It’s separation time in the NBA, with good teams enjoying title dreams and bad ones left to figure out what went wrong.
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor thinks he knows the answer for his team’s woes, fingering Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell.
The same two players who dazzled last season as the T Wolves enjoyed their best-ever season killed them this time around.
Maybe it was the early-season contract talk (Sprewell sounded insulted by a three-year, $20 million extension offer and left people to wonder if he would give his all), or maybe they just got old.
In any case, Taylor called their acquisition a "failed experiment." He did so even though his team is staging a late-season rally that gives it a longshot chance at the playoffs.
This was the exact question Taylor was asked by the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "You brought in Sam and Spree and got pretty close to what you wanted out of it last year, getting to the Western Conference finals.
"Clearly nothing close to what anybody had hoped in terms of a repeat this year. One’s contract is up, one has one more year left but is old and has been broken down a lot this year. What’s your overall feeling on what they’ve contributed and what their future is with you guys?"
This was Taylor’s exact answer: "It certainly didn’t work out as we had hoped it would. This was an expensive financial decision, certainly, financial-wise, it was a poor decision on our part.
"Overall, the wins and losses — last year we probably won more than we anticipated with the injuries we had, and certainly this year was far below our expectations.
"Overall, it was just a failed experiment."
Taylor’s team is 42-37, a full two games behind Memphis for the eighth spot in the Western Conference.
Coach Kevin McHale, reacting to Taylor, said, "Glen’s the owner of the team. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion."
Cassell, told about the comments, said, "That’s bull . . . And I’ll tell him when I see him, too. That’s bull . . . for him to make a statement like that, if he said it that way."
McHale, on the difference between last year and this year: "We won a lot of close games last year. Guys made big shots down the stretch, and I thought it was a team that went out and hung around and won a lot of close games.
"The score might have been eight or nine, but there were a lot of games in that range with four or five minutes to go, a couple points up, a couple points down, and we just took over the game."
Another big difference: They’ve lost to bad teams, like the Hawks, which killed them. They were 14-16 vs. the East, as opposed to 24-6 last year.
OLD VS. NEW
The Lakers honored their great 1985 title team before Monday night’s Suns game.
The ’85 team has to be among the two or three greatest ever; maybe the ’67 76ers team with Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer and Chet Walker was in the same class.
The key to this team was that Magic Johnson was at his peak, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still close to his.
Then there was James Worthy, Byron Scott, Jamaal Wilkes, Bob McAdoo, Mitch Kupchak, Michael Cooper and Kurt Rambis.
Joked Johnson: "It’s too bad we couldn’t line up with this Laker team. Matter of fact, we’d probably take ’em out, anyway. At this age."
Such a team might command a payroll of $120 million or more today.
Jerry West, who put the team together, said, "I think all of us at that point in time were young, probably somewhat immature. But I think without a doubt, this is the greatest basketball team I’ve ever seen.
"This was an All-Star team. . . . I don’t know if you’re going to see a team like this again. They had size, heart, toughness, a coach (Pat Riley) that pushed them and they wanted to be pushed.
"For our fans, they’ll never see anything like this again."
McAdoo, a current Heat assistant, said: "We’ve got Shaq in Miami and we’re battling all the time about who had the better team.
"And I line it up for him every time. I say, ‘Shaq, you’re strong; you could have backed Kareem in but Kareem would have skyhooked you into oblivion.’ "
LeBron James, 20, made Time magazine’s annual list of "100 Most Influential People of the World."
The magazine considers those on the list as people whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world.
The 100 were profiled in five categories: "Heroes and Icons," James’ category; "Leaders and Revolutionaries;" "Artists and Entertainers;" "Scientists and Thinkers;" and "Builders and Titans."
James is among a group that includes former President Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, actor/director Clint Eastwood, the Dalai Lama and scientist Brian Atwater. James joined Formula One driver Michael Schumacher on the list.
"It’s an honor to make such a prestigious list," James said.
• "Sitting here next to Bill (Worrell, the Rockets’ television play-by-play announcer) and traveling with these guys is a lot more fun than standing in front of Stephen A. Smith and Woody Paige. Doing Rockets TV with Bill is my real dream job. Working on ESPN with Stephen A. Smith would have been a nightmare." — Rockets broadcaster Matt Bullard, who recently finished second for a job as an NBA analyst for ESPN
• "We don’t care. We’re still the champs. That’s just some TV commentators talking. There are some peasants in the kingdom throwing rocks at the throne, but that’s OK." — The Pistons’ Rasheed Wallace on the notion that the Heat should be favored to win the title
DID YOU KNOW?
• If the Bulls continue to lead the league in turnovers and field-goal percentage defense, they will join the 1995-96 Knicks as the only teams to do so since 1970. "That means when we turn it over, we don’t hang our heads," coach Scott Skiles said. "We hustle back and get stops."
• Ben Wallace, Kevin Garnett and Shawn Marion are the only players this season to have recorded at least 100 steals and 100 blocks. This is the fifth straight year Wallace has turned the trick. The only other players to have done this five straight seasons are Hakeem Olajuwon (12 straight), Julius Erving (seven), Sam Lacey (seven) and David Robinson (seven).
• Nets guard Jason Kidd’s outstanding play the second half of the season might have been inspired by Knicks guard Stephon Marbury’s declaration that Marbury is the game’s top point guard.
"Everyone knows what that was aimed at," Nets president Rod Thorn said. "Jason is like an elephant; he doesn’t forget anything."
• The Suns will try to wrap up the best regular season record in the league over the Spurs this week.