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Michael Jordan (below) is still dominant in Chicago, but a lot of other stars have switched uniforms. That leads to questions, which the author seeks to answer even as he picks the 16 playoff teams—and, oh yes, picks Detroit to beat Seattle for the title


Can coach Chuck Daly keep everyone happy?

Not really. The Pistons will have their pitched battles now and then. Vinnie Johnson may be upset when he sees that his sixth-man magic isn't quite so important anymore. And there will be nights when storm clouds form on the face of Adrian Dantley after he calls for the ball inside and doesn't get it. But some teams—the Pistons are one—can handle this kind of tension and even thrive on it.

From first man to 12th, Detroit is the best team in the NBA. It has Dantley to score, Isiah Thomas to pass, Joe Dumars to do both, Bill Laimbeer to rebound, Rick Mahorn, who has apparently recovered from back surgery, to bully. The opposition gets no relief when Daly goes to his bench—John Salley, Dennis Rodman, James Edwards and Johnson come at you hard. "The biggest problem on this team is getting everybody minutes," says Daly. And that includes Michael Williams, a rookie out of Baylor, as well as good ol' Double-D, the one and only Darryl Dawkins, who checked into training camp at close to 300 pounds but has shed 15 and has played well.

No, the Pistons will not disappear because Atlanta got Moses Malone. You will find them next June—winning their first NBA championship.

Can Moses be a tour guide to the promised land?

Perhaps. But the inner and outer strength that helped Malone become one of the most indomitable forces in league history has certainly lessened. That is the main concern of the multi-talented Hawks, who enter the season with high expectations—most pegged to Malone.

Never mind whether there will be enough basketballs to satisfy Atlanta's two new acquisitions, Malone (signed as a free agent for $5.86 million over three years) and Reggie Theus (acquired for Randy Wittman in a trade with Sacramento), as well as reigning superstar Dominique Wilkins. Whatever their reputations, all three want to win, and coach Mike Fratello will likely convince them that they must share the goodies to accomplish that. The more relevant issue is whether the addition of Malone, who will be 34 by season's end, makes the Hawks stronger than the Pistons. The answer here is no.

Are the Celtics really going to run this season?

Yes. The Five Wheezy Pieces that have constituted the sum and substance of the team the last four seasons—Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Kevin McHale, Larry Bird and Robert Parish—all gratefully acknowledge the arrival from UC Santa Barbara of rookie point guard Brian Shaw, who, as the 24th pick, may have been the steal of the draft. Shaw will try to get those old Celtics duffs in gear. He has the ability and, more important, the leadership qualities to do it.

That fact alone does not make the Celts better than Detroit or Atlanta. New coach Jimmy Rodgers will use a nine-man rotation, but reserves Brad Lohaus, Mark Acres and Reggie Lewis cannot match the bench strength of the Pistons or the Hawks.

Can the Cavs be considered an elite team?

Coach Lenny Wilkens says no, but the answer depends on your definition of elite. If it means a team that can make a serious run for a conference championship, then we say yes.

Look at the NBA's top 20 scorers last season and you'll see no one from Cleveland. Yet the Cavs have starters and subs who can score—forwards Larry Nance and John Williams, guards Ron Harper and Mark Price, and center Brad Daugherty. In marked contrast to Chicago, Cleveland's real rival this season, the Cavs rely on balance.

The only question for Cleveland is leadership. Price is competitive but quietly so. Harper has Jordanesque moves but not Jordanesque maturity. Nance has never been considered a leader in his seven years in the league. Daugherty, who just turned 23, is young. But if the Cavs get on a roll, the leadership will take care of itself, and the team without a real star will shine.

Are we to believe that trading power forward Charles Oakley made the Bulls stronger?

No, unless center Bill Cartwright, who was obtained from the Knicks in the deal for Oakley, has found a fountain of youth that will remove several of his 31 years and soothe the many injuries that have curtailed his playing time over the last three seasons. Remember what the Bulls have to live up to—they finished third in the conference last season, behind only Detroit and Boston and ahead of Atlanta.

Gee, wonder how they did that? Well, MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Michael Jordan might have had something to do with it, and he should be just as good this season. However, he'll miss Oakley and, for a while, versatile second-year forward Scottie Pippen, who begins the season on the shelf after undergoing offseason back surgery. Even if Cartwright stays healthy and gives the Bulls an offensive threat who gets opposing centers in foul trouble—something Chicago has had difficulty doing in recent years—it is hard to see how the Bulls can duplicate their 50-32 finish of last season.

All right then, do we believe that getting Oakley made the Knicks stronger?

No doubt about it. But the addition of a power forward to take some of the blue-collar load off center Patrick Ewing does not suddenly make the Knicks the toast of Broadway again. The rebuilding program of general manager Al Bianchi and coach Rick Pitino is going well, but the wildly optimistic preseason predictions about this team are premature.

New York still lacks scoring—and a lot of other things—from the small-forward position. Pitino is even trying guard Gerald Wilkins at that spot, though Wilkins is inconsistent. Further, Knick opponents are surely going to erect roadblocks designed to stop point guard Mark Jackson. Rarely has a player so exceeded everyone's expectations as Jackson, last season's Rookie of the Year, did.

But maybe Jackson is that good. And maybe Ewing is ready to break through for the kind of monster season that his monster salary (at least $3 million this year) suggests he should have. Then, and only then, will New York become the toast of Broadway.

Have the Bucks been written off too quickly?

Yes. Coach Del Harris says he is committed to a "changeable lineup," at least in the early going, but that's another way of saying he's not sure whom to put on the floor. However, don't forget that this team has some pretty good players—Sidney Moncrief, Jack Sikma, Paul Pressey, Terry Cummings, Ricky Pierce. And if they are no longer young Bucks, they are physical and versatile. Milwaukee also has Randy Breuer, a question mark, at center, but he played well last season until he broke two ribs in January.

Will this franchise stop its slide?

Yes, but only to a degree. After failing to make the playoffs last season, for the first time since 1975, the 76ers should rebound and claim the conference's last playoff spot. That's not very exciting for a major talent like Charles Barkley, but, Barkley excepted, the 76ers aren't a very exciting team.

Philly management, reeling from a series of bad moves it has made over the last few seasons, did something positive by landing Hersey Hawkins, a classic off-guard, in the draft. In Hawkins, who has been slowed by a knee injury suffered in the Olympics, the Sixers have at last found a player who can score and penetrate.

Coach Jim Lynam insists that, despite reports to the contrary, no rift exists between him and Barkley. But no one in management can be sure when Barkley is mad. At any rate, Lynam knows he has to ride Barkley and hope Barkley gets help from slimmed-down center Mike Gminski, talented but injury-prone forward Cliff Robinson, Hawkins and reliable point guard Maurice Cheeks, who has a groin pull.


Why can this team challenge for a championship?

Plenty of reasons. The SuperSonics have an ideal forward combination—Xavier McDaniel to shoot, Michael Cage to rebound, and both of them to throw bodies around inside. The Sonics are reasonably strong at center with Alton Lister and Olden Polynice. They have an intelligent and unselfish point guard in Nate McMillan. They have an invaluable movable part in 6'9" Derrick McKey, one of the NBA's most versatile players. They have an excellent, hard-driving coach in Bernie Bickerstaff.

And they have something else, too—a killer spirit. McDaniel has it. Cage has it. Polynice has it. Bickerstaff has it. Scoring guard Dale Ellis (25.8 points per game last season) might have it too, if he would only relax and try to enjoy the game.

Look for the Sonics to struggle and perhaps even do a little scrapping among themselves. But they will come together in the postseason and reach the Western Conference finals against the Lakers, as they did in 1987. This time, though, Seattle will prevail. Oh, how the sparks will fly against the Pistons in the championship series.

If winning two in a row was so hard, isn't it crazy to think about three?

Unreasonable perhaps, but not ridiculous. The only thing that's going to get the Lakers to the conference finals is the challenge of going after a third straight championship as a goodbye gift to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The Laker bench suddenly looks respectable with the addition of former Net forward Orlando Woolridge, who was acquired as a free agent after spending part of last season in drug rehabilitation.

Magic Johnson, who came into camp at 218 pounds, eight lighter than last year, has his eye on the MVP trophy he surrendered last season to Jordan. Byron Scott will be better than he was in 1987-88. Ditto James Worthy. A.C. Green's rebounding and defensive tenacity will take some of the pressure off Worthy.

L.A.'s spirit is willing, and its flesh is anything but weak. But the odds are against the Lakers' repeating, and it says here that they will fall to Seattle in a sizzling Western final.

Can a team with little depth reach the heights?

The long answer is, If anyone can, the Jazz can. The short answer is, No. Sure, Pat Riley won with eight players and K.C. Jones won with six or seven, but Utah's talent is not to be confused with Laker or Celtics talent.

Make no mistake—the Jazz will lay a lot of heavy mettle on the opposition this season. Karl Malone should increase his 27.7-point average, John Stockton (13.8 assists in 1987-88) should solidify his reputation as the second-best point guard, after Magic, in the West, and Thurl Bailey (19.6 points per game) should get recognized as the excellent and versatile forward he is. Moreover, the preseason reports on shooting guard Darrell Griffith—remember him from Louisville?—are promising. Plagued by foot and knee injuries throughout his career, Griffith has been a disappointment since he was the second pick in the 1980 draft, but coach Frank Layden hopes this is his season.

Unfortunately, the lack of a bullpen will eventually get Utah.

Will a pat hand come back and slap the Mavericks?

Yes, but that's not to say that Dallas made a bad decision in staying with the same unit that pushed the Lakers to a seventh game in the conference finals last spring. By increasing front-courtman Roy Tarpley's minutes while still keeping him in his effective sixth-man role—that's the plan at the moment, anyway—coach John MacLeod figures that his team can improve on its 53-29 record of last season.

But the Mavericks just aren't tough enough. Is center James Donaldson too nice? Is MacLeod too nice? Is power forward Sam Perkins, who has added 15 pounds of muscle to a skinny body, too nice? Is Mark Aguirre...well, you knew this would come down to him, didn't you?

Even if Dallas believes it cannot win with him, Aguirre is the kind of player who's hard to deal because of his reputation as a troublemaker. No team can afford to unload a 24.9 career scorer without getting something in return. Dallas will break down in the playoffs, which means that next season management will have to face some tough decisions about the starting five of Aguirre, Perkins, Donaldson, Rolando Blackman and Derek Harper.

Will the Trail Blazers ever do anything except finish second to the Lakers?

It will be the same old song for Portland, which will again finish second in the Pacific Division and get bounced from the playoffs. Still, the Trail Blazers shouldn't panic. The nucleus they have now is their strongest of the '80s, and it is young: guards Clyde Drexler, 26, and Terry Porter, 25, small forward Jerome Kersey, 26, and center Kevin Duckworth, 24. That leaves only the power-forward spot, which is adequately manned by veterans Steve Johnson, Caldwell Jones—who at 38 is the second-oldest player in the league, behind Abdul-Jabbar—and rookie Mark Bryant.

And what of Kiki Vandeweghe? As long as he is not having back troubles, Vandeweghe is valuable. But by the time the Trail Blazers develop a killer instinct to go with their running game—and that may well be next season—Vandeweghe will be onhisweghe elsewhere.

Will the Nuggets continue to be an every-other-year team?

Yes. After putting together a superb regular season, they had a real chance to beat the Lakers and get to the NBA Finals last year, but injuries to invaluable guard Fat Lever and off-the-bench scorer Jay Vincent derailed them in the Western semis against Dallas. This season, despite the acquisition of Walter Davis, whose veteran eyes must have lit up when he heard he was heading for Doug Moe's motion offense, the Nuggets will continue a trend of one good season followed by one so-so season.

Why? Lever is coming back from knee surgery, and veteran forward Calvin Natt is still game but still gimpy. Michael Adams will again be given Moe's blessing to fire up three-pointers, but opponents will be more prepared for them than they were last season, when Adams made at least one three-pointer in a record 43 consecutive games. Finally, the main man, 34-year-old Alex English, who scored 25 points per game last season, can't go on forever, although Moe seems to think that he can. "He's probably halfway through his career," Moe says. "He'll play till he's 48 or 49."

When center Danny Schayes is ready to earn his new million-dollar-per-year contract, and rookie Jerome Lane, the top rebounder in college basketball two seasons ago, gets the chance to eat some glass, the Nuggets will be back to challenge. That will probably be next season.

How much help does Otis Thorpe bring Akeem Olajuwon?

Plenty. But the Rockets are still a shooting guard, a small forward and a big man off the bench away from title contention. Then there's the question of how Joe Barry Carroll, who's either an underachieving center or an underachieving power forward, fits in.

After a soap-opera-ish 1987-88 season, in which Olajuwon feuded with coach Bill Fitch and publicly castigated teammates Sleepy Floyd and Carroll, Houston sacked the Wicked Fitch of the Southwest and declared Olajuwon the winner in their battle of wills. While the acquisition of Thorpe should prove beneficial, the cost was not small—small forward Rodney McCray and inside banger Jim Petersen were sent to Sacramento. Olajuwon, according to new Rocket coach Don Chaney, is "a happy person this year." What Chaney has to do now is send out a call for better supporting actors.

Now that the Suns have cleaned house, how does the place look?

Pretty good. Phoenix traded for point guard Kevin Johnson in February, signed high-scoring forward Tom Chambers as a free agent in the offseason and drafted forward Tim Perry and swingman Dan Majerle. All will have pivotal roles, but Chambers's will be the most important. "He'll be the guy we have to go to to win," says coach Cotton Fitzsimmons.

The chuckling you hear is emanating from Seattle, where Chambers took the blame for everything except the rainfall. Perhaps all he needed was a change of scenery. We'll see.

Ultimately, though, the Suns will only rise if power forward Armon Gilliam, the second choice in the '87 draft, is a real player. His rookie season was marred by a broken toe, but he's healthy now and should be helped in his development by Chambers, who has a way of drawing most of the heat.

Once a solid fixture in the Pacific Division, Phoenix hasn't made the playoffs since 1985. This season the Suns should be there.























The Indiana Pacers are one of those shrug-your-shoulders teams with shrug-your-shoulders players. They're not bad, they're not good. Point guard Vern Fleming? Shrug. Center-power forward Steve Stipanovich? Shrug. Power forward Wayman Tisdale? Shrug. Small forward Chuck Person? Well, with a talented enigma like him, you don't shrug. You throw up your hands and scream, "What's with this guy!" Even if Person comes back strong and 7'4" rookie center Rik Smits is not the pits, the Pacers will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs.

Congress should do something about this. The Washington Bullets begin the season with Dave Feitl as their starting center. Coach Wes Unseld has installed a modified version of Denver's motion offense, which may free Jeff Malone and Bernard King. Then again, it may close them down.

It should be a fun season for the New Jersey Nets' Willis Reed, who gets to coach Walter Berry. You'll recall that Berry's departure from San Antonio was hastened by his comment about the Spurs' hiring of Larry Brown. Said Berry, "He is a fundamentally sound coach, and my game does not consist of fundamentals." Here's news, Walter: Reed is fundamentally sound, too, and he'll only use you if you produce. The season shapes up as one more frustration for standout forward Buck Williams.

With veterans like Kelly Tripucka and Robert Reid to go with rookie Rex Chapman, the Charlotte Hornets should at least be better than Miami, the league's other expansion team.


Don Nelson, the Golden State Warriors coach, is working on a new version of the alley-oop. It calls for the guards to throw the ball off the backboard and into the hands of either 7'4" Ralph Sampson, if he stays around—trade rumors abounded during the preseason—or 7'7" Manute Bol. But trick plays aren't going to get the Warriors into the playoffs.

And to think that Larry Brown was sure the Navy would let David Robinson out to play for the San Antonio Spurs. The Navy said no. Because of the Robinson decision, Brown is forced to start the season with Petur Gudmundsson at center.

Look for coach Jerry Reynolds of the Sacramento Kings to use a variety of combinations, while he hopes that Derek Smith stays healthy and that his two top draft choices, Ricky Berry and Vinny Del Negro, can contribute.

Reality now sets in for the Los Angeles Clippers. As of last weekend, rookie forward Danny Manning was unsigned, although another rookie forward, Charles Smith, is in the fold, and the Clippers' third first-round choice, guard Gary Grant, has looked good. The Clips are about to discover that good draft picks aren't enough.

In contrast to Charlotte, the Miami Heat is building with young players. Consider that playmaker Pearl Washington is like a veteran on this team. Much of the Heat's success will depend on whether rookie Rony Seikaly is a center or power forward—or whether he's an NBA player at all. Guard Kevin Edwards, a rookie out of DePaul, is, though. Watch him.