All the Kings' Men
Last summer the departure of guard Mitch Richmond would have seemed catastrophic for Sacramento, which lost its other marquee player, forward Brian Grant, to free agency in August. But with sources saying on Sunday that a trade of Richmond and swing-man Kevin Gamble for forward Jamal Mashburn and center Ike Austin of the Heat was as close as it's ever been (contingent upon Austin's assuring the Kings he'll re-sign with them), Sacramento was not despairing at the prospect of Life After Mitch. At 15-21 through week's end, the Kings were only four games out of a Western Conference playoff spot and showing newfound resilience under coach Eddie Jordan.
Jordan, who took over for Garry St. Jean with 15 games remaining last season, warned his players in November that he would bench anyone who didn't work hard. Unlike many of his peers, however, Jordan follows through on his threats. Veterans Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Olden Polynice have found themselves on the pine, replaced by two hungry rookies: 6'3" Anthony Johnson, who finally gives the team some size at the point, and center Michael Stewart, a Sacramento native and former Kings ball boy.
"I made changes because I saw guys who weren't sacrificing," says the 42-year-old Jordan. "I might be a young head coach, but I've been around basketball enough to know the difference between a sincere effort and a halfhearted one."
The undrafted Stewart, who averaged 6.3 points and 5.0 rebounds as a senior at Cal, has been the biggest surprise. He had no pro prospects until his coach at Berkeley. Ben Braun, persuaded Sacramento director of scouting Scotty Stirling to give Stewart a shot last spring. All the Kings offered was a job as a sparring partner when they worked out potential draft picks. "They just needed a body," says Stewart. "But after I blocked a couple of shots, they started noticing me as a player."
Stewart has been hard to miss since. Despite doubts that his 6'10", 230-pound frame would hold up against the league's powerful centers, he acquitted himself well against Patrick Ewing in an 86-78 Sacramento victory on Nov. 9. On Jan. 6 Stewart rejected nine shots against the Clippers, tying a team record. In 13 games as a starter through Sunday he was averaging 5.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.9 blocks.
Richmond's exit would leave a huge void on the Kings; during their 13 years in Sacramento he has been the team's only All-Star. But with the contracts of Billy Owens and Abdul-Rauf up this summer and the Kings unlikely to pick up their option on Polynice, Sacramento will have room under the salary cap to upgrade its personnel. Sources say the team is prepared to offer as much as $7 million a season to retain Austin. Stewart, who makes the minimum salary ($242,000), can be re-signed for any amount next summer because he went undrafted. He'll also draw-plenty of interest from teams that seven months ago wouldn't spend a second-round pick on him.
The Latest Laettner
The Hawks' Christian Laettner has made a habit of changing his image. He was a matinee idol at Duke, a bad boy at Minnesota and, last season, an All-Star at Atlanta. For much of this season, however, he has adopted a new look—that of a player lacking his usual passion.
Although Laettner remains among the most productive power forwards in the league, his scoring average (15.7 points per game) was down 2.4 from last season, and his rebounds (7.6) were down 1.2. He has been plagued by inconsistency—prone to disappearing for key stretches and committing silly fouls and turnovers. "I think I'm doing fine," says Laettner. "I could be doing better, though. I could be rebounding more. I've been too tentative at times."