When the Toronto Raptors signed Hakeem Olajuwon as a free agent last summer, the 38-year-old center was supposed to be the player who would put one of the league's most talented teams over the hump and into the Eastern Conference finals - if not into the NBA Finals.
Olajuwon has held up his end of the bargain, giving the Raptors an inside presence to complement Antonio Davis and a good veteran role model for young stars such as Vince Carter, Alvin Williams and Morris Peterson to follow. So how do you explain Toronto's sluggish start this season?
"I think it's a matter of me adjusting to a new group of guys, and the team adjusting to me," Olajuwon said last week.
Said Jerome Williams: "He's a deep post player and we do have a lot of guys who are slashers, and those styles tend to conflict."
Though it seemed as if the Raptors had made that transition early in the season, a recent four-game losing streak suggests deeper problems. Those on the inside are quick to point out early season injuries to Davis and Williams, as well as a lack of a leader with the departure of Charles Oakley.
Raptors coach Lenny Wilkens, as is his nature, tried to downplay his team's troubles after its loss to the Washington Wizards on Sunday in Toronto, but the players met among themselves. It resulted with road wins at Indiana and Chicago, putting the Raptors at 14-12 going into today's home game against Miami.
"I guess, yeah, I am a little surprised [by the fans' and the media's reaction], because we're only 24 games into the season," Wilkens said earlier. "You know last year we were 12-12, too. We still have a lot of work ahead of us. I never said, `We have arrived.' We haven't. We're still working to become a good team and we will. But I can't let [outside opinions or reactions] bother me."
But if you look at Wilkens' history, his teams tend to improve the first couple of years and then get worse. With the exception of his tenure in Cleveland, what seems to be happening in Toronto happened in Atlanta, Portland and Seattle. He gives his teams - and stars - too much rope, and they wind up tripping over themselves.
In this case, the star happens to be Carter, who suddenly is no longer being mentioned in the same breath as Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, or even his own cousin, Tracy McGrady of the Orlando Magic. Carter is still putting up big numbers, but Toronto's recent tailspin indicates the Raptors are not exactly following his lead.
As for Olajuwon, there is a silver lining to this season so far. It comes from the satisfaction he takes in knowing that the Houston Rockets are in the midst of a losing streak two shy of the team record. While some of Houston's problems are attributed to former Maryland star Steve Francis being sidelined, it also has to do with Olajuwon's departure after 17 seasons.
"I think I've put a little bit of pressure on them," said Olajuwon, who in a recent trip to Houston stunned longtime coach Rudy Tomjanovich with some rather pointed remarks. "I think I exposed them."
Rockets' red face
Speaking of the Rockets, the 15-game losing streak they took into last night's home game against the Milwaukee Bucks was only compounded by the off-court problems of two of the team's young stars.
Maurice Taylor, whom Houston signed to a big contract before he tore his Achilles' tendon during the summer, failed a random test for marijuana and must sit out the first five games of next season. Taylor's suspension was announced only days before Francis was arrested on a DUI charge early Sunday morning.
Buck stops here
Former Dunbar star Sam Cassell probably will never get paid as much as he thinks he's worth, but at least he's realistic enough to see a good offer when he gets one. According to his agent, Charles Tucker, Cassell is about to accept a three-year, $17.1 million extension from the Bucks.,
Cassell could declare free agency in two years, but by then he'd be 34 and headed into his 11th NBA season. While Cassell might be one of the league's biggest bargains at about $3.5 million a year, it's difficult to judge his true worth while playing with Glenn Robinson and Ray Allen.
The Z factor
The Cleveland Cavaliers have tried to build around 7-foot-3 center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, but the often-injured Lithuanian has spent more time on the sidelines than on the court during his four years in the NBA.
After playing all 82 games in 1997-98 - after missing the previous season because of injuries - Ilgauskas played only five games in 1998-99, missed the following season and was on the court for just 24 games last year.
When Ilgauskas dropped in 12 points during a 17-minute stint against the Chicago Bulls last week, the Cavaliers started to look again toward the future. But first-year coach John Lucas was cautious.
`That's not the real Z yet, that's X and Y," Lucas said.
The San Antonio Spurs have won 10 straight going into today's game against visiting Milwaukee. With their victory over Denver on Friday night, and the Lakers losing at Memphis, San Antonio (20-4) has the league's best record.
It's hard to look past the Rockets. Those double-digit losing streaks can devastate a season, especially when your best player is still a couple of weeks away from coming back. Francis was running second among Western Conference guards behind Bryant in the All-Star balloting, which will give him something to play for once he gets back in the lineup.
Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.