The start of the second half of the NBA season brought a shakeup—or, in one case, a Shaq down—on both coasts. In the West the Pacific Division-leading Lakers suffered a huge setback when All-Star center Shaquille O'Neal fell awkwardly in a Feb. 12 game against the Timberwolves and was lost for eight to 10 weeks with ligament damage to his left knee. In the East the surging Heat, which already was in first place in the Atlantic Division, made a major deal for once-potent Mavericks forward Jamal Mashburn, a move that could advance Miami to the conference finals.
At week's end the Lakers were 3-2 this season when playing without Shaq. "We will miss him," says Lakers coach Del Harris, "but we still have a pretty good team." Don't believe for a second, though, that over the long haul the other Lakers, 37-14 through Sunday, will be able to win as many games without O'Neal as they could with him. After all, at the time of his injury, Shaq was averaging 25.8 points, 12.8 rebounds and 3.0 blocks. The Sonics, the Jazz and the Rockets are better than the Shaq-less Lakers and will still be better when O'Neal returns because he will be rusty and out of shape.
How good the Lakers will be in Shaq's absence will depend partly on O'Neal's replacement, Elden Campbell, the talented, enigmatic, often uninspired 6'11" forward. At week's end Campbell was averaging 23 points and 10.8 rebounds when Shaq was out of the lineup (the overall numbers were 12.5 and 8.1, respectively), including a 34-point, 14-rebound effort in a 106-90 win over the Bulls on Feb. 5. However, it's foolhardy to think that Campbell can play at that high level for two months.
That means the Lakers will have to rely even more on guards Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel. Jones has developed into one of the best all-around 2 guards in the conference, but he insists, "I'm a role player. Shaq is our superstar. I back him up." Not anymore.
As for Miami, on Valentine's Day it made what could turn out to be a sweetheart of a trade. The Heat got the slumping Mashburn, a 24-year-old, fourth-year veteran who had a 21.8 career scoring average entering this season, for a one-dimensional shooting guard (Sasha Danilovic), an injured forward (promising Kurt Thomas) and a project (forward Martin Muursepp). Mashburn, with his sweeping crossover dribble and deep shooting range, gives Miami a third big scorer to go with its two All-Stars, guard Tim Hardaway and center Alonzo Mourning.
The trade prolongs Heat coach Pat Riley's tradition of making midseason moves. The guy Miami really wanted, Kings All-Star shooting guard Mitch Richmond, was unattainable. But Don Nelson, who had been on the job as the Mavericks' general manager for only seven days, dangled Mashburn, who desperately wanted out of a losing situation. Coincidentally, days before the trade, Richmond had said that Nelson, one of his former coaches (at Golden State), "does know talent. I just hope that he doesn't give it all away."
Mashburn is talented, but he has never been Riley's type of player. Mashburn is a terrible defender—it's no coincidence that he has never fouled out of an NBA game. At 6'8" and 250 pounds, Mashburn is strong, but instead of playing near the basket he chooses to fire up three-pointers. (Through Sunday more than one third of his shot attempts this year had been treys.) Two years ago he averaged 24.1 points and shot 43.6% from the field; at week's end his numbers this season were 10.7 and 37.4%. Plus he has lost some of his explosiveness because of the knee surgery that kept him out of 64 games in 1995-96.
On the other hand, given that the Heat didn't surrender much to get him, acquiring Mashburn was a gamble worth taking. In his debut with the Heat last Saturday night, Mashburn entered the game against the Sixers to an ovation from the fans at the Miami Arena and scored 14 points in 32 minutes in a 125-99 win, the Heat's ninth straight. If Mashburn plays up to his ability—and Riley can help him improve his overall game—the Heat will really be on.
The Battle of Atlanta
A guy named Christian and another guy nicknamed the Worm were matched in a fierce, tight game on Valentine's Day before a teeming mousse-and-boots crowd in Atlanta. The Bulls were trying to keep intact their reputation as the best road team in the NBA. The Hawks, who had beaten Chicago 108-103 at the Omni on Dec. 26, were trying to extend a 20-game home winning streak. Dennis (the Worm) Rodman did not start at power forward for the Bulls, but he did play 30 minutes, including 17 in the second half. For Christian Laettner, the Hawks' power forward, that was a half hour of hell.