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Pacific
Phil Taylor
November 11, 1996
THE SONICS are bigger up the middle, but the Lakers, with Shaq, have muscled into contention
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November 11, 1996

Pacific

THE SONICS are bigger up the middle, but the Lakers, with Shaq, have muscled into contention

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THESE CENTERS CANNOT HOLD: The Suns' choice is between a pair of 34-year-olds, 6'11" John (Hot Rod) Williams, a true forward who will start the season on the injured list, and 7-foot Joe Kleine, who has played 11 seasons without ever averaging double figures in points or rebounds. Phoenix plans to experiment with a Bulls-style triangle offense and increased full-court pressure, but that won't be enough to completely hide the hole in the middle.

WHO WANTS THE BALL? More specifically, who wants it at crunch time? Phoenix may miss Barkley the most at the end of close games, which was when he demanded the ball. There is no obvious replacement for him in that role, and if Phoenix wants to make any noise in the playoffs, one of the Suns will have to step up.

4 Sacramento
Kings

A LITTLE HELP: After using 5'10" Tyus Edney and 6-foot Bobby Hurley at point guard last year, the Kings needed one player who couldn't be taken advantage of defensively. The best they could do was wispy 6'1" Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. The former Nugget isn't much of an improvement on D, but he will take some of the scoring load off shooting guard Mitch Richmond, who welcomes the help. But Richmond is unhappy about his $3.5 million salary, which is small change compared with what elite off-guards like Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller and Allan Houston make.

FROM PRINCETON TO THE PROS: Pete Carril's arrival sounds like the premise for a bad movie. An erudite 65-year-old former Ivy League coach joins a team of hip, talented, millionaire pro players. If this were a film, Carril would learn to rap, center Olden Polynice would become a Shakespearean scholar, and the Kings would win the NBA title. In real life, however, Carril is merely an assistant on coach Garry St. Jean's staff, and Sacramento will be battling for one of the last playoff spots again.

PLAYER TO WATCH: The Kings will give 6'9" Billy Owens the chance to finally grow into the Scottie Pippen-Grant Hill role of multitalented small forward. If he excels, Sacramento could become something more than an admirable blue-collar team.

5 Portland
Trail Blazers

A COACH'S DREAM: Portland is loaded with talent, much of it recently arrived. Isaiah Rider is one of the league's most explosive shooting guards, Kenny Anderson has the capability to be one of its best point guards, and forward Rasheed Wallace can score, run the floor and block shots. Among the holdover Trail Blazers, forward Clifford Robinson is good for 20 points a game, and center Arvydas Sabonis is the NBA's best passing pivotman. Coach P.J. Carlesimo has lots of reasons to smile.

A COACH'S NIGHTMARE: He also has lots of reasons to worry. Rider had so many scrapes with his coaches, his teammates and the law that the Timberwolves were thrilled to unload him. Anderson is a poor defender who seemed to lose some of his enthusiasm last year with the Nets and the Hornets. Wallace, formerly of the Bullets, tends to be headstrong and difficult to control. Robinson, unhappy about not getting a contract extension, has asked to be traded. Sabonis is the only Blazers starter whose attitude isn't in question, but his surgically scarred legs are a constant concern.

TRULY FOUL SHOOTING: The Blazers are almost sure to improve their free throw shooting, thanks to Anderson (76.9% last year) and Rider (83.8%). Portland shot 66.2% from the line in 1995-96, the worst mark since the 1968-69 Lakers shot 65.0%.

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