Let's Make A Deal
The Blazers are supporting Brian Grant in his free-agent job
Marcus Camby was worried about his future with the Knicks when
he arrived at their practice facility for a workout a couple of
weeks ago. Trade rumors had been flying for weeks, and he was
trying his best to ignore them, but when he walked into the
locker room he was greeted by the most immediate source of his
concern: 6'9" free agent power forward Brian Grant--or a huge
poster of him, anyway--in action in a New York uniform. It had
been left behind during the team's lavish and highly publicized
recruitment of Grant a few days earlier.
"It was one of those things you stand next to and measure
yourself against," the 6'11" Camby says. "It was bigger than me."
The wooing of Grant has turned into one of the more intriguing
episodes in this blockbuster, free-agent summer. It began with
Grant's surprising decision in June to sacrifice the four years
and $42 million left on his contract with the Trail Blazers in
hopes of joining a team that could give him more playing time.
Grant's minutes were limited last season by injuries to his left
knee and right foot, which coincided painfully with the emergence
of Rasheed Wallace as one of the league's premier power forwards.
After starting all but four games for Portland in 1998-99, Grant
played a bit role in the playoffs last spring, including duty as
an undersized backup center trying to guard Shaquille O'Neal in
the conference finals. It was the kind of season that Grant
doesn't want to experience again.
"My phone would ring quite often late at night," says Grant's
agent, Mark Bartelstein. "He needed to express his frustration.
The team was doing well, but he wasn't contributing the way he
wanted. Usually you're getting calls like that from a guy in the
last year of his contract, wondering what he's going to make next
year. Here's a guy who's set financially for the rest of his
life, and I would be on the phone with him, talking things out.
He wants to earn what he's being paid."
On Aug. 1, when teams are allowed to sign free agents, Portland
could offer Grant a raise to the maximum $86.7 million over seven
years. It is not out of the question, considering the muscular
frontcourt security Grant provides and his esteemed place in the
community. (He won the NBA's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award
in 1998-99.) "The Blazers take care of their players," says a
leading NBA agent, a competitor of Bartelstein's. "They aren't
going to punish Grant for becoming a free agent."
As of Sunday the only team with cap room to sign Grant to a
viable deal was the Bulls, who, with co-Rookie of the Year Elton
Brand and top draft pick Marcus Fizer, surely don't need another
power forward. The only way for Grant to move elsewhere would be
in a sign-and-trade, which would open up playing time in Portland
for power forward/center Jermaine O'Neal, who underlined his
trade demands by refusing to play for the Blazers' summer-league
"If Brian was going to go somewhere, we figured it was probably
going to happen in a sign-and-trade, and in that case Portland
could benefit too," Bartelstein says. "It was one of those
situations that might work out for everybody. When you're a
player like Brian who has a relationship with an organization
that appreciates what you've done, a team with whom you can talk
openly, that allows you to look around and see if there's a
scenario out there, that's better for everybody."
Grant, 28, was scheduled to meet this week with the Pistons, but
their interest will probably diminish if they close a deal with
free-agent power forward Ben Wallace of the Magic. That leaves
the Knicks as the front-runner. Which players Portland might
acquire in return is unclear--a third team could well be involved
in a sign-and-trade--but one New York official warned that the
Knicks didn't intend to deal Camby for Grant, which would be a
lateral exchange of one rebounder for another. Both Camby and
coach Jeff Van Gundy say their relationship has improved after a
rocky start two years ago. A deal makes sense only when you
consider the teams' playing styles: Camby is at his best in a
fast-breaking game, which Portland employs, while Grant is better
suited to the half-court style of the Knicks.
Camby wants to play out the remaining five years of his contract
in New York. "I'm using the rumors as motivation," says Camby,
who hopes to have recovered from a right knee injury by the end
of August. "It makes me want to get in the gym right now and work
on my game." Still, he can't help but read the writing on the
wall. On July 13 Camby showed up for his first workout of the
summer only to find that the gym was locked and no Knicks
officials were on hand to open up. "I found out later that they
were on their way to the airport to meet Brian Grant," he says.
Indiana's New Coach
A Child Shall Need Him
Let it be noted that Isiah Thomas's first act as the Pacers'
coach was to try to make a star of 6'11", 202-pound Jonathan
Bender. Last Saturday night, only two days after accepting the
job, Thomas took over Indiana's summer-league team in Boston. It
was his coaching debut at any level, but Thomas knew enough to
focus on Bender, the 19-year-old from Picayune (Miss.) Memorial
High acquired last season from the Raptors in a draft-day trade
for Antonio Davis.
"He is an incredible talent, but he hasn't really learned how to
play the game yet," says Thomas, who spoke constantly with Bender
during a 75-74 loss to the Spurs. "Once he puts it all together,
he's going to be something else."
Even if Indiana president Donnie Walsh re-signs most of the
team's free agents--a list that includes Jalen Rose, Reggie
Miller, Austin Croshere and Mark Jackson--he and Thomas expect to
see Bender crack the rotation next season as a small forward and
shooting guard. Though Bender played just 130 minutes and made
only 23 field goals last season, he benefited from private
workouts with Larry Bird, Indiana's coach at the time, after
practices and before most home games. Now he becomes the
responsibility of another Hall of Famer.
Thomas was calm as he ushered players in and out of the game at
the UMass-Boston gym. "I don't know yet what type of personality
I'm going to have on the sideline as a coach," he says. "I was
putting guys in with the command that they've got two minutes to
show me what they can do." He put even more pressure on Bender,
who had hit only 3 of 12 shots when Thomas called timeout with
7.7 seconds remaining and Indiana down by one. "I wanted to see
how he would react with the ball in his hands," Thomas said.
Bender passed up a good look from the top of the key to dart into
traffic for a 15-footer. He collected his own miss but failed to
convert at the buzzer.
Afterward Bender told Thomas he'd passed up the open jumper
because he hadn't been shooting well. "I told him we've got one
rule--you shoot when you're open, and when you're not open don't
shoot," Thomas said. "I told him he needs to learn from this
experience. Don't just throw this away, but learn from it."
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Facing Shaq in the conference finals helped persuade the 6'9" Grant to pass up Portland's $42 million.
COLOR PHOTO: NOREN TROTMAN/NBA ENTERTAINMENT After watching as a rookie, Bender should be part of the Pacers' rotation.
Around The Rim
Claiming he was in poor shape, 7'2" Frederic Weis of France, a
first-round pick in 1999, was a no-show for the Knicks'
summer-league team in Boston. Further complicating Weis's future
is the fact that his agent, Didier Rose, is the subject of a
criminal investigation involving Weis's French club, Limoges.
(Rose spent 24 days in jail while being investigated last
January.) The government alleges that Rose, known as the most
powerful man in French basketball, was acting as de facto
president of Limoges while serving as agent for many of its
players--in effect he was negotiating with himself--while the club
was piling up $5 million in debt....
As explosive as he has been offensively in summer-league play,
6'5" shooting guard Desmond Mason will be a regular in the
Sonics' lineup because of his defense. "You can see the
[knowing] look in his eyes when you explain to him about
rotations and other things," says Seattle coach Paul Westphal of
the 17th pick, from Oklahoma State. "Most rookies don't know
what you're talking about."...
Number 6 selection DerMarr Johnson, the skinny 6'9" guard who
left Cincinnati after his freshman year, struggled in early
summer-league games with the Hawks. "For the first time in his
life he's finding that a lot of guys are bigger than he is,"
says a league executive.