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Original Issue

:24 Questions

Before our pro basketball package winds down, we take a shot at answering some burning queries about the upcoming season

:24 Is there a silver lining for Chicago Bull fans in losing Michael Jordan?

Sure, they won't have to listen to any cutesy, language-mangling expressions like "Fourplay," alluding to the Bulls' quest for a fourth straight NBA title. O.K., it's not much, but it's the best we can do. Chicago fans will just have to accept that nine years of His Airness and three titles are more than anyone has a right to expect, and that the time has come to find out what it's like to battle for a playoff spot. Jordan's absence may allow a few players to blossom—point guard B.J. Armstrong comes to mind—but it weakens the Bulls in every area. Add to that the inevitable period of adjustment caused by the addition of swingman Toni Kukoc of Croatia, and...sorry, this was supposed to cheer up Bull fans, wasn't it?

:23 With Jordan gone, should an asterisk be placed next to the name of the 1993-94 NBA champion?

It's true that the next champ will have to live with the unanswerable question: Could it have beaten Jordan? But the field is crowded with contenders—a couple of which might well have beaten the Bulls even with Jordan. Do the New York Knicks have enough offense? Do the Phoenix Suns have enough defense? Was Air all that stood between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the title, or are the Cavs just too soft? Are the youthful Seattle Super-Sonics and the Charlotte Hornets ready to grow? The new champion will deserve the title sans asterisk because it will have answered some questions about itself.

:22 Will Charles Barkley's back hold up until June?

We hate to answer a question with a question, but what do we look like, doctors? Backs are tricky, and the sight of Barkley stretched out on the floor near the Sun bench during preseason games was all too reminiscent of Larry Bird's last years. Even if Barkley's back holds up, he'll play fewer minutes—he averaged 37.6 last season—and he might even sit out a few regular-season games. That's not a bad idea, because Sir Charles's tank was on empty toward the end of the playoffs last spring.

:21 Which team made the shrewdest move in the off-season?

The Denver Nuggets. They got rid of those hideous uniforms. "Ugliest things in the league," says Denver center Dikembe Mutombo. "It's hard to play good when you look so bad."

:20 No, seriously, who made the best trade?

Billy McKinney, the Detroit Pistons' director of player personnel, deserves a pat on the back for getting All-Star forward Sean Elliott from the San Antonio Spurs for Dennis Rodman (page 124). McKinney had no leverage, because everyone in the league knew he absolutely, positively had to get rid of the unpredictable Rodman, yet he landed a player who gives the Pistons needed offensive punch—Elliott averaged 17.2 points per game last season—and who should be a major piece in McKinney's reconstruction of the club.

:19 Can Pat Riley coach?

Rhetorical question. Of course he can. But it might be time for Riley to make a few subtle adjustments. They probably have the deepest roster in the league, and Riley would be wise to distribute the minutes more widely than he has in the past. That won't be easy—at shooting guard alone, he has budding star John Starks, a healthier Rolando Blackman and second-year-man Hubert Davis, whose shining preseason has earned him the No. 1 backup job—but Riley needs to do it. Thirty-one-year-old Patrick Ewing especially needs more rest.

:18 Why did one G.M. tell New Jersey Net coach Chuck Daly that this season would be the most challenging of Daly's life?

Let's see, it could be because the death of guard Drazen Petrovic, who scored 22.3 points per game last season, left a hole in Daly's team emotionally and professionally. Or it could be because Daly has a pair of underachieving pivotmen, Benoit Benjamin and Dwayne Schintzius, of whom Daly says, "I'm not sure either one of them is mentally strong enough to be a starter." Or it could be because his starting power forward, Derrick Coleman, turned down an eight-year, $69 million contract extension (page 88) and may be distracted by thoughts of becoming a restricted free agent after the season. Or maybe it's because Coleman's backup, Armon Gilliam, has played for Phoenix, Charlotte and the Philadelphia 76ers and been slammed by teammates or coaches in each place. Other than that, the season should be a piece of cake for Daly.

:17 Can you list the playoff teams in each conference from top to bottom?

In the East they will be the Knicks, Cavs, Hornets, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, Bulls, Nets and Miami Heat. The Pistons and Atlanta Hawks are standing by in case New Jersey or Miami falters.

In the West the Suns, SuperSonics, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Spurs, Utah Jazz, Nuggets and Golden State Warriors will reach the postseason. The two Los Angeles teams will push the Nuggets and Warriors for the last two spots.

And even though you didn't ask, New York will beat Phoenix in the Finals.

:16 What do subway sandwiches have to do with Orlando rookie guard Anfernee Hardaway?

When Hardaway, the third pick in the draft, was chosen the Subway Sub of the game—a promotion sponsored by the sandwich-store chain in Orlando—after a fair performance in his first home exhibition game, Magic fans booed. Hardaway got off to a rocky start, partly because he took a hard line in contract negotiations and partly because some observers think the Magic made a mistake in trading the rights to top pick Chris Webber to the Warriors for Hardaway and three first-round selections—in '96, '98 and 2000. Fortunately for Hardaway, it doesn't appear that Orlando will trade point guard Scott Skiles, a crowd favorite. Look for Hardaway and Skiles to play together in the backcourt.

:15 Speaking of sandwiches, shouldn't the 76ers fine Shawn Bradley, their spindly 7'6" rookie center, every time he's spotted without one?

It would be a start. Bradley is much stronger and in far better shape than he was when he began off-season workouts. That's scary, because he was manhandled by everyone from Heat center Rony Seikaly to Knick backup Herb Williams during the preseason. With all due respect to Moses Malone (page 106), who was brought in to tutor Bradley, the Sixers would have been better off trading for the Clippers' portly pair, Stanley Roberts and John Williams, who could teach him how to handle a Philly cheese steak.

:14 Should 40-year-old Robert Parish finish his career in a Celtic uniform even though Boston is rebuilding or seek a trade to a contender?

It would be nice to see the Chief get a shot at one more championship before he heads to the Hall of Fame. Chicago and Golden State both showed off-season interest in Parish, but it looks as if he'll spend his 18th pro season with a team that probably won't make the playoffs for the first time since 1978. "We have goals," Parish says, "they're just not championship goals."

:13 Did the Warriors make a mistake in dealing for Chris Webber?

No, but what they need even more at the moment is a faith healer who could make the Warrior afflicted throw down their crutches and walk. After being gutted by injuries last year, Golden State is apparently headed for Season from Hell: The Sequel. Guards Sarunas Marciulionis and All-Star Tim Hardaway are gone for the season with torn anterior cruciate ligaments, and last Saturday, All-Star forward Chris Mullin was lost for six weeks with a torn ligament in his right pinkie. The injuries have transformed Golden State from dark-horse title contender to just another playoff hopeful.

:12 With the top three picks of the draft—Webber, Bradley and Anfernee Hardaway—all having experienced difficulties, is the door open for someone else to become Rookie of the Year?

Nope. The chic pick might be Minnesota Timberwolf guard Isaiah Rider, the fifth player selected in the draft and the last player to sign. But we'll take Webber, whose chances for the award might actually have improved when Tim Hardaway and Mullin went down. The Warriors will now probably turn Webber loose to do the things he does best—rebound and run the floor. A sleeper? Lindsey Hunter, the Pistons' first No. 1 pick, a slick, 6'2" play-maker and heir apparent to veteran Isiah Thomas.

:11 Is Sleepy Floyd the point guard San Antonio has been looking for?

For some reason, every so often someone gets the urge to try to remake Floyd, a shooting guard if ever there was one, into a playmaker. The experiment didn't work at his last stop, in Houston, and it's unlikely to work with the Spurs either. Something tells us the Spurs will be shopping again for a playmaker before the season's out.

:10 What's the difference between trash talk and taunting?

Frankly, we're not sure, but we do know that the NBA considers the former to be good, clean fun and the latter to be cause for a technical foul. "It may sound like a fine line, but I think a reasonable person can differentiate between harmless boasting and the kind of threatening or embarrassing talk that a player could take offense at," says Rod Thorn, the league's vice-president for operations. Talking unquestionably contributed to some of the flare-ups in the league last year. "In some cases referees were guilty of letting the talking get out of hand," says Darell Garretson, the NBA's chief of officiating. "This year we're going to try to keep it to aloud roar."

:09 Is Clyde (the Glide) on the slide?

After Portland guard Clyde Drexler, 31, struggled with knee and hamstring injuries over the last two seasons, there were whispers that he, like the Blazers, was past his prime. But word over the summer was that Drexler was feeling like his old self. Drexler complicated matters during the preseason by declaring he was unhappy with his contract, which at $1.5 million this season, makes him the sixth-highest-paid player on the team. Drexler even skipped a practice to make his point about the contract, a bold move for a guy normally about as controversial as vanilla ice cream. But it seems to have worked. By Monday, Drexler had said he and team owner Paul Allen would "agree in theory" and they would put off further discussions until after the season. Drexler will most likely get a one-year extension of his current contract that will pay him a reported $17 million for the '95-96 season.

:08 Are the Hornets better now that they've replaced shooting guard Kendall Gill with Hersey Hawkins?

All things being equal, we would rather have Gill, but all things weren't equal in Charlotte, where Gill pouted about being third banana behind center Alonzo Mourning and forward Larry Johnson. So the Hornets shipped him to Seattle for forward Eddie Johnson and guard Dana Barros, then sent Barros, forward Sidney Green (who later retired) and the rights to draft pick Greg Graham to Philadelphia for Hawkins. Gill is more athletic and versatile than Hawkins, but Hawkins is a proven scorer who should get along with the Hornets better than Gill did. As for Gill, he should fit right in with the volatile Sonics, who aren't at their best unless someone is complaining about something.

:07 What does Clipper owner Donald Sterling have in common with Manute Bol?

Just when you think you don't have to worry about them, they surprise you with a block. That's what Sterling did when he stepped in to block the trade of Danny Manning, the Clippers' unhappy forward, to the Heat for forwards Glen Rice and Willie Burton just as Manning was about to board a flight for Miami.

:06 What did former Cavalier coach Lenny Wilkens, whose team played Wile E. Coyote to Michael Jordan's Roadrunner, say to himself when he learned of Jordan's retirement?

"I'll bet it was something like, Oh, sure, now he retires," says one Western Conference coach. "If Cleveland had known Jordan wouldn't be back, Lenny wouldn't have felt pressured to resign."

Wilkens landed on his feet in Atlanta, but not with a title contender. Instead, new Cleveland coach Mike Fratello will celebrate when his team supplants the Bulls as Central Division champions. But they're simply not nasty enough to get by the Knicks in the Eastern finals.

:05 Why don't the Hawks—Team Mediocrity—clean house and trade Dominique Wilkins and Kevin Willis for youth while the two still have market value?

Atlanta is carrying too many big salaries to pull off a major shake-up. Wilkins and Willis are rumored to be going somewhere every summer, but finding a team willing to pick up either of their fat contracts is next to impossible. The 33-year-old Wilkins can still fill it up—he could win his second scoring title now that Jordan has abdicated the throne—but the Hawks are still running in place in the middle of the pack.

:04 Who's the best point guard?

A couple of years ago the NBA had so many stellar playmakers at the top of their games that that question would have started a Willie-Mickey-or-Duke type of debate, but most of the leading candidates for the throne are now showing signs of slippage. Kevin Johnson of Phoenix was injured for part of 1992-93 and inconsistent for the rest; Utah's John Stockton had by his own admission a subpar season; Mark Price of Cleveland struggled in the playoffs against Chicago and was the subject of trade rumors most of the summer; and the injured Tim Hardaway looked too much for his shot and not enough for his teammates. So at the moment the league just doesn't have a best point guard.

:03 Has time passed for the Jazz?

Not necessarily, but this could be the team's last chance to seize it. Power forward Karl Malone is 30 and Stockton is 31, and they've given Utah the best years of their careers with nothing to show for it except one trip to the Western Conference finals. Stockton and Malone still have some good years left in them, but the supporting cast—including off-guard Jeff Malone, who slipped last season and slid right into coach Jerry Sloan's doghouse—is extremely weak.

:02 With Rider and forwards Chuck Person and Christian Laettner, Minnesota has the three biggest egos ever assembled on a terrible team. Is there a Timberwolf worth admiring?

We recommend off-guard Doug West, whose improvement has gone mostly unnoticed outside Minnesota. In his four pro seasons West has progressed from scoring fewer than four points a game as a part-time player to averaging 19.3 points last season as a starter. Minnesota coach Sidney Lowe says he thinks his team needs players with "attitude" like Person, Laettner and Rider. It also needs more players like West.

:01 What has new Dallas Maverick coach Quinn Buckner gotten himself into?

Buckner will no doubt have nights when he wonders whatever possessed him to leave NBC. However, the 1993-94 Mavericks are more talented than their predecessors. That isn't saying much, we know. A Bob Knight disciple, Buckner will demand that the Mavs play defense or else, which should at least keep them in more games than last season, when they won a grand total of 11.



Much to the delight off Mutombo (55), the Nuggets decided to trash their hideous threads.



How Kukoc adjusts is only one of Chicago's concerns.



Gill, who's a pouter, will fit right in with volatile Seattle.



The teachings of Isiah may make Hunter a top rookie.



[See caption above.]