No Leading Man
Despite his status as a star, Vince Carter won't take charge of
the struggling Raptors
Injuries, a 13-game losing streak and a torrent of criticism
have turned this into the toughest season of Vince Carter's
four-year career. Now teammates and supporters--as well as those
critics--are wondering: Will Carter overcome these setbacks and
carry the Raptors (as Michael Jordan did the Bulls)? Or is he on
his way to being merely a spectacular scorer on a chronically
underachieving team (like Dominique Wilkins as a Hawk)?
Many players, coaches and scouts around the league lean toward
the Wilkins analogy. They believe that Carter settles for too
many jump shots and lacks the mean streak that sets the best
players apart. "Allen Iverson is 10 times tougher," says an
Eastern Conference assistant coach who maintains that Carter's
highlight-worthy dunks are outweighed by the all-too-common
sight of him "jogging back" on defense, "dying on screens" or
"whining and not playing hard."
But, Carter's backers ask, if he's such a liability, how did
Toronto come within a jump shot of upsetting the 76ers in Game 7
of the Eastern Conference semifinals last year? Former Raptor
Charles Oakley says Carter may be limited defensively, but
that's because he has to conserve himself in order to provide
the scoring that Toronto needs. Carter hardly looked soft when
he poured in 43 points in a 112-109 loss at Houston on March 5,
then limped around the locker room because of back and leg
injuries. "I see him trying to help his team win," says
Philadelphia coach Larry Brown. "He's trying to play hurt, and I
think it's commendable."
Carter's seasonlong run of injuries includes the left quadriceps
strain that sidelined him for the first seven games after the
All-Star break, which began the Raptors' losing streak. At
week's end they had dropped to the 10th spot in the East. "I've
never gone through this many injuries before," says Carter, who
scored 16 points in an 83-74 win at Miami last Friday, ending
the slide. "I can't play as fast-paced or as quick or as high or
as strong as I want to right now."
Carter won't muzzle the doubters until he takes responsibility
for his team. Throughout his career he has refused to utter the
words so often spoken by stars like Jordan, Kobe Bryant and
Kevin Garnett: Get on my back and I'll carry you. Carter's
belief that he's an equal partner with his teammates in
Toronto's fortunes infuriates critics, who accuse him of
avoiding the duties that come with his talent--and with a
six-year extension, worth as much as $94 million, that kicks in
Asked if Carter is one of the top players in the league, Raptors
power forward Antonio Davis says, "It depends. If you need
points, then he's one of the top players. But if you need a
leader, if you need other things, then other players are going
to come into consideration."
Indeed, it was Davis who spearheaded the players-only meeting
after the 13th straight loss, and it is Davis who encourages
Carter to push his teammates and hold them accountable. "He
needs to learn leadership," says Davis, "just like he learned to
perfect a jump shot." But Carter isn't comfortable lecturing his
teammates, especially when he feels he has played poorly. "He
needs to understand that he delivers more often than not," says
coach Lenny Wilkens. "Leadership will come, but it's something a
guy has to do on his own--you can't force-feed it to him."
The Raptors aren't among the hardest-working teams in the
league, and they won't be until Carter becomes more focused.
Rockets forward Kevin Willis, who played with Wilkins in Atlanta
(from 1984 to '94) and with Carter in Toronto (1999 to 2001),
says Carter must pay more attention to the details. "Dominique
didn't have the mental preparation to take a team on his back,"
Willis says. "That requires a lot of discipline--watching game
tapes, all types of preparation. Vince needs to do every little
thing that players don't usually do, because those are the
things that separate you."
Wilkens predicts that Carter will triumph because he's a
team-minded player. "I'm taking everything they say and trying
to learn from it," Carter says of his critics. "I just ask for
everybody to be patient. It's going to take a little time."
Getting the Roles Sorted Out
Cheeks Has Portland Blazing
After an ugly 12-month hiatus, the Trail Blazers have suddenly
reemerged as championship contenders. Portland has long been one
of the NBA's most talented teams, but now that talent is finally
producing rebounds and defensive stops, not just points. The
credit for the Blazers' resurgence goes to rookie coach Maurice
Cheeks took over a disgruntled team with an $84 million payroll
(second only to the Knicks) that had been swept in the first
round by the Lakers last season. Scottie Pippen was questioning
the team's chemistry as recently as two months ago, when Cheeks
was still experimenting with a variety of rotations. After
staggering to a 13-18 start, the Blazers hit their stride and
went on a 12-game winning streak, which ended last Saturday with
a 109-106 overtime loss at Denver. That run carried Portland to a
38-25 record at week's end and sixth place in the West, 3 1/2
games behind the fourth-place Spurs.
Cheeks's approach is exemplified by his hard-earned relationship
with point guard Damon Stoudamire. After Stoudamire missed seven
games because of tendinitis in his right knee early in the
season, he was forced to win his starting position back from
Pippen. "It worked out for the best because he made me understand
you're going to do it his way or you're not going to play,"
Stoudamire says of Cheeks. "What he did with me set the tone for
the whole team."
At times Pippen handles the point and Stoudamire becomes a 5'10"
shooting guard. While Bucks coach George Karl says that move by
Cheeks is an indictment of Stoudamire's playmaking skills, Cheeks
maintains that he's been trying to find new ways to develop
Stoudamire as a scorer. With his confidence renewed, Stoudamire
hit a pair of last-second shots during the winning streak. "He's
never once talked about anyone's weaknesses on this team,"
Stoudamire says. "What we focus on is handling our business,
executing our offense and playing solid defense."
Cheeks understands how to lay a solid foundation and build on
it. He was a second-round draft pick out of West Texas State who
played point guard for 15 years, steering the 76ers to the 1983
title. He made his coaching debut as a CBA assistant before
spending the last seven years on the Philadelphia bench, where
he helped Larry Brown reach the 2001 Finals.
Watching Brown work through his relationship with Allen Iverson
instructed Cheeks in the art of managing players. He had to
persuade swingman Derek Anderson to accept playing 20 minutes
off the bench. "It's been hard, but he's made it easier for me
to accept," says Anderson. "He had to find out if guys were
going to sacrifice for the team. When he stuck to his guns,
everybody realized we've got to do what he says."
Circumstances have contributed to the newfound happiness in
Portland. The retirement of Arvydas Sabonis opened up a starting
position for 6'11" Dale Davis, who, while not a true center, had
helped the Blazers become, at week's end, the NBA's third best
team in rebounding margin. The bench, which used to be filled
with unused and unhappy veterans--including Davis--is now the
domain of rookies Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje and Zach Randolph.
Cheeks also feels none of the pressure to play Shawn Kemp that
team president Bob Whitsitt applied to coach Mike Dunleavy last
season. Whitsitt says he worked with Cheeks to "define the roles
for Maurice the way he wanted them defined."
With Rasheed Wallace responding to Cheeks's demand that he carry
the scoring load (through Sunday, Portland was 20-2 when he
scored 23 points or more) and the Blazers playing as a unit,
Portland is poised to seize a postseason opportunity if the
Lakers stumble. The Blazers' recent ascent and the hard knocks
they've taken along the way have proved to them they don't need
home court advantage. "It wasn't easy," Cheeks says. "I had
never been a head coach before. I told the guys I may make some
mistakes; so you live with my mistakes, and I'll live with yours."
Dallas's Shawn Bradley
The Shrinking 7'6" Man
Since re-signing with the Mavericks last summer for $30.5
million over seven years, 7'6" Shawn Bradley has averaged career
lows of 4.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.30 blocks and 15.0 minutes.
"Do I have a lot of confidence in him?" asks coach Don Nelson.
The Mavericks believe that Bradley failed to get in shape this
season. Bradley maintains that he has been hampered by a sore
right knee and by the new three-second defensive rule, which has
prevented him from camping in the lane. He can accept Nelson's
criticism because he believes the coach hasn't given up on him.
"I know what he expects of me," Bradley says. "Deep down, he
wants me to succeed."
The 29-year-old Bradley and everyone else agree that he's been
working harder to get in shape since he came off the injured list
last week. The Mavericks wouldn't thumb their nose at his return,
either: He could upgrade the defense significantly, supplying
shot blocking, along with 6'11" Raef LaFrentz, that would enable
the Mavs to play tighter D on the perimeter. Nelson also hopes to
try a big frontcourt of Bradley, LaFrentz and 7-foot Dirk
"This team needs me, and I need this team," says Bradley. "I want
to be part of things, or a bigger part of things."
For complete scores, stats and the latest news, plus more
analysis from Jack McCallum, go to cnnsi.com/basketball.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Even when he hasn't been laid low by injuries, Carter has done little to inspire Toronto, which lost 13 straight games.
COLOR PHOTO: SAM FORENCICH/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Stoudamire helped the Blazers turn the corner by picking up his scoring.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Stockton & Co. are slower, sloppier and less productive this year.
around the Rim
Scrapping their plan to convert Larry Hughes into a point guard
(he's back to being a swingman), the Warriors have handed the
position to 6'3" Gilbert Arenas, a second-round pick. They hope
that the experience will help Arenas develop into a solid backup
capable of handling either guard spot--and that they finish high
enough in the lottery to draft Duke's Jason Williams.... Another
difficult off-season awaits the Heat, which will pay $49 million
for Alonzo Mourning, Eddie Jones, Brian Grant, Anthony Carter
and LaPhonso Ellis next year. That will leave Pat Riley no more
than $6 million to fill out the roster and keep Miami from
paying the luxury tax.... Travis Best, a free agent after this
season, says he's willing to re-sign with the Bulls and share
the point with Jamal Crawford, 22, who last week made a strong
return from left ACL surgery just seven months ago.... Shaquille
O'Neal is tossing out figures on his next contract. "I don't see
myself going past 35," says O'Neal, 30, whose 10-year, $208.4
million deal expires after 2005-06. "Unless they give me 200 for
two." By that he means $200 million for two years. "That would
be cool, wouldn't it?" Shaq says.
On the Jazz, who at week's end was 2-12 against the top five
teams in the West:
"The most surprising thing is that Utah is second in the league
in turnovers (16.5 per game). I never thought I'd see Jazz
players become turnover prone. Since last year their shooting
and scoring have gone down, while their opponents' scoring has
gone up. You want to run them and keep the ball moving in the
half-court because they're still built around John Stockton and
Karl Malone, which means they're an aging team without a lot of
quickness. They're going to face one of the top three teams in
the first round of the playoffs, and I would imagine if they had
to pick anybody among the front-runners, it would be the Lakers,
because they don't run."