The problem has been we're so happy-go-lucky," Chris Webber complained to The Sacramento Bee last summer. Consider that problem solved. Kings All-Star forward Peja Stojakovic has yet to rescind his trade request. Rick Adelman remains a lame-duck coach despite entering this season with a 301-159 (.656) record in six years at Sacramento. And it is hard to count on a healthy Webber, who admits he was "really scared" in preseason when his surgically repaired left knee prevented him from dunking.
Don't put too much stock in a run of 15 wins in 18 games; the Kings (16-7 at week's end) have struggled to find their offensive rhythm. A 115-99 loss last Thursday to the Lakers was their worst home defeat since 1998. "We're going to be up and down all year," says Adelman, noting that he has five rookies and second-year men on his once dependable bench.
The Kings are used to controversy generated by Webber--but not by Stojakovic. Though he has never cited his reasons for requesting a trade last July, two seem obvious: the exit of his mentor, Vlade Divac, who signed a free-agent contract with the Lakers, and Webber's questioning the toughness of unnamed teammates after a second-round playoff loss to Minnesota. A less apparent but more important reason is that, after averaging a career-high 24.2 points last season, Stojakovic wanted his teammates--Webber in particular--to know that without Divac around he would speak up for himself if he believed his role was being diminished.
At week's end Stojakovic had struggled to justify his marquee billing: The league's most renowned marksman was averaging just 19.9 points while shooting 44.0%, a six-year low. Webber says their relationship hasn't been an issue since he approached Stojakovic on the opening day of camp. "I let him know there's nobody else [I'd rather] play with," says Webber, who denies he was aiming his postseason potshot at Stojakovic. Says Peja, "He just wanted to make sure we were O.K., that we didn't have any problems. It was short."
While Stojakovic and Webber appear comfortable off the court, they're not meshing on it. With Divac gone, it's Webber's job to make sure that Stojakovic's skills are being fully exploited. Webber has put up amazing numbers for a hobbled power forward who missed 59 games last year: 20.5 points per game, 9.6 rebounds and 5.3 assists at week's end. The stronger his knee and the better his mobility, the more he will be able to help set up his most talented teammate. "I'm still learning my body," says Webber. "I think I will be able to play above the rim consistently off one leg."
Lingering adversity may prove to be a blessing for the Kings, forcing them to scrap for ugly victories and work together to overcome their defensive weaknesses. At week's end they ranked 16th in field goal defense, permitting opponents to shoot 43.6%. If that number shrinks, then you'll know they're sincere about uniting for one last run at a title.
On the struggling Pistons (12--10 at week's end):
"The one guy who is playing as well as he was last year is Rip Hamilton. Otherwise, Rasheed Wallace has been hurt, Ben Wallace has been suspended, and Chauncey Billups hasn't been making those big shots. As a group they just seemed a lot hungrier last season, and they got more out of Mehmet Okur and Corliss Williamson than they're getting now from Antonio McDyess. Can they get out of the East? Yeah, because they have the most talent in their conference. Will they win it all? Absolutely not--the Spurs are a much better team."
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (2)
Can Webber (above) help reverse Stojakovic's shooting slide?