This was supposed to be a breakthrough year for the Charlotte Hornets. They finished 44-38 last season and made the franchise's first playoff appearance. With a strong nucleus returning, it was thought that the Hornets would compete for the Central Division title.
Instead it has been a season of disappointment, with injuries forcing Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson to miss long stretches. At one point Charlotte lost 17 of 18 games. Now both are back, and the Hornets could very well be a first-round playoff team to avoid.
But that's only if the Hornets can land in the playoffs, which will be a struggle with 18 games to go. Charlotte has a 28-35 record and is 4 1/2 games behind the New Jersey Nets for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Mourning was activated off the injured list March 7, after missing 15 games with a calf injury. In his first game back he scored 24 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a win over the Phoenix Suns, and he played well with an 18-point, 10-rebound effort in Sunday's loss to the Seattle SuperSonics.
What's crucial for the Hornets and their playoff hopes is how Johnson responds from missing 31 games after spraining his lower back in December. Johnson has looked stiff in four games since coming off the injured list, averaging 14.1 points and 5.0 rebounds.
Also working in the Hornets' favor is the inconsistency of the Nets, who got subpar performances from All-Stars Kenny Anderson and Derrick Coleman in Saturday's 105-93 loss to the Phoenix Suns.
Anderson played 34 minutes and scored five points; Coleman played 31 minutes and scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds. "Kenny was tired and burned out. I felt the same way," Coleman told New York writers. "We need some rest."
That's the difference between the Hornets and Nets. The Hornets havea high-paid player who's willing to put a serious injury aside during a playoff push. The Nets have a high-paid player who -- during a crucial part of the season -- is making excuses. In the end, that might be the difference.
Here's a big sign that the talent crop in the NBA is not close to where it used to be: The Philadelphia 76ers, who have lost 20 of their past 21 games, are in a position now where they need 7-foot-6 center Manute Bol.
Maybe "need" is too strong a word, but how else do you describe the position of the Sixers after Bol, on the final day of his 10-day contract, simply did not show up for Friday's 100-98 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Bol apparently was away doing some relief work for his home folks in the Sudan, but to simply not show up for work without explanation seems a bit much.
So you figure the Sixers, who had planned to sign Bol to a second 10-day contract on Friday, simply would release him, right? He's so short on talent that no one in the NBA would miss him, right?
Wrong. The Sixers had that 10-day contract in hand Sunday, when Philadelphia suffered another two-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Bol was nowhere to be found. But apparently the team still is willing to sign Bol, who suddenly, for the first time in his career, appears to have some bargaining position.
"We need help," coach Fred Carter told the Philadelphia Daily lTC News. "I-95 [Carter's term for the gap in the team's defense] opened up again the other day."
Bol told the Daily News that he tried to leave messages for general manager Jim Lynam and Carter to explain his absence. He left a message for Lynam on his voice mail, but did not get a response. "They didn't call me back," Bol said. "How could they sign me if they don't return a call? I'm not going to call them."
So it appears Bol will sit back and wait for the team to reach him. He wants a contract for the rest of the season, and maybe the team is desperate enough to sign him.
A team needing Manute Bol? Who would have ever thought it?
Bummed in Boston
The Sixers aren't the only once-proud Eastern Conference team struggling. The Boston Celtics, after Sunday's loss to the Atlanta Hawks, are guaranteed their first losing season since 1978-79, when they went 29-53.
Boston has dropped six straight and 19 of its past 21.
It seems management has ordered coach Chris Ford to play the younger players more. It's a move that management says is being made to further evaluate talent, but others might think it is being done to get more pingpong balls in the bin for the draft lottery.
So while players such as Dee Brown, Kevin Gamble, Rick Fox and Robert Parish see their minutes cut, newcomers Acie Earl, Jimmy Oliver and Tony Harris are playing more.
"The air," Fox said about the state of the team, "is contaminated."
By season's end, we'll be faced with the Celtics (22-42), Los Angeles Lakers (27-37) and Detroit Pistons (18-47) all being involved in the draft lottery. My, have the mighty fallen.