With the recent acquisition of Scottie Pippen, more than a few basketball prognosticators are picking the Houston Rockets as the team to beat in the Western Conference of the NBA this season. While the move certainly puts Charles Barkley in position to win his first championship, he knows better than to get too excited about what people are predicting.
"You don't go out with a woman on the first date and say you're going to marry her, do you?" Barkley said. "I'm not going to do that with this team. Let me say this -- we've got a good team, but the game has still got to be played."
And the Rockets have a lot to overcome, starting with its talented -- but aged -- frontcourt. Pippen, 32, had back surgery during the off-season. Barkley, who turns 36 in three weeks, had a lot of nagging injuries last season, when he finished with his lowest scoring average (15.2 points) since his rookie season. And 36-year-old Hakeem Olajuwon, once the most dominating center in the league, looked rather ordinary at times last season when he finished with the lowest scoring average of his career (16.4).
Perhaps the biggest obstacle the Rockets face is in their backcourt, with the biggest question being: Can a team win an NBA title with Matt Maloney as its starting point guard?
Houston might be able to overcome that problem area with Pippen, who will likely be asked to play more of a point-forward role this season. The addition of Pippen will make it difficult for opponents to double-team the low post.
"I think Charles realizes he has something to achieve," Pippen said. "We as a team want to win a championship, and he realizes we need him to do that. He's going to have to dedicate himself. That's a point I will make to him."
Barkley appears to be committed in what may be his best chance to win a title. After off-season surgery to repair a double hernia and a torn triceps tendon, Barkley came to camp in great physical shape and promised to be a more explosive player this season.
"I've been a quickness player my whole career," Barkley said. "I didn't feel explosive at all last season. I want to beat guys off the dribble.
"Now with all my physical ailments out of the way, I am going to have a great season."
Whether it results in a championship remains to be seen.
Sprewell's big debut
Now we understand why there was such a rush to acquire Latrell Sprewell after the lockout ended.
Sprewell was given a standing ovation by the Madison Square Garden crowd during pre-game introductions. He finished the game hitting his last nine shots, including all seven of his field goals in the third quarter.
"I didn't know if [the crowd] would be positive or negative, but it definitely was positive," Sprewell said. "When I was turning it over, and when I took a couple of poor shots, they were still behind me. But I wasn't nervous, really. I was just more rusty than anything."
The trade for Sprewell, and the signing of long-range shooter Dennis Scott, pushes New York to serious contention for the Eastern Conference title. But to seriously challenge, New York can't rely on Patrick Ewing to be the go-to-guy at crunch time.
At this stage of his career -- and coming off of wrist surgery -- Ewing has to be, at best, the team's second or third offensive option. If he is able to accept that role and refrain from getting into an outside shooting contest with this guard-oriented team, the Knicks will be tough to beat.
That all depends if Sprewell is capable of both keeping his cool and staying out of trouble in New York. He knows, 14 months after choking Golden State Warriors coach P. J. Carlesimo, that everyone is watching his every step.
"He's going to be a fan favorite at some point because of how hard he plays," said Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy. "The bottom line with our crowd is they respect hard work. And Latrell plays extremely hard."
Around the league
Boston Celtics center Dwayne Schintzius has a tattoo of Bart Simpson on his left ankle.
"That's my boy and my mentor -- Bart Simpson," Schintzius said. "He's who I try to emulate."
The Chicago Bulls are definitely planning for the future. Of their players under contract, eight have deals that will expire after this season (and the Bulls have an option not to renew the final year of a ninth player, Randy Brown). The Bulls could have close to $20 million worth of cap room, enough to go after several quality free agents.
The rumor in Cleveland is that Shawn Kemp weighed in at 303 pounds. As one journalist wrote, Kemp exceeded "the calorie cap."
The first sign that agents aren't needed under the new collective bargaining agreement that pretty much sets salaries: Milwaukee Bucks guard Ray Allen has hired attorney Johnnie Cochran on an hourly basis to assist him on his contract extension. Allen is not going to hire an agent.
The Knicks will continue to go with a three-guard offense (Charlie Ward, Allan Houston and Sprewell) as long as 6-foot-11 forward Marcus Camby fails to meet team's expectations. Camby came to New York in the deal that sent Charles Oakley, a team favorite, to Toronto.
"Rodman is the most ridiculous thing to come along in the league ever."
-- Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, after Rodman taunted Alonzo Mourning during the 1997 playoffs in Miami.
"I think Dennis is a winner."
-- Riley last week, as he entertained thoughts of signing Rodman.
Jerry Bembry can be reached via the Internet at JeryB@aol.com
Pub Date: 1/31/99