In the NBA asylum, the wing that holds the unsigned rookies was filled to capacity throughout the exhibition season. In fact, six of the top 13 picks from the 1991 draft missed last weekend's season-opening games, and two others, forward Larry Johnson of the Charlotte Hornets and guard Mark Macon of the Denver Nuggets, played just after signing contracts. There was much breast-beating by coaches and general managers, as well as the usual saber-rattling by agents, in the weeks preceding opening night. But when all the young pilgrims are safely gathered in—probably before the winter storms begin—do you know how much difference they will make in the NBA's balance of power? Absolutely none.
By June 1992 the only two teams still playing will be veteran groups that don't count a whit on the contributions of rookies—the defending-champion Chicago Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers. The fully loaded Blazers didn't even bother with a first-round pick—they traded it to Sacramento, which drafted forward Pete Chilcutt—while the Bulls will find playing time for forward Mark Randall only because free-agent frontcourtman Scott Williams is unsigned and 1989 first-rounder Stacey King may be a washout.
The other contenders for the NBA title are similarly unburdened with tenderfeet. Contender No. 3, the Los Angeles Lakers, traded away their first-round pick (to Golden State, which selected center Shaun Vandiver, who promptly fled to Europe), although they will be asking for lots of help from two second-year players, guard Tony Smith and frontcourtman Elden Campbell. No. 4, the Phoenix Suns, also gave away their first-round pick (ultimately to the Los Angeles Clippers, who used it to draft forward LeRon Ellis). No. 5, the San Antonio Spurs, also dished off their pick (to the Orlando Magic, who chose Stanley Roberts) and even got rid of a likely eternal rookie, the lovable center Dwayne Schintzius (who's now with the Kings). No. 6, the Utah Jazz, will get something, but not much, out of its first-rounder, point guard Eric Murdock; he plays the same position as John Stockton, after all. No. 7, the Detroit Pistons, traded away the 19th pick in the first round (which turned out to be guard LaBradford Smith) to the Washington Bullets by way of Dallas and Denver. And No. 8, the Boston Celtics, started a rookie last Friday, forward Rick Fox (the 24th pick in the draft), only because free-agent swingman Kevin Gamble did not sign until two days before the opener. Don't look for Fox to be too wily during the season.
Get the idea? In the family picture, rookies are the great-aunts and third cousins hidden in the back row.
That means precious little, however, to all those lowly franchises that can't begin to think of having a renaissance without their young painters in the fold. The absentees are all players who can make a big difference, although only New Jersey Nets guard Kenny Anderson and swingman Billy Owens—traded last Friday from the Sacramento Kings to the Golden State Warriors for guard Mitch Richmond, center Les Jepsen and a future draft choice—are potential franchise types. (Owens signed on Saturday but didn't play; forward Doug Smith of the Dallas Mavericks did the same.) Unsigned as of Sunday were Minnesota Timberwolve center Luc Longley, frontcourtman Brian Williams of the Magic and Indiana Pacer forward Dale Davis.
The media and the fans have a tendency to overreact to protracted negotiations, even though everybody knows virtually all the rookies will eventually sign. Before the Owens trade, Arn Tellem, the agent for the former Syracuse star, described the fruitless negotiations between himself and the Kings as "Clarence Thomas versus Anita Hill." (He didn't say which side was which.) None of the rookies were talking about playing in Europe, and none, presumably, want to stock shelves or get a pizza route for a living. But the fact remains that this season was unprecedented for the number of longtime holdouts. For all the hue and cry about difficult negotiations last year, the only first-round pick who wasn't signed by opening night was forward Terry Mills, then with Denver. (And the world wasn't exactly waiting with bated breath for him to put his name on the dotted line.) "It's not a crisis situation," said Gary Bettman, the league's senior vice-president and general counsel, when asked about the sometimes frustrating contract talks, "but, yes, it is highly unusual."
As well as highly understandable. After consecutive years in which team salary caps increased by $2 million and then by $2.6 million—which permitted teams to offer rookies hefty deals while retaining their highly paid veterans—NBA clubs suddenly found themselves with far less room to maneuver after the cap increased by only $629,000, to $12.5 million per team, for this season. Agents knew this was the case, but that didn't stop them from making outrageous demands. Then, too, some teams are finally taking a foot-stomping position: Doggone it, rookies just aren't able to make much of a difference anymore. The reasons that NBA rookies have a difficult time are almost countless: the larger number of games played in the pros, the greater amount of travel, the demands of man-to-man defense in comparison to the zone defense often played in college, the more physical nature of the pro game, the much more complicated play-book, etc. Atlanta Hawks point guard Rumeal Robinson, who was lost in space throughout his 1990-91 rookie season, believes that the failure of the rookies is a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, coaches believe rookies will fail and therefore treat them as if they will fail, thereby dooming them to fail.
"I'm the type of player who has to be on the floor, in the middle of everything," says Robinson. "So the absolute worst thing is when they limit the things they let you do. That sends the message that you can't do the things that got you here, the things that made you a player in the first place. What was toughest for me—and, I think, for most rookies—is when you don't play. That takes you out of things mentally, and then you almost can't help but fail."
Perhaps Messrs. Johnson, Anderson and Owens will be different. But even if they prove to have the right stuff, their teams, with the exception of the Warriors, do not have what it takes to get near the playoffs. Here are the teams that do.
In the East they are, in order of conference finish: the Bulls, the Pistons, the Celtics, the Knicks, the 76ers, the Cavaliers, the Bucks and the Pacers. And in the West: the Trail Blazers, the Lakers, the Suns, the Spurs, the Jazz, the Rockets, the Warriors and the SuperSonics.