Just a few weeks ago, the Atlanta Hawks seemed ready to part ways with shooting guard J.R. Rider. From his failure to report to training camp on time to his insubordination to his demand to be traded, Rider was seen as a divisive element in the locker room and a headache for management.
Now the Hawks cannot live without him.
Rider has powered Atlanta to a five-game winning streak and a 9-9 record, this after a 1-6 start. Over the last eight games, he has averaged 28.6 points, 4.4 assists, 6.6 rebounds and 41 minutes.
Rider has played with the relentless energy that allows him to be one of the game's most explosive players, and his teammates are feeding off him. There has been talk that he is playing well to increase his trade value but, as of now, Rider appears to have made himself a home with the Hawks.
Rider has made waves at previous stops--Minnesota and Portland--but his tremendous abilities have made teams willing to deal with him. Now, Hawks Coach Lenny Wilkens is lobbying for Rider to be named to the all-star team.
"J.R. belongs on the all-star team," Wilkens told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"When they talk about the all-star voting they better consider him. I don't see any other [shooting] guard playing any better than him, especially in the Eastern Conference."
With Philadelphia's Allen Iverson out with a broken thumb, Wilkens might be right. Indiana's Reggie Miller has been inconsistent, New York's Allan Houston and Charlotte's Eddie Jones have been steady, but not spectacular. Rider is Atlanta's savior.
As strong as Rider has been, there is another guard quietly playing at an all-star level: Washington's Mitch Richmond. Over the past five games, Richmond has averaged just a shade under 24 points per game to bring his season average close to 15 per game. His slow start hurts his overall numbers, but coaches around the league know how dangerous he can be when he settles into a groove such as the one he's in now.
Los Angeles center Shaquille O'Neal's emergence as one of the game's premier shot blockers--he had seven blocks against the Wizards Tuesday night--is a major reason the Lakers are one of the NBA's best defensive teams, at least in regard to the number of points allowed (89.9).
Coach Phil Jackson, while not taking credit from O'Neal, said it is his team's older players who have been equally, if not more, instrumental in holding teams down.
"The addition of Ron Harper . . . and I think A.C. Green is a fine defensive player," Jackson said of the veterans, who have a combined 27 seasons of NBA experience. "I think some of the personnel has been important to the team. They play the game the way it structures itself. It's a better team defensively."
Jackson also said Green and Harper's familiarity with opponents gives Los Angeles an edge.
As caught up as the Lakers are in their defense, a player from an opposing team, who declined to be identified, said Los Angeles is able to keep scoring down because it plays a slow-paced game that limits its scoring as well.
He may have a point. Seventeen teams are averaging more points per game than the Lakers, who are scoring 96.2 points a game.
Coaches in Peril
Golden State Warriors Coach P.J. Carlesimo may not make it through the weekend. Several sources have said that Carlesimo likely will be fired when the 2-16 Warriors return from their four-game road trip, which will end Saturday.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Nets Coach Don Casey had appeared to be a likely candidate for dismissal but may get a reprieve. New Jersey has won consecutive games over Sacramento and Milwaukee to bring its record to 4-15.
Forward Jayson Williams recently admitted that he might not be back until January, if at all this season. He initially said he hoped to return by December from a broken leg that required two operations. He recently said that his kneecap is unstable and his recovery is progressing slowly.
CAPTION: Shaquille O'Neal, right, blocking a shot by the Suns' Rodney Rogers along with Robert Horry (5), has helped the Lakers improve defensively.