The NBA : Teams Accused of Trying to Miss Playoffs

If the National Basketball Assn. draft lottery was conceived to avoid even the hint that teams would purposely lose late-season games to earn better drafting positions, then perhaps another plan is needed.

Instead of only one or two lowly teams being suspected of going for the worst record and first draft pick, as in past seasons, three or four marginal teams have been accused by some this season of avoiding the final playoff spot to gain one of the seven lottery berths.

The thinking is that the San Antonio Spurs or Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference would benefit far more from getting a high draft pick than enduring what figures to be first-round playoff annihilation by the Lakers. Likewise, in the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls are snidely said to be waging a battle to see which team won't have to face the Boston Celtics in the first round.

San Antonio, playing recently with center Artis Gilmore and forward Steve Johnson out with minor injuries, has lost 5 straight and 21 of its last 24 games. Phoenix has lost 7 of its last 11 games.

"I don't think either team wants to win, because they'd rather get in the lottery," said guard Norm Nixon of the Clippers, who have traded their first-round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers and, thus, have nothing to gain by losing.

It will be interesting to see what happens Wednesday night, when Phoenix and San Antonio play at Phoenix.

Usually, talk of teams tanking games is whispered among players and management. After all, the integrity of the league and its teams is at stake. Lately, though, some have publicly talked about motivation to lose games.

One such player to sound off last week was Chicago's Michael Jordan.

Jordan wants as much playing time as possible and wants his team to make the playoffs. Judging by Jordan's rather pointed comments, he apparently believes that the Bulls are denying him both.

Jordan, back in the Bulls' lineup for three weeks after missing most of the regular season with a broken left foot, told Chicago writers that management has been restricting his playing time because of fear of reinjury and hinted that the team is trying to lose games to miss the playoffs and gain a berth in next month's draft lottery.

"I've been jerked around big time," Jordan was quoted as saying. "All the other coaches can see I'm not tentative and that I'm as aggressive as ever. You would think that the Bulls' front office would see that."

Part of the agreement between Jordan and management--owner Jerry Reinsdorf, General Manager Jerry Krause and Coach Stan Albeck--when he returned to the lineup in mid-March was that he take it slowly at first and not put too much stress on his healing foot.

Now, Jordan said, he's ready to return to his normal game. And he has told Krause that every chance he has gotten.

"Krause avoids me," Jordan said. "He knows what I'm going to talk about. He walks right by me."

Jordan, who in the past has accused teammates of being jealous and not passing him the ball, said his restricted playing time is related to the Bulls' slim playoff hopes. "Losing games on purpose reflects what type of person you are," he said. "No one should ever try to lose to get something better. You should always try to make the best with what you have. If they really wanted to make the playoffs, I'd be in there when they have a chance to win a game. It's not a medical decision anymore. It's all business." Reinsdorf held a press conference before last Saturday night's game against the Atlanta Hawks and said that the team wants to win and make the playoffs and that Jordan's playing time will increase.

Maybe it's merely a coincidence, but the Bulls have won three straight since Jordan's comments.

Lobbying has been intense for the NBA's Rookie of the Year award. Whereas front-runner Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks has let his play speak for him, the Seattle SuperSonics and Utah Jazz have spent the last week promoting Xavier McDaniel and Karl Malone, respectively.

Early last week, the SuperSonics sent various sportswriters, who vote on the award, a poster of McDaniel alongside punk rockers with green and yellow hair, as well as X buttons and newspaper articles complimentary to McDaniel.

A few days later, a package from the Jazz arrived in the mail. Enclosed was a letter carrier's cap. Malone is nicknamed the Mailman because, they say, he always delivers. The Jazz also touted Thurl Bailey for the sixth-man award.

Despite all the publicity efforts, Ewing most likely will win.

The Nuggets had fun April 1, when they traveled to Portland to play the Trail Blazers. Television broadcasters Al Albert and Irv Brown devised an on-air April Fools' Day joke that went over big both in Denver and Portland.

First, Albert went on the air and announced that last season's blockbuster trade between the teams--Kiki Vandeweghe to Portland for Wayne Cooper, Calvin Natt and Lafayette Lever--had been re-enacted in reverse, meaning that Vandeweghe was going back to the Nuggets.

A taped interview with Vandeweghe, in a Nugget uniform, was shown. With a straight face, Vandeweghe said that he was happy to be back in Denver and that the one condition in the trade was that Nugget Coach Doug Moe could only yell at him at certain times.

Moe and Cooper also were interviewed. Moe said: "What goes around comes around. I'll let you reporters debate it."

Eventually, the announcers admitted the hoax, but it livened an otherwise routine late-season game.

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