No Simple Answer
Allen Iverson's Olympic dreams may be Larry Brown's nightmare
Allen Iverson wants to represent his country at the 2004 Olympics
in Athens, saying of his possible exclusion from the U.S. team,
"Anyone in their right mind who has seen me play for seven years
knows that wouldn't be fair." As 76ers coach, Larry Brown has had
a front-row seat for six of those years; as 2004 Olympic coach,
he'll have to decide how vigorously to lobby for the star who has
battled so hard for him--and against him.
Iverson knows that Brown is not a voting member of the 12-person
USA Basketball selection committee--and that Sixers G.M. Billy
King is. Brown has told the committee that Iverson would be a
worthy addition to the team, but he also made clear that USA
Basketball must explain to Iverson in detail the obligations
involved. Players must block out 21 to 25 days this August for
the regional Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico, where
the U.S. will compete with nine other teams for three spots in
Athens. In the summer of '04 players will also be tied up for
five weeks, between an extended training camp, exhibition games
in Europe and the Olympic tournament. And mainly for security
reasons, the U.S. team will be staying in the Olympic Village,
where no entourages are allowed.
NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik told the Philadelphia Daily
News that Iverson didn't help his candidacy by withdrawing from
the world championship team last summer, citing the death of a
friend, Ra Langford, who had been fatally shot almost a year
earlier. But while the committee will be concerned about
Iverson's controversial image, it will be hard to ignore his
explosiveness on the court, especially coming off the bench.
So far Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Steve Francis, Jason
Kidd, Tracy McGrady and Gary Payton have expressed interest in
representing the U.S. in Athens, and Allen, Bryant and Kidd are
expected to be among the first half-dozen players that the
selection committee will announce, perhaps by All-Star weekend.
That would leave two spots for guards, and not much playing time;
when Brown coached the Olympic qualifying team at Puerto Rico in
1999, he started a backcourt of Kidd and Payton for all 10 games.
In the end the Answer may decide that the trek isn't worth it,
but if he isn't at least invited, the 76ers fear that his
displeasure may make his already charged relationship with Brown
The Nuggets' Master Plan
Lose Big Now, Spend Big Later
Has there ever been a nonexpansion team with less proven talent
than the Nuggets? Five of their players are rookies, including a
starting backcourt that consists of a second-round pick (Vincent
Yarbrough of Tennessee) and an undrafted Division II point guard
(Junior Harrington of Wingate [N.C.] College). At week's end
Denver was shooting just 40.0% and scoring 80.8 points per game,
putting the Nuggets on course to become the least accurate team
in 40 years and the lowest-scoring one since the 24second shot
clock went into effect in 1954. "We miss 10 or 11 layups a game,"
says yet another rookie, coach Jeff Bzdelik, with a wince.
So why were 17,393 fans at the Pepsi Center last Saturday
cheering throughout an 87-76 loss to the vastly superior Kings?
Maybe it was because, as Sacramento coach Rick Adelman said of
the Nuggets afterward, "they just keep coming at you, and they
never quit." Or maybe it was that after years of putting up with
underachieving teams and griping millionaires, the fans have been
smitten by players who are humble and hungry. The loss left
Denver at 7-25 (a game ahead of the Cavaliers in the LeBron
James lottery race), but 12 of the Nuggets' losses have been by
single digits, and their victories have included shockers against
the Pacers, Spurs, Suns and Trail Blazers.
When Kiki Vandeweghe replaced Dan Issel as general manager before
the 2001-02 season, Denver was a perennial loser with the
league's seventh-highest payroll. Vandeweghe spent his first year
unloading such high-priced talent as Nick Van Exel, Raef Lafrentz
and Antonio McDyess. He replaced them this season with recent
lottery picks Nikoloz Tskitishvili (19 years old), Nene Hilario
(20) and Rodney White (22). All are promising but raw; only
Hilario--an active 6'11", 260-pounder from Brazil--has been a
consistent contributor. Vandeweghe then made a coach out of
Bzdelik, the team's Eastern scout. "I told Jeff I want two
things," says Vandeweghe. "Teach the young players to work hard
and play fundamentally sound, aggressive, man-to-man defense."
Following that mandate, the 49-year-old Bzdelik (buzz-DEL-ik) is
helping the franchise establish an identity. Through Sunday,
Denver was forcing an NBA-best 18.3 turnovers and holding
opponents to 89.0 points per game (fifth lowest in the league).
The results are more impressive if you consider that center
Marcus Camby, point guard Chris Whitney and forward Chris
Andersen--three of Bzdelik's top seven players--have missed a
combined 60 games because of injuries and that Vandeweghe
unloaded No. 2 scorer James Posey to the Rockets in a three-way
deal last month for a pair of draft picks.
The Nuggets' unlikely mainstay has been veteran forward Juwan
Howard, who is providing leadership for the present while
representing hope for the future. In May his seven-year, $105
million contract will expire, clearing $20.6 million in
salary-cap room and giving Denver the chance to sign two free
agents to maximum contracts next summer. "We can say to players,
Who would you like to play with?" says Vandeweghe,
implying--without mentioning names--that the Nuggets could go
after free agents Tim Duncan and Jason Kidd, much as Orlando did
three seasons ago when it signed Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady.
That's a long shot, especially since Denver will face competition
from San Antonio, which could retain Duncan and offer Kidd the
max. But if the Nuggets win the lottery and the right to draft
James, then perceptions might change in a hurry. (Another, less
ambitious, plan for Denver would be to try to sign two free
agents from a pool of Clippers: forward Elton Brand, point guard
Andre Miller and center Michael Olowokandi.)
While rival G.M.'s remain skeptical that Vandeweghe will be able
to recruit winners like Duncan and Kidd, there is no denying that
the Nuggets' only hope was to start from scratch. It's a
high-risk course, as the Magic--its own rebuilding plans damaged
by Hill's ankle injuries--will attest. Still, with seven
first-round picks over the next four years, the signs in Denver
are more promising than the team's current record suggests.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH The electrifying Iverson should wrap up a spot on the U.S. team if Brown (inset) stumps for him.
COLOR PHOTO: JESSE D. GARRABRANT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: GARRETT ELLWOOD/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Howard has been the team leader, though his days in Denver are numbered.
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On the Trail Blazers, who at week's end had gone 10-1 after a
"Mo Cheeks's decision to turn Scottie Pippen into their starting
point guard and put Damon Stoudamire on the bench has given them
stability. With Pippen running the offense, they're a more
structured, less selfish team--you don't see Rasheed Wallace on
the perimeter shooting jumpers all night. Two years ago I thought
Pippen was done because he was struggling to find his niche as an
aging player. But as a point guard he doesn't have to force
anything, and I can see this move extending his
around the Rim
Coach Rick Adelman is optimistic that Peja Stojakovic--crucial to
the Kings' title hopes--has turned the corner on his recovery
from plantar fasciitis in his right foot. Though Stojakovic has
missed a total of 10 games because of the injury and is still in
pain, he would prefer to play through it rather than sit out an
extended period of the regular season. "Even if you sit," says
Stojakovic, who through Sunday was averaging 15.8 points per
game, down from 21.2 last season, "you're not sure this kind of
injury is going to go away."... Pat Riley and Larry Brown are
among those who believe the league should consider tinkering with
its signature shot clock to provide teams more time to attack
zone defenses. "I want to do what Pete Newell has suggested,"
says Brown. "If the 24-second clock is so ingrained in guys'
heads, then don't start the clock until they get the ball over
half-court."... Shaquille O'Neal may be resigned to finishing
second to Yao Ming in the All-Star voting for Western Conference
center, but the Mavericks are still stumping for Dirk Nowitzki to
make the team at forward. Dallas has started a campaign at local
schools to try to close a nearly 40,000-vote gap at week's end
between Nowitzki, who was third in the balloting, and
second-place Kevin Garnett. (Tim Duncan led the voting at
forward.) The first 100 students to submit pro-Nowitzki ballots
will be invited to shoot free throws on the American Airlines
court. A Mavs e-mail also instructs season-ticket holders, "Don't
vote for Garnett."