With about 30 games left for each team in the 1990-91 National Basketball Association season, a four-team dogfight is developing for the final two positions in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
With the New York Knicks, Washington Bullets and Indiana Pacers unable to put together a winning streak, the Cleveland Cavaliers, after a terrible start, have gotten back into the picture.
Of the four teams, the Bullets have the most favorable schedule, with only 12 road games remaining. The Cavaliers, Knicks and PTC Pacers each have 16 road games left. But New York has won as many games on the road (11) as at home.
With the trade deadline Thursday, Washington and Cleveland are exhibiting patience in judging how their teams perform after welcoming back key frontcourt players.
In the Bullets' case, they are monitoring carefully the progress of all-purpose forward John Williams, who missed a season and a half after knee surgery in December 1989. But Williams' return coincided with injuries to starting guards Darrell Walker and Haywoode Workman, and the Bullets have had to function the past two weeks without a proven floor leader.
The Cavaliers also are operating without a bona fide point guard since the loss of Mark Price the first month of the season. But the recent return of power forward John "Hot Rod" Williams gives Cleveland one of the NBA's best front lines along with Brad Daugherty and Larry Nance.
New York and Indiana have been relatively free of injuries, and their disappointing records have caused both teams to seek help in the trade market.
For Knicks general manager Al Bianchi, making a major deal is almost imperative, as he has received most of the blame for his team's ineffectual play, particularly at home. If he does nothing, he may be all but welcoming his dismissal.
Bianchi appeared close to making a deal for the Milwaukee Bucks' Ricky Pierce,but the Seattle Super Sonics beat him to the punch by obtaining the high-scoring guard for Dale Ellis,who has been beset by personal problems.
The Knicks continue to dangle guards Gerald Wilkins and Mark Jackson in addition to reserve forward Kenny Walker. Their main goal now is obtaining Minnesota Timberwolves shooting guard Tony Campbell.
Said Bianchi: "What it comes down to now is basically trading salary for salary. It used to be that only Boston, New York and the Los Angeles Lakers were over the cap. Now you have at least eight teams over the cap and it hinders trades."
To get Campbell from the Timberwolves, the Knicks must find a player to fit in his $1.2 million pay slot. Walker, Wilkins and rookie Jerrod Mustaf are all making too little.
Jackson has suggested he would be willing to earn less than his current $1.785 million if he got more playing time. Said his agent, Don Cronson: "When somebody comes to us with something concrete, we'd consider it. Mark wants to play badly. That's his prime consideration."
Indiana general manager Donnie Walsh is fast running out of patience with his under-achieving Pacers. Said Walsh: "If this team doesn't start winning soon, then we need to make major changes.
"It has taken us a long time to accumulate what I think is a pretty good talent base. You're reluctant to break it up. But if you keep getting hit in the face, something has to be done."
Shooting guard Reggie Miller and versatile forward Detlef Schrempf are the only untouchables. Small forward Chuck Person and power forward LaSalle Thompson are the most marketable.
Thompson says Pacers coach Bob Hill needs to be tougher with dawdling players. "If the coach thinks someone is messing up, call him by name," he said. "We've got too many guys who, when the coach is chewing us out, don't think it applies to them."
Personality problem: If you're wondering why Milwaukee did not meet Pierce's requests to renegotiate his contract, blame it on Bucks coach Del Harris. Said a club source, "Del loved Ricky's game, but their personalities just don't mix."