O.K., Rick Mahorn was important. He gave Detroit a tough presence and didn't hesitate to kick a lazy teammate's butt in the locker room. Still, if Mahorn had been more than the eighth-most important player on the roster, the Pistons would have withheld him from the expansion draft. Anyway, veteran 6' 10" bruiser Scott Hastings, picked up from the Miami Heat, will be a reasonable, if less belligerent, facsimile of Mahorn.
Detroit is one of the most balanced teams in the history of the NBA, never mind the most balanced team in the league right now. Are the Pistons better than last season? Not necessarily. But who is? Chicago, perhaps. But the Bulls must step up and prove they're better than Detroit, and these ornery Pistons like nothing better than a challenge.
Expectations are not merely high in Chicago, they're running amok. Here's how the logic goes. The Bulls made it all the way to the Eastern finals last season, and they must be stronger this year with the arrival of three first-round draft choices: center-forward Stacey King, point guard B.J. Armstrong and forward Jeff Sanders.
Rookies, even two good ones like King and Armstrong (Sanders is out for a month with a broken foot), do not usually make a team better right away. That will be up to forwards Scottie Pip-pen and Horace Grant, who must learn to play hard every night; to center Bill Cartwright, who must find a way to integrate himself into the offense; and to Craig Hodges, who must make the outside shot with enough consistency to take the pressure off you-know-who.
Speaking of Michael Jordan, if coach Phil Jackson holds to his preseason plan, Jordan will be out on the wing, in the open floor. He won't be a point guard, and he won't be a rebounder. Sounds good—let's see if it happens.
This is a make-or-break season for Fratello and his nucleus of Wilkins, Malone and Doc Rivers. On the positive side, Atlanta knows what it must do to improve. If Malone wants another championship ring to go with the one he got in Philly six years ago, he knows that some of his celebrated sweat will have to be worked up by contributing to team play instead of griping that he's not getting the ball enough. Wilkins knows that if he is to join the Magic-Jordan-Bird pantheon, he must also become more of a team player. Rivers knows that now is the time to seize the leadership role that is his for the taking. Even if the Hawks respond to this challenge, subpar perimeter shooting will ultimately do them in.
They did not help themselves in the off-season, and the question is whether the group that general manager Wayne Embry worked so hard to assemble over the last three years is good enough to get past Detroit, Chicago or even Atlanta. We say no. Forward-shot blocker Larry Nance is lost until at least mid-December because of off-season ankle surgery. and. with the exit of Mike Sanders (to Indiana via free agency), sixth-man John (Hot Rod) Williams will have to play more. Nonetheless. Cleveland is a dangerous team. Look for the Cavs to get off to a slow start because of Nance's injury and center Brad Daugherty's injured right foot. The Cavs should get stronger as the season progresses.
Here is coach Jimmy Rodgers in the preseason: "Putting people together to finish a game is more important to us than who starts." Boy, how times have changed. It wasn't too long ago that the indefatigable five of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge would start the game, finish the game and play most of the minutes in between. No more. Johnson, 35, may not contribute much, Bird is coming off surgery to both heels, and the plan is to use McHale off the bench. If backup frontcourtman Joe Kleine and starting—for now—power forward Ed Pinckney can provide productive minutes, Boston will win the Atlantic Division. And who knows how far the Celtics' experience will take them in the postseason?
"We know we can press. We know we can run," says Stu Jackson, New York's 33-year-old rookie coach. "Now the idea is to take the next step, to get better in the half court, both offensively and defensively." It didn't go all that smoothly in the preseason, but change takes time. The bigger challenge for the Knicks, though, is to avoid internal squabbles that could arise over playing time, especially at point guard. Rod Strickland presents a formidable challenge to the incumbent, Mark Jackson. Jackson reported out of shape, and Strickland
started all of the exhibition games as of last weekend. Another possible problem area could be at small forward when and if Kiki Vandeweghe's back heals. Who sits? Kiki or Johnny Newman?
Over the last few years Milwaukee has been nothing if not predictable. Big. Tough. A little stodgy. Fair to middlin' in all categories. Suddenly the Bucks are different. A backcourt of Alvin Robertson, acquired from San Antonio, and Jay Humphries brings a certain mercurial quality, and Greg Anderson, also late of the Spurs, brings hustle and muscle, but he has a bum right knee that will require surgery and keep him out for six weeks. Perhaps veterans Jack Sikma, Paul Pressey and Ricky Pierce will feel inspired by the new blood.
Until they landed former Piston bad boy Rick Mahorn in a trade last week for some future draft picks, the 76ers didn't look like a playoff team. Philly looks a little better, with Mahorn giving the team toughness in the frontcourt and inside defense, which it lacked. Charles Barkley and Mahorn up front. Is that a referee's nightmare? If Johnny Dawkins comes around at point guard—if he really is a point guard—this team will be better than Milwaukee. If he doesn't, it will be worse than Washington.
In an effort to keep Chuck Person's talent and energy focused, PACERS coach Dick Versace named him cocaptain. Center-forward LaSalle Thompson is the other captain. Maybe the added responsibilities will help Person and Thompson, but the Pacers will make the playoffs only if second-year center Rik Smits continues to improve.
Without a dominating center—263-pound Mel Turpin is around, but he is dominating only in a doughnut shop—much of the inside load for the BULLETS will fall upon the slender but evidently expanding shoulders of second-year forward Harvey Grant, who, at 215 pounds, is about 25 pounds heavier than he was a year ago. Grant's weightlifting program began the day after Washington's final regular-season game last April. He should be able to get an early start pumping iron in 1990, too, because this doesn't look like a playoff team.
In the preseason, new coach Bill Fitch said that the NETS were counting on two rookie guards, Mookie Blaylock and Jay Taylor. Fitch doesn't like having to rely on first-year players, but with the departure of John Bagley (to Boston), he doesn't have much choice. Even if this young team responds to hardliner Fitch, which is doubtful, New Jersey doesn't have much hope.
Gee, here are two optimistic signs for the HEAT, the NBA's worst offensive team last season: Rookie sharpshooter Glen Rice reported slightly overweight and did not play well in the preseason, and second-year shooting guard Kevin Edwards went 2 for 24 from the floor during one three-game stretch. But coach Ron Rothstein wants to build Miami with defense and hustle, and the Heat should improve on last year's 15-67 record by seven or eight wins.
Rex Chapman, who never met a shot he didn't like, could play both guard positions this season. There does not seem to be a more unlikely match of position and player than point guard and Chapman. But even if he brings creativity there, the HORNETS need rebounding and defense to improve last season's 20-62 performance.
WHY CHICAGO IS SKY HIGH: ROOKIES (FROM LEFT) SANDERS, KING, ARMSTRONG, COACH JACKSON
BRUCE L. SCHWARTZMAN
ROBINSON STARTED EARNING HIS SPURS EARLY AGAINST TWO OF THE LEAGUE'S TOP PLAYERS