In his first season as an NBA head coach, Cleveland's Randy Wittman took over a competitive, nonplayoff team built around forward Shawn Kemp and stocked with young talent, including rookies Trajan Langdon and Andre Miller. Mark Bryant, Danny Ferry and Kemp are the only players who will be 30 or older by season's end.

Wittman said having a young team with a handful of veterans is the ideal way to enter the head coaching ranks.

"We've got young players that are learning how to play and a sprinkling of veterans that are trying to teach these guys what it's all about," he said. "It's a good mix. You don't want to have all young players and you don't want to be in a situation where you're really old."

Though he did not mention the Washington Wizards or their first-year head coach Gar Heard specifically, Wittman said a first-year coach taking over a veteran-laden team faces pressure to either win right away or the prospect of rebuilding in a year or two.

Heard, like Wittman a former player and NBA assistant coach, inherited a team with three starters--Mitch Richmond, Rod Strickland and Ike Austin--who are at least 30 years old. The contracts of Austin, Strickland, Richmond, Aaron Williams and Michael Smith either expire, can be bought out or have options at the team's disposal after next season.

"You want to be in a situation where it's not a one- or two-year opportunity where you have to change direction," Wittman said. "It's not a solid thing to be involved with. In two years you have to turn the team over because of age. I would rather be in situation where you could develop your team and have a period of time to build your team up. You want to be competitive from year one but you want the opportunity with young players to continue to grow one year to the next."

Lakers on Defensive

Lost amid the focus on Kobe Bryant's return from a broken hand and Shaquille O'Neal's impressive November statistics has been the fundamental reason why Phil Jackson's Los Angeles Lakers are among the league's best teams: defense.

A team known for its offensive weapons ranks third in the league in fewest points allowed (89.5). Last season, the Lakers ranked sixth-worst in that category, allowing 96 points in a season in which teams averaged just more than 91 points. More impressive, the Lakers have held their past four opponents to 82 points or fewer. Their last two foes, Seattle and Golden State, scored 77 and 75 points respectively. The last time the Lakers had four consecutive games holding their opponents to 85 points or fewer was in March 1954, when they were the Minneapolis Lakers.

Rookie Surprise

Undrafted out of Seton Hall in 1996, Boston Celtics rookie Adrian Griffin spent three seasons with the CBA's Connecticut Pride before earning a spot on the Boston roster this season. Griffin's playing time gradually has increased, and he shared the NBA's co-rookie of the month honors with Los Angeles Clippers forward Lamar Odom.

"I took longer than guys coming straight out of high school or college," Griffin said. "We all took different routes. I gained a little more experience. I'm older and I was playing under NBA rules in the CBA. I also was playing good competition."

Although he benefited this season by coming through the NBA's developmental league, Griffin said that players such as Odom and Wizards rookie Richard Hamilton, who are getting experience against the NBA's best, will benefit just as much, if not more.

"The guys coming out of high school and college are getting hands-on experience," Griffin said. "I'm sure it's tough for guys like that because they may to have to carry their team and have so much to do with their team's success. At the same time they're getting that experience.

"I'm sure Lamar is getting his minutes on the court and getting the ball in his hands where he can learn what to do and what he can't do. You can't beat that type of training."

In Griffin's case, maybe it's possible. . . .

Sacramento Kings guard Nick Anderson, who was acquired in a trade from Orlando, is miffed that the Magic gave his No. 25 to forward Chris Gatling. Anderson believes spending 10 seasons with the Magic, including its expansion season, entitled to maybe having the number retired for at least a season.

"That's the only thing that really bothers me about the organization," Anderson told the Orlando Sentinel before Sacramento's game with Orlando last week. "After giving so much to the team and after giving so much all those years, I thought I deserved a little more respect. I don't see anyone wearing Penny [Hardaway's] number, or Shaq's number, or Horace Grant's old number. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I called once to find out the reasoning and never got a return call. I would still like an answer."

The Magic, which began play in 1989, has retired only a No. 6, in tribute to the fans--the sixth man--at Orlando Arena.

A Hello From Bison

Detroit Pistons Coach Alvin Gentry received an electronic mail message recently from retired center Bison Dele. "He just asked how things were going, how everyone was doing, and stuff like that," Gentry told the Detroit News. "He said he was following us as best he could and that it looked like we had turned the corner."

Gentry told reporters that he believed the e-mail came from Africa, and Gentry said Dele made no mention of a possible return to the NBA.

"He stayed clear of that," Gentry said.

CAPTION: Rejected here by Spurs' Jaren Jackson, Celtics' Adrian Griffin, right, is a top rookie this season.