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Go-Two Guys

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By Alex Sachare, Hoop magazine, June, 1996

Before he left the New York Knicks for a sunnier climate in Miami, Pat Riley offered some interesting insight into the makeup of a title-winner.

"If you look at championship teams," Riley said, "they all have those two elite players. We have a lot of good players. But somewhere along the way, we have to find that second player who will support the greatness of Patrick (Ewing)."

When Riley speaks about championship teams, it's worth listening. Riley won four NBA championships and nine division titles in his nine seasons as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Then, after a year behind the NBC Sports desk, he moved to New York and took the Knicks to within a John Starks three-pointer of the 1994 NBA Championship.

So when Riley says you need not one but two premier, franchise-type players to mold a championship team, it's worth examining the concept.

Riley certainly had those two players in Los Angeles where Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson made the Lakers sports' most glamorous and successful franchise in the '80s.

Supporting players like James Worthy, Norm Nixon, Byron Scott, Jamaal Wilkes and Michael Cooper didn't hurt, either.

In New York, Riley had Ewing, one of the game's best centers at a time when the importance of a premier pivotman seemed to be back on the upswing around the NBA. But the rest of the Riley-era Knicks fell short of elite status.

Starks can be a great scorer, but he is a classic streak shooter who struggles to be consistent. Charles Oakley is a great rebounder, but little threat as a scorer. Derek Harper is an excellent all-around player, but a set-up man rather than a go-to guy. Anthony Mason? Charles Smith? Good players, but not what Riley had in mind.

Riley's comments came not long after the February, 1995 trade in which the defending champion Houston Rockets shook up their roster by dealing power forward Otis Thorpe to Portland for aging but potent guard Clyde Drexler.

It was clearly a gamble; since the acquisition of Drexler all but sealed the exile of Vernon Maxwell, it meant the Rockets were losing two-fifths of the starting unit that had brought the franchise its first title only eight months earlier.

However, the Rockets' reasoning was that asking Hakeem Olajuwon to carry Houston to a second consecutive title by himself was asking too much. As brilliant as he is, getting a second premier player to take some of the load off Olajuwon at crunch time became paramount, even if it meant breaking up the winning hand.

How important was the acquisition of Drexler? Fast forward to the opening game of the 1995 NBA Finals, Houston at Orlando, for perhaps the most dramatic example.

With 5.5 seconds left in overtime, the score was tied. Rather than try to force the ball to Olajuwon, the Rockets got the ball to Drexler and the veteran guard drove toward the basket. He went past his man and forced Magic center Shaquille O'Neal to come over and pick him up. Drexler's five-footer over O'Neal was off target, but suddenly freed from the Orlando center, Olajuwon got prime position and tipped in the game-winner for a 120-118 victory. The Magic never recovered and went on to lose in four straight games.

Without Drexler, Houston undoubtedly would have tried to force the ball in to Olajuwon. Having Drexler gave Houston the chance to let a second go-to guy break down the Orlando defense and allow Olajuwon to clean up.

Let's look at 10 contenders for the 1996 NBA championship, and how they measure up to Riley's "go-two guys" formula for success:

Jordan & Pippen

Scottie Pippen teams with Jordan to give the Bulls the NBA's most fearsome 1-2 punch.

Chicago Bulls: It must be nice to have not only the best all-around player in the game, but the second-best as well. Michael Jordan is the game's ultimate go-to guy, a fiery competitor who demands the ball at crunch time. Scottie Pippen got the attention he craved in Jordan's absence, when he won All-Star Game MVP honors, and now is the ultimate No. 2 weapon.

Indiana Pacers: Until Rick Smits developed into an upper echelon NBA center, nobody took the Pacers that seriously. Reggie Miller could burn you, but the feeling was that you were relatively safe with the rest of the Indiana squad. Over the last couple of years Smits has changed that feeling, giving the Pacers a much-needed inside scoring presence. Remember his buzzer-beater against Orlando in last year's playoffs? The Pacers need him to continue to come up big.

New York Knicks: The main characters have not changed since Riley's prognosis, so it's safe to say the Knicks are still short one elite player. Mason had a bigger role as Don Nelson's point forward, but new coach Jeff Van Gundy may have different plans as to who can be the man in the clutch the team needs to help Ewing.

Orlando Magic: By winning two draft lotteries and using two its picks wisely (OK, Shaq was a no-brainer, but give them some credit for banking Penny), the Magic has its two prime weapons. Shaquille O'Neal demands double-teaming inside, which allows supershooters Dennis Scott and Nick Anderson to spot up at the three-point arc. And when Shaq was injured at the start of the season, the versatile Anfernee Hardaway showed he could step up and be the main man, posting up shorter guards as well as running the offense.

Houston Rockets: Hakeem Olajuwon has all the inside moves, but if Clyde Drexler isn't fully recovered from the February arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, Houston's chances of three-peating take a dive. Could Sam Cassell or Robert Horry step up and be second go-to guys, rather than strong complementary players? That's a question Rudy Tomjanovich would prefer not to consider just yet.

Los Angeles Lakers: Cedric Ceballos and Nick Van Exel had been emerging as the Lakers' two main men, but Magic Johnson's comeback shakes that up more than a little. He gives them a proven leader who has been to the top and knows how to carry a team there. His impact during the playoffs could be profound.

Phoenix Suns: Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson would make great "go-to guys" if they could both stay healthy. Each is capable of taking over a game, although K.J. has been so hobbled by injuries in the past few years that many have forgotten how dominating he can be. Danny Manning has go-to skills and versatility but seems to play better when cast in a supporting role -- a luxury he loses if Barkley or Johnson is less than 100 percent.

San Antonio Spurs: Sean Elliot had a career year and it couldn't have come at a better time, since the Spurs needed someone to take the pressure off David Robinson. Elliot's smooth outside shot does just that, complementing the Admiral's moves in and around the paint. Will Elliot continue to get the job done in the playoffs? It may well determine how far San Antonio goes.

Seattle SuperSonics: Coach George Karl challenged All-Stars Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton to carry the load this season, and they have. They have emerged as key players on a talent-laden roster; Kemp the dynamic inside force, Payton the floor general and scoring threat whether from outside or slashing to the basket. Now it's up to them to do it in the postseason as well.

Utah Jazz: Karl Malone scores and grabs rebounds, John Stockton piles up assists and steals. Both are Springfield-bound, but will they take with them championship rings? The Jazz have never had a strong enough supporting cast to help their Dream Teamers to the ultimate prize.

Alex Sachare writes a monthly column for "Hoop" magazine.