Depending on which rumors you believe or what deals are likely to be cut, this could be a crucial week for the New York Knicks, who are rapidly approaching status as a contending team of the past.
The rumors that began Sunday night had Isiah Thomas ending his 12-year career with Detroit to go to New York, but they apparently died last night with Thomas reportedly deciding to stay with the Pistons.
The other hot deal has the Dallas Mavericks trading Derek Harper, reportedly assuring the disgruntled point guard he would be shipped out soon. New York's interest in Harper heated up when Doc Rivers suffered a season-ending knee injury.
A premier point guard could provide the necessary quick fix for the Knicks, who have lost four of their past seven games. On Sunday, the Knicks lost a 124-123, overtime game to the Charlotte Hornets, a team that was playing without center Alonzo Mourning (sprained ankle) and forward Larry Johnson (back problems, on the injured list). It was the fourth home loss of the season for the Knicks, who lost four games at Madison Square Garden last season.
As coach Pat Riley was quick to point out, the Knicks were also short-handed for the game. Forwards Tony Campbell (sore foot) and Anthony Mason (sprained ankle) went down in New York's win over the Washington Bullets last week, adding to the injuries that have hurt the team. But when your team's go-to guys -- Patrick Ewing and John Starks -- are in the lineup, and the other team's aren't, the Knicks are supposed to win. And win big.
"Injuries are not an excuse," Knicks power forward Charles Oakley said after Sunday's loss. "We can't get our heads down because someone's hurt. We've just got to go to work and get the job done."
The job's not getting done because Ewing is slowly playing himself out his spot among the top two or three centers in the league. Sure, he's averaging 22.3 points and 9.6 rebounds. But Ewing's tendency to rely more on his jump shot than a power move close to the basket limits his effectiveness. Remember Ewing's monster dunk over 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson during their big matchup in college? Shots like that by Ewing these days are rare.
A Thomas or Harper provides a penetrating point guard who's willing to step up as a scorer -- something the Knicks need, what with their 98.9-point average that ranks 18th in the league. Rivers, although he played well, didn't provide that. And Greg Anthony, even though he has played decently since assuming )) the starting job, is not the answer.
Knicks management has visions of hanging another championship banner at Madison Square Garden, and at the start of the season, the team's chances were as good any anybody's. Trading for a top point guard doesn't guarantee New York anything, but it at least gives the Knicks a legitimate chance -- something that's lacking right now.
Is there a more confusing team in the league than the Hornets? Just 10 games ago, they were struggling with a 10-9 record. And over the past two games, they had to face two of top three Eastern Conference teams -- New York and the Chicago Bulls -- without Johnson and Mourning.
No problem. The Hornets broke the 10-game winning streak of the Bulls, who are second in the Central Division. Then they went to Madison Square Garden on Sunday and handled the Knicks. Over the past 10 games, Charlotte is 7-3 and is 3 1/2 games behind the Atlanta Hawks in the Central Division.
"This is the biggest win so far," Eddie Johnson said after the win over the Knicks. "We went into the Chicago game and had only beaten one team over .500. Now we've beaten the two best teams in the conference."
The injuries to Mourning and Larry Johnson allow players such as Eddie Johnson (32 points against the Knicks) and Hersey Hawkins (25 points against New York) a chance to demonstrate the skills that led the Hornets to trade for them in the off-season. Once Johnson and Mourning come back to the lineup, having Eddie Johnson and Hawkins established in the offense makes the Hornets a dangerous team.
Charlotte gets a chance for a trifecta tonight, taking on the Hawks in Atlanta. At a time when the team was expected to just ride the wave until its top two players returned, the Hornets are oozing with confidence.
"I've been telling the team all along that we have as good a chance as anybody to get out of this conference," Eddie Johnson said. "We tend to look toward the future, but the future is now if we can jell together."
Best of the best
Inside Sports magazine, in its February edition, includes a survey that rates the top players at each position. Based on an eight-question survey completed by an assortment of NBA management people, including Bullets general manager John Nash, these are the top players at each position (with the second and third choices in parentheses):
* Small forward -- Scottie Pippen, Bulls; (Dominique Wilkins, Hawks; Chris Mullin, Warriors).
There are no major arguments with the picks here, although the selection of Drexler at shooting guard demonstrates the tremendous drop in talent at that position since the retirement of Michael Jordan and the off-season deaths of Drazen Petrovic and Reggie Lewis.
Surprisingly, David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs doesn't make the top three at center, although an argument could be made to insert him in place of the diminishing Ewing. Wilkins and Mullin as the second and third best small forwards doesn't show a lot of strength at that position, either.