Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is gone now, and coach Pat Riley says that when the 24-second clock is winding down and L.A. needs a good shot, Abdul-Jabbar will be missed. Nice try, Pat, but Magic Johnson will do just fine in that situation. In fact, look for Magic down in the blocks more and more, posting up helpless guards and distributing the ball to cutters, Kareemlike, with no-look passes.
Weaknesses? We don't see many. There's no reason that Johnson, James Worthy and Byron Scott won't have career years. Riley will eventually settle upon a workable substitution pattern for Thompson and Divac at center. Ditto for forward Orlando Woolridge and swingman Michael Cooper.
Only one factor makes Detroit a little stronger than L.A.: While the Pistons are deep enough and have the even distribution of talent throughout their lineup to overcome any injury, the Lakers can't afford to lose Magic or Worthy.
After being swept by underdog Golden State in the first round of the playoffs last season, Utah suddenly became the Big Team That Couldn't, a bunch of stiffs whose game plan had fizzled against a smaller outfit. There's some truth to that view, but here's news: The Jazz aren't that bad. If Utah prepares better for teams like Golden State, and if it gets help from rookie Blue Edwards (who was much more effective as a small forward than as a shooting guard during the preseason), the core group of Karl Malone, John Stockton, Thurl Bailey and Mark Eaton will carry the Jazz a long way—but not past L.A.
In contrast to last season, the opposition will be prepared for Phoenix's whatever-you-score-we'll-score-more style of play, and that's going to make a difference. "We overachieved last year, and everyone knows that." says coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. "To improve, we'll have to improve the defense by 50 percent." He's right, and that won't be easy. Kevin Johnson. Tom Chambers and Eddie Johnson will still get their points, and Dan Majerle should continue to fulfill the promise he displayed last season.
4 TRAIL BLAZERS
There is a tendency to overrate the talent of Buck Williams, a strong rebounder but a limited offensive threat. Still, he's the kind of guy that any team wants because of the stability he brings both on and off the court. No team needed that ingredient more in 1988-89 than Portland, which was rife with internal conflict. By all accounts, the Blazers are a happier bunch these days—be happy or answer to Buck—but that alone won't make this talented team the Western Conference contender that it could be. Portland needs a half-court offense and defensive intensity—half-court, full-court, any court.
For students of the game, Golden State is more fun to watch than any other team in the league. For opponents, the Warriors are a nightmare. What's coach Don Nelson going to throw at us tonight, a five-guard alignment? Where's 7'7" Manute Bol? Who's at point guard? Somehow, Nelson can make sense out of this strange mixture of personnel. "We have all sorts of exciting people," he says. Besides Mullin, they include Richmond, last season's Rookie of the Year, Bol, Hardaway and Marciulionis.
Last season owner Donald Carter finally gave the go-ahead to trade one of his favorite guys, forward Mark Aguirre, and now Carter wants to see results. The Mavs will be better than they were in 1988-89, when they finished a very disappointing 38-44 and failed to make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, but whether they will improve enough for coach John MacLeod to keep his job. remains to be seen.
Dallas must show more resolve and inner strength. It will if: center James Donaldson has recovered from reconstructive knee surgery; power forward Roy Tarpley, who was in drug rehab most of last season, has overcome his addiction; and rookie Randy White is the Mailman Malone clone the Mavs think he is.
Has any team ever done more to improve itself in one off-season than San Antonio? Coach Larry Brown, who endured one of his worst seasons as a coach with last year's 21-61 team, has at least five All-Star-caliber players: veterans Cummings and Maurice Cheeks (both have been All-Stars, at forward and guard, respectively), rookies David Robinson and Sean Elliott, and second-year swingman Willie Anderson. Only Anderson was with the Spurs in '88-89. "This could be a dangerous team," says Brown. Of course, last season's team was dangerous too—dangerous to everyone around it because it almost exploded several times. Whatever the reasons, Brown, one of the sources of the tension, feels that now the chemistry is right.
Akeem Olajuwon was sidelined with thrombophlebitis (a blood clot) in his left calf during the preseason, but he has made a full recovery. The world keeps telling coach Don Chaney that he needs a point guard, and Chaney keeps saying he has one. "Sleepy Floyd has done everything I've asked him to do." says Chaney. But not always everything Olajuwon has asked him to do—like passing him the ball instead of taking it to the hole. The Rockets are best known for their beneficence in giving players a second chance: The roster includes guards John Lucas, Mitch Wiggins and Lewis Lloyd, all former offenders of the NBA's drug policy.
Some dim bulb of a prognosticator picked the SUPERSONICS to make the Western finals last season—O.K., this dim bulb of a prognosticator—and Seattle fell far short, losing in four games to the Lakers in the second round. With 6'9" Michael Cage and the untested Olden Polynice at center now that Alton Lister has been traded to Golden State, no one would dream of picking the Sonics to go that far this season. So maybe they'll exceed expectations.
Coach Doug Moe usually has one of two things to say about his NUGGETS in the preseason: either, "We stink," or, "We'll be better than most people think we'll be." He's saying the latter this season. We're not so sure. Denver won just enough games (44) in 1988-89 to make the playoffs. Unless the Nuggets get a transfusion of some strong inside play and rebounding, a worse fate awaits them this season.
A lot of teams would have shown up en masse at the airport to shout "Arrivederci" to center Benoit Benjamin when he left for Milan a couple of weeks ago to seek a job in the Italian League. But the CLIPPERS are in such dire straits that they were glad to see him return when he couldn't agree on a contract. If Danny Manning, the No. 1 pick in the '88 draft, returns strong in December after surgery on his right knee, L.A. has a chance—to be mediocre.
The KINGS are in even worse shape than the Clippers. Center Pervis Ellison, the first player chosen in last June's draft, will miss the first two weeks of the season while he is recovering from a September operation that removed bone spurs from his right ankle and foot, and power forward Wayman Tisdale fought a contract battle most of the preseason and signed only last Thursday. Heaven only knows what kind of performance Sacramento coach Jerry Reynolds will get from enigmatic and oft-injured center Ralph Sampson. In the preseason he had recurring knee troubles and a strained left hamstring.
The MAGIC is truly a product of the modern era—an expansion team that has signed guaranteed contracts with 14 players, at least two of whom won't even make the 12-man roster. Orlando went after older, more established players rather than building with youth. We'll see if that turns out to be a sagacious or—honest, this is the first and last time we'll say it—a Mickey Mouse decision.
Management took a hard line against renegotiating the contracts of established players obtained in the expansion draft, and thus the three most proven performers selected by the TIMBER-WOLVES—Mahorn, Steve Johnson and Tyrone Corbin—have either forced a trade (Mahorn) or held out for the entire preseason, and perhaps beyond. The outlook is bleak for Minnesota. Say, does Herschel Walker have a jump shot?