A Rocket Booster?
Nearly everyone was smiling in Houston last week when the defending NBA champion Rockets acquired eight-time All-Star guard Clyde Drexler, along with forward Tracy Murray, from the Trail Blazers in exchange for power forward Otis Thorpe and a conditional draft pick. Drexler was happy that Portland finally accommodated his demand for a trade; Rocket fans who remembered Drexler's days as a star for the University of Houston were delighted to see him back in town; and Rocket center Hakeem Olajuwon, Drexler's Phi Slamma Jamma teammate in college, was positively giddy over the reunion.
But the trade may have made the Rockets less likely to be wearing championship smiles again in June. This season the 32-year-old Drexler, who through Sunday was averaging 21.4 points and 5.1 assists, has proved that he still has enough glide to help Houston in the backcourt. But the loss of Thorpe, one of the best rebounding forwards in the NBA, could come back to haunt the Rockets in the playoffs. Consider some of the power forwards playing on Houston's fellow Western Conference contenders: Charles Barkley of Phoenix, Shawn Kemp of Seattle, Karl Malone of Utah and Dennis Rodman of San Antonio. The Rockets, who had rebounding shortcomings even with Thorpe in their lineup, probably will have to deal with at least two of those four if they are to reach the NBA Finals again. Will Carl Herrera and Pete Chilcutt, who are expected to split the minutes created by Thorpe's departure, be up to that task?
"It might work out, but right now I can't say I love the trade," says Rocket forward Mario Elie. "All I know is we're going to miss O.T.'s 10 boards a game." (Actually, Thorpe averaged a still-potent 8.9 rebounds for Houston.) The Rocket brass realizes that Thorpe's absence creates a hole, which is why at week's end Houston was still looking for frontcourt help before this Thursday's trading deadline. A deal involving Houston guard Vernon Maxwell and Net power forward Jayson Williams was rumored, then denied.
The acquisition of Drexler and the Maxwell trade talks demonstrate that the Rockets are afraid to depend too heavily on the volatile Mad Max for another championship run. If his latest offense—going into the stands in Portland to punch a heckler on Feb. 6—wasn't the last straw, its aftermath may have been. Maxwell, who was suspended for 10 games and fined $20,000 for the incident, twice failed to show up for practice last week.
The first absence was chalked up to miscommunication, with coach Rudy Tomjanovich explaining that Maxwell thought the suspension meant he couldn't be around the Rockets at all. But there was no such excuse for the second absence, and Tomjanovich was not pleased. "I don't know what it is Max is going through," he said. "But he's a member of this team, and he should be here."
Casting a Giant Shadow
One thing is already evident about new Warrior coach Bob Lanier's style: He likes to stand during games, from the opening tip until the final buzzer. Lanier is 6'11" and 280 pounds, and his presence on the sidelines means the bench is no longer the best seat in the house for Golden State players, who have nicknamed their new coach the Eclipse. And even though he's 46 years old and 11 years removed from his Hall of Fame playing days, "there aren't too many guys who can whip his butt," says Golden State center Victor Alexander, himself an imposing 6'10", 265 pounds.
Maybe Lanier, a Warrior assistant who became a head coach for the first time—albeit on an interim basis—when Don Nelson resigned last week (page 80), can intimidate Golden State into better performances. It's worth a try, since nothing else has shaken the Warriors from the trancelike state they've been in since the Nov. 17 trade of power forward Chris Webber to the Bullets for small forward Tom Gugliotta and three future first-round draft choices. Through Sunday, Golden State had lost 33 of its last 41 games.
"It's a difficult situation, no question," Lanier says. "A few months ago this seemed like the most solid franchise in the world, with the most solid coach in the world. I've never seen anything like what has happened to this team."