No Simple Answer
Allen Iverson's Olympic dreams may be Larry Brown's nightmare
Allen Iverson wants to represent his country at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, saying of his possible exclusion from the U.S. team, "Anyone in their right mind who has seen me play for seven years knows mat wouldn't be fair." As 76ers coach, Larry Brown has had a front-row seat for six of those years; as 2004 Olympic coach, he'll have to decide how vigorously to lobby for the star who has battled so hard for him—and against him.
Iverson knows that Brown is not a voting member of the 12-person USA Basketball selection committee—and that Sixers G.M. Billy King is. Brown has told the committee that Iverson would be a worthy addition to the team, but he also made clear mat USA Basketball must explain to Iverson in detail the obligations involved. Players must block out 21 to 25 days this August for the regional Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico, where the U.S. will compete with nine other teams for three spots in Athens. In the summer of '04 players will also be tied up for five weeks, between an extended training camp, exhibition games in Europe and the Olympic tournament. And mainly for security reasons, the U.S. team will be staying in the Olympic Village, where no entourages are allowed.
NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik told the Philadelphia Daily News that Iverson didn't help his candidacy by withdrawing from the world championship team last summer, citing the death of a friend, Ra Langford, who had been fatally shot almost a year earlier. But while the committee will be concerned about Iverson's controversial image, it will be hard to ignore his explosiveness on the court, especially coming off the bench.
So far Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Steve Francis, Jason Kidd, Tracy McGrady and Gary Payton have expressed interest in representing the U.S. in Athens, and Allen, Bryant and Kidd are expected to be among the first half-dozen players that the selection committee will announce, perhaps by All-Star weekend. That would leave two spots for guards, and not much playing time; when Brown coached the Olympic qualifying team at Puerto Rico in 1999, he started a backcourt of Kidd and Payton for all 10 games. In the end the Answer may decide that the trek isn't worth it, but if he isn't at least invited, the 76ers fear that his displeasure may make his already charged relationship with Brown more difficult.
The Nuggets' Master Plan
Lose Big Now, Spend Big Later
Has there ever been a non-expansion team with less proven talent than the Nuggets? Five of their players are rookies, including a starting backcourt that consists of a second-round pick (Vincent Yarbrough of Tennessee) and an undrafted Division II point guard (Junior Harrington of Wingate [ N.C.] College). At week's end Denver was shooting just 40.0% and scoring 80.8 points per game, putting the Nuggets on course to become the least accurate team in 40 years and the lowest-scoring one since the 24-second shot clock went into effect in 1954. "We miss 10 or 11 layups a game," says yet another rookie, coach Jeff Bzdelik, with a wince.
So why were 17,393 fans at the Pepsi Center last Saturday cheering throughout an 87-76 loss to the vastly superior Kings? Maybe it was because, as Sacramento coach Rick Adelman said of the Nuggets afterward, "they just keep coming at you, and they never quit." Or maybe it was that after years of putting up with underachieving teams and griping millionaires, the fans have been smitten by players who are humble and hungry. The loss left Denver at 7-25 (a game ahead of the Cavaliers in the LeBron James lottery race), but 12 of the Nuggets' losses have been by single digits, and their victories have included shockers against the Pacers, Spurs, Suns and Trail Blazers.
When Kiki Vandeweghe replaced Dan Issel as general manager before the 2001-02 season, Denver was a perennial loser with the league's seventh-highest payroll. Vandeweghe spent his first year unloading such high-priced talent as Nick Van Exel, Raef Lafrentz and Antonio McDyess. He replaced them this season with recent lottery picks Nikoloz Tskitishvili (19 years old), Nene Hilario (20) and Rodney White (22). All are promising but raw; only Hilario—an active 6'11", 260-pounder from Brazil—has been a consistent contributor. Vandeweghe then made a coach out of Bzdelik, the team's Eastern scout "I told Jeff I want two things," says Vandeweghe. 'Teach the young players to work hard and play fundamentally sound, aggressive, man-to-man defense."
Following that mandate, the 49-year-old Bzdelik (buzz-DEL-ik) is helping the franchise establish an identity. Through Sunday, Denver was forcing an NBA-best 18.3 turnovers and holding opponents to 89.0 points per game (fifth lowest in the league). The results are more impressive if you consider that center Marcus Camby, point guard Chris Whitney and forward Chris Andersen—three of Bzdelik's top seven players—have missed a combined 60 games because of injuries and that Vandeweghe unloaded No. 2 scorer James Posey to the Rockets in a three-way deal last month for a pair of draft picks.