Ring, not rival, is the thing for Webber, Kings

ON THE NBA

Pro Basketball

April 06, 2003|By MILTON KENT

Understand this about Chris Webber: Winning the NBA title this season would be like eating a fine steak. Beating the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs along the way would be like adding a loaded baked potato to the steak, a nice complement but not entirely necessary to enjoy the steak.

Webber's team, the Sacramento Kings, is peaking for a run deep into the playoffs that could yield the franchise's first title since it arrived in the California capital in 1985.

And while ending their rival's three-year championship run would be wonderful, Webber said that would only be a bonus.

"Come on, man. I just want a title," Webber said last week. "That [beating Los Angeles] would make it sweeter, but I just want a title. We don't really listen to all that stuff that's said and all the attempts to get in our heads. We were down 10 [points] on Christmas, laughing about it in the locker room because we knew we hadn't played our best. We were teasing each other. `Could we make a shot?' "

Indeed, the Kings, who clinched their second straight Pacific Division championship Thursday with Portland's loss to Utah, have been sitting back all season, listening to the Lakers fire potshot after potshot at them, from coach Phil Jackson's ruminations about their mental health to Shaquille O'Neal's characterization of them as "The Queens."

They've rarely, if ever, responded.

"That's because they are very smart," Webber said of the Lakres. "They know that all you have to do is throw comments out and let them be like fire. Anything you say could be like gasoline and would get us thinking about things other than the game or winning the championship.

"We only want the ring. They can say whatever they want. Plus, they have the right to. They have the ring, and you have to humbly look at it like that and respect your opponent and just stay ready, because we want to win a championship."

The Kings seemed poised to grab the trophy from the Lakers last season, when they won the Pacific with the NBA's best record, with home-court advantage and all the trappings that come with it. The only problem was they lost Game 7 of the Western Conference finals in overtime at Arco Arena to -- who else? -- the Lakers.

This season, injuries to Webber, point guard Mike Bibby, small forward Peja Stojakovic, as well as to reserves Bobby Jackson and Scot Pollard, slowed the Kings in the early going.

But the Kings are getting healthy at the right time. Though he has missed 15 games, Webber has put himself on the periphery of the Most Valuable Player race with a strong finish.

And, if they don't catch the Dallas Mavericks or San Antonio Spurs for best record in the West, the Kings probably will have a first-round playoff meeting with the Lakers. And that's OK with them.

"Right now, the way things are coming on is perfect, because we all were injured," Webber said. "Now, we've got guys coming back. I'm getting healthier. Scot's back in the lineup, so for the first time all year, in the last two weeks, we have all our players. I'm really happy about having all our players and getting healthy."

Whether they can get the steak and the baked potato is the big question.

Quiz

The NBA scoring race seems poised to come down to a two-man competition between Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant, with both averaging more than 30 points a game, something that hasn't happened in the league in 13 years. Can you name the three players who were involved the past two times that two players averaged 30 or more points a game?

Graceful exit

Given the Atlanta Hawks' miserable recent record, the end of Pete Babcock's 13-year run as general manager on Wednesday didn't come as a surprise to anyone, least of all Babcock, who handled his firing with remarkable grace.

"The great thing about the NBA, there is easy accountability," Babcock said. "You win or you lose. There's no gray area. If I had a choice, I would finish my career here ... [but] we weren't winning -- simple as that."

Babcock, who was replaced on an interim basis by Billy Knight, the team's director of basketball operations, had the league's third longest GM tenure behind Jerry Krause of the Chicago Bulls and Elgin Baylor of the Los Angeles Clippers.

But four straight losing finishes, questionable draft choices (DerMarr Johnson with the sixth overall pick in 2000) and strange trades (Steve Smith for Isaiah Rider) finally did Babcock in.

Team president Stan Kasten said he is loathe to package the coaching and GM jobs as one, but he might be able to pry Doc Rivers, a former Hawks player who's still popular in Atlanta, from Orlando if he did just that.

Portland mess

Speaking of firings, one wonders how much more evidence Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen needs before he cuts loose team president Bob Whitsitt for unleashing the most toxic mix of players on an unsuspecting city.

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