When Bucks forward Vin Baker studies his newspaper, he lingers over the box scores of the Bullets, in particular the numbers put up by Washington's two young frontcourt stars, Juwan Howard and Chris Webber. "They're just like us," Baker says. "Lots of expectations and no results."
If the season had ended on Sunday, Baker, averaging 21.6 points and 10.5 rebounds, and his fellow forward Glenn Robinson, 21.0 points and 6.4 rebounds, would have gotten high marks for statistical accomplishments but low grades for failing to lead their team to a postseason berth. Underachieving Milwaukee had lost 12 of its last 15 games and was 28-39, eight games and three spots behind the eighth-place Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The 33-35 Bullets were 3½ games behind Cleveland for the final conference postseason slot, though Howard and Webber had combined for 38.6 points and 17.9 rebounds a game.
With Milwaukee on pace to miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season, observers around the league are openly wondering whether the Bucks need to make a major, chemistry-altering move—perhaps even trading Baker, an All-Star the past three years, or Robinson, the first player picked in the 1994 draft. According to sources, Milwaukee owner Herb Kohl isn't yet ready to pull the trigger on a deal involving either of his forwards. But he is frustrated, especially because this season began with great optimism. After 1995-96, when they finished 25-57, the Bucks brought in a new coach (Chris Ford), solid veterans (forward-center Armon Gilliam and center Andrew Lang) and a top rookie (guard Ray Allen, the fifth overall pick in the '96 draft). But as the season wore on, it became clear that Milwaukee had two significant shortcomings: It plays horrendous defense and doesn't have strong leadership.
At week's end Bucks opponents were shooting 47.2%, the third-highest percentage in the league. Milwaukee doesn't consistently perform such defensive fundamentals as sealing off the baseline or putting a hand in the face of a three-point shooter. And the Bucks can't seem to discern the difference between a smart foul and a boneheaded one. "It's no big secret," says Milwaukee point guard Sherman Douglas, "that we've got guys out there who are completely lost." Too often Robinson is one of them. Although his offensive skills can be dazzling, he often doesn't rotate properly on defense and has trouble shutting down opposing small forwards.
As for leadership, the 25-year-old Baker says he has tried to fill the vacuum. "Glenn and I have been given a leadership role very early in our careers," Baker says. "We haven't had the luxury of riding on someone like Hakeem [Olajuwon]." Ford, who played with Larry Bird in 1980-81, when the 24-year-old Bird led the Celtics to a championship, doesn't buy that. "You can't keep saying, 'Oh, they're young kids,' " Ford says. "This is supposed to be their team. It's time to act like it."
Surprisingly, the demanding Ford has had a better relationship with the reticent Robinson, who last season battled with coach Mike Dunleavy (now Milwaukee's general manager), than with the emotional Baker, a fan and media favorite. Baker and Ford acknowledge there have been disagreements as well as a number of meetings to address them. "We're O.K.," Baker says. "We both just want to win."
For the foreseeable future, neither Baker nor Robinson can simply up and leave Milwaukee. Robinson's 10-year, $68.2 million contract runs for seven more seasons. Baker can't exercise an escape clause in his 10-year $16.2 million pact until the summer of 1999. Baker, who grew up in Connecticut, makes no secret of his interest in the Celtics, yet he says his career won't be a success unless he helps Milwaukee become a title contender. "I don't want to be one of those guys who opts out as a failure," he says.
Bulls trainer Chip Schaefer was watching television last week when Heat coach Pat Riley appeared on the screen. Riley explained that center Alonzo Mourning, who had been out since Feb. 21 with a torn right plantar fascia, had begun working out with the Heat and was a little sore, but his return was imminent.
"The minute I heard that, I thought, Uh-oh," says Schaefer, who has been treating Chicago forward Toni Kukoc for a right plantar fascia injury most of the season. "If Mourning is still sore, it could mean trouble. With this injury you are always walking that tightrope. You want to rest the foot to the point where you eliminate all pain, but you also want the player to maintain some kind of conditioning."