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Original Issue

Let's Play :24 Questions

As the clock ticks down to an NBA season that opens with more questions than answers, here are enough of both to satisfy inquiring minds

:24 can the Chicago Hulls three-peal? And if you accept the conventional NBA wisdom that even champions need to make changes in order to stay ahead of the pack, how will the '92-93 Bulls be different from their predecessors?

That's two questions, but who's counting? Yes, the Bulls will become the first NBA team to win three straight titles since the '65-66 Celtics eight-peated. And though Chicago will basically remain the same—what can they do, use Michael Jordan as a decoy?—look for some subtle changes.

The defense will add a wrinkle or two, perhaps more full-court pressure, double teams coming from strange directions and maybe a new pattern for rotating off the double teams. The point is, coach Phil Jackson has a team that is already strong on defense, and he has a creative defensive coach (Johnny Bach) to make it even better.

The Bulls also hope to get more consistency out of their second unit, an entirely realistic goal. Though nine-year veteran Rodney McCray, obtained from Dallas in an off-season trade, has been singled out so often as an underrated player that he has almost become overrated, he was a great addition, and he can play three positions (power and small forward and off-guard). Backup point guard B.J. Armstrong will continue to believe that he could be starting for most other teams (he's right), and he will continue to try to prove it. And like him or not, reserve center Stacey King has shown that he can score in the NBA.

Finally, Chicago sees Scott Williams, third-string in the pivot, as a defensive wild card who can turn around games, a shot-blocking rebounder who can dominate inside.

:23 What NBA trend will be started if the Bulls do win again?

Look for a selective preseason practice schedule. Jackson allowed Dream Teamer Jordan to miss the entire first week of training camp; gave Scottie Pippen, another Olympian, some downtime during rigorous two-a-days; and severely cut back on the demands placed on two starters who are rehabilitating from off-season arthroscopic surgery, John Paxson and Bill Cartwright. Sure, it caused some tension—Horace Grant walked out of camp one day complaining about the preferential treatment. But experienced clubs such as the Bulls do not need their veteran players going at each other hammer and tongs from Day One.

:22 Will Gerald Wilkins supply that "something" that the Cleveland Cavaliers need to become true contenders?

Maybe. Wilkins, the former Knick whose inconsistency and tendency to overrate his game are exposed every year, gives the Cavs an additional athletic dimension. Privately, Jordan will admit that Wilkins's defense is capable of giving him fits, which was "something" none of the other Cavs could do. In four regular-season games against the Knicks last season, Jordan struggled from the floor (he shot just 44%, compared with 51.9% overall), mostly because of Wilkins. But....

There's something else missing from the Cavs. Toughness. True hunger. Nastiness. An us-against-the-world, we'll-show-'em mentality. The Cavs still have maybe the East's best pure point guard in All-Star Mark Price, but they did not change enough to leapfrog the Bulls.

:21 Can we stick a fork in the Portland Trail Blazers?

No. They're still capable of blowing out anyone on a given night, but they will not make it back to the Finals. The mental burden of having gotten there and failed twice will be too much to overcome. Buck Williams is 32 and isn't getting any younger, Kevin Duckworth isn't getting any better, and new addition Rod Strickland isn't getting any more reliable. (The Portland faithful had better turn toward the Columbia River and pray that Clyde Drexler's aching knees will not be a constant problem.) A coach can keep pushing his guys to play harder and tougher and even more consistently, but it's not easy for him to keep pushing them to play smarter. That is coach Rick Adelman's dilemma this season.

The one thing in the Blazers' favor is the theory of the suffering apprentice. The champion Pistons of 1988-89 and '89-90 had to lose to the Celtics and the Lakers, respectively, in earlier playoffs before they could figure out how to beat those teams themselves, and the Bulls of 1990-91 and '91-92 had to be humiliated by the Pistons in previous years before they could turn it around and beat them in the postseason. Alas, the Blazers' situation doesn't have the same feel.

:20 Will Charles Barkley make the difference in Phoenix?

Yes. The Suns will win the West, and Barkley (page 66) will be the reason why. He has a true hunger to go down in NBA history as a winner, and now he has the supporting cast to do it.

It's simplistic to think that Barkley will be the only factor, however. Just as important is the fact that Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle now believe they can win it all. The chemistry between KJ and former coach Cotton Fitzsimmons was never the best, and the change to Paul Westphal will be important, too.

:19 Will the Suns need two basketballs to keep both Barkley and Tom Chambers, another noted gunner, happy?

Sometimes. But Larry Bird and Kevin McHale sometimes needed two balls too. Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars sometimes needed two balls. Heck, Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman sometimes needed two balls. As Westphal points out, Chambers will no longer draw the best frontcourt defender when he and Barkley are on the floor together, and that should make the dirty-blond bomber more effective. Truly good teams figure out a way to win, and winning teams are happy.

:18 What have all the changes in New York wrought for the Knicks?

They're contenders. They will miss both Wilkins and point guard Mark Jackson—stop laughing! I hear you laughing!—but the changes in the Knick lineup should produce solid results; both team president Dave Checketts and coach Pat Riley deserve credit for playing Pat's hand and refusing to stand pat. But consider: Former All-Star Rolando Blackman turns 34 on Feb. 26 (a bad back kept him out of every preseason game). Forward Charles Smith has never shown anything except enormous potential, and that type of player can break your heart. Swingman Tony Campbell is a scorer, and that's it. And rookie Hubert Davis is sure to have some trouble getting off that radar jumper.

Sound personnel moves do not necessarily turn a good team into a champion. The Garden will be jumpin' this season, but banners won't fly until 1993-94.

:17 Is there any reason to suspect that the Los Angeles Lakers without Magic Johnson this season will he any better than the Los Angeles Lakers without Magic Johnson last season ?

No. They finished eighth in the West in 1991-92, and they'll suffer the same fate this time around. If general manager Jerry West has made the right choice, as he usually does, in No. 1 draft pick Anthony Peeler, L.A. will have one of the most exciting new players in the league to re-energize its once-again ordinary backcourt. But there is still the important matter of the leadership gap left by Magic's sudden re-retirement on Monday. Veterans James Worthy, Sam Perkins, A.C. Green and Byron Scott weren't able to fill it last season—individually or collectively—and incumbent point guard Sedale Threatt has the position only by default, being more suited to playing the two-guard spot. Only the Lakers' well-tested strength of character will enable them to make the playoffs, if indeed they do that.

:16 Along with the teams already mentioned, who else will make the playoffs? (List them from best to worst, please.)

I'll tell you. The West playoff teams will be Phoenix, Portland, Utah, Seattle, Golden State, San Antonio and the Lakers.

The Los Angeles Clippers endured too many changes to be able to build on their success (45-37) of last season. Sacramento needs at least one more defensive stopper before it can even consider making the Magic Eight; maybe next season. Denver needs one more season (if not two or three) to Mutombo their way toward the top. Minnesota and Dallas? Puhleeze.

In the Last: Chicago. Cleveland, New York, Boston, New Jersey, Indiana, Miami and Atlanta will make the playoffs.

What, no Pistons? That's right, no Pistons. Not this year. The former Bad Boys are just plain ol' bad. The only thing that can save them is a sudden and complete mending of the fences between the disenchanted Dennis Rodman, who finally showed up Monday for his first preseason practice, and his teammates (page 114).

It's a safe bet that Milwaukee coach Mike Dunleavy will get the new-look Bucks on the playoff trail, but not this year. Same old story for the Bullets—coach Wes Unseld doesn't have quite enough to work with. Charlotte (provided it gets Alonzo Mourning signed) and Orlando will be extremely competitive and could easily make the playoffs if Indiana, Miami or Atlanta falters. Frankly, there's not much at all that separates the bottom nine teams in the Hast.

:15 Who has the best chance to be rookie of the year besides Orlando 's Shaquille O'Neal?

Barring an injury to the Shackster, there's no contest. The best dark-horse candidate is Houston's Robert Horry, the 11th pick of the draft, who will get major minutes at small forward.

:14 Is Harold Miner the next Michael Jordan? Is Clarence Weatherspoon the next Charles Barkley?

No and no. Jordan and Barkley are once-in-a-lifetimers. But Miner and Weatherspoon are better than advertised. The explosive Miner can take it to the hole a la Jordan, but he needs to work on his perimeter game in order to earn the freedom to operate. And the 6'6" Weatherspoon is, like Barkley, a high-rise leaper who explodes off the floor. They will both be big-time players. Remember that Miner was not picked until No. 12, and a few teams—Milwaukee and Atlanta, in particular—will be sorry they didn't grab him.

:13 Can the Boston Celtics be a good team without Larry Bird?

Of course. They were a good team without him last season, when they won 15 of their last 16 games, all with Bird, and his bad back, on the pine. But they're still no better than fourth in the East. Robert Parish (at 39, the oldest player in the league) and McHale (who, at 34, played in only one preseason game because of chronic ankle problems) are bound to wear down. And a Sherman Douglas-Dee Brown combo is not the answer at point guard: before long, Douglas will wear out his welcome.

:12 Charlotte's Kendall Gill is frequently mentioned as a superstar-to-be. Is there any other young player you'd rather have?

Yes, Miami's Glen Rice. There are distinct differences—Rice plays more at the three-spot, while Gill is a two-guard—but they're similar; Rice can certainly swing to the backcourt. Gill is awfully good, and there's no doubting his athleticism, but there's a premium on pure shooters who are also tough defenders and team players. Rice fits that description.

:11 Who put up big, big numbers last season but is still a question mark with many NBA people?

Atlanta's Kevin Willis, who got just about every rebound that Rodman did not get in 1991-92, finishing with 15.5 per game, to go with his 18.3 scoring average. Those numbers suggest that Willis finally lived up to the promise shown during the '86-87 season, when he averaged 16.1 points and 10.5 rebounds at power forward. But there's still too much inconsistency, far too many periods of brooding and playing soft and, well, not much overthinking. In fact, not even the Hawks know quite what to make of the eight-year veteran, and neither does the rest of the league. Willis will need another full season like his last one—maybe not scoring as much, because Dominique Wilkins is back after suffering a torn Achilles tendon midway through last season, but certainly on the boards—to solidify his reputation.

:10 Who is "Coach Tarkenton"?

Coach Jerry Tarkanian. Spur owner Red McCombs, who is not always on the same page with the rest of us, referred to his rookie coach as Tarkenton a few times during the Spurs' introductory news conference because he was so excited to have Tark around. But, hey, perhaps ol' Red knew what he was talking about. Lowpost scorer Terry Cummings had season-ending knee surgery. Shooting guard Willie Anderson has been slow to recover from bone grafts to repair stress fractures in both legs. And we're pretty sure that Tark has the only sixth man in the NBA who never played a minute of college ball and has a bullet lodged in his left shoulder. (That, of course, would be Lloyd Daniels.) Yes, like that famous Viking quarterback of old, Tark is going to be doing a lot of scrambling.

But, hey, he likes the NBA life-style. "Nice hotels, nice per diem check, don't have to carry luggage," says Tark. You mean that wasn't the same life-style you enjoyed at UNLV?

:09 Who's in for the rudest awakening among the new additions out West?

If it's not Coach Tarkenton, it might well be the aforementioned Mark Jackson of the Clippers. Jax suddenly finds himself in a conference where he has to guard KJ, John Stockton and Terry Porter from time to time.

:08 Will Derrick Coleman listen to Chuck Daly more than he listened to former New Jersey Net coach Hill Fitch ?

Of course. Derrick is a young guy who wants to look good, and he's sure to listen to Chuck's fashion tips. He'll probably listen to him on the court, too. Daly has already dropped enough hints. "Derrick has much more talent than I ever dreamed, enough talent to be considered one of the top six or seven players in the league," says Daly. "All he needs now is to do the conditioning and the other off-the-court things that will make him great." There's a message woven into that valentine, Derrick.

:07 Why don't the Nets decide on one point guard—either potential star Kenny Anderson or three-year veteran Mookie Blaylock—and send the other guy off on his merry way?

Because Daly is concerned, as he mentions about seven times a day, with the 6'1", 168-pound Anderson's wearing down over the course of a grueling season. Make no mistake about it, though—Anderson, the No. 2 pick in the 1991 draft, is their man. They could still deal Blaylock.

:06 Since he's easily Indiana's best player, why isn't Detlef Schrempf starting?

You tell me! Having Detlef accept the Sixth Man Award before the home crowd, as he did in each of the last two seasons, makes for a nice show and all, but, hey, get this guy in the game! Actually, he may be in the starting lineup on opening night if power forward Dale Davis has not fully recovered from a shoulder injury. Look, if small forward George McCloud is indeed an explosive scorer, then bring him off the bench and start the versatile Schrempf there, with rebounding demon Davis at the four-spot. Let somebody else win the Sixth Man trophy.

:05 How many basketballs would it take to match the combined weight of the Los Angeles Clippers' Stanley Roberts and John (Hot Plate) Williams?

About 430. Though the Clips do not make daily weight reports public, the best guess is that Roberts and Williams check in at about 300 pounds each. That's much worse news for Williams, who is 6'9" and theoretically a mobile player, than it is for the 7-foot Roberts. At any rate, Stanley is definitely the man in the middle for the Clips, and, foul trouble notwithstanding, he has had at least an average preseason. Williams just began full-court drills last week and is not expected to be a factor until midseason. If he begins nocturnal missions to the golden arches, he will not be a factor at all.

:04 Regarding the Denver Nuggets, why is Mark Macon, who is supposed to be a shooting guard, starting at the point? And why is Chris Jackson, who is supposed to be a point guard, playing at the two?

It has more to do with deficiencies than strengths. Macon (.375 shooting percentage last year) doesn't shoot well enough to be a true off-guard, and his shot selection last season, according to first-year coach Dan Issel, "was, quite frankly, horrendous." Jackson, meanwhile, simply doesn't have the court sense to be a fulltime quarterback, though he will play the position from time to time. At any rate, look for Macon to have much more defensive responsibility than most playmakers—in truth, it remains to be seen if he can handle the point. Jackson, who is 25 pounds lighter than he was at this point last season, will be battling Todd Lichti, an improved Reggie Williams and rookie Bryant Stith for minutes.

:03 What is the net result of the Minnesota Timberwolves' adding Chuck Person?

They now have two of the most obnoxious players in the league. All right, that's not fair—rookie forward Christian Laettner has yet to prove that he can irritate with the big boys. But I'm betting on him. What is the coachspeak explanation of Person's departure from Indy? "Our team had a tough time dealing with his strong personality," said Pacer coach Bob Hill. Is that the same thing as saying, "They hated the sonofagun"?

:02 Is Laettner the worst 1992 Olympian in the NBA?

Not even close. Two of Laettner's teammates, Australia's Luc Longley and the Unified Team's Gundars Vetra, have him beat with ease. Laettner, in fact, will be an outstanding pro—perhaps not a superstar along the lines of O'Neal, but a future All-Star.

:01 Will the Dallas Mavericks he the worst team you've ever seen?

It depends on how old you are. The worst record in NBA history was posted by the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, who went 9-73. The Mavericks won't be that bad. The 1947-48 Providence Steamrollers didn't steamroll anybody en route to a 6-42 record in a merciful 48-game schedule. The Mavericks won't be that bad. The third-worst team of all time was the 1986-87 Clippers, at 12-70. The Mavericks won't be that bad. In its first season (1988-89), Miami lurched out of the blocks with 17 straight losses and went on to a 15-67 record. The Mavericks just might be that bad.

As of Sunday the franchise's future, rookie swingman Jim Jackson, was not signed. Its best player, Derek Harper, was on the trading block. Second-year center Donald Hodge and rookie Scan Rooks will share the center spot. The roster is littered with "CBA guys," as coach Richie Adubato calls them. And in the face of such mediocrity, Adubato plans to run an up-tempo offense (including, in Adubato's words, "tons of threes") ignited by a pressure defense, which could result in the Mavs' getting run out of games early.

Good luck, Richie. You'll need it.



Wilkins, a Knick turned Cavalier, can give Jordan fits.



The Birdless Celtics can still fly, but they don't have any guards who soar like Price.



Knicks like Charles Oakley (on floor) hope that Smith finally fulfills his potential.



Threatt will be under pressure—again—to fill Magic's shoes.



Leapin' lizards: 'Spoon is being compared with Barkley.



Charlotte has a young star in Gill (left), while Denver has a No. 2 guard at the point in Macon.



[See caption above.]