We give the floor to Mychal Thompson, a cinch to be the least popular Laker in Boston this season. "Boston is going down," says Thompson, L.A.'s backup center. "The Celtics are getting older and don't have the depth."
Many players and coaches in the NBA share Thompson's opinion, even if they don't speak it quite so bluntly. Cleveland coach Lenny Wilkens puts it this way: "You have to wonder how much of a toll those playoffs last spring took on the Celtics [who very narrowly beat the Pistons in the Eastern finals and lost the championship round to the Lakers in six games]. Guys played a lot of minutes, and guys played hurt. Their bench is thin, and they didn't get any younger."
That sort of talk is just the thing to make the Celtics angry, of course, and in the past, angry Celtics have been dangerous Celtics, and dangerous Celtics have been far too much for the East to handle. But these are different times. There are two teams—Detroit and Atlanta—with not only the desire, but also the talent to unseat Boston. The opinion here is that the Pistons will do it. After taking a preseason peek around the league, here is one man's guess as to how things will shake out once the playoffs begin in April.
Detroit vs. Philadelphia: Over the last three seasons the 76ers have lost Bobby Jones, Moses Malone, Julius Erving and, for all the good he's done them, Andrew Toney, the shooting guard with the fragile feet. Point guard Maurice Cheeks and forward Charles Barkley—Mr. Cool and Mr. Fool, respectively—will get the Sixers into the playoffs, but no further. Detroit advances.
Chicago vs. Milwaukee: Experience, in the form of veterans Jack Sikma, Terry Cummings, Paul Pressey (let's vote him onto the East All-Star team this season, folks), John Lucas and Craig Hodges (the latter two had not signed as of last Friday but were expected to soon) should make the Bucks a force in the Central Division during the regular season. And they will become even stronger if Sidney Moncrief, Milwaukee's heart and soul, recovers from recent surgery on his left knee by January, as expected, and if Ricky Pierce, sixth man supreme, ends his holdout. But the Bucks may find themselves wilting by the end of April, and it figures to be a difficult first year for Coach Del Harris, who will find his predecessor, Don Nelson, a tough act to follow. Milwaukee, which last season gave up two first-round picks to get Sikma from Seattle, must face the fact that he didn't help them win it all in 1986-87 and won't this season, either. The Bucks need fresh blood.
Though they won only 40 games and barely managed to qualify for the playoffs last season, the Bulls are attracting an inordinate amount of attention. Can Michael Jordan get any better? Will rookie forward Scottie Pippen, out of Central Arkansas, be a player and not just a headline-in-waiting: PIPPEN TIP-IN LIFTS BULLS? The answers are yes and yes. Chicago should be peaking by the playoffs, when the Pip and another outstanding rookie, swingman Horace Grant from Clemson, have figured out when to zig, when to zag and when to just give the ball to Jordan and get out of the way and watch. Chicago advances.
Atlanta vs. Indiana: Coach Jack Ramsay says his Pacers are no better than they were last season, when they went 41-41 and made the playoffs for the first time since 1980-81. We say he's wrong. Ramsay has had a full season to encourage forward Wayman Tisdale to stay in shape. It remains to be seen if rookie Reggie Miller out of UCLA is just a one-dimensional player, but even if he is, that dimension—long-range shooting—is just what the Pacers need to open things up inside for Tisdale, Herb Williams, Steve Stipanovich and Chuck Person. If guard Scott Skiles stays healthy, the Pacers will have made perhaps the best trade this season—a second-round pick to Milwaukee for the second-year point guard from Michigan State who played in only 13 games in '86-87 because of back problems.
The feisty Person will be one of the better players in the East this season, provided no one knocks his block off. He and the Hawks' Dominique Wilkins have already squared off this fall, in an exhibition game. This could be a real rivalry by the time Atlanta and Indiana get a crack at each other in the postseason. Atlanta advances.
Washington vs. Boston: The Bullets drafted 5'3" Muggsy Bogues to push the ball up the floor. Fine. So who will he pass it to once he gets near the basket? Bernard King seems the logical choice. He became a Bullet on Sunday after accepting a two-year, $2.1 million offer. King's presence beside two other All-Stars, Moses Malone and Jeff Malone, will make Washington a dangerous team if coach Kevin Loughery can blend all the talent and if King's bad left knee—the injury that kept him out of action for virtually all of the past two seasons—doesn't collapse. Boston advances.
Detroit vs. Chicago: The day before this series opens, Piston forward Dennis (the Mouth That Roared) Rodman will announce that he's going to hold Jordan to fewer than 10 points. Jordan will smile and go for 60. It still won't be enough. Now that center Bill Laimbeer has learned some back-to-the-basket moves, Detroit's inside game will be too much for Chicago, which is counting on Dave Corzine, who shoots from the outside, and aged Artis Gilmore, who can't shoot at all, in the pivot, Detroit advances.
Boston vs. Atlanta: The Hawks confront a couple of tough obstacles this season. First, rather than being the new kids on the block, as they were in '86-87, they're coming off a 57-win season, and some experts are predicting they'll prevail in the East. Second, they run the risk of stagnation that sometimes sets in when a team stays with a pat hand, as Atlanta has done. But Mike Fratello isn't the type of coach who tolerates anyone standing still. He'll keep bringing players off the bench—John Battle (watch out for him this season) for Randy Wittman and Spud Webb for Doc Rivers at guard, Antoine Carr for Wilkins or Kevin Willis at forward, Jon Koncak for Tree Rollins at center—until the Hawks come to life. Says Cleveland's Wilkens, "Atlanta is physical, and agile. That's a rare combination."
So why do we like the old guys over the young guys? Because the Hawks have yet to show that they can beat the Celtics when it really counts. We'll wait one more year. Boston advances.
Detroit vs. Boston: Who knows what the Celtics will look like seven months from now. If Larry (Hardbody) Bird stays hale, his scoring average may be near 30 points a game. If Kevin McHale's screw (the one that's holding his left foot together, that is) doesn't come loose, he'll still be the best back-to-the-basket player in the league. If Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge can...wait a minute, does this sound familiar? It should. Once McHale gets back in action (just a guess: He'll pick the Dec. 11 game with the Lakers at Boston Garden for his return), the Celtics' starting five will still be as good as any in the league. And suddenly the addition of versatile 7-footer Brad Lohaus, a rookie from Iowa, brings the Boston bench up to the level of respectability.
The Pistons unquestionably have the talent to win the East, but given their volatile mix of personalities and styles, do they also have the temperament? Yes. Chuck Daly is a good coach whose time has come. He will be tested this season, faced with the tasks of keeping both of his top scorers, Adrian Dantley and Isiah Thomas, happy and trying to keep Rodman out of trouble.
Rodman and 7-foot center-forward John Salley have changed Detroit, not only verbally but also defensively. When one or both are in the game, Thomas and his running mate, Joe Dumars, can gamble on defense and get away with it. On offense, the Pistons can run for minutes on end, or they can slow it down and clear out for Dantley, or they can simply hand the ball to sixth man Vinnie Johnson and let him shoot.
In Game 7 of the conference finals at Boston Garden last season the Pistons were behind by a point near the end of the third period when Dantley, in pursuit of a loose ball, cracked heads with Vinnie Johnson and had to leave the game. "Why did you pick then to dive for a loose ball for the first time in your life?" Dinitri Dantley asked her husband. Well, this time the Pistons will be more prepared when they crack heads with the Celtics. It should be a rock-'n'-rolling series for these new rivals, just the kind they like in Motown. Detroit goes to the NBA finals.
As soon as first-round pick Kevin Johnson takes the point guard job away from Mark Price, the Cavaliers will have perhaps the youngest starting lineup in NBA history with Johnson, 21; shooting guard Ron Harper, 23; center Brad Daugherty, 22; and forward John (Hot Rod) Williams, 26 but in only his second season, along with veteran Phil Hubbard, 30. All those young legs will help Cleveland, but not before 1990.
One of Rick Pitino's first acts after getting the job as Knicks coach was to work out some of his draft picks in early August, a transgression that earned the team a $5,000 fine from the league office. Pitino has installed the same kind of frenetic pressure defense that he used at Providence College. Whether it works or not in New York could depend on center Patrick Ewing, who's 15 pounds lighter.
The talent of the Nets—forwards Orlando Woolridge and Buck Williams and rookie guard Dennis Hopson—is superior to that of the Knicks and is at least equal to that of Indiana and Cleveland. But let's see if coach Dave Wohl can give enough playing time to his point guard duo, Pearl Washington and John Bagley, and if New Jersey is a better team, instead of merely a quieter one, without Darryl Dawkins.
A year ago at this time, prognosticators were burying the Lakers, who were coming off their Western Conference final loss to the Rockets. Let Kareem Abdul-Jabbar brandish his heavy jump rope all he wanted, everyone said: He was just too long in the tooth to carry L.A. into the 1986-87 finals.
Now, one NBA championship later, the 40-year-old Abdul-Jabbar is suddenly young again, and the Lakers are being touted—by a surprising number of observers—as the first team that will repeat as NBA champion since the 1968-69 Celtics. Says Trail Blazers coach Mike Schuler, "I don't think there's any doubt we're all playing for second place."
But the Lakers must watch out for the uh-ohs, which have already cropped up during the preseason in the form of inflammation in Magic Johnson's left Achilles tendon. The same sort of uh-ohs were heard early last season in Boston when Bill Walton broke the little finger of his left hand playing in a pickup game before training camp opened. Soon after that he reinjured his foot riding an exercise bicycle. Uh-oh, and the Celtics failed to repeat as NBA titlists.
Lakers vs. Denver: Alex English will still score, and Fat Lever will still do a little of everything for the Nuggets this season. But for a guy who will turn 31 in January, and who is coming off Achilles tendon surgery, and who, at 6'6", may be too small for his position, power forward Calvin Natt seems to figure too heavily in Denver's plans. Natt's a tough guy, but the load may be too great for him. Lakers advance.
Seattle vs. Utah: The SuperSonics will improve on last season's 39-43 record, yet they won't make it to the Western finals, as they did last spring. The NBA is now fully aware of what Bob Whitsitt, the Sonics' 31-year-old president, has accomplished with all his wheeling and dealing. He has put together a solid team and still has a first-round choice in next year's draft and three more in the following year.
Seattle's backcourt may be a bit thin, but its frontcourt is deep, with rookies Derrick McKey and Olden Polynice ready to back up forwards Tom Chambers and Xavier McDaniel and center Alton Lister. The Sonics don't have Karl (Mailman) Malone, though, and he'll be the difference. Utah advances.
Houston vs. Portland: The Trail Blazers tried to do something about bolstering their center position even before Sam Bowie went down during the preseason with his fourth broken leg in six years. They made a move for Ralph Sampson, but Houston locked him up with a big contract. They also had a deal with Cleveland for Keith Lee, but it was nixed by the Blazers' doctor, who didn't like the looks of Lee's knee. (The Nets felt otherwise and acquired Lee.)
What's a team to do? In Portland's case, give the ball to Kiki Vandeweghe and Clyde Drexler, and try to get along with Steve Johnson at center. It won't be enough against the Twin Towers. Houston advances.
Golden State vs. Dallas: Mark Aguirre of the Mavericks came to camp this season at about 220 pounds, at least 15 below his roly-poly regular weight, after a summer of aerobics, weightlifting, swimming and running. Gee, could Aguirre's new attitude have anything to do with the departure of coach Dick Motta, with whom he never got along, and the arrival of John MacLeod?
The Mavericks will be very good this season. The intensity of playmaker Derek Harper, the consistency of guard Rolando Blackman and the size of 7'2", 280-pound center James Donaldson will keep the Mavs at the top of the Midwest Division and should get them to a playoff showdown with the Lakers, whom they defeated in three straight regular-season games last season. But there's usually one first-round upset. Last spring it was Dallas losing to Seattle. So...Golden State advances.
Lakers vs. Utah: After Malone threatened to play in Italy, the penny-wise Jazz front office gave him a six-year, $6 million contract and held the signing ceremony in—you guessed it—an Italian restaurant in Salt Lake City. The 6'9", 256-pound Malone, who says he wants to be a bodybuilder when he retires, is so versatile he'll sometimes play small forward in the Jazz lineup, which is well stocked with a bunch of gargantuan operatives.
Some observers wonder, though, how much Utah helped itself by acquiring 6'11" Dawkins and 6'11" Mel Turpin. The latter, in particular, is thought to need substantial playing time to stay in fighting trim, and he may not get it in a frontcourt that also includes Malone, 7'4" Mark Eaton, 6'11" Thurl Bailey and 6'10" Mark Iavaroni.
But there's a good feeling in Utah this season, and coach Frank Layden has an excellent chance of challenging for the Midwest title if he can sort out the minutes and egos. Of course, that still won't get him past Magic and Kareem in the playoffs. Lakers advance.
Houston vs. Golden State: Coach George Karl of the Warriors wants more ball-handling and floor leadership from Chris Mullin. We'll see if Mullin can give it to him and, if Mullin does, how well it will sit with point guard Sleepy Floyd, the Warriors' leader-by-example last season.
Former Warrior coach John Bach once said this about attempting to direct center Joe Barry Carroll: "Overall, it was like living with a corpse." If Joe Barry wakes up, the Warriors won't be a pushover for anyone. But their front-court doesn't measure up in this series. Houston advances.
Lakers vs. Houston: After handing out a $2.5 million-per-year contract to Akeem Olajuwon (for 12 years) and one for $2 million per year to Ralph Sampson (for 6), the Rockets have very little room to maneuver under the NBA's salary cap. So they have almost no chance of bringing in the kind of quality guard that could turn them into the league's most dangerous team. In the preseason, coach Bill Fitch looked at "a cast of thousands" in the backcourt and ultimately didn't change much of anything. Robert Reid, Allan Leavell and Steve Harris are still there and will be joined by, lo and behold, World B. Free. Anyway, Houston needs only caretaker guards—until it goes head-to-head with L.A.
This will be no ordinarily terrific Lakers team that the Rockets will meet in the Western finals. It will be a team with a mission. When Houston beat Los Angeles in the 1986 conference finals, A.C. Green was a lost-in-space rookie; now he's a seasoned pro who knows how to bang on the boards. So does forward James Worthy, who has gained 10 pounds since that series but is as quick as ever. So does guard Byron Scott, who followed coach Pat Riley's directive and improved his rebounding last season. The Rockets won't catch L.A. waiting at the launchpad this time. Lakers advance.
Lakers vs. Detroit—The matchup suggests a double feature starring Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas in both productions: Rich and Famous and Such Good Friends. It will be one giant photo opportunity with these charismatic bosom bodies in the finals. And don't think Thomas will be at a disadvantage in his finals debut just because Johnson has been to this round six times. Thomas is cocky, and so are his teammates.
But let's face it: The Pistons aren't the Lakers. Johnson runs the L.A. offense with a sure hand on the throttle and an eye on the road, while Thomas occasionally runs the Pistons into a ditch. Green and Mychal Thompson, off the bench, are more than enough to neutralize Laimbeer's defensive rebounding. Worthy is one of the few small forwards who can match Dantley point for point. There's no reason Abdul-Jabbar can't score when he wants to against Laimbeer. And L.A. has that secret weapon, Michael Cooper, who can cool off anyone from Thomas to Dantley to Vinnie Johnson.
Barring an injury to Magic, the Lakers will once again be drinking champagne in June. Let them uncork something from, say, 1969, that magic NBA year when a champion last repeated.
While Ensign David Robinson goes about Navy business, the Spurs will be swabbing decks in the Midwest Division. Even if Walter Berry is the whole truth at small forward—and that has yet to be established—who will San Antonio surprise as long as it has David Greenwood at power forward and a trio of Petur Gudmundsson, Frank Brickowski and Kurt Nimphius at center?
The same might be said for the Suns, who will be going with James Edwards in the pivot. Even if Phoenix's rookie coach John Wetzel keeps all the bad chemistry from blowing up in his face—veteran All-Star Walter Davis testified in March about drug trafficking before a Maricopa County grand jury that later indicted two of his teammates, Edwards and point guard Jay Humphries—the Suns won't be a power.
Bill Russell says he's looking for his Kings to develop a "personality." By way of explanation, Russell says, "You ask somebody in New York and Chicago what the Kings are like, and they have no idea." There's a reason: Sacramento has been relentlessly boring for several seasons. Russell wants the Kings to be hard-nosed on defense, fast and flowing on offense, following the lead of rookie point guard Kenny Smith. It might happen but probably not soon enough to suit Russell.
The Clippers had, at 12-70, the worst record in the NBA since the 76ers went 9-73 in 1972-73. Gene Shue took over those Sixers the following year, and he is the new man in L.A. this season, making him an obvious choice for the lead in The Day After, Part II. Michael Cage is one of the league's best rebounders. And three good first-round draft picks, Reggie Williams, Joe Wolf and Ken Norman, may help Shue win, say, 25 games, the same number his Sixer team won in 1973-74.
ANDREW D. BERNSTEIN
SALLEY WILL HELP KEEP MOTOWN SOUND.
RICK STEWART/FOCUS WEST
CHICAGO FANS ARE BULLISH ON OAKLEY.
McDANIEL MAKES THE SONICS X-CITING.
MALONE ADDS MUSCLE TO UTAH'S JAZZ.
CAGE IS THE MAINSTAY OF THE CLIPPERS.