For the NBA at midseason, there's a lot of Bulls and no Magic

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO -- Most NBA teams reached the midway point of the season last week, and already there are some good stories to tell. Such as the dominance of the Chicago Bulls, the unlikely play of the Golden State Warriors, the inspiring return of Jeff Ruland and the departure of veteran coaches Dick Motta, Del Harris and K.C. Jones.

But no matter what has occurred, or what will occur -- and that could include anything from the firing of three more coaches to the trade of Charles Barkley -- nothing will overshadow the events of Nov. 7.

"Because of the HIV virus that I have obtained," Earvin Johnson said at a late afternoon news conference in Los Angeles that day, "I will have to retire from the Lakers today."

So 1991-92 in the NBA will always be the season of Magic's announcement, from that day, to his probable play in the All-Star Game and perhaps the Olympics.

But the games, as always, went on, and here's a look at the notables thus far:

Best team: No. 1, Bulls. No. 2, Bulls. No. 3, Bulls. No. 4, Trail Blazers.

That's how good the Bulls are. And just remember, a year ago Michael Jordan was screaming for help in the form of Walter Davis and doubting the team's chances, Scottie Pippen was asking to be traded and Horace Grant was begging for the ball. Now they spend their time deflecting questions about an all-time-record 70-win season while refusing to lose games it would be so easy -- and understandable -- to do.

Their only serious threat now remains themselves, mostly in the form of injury.

MVP: Karl Malone. That's right -- Most Vicious Player. His assault on Isiah Thomas, which resulted in a 40-stitch cut, was worse than anything you've ever seen any Piston try. But credit Thomas for warning Malone when the Jazz played in Chicago recently that Thomas' boyhood friends from the West Side were angry and might try to exact some revenge. Malone had extra security for a death threat that night.

MVP -- The Portland Trail Blazers. Right, the Most Vacuous Players.

These guys are only missing Chuck Person to have the collective basketball IQ of Benoit Benjamin's jersey -- 00. If they figure out the best 20-footer to take is not the first, they could make this the best NBA Finals in years.

MVP -- All right, for real this time -- Michael Jordan.

Sure, he's slowed some. Pippen provides more of the highlight film stuff. A series of nagging injuries -- from knee to back to shin -- and his winter-long colds have cost Jordan a little of that magical first step. Players around the league say he's not playing as high, meaning he won't dunk on you quite as often.

But he's looking for teammates as never before and unlike the other big stars, he never has a bad game when his team needs him.

Toughest cut -- Milos Babic of the Miami Heat when Sherman Douglas returned from a long holdout. He was scrambling to find a team to play for in the Continental or Global leagues or face a return to the army in Yugoslavia.

Coach of the Year -- Pat Riley, New York Knicks. The vote would be for Phil Jackson, but he still believes the award presages bad times. So Riley wins for not only getting one of the league's laziest and unmotivated teams to play defense, but also getting Charles Oakley to average four shots a game without complaint.

Surprise team -- Golden State Warriors. They added two rookies to a deservedly seventh-place team in the Western Conference, then traded their third-best player, Mitch Richmond, to Sacramento for another rookie. They're still hanging onto first in the conference.

"I'd have to say, quite honestly, we're the major story," said GM/coach Don Nelson.

Of course, this also means that after the National Anthem, everyone has to chant, "Nellie is a genius," five times.

Most disappointing team -- Indiana Pacers. So it wasn't Dick Versace's fault. A chemistry problem in the NBA used to be drug use. Now it's a team with five guys looking to score. The Pacers were called for a half-dozen zone defenses ("hey, pick up my guy") in a recent game, and it could have been a dozen more. Doesn't anyone pick up a man here? This team was supposed to be a challenger in the Eastern Conference, and you know what? They still can with the right deal because everyone's playing to be the Bulls' victim in the conference finals.

Saddest former player -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. For threatening to make a comeback ("hey, everybody, look at me; hey, 'f everybody . . .") and agreeing to the farcical one-on-one game with Julius Erving next month.

Bulls' biggest threat -- The Detroit Pistons. Forget the seven straight wins over the Pistons. It wasn't too long ago that Cleveland had six straight against the Bulls. The Pistons are the second best in the conference because of playoff toughness. The Cavaliers' season would be a success if they win a playoff series; so would the Knicks'. The Pistons look for more and still can play defense. And if they can keep games close, they can steal one or two from the Bulls. The season between these teams starts in May.

Whatever happened to? -- Bernard King.

Rookie of the Year -- Dikembe Mutombo of the Denver Nuggets. For his numbers because he's averaging 19 points and 13.5 rebounds and because of a colossal rookie mistake he made recently. Appearing on "Arsenio Hall," he hired four limousines to take the team and traveling media with him. That's something a veteran just doesn't do.

Biggest underreported story -- The Players Association's suit against the owners, specifically naming the Bulls, for allegedly cheating on the salary cap by underreporting income. It promises to have deep ramifications as negotiations begin on a new agreement.

Most improved -- Drazen Petrovic of the New Jersey Nets. There are plenty of candidates, including New York's John Starks; Washington's free-agent find, Larry Stewart; Atlanta's Kevin Willis; Denver's Reggie Williams; Phoenix's Tim Perry; and Washington's Pervis Ellison, an All-Star Game possibility averaging 20 points and 11.9 rebounds. But Petrovic is among the league's top shooting guards and averaging 20 points a game.

A side note: As well as Bobby Hansen has fit in with the Bulls, they could have had Petrovic for Dennis Hopson last year. That deal wouldn't have helped the Bulls now, but maybe down the road.

Best solution -- From Orlando president Pat Williams, his team, the best of the expansion bunch last season, loser of 21 of 23: "We're losing at home, and we're losing on the road. We've just got to find another place to play."

Worst team -- Philadelphia 76ers. They've got two All-Stars in Barkley and Hersey Hawkins, Johnny Dawkins back and a perennial top sixth-man contender in Ron Anderson, and they still can't play .500 ball. Seattle gets some votes for quitting to get its coach fired.

Best greeting -- Spud Webb to Mitch Richmond as he arrived in Sacramento after the trade for Billy Owens: "Welcome to hell."

Executive of the Year -- Jerry Krause, Bulls. For not doing anything. Just a joke. Actually, Pete Babcock in Atlanta deserves a nod for getting young and not slipping, and Cleveland's Wayne Embry gets some votes for building depth while over the salary cap. And, OK, Nelson, too, for grabbing all those talented rookies.

Best team that will miss playoffs -- the Los Angeles Lakers. They're not that far from falling to ninth in the conference, they're burning out James Worthy at 40 minutes per game and have little bench support with Vlade Divac still out after back surgery.

F: They miss Magic Johnson even more than the rest of us.

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