A team as young as the Seattle SuperSonics had no business going 5-0 on an early-season road trip while its most talented player, forward Shawn Kemp, remained on the injured list with a sprained left foot. Further, having both guard Ricky Pierce and forward Eddie Johnson, two of the league's finest sixth men, seems to be of little advantage as long as the rules say you can only play five men at a time. But Seattle coach K.C. Jones has found success in starting Pierce and bringing Johnson off the bench. Meanwhile, forward Michael Cage has twice gone for 20 points and 20 rebounds in relief of Kemp. "It's up to Shawn," says Johnson, looking ahead to Kemp's projected return next week. "He has to realize that we've played pretty well. Instead of us molding to his game, he's going to have to mold his game to ours."
Little more than a fumbled fast break pass kept the Trail Blazers from a spot in the NBA Finals last spring. "We had such a great season and the playoffs were such a disappointment that the toughest thing for us is to get that out of our minds," says guard Danny Ainge. "Subconsciously, the intensity level wasn't there in training camp and to start the season." Credit that ennui for the Blazers' sub-.500 road record through Sunday and their early three-game losing streak.
But if someone can wake them up, it's rookie Robert Pack of USC, who has found his way into coach Rick Adelman's four-man backcourt rotation. Pack is yet another Portland pickup you hadn't heard of. The Blazers, whose one conspicuous weakness last season was a tendency to become heedless in their half-court game, should find Pack's ability to take the ball hard to the basket—and do so under control—to be exactly the thing to fire up a largely veteran team. "He makes plays that can turn his teammates on," says Portland's player personnel director Brad Greenberg, who plucked Pack out of an L.A. summer league in July.
The Suns' troubles begin with forward Tom Chambers, just as Phoenix's success over the past three seasons (55, 54 and 55 wins) began with him. By Sunday, Chambers was shooting 36.2% and watching his playing time dwindle, as coach Cotton Fitzsimmons got a read on Chambers's stroke early in each game and, accordingly, either sat him down or left him in. He played only 17 minutes in a 103-95 loss to the Lakers on Nov. 19 and still squeezed off 15 shots—he made three. Chambers's struggles only highlight a chronic shortcoming of the Suns, their inability to score from the forecourt. During that defeat in Los Angeles, the Lakers outshot Phoenix from the free throw line 30-9, a statistic that bespeaks how hard it has been for the Suns to do anything—even draw a foul—close to the basket.
Fitzsimmons points out that star guard Kevin Johnson has a tender Achilles tendon in his right heel, and the Suns' schedule is unforgiving until after the first week of December. By then Phoenix will have played 21 games in 37 days, more than a quarter of its season, including 10 sets of back-to-back games. "Until we get Tom and Kevin going again, it's going to be hard," says Fitzsimmons, "but we've accomplished everything the last three years because of them. They brought us here, and they're going to get us out of this."
The Los Angeles Clippers' 114-109 win in The Forum on Nov. 5, their first there since moving north from San Diego seven years ago, looked like just the thing to get Angelenos to take Donald Sterling's basketball team as seriously as they do his party invitations. Then the Clippers reverted to being the supremely talented but inchoate bunch that the rest of the division knows and counts on. Perhaps the return in December of steady, stoic power forward Charles Smith, who hasn't played a game this season because of a bum right knee, will change attitudes and fortunes for the Clippers.
You say you wonder why the Clippers didn't know about Pack, who played two college seasons in the L.A. Sports Arena? "Not even in their backyard," says Pack, "but right in their living room." Silly question. The Clippers couldn't be expected to know about Pack. When USC played at home, the Clips were on the road.
Richmond may play for Sacramento now, but his regular phone calls to erstwhile Golden State teammates suggest he has left his heart in greater San Francisco. With his slashing, open-court style and Nelson's knack for designing isolation situations, Richmond the Warrior beat a path to the free throw line. But under Kings coach Dick Motta's precise and patterned offense, Richmond is starting anew. On Nov. 11, when the refs failed to send him to the line once during a 106-90 loss at Utah, he turned paranoid. "Are you just looking at the uniform?" he demanded of one official, inferring that anyone wearing the lowly Kings' uniform can't catch a break from the refs.
The Kings, however, finally found something to celebrate on Saturday night. "We're going to Disney World," said forward Wayman Tisdale after Sacramento ended its league-record losing streak on the road at 43 in Orlando with a 95-93 defeat of the Magic.
Just plain Magic, however, remains unbeaten and unbowed. He has become the world's greatest benchwarmer and center Vlade Divac's conscience—a sort of M. L. Carr with dignity. The Lakers are petitioning the league for permission to let Magic stay on their bench for the rest of the season. If there is one sure thing in the Pacific Division, it's that commissioner David Stern won't deny that request.