playoff berth. Silas deserves much of the credit for
holding the team (25-20) together.

Bob Whitsitt, Trail Blazers. Dealing unreliable Isaiah Rider to
the Hawks for solid citizen Steve Smith would be enough to
distinguish Whitsitt, but he also landed Scottie Pippen and
Detlef Schrempf.


Grant Hill, SF, Pistons
Chris Webber, PF, Kings
Shaquille O'Neal, C, Lakers
Michael Finley, SG, Mavericks
Gary Payton, PG, Sonics

Kevin Garnett, SF, Timberwolves
Tim Duncan, PF, Spurs
Alonzo Mourning, C, Heat
Allen Iverson, SG, 76ers
Jason Kidd, PG, Suns

Missed in Action
All the elite players at left have returned from injuries that
cost them at least 10 games this season. Through Sunday's games,
here's how their teams had done with and without them.


Eddie Jones, Hornets 23-12 (.657) 2-8 (.200) .457
Toni Kukoc, Bulls 8-13 (.380) 2-22 (.083) .297
Anfernee Hardaway, Suns 16-8 (.667) 11-11 (.500) .167
Patrick Ewing, Knicks 17-8 (.680) 11-9 (.550) .130
Kobe Bryant, Lakers 24-7 (.774) 11-4 (.733) .041
Tim Hardaway, Heat 13-7 (.650) 16-10 (.623) .027
Hakeem Olajuwon, Rockets 10-16 (.385) 9-13 (.409) -.024
Allen Iverson, 76ers 20-17 (.541) 6-4 (.600) -.059


The Grizzlies' promoting assistant Lionel Hollins to coach. A
cerebral former point guard who has a terrific rapport with the
players, Hollins was 9-15 at week's end since replacing Brian
Hill (4-18).

Bringing back the slam-dunk contest.
The league was wise to make sure that most of the elite dunkers
(Vince Carter, Steve Francis, et al.) will compete.

The SuperSonics' signing free agent Ruben Patterson.
The transaction barely made a ripple last August, but Patterson
has developed from a Lakers bench warmer into Seattle's starting
small forward and a Gary Payton favorite.

Don Nelson's standing up to Karl Malone.
When the incensed Nellie went postal on the Mailman and stood
chest-to-chest with him after Malone's knee-high drive, it
showed that the Mavericks' coach isn't as disengaged as he
sometimes seems.

The Pistons' holding on to Jerry Stackhouse.
This time last year his name was part of almost every trade
rumor, but Detroit kept him, and he has rewarded them with an
All-Star first half.

Danny Ainge's resigning as Suns coach to spend more time with
his family.
An admirable choice, one of the few a coach can make that can't
be second-guessed.

Conseco Fieldhouse.
The Pacers did more than just build themselves a charmingly
retro new home; they created a lair where they're nearly
invincible. At week's end Indiana was a league-best 20-2 at home.

...and Bricks

The Warriors' free-agent signings.
Before last season Golden State locked up power forward Jason
Caffey; before this one it re-signed center Erick Dampier. The
two have seven-year deals worth a combined $83 million. Dampier
has been injured almost all season, and Caffey was averaging
11.3 points and 6.9 rebounds at week's end.

Othella Harrington's insulting Vancouver.
Grizzlies forward Harrington admitted that he doesn't like the
city's rainy weather and would rather live elsewhere. He might
as well have said that hockey is a pantywaist sport.

Scottie Pippen's visit to Mark Cuban's house.
While in Dallas for a game, the Trail Blazers' Pippen appeared
uninvited at the front gate of the new Mavericks owner last
month, hoping to tour his mansion. But Cuban, remembering that
Pippen had said Dallas's Michael Finley shouldn't be an
All-Star, turned him away.