On the surface, the situation Sam Cassell finds himself in this season with the Milwaukee Bucks is quite different from others he had faced during his first six years in the NBA. He has more often than not looked like a completely different player.
In fact, Cassell finally is playing more like a point guard than a points guard.
"I haven't changed my game," Cassell said recently. "I'm just throwing the ball to guys who are making shots. It's that simple."
In shooting guard Ray Allen and forward Glenn Robinson, Cassell has two players who, despite Milwaukee's 28-31 record, represented the East in the NBA All-Star Game. And therein lies a problem the former Dunbar High star has faced for much of his career.
Since his days at Florida State, where he either shared top billing or was overshadowed by teammates who included future pros Charlie Ward and Bob Sura, through his nomadic NBA journey during which he has played for five teams, Cassell has often been overlooked.
It was understandable in Houston, where he spent his first three seasons and helped the Rockets win back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. Cassell, a late first-round draft choice, was a key reserve whose primary job was to feed Hakeem Olajuwon and later Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
In Phoenix, Dallas and New Jersey, where he split the 1996-97 season and then stayed with the Nets until being part of a three-team deal that landed him in Milwaukee last March, Cassell played second (or third) fiddle to everyone from Kevin Johnson to Jim Jackson to Keith Van Horn.
"The only reason I've been traded so much is because for what I do, everyone is getting a bargain, and they know they have a bargain," Cassell said, sitting in the visitors' dressing room at MCI Center in Washington before a recent game against the Wizards.
It has created another problem for Cassell: how to find happiness when you feel you're being vastly underpaid.
With the Bucks heavily invested in Allen and Robinson, Cassell might be again viewed as expendable. His contract, which runs two more years and is worth a reported $4 million a year, pales in comparison to those of the team's two stars.
"I just want to get compensated for my ability," said Cassell, 30. "I'm not the top point guard in the league, but I know for a fact that I'm in the top six. Should I be paid as one of the top six or one of the bottom 24 [actually 23]? Should I make a fuss out of it? It's a business. And I'm going to make a fuss out of it."
There was a question last season whether Cassell would ever exceed the potential he showed, first in his two years coming off the bench in Houston, when he often played key fourth-quarter minutes and later when he averaged a career-high 19.6 points and eight assists and led the Nets to the playoffs two years ago.
Asked what last season was like for him, Cassell said: "I wish I could forget about it. The first game I had 35 points and nine assists, but I got hurt in the last five seconds of the game. I was 25 pounds overweight coming off the lockout, and that didn't help me."
Fully recovered from a chipped bone in his right ankle that limited him to eight games in the lockout-shortened season, Cassell is third on the Bucks in scoring at 18.0 points and his career-high 9.2 assists is second in the league behind Phoenix's Jason Kidd.
"I didn't want to be here [at first], but this team is a good fit for me and I'm a good fit for this team," Cassell said. "I know I can be easily a 20-point scorer in this league but I don't have to be with two guys like Ray and Glenn here."
Allen said that the way the Bucks have structured their offense has been beneficial to Cassell as well.
"With me out there and being able to get him shots instead of him creating his own shot all the time has helped," Allen said. "The biggest concern in past years was that he would come down and hold the ball and then shoot, and it would deflate the rest of the team."
Cassell might feel underpaid, but he is not unappreciated.
"Sam has a tough job," said Bucks forward Danny Manning, who played briefly with Cassell during Cassell's 22-game stay in Phoenix. "He's a scoring point guard by nature, but he's come out and done what he has to do to make this team successful."
Said Milwaukee coach George Karl: "He's always going to be a scorer, but he's got some great scorers around him. He's given in to the need to make those passes for them, and if they're not open, then to take the shot."
John Calipari, who coached Cassell in New Jersey and is now an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers, said he never saw a player who wanted the ball in tough situations as much. "There's not many guys who'll want to take the last shot every time," Calipari said. "Sam does."
Calipari said the key to Cassell's success is being happy -- and feeling that he is being appreciated. After Cassell played poorly in a recent loss to the 76ers in Milwaukee, Calipari pulled his former player aside and told him to go out and "have fun."
During a 25-point loss to the Wizards, Cassell was clearly frustrated. He took bad shots when the offense broke down, and forced the ball inside. After being yanked a couple of times in the first half by Karl, Cassell sulked on the bench, putting a towel over his head.
"A lot of times we have won games because of Sam and Ray and Glenn really shooting well," Karl said later. "Now we've got to start winning games with our defense. Sam's had a great year, but we've had to redirect some of the mentality and the focus that comes with being a point guard."
Karl's message apparently got through to the Bucks in general and Cassell in particular. In last Sunday's 102-95 win over Orlando, Cassell helped force Magic point guards Darrell Armstrong and Chucky Atkins into a combined 9-for-26 shooting while scoring 22 points himself on 9-for-16 shooting.
Cassell compares his situation when it comes to getting recognition to that of Wizards point guard Rod Strickland, who in 12 years has never played in an NBA All-Star Game despite always being considered among the best in the league at his position.
"We're in the same category, guys who get the proper respect from their peers, but don't get the proper respect from the media," Cassell said. "The media is important; they put you on this team, that team."
Though it was the Eastern Conference coaches who put Allen and Robinson on the All-Star team, Cassell said he understood -- to a point.
"If we had a dominant center on this team, an All-Star center, I don't buy they wouldn't take three players from the same team," Cassell said. "The Lakers have had four players. I thought I was having an All-Star-caliber season. I think the league knows who they want on the team. A guy told me, 'You got snubbed.' That's the right word."