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Inside The NBA

Fit for the Throne
Finally committed to the Kings, Chris Webber has them shooting
for a crown

Sacramento's fans are known as the best in the league, but they
expressed mixed feelings for Chris Webber when the Kings jumped
to a surprising 15-5 start while he recovered from a sprained
left ankle suffered in preseason. "I could hear a few boos and
murmurs that the team was maybe better off without me," says
Webber. "I remember saying to myself, My ankle is hurting at
this exact moment that you're booing me."

It's hard to imagine how the Kings could be better without the
unselfish Webber, who at week's end was leading his team with
24.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, while
averaging 5.1 assists and 1.7 steals. It's no coincidence that
the Kings went on an 11-game winning streak when his ankle felt
strong enough for him to play under the basket without fear. "I
talked to Chris earlier this season about how expectations were
so unrealistic that there was nothing he could ever do to meet
them," says team president Geoff Petrie. "But I look at our
record [a league-best 30-9] and the way he's been playing, and
he may be exceeding them."

Still, it's hard for some fans to forget Webber's threat to
leave Sacramento as a free agent before he agreed last summer to
a seven-year, $122.7 million contract (second in total dollars
only to Kevin Garnett's six-year, $126 million deal). Webber,
28, acknowledges he came close to moving to Indiana or San
Antonio--the latter in an intriguing deal that would have paired
him with Tim Duncan. Webber was convinced that San Antonio
wanted him to replace free-agent center David Robinson. When
Webber didn't respond to the Spurs' calls, they re-signed the
36-year-old Robinson for $20 million over two years. "Coach
[Gregg] Popovich kept calling, saying 'Just tell me yes,'"
Webber says. "I love Tim Duncan's game. I would not have minded
playing in a situation like that, even though people would have
said, 'Chris had to go there to win a championship.'"

Indiana was attractive to Webber because it's close to his home
in Detroit and he relished playing for Isiah Thomas. Even more
appealing, however, was that he and center Jermaine O'Neal could
have combined on a front line that would have ruled the Eastern
Conference. Speculation at the time was that the Pacers would
have to trade O'Neal to Sacramento to acquire Webber. Indiana
had other plans, says Webber: "They were looking to sign
[free-agent] Antonio Davis and then do a sign-and-trade for me."
Ultimately Webber realized he could sign a rich contract and
contend for the league title with Sacramento, which has
progressed each year since he arrived by trade before the
1998-99 lockout season.

Much of the Kings' improvement this season is attributable to
the arrival of point guard Mike Bibby in a draft-night trade for
Jason Williams and swingman Nick Anderson, which signaled a new
focus for the franchise. Beginning in his 1998-99 rookie season,
Williams helped turn the eternally passive Kings into a bold,
exciting playoff team. Sacramento, however, tired of his
tendency to hoist quick three-pointers and make clever,
dangerous passes when simple ones would do. The 23-year-old
Bibby's balanced approach has helped seven Kings average in
double figures, as opposed to four last season, and Sacramento
is no longer the kind of topsy-turvy club that falls behind by
15 points before fighting back.

"Now it's time to get serious about trying to beat the Lakers or
San Antonio," says Joe Maloof, who owns the Kings with his
brother Gavin. "We'll know if [the trade] was a good decision at
the end of the year. If we get to the Western Conference finals,
we'll know we're making strides. If we get knocked out in the
first round, then we have to reevaluate."

Webber believes no such reevaluation will be necessary. He and
center Vlade Divac preside over a locker room that is not
obsessed with individual statistics. Webber is averaging 2.7
fewer points than last year, but the scoring ability of his
teammates--led by fourth-year pro Peja Stojakovic, who is having
an All-Star caliber year--and Webber's knack for passing out of
the double team often force opponents to play single coverage
against him. As a result he gets as many open looks at the
basket as any superstar in the league.

With a big smile Webber recalls how he "hated" Petrie after the
lockout, when he says the Kings refused to trade Webber to the
Lakers for Elden Campbell and Eddie Jones. How many championships
could he have won with Shaq? "I didn't want to be here," Webber
says. "But I can honestly say I'm glad I'm not a Laker. I believe
we're going to win a championship, maybe not this year, but
sometime. If I'm right, it will mean we did it together, as a
team, without having to ride anyone's back."

Houston, We Have a Keeper
Eddie Griffin's Block Party

The future bodied up the past last week in Toronto when Houston
rookie Eddie Griffin was posted by Hakeem Olajuwon, the former
Rocket. "He gave me the Dream Shake," says Griffin, who lunged
the wrong way as Olajuwon drove for a basket during the Raptors'
109-103 victory.

Although Griffin lost that skirmish, the Rockets believe their
19-year-old power forward, the league's fifth-youngest player,
can become as intimidating a shot blocker as the 39-year-old
Olajuwon, the alltime leader with 3,798 blocks at week's end.
"With Hakeem you didn't think he could get over to a ball, and
then he did," says Houston G.M. Carroll Dawson. "Eddie's the
same way."

Griffin averaged 14.4 minutes in his first 22 games, but since
Dec. 18 he's getting 35.4 minutes a game and averaging 3.0
blocks, 15.2 points and 8.8 rebounds. While the 6'10" Griffin
imagined he would be a small forward in the NBA, coach Rudy
Tomjanovich has used him as a power forward and backup center
because of his ability to protect the rim. Tomjanovich looks
forward to the matchup problems he can create next season when
Maurice Taylor recovers from a ruptured Achilles to join fellow
power forwards Griffin and Kenny Thomas, who are versatile
enough to play together at times.

At 230 pounds, Griffin doesn't look like an intimidator. Recently
Karl Malone introduced himself by grabbing Griffin's hip with one
hand to prevent him from jumping for a rebound. "I can't imagine
being that strong," says Griffin, who has tried to avoid physical
confrontations down low against bigger, older men. "I try to stay
away and make the guy think he can get his shot off."

Griffin has several physical gifts, including an 86-inch
wingspan and quick jumping ability, that allow him to get his
hands on so many shots. "He has the characteristic of Bill
Russell in that he doesn't have to go into a deep flex before he
jumps," says Tomjanovich.

Though he was ranked alongside Darius Miles as one of the best
high school prospects in the country two years ago, Griffin's
reputation took a beating when he was involved in a fight with a
teammate last season at Seton Hall, leading NBA scouts to
question everything from Griffin's anger management to his
commitment to the game. The Rockets say they've seen no signs of
trouble from Griffin. His expression rarely changes, whether
he's blocking Shaquille O'Neal's shot (as he did during a
25-point, 13-rebound night against the Lakers in December) or
learning that he'd been left out of the Rookie Challenge game
during All-Star weekend. The snub, based on Griffin's slow
start, is especially painful because the game will be played in
Griffin's hometown of Philadelphia. "I'll use it as motivation,"
Griffin says. "In the future there will be other things I'll be
selected for."

Guaranteed Trouble
Teams Will Soon Face A Taxing Decision

The NBA's impending and dread luxury tax may wreak havoc on the
upcoming draft. The tax, which may go into effect next season,
is expected to be levied on teams with payrolls in the
neighborhood of $52 million, which 15 franchises already exceed
and eight others are dangerously close to reaching. Teams
choosing late in the first round don't want to pay $2 million
over three years to a player of questionable ability. Several
GMs expect to see trades of first-round choices for second round
choices, because the salaries of second-round players are not

Orlando coach Doc Rivers agrees that "a high second-round
selection has become more valuable than a late first-round
pick." But trading a first for a second may not be that
easy--with so many franchises on the verge of being hit with the
tax, few teams may be willing to take on an additional
first-round choice. Plus, several GMs say it would be hard to
explain to the fans why a traditionally valuable first-round
pick is no longer worth exercising, especially when point guards
Jamaal Tinsley and Tony Parker have starred this season after
being drafted with the last picks of the first round.

The more attractive option may be to draft a player from Europe
in the first round on the condition that he is willing to remain
overseas for several years and let somebody else pay his salary
while he gains experience. Such a player would not count against
the cap, but the team drafting him would retain his rights. A
league source says two teams have tried to dump a pair of
first-round picks on the Clippers for their rights to guard
Marko Jaric, a second-round choice who is starring in Italy for
Kinder Bologna. SFX's David Bauman says four NBA teams have
asked if Bostian Nachbar, one of the top European prospects from
the 2002 draft, would be willing to remain with his Italian
club, Benetton Treviso, until his NBA team can afford to import

Play of the Week
A Small Adjustment

Chicago was leading 90-89 with 1:05 remaining in Atlanta last
Thursday when Marcus Fizer got into an argument with referee
Jess Kersey, who warned interim Chicago coach Bill Cartwright to
control his player. Cartwright responded by replacing Fizer with
rookie Trenton Hassell and moving forward Ron Artest over to
cover Atlanta's Shareef Abdur-Rahim. With 17.5 seconds left
Artest used his quickness to cut Abdur-Rahim off at the baseline
and watched him put up a shot that hit the side of the
backboard. The Bulls held on for their first road victory of the
season, 94-91. "I would have made the move anyway," said
Cartwright, "but Jess helped."

COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Seven Kings are averaging double figures in scoring, but Webber still leads them all with 24.4 per game.


around the Rim

So eager is Nick Van Exel to be traded out of Denver that he is
offering to opt out of the last two years of his contract to
negotiate a more cap-friendly deal with a title contender. Van
Exel still has four years left on his seven-year, $77 million
contract.... The Rockets say Steve Francis has played every game
but one this season with migraines. "I don't know how he's done
it," says coach Rudy Tomjanovich, noting that Francis is leading
his team in scoring, rebounding and assists.... The Lakers have
lost to a last-place team in every division, and the common
thread in those defeats is Shaquille O'Neal, who has missed all
or part of each of those games. He didn't suit up for the losses
to Golden State (injured list) and Miami (suspended). He was
ejected for fighting in the fourth quarter of the OT loss at
Chicago and was severely limited against Memphis by an arthritic
toe that would force him onto the injured list a few days
later.... In the week after his Jan. 13 announcement that he was
selling the Orlando Magic, owner Rich DeVos received 16 calls
from potential bidders, according to a league source.... It will
be interesting to see how their fellow owners react to the
relocation papers expected to be filed soon by the Hornets'
George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge, who took a model franchise and
ran it into the ground in basketball-crazy North Carolina. Does
anyone really think these two can build a successful
organization in New Orleans, which has a smaller television
market and whose residents have a smaller per capita income than
Charlotte's? "No matter where they go, they will mess it up,"
says an NBA owner. "My guess is the league makes it so difficult
[to move] that they will give up and sell. Which is the right
thing for them to do."

scout's Take
On the Heat, which was 12-26 at week's end, seven games out of
the final playoff berth in the East:

"A month ago Alonzo Mourning (above) would run up the court
three or four times, and then he couldn't run anymore. Now he
looks as if he's getting stronger, and Brian Grant is shooting
better and getting his confidence back. The Heat can't win if
Eddie Jones has a bad shooting night--they miss Tim Hardaway,
because teams slough off, daring the Heat to score from the
perimeter. But I still think Miami can take the seventh or
eighth playoff spot. You won't see those players quit on Pat
Riley. I keep hearing how awful he looks because the team is
losing, but I don't think he looks beat down at all. He's
calling as many plays as he ever has, the team is playing the
same hard defense, and with Alonzo playing well, it has better
talent than a lot of the teams higher in the standings. At the
very least Miami should finish ahead of its longtime rival, the
Knicks (14-24 at week's end)."