Is Coleman a winner at his price?


With the NBA trading deadline approaching, here's the question team owners face with the availability of the New Jersey Nets' Derrick Coleman: Will acquiring the All-Star forward, at the asking price of $90 million over 10 years, make your team a championship contender?

The Nets owners gave their answer last week, rejecting the proposed contract that had been orally agreed upon between vice president Willis Reed and Coleman's agent. Instead of making Coleman the highest-paid player in professional sports, the owners reportedly asked Reed to explore trade options for the 6-foot-10 forward who becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season.

There's no question Coleman, when he wants to play, is one of the most talented players in the league. He averages 21.2 points and 11.7 rebounds and is one of a few players capable of taking over a game.

But the key phrase for Coleman is "when he wants to play," which, in his case, doesn't equate to 82 games a season. The first pick overall in the 1990 draft, and the 1991 NBA Rookie of the Year, Coleman has earned a reputation of being somewhat aloof on the court.

He can look sensational in scoring 31 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in one night (which he did in Saturday's win at Detroit, perhaps sending a message to management) or he can totally disappear on nights when he grabs three rebounds (against the Portland Trail Blazers Jan. 25) or scores nine points (against the Milwaukee Bucks Jan. 5).

"It's crazy that [Coleman] can get that type of offer -- what has he done the past three years?" a former NBA coach said last week. "It's not like he makes anybody on his team better. And who would want to pay to see this guy play?"

Not the home fans, who aren't exactly flocking to The Meadowlands to see the Nets. And certainly not the fans in other cities, where kids don't clamor to see Coleman the way they flock to see Shaquille O'Neal or Chris Webber. How many kids do you see wearing the sneakers that Coleman pitches in those weird commercials? Not that many.

Many thought that Chuck Daly would be able to motivate Coleman, but, instead, Daly has endured a season of frustration as the Nets have managed a 21-23 record going into tonight's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. To think that by signing ++ Coleman the Nets will overnight become a championship team is absurd.

Chances are there's an owner out there who feels his team is one star away from winning a championship, and he'll sign Coleman to the big-money contract he's seeking (he turned down an eight-year contract worth $69 million in October). And surely, Coleman will continue to produce impressive numbers. Whether he provides the intangibles that allow a team to hang a championship banner is another matter.

Write-in reserve

When the league takes a break this weekend in the buildup for Sunday's All-Star Game, you'll recognize players such as Kevin Johnson, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen and Patrick Ewing. Latrell Sprewell? He'll simply be the least-recognizable player on the court in Minneapolis.

But believe this: The Golden State Warriors guard will get his recognition when it's over.

You didn't see Sprewell's name on the All-Star ballots? The second-year guard from Alabama was not on. But he was named an All-Star reserve last week, the first time a player not on the ballot has been selected to play since 1983, when Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons was a reserve center.

"I was happy, and a little shocked," Sprewell said. "I just didn't think it would happen this fast."

At the midpoint of the season, Sprewell has established himself as perhaps the best shooting guard in the league. At 6 feet 5, he can be effective inside and outside. He's averaging 21.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists. Sprewell leads the Warriors in scoring and is the second-leading scorer among guards in the league.

It's a matter of getting the opportunity for Sprewell, who averaged 15.4 points as a rookie. The Warriors lost two key backcourt players, Tim Hardaway and Sarunas Marciulionis, to season-ending knee injuries before the season started. The result: Sprewell is averaging a league-leading 44.9 minutes.

"When you have key players, starters and All-Stars, out, it allows some people to get some playing time," Sprewell said. "No one told me I had to do more. I just went out and did the things I normally do."

The 24th pick of the 1992 draft, Sprewell has played up to the level of a lottery pick.

"He's got the whole package," teammate Chris Mullin said. "All this started last season, and he obviously worked on his game and came back better."

And in All-Star form.

"I'm feeling pretty good," Sprewell said. "I'm just as surprised as a lot of people are. I had played against a lot of the guys who got drafted before me, and I knew I would play in this league. I'm just happy I've been able to do so well."

The new John Williams

There's no truth to the rumors that fast-food sales have increased since the return to the Los Angeles Clippers of John "Hot Plate" Williams, who was suspended by the team before the season because he was too heavy.

Williams, a former Washington Bullet, returned over the weekend and had three points, two rebounds and three assists while playing 20 minutes Saturday against the Sacramento Kings.

Williams reportedly weighed 330 pounds when he was suspended. A four-month stay at a North Carolina weight-loss clinic has apparently helped Williams get his weight down to the 270-280 range.

"I see myself now, and I see a totally different person," Williams was quoted as saying upon his return.

Must be nice for him to look at himself and not see two people, for a change.

Quotes of the week

* Los Angeles Lakers center Vlade Divac, after posting Dennis Rodman-like numbers of 23 rebounds and five points in Sunday's win over the Utah Jazz: "So don't be surprised if I come to the next game wearing purple hair."

* Houston Rockets forward Robert Horry, who, in the span of 48 hours, went from the Rockets to the Pistons and back to the Rockets after a trade between the two teams was voided (Pistons forward Sean Elliott failed a physical with the Rockets): "I'm not learning anything at crunch time except how to keep good posture on the bench."

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