Miscast in Philly, Matt Harpring is flourishing in his new role in Utah
Matt Harpring is flattered to be the leading candidate for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award, but the Jazz small forward takes some issue with the designation. Harpring doesn't think he's any better man he was last year—he just thinks he's found a more suitable fit for his talent after a frustrating 2001-02 season with coach Larry Brown in Philadelphia. "I always knew I could play" says Harpring. "But you've got to have a coach who has confidence in you."
At week's end the 6'7", 230-pound Harpring was averaging 18.4 points per game and 50.7% shooting, both career highs, while helping the Jazz to a 31-21 record, sixth best in the West. His emergence is all the more impressive considering that in previous stints with Orlando, Cleveland and Philadelphia he had a reputation as a high-energy defender and rebounder but just a so-so scorer. It makes Harpring wonder how much talent is squandered because players are forced to accept diminished roles. "There are 29 NBA teams and maybe two scorers on each," Harpring says. "The rest of the guys in the league had better be good role players, because otherwise they're not going to step on the court."
Harpring was confused about his role last year in Philly, where he says he was told to idle on the perimeter and keep the lane free for Allen Iverson. "You have a coach telling you at halftime, 'You're not a shooter, I told you to defend and rebound,' " he says. "It makes it hard to hit an open shot."
Now Harpring, a nonstop runner who loves cutting to the basket, has found his niche in Utah, where veterans John Stockton (No. 1 alltime in assists), Mark Jackson (soon to overtake Magic Johnson as No. 2) and Karl Malone reward him with passes. "You'd think this would be a good situation for him, the way he moves without the ball and the way they like to set picks, but you can never know for sure until you see how all the talents fit together," says Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who watched Harpring hit a game-tying three-pointer with 0.1 of a second remaining to force overtime in Utah's 103-101 win over the Rockets last week. "It's the beautiful thing about this game that you can't predict."
Harpring isn't worrying too much about how his role might change if Stockton, Jackson and Malone retire or move elsewhere as free agents this summer. For now he's just enjoying his breakthrough season. "Shooters become good shooters when they're allowed to get into the rhythm of the game," Harpring says. "It's hard to be a good shooter when you touch the ball once and then you don't touch it again for seven minutes."
An Early Start to Avoid a Stoppage
Commissioner David Stern and players' union chief Billy Hunter surprised many during the All-Star break when they announced that they would meet in April to begin negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. Their goal is to shake hands on a deal long before the current contract expires at the end of next season. (It could be extended for an additional year at the owners' option.) "I don't think the league could survive another bloody fight," says Hunter, referring to the six-month lockout in 1998-99. "But if we're put in the position where we have to fight, that's what we'll do."
The d�tente began when Hunter okayed an extension of the first round of the playoffs to a best-of-seven format, in return for concessions by owners that will allow veterans to report to training camp three to five days later than they had in the past. Stern had sought the playoff extension last year but was rebuffed by Hunter, which led to an icy five months when the two didn't speak. "I'm telling the players that they have to be sensitive to economic and political circumstances—the economy hasn't bottomed out yet, and the country is on the verge of war," Hunter says. "We can't afford to have fans disconnecting with the players."
While the average NBA salary has almost doubled under the latest contract, to $4.6 million, Hunter concedes that the players' share of revenues has dropped 6% over the last two seasons because of two negotiated provisions: the owners' budget-balancing "escrow fund," to which players have been obliged to contribute 10% of their salaries, and the impending luxury tax, which Hunter criticizes as a clumsy device that has had a chilling effect on free agency. He and his fellow lawyers in the union's 17-person New York City office are working on alternatives that they hope will boost player movement.