THE NBA : A Trade They Both Felt They Had to Make

Instant analysis of an NBA trade is risky. A trade's true worth may not be clear for weeks, sometimes years. Rare is the deal that is so blatantly one-sided as to brand it an immediate success or failure.

With that in mind, it is perhaps best left to time to decide which team benefited most from last week's trade that sent Rod Strickland from the New York Knicks to the San Antonio Spurs for Maurice Cheeks.

But NBA observers already are beginning to pass judgment on the controversial swap of point guards.

THE PRINCIPALS

Cheeks, 33, is nearing the end of a fine career in which he was the primary ballhandler during the Philadelphia 76ers' seasons as a dominant team. He is a proven leader, credited with helping the Spurs make a tremendous turnaround this season, but he figures to play only a few more seasons. Already, some say Cheeks has lost a step.

Strickland, 23, was unhappy as Mark Jackson's backup at point guard for the Knicks. When he has played, Strickland has exhibited the ability to score, pass and run an offense. Strickland felt unable to prove himself in limited minutes, but Knick executives questioned his work habits, attitude and leadership qualities.

THE CONCLUSIONS

Some believe the trade will turn the Knicks, previously lacking in experience and leadership, into a championship contender. Cheeks' presence will force Jackson into a more consistent, less flamboyant approach. Those who favor the Knicks in the deal also believe the Spurs will miss Cheeks' steadying influence on a young team that includes rookies David Robinson and Sean Elliott and second-year guard Willie Anderson. They also wonder how well Strickland, who has a reputation for being temperamental, and Coach Larry Brown, known as a hard-liner, will coexist. Those looking at the long haul, however, favor the Spurs. Strickland is, after all, 10 years younger than Cheeks. Few begrudge Strickland's talent. They say his unhappiness in New York was only because he was not playing much.

They say that Brown, who pushed for the trade, will mold Strickland into his type of player. They say that, if not this season, then throughout the rest of the '90s, the Spurs will be a championship contender with Strickland at point guard. Had they kept Cheeks, the Spurs would have to find another point guard in about two seasons. Conversely, they say the Knicks needed a shooting forward, not another point guard.

THE REACTIONS

From Al Bianchi, the Knicks' general manager: "Why did we make (the trade)? Because we want to win. That's the logical answer. When you look at this team, you say, we aren't going to make it. Maurice's record speaks for itself. We want to win. He has a (championship) ring. Hopefully, he'll bring leadership, stability and maturity."

From Bob Bass, the Spurs' general manager: "We tried to get Strickland before we got Cheeks last summer. We feel he is the player we need."

And, this from 76er forward Charles Barkley, who has an opinion about everything: "Are they (the Knicks) crazy? I love Maurice Cheeks, but I just don't know how much he has left. But I do know that all Rod needs is the opportunity to play and he'd be a star."

THE EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES

Strickland's value on the market apparently decreased considerably after he made his trade request public on Feb. 8. Twice, the Knicks reportedly approached the Denver Nuggets about a package deal for Lafayette Lever, but were turned down both times.

The Knicks felt they had to unload Strickland for the sake of team unity. He had become a distraction. He irked management by coming to practice an hour late on a day when a large media contingent turned out for Kiki Vandeweghe's first practice back from a back injury. The next day, Strickland was 15 minutes late for a summit meeting with Bianchi and Coach Stu Jackson.

Cheeks never liked San Antonio. An East Coast guy, Cheeks was extremely upset when he was traded from Philadelphia during the off-season. Perhaps hoping his time in Texas would be short, Cheeks chose to live in a Holiday Inn downtown rather than find a house or apartment. He also--no surprise here--did not always get along with Brown.

"I feel this is a great opportunity to come back to the East Coast and possibly win a championship again," Cheeks said.

Add Spurs: Maybe Brown will show more patience with Strickland than he has with Sean Elliott, the Spurs' first-round draft choice this season. Elliott, at times, has struggled on offense.

Said Brown: "We sit down and watch films, and I see about 50 things (Elliott) did wrong in a three-minute period. And he walks away thinking he was phenomenal. He's an NBA All-Star in his mind. He doesn't understand yet. He just turned 22 and has never been anywhere but Tucson, Arizona."

Somebody made the mistake of asking Denver Nugget Coach Doug Moe about the significance of winning 600 games as an NBA coach. Moe has won 595.

"When I'm dead and gone, I ain't going to know anything about (600 victories). I think one of the dumbest questions in world is, 'How you want to be remembered?' I don't give a . . . You're six feet under and decaying. You don't care. That's real ego . . . "

So, what does Moe want on his headstone?

"I'm decayed."

There is talk in Sacramento that the Kings will attempt to buy out the contract of center Ralph Sampson, whose knees are in such bad shape it appears he may never come close to his previous form.

Said Sampson, who will be paid more than $8 million over the next three seasons: "They can buy me out any time they want, but I don't want a pile of dirt from out behind Arco Arena. I want cash money. I graduated on time with my class at Virginia, and I learned a couple things there."

After the Indiana Pacers blew out the then-slumping Atlanta Hawks in Atlanta early last week, ex-Hawk and current Pacer Randy Wittman gave this assessment of the Hawks:

"They had no spirit, no drive, no nothing. They were just out there. I thought they'd be up for it, because it was kind of big game, jockeying for playoff position. Obviously, they've got problems. They got zero confidence. They come into games thinking they are going to lose now."

Since then, however, the Hawks ended the Detroit Pistons' 13-game winning streak on Friday, then defeated Houston on Saturday and Miami on Monday.

The Pistons almost went all of February without losing a game. Their 13-game winning streak began after their nationally televised loss to the Lakers on Jan. 21. The last team to go a calendar month without losing was the 1971-72 Lakers, as part of their record 33-game winning streak.

"This may sound stupid, but we're really not even thinking about it," Piston forward John Salley said just two days before the streak ended. "All we think about is taking care of business at hand. It doesn't matter if we win 30 straight if we lose the last game of the season and lose the championship."

What was Indiana Pacer Coach Dick Versace thinking under that curly white helmet of hair last week when he squared off against Wes Unseld, the Washington Bullet coach and former NBA strongman?

Versace is 5 feet 10, 170 pounds. Unseld is 6-7 and an estimated 280.

The confrontation occurred as the Pacers and Bullets were leaving the floor after Washington's victory. Chuck Person of the Pacers and Bernard King of the Bullets were ejected earlier for fighting, Pacer center Rik Smits for arguing calls. Afterward, the Pacers' Reggie Miller and the Bullets' Darrell Walker were barking at each other while heading to the locker room. Ledell Eackles of the Bullets then shoved Miller into a barrier, prompting Versace to join the melee.

Eventually, Versace and Unseld squared off. Although no punches were thrown, Versace said Unseld threatened him. Safely inside his own locker room, Versace said he will not back down from Unseld.

"He said he wanted to fight, because that's his answer to everything--he wants to fight," Versace said of Unseld. "You can tell him this Italian is not afraid of him."

Unseld denied making a threat.

"I don't threaten people, but I do make promises," Unseld said.

Take note: The rematch between the teams--and coaches--is March 6.

Sarunas Marciulionis, the Golden State Warriors' import from Lithuania, was upset when center Uwe Blab was traded to Dallas for Chris Welp. He lost a close friend. They conversed in German and played chess together.

"It made me sad," Marciulionis said. "In the Soviet Union, we never did trades. Uwe helped me learn English and American lifestyle. But basketball is basketball. Maybe this will be better for us. Who knows?"

Marciulionis should note that Welp also is from West Germany. It is not known, however, whether he plays chess.

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