Bulls float to top even without Air


Who's the hottest team in the NBA now? The Atlanta Hawks? The Houston Rockets? The Seattle SuperSonics?

Old news. This week's streaking team is the Chicago Bulls, who have won nine straight games after the two-point win over the Orlando Magic on Christmas. Through 25 games, the Bulls have a 17-8 record, just one game behind the 18-7 record a year ago, when you-know-who was soaring through the air.

The Bulls haven't loaded up against the stiffs of the NBA, with the New York Knicks, the San Antonio Spurs, the Charlotte Hornets and the Magic among the victims during the streak. And Chicago has done it with several key players injured, including Will Perdue, Scott Williams and John Paxson.

Forward Scottie Pippen is emerging from Michael Jordan's shadow, averaging 20.2 points (shooting 50 percent from the field) and a team-high 6.6 assists. B. J. Armstrong has improved his scoring from 12.3 to 17.4. And Horace Grant (15.5 points, 12.3 rebounds) and rookie Toni Kukoc (13.1) have provided steady play in the frontcourt.

The Bulls are a half-game behind the Central Division-leading Hawks. But more importantly, they trail the Knicks, for home-court advantage through the Eastern Conference playoffs, by one game.

Yes, it's just a third of the way through the season, but can you imagine the Bulls in the NBA Finals with Pete Myers starting at shooting guard? Don't laugh. As bad as the Eastern Conference is (eight teams have losing records, compared with four at the end of last season) -- and the struggles the Knicks will face without a point guard -- it is a very real possibility.

Wrong turn

Remember a year ago, when the Los Angeles Clippers were, almost by default, the main professional sports team in Los Angeles?

While finishing with a 41-41 record and making their second straight playoff appearance, even a few celebrities made it out to games, as the Clippers stretched the Rockets to five games in losing a first-round series.

It seemed that the Clippers were a franchise about to turn the corner, but the team has hit a serious roadblock. The Clippers were 10-14 going into last night's game against the Philadelphia 76ers. After a surprising win over the Magic on Dec. 15, the Clippers lost the next three games. Two of those losses were home against the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Milwaukee Bucks -- embarrassing defeats that led guard Ron Harper to sound off.

After being asked what was wrong with the team, Harper replied "Smell it.

"Smell it. We stink," Harper went on. "Point blank. No way to hide it. . . . Ought to move all our home games and put them on the road."

True, the L.A. Sports Arena is one of the most dismal places in the league, and one of the few arenas where Shaquille O'Neal doesn't play in front of a sellout crowd. The arena sits in the South Central section of Los Angeles, and visiting journalists are offered escorts to their cars after games.

But the Clippers have enough talent to be a good team, despite losing Stanley Roberts to a season-ending Achilles' tendon injury and John "Hot Plate" Williams to the West Coast Fatburger restaurant chain. Danny Manning was an All-Star last season, guard Mark Jackson was an All-Star with the Knicks and Harper is a 19.4 scorer going into this season.

"We know we're a talented team, but if you don't go out and push it all in one direction, it does no good," said Manning, who is constantly the subject of trade rumors. "Nobody likes to lose. The season is peaks and valleys, and you just have to make sure you don't hit a losing skid for a long time."

Two nights after blowing up, Harper was apologetic after the Clippers beat the Washington Bullets, 109-92.

"I'm sorry about some of the things I said," Harper said. "The only way you can enjoy this game is go out and win games. We have a very good team and know we can win."

I wonder what Harper had to say the next night when the Clippers lost by 46 to the Golden State Warriors. No wonder Charles Barkley told Clippers center Elmore Spencer before a recent game: "We know that we're going to kick y'all's [rear] tonight, because y'all's used to it."

Canvassing for votes

Remember three weeks ago, when Phoenix Suns guard Kevin Johnson said that he deserved to be on Dream Team II, but he wasn't going to campaign for a spot -- even though he sounded like he was? Well, it seems like that one spot, which opened when Golden State Warriors guard Tim Hardaway went down with a season-ending knee injury, has opened a trend of Heisman Trophy-like campaigning.

Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller has thrown his name into the running, saying his numbers are deserving. But the Sacramento Kings have taken the process a step further, issuing a 35-page packet entitled "Mitch has a Dream II," touting shooting guard Mitch Richmond.

The packet consists of a one-page cover sheet, comparing Richmond's statistics with four guards on the team and two other guards -- Kevin Johnson and Jeff Hornacek -- whose names have been mentioned. There's also a "What They're Saying About Mitch" section, with praise from players and coaches, including the Warriors' Chris Mullin, SuperSonics' Nate McMillan and Jordan. "He's the best [shooting] guard in the league, the closest thing to watching myself in the mirror," the Jordan quote says. "We're very similar in our styles. His physical ability causes trouble both offensively and defensively. I have a lot of respect for him."

So do I, but enough with this politicking. What next, Rockets guard Scott Brooks putting out a release quoting teammate Hakeem Olajuwon? "Scottie can post up any journalist in the country, plus he can ride the pine with the best of them. He definitely belongs."

The fact of the matter is that Hardaway was a point guard, and should be replaced by a point guard. Johnson is having the best season among point guards, and he's getting the job done on a winning team. Sorry, Mitch, maybe you can put some gold paint on that bronze medal you won back in 1988.

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