In his six seasons in Indiana, trash-talking forward Chuck Person was fingered as the principal reason the Pacers were labeled classic underachievers, never advancing past the first round of the NBA playoffs.
But now Person is playing with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Pacers, who have lost eight of their past 11 games, still are pointing fingers, only this time they've discovered a bigger scapegoat: 7-foot-4 center Rik Smits.
Everyone has been waiting for the Netherlands native to blossom into a superstar since he averaged 15.5 points and 2.0 blocks his second year as a pro. But the agile giant, who is a fine shooter, hasn't fulfilled the expectations of his teammates, making him a target for criticism.
"For us to be successful, we need the man in the middle," said shooting guard Reggie Miller. " 'Dutch' has all the tools to be a great center, but if he's not going to score, he can at least set screens. He's got to assert himself more, not just settle for turn-around jump shots."
Said Smits, "If they want to criticize me, let them do it to my face."
Pacers coach Bob Hill did not single out Smits, but, instead, questioned the competitive nature of his entire team. After a recent loss, he said: "I can't slice their chests open and give them a heart. They've got to supply that."
Hill has to hope that the Pacers will come on as they did last season, finishing 25-14 to earn a playoff berth.
"Sooner or later you press the right buttons and everything falls in place," Hill said. "But right now, I can't sleep. I sit up and watch game films. My doctor says, 'Relax your brain, eyes and nose.' But it's a waste of time. Heck, I can sleep next summer."
Christian Laettner is posting impressive numbers as a rookie, averaging 18.5 points and 8.2 rebounds for the Timberwolves. But Laettner, the former Duke All-American who was the third player selected in the 1992 draft, is quickly alienating his teammates.
Laettner has been called selfish and distant and was criticized last week when, in a game against Atlanta, shooting guard Doug West was free downcourt, but Laettner dribbled in from halfcourt for a dunk.
"In that case, the open man has to get the ball," said Person. "If a guy is 30 feet in front of you and you shoot it instead, are you basing that decision on winning or is it personal loyalties?"
Meanwhile, the losses continue to mount, and coach Jimmy Rodgers, 21-86 as boss of the Timberwolves, is rumored to be a short-timer.
"I'm not sure I have the answer," said Rodgers. "The light bulb has to come on at some point, but right now I can't find the right formula."
Getting the point
After Anthony went 1-for-11 from the field and committed seven turnovers in Christmas weekend losses to the Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks, Riley said: "Greg's biggest problems are upstairs. If you're going to be the kind of guard to break down a defense, you have to make good decisions. Otherwise, they flatten you out."
Riley's constant criticism caused Anthony to request a trade, but he soon rescinded it, and gained his coach's praise after totaling 43 points and executing the Knicks' offense almost flawlessly in consecutive victories over the Pacers at the close of 1992.
"Being a point guard, it's easier to get in the flow when you're starting," said Anthony, the former Nevada-Las Vegas star who was chosen as heir apparent to Mark Jackson as the Knicks' playmaker.
"When you're coming off the bench, you tend to think about things too much and don't play instinctively."
The last time Chicago forward Horace Grant played against his twin brother, Harvey of the Washington Bullets, at the Capital Centre on Dec. 17, he complained that he has not had a chance to assert himself offensively, compared with his brother.
Harvey Grant is averaging a team-high 21.2 points; Horace is averaging 11.8 points for the Bulls.
So Horace scored a career-high 30 points against the Pacers on Dec. 26 and followed with 20-plus games against the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat.
"Horace shouldn't complain any more about not getting enough shots," said Michael Jordan.