Seattle, L.A. Clippers, Chicago
These three teams have some new cards to play—but not the right ones.
At least there's one sure thing about playing the SEATTLE SUPERSONICS this year—it won't be any fun. Tough guys like the young Xavier McDaniel, the old Maurice Lucas and the in-between demon Johnson are the kind of players who can stir up trouble under the basket, particularly if things get frustrating, which they no doubt will.
There have already been frustrations for second-year coach Bernie Bickerstaff, who traded Jack Sikma for Alton Lister then fumed while Lister missed much of the preseason in a ploy to renegotiate his contract. "It was tough because Alton is our foundation," said Bickerstaff. Now there's a frightening thought.
Give the Sonics their due, though—during one four-day period they made four deals. And though they still came out with one of the NBA's worst teams, they also came out with six first-round picks over the next three seasons.
Player to watch: Tom Chambers. He didn't get along with Jack Sikma. Can he get along without him?
Without a draft pick in the first two rounds, the LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS changed their team primarily through a deal with Sacramento in which they acquired guards Larry Drew and Mike Woodson. But the Clippers still need backcourt help so badly that they've talked to the unregenerate Quintin Dailey. And while the Clips' hopes for improvement are slim, their second-year center, Benoit Benjamin, is not. He reported to camp weighing 278, more than 30 pounds heavier than last season.
Player to watch: Cedric Maxwell. Can he get it back, or has he Maxed out?
Wilt Chamberlain was the only player ever to average more than 40 points per game over an NBA season. One wonders if a healthy Michael Jordan of the CHICAGO BULLS will approach that mark this year. Jordan has the tools, and the Bulls have nowhere else to turn for points.
Rookie coach Doug Collins made some bold moves, unloading Orlando Woolridge and Sid Green, and openly challenging disenchanted center Jawann Oldham. It will take time for Collins to adapt this team to his own open-throttle style, though, and there will be no championship rap song being recorded in the Windy City for a while.
Player to watch: power forward Charles Oakley. He could be another Maurice Lucas in the making.
Phoenix, Golden State
These two teams bet on a big draft pick.
There is no clearer evidence of the decline of the Pacific Division than the PHOENIX SUNS. Over the last four seasons they've gone from 53 wins, to 41, to 36, to 32. They'll likely be in that range again.
Arthroscopic surgery slowed the progress of the Suns' big rookie, William Bedford, and even when he returns, a Bedford-James Edwards combo won't be nearly as effective as, say, Ralph Sampson-Akeem Olajuwon. Perhaps Phoenix can surprise if veterans Walter Davis and Larry Nance continue to play as well as they have in a successful preseason. Otherwise, the Suns will set early in the West.
Player to watch: Ed Pinckney. This may be his last season to recapture the Villanova magic.
The GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS chose wisely when they made 6'11" Chris Washburn the third pick of the draft. Provided he improves in the citizenship department, Washburn will be better than either Bedford or Cleveland's Brad Daugherty. The major question mark with the Warriors, though, is how Joe Barry Carroll will respond to Washburn.
Chris Mullin reported to camp at 242 pounds, at least 25 too many for coach George Karl. Mullin apparently thought that Karl had asked for a pulling guard instead of a shooting guard.
Player to watch: Sleepy Floyd. The Warriors feel he can be a top point guard, but the jury's still out.
CAN BARELY OPEN
Indiana, San Antonio, Sacramento
These three teams may have their moments, but they'll be scrambling to make the playoffs.
Jack Ramsay, 61, sounds like a kid again. "I like this team," he said of his INDIANA PACERS. "They have a good fiber to them." Fiber doesn't get you points from the outside, however, and the Pacers are still a bit irregular in the back-court. Witness the fact that Detroit cast-off John Long was greeted like a savior at the off-guard spot.
Wayman Tisdale will be a versatile forward in Ramsay's system, but Clark Kellogg's uncertain status after knee surgery is an area of great concern. At the very least, though, the Pacers will improve enough under Ramsay that Bobby Knight will not make disparaging remarks about them, as he did last season.
Player to watch: Chuck Person. If Ramsay turns him loose, he'll be rookie of the year.
The SAN ANTONIO SPURS won only four games in the last month of the '85-86 season. Goodbye Cotton Fitzsimmons, hello Bob Weiss. Mychal Thompson, acquired from Portland, provides added versatility inside, and top draft pick Johnny Dawkins combines with Alvin Robertson and Johnny Moore to give the Spurs one of the most exciting three-man backcourt rotations in the NBA.
But let's face it—the Spurs aren't going far with aging Artis Gilmore, who just turned 37, at center and rookie Kevin Duckworth as his backup.
Player to watch: Mike Mitchell. He must add another dimension to his offense if he's to become a top NBA player.
For a guy who played only 11 games last season because of illness and injuries, Derek Smith attracted an unusual amount of off-season attention as a free agent. Seven teams were interested in him, including the SACRAMENTO KINGS, who finally got him. If Smith stays healthy, he has a chance to be superb. The Kings, on the other hand, do not. They'll need improved play in the pivot from the LaSalle Thompson-Joe Kleine combination to match last season's 37 wins in a tougher Midwest Division.
Player to watch: Reggie Theus. He had a good season last year, but some feel Theus lacks the respect of his teammates.
CLOSE TO THE VEST
New York, Cleveland
There's simply no figuring these teams.
Who knows if the NEW YORK KNICKS will ever trot out a frontcourt of Patrick Ewing, Bill Cartwright and Bernard King, who recently added six weeks to his already uncertain recovery by stepping in a hole while jogging. And in a hole the Knicks will continue to be if Cartwright's ailing feet make him nothing except a $1 million per year Medical Bill. But put Ewing and Cartwright together, and the Knicks have to be a better team—even with all those bricklayers in their backcourt—than the one that had a league-trailing 23-59 record last year.
Player to watch: Kenny Walker. Everybody talked about what he can't do. Now, watch what he can do—score inside, rebound, run the floor, play defense.
That unknown masked man pulling strings for the CLEVELAND CAVALIERS on draft day turned out to be Wayne Embry, whose general managership was officially announced a few days later. He definitely improved the Cavs in the draft, landing the 7-foot Daugherty at No. 1 and swing-man Ron Harper at No. 8.
But don't be too quick with the optimism. The Cavs were supposed to be one of the NBA's coming teams last year, and their season turned into a 29-53 disaster that led to the firing of coach Karl. New coach Lenny Wilkens will no doubt help improve the three-guard tandem of John Bagley, Dirk Minniefield and rookie Mark Price, but the Cavs won't be any better unless inside players like John (Hot Rod) Williams, Mel Turpin and Keith Lee do the job.
Player to watch: Daugherty. On draft day, New York fans serenaded him with a taunting chorus of "soft, soft, soft," in reference to his reputation as a quiche eater under the boards.
Washington, Portland, New Jersey
These three teams changed their look—but did they change their essence?
"This was Moses's team from the moment he stepped on the court," said guard Leon Wood of the trade that brought the redoubtable Moses Malone to the WASHINGTON BULLETS. And even with another Malone around—silky-smooth Jeff, who came into his own at shooting guard last year—the offense will indeed revolve around Moses. His mere presence makes the Bullets a contender, but there are mitigating factors. He'll be 32 by playoff time; he's coming off a frightening eye injury; and his field goal percentage has declined in each of the last five seasons. Moreover ex-Mav Jay Vincent, who could take some pressure off Moses, is on the shelf until at least January after undergoing hand surgery.
Player to watch: Terry Catledge. A hard guy with a soft touch.
Either Jack Ramsay lost control of the PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS last year or the Blazers quit on him. Whichever it was, new coach Mike Schuler has a lot of work to do if the Blazers are to rejoin the NBA's elite.
Portland needs a personality transformation. Maybe Sam Bowie will suddenly turn into a bully in the middle. Maybe Kiki Vandeweghe will become a classic power forward. Maybe Clyde Drexler will shoot the two-handed set. Or maybe Portland will win 40 games again and fade like a lamb in the first round of the playoffs, as it did last season.
Player to watch: Walter Berry. Portland needs points and rebounds from the St. John's rookie who missed much of the preseason dickering over salary.
A wise off-season decision was made by Dave Wohl, who turned down management's offer to be coach and general manager of the NEW JERSEY NETS. One job is enough to handle with this unpredictable group, thank you very much. As Otis Birdsong said after one loss last year: "We played hard, but it was a lackadaisical hard." Around Exit 16 of the New Jersey Turnpike, that makes sense.
The Nets appear to be stronger after acquiring Orlando Woolridge from Chicago, but that's no certainty. The back-court reins will be in the hands of a rookie, Pearl Washington, and with Birdsong unsigned as of last week, it's anybody's guess who will step in at off-guard.
Player to watch: Darryl Dawkins. Just because Darryl Dawkins has always been worth watching.
Detroit, Utah, Dallas
These teams made major changes and should be significantly better.
The DETROIT PISTONS have been on a treadmill for the last three seasons with 46, 46 and 49 wins. So general manager Jack McCloskey made some bold deals to rebuild his frontcourt. He traded for Adrian Dantley and Sid Green, and drafted John Salley and the little-known Dennis Rodman. The Pistons were ready to give up on Salley after a disastrous rookie camp, but he has been improving.
Can Isiah Thomas, who had off-season thumb surgery, adapt his open-court style to the post-up play of Dantley? That's the main question. If the answer is yes, Detroit could challenge Milwaukee and Atlanta. If not, then Motown is going to be no town for Dantley.
Player to watch: Vinnie Johnson. The fireplug with the firepower was involved in more trade rumors than the S.E.C., but Detroit badly needs him in a three-guard rotation with Isiah and Joe Dumars.
With Dantley gone, it remains to be seen who will be the new target of acid-tongued Frank Layden, coach of the UTAH JAZZ. Perhaps it will be Kelly Tripucka—or "Tri-puker," as the newcomer's name emerges in Layden's New Yorkese—who will have to make up many of the 29.6 points per game that Dantley averaged in his seven years with the Jazz.
Early reports have Darrell Griffith, who missed all of last season with a foot injury, back at nearly full strength. At times, he and Tripucka will be fighting for shots, but they are a formidable one-two punch. Layden also has one of the best big forward combinations west of Boston in Karl Malone and Thurl Bailey.
Player to watch: Mark Eaton. His rebounds, blocks and points declined last year. Can he get them back up?
Topic Numero Uno with the DALLAS MAVERICKS is the size of first-round draft choice Roy Tarpley. "He's an enormous person," says coach Dick Motta, who is salivating at the prospect of the 6'11¾", 245-pound Tarpley and 7'2", 275-pound James Donaldson together inside, knocking people down, a departure for a team that has traditionally been the knockees.
Remember that the Mavs took the Lakers to six games in the Western semifinals last year. With two legit All-Stars in Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman and with a powerful inside defender in Sam Perkins, the Mavs aren't far behind Houston and L.A. Maybe Tarpley can put them over the top.
Player to watch: Detlef Schrempf. Dallas traded Vincent because it believes Schrempf can reliably back up Aguirre.
Denver, Philadelphia, Milwaukee
If the cards fall properly, one of these three teams could make the finals.
Doug Moe has erected a set of twin towers for the DENVER NUGGETS, but don't overestimate the coupling of shot-blocking center Wayne Cooper and young 7-footer Blair Rasmussen. The most important Nugget frontcourt player, besides designated scorer Alex English, is still Calvin Natt, a 6'6" power forward whose toughness makes him play three inches taller. Because of Natt's aching knees, Moe plans to use him for only 30 minutes a game. They will be key minutes.
This band of overachievers has won 99 games the past two seasons, and if any team can sneak into the finals without a dominant offensive center, it's Denver.
Player to watch: Darrell Walker. Is there life after Hubie?
During an off-season wrestling bout with a buddy, Charles Barkley backed into a locker and cut his heel. He missed all but one of the Sixers' preseason games. Such was life with the PHILADELPHIA 76ERS, who spent their early workouts, according to coach Matt Guokas, "kind of flailing around."
The Sixers are at this point a collection of rich ingredients that have yet to go into the stewing pot. Will the addition of Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson from Washington, Roy Hinson from Cleveland, and Danny Vranes and Tim McCormick from Seattle produce a champion or an acrimonious battle for minutes? Julius Erving wants to go out a winner in what might be his last season. Point guard Maurice Cheeks ("The best ever to play the position," says Detroit's McCloskey) would love to make it happen. It could, but Larry Bird has another opinion: "Without Moses, Philly doesn't scare me."
Player to watch: Andrew Toney. Are his foot problems behind him?
Fans of the MILWAUKEE BUCKS all but laid palms in the path of Jack Sikma (see page 70) when he arrived via trade from Seattle. The only thing keeping the Bucks from a championship is a center. That sentence has been recited almost liturgically over the last six years, during which time Milwaukee has earned six Central Division championships and zero appearances in the finals. At 30, Sikma can still play, but it will be a different ball game for him in the more physical Eastern Conference.
And Milwaukee isn't about to move up a step unless Sidney Moncrief is able to move a step, too. There have been signs that the aching knees and feet that ailed him last year are still giving him problems. But if he overcomes those pains and if Terry Cummings, Paul Pressey and Ricky Pierce stay healthy, the Bucks have a chance to realize what many feel is their manifest destiny.
Player to watch: Scott Skiles. "If Larry Bird were six feet tall," says coach Don Nelson, "he'd probably be Scott Skiles." The rookie has a leer that will make Milwaukee famous.
Atlanta, L.A. Lakers
These two teams stuck pretty much with the hands they played last year.
First-round draft choice Ken Barlow, obtained by the ATLANTA HAWKS in a trade from Los Angeles, assessed his chances in Atlanta and promptly bolted to Italy. "Ciao, Ken," said the Hawks, "and don't forget to write." That's how much they cared. Atlanta had its eye on one player—Laker scrub Mike McGee—and packaged its first two draft picks, Billy Thompson and Ron Kellogg, to gel him and Barlow. But why McGee, who was as anonymous as a Clipper last season? "Because he can shoot three-pointers and may turn out to be the best defender in our backcourt," said last season's Coach of the Year, Mike Fratello.
Solid enough reasons. Indeed last season McGee converted 41 three-pointers, eight more than the entire Hawk team. His long-range bombs should ease the pressure inside on Dominique Wilkins, Kevin Willis and Cliff Levingston.
Player to watch: Antoine Carr. He has missed much of the last two seasons because of injuries, but Hawk G.M. Stan Kasten calls him "our second-best athlete behind Dominique."
Having permanently parted company with McGee, Maurice Lucas, Mitch Kupchak, Ronnie Lester and Larry Spriggs, the LOS ANGELES LAKERS are trying to sell the idea that they're a different team. But they're really not. Get to know Billy Thompson early, and you'll be able to tell the players without a scorecard.
And maybe that's the way it should be. Let's give the big six of Kareem, Magic, James Worthy, Kurt Rambis, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper one more year (that's all management is giving Scott). The Lakers were still the second-best team in the NBA most of last season, and maybe they'll get nasty in the playoffs. "I think we'll surprise some people," says coach Pat Riley. And there's no way that could have happened last season.
Player to watch: Abdul-Jabbar. Does time really march on, or has Kareem made it stop?
Barring injury to key players, these two teams should be there at the end again.
Everyone said the HOUSTON ROCKETS needed a point guard. But how were they supposed to get one? No G.M. in his right mind would help this team. So Robert Reid, 6'8", a natural forward, will again be the quarterback, just as he was last June when 21 other better-qualified point guards were watching him in the finals on television. And Allen Leavell and rookie Conner Henry, a longshot with a long shot, will help out at guard as well.
Whether or not Lewis Lloyd makes it back in coach Bill Fitch's good graces is almost academic—Mitchell Wiggins is ready. Jim Petersen will remain one of the NBA's best big men off the bench. And Rodney McCray will once again do his damage quietly and unspectacularly in the shadow of the Twin Towers.
Player to watch: Olajuwon. If he can improve his passing just a little, Sampson will be the better for it.
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine. Bill Walton rebounds and outlets to Dennis Johnson. DJ sends it ahead to Bird. Bird looks off the defense and goes behind his back. Len Bias gathers in the perfect pass, takes one giant step, tomahawks a thundering dunk and raises his fist as Boston Garden explodes.
Juice. Adrenaline. Something completely different. That's what Bias would have given the BOSTON CELTICS. Last year they got it from Bill Walton. This year they don't have it. Fred Roberts? Sorry, he's not juice.
What the Celts do have, in the opinion of Bullet coach Kevin Loughery, is "the best front line in the history of basketball." They have Bird, the game's best player, and DJ, the game's most underrated player. They're an assassination unit at the height of its power, a machine that can win every night.
Player to watch: Bird. He has a chance to become the first NBA player to win four MVP awards in a row.