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Jackie MacMullan
April 10, 2000
Springing A League NBA execs say they plan a minor league for 2001, but they're suspiciously vague about it
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April 10, 2000

The Nba

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Cuban told Nelson he'd like him to stay on as G.M. Donn may try to hook on with the new Mavericks staff or stay on as the team's director of player personnel. "The truth is, I'd like him in the front office with me," Don says. "It's a lot safer up there."

Who's Rookie of the Year?
Rocket and Bull, Start to Finish

They began busting each other two minutes after they met. On a sultry afternoon last May, Maryland guard Steve Francis was doing ball handling drills at the Takoma Park Recreation Center in preparation for the draft when Duke's 6'8" Elton Brand walked into the gym. Brand's agent, David Falk, had summoned Brand to Washington, D.C., where Falk is based, so Falk could monitor his diet and workouts while grooming him to be the No. 1 pick. "It didn't take Elton long," Francis says, "to find out where the good games were."

Brand and Francis, who had been ACC rivals two months earlier, quickly recognized the value of pushing each other. They lifted together, ran wind sprints together, scrimmaged together. Every day the dialogue was the same. "I'm going to be the top pick," Francis said.

"No," Brand shot back, "that would be me."

On June 30 the Bulls validated Brand's claim. With the second pick the Grizzlies chose a devastated Francis, who forced a trade to the Rockets. Nearly 10 months later Francis and Brand are again waging a close contest, this time for the Rookie of the Year trophy. "I talked to Elton last week," says Francis. "I told him, 'Here we go again.' In December and January everyone said Lamar [Odom] was a lock for Rookie of the Year. Then, in January and February, I was going to win it. Now it's Elton's turn."

There will be no postseason for Brand or Francis. Chicago is rebuilding, and with Hakeem Olajuwon sidelined by various ailments and Charles Barkley's career ended in December by a torn left quadriceps tendon, Houston has been forced to start from scratch. "It's been a blessing in disguise," Francis says. "Don't get me wrong—I would love to have played with those guys. But it's allowed me to assume leadership on this team."

At week's end Francis led the Rockets in scoring (17.7 points per game), assists (6.5) and steals (1.56) and had put to rest any doubt that he can play point guard. Although his turnovers remain high (3.9), they are not outlandish for a rookie playing the toughest position on the floor.

"This is the worst year I've had as a coach, but people in Houston are raving about our team because of Steve," says Rudy Tomjanovich. "He came to a veteran team that's been successful, with guys who like the ball in certain areas, and he delivered even though he hadn't played any point [the year before]. Then we lose our top guys, he starts over with a pick-and-roll-oriented offense, and he's getting us open shots because he draws so much attention. On top of that, he's this warm kid who does whatever you ask. I think he's going to be one of a handful of young guys who are going to promote the image of this league in a really positive way."

Francis's draft-day demeanor set off an avalanche of criticism, and he'll never win over the Vancouver fans he spurned. His swagger could hurt him with some of the more conservative sports-writers who vote for the Rookie of the Year, particularly because Brand has performed with quiet dignity. Not that Francis hasn't shown his class: On March 23, for instance, despite being one rebound shy of a triple double against the Clippers, he told Tomjanovich to pull him out so his teammates could log court time.

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