Moses Malone's place in NBA history is secure. He will go down as one of the game's tireless warriors, a blue-collar steamroller of a center who by dint of muscle and moxie was, in his prime, one of the game's most consistent scorers and perhaps its greatest offensive rebounder.
In addition, Malone will be remembered as a complaining ball hog whose image grew increasingly tarnished as his career wore on. And he has become more and more of a liability to the Hawks (his seventh team in a 17-year pro career that has also included stints with Utah and St. Louis of the ABA and the old Buffalo Braves, Rockets, 76ers and Bullets of the NBA) since his skills started to deteriorate last season.
Mike Fratello, the coach of the Hawks in '89-90, wanted to bench him, but upper management told Fratello that the team was not paying Malone $2.5 million to sit on the pine. Hawk general manager Pete Babcock tried to deal Malone and his painful-to-even-think-about salary last summer but couldn't find any takers. Cutting him and eating the $2.5 million was considered by Babcock but vetoed by his superiors.
However, circumstances changed going into this season. Fratello, a lame-duck coach with limited clout, was gone, and Malone, who will turn 36 in March, was entering the final year of that contract. Knowing that Moses desperately wanted to hang on with some NBA team for a couple of seasons more, Babcock and Hawk president Stan Kasten took Malone aside and warned him with words to this effect: If you cause trouble, complain and turn the locker room against the coaches and management, you'll be waived outright. No one will want you. But accept a lesser role on this team and maybe, just maybe, your value around the league will not evaporate.
After starting Malone for the first 13 games of the season, during which Atlanta went 4-9, new coach Bob Weiss put him on the bench for the first time in years. The Hawks immediately started to improve and at week's end sported a respectable 19-15 record. Malone, meanwhile, has not created a public stir, and the coaches say he has been cooperative and in good spirits.
Still, the Hawks are sitting on a powder keg; superstars do not generally go quietly. The Spurs faced a similar situation with George Gervin after the '84-85 season, when general manager Bob Bass and Cotton Fitzsimmons, then the Spurs coach, asked the Iceman to accept a limited role that would allow more playing time for emerging star Alvin Robertson. Gervin said no and asked to be traded. And though it pained Bass to do so, he sent Gervin on his way, hoping to help both the player and the team. (Gervin lasted one ineffective season with the Bulls before retiring.)
The Hawks are not so lucky. "Moses is making $2.5 million, and he's an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year," said Sonics president Bob Whitsitt. "So how can you trade for the guy?" No one will. But at the end of the season, as one team exec puts it, "Moses's price will be down, and his personal expectations will be down. He still might be able to help someone." Until then, the Hawks' strategy is this: Continue to use him in a limited capacity; hope that he stays reasonably happy; and, if he doesn't, hope that his teammates turn a deaf ear to his whining.
Things have returned to normal in Piston-land, where at week's end the two-time defending champions had won nine in a row. But that wasn't the case early in the season when the Pistons struggled and trade rumors swirled around captain Isiah Thomas. Through last week's games, Thomas had committed an NBA-high 142 turnovers. He was not among the top 20 players in steals. He was shooting only .448 from the floor. And on occasion he had played selfishly and unwisely.