Slightly more than a month ago, the struggling New Jersey Nets were the laughingstock of the NBA, a team in disarray.
Players were rebelling against coach Bill Fitch, while management went about interviewing Jim Valvano, Doug Collins, Mike Fratello and Doug Moe as possible replacements.
Now the Nets (19-22) have won 12 of their past 16 games and are being viewed as a solid playoff contender. Fitch is being mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate, and rookie guard Kenny Anderson sits on the bench, waiting his turn without protest.
There are still skeptics. As Nets center Sam Bowie, a model of consistency this season, said: "When we beat the Celtics in Boston, people said it was only because they were missing their big three -- [Larry] Bird, [Robert] Parish and [Kevin] McHale. And then we won in Minnesota, and people said the Wolves are one of the lower-echelon teams.
"We don't get the respect we deserve. But the word should get out soon that the Nets are for real. We're getting to the point where we can hurt teams a lot of different ways, not just offensively."
For that, Fitch deserves most of the credit. When the team was gripped by a losing streak, he stood up to star power forward Derrick Coleman, telling him to "shut up and play," and also turned a deaf ear to critics urging him to give more playing time to Anderson.
Fitch's faith in third-year point guard Mookie Blaylock has been rewarded. But he also has shown growing confidence in reserve forwards Chris Dudley and Terry Mills, swingman Rafael Addison and backup guards Tate George and Anderson.
"I call them my red-alert team," said Fitch. "They give us the type of depth we need in case of injury."
Fitch also bears no grudges against players who have questioned his handling of personnel.
"If I didn't play people just because I was mad at them," he said, "I would have forfeited half of our games already."
Coaching dilemma: Dallas coach Richie Adubato is running out of possible solutions for the losing streak of his Mavericks (13-28), who have dropped 10 of their past 11 games and are being referred to as "The Alice Cowboys."
After a recent loss to Denver, Adubato said: "I tried a small lineup and a big lineup; an old lineup and a young lineup, a skinny lineup and a fat lineup, but nothing worked."
Even with his job on the line, Adubato is determined to develop his younger players, specifically front-liners Randy White, Terry Davis, and this year's top two draft picks -- forward Doug Smith and center Donald Hodge.
"We need to give our young guys experience," said Adubato. "It's apparent now that our season isn't going well enough to compete for a championship."
Against Magic: Portland guard Danny Ainge, for one, is against the idea of Magic Johnson appearing in the All-Star Game, but it's not because the ex-Laker has the AIDS virus. Said Ainge: "I definitely think Magic should be honored, acknowledging his retirement. Maybe make him the honorary captain. But only active players should be allowed to participate in the game."
Proud Warrior: Don Nelson had a long and successful coaching career in Milwaukee, but never got a chance to coach an All-Star team. But after guiding his Golden State Warriors to the best half-season record in the Western Conference, Nelson will make his All-Star debut in Orlando, Feb. 9.
"I never expected us to be in first place this soon," said Nelson. "We made a major trade [high-scoring guard Mitch Richmond for rookie forward Billy Owens], and we've got three rookies -- Owens, Victor Alexander and Chris Gatling -- playing a lot of minutes.
Hopefully, we can hold on to the lead, but I think, eventually, there are stronger teams than us in the West. But we've been playing on the road, and it's important that we continue to grow."
Reform school: New Seattle SuperSonics coach George Karl, known for his temper when he was coaching Golden State from 1986 to 1988, claims to have toned down his act after tours in the CBA and Europe.
"I'm not about to say I haven't done some things I regret," said Karl, who once drew a picture of then Warriors center Joe Barry Carroll eating out of a dog bowl. "But after being away from the NBA, I feel I've matured a lot and have a different perspective of how to deal with players."