Neither are the fans. They have been running on fumes of hope for months, dreaming of Wake Forest senior Tim Duncan as the team's next star, Pitino as the next coach and Bird as the next front-office genius. Watching Bird put his expertise to work elsewhere would be excruciating.
Pitino's asking price to coach the Celtics would likely be close to $5 million a year, and Boston has not paid its coaches anything close to that. But would the Celts give Bird that kind of money to coach and run the front office? Would they give him a piece of the team, and if not, would the Pacers?
There's only one person who could coach Boston next season and make the masses forget about Pitino: Bird. Only he knows if that's what he wants.
Less Is More
Isaac Austin craved burgers. "Double cheese, double meat, double everything," he says.
The term big man took on new meaning for Austin back in 1994. The 6'10" center ballooned to as much as 340 pounds when he was not re-signed by Philadelphia following his third NBA season. Austin, who had spent two spotty years with Utah before going to the Sixers, was relegated to posting up second-level talent in France and Turkey, where he played through '95-96.
So last summer Austin hired a personal trainer, dropped to 295 pounds and went to Miami hoping coach Pat Riley would give him a chance. Riley went further—he gave him a job as a backup to Alonzo Mourning. Austin responded by reducing his body fat from 17% (his measurement when he weighed 295) to 8%, paring his weight to 265 and trimming his double-burger intake from two a day to two a month. "I eat fish now," he says.
Not only has Austin developed into a reliable backup, but he has also averaged 15.0 points and 8.2 rebounds in the 14 games he recently started in place of the injured Mourning, who returned to the starting lineup last week. That makes Austin SI's hands-down choice as the NBA's Most Improved Player, with honorable mentions to Heat guard Voshon Lenard, Pistons guard Lindsey Hunter and Grizzlies center Bryant (Big Country) Reeves.
If not for Austin, Lenard would stand as Riley's most remarkable feat of transformation. In 30 games as a backup for the Heat last season, Lenard averaged 5.9 points and shot 35% from beyond the three-point line. This season, mostly as a starter, Lenard was averaging 12.1 points and was making 41% (147-359) of his treys through Sunday. In Detroit, Hunter has helped fill the vacuum created by the loss of shooting guard Allan Houston to the Knicks. Hunter's numbers have jumped from 8.5 points per game in '95-96 to 14.5 points per game this season. Moreover, at the prodding of coach Doug Collins, he has played considerably tighter defense.
Reeves, who struggled at times as a rookie last season, has firmly established himself in the middle for Vancouver, averaging 15.7 points and 8.0 rebounds through Sunday. Although the 7-foot 275-pounder remains suspect defensively because of his lack of mobility, one general manager, looking to the summer of '98, when Reeves can become a free agent, declares, "He's making strides. I might consider throwing some money at Big Country."