In spite of what Rider did to his team, Wilkens wouldn't be surprised if Heat coach Pat Riley signs the player next season. "I'd believe I could make it work too, if I had [Tim] Hardaway and [Alonzo] Mourning on my team," Wilkens says. "You've got to have some strong leaders with him."
Atlanta doesn't. It once had a leader in reserve forward Grant Long, who played hard every day and demanded the same from his teammates, but he signed with the Grizzlies as a free agent last summer. Wilkens hoped his lone All-Star, center Dikembe Mutombo, would take over after Long left; instead, when Rider began wreaking havoc, Mutombo's stock response was, "I did not bring him here."
"I talked to Dikembe about that," Wilkens says. "I told him, 'You can't absolve yourself. This is your team. You have to communicate.' Dikembe is a great guy, but he's not a leader."
While Mutombo clearly supports Wilkens—"You must not blame Lenny for this [mess]," he said last week. "You must look much higher [in the organization]"—he has not issued any he-stays-or-I-go ultimatums. Not that it would it make a difference. Kasten has to do what he can to reawaken Hawks fans. Through Sunday's games Atlanta ranked 23 rd in the league in attendance, drawing just 14,736 per game to the sparkling new 20,000-seat Phillips Arena. This June the Hawks will have their highest draft pick in 20 years to add to a roster of promising young players such as Dion Glover, Jason Terry and Lorenzen Wright. By 2001-02 the team should have significant room under the salary cap. The team is ripe for a change, particularly since Wilkens has been in Atlanta for seven years, an eternity for an NBA coach.
Then there's that persistent whisper: Lenny is too easy on the guys. While Wilkens accepts his share of blame for the Hawks' underachievement, he doesn't think one bad year should earn him a pink slip. "I got this team to 50 wins three times, and now you're going to get rid of me?" he says. 'Tell me how that makes sense. I feel I'll be back next year. But if I'm not, I'll be coaching somewhere."
Prized Minnesota Rookie
Wally's Brave New World
The Rookie of the Year race rages on, with the Clippers' versatile forward Lamar Odom, the Rockets' explosive point guard Steve Francis and the Bulls' superbly steady forward Elton Brand each sure to garner strong support. The shame of it is that hardly any of the 122 members of the media who vote on the award will cast their ballots for the rookie who has been most vital to his team's success: Timberwolves forward Wally Szczerbiak.
His numbers may not be as gaudy as the aforementioned trio's, but since returning to the starting lineup on Feb. 20, after a knee injury, Szczerbiak had averaged 14.6 points through Sunday and helped Minnesota go 15-4, lifting the T-wolves from the eighth to the sixth spot in the Western Conference playoff race. "I don't care what anyone says-over the last month Wally has been the best rookie in the league," says his coach, Flip Saunders.
Szczerbiak has proved that he can put it on the floor, that he's deadly from outside (at week's end he was shooting 49.8% from the field) and that he's a better defender than was expected, using his strength and quickness to hold his own against some of the league's top scorers. The sixth pick in the '99 draft, Szczerbiak arrived in Minnesota with much fanfare, hell-bent on proving he was worthy of it "I had no plans," he says, "of sitting on the bench."
Yet like most rookies, Szczerbiak struggled initially. He forced shots in Minnesota's complex offense and failed to grasp the nuances of NBA defense, such as identifying traps and completing rotations. His teammates publicly chided him for his lapses on D. Then, on Dec. 30, he was placed on the injured list with inflammation in his right knee. While sidelined for two weeks, Szczerbiak saw his replacement, 36-year-old Sam Mitchell, steal his starting job. "When Wally first got here, he was kind of a ball chaser," Saunders says. "Then he got hurt, and he watched Sam stay away from the ball and let the offense come to him. Sam was scoring 16, 17 points a night that way."