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Wait till...when?

With the regular season winding down, it's time to look ahead to next year and beyond. That's certainly what the teams buried at the bottom of the standings are doing. Through Sunday, six teams had lost at least 50 games, and three others seemed certain to hit 50 before the end of the season. Of those nine teams—the Mavericks, Timberwolves, Bucks, Pistons, 76ers, Bullets, Kings, Clippers and Celtics—six lost 50 or more last season, too. Here's a look at how quickly the have-nots can expect to become haves.

•Mavericks. Hard as it is to believe, Dallas, which had won only eight games at week's end, has a chance to make a huge leap forward next season. Of course, that would take the Mavs from pathetic to merely bad, but a leap is a leap. Center Roy Tarpley, a former winner of the NBA Sixth Man award, who was banned from the league in 1991 for violating its drug policy, is expected to apply for reinstatement and could be back in Dallas next season. The Mavs also have two first-round draft picks, and because they're virtually assured of finishing with the NBA's worst record, they are likely to have the best mathematical chance of getting the No. 1 overall choice. If they play their cards right, they could wind up adding three productive players to the two they already have, guard Jimmy Jackson and forward Jamal Mashburn. But their most pressing need is to eliminate all the bickering between coach Quinn Buckner and his players. If that doesn't happen, Buckner won't be around next season; the return of former Dallas coach Dick Motta has been rumored.

•Timberwolves. Several teams would love to have Minnesota's three-man core: forwards Christian Laettner and Isaiah Rider and guard Doug West. And the Wolves should have extra money under the salary cap to sign free agents to surround that core if forward Chuck Person, who will be an unrestricted free agent, leaves as expected. Still, it will be difficult to attract players to a team known for friction between the players (read: Laettner) and the coaching staff and a franchise that might not be in Minnesota next year.

•Bucks. Forward Vin Baker is improving as fast as any rookie in the league, and Milwaukee has a solid, patient coach in Mike Dunleavy. But it can't be a good sign when a player who came aboard as a free agent only last summer, forward Ken Norman, already says he wants to leave.

They have a youthful foundation with 26-year-old forward Terry Mills and rookie guards Lindsey Hunter and Allan Houston, but they should have traded one or both of their veteran guards, Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, for young players or draft picks. Thomas will sure wish Detroit had gotten something for him when he moves into the Pistons' front office, perhaps next season.

•76ers. Say what you will about how much of a project 7'6" center Shawn Bradley is, the fact remains that Philly was competitive (20-29) with him but has been hopeless (1-22 through Sunday) since a knee injury ended his season on Feb. 18. However, the Sixers' recent nosedive might have been a blessing in disguise since it will give them more Ping-Pong balls in the lottery. If they can complement Bradley and forward Clarence Weatherspoon, one of the league's most underrated players, with a top pick, the 76ers might be on to something.

•Bullets. It's increasingly likely that Wes Unseld, whose seven seasons at the helm in Washington gives him the longest tenure with a team of any current NBA coach, will be gone after the season. Unseld clashed with Bullet general manager John Nash recently after Nash suggested Washington might not re-sign forward Pervis Ellison, who can become a restricted free agent. "I've read where he said we're building the team around four individuals [shooting guards Calbert Cheaney and Rex Chapman and small forwards Tom Gugliotta and Don MacLean]," Unseld said of Nash. "But those four individuals play two positions." That sums up the Bullets' problems quite neatly.

•Kings. Sacramento's second-leading scorer, forward Wayman Tisdale, can be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Plus, no one knows when last year's first-round pick, guard Bobby Hurley, will be fully recovered from the injuries he suffered in December's car accident. On top of that, it doesn't look like the Kings will be making many shrewd off-season deals—their general manager, Jerry Reynolds, resigned in December but he's still on the job because no one has agreed to take the gig. Who would?

•Clippers. Just last season L.A. appeared to be up-and-coming, with Danny Manning, Mark Jackson, Ron Harper and coach Larry Brown. But Manning and Brown are gone, and by next season Jackson probably will be the only one of that group left. The Clippers will try to rebuild around a 34-year-old, one-dimensional player—never a good idea, even if that player is Dominique Wilkins.

•Celtics. Unless Boston is lucky enough to draw one of the top picks in the lottery, its outlook isn't good. Unlike some of the other downtrodden teams, the Celtics have no young nucleus. Even worse, there's uncertainty in the front office, where executive vice president Dave Gavitt recently took exception to suggestions in the media that he wasn't working hard enough. Gavitt has one year left on his contract, and when new Laker coach Magic Johnson said last week that he expected Larry Bird to take over as the boss in Boston sometime soon, he sounded like he knew something. Whoever is at the controls will have a tough time rebuilding this team. "We don't have the leverage to get what we need," says Celtic president Red Auerbach. "All these teams were lining up to trade for Danny Manning, and we would have liked to have been in there with them. But we can't get anybody like Manning because we've got nobody other clubs would accept. Take our ball club and line everyone up. How many first-round picks could we get?"

Summer Heat

Though the playoffs are still a month away, a key series begins in New York on April 7. That's when league officials will have the first of what is sure to be many meetings with Players Association representatives to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. The current contract expires on July 1.

The meeting will be the first test for the union's new president, Trail Blazer forward Buck Williams, who replaced the Piston's Isiah Thomas earlier this year. "He left me with the big one," says Williams, "but after six years as the vice president, I'm aware of everything that needs to be done." And that, Williams says, "means going after everything—no salary cap, no draft and total unrestricted free agency. And we all need to have a say before we get traded."

The owners, of course, have an almost completely opposite wish list. They not only want to maintain the salary cap and draft, but they also want to add a rookie salary cap so they can avoid any more whopping contracts for first-year men like the ones that Golden State's Chris Webber (15 years, $74 million) and Orlando's Anfernee Hardaway (13 years, $45 million) received before this season.

The owners' position is that since the league has thrived under the current system, there's no need to make major changes. But the Players Association argues that it agreed to provisions like the salary cap when the NBA wasn't as financially robust as it is now. "When you look at the dollar figures, the money is there," says Thomas. "These aren't the early 1980s anymore, when everyone had to make sacrifices to help the league get on solid footing again. Conditions have changed, and some of the ways of doing business have to change with them."

The Players Association seems prepared for some of the image bashing it undoubtedly will suffer during the labor negotiations. "The public will probably never sympathize with the players because the media print the players' salaries but never print the income of the teams," says Charles Grantham, executive director of the players' union. "The players should not be restricted by an industry that has no cap on profits."

The owners, though, point out that the NFL has adopted a salary cap and that baseball is talking about adopting one. As for abolishing the draft, the owners are about as likely to agree to that as the Mavericks are to win this season's championship. The two sides could be in for a long, hot summer.

Free Men

At least one group of players should find the summer very profitable. Here's an update on some of those who will become unrestricted free agents after this season.

Danny Manning, HAWKS. He seems determined to test the market, but Atlanta's chances of retaining him may be increasing. He's playing on a winner, under a coach he likes, Lenny Wilkens, and the Hawks can pay him as much as they want since a team can resign its own free agents without regard to salary-cap restrictions. But it's far from a done deal; Manning has only a three-month lease on his Atlanta apartment.

Dominique Wilkins, CLIPPERS. He so loves the warm reception he has received in Los Angeles that the Clippers' main competition for his services may be the Lakers. Wilkins has talked openly of his fantasy of playing for Magic Johnson.

Horace Grant, BULLS. The Lakers covet him, perhaps even more than they do Manning. But Grant is expected to take his time making a decision, partly because he's enjoying the attention after years of playing third banana in Chicago behind Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

Ron Harper, CLIPPERS. There's talk that Dominique, despite the uncertainty of his own status, may have persuaded him to stay, even after all the nasty things Harper has said about the organization—including a comment comparing playing with the Clippers to being in jail. Besides, Harper might have a hard time finding any team willing to keep paying him the salary—$4 million—he's making now.

Byron Scott, PACERS. He shopped himself around after last season but found no takers until the Pacers picked him up in December. So far he has given them 10 points per game and 45% shooting—the kind of production at shooting guard that some teams who passed on him, like the Bulls and Nets, could badly use. Now he's making it known that he wants to stay in Indiana, partly out of gratitude to the Pacers for giving him a chance.

Line of the Week

Harold Miner, Heat

Mins: 7; FG M-A: 6-7; FT M-A: 2-2.

Yes, 14 points in seven minutes. Miner was a model of efficiency in Miami's 110-101 loss to New Jersey on March 30. It's hard to say what's more impressive: making six shots in seven minutes or taking seven shots in seven minutes.



Wilkins isn't a guy L.A. can build a team around, as his old Hawk mates can attest.



If Buckner (right) can't heal the rifts on his team, he may have to hand over the Mavs to Motta.



[See caption above.]



With Weatherspoon (below) and a healthy Bradley, the Sixers will be heading in the right direction.