Injuries only partially explain the Bucks' fall from Finals
contender to bubble team
The Bucks began the season with a 9-1 record and visions of their
first trip to the Finals since 1974. They're ending it hoping
they can avoid the lottery. At week's end Milwaukee had lost 15
of 22 games to tumble from second place to seventh in the East,
only one game ahead of the Raptors. The schedule offers the Bucks
little to be optimistic about: Of their final six dates, five are
against teams in the playoff hunt--and during its recent slide
Milwaukee was a woeful 2-10 against such opponents.
What's gone wrong? The most obvious explanation is the injuries
to four of the Bucks' top five scorers. All-Star guard Ray Allen
has missed 13 games with the left knee tendinitis that has
hampered him since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last
year. Though he was averaging 21.8 points at week's end, he's
lost some quickness and agility. The same has been true for point
guard Sam Cassell since Feb. 12, when he sprained his left big
toe. "It's my plant foot, so when I'm trying to plant and
explode, it's just not happening," Cassell says. "If this was
December, I would be resting it."
Slashing sixth man Tim Thomas has been reduced to a spot-up
shooter by a sprained right knee suffered on March 12, while
Allen's promising backup, Michael Redd, spent last week on the
injured list after spraining his left knee on March 26. Redd's
status for the stretch run is uncertain, while Allen, Cassell and
Thomas have continued to play, though they won't get the rest
they need for full recovery until the off-season.
While the big three of Allen, Cassell and Glenn Robinson have
started only 40 games together, coach George Karl refuses to
blame Milwaukee's skid on injuries. That the Bucks' physical
ailments have become the center of attention "almost makes me
throw up," he says. "Great players don't skip practices, they
don't let anybody know about [injuries], they don't wear the
armor of sympathy. But that's not the gig today. The gig today is
to talk about injuries, beg for sympathy."
If their physical woes are not the cause, why are the Bucks in
danger of missing the playoffs? "We've had too much stubbornness
and not enough compromise," says Karl, who wants his team to pass
more and defend harder. "Our commitment has lacked championship
intensity. This is the first time these guys have had
expectations, and they're scared of them."
One of the loudest complainers has been power forward Anthony
Mason, who was signed before the season at Karl's urging. Mason
has repeatedly called for the Bucks to abandon their run-and-gun
ways, pound the ball inside and make D the top priority. But he
struck a conciliatory tone last week, saying, "I'm as guilty as
anyone for the shortcomings of the team this year. I'm the new
piece of this puzzle, so I figure it's got to be me."
Karl hasn't always helped matters. After a Feb. 2 home loss to
the 76ers he hinted that his differences with the players were
irreconcilable, saying that the team should either fire him or
trade one of its stars. If the Bucks wanted to rid themselves of
Karl, he gave them the opportunity when he was quoted in the
April issue of Esquire complaining about the NBA's "anointments
of the young Afro-American coach." Instead of quitting on him,
however, his players accepted his clarification and apology, and
the controversy passed. "George is an outspoken man, but he also
gives you freedom on the court," Robinson says. "Me, Sam and Ray
get a lot of responsibility. A lot of coaches wouldn't give us
Karl hasn't given up. "We're going to have to use the playoffs to
catapult to a higher level. We can do that," he says. "[Wizards
assistant coach] John Bach came up to me last night and said, 'If
your team passes the ball, you're going to have a heck of a
Play of the Week
The Nets were leading 94-92 on April 3 with 2.5 seconds remaining
when the visiting Lakers almost pulled off their version of an
onside kick. Rick Fox intentionally missed his second free throw,
and as the ball bounced high off the left side of the rim, Kobe
Bryant charged in from behind the free throw line, soared for the
tip-in--and missed. Bryant's bungle may have significant impact on
the race for the top seed in each conference. At week's end the
Nets held a 2 1/2-game lead over Detroit in the East, while the
Lakers were 3 1/2 games behind Sacramento in the West.
COLOR PHOTO: NOREN TROTMAN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES The only one of the Bucks' trio of stars who isn't ailing, Robinson has stood by his embattled coach.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Detroit's record reflects Stackhouse's improvement.
around the Rim
He's 6'9" and 240 pounds, but Ben Wallace seems to get even
bigger as the season goes on. The league's leading rebounder,
Wallace pulled down 10.9 boards per game in November, 11.8 in
December, 12.4 in January, 14.3 in February and 15.0 in March....
The Grizzlies are assured of keeping their No. 1 draft choice in
June only if they finish with one of the two worst records.
Otherwise their pick may not end up in the top five, and they
would have to give it to the Pistons as part of a 1997 trade for
Otis Thorpe. Through Sunday, Memphis was 20-56 and tied with the
Warriors for the league's second-worst record.... According to a
league insider, the Shanghai Sharks have given 7'6" Yao Ming
permission to make a 10-day trip to the U.S. next month, during
which he'll work out for five to 10 NBA teams. It is the
strongest indication yet that the Chinese club will allow Yao to
enter the draft this June, when he's likely to be one of the top
two picks.... The silver lining in Phoenix: Shawn Marion was
averaging a career-high 19.4 points at week's end, along with
10.1 rebounds, proving he can thrive without Jason Kidd.... With
Michael Jordan's return in doubt, Wizards swingman Courtney
Alexander has vowed to follow coach Doug Collins's advice and
work on his D this summer. "All my life I've concentrated solely
on offense, but I've realized that defense can be fun," says
Alexander. "I never thought I'd say that."... Bad omen for the
East's top three teams--the Nets, Pistons and Celtics--who were all
in the lottery last year: The last team to reach the Finals after
a nonplayoff season was the Lenny Wilkens-coached SuperSonics of
Year End Awards
Who Deserves the Hardware?
Keeping in mind that oft-hobbled Shaquille O'Neal remains the
best player on the planet, here are SI's award winners for
MVP: Tim Duncan, Spurs. At week's end Duncan was averaging 25.5
points (fifth in the league), 12.8 rebounds (second) and 2.42
blocks (fourth) for the team with the fourth-best record. "We
surrounded Tim with new players at the one, two and three
positions and told him to make it work," says Spurs coach Gregg
Popovich. "And he did."
Coach of the Year: Nate McMillan, Sonics. He edges the Pistons'
Rick Carlisle because he 1) got the most out of his eight first-
and second-year players, 2) helped persuade Gary Payton to
renounce his Mr. Hyde side and 3) drove a team that seemed
lottery-bound into the playoffs in the formidable West.
Rookie of the Year: Pau Gasol, Grizzlies. Through Sunday the
21-year-old Spaniard was leading all rookies in scoring (17.5
points), rebounds (9.0), blocks (2.13) and shooting percentage
Most Improved: Jerry Stackhouse, Pistons. The NBA is loaded with
selfish players who wouldn't sacrifice their stats, as Stackhouse
has done, to help turn a losing team into a winner--the only
improvement that really matters.
Executive of the Year: Rod Thorn, Nets. By trading Stephon
Marbury for Jason Kidd, Thorn exchanged an enormous headache for
the perfect cure.
Defensive Player of the Year: Ben Wallace, Pistons. The 6'9"
forward leads the NBA in blocks (3.50 per game) and ranks 15th in
Sixth Man: Bobby Jackson, Kings. Sacramento depends on his
defense and scoring, especially in the fourth quarter.
All-20-and-Under Team: Eddie Griffin, F; Tyson Chandler, F; Eddy
Curry, C; Darius Miles, G; Tony Parker, G.
All-36-and-Over Team: Karl Malone, F; Michael Jordan, F; David
Robinson, C; Reggie Miller, G; John Stockton, G.
Most Missed Player: Steve Francis, Rockets. Through Sunday,
Houston was 25-28 with him and 2-20 without him.
Donald Sterling Award: George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge, Hornets.
They swear they'll succeed in New Orleans after having failed in
the ripe basketball market of Charlotte. Says one fellow owner,
"I wouldn't trust them to run a Dairy Queen."
SI's All-NBA Teams
Our annual exercise, with apologies to Michael Jordan and Karl
F Tim Duncan
F Kevin Garnett
C Shaquille O'Neal
G Kobe Bryant
G Jason Kidd
F Dirk Nowitzki
F Chris Webber
F Paul Pierce
G Tracy McGrady
G Gary Payton
F Rasheed Wallace
F Antoine Walker
F Peja Stojakovic
G Allen Iverson
G Steve Nash