Draft focus will be on talent, not just height

BIGGER IS NOT ALWAYS BETTER NBA

June 23, 1991|By Alan Goldstein

Michael Jordan did more this past season than win the Most Valuable Player award and lead the Chicago Bulls to their first league championship. Jordan also helped revolutionize the selection process for the NBA draft, scheduled for Wednesday night in New York.

It had been written in stone that building a winning pro basketball team began with an imposing center.

But, as the average pro player grew bigger, faster and more athletic, the big-man theory began to lose weight.

In the 1980s, the dominant teams were the Boston Celtics, with all-purpose forward Larry Bird, the Los Angeles Lakers, with Magic Johnson, their unique, oversized point guard, and the Detroit Pistons, with their versatile backcourt of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.

No championship team, however, had been built around a shooting guard until Jordan's Bulls. Of course, Jordans, Johnsons and Birds come along about as often as the dominant centers of the 1960s and '70s, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

But Jordan's ability to carry his team to a title probably has convinced NBA general managers of the wisdom of choosing the best player available rather than the traditional view of selecting only big men.

A few die-hards still argue, "You can't teach height," while touting New Mexico's Luc Longley and Louisiana State dropout Stanley Roberts, two 7-footers with matching question marks. But the majority of 1991's lottery teams will be targeting forwards and guards burdened by less baggage. The lone exception among the first six choices figures to be Dikembe Mutombo, Georgetown's 7-2 defensive specialist who seems headed for the Denver Nuggets, last season's most charitable ++ team.

Despite many trade temptations, the Charlotte Hornets likely will retain their first choice and begin the draft by selecting Larry Johnson, the Nevada-Las Vegas forward who has

the rugged body and combative nature to make an immediate impact as a pro.

To make room in their salary cap for Johnson, the Hornets reportedly are auctioning two of their previous lottery picks -- shooting guard Rex Chapman and power forward J. R. Reid. They're being used as bait to lure shooting guard Willie Anderson from the San Antonio Spurs.

Versatility and potential will be the prime attributes of the other lottery choices.

The New Jersey Nets, with the second pick, probably will take Syracuse's Billy Owens, capable of playing small and power forward. The Sacramento Kings, picking third, may see Kenny Anderson, the guard from Georgia Tech, as their future floor general. The Miami Heat, choosing fifth, apparently envisions Missouri forward Doug Smith as a bigger version of Owens.

But the draft then becomes a wild guessing game. With parity coming to the NBA, particularly in the Eastern Conference, a number of teams believe they are only a smart trade away from becoming serious contenders.

The Washington Bullets beat the gun, swapping their pick at No. 8 to Denver two weeks ago to acquire point guard Michael Adams.

The New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers are pursuing trades while San Antonio, the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves are also dangling prominent players.

The Hawks appear ready to offer anyone and everyone, including perennial All-Star forward Dominique Wilkins. Point guard Doc Rivers has been eyed by several teams, particularly the Clippers, desperate for a proven playmaker. And power forward Kevin Willis, an underachiever in Atlanta, has attracted a number of inquiries.

The Clippers reportedly have offered incumbent point guard Gary Grant and forward Ken Norman in exchange for Rivers or Milwaukee Bucks floor leader Jay Humphries. The Timberwolves covet Sacramento forwards Wayman Tisdale and Antoine Carr and seem willing to part with their pick at No. 7.

San Antonio, unhappy with point guard Rod Strickland, is trying to pry Brian Shaw away from the Celtics.

New York has only center Patrick Ewing branded an untouchable. The Knicks would swap Gerald Wilkins, Mark Jackson and/or Kenny Walker for a chance to improve their position (12th) in the draft.

And the Cavaliers still are pondering what to do with forward John "Hot Rod" Williams and his $3 million-per-year contract. Miami is one of the few teams with enough room in its cap to absorb Williams and has shown considerable interest in the past.

The salary cap restriction of about $12.5 million per team has heightened trade talks. A number of general managers would rather spend their money on veterans than invest $1 million to $3 million on college stars.

Since the lottery was instituted in 1985, only a few of the top picks have made instant winners of losers. Of the No. 1 picks the past six years -- Ewing, Brad Daugherty of Cleveland, David Robinson of San Antonio, Danny Manning of the L.A. Clippers, Pervis Ellison of Sacramento (now Washington) and Derrick Coleman of New Jersey, only Robinson played for a winning team last season.

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