There Are a Few Who Have a Clue

The wheels came off another rebuilding project as John Paxson, the Chicago Bulls' new general manager, became convinced the sky was falling and got set to reconfigure his roster ... before deciding he'd better fire Coach Bill Cartwright first ... before Paxson started calling around again to reconfigure his roster.

Because I just did a clueless-Knicks piece, someone out there might be thinking, "Is there anyone out there who can play this game?"

Actually, yes. Even if their stories aren't as entertaining as the bozos' pratfalls, they might make for a refreshing change.

Jerry West, Jerry Buss, Phil Jackson, Mitch Kupchak, Lakers -- Whatever you think of Buss' Hugh Hefner-designed lifestyle, he strikes a wonderful balance between establishing guiding principles and providing resources (read: money), while letting his professionals do their jobs.

Of course, it helped that he had the wiliest pro of them all, West, who is now in Memphis, but left them Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to remember him by.

Not that that finished the job. In a stunningly un-Laker-like move, going outside and dialing a previously modest salary up to $6 million, Buss hired Jackson, the man they needed to help the kids grow up.

O'Neal says he played a part and, the way it went down, it looked as if he did, but that doesn't detract from what Buss did. When he needed a coach, he got the best available, no matter how jarring it was or how expensive, and it looks like a pittance now.

As an organization, the Lakers did more things right over Buss' 25 years than anyone since the Celtics under Red Auerbach, which is how they could win five titles from 1980 to '88, break up the team and be back stringing titles together by 2000.

Gregg Popovich, R.C. Buford, San Antonio -- The best little dynasty in Texas started with the coin flips that brought David Robinson and, in a fortuitous bolt of lightning after Robinson had sat out the 1996-97 season because of a bad back and the Spurs fell from 55 wins to 29, Tim Duncan.

Still, it took Popovich, a tough, defense-oriented coach, to get them over the top and a lot of sharp moves to keep them there.

The team that won the 1998-99 title -- with an asterisk for the shortened season, as you-know-who noted -- was old and creaky. Teams lined up to make a run at Duncan when he became a free agent in 2000 and Orlando almost got him before the Spurs got Robinson to fly home from Hawaii and help plead their case.

Even in San Antonio, insiders thought Duncan would really leave in 2003, when Robinson would be gone, leaving Duncan and little else. Instead, the Spurs turned their roster around with a No. 28 pick from France named Tony Parker and a No. 57 pick from Argentina named Manu Ginobili.

They're good with their cap too. Last summer's shopping spree didn't turn out as well as they'd hoped, but they left themselves the option of creating $10 million-$12 million worth of space next summer when stars such as (gulp) Bryant may be on the market.

Geoff Petrie, Gavin and Joe Maloof, Sacramento -- This was once an NBA backwater, where the weather wasn't warm and the lights weren't bright. As Bobby Hansen said to newly arriving Spud Webb in 1991, "Welcome to hell."

You-know-who may have sniffed about the Maloofs' money coming from casinos, but whatever its source, there's a lot of it. "Maloof" may rhyme with "dufus," but for all that most-eligible-bachelor attention-seeking, they're smart enough to put up the bucks and get out of the way.

Petrie, to whom they entrusted their organization, turned it around by trading Mitch Richmond for Chris Webber; Jason Williams for Mike Bibby; and Hedo Turkoglu and Scot Pollard for Brad Miller, and signing Vlade Divac and Bobby Jackson.

Even with the Lakers in their division, they might have won a championship or two, but for Robert Horry's shot in 2002 and Webber's injury last spring, and they aren't over yet.

Donnie Walsh, Larry Bird, Indiana -- In another forgotten small market, Walsh turned his team around in the '90s by hiring Larry Brown, even though Walsh had known Brown forever and knew about foibles no one else had even heard of, such as Brown's quitting his first job at Davidson before the first game because they wouldn't change the carpet in his office.

The Pacers, who had never won an NBA playoff series, reached consecutive East finals in 1994-95 and '95-96 before Brown, doing his usual act, left. Walsh then hired Bird, who brought in Rick Carlisle and Dick Harter as assistants, and got them to the 2000 NBA Finals.

A year later, with Bird retiring, Walsh broke up his team, trading Antonio Davis for rookie Jonathan Bender, and Dale Davis for unproven Jermaine O'Neal, and was flayed alive in the media.

Then there was a problem with the new coach, Isiah Thomas, under whom they imploded last season.

Bird, returning to take over the day-to-day operation last summer, found little confidence in Thomas, even though the Pacers had decided to bring him back. In Larry Legend style, Bird axed Isiah on the spot, shocking everyone anew and reaping yet another harvest of criticism.

No one is saying much now. Under Carlisle, the Pacers are defending like real contenders. Young as they are, with solid leadership at all levels, their best should be yet to come.

Honorable Mention

Don Nelson and Mark Cuban, Dallas -- Turned a black hole into a vibrant franchise. Of course, the hyperactive Cuban's ambitions go further, so the imaginative Nelson had better keep thinking.

Joe Dumars and John Hammond, Detroit -- Not that Dumars had a lot to learn, but his first year on the job he planned a summer trip to Wimbledon that coincided with the free-agent signing period. On the other hand, the Pistons were nowhere when he took over in 2000 and they're somewhere now.

Jerry Krause, Chicago -- He had some problems -- actually, he was almost all problems -- but his vision and tenacity helped build a dynasty, even if his porcupine personality wore out everyone on it. Then amid the rubble, with everyone worrying that the franchise would die if it didn't get back to the playoffs immediately, he junked a 2-year-old plan to start over with high school kids, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, resulting in more caterwauling when they didn't turn out to be Shaquille O'Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar right away.

Krause is gone and little lamented, and his vision has yet to be realized, but everyone can see now what he saw then.

Pat Riley, Miami -- If he was deemed a failure when he left as coach, it was according to his own standards, in which nothing short of a title meant anything, and because of his luck, which was as bad at the end as it had been good at the beginning.

He built the moribund Heat into an East power and if Alonzo Mourning hadn't gotten sick, the Mourning-Eddie Jones-Brian Grant combo would still be ruling the East and recent NBA Finals might not have been such walkovers.

Bob Whitsitt, Portland -- He had a blind spot or two, assembling a wild team that terrorized its adoring little community until owner Paul Allen finally had to retire him.

Nevertheless, Whitsitt did the improbable consistently, rebuilding on the fly in Seattle with draft picks such as Shawn Kemp and hires such as George Karl, then doing it again in Portland with bold moves for problem-child prospects others shrank from, such as Rasheed Wallace, Zach Randolph and Qyntel Woods.

Portland and Utah are the only two teams that have never been in the lottery, which began in 1985. Before the new administration finally scatters them, the Trail Blazers might keep the string going.

John Gabriel, Orlando -- Because he's my brother-in-law, I can't claim to be completely objective.

However, he pulled off one of the great salary-cap moves to turn the fading, post-Shaq Magic around, dumping a bloated payroll, led by Penny Hardaway and Nick Anderson, that was still making the playoffs for the money that almost landed Duncan and did get Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady a year later.

Gabriel and Coach Doc Rivers missed a few, keeping Bo Outlaw rather than Ben Wallace, and their relationship became so rocky in the end, only one could stay, if that many.

But if Gabriel is under the gun, it's largely for the problem that doomed Rivers -- losing Hill, not once, so they could try to dig themselves out, but three seasons in a row.

Happily, like Rivers, Gabriel has a good reputation and should be able to find work, so I won't have to put him up.

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