Skip to main content
Original Issue

Inside The NBA

NBA execs say they plan a minor league for 2001, but they're
suspiciously vague about it

From the beginning the details have been hazy. The NBA, which
doesn't undertake any venture halfheartedly, began discussing in
February its intention to start a developmental league in 2001.
NBA officials said there would be eight teams, maybe 10. Last
Friday deputy commissioner Russ Granik, who usually speaks with
crystal clarity on the league's plans, was vague when pressed
for particulars. What cities will be getting franchises? "Well,
we're not completely sure," Granik said. "We wouldn't go into a
market like San Diego or Cincinnati or Pittsburgh. We'd be
looking at smaller cities, with a few hundred thousand people."

How much will the players be paid? Unclear. How will they be
assigned to teams? Unclear. "You have to remember," Granik said,
"we're in very preliminary stages."

When commissioner David Stern decides to pursue a deal, he knows
only one speed: breakneck. When he determined that money could
be made on the women's game, he rammed the WNBA down the throats
of the NBA's sponsors and fans and drove the ABL out of
business. When Stern decided that his league needed to do more
with the Internet, he threw his energy into, spending
most of All-Star weekend hyping his sport's on-line potential
while virtually ignoring the coming-out party of his new
superstar, Vince Carter.

So if Stern is hell-bent on having a minor league up and running
next year, why are so many issues unresolved? Could it be that
the NBA's latest project is merely a ploy to squeeze a better
deal out of CBA owner Isiah Thomas, as a number of NBA sources
suggested last week?

When Thomas approached Stern last year with his plan to buy the
CBA, spruce up its image and develop a formal association with
the NBA, Stern said thanks but no thanks. Thomas, who sparred
with Stern as president of the players' union from 1988 to '94,
decided to buy the CBA anyway. He figured that sooner or later
the CBA would formalize its role as the NBA's minor league. "I
don't want to fight with the NBA," Thomas says. "I believe
there's an opportunity here for the CBA to service the NBA as
well as the NCAA. If we all put our heads together, we can work
it out."

Granik insists the NBA isn't out to bury Thomas. "I continue to
have conversations with Isiah," Granik says. "I'm hoping we'll
reach an agreement." But asked if a deal with the CBA would
eliminate the need for a developmental league, Granik says, "Not
necessarily. I envision blending the two."

The proposed developmental league was a hot topic at the
McDonald's All-American Game on March 29 at Boston's
FleetCenter, where five players who are considering the jump
from high school to the pros were on display: forwards Darius
Miles of East St. Louis, Ill., Darius Rice of Jackson, Miss.,
and Gerald Wallace of Childersburg, Ala.; and guards Jerome
Harper of Columbia, S.C., and DeShawn Stevenson of Fresno.

Miles, a wiry 6'8" small forward with exceptional open-floor
skills who is projected as a Top 5 pick if he comes out,
considers "the junior varsity," as he calls the projected
league, a great idea. "I wouldn't need something like that, but
it would help guys like Korleone Young, who went out too soon,
got messed up and had no options," Miles says. (Young, a high
school player who was picked in the second round by the Pistons
in 1998, was released after one season and is now in the IBL.)

"No high school kid is ready to go to the pros, but that doesn't
mean I won't do it," Miles continues. "I think I can hit a nice
10 to 15 points a night [in the NBA] right now, with a couple of
blocks and some steals. I don't think I'm ready yet to be Vince
or Kobe and knock down 30 or 40. But I figure I've got time for

Both Granik and Thomas insist they don't want the developmental
league to be a haven for high school kids who come out early but
fail to make an NBA roster. "As an Afro-American I feel I have
an obligation to show some responsibility," Thomas says. "I
could never say to these kids, 'C'mon, play basketball. Forget
about being educated.'"

But could Granik ban high school kids from the new league? To be
determined. Would someone like Pacers forward Jonathan Bender,
who has potential but can't crack Indiana's lineup, be welcome
in the league, Russ? Don't know. And one more thing: If this is
all happening next year, why haven't Stern & Co. discussed it
with the players' union, which has no interest in allowing its
members to be farmed out at the whim of management?

"Sooner or later they'd have to come to us, because we'd have to
sign off on it," says union executive director Billy Hunter.
"But we're not buying into anything right now. Our position is
clear: If young players don't have the talent to be [in the
NBA], then don't draft them."

Don Nelson Moves On

As the Mavericks count down the last days of 1999-00, so does
general manager and coach Don Nelson, who will leave the bench
at the end of the season. "I'm tired of losing," Nelson says.
"If I were coaching a 50-win team, maybe it would be different."

He will head to the front office with a small measure of
vindication. Since coming to the Mavericks in 1997, he has been
vilified for everything from his costly acquisition of Shawn
Bradley (he gave up Sam Cassell, among others) to his declaring
forward Dirk Nowitzki "the best 20-year-old in the game."
Bradley never blossomed, but Nowitzki is on course to be a major
star. "[Fourth-year point guard] Steve Nash will be the next
one," Nelson vows. "He's had some injuries, but he's playing
really well now. He'll prove to be what we projected, too."

Although Dallas will miss the playoffs for the 10th straight
season, suddenly it has an intriguing nucleus in Nowitzki,
All-Star guard Michael Finley and power forward Gary Trent, who
has missed most of this season with a strained left groin. But
as happy as Nelson is with the team's prospects, he is saddened
by those of his top assistant, his son, Donn, who was supposed
to succeed him on the bench. "The plan," says Nellie, "was for
me to get the team through the hard years, then have Donnie reap
the benefits."

New owner Mark Cuban has nixed that plan. He has also rejected
moving Nelson's longtime friend Del Harris, who has been serving
the Mavs as a defensive consultant, into the big chair. "Mark
wants somebody younger [than Del]," Don Nelson says. "I think
he's intrigued with the idea of finding a bright, energetic guy
with new ideas."

Donn Nelson, a former assistant with the Suns, is a bright,
energetic guy, but shots aimed at his father have damaged Donn's
credibility. "That's the only thing that I wish I could change,"
Don says. "I didn't do Donnie justice by bringing him on. I
think he's a little down."

Nellie says Cuban "has re-charged my batteries" with his
enthusiasm and willingness to gamble. Asked about the perception
that Cuban is too chummy with his players, Nelson says, "If I
thought it was causing problems with the team, you bet I'd say
something to him about it. But it's had exactly the opposite
effect. There's nothing phony about Mark."

Cuban told Nelson he'd like him to stay on as G.M. Donn may try
to hook on with the new Mavericks staff or stay on as the team's
director of player personnel. "The truth is, I'd like him in the
front office with me," Don says. "It's a lot safer up there."

Who's Rookie of the Year?

They began busting each other two minutes after they met. On a
sultry afternoon last May, Maryland guard Steve Francis was
doing ball handling drills at the Takoma Park Recreation Center
in preparation for the draft when Duke's 6'8" Elton Brand walked
into the gym. Brand's agent, David Falk, had summoned Brand to
Washington, D.C., where Falk is based, so Falk could monitor his
diet and workouts while grooming him to be the No. 1 pick. "It
didn't take Elton long," Francis says, "to find out where the
good games were."

Brand and Francis, who had been ACC rivals two months earlier,
quickly recognized the value of pushing each other. They lifted
together, ran wind sprints together, scrimmaged together. Every
day the dialogue was the same. "I'm going to be the top pick,"
Francis said.

"No," Brand shot back, "that would be me."

On June 30 the Bulls validated Brand's claim. With the second
pick the Grizzlies chose a devastated Francis, who forced a
trade to the Rockets. Nearly 10 months later Francis and Brand
are again waging a close contest, this time for the Rookie of
the Year trophy. "I talked to Elton last week," says Francis. "I
told him, 'Here we go again.' In December and January everyone
said Lamar [Odom] was a lock for Rookie of the Year. Then, in
January and February, I was going to win it. Now it's Elton's

There will be no postseason for Brand or Francis. Chicago is
rebuilding, and with Hakeem Olajuwon sidelined by various
ailments and Charles Barkley's career ended in December by a
torn left quadriceps tendon, Houston has been forced to start
from scratch. "It's been a blessing in disguise," Francis says.
"Don't get me wrong--I would love to have played with those
guys. But it's allowed me to assume leadership on this team."

At week's end Francis led the Rockets in scoring (17.7 points
per game), assists (6.5) and steals (1.56) and had put to rest
any doubt that he can play point guard. Although his turnovers
remain high (3.9), they are not outlandish for a rookie playing
the toughest position on the floor.

"This is the worst year I've had as a coach, but people in
Houston are raving about our team because of Steve," says Rudy
Tomjanovich. "He came to a veteran team that's been successful,
with guys who like the ball in certain areas, and he delivered
even though he hadn't played any point [the year before]. Then
we lose our top guys, he starts over with a
pick-and-roll-oriented offense, and he's getting us open shots
because he draws so much attention. On top of that, he's this
warm kid who does whatever you ask. I think he's going to be one
of a handful of young guys who are going to promote the image of
this league in a really positive way."

Francis's draft-day demeanor set off an avalanche of criticism,
and he'll never win over the Vancouver fans he spurned. His
swagger could hurt him with some of the more conservative
sportswriters who vote for the Rookie of the Year, particularly
because Brand has performed with quiet dignity. Not that Francis
hasn't shown his class: On March 23, for instance, despite being
one rebound shy of a triple double against the Clippers, he told
Tomjanovich to pull him out so his teammates could log court

He didn't do that for the votes, however. "I won't say [the
award] matters so much, but it'd be good to have," Francis says.
"I know Elton's right there, too. May the best guy get it."

Line of the Week

Hornets forward Anthony Mason, March 31 versus the Raptors: 48
minutes, 8-17 FG, 15-15 FT, 31 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists.
Mason was the difference in Charlotte's 110-101 overtime win,
which lifted the team past Toronto to the fifth spot in the
Eastern Conference standings.

For the latest scores and stats, plus Phil Taylor's NBA mailbag,
go to

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER High school star Miles says he may declare for the draft but is uninterested in the "junior varsity."



COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Rockets point guard Francis hopes to edge out his workout partner for Rookie of the Year.

Around The Rim

Commissioner David Stern is upset about the bright yellow seats
in Miami's new AmericanAirlines Arena, which look horrid when
they're empty. The league may ask the Heat to change them to a
more subdued color....

Free-agent center Rony Seikaly, who had hoped to be healthy
enough to land a playoff roster spot on a team that needs help
in the middle--hello, Pistons!--will not be playing until next
season. His surgically repaired left foot has been slow to

The Lakers are thinking of placing 36-year-old guard Ron Harper
and his creaky knees on the injured list to rest him before the
grueling postseason....

SuperSonics guard Vernon Maxwell may have heaved a weight at
Gary Payton during their locker room altercation on March 26 (it
hit center Horace Grant, bruising his shoulder and sidelining
him for one game), but the two were seen breaking bread one
night later, after a loss to the Spurs. Seattle is playing it
safe, however: Maxwell's locker, which used to be next to
Payton's, has been moved across the room....

In keeping with the Jazz's reputation as a no-frills operation,
guard Jeff Hornacek waved off the limo that was sent for him by
SI before a photo shoot (Square Shooter, April 3). Hornacek
hailed his own taxi instead, then refused to accept
reimbursement from the Utah public relations staff.


How would former NCAA champs fare against players who never even
made it to the tournament? The titlists have more firepower, but
we'll take the uninvited guys, who have more than made up for
the snub.

NCAA Champs No NCAA Appearances

Grant Hill (Duke) SF Clifford Robinson (Connecticut)
Antoine Walker (Kentucky) PF Vin Baker (Hartford)
Patrick Ewing (Georgetown) C Theo Ratliff (Wyoming)
Glen Rice (Michigan) SG Allan Houston (Tennessee)
Mike Bibby (Arizona, above) PG Terrell Brandon (Oregon, above)
Ron Mercer (Kentucky) 6th Anthony Mason (Tennessee State)

The Old One-Two's

The scoring race between Shaquille O'Neal (29.2 points per game
through Sunday) and Allen Iverson (28.8) is coming down to the
wire for the second straight year. Not only are the two players
likely to finish less than a point apart again--last season
Iverson averaged 26.8 to O'Neal's 26.3--but they are also poised
to become only the ninth pair in NBA history to finish one-two
in scoring more than once. Of those players, only two have
finished second the first time they dueled for the crown and won
it the next: Paul Arizin, who edged Bob Pettit in 1956-57, and
Nate Archibald, who beat out Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in '72-73. Here
are the pairs (excepting Iverson and O'Neal) who have finished
one-two at least twice.

--David Sabino

Michael Jordan vs. Karl Malone


1991-92, Jordan (30.1), Malone (28.0)

Jordan 5, Malone 0

Michael Jordan vs. Dominique Wilkins


1992-93, Jordan (32.6), Wilkins (29.9)

Jordan 3, Wilkins 0

George Gervin vs. World B. Free


1978-79, Gervin (29.6), Free (28.8)

Gervin 2, Free 0

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Nate Archibald


1972-73, Archibald (34.0), Abdul-Jabbar (30.2)

Abdul-Jabbar 1, Archibald 1

Wilt Chamberlain vs. Jerry West


1965-66, Chamberlain (33.5), West (31.3)

Chamberlain 2, West 0

Wilt Chamberlain vs. Elgin Baylor


1960-61, Chamberlain (38.4), Baylor (34.8)

Chamberlain 2, Baylor 0

Paul Arizin vs. Bob Pettit


1956-57, Arizin (25.6), Pettit (24.7)

Arizin 1, Pettit 1

George Mikan vs. Alex Groza


1949-50, Mikan (27.4), Groza (23.4)

Mikan 2, Groza 0