Through the '80s, the Los Angeles Lakers not only dominated the Western Conference, they almost obliterated it. Except for two brief blips (1981 and '86) made by Houston on the NBA Finals radar screen, the Lakers were the sole Western finalist—and generally the only Western team worth more than a passing glance. Even last season, when the Portland Trail Blazers broke through to make the Finals—where they promptly lost 4-1 to the Detroit Pistons—the best regular-season team in the West (and the entire league, for that matter) was none other than the 63-win Lakers.
Well, this is the year it all changes. That's not to say that the good ol' Lakers—O.K., the good new Lakers—won't be in the middle of the hunt. They will. But it is to say that at least five Western teams will be right there with them, trying on formal clothes for the prom.
There's Portland, of course. And Phoenix. And Utah. And San Antonio. And Dallas. All are legitimate conference title contenders. You've heard this before, particularly about Utah and Dallas, right? Yes, you have. But the difference is that these Western contenders did not just talk about getting better, they actually went out and did something about it.
"Our division and conference is basically a monster," said Mike Dunleavy, who couldn't have picked a tougher year to come aboard as Laker coach. "I really don't see any relief." Neither does Phoenix coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, who paid his conference the ultimate compliment: "There are about seven teams in the West that Cotton Fitzsimmons would not be afraid to coach." He includes the Los Angeles Clippers with the Monster Six, but, Cotton, let's not get carried away.
Interestingly, the roster-strengthening moves made by the Monster Six were similar—in each case a team landed established veteran players, sometimes sacrificing young players and first-round draft picks to get them. The two Eastern Conference teams that made significant moves, Chicago and Philadelphia, did likewise. Apparently the hard news has sunk in: Championships are won by experience, not by glitzy draft picks. Unless, of course, a Magic Johnson or a Larry Bird happens to be your glitzy draft pick.
What follows is an evaluation of the moves made by the West's Monster Six, as well as by Chicago and Philadelphia:
Portland made only one significant deal—getting guard Danny Ainge in a trade with Sacramento for backup guard Byron Irvin and some draft picks—but it might turn out to be the deal that pushes the Trail Blazers to the top. Can Ainge help the Trail Blazers win more than the 59 games they did last season? Possibly not. But this move was made for the postseason, where last year the Trail Blazers were haunted by the failure of their third guard, Drazen Petrovic, to have an impact in the Finals against the Pistons. Say this for Ainge, who earned two championship rings as a Celtic: He knows how to make an impact.
What a statement the Lakers made, getting frontcourtman Sam Perkins (page 120) from Dallas via free agency and swingman Terry Teagle in a deal with Golden State for a first-round draft pick next June. No, Perkins and Teagle will not help the Lakers win more than 63 games; in fact, L.A. is probably destined to fall below 60 wins in a much tougher conference. But the Lakers will not sink like a stone in the second round of the playoffs as they did last spring against Phoenix. Remember, Teagle is only 30, Perkins, 29. They'll be around for a few more years, and Magic Johnson will get to know them better and better.
Swingman Paul Pressey, who now lives in Mr. Robinson's San Antonio neighborhood, is rather like Perkins, a player valued, even coveted, by many teams around the league in spite of the fact that he has never set the world on fire. Pressey's strength, like Perkins's, is defensive versatility, but, having pioneered the point forward position under Don Nelson at Milwaukee, Pressey can also help steady the sometimes erratic Spur point guard Rod Strickland. San Antonio also picked up veteran forward David Greenwood from Detroit to replace rugged Frank Brickowski, who went to Milwaukee in the Pressey deal. Greenwood is a nice acquisition, if only because he can tell the Spurs how much fun it was to play for a championship team.
At first glance it doesn't seem very important that Phoenix got Ed Nealy from Chicago via free agency. The acquisition of the blocky 6'7", 250-pound forward will hardly change the balance of power in the West. But ask the 76ers how important Nealy was as a rebounding presence in Philadelphia's Eastern Conference playoff loss to the Bulls last season. He'll again be a factor in the playoffs when the going gets rough inside.
If there was ever a trade that fulfilled i specific need, it was the one Utah made to land two-time All-Star guard Jeff Malone from Washington. The Jazz needed a sharpshooter and it got one. Nice move, Utah. But don't be quick to think that Utah got Malone for a bargain-basement price. The Jazz, as part of a three-way deal with Washington and Sacramento, gave up guard Bobby Hansen and center Eric Leckner to the Kings, while center Pervis Ellison went from the Kings to the Bullets. Hansen is a competent seven-year pro, not to mention a favorite of defense-minded Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, while Leckner is an adequate backup frontcourtman. The move might help Utah to a few more wins during the regular season, but it won't be enough to make the Jazz the West's best.
Dallas acquired guard Fat Lever from Denver and forward Rodney McCray from Sacramento via trades and signed Denver forward Alex English as a free agent. So what's not to like? Lever and McCray are both excellent "blenders," players who can accommodate their skills to the needs of the Mavs. And English is a "need" player, in this case an experienced shooter who once every half-dozen games or so will be the go-to guy down the stretch. The Mavs couldn't have done better. Heck, it was nice that they pulled Lever and English from a burning building in the Mile High City and dusted off McCray after a house-cleaning in Sacramento. Figure the additions to give the Mavericks at least seven more wins.
We'll soon get to see whether former New Jersey Net Dennis Hopson, now with the Bulls, is a poor man's Michael Jordan. To get Hopson, Chicago gave up first-round draft pick No. 22, with which the Nets chose Tate George last June. The Bulls also landed veteran free-agent forward Cliff Levingston. Hopson's ability makes him more able to assist Jordan in the backcourt than almost any rookie. As for Levingston, he brings a joy and enthusiasm to the game that few bench players in the league can match. Jordan will like him and get along with him, and don't underestimate the importance of that. Hopson and Levingston will also add depth against Detroit in the postseason.
In a way, Philadelphia's landing of Manute Bol from Golden State was the biggest move of all, but that's only because Bol. the Sudanese Sultan of Swat, is 7'7". And since the 76ers were the smallest team in the NBA last season, that is of no, well, small consequence. But Bol is a player of limited skills who hurts a team on the offensive end; if he weren't, neither Washington nor Golden State would have let him go.
So, there are the moves. But which ones will make an impact on the standings, and which won't? Keep in mind that Dallas does not necessarily move ahead of, say, Phoenix, just because the Mavericks demonstrated some offseason slick-ness. With only 47 wins last season, the Mavs had to juggle their personnel more dramatically than the Suns, who won 54 and were basically satisfied with their upward movement.
In reality, only two teams from the East have a shot at making the Finals—Chicago and Detroit. Over the last three seasons, their rivalry has become, in many ways, as dramatic and as hotly contested as the Finals. And each year the competition has gotten closer. The Pistons eliminated the Bulls in five conference playoff games in '88, in six in '89 and in seven last season. This will be the year the winner changes, not because the Pistons will blow it, but because the Bulls will earn it.
We see Portland emerging from the West bloodied but battle-tough. Strong competition will come from the rejuvenated Lakers and the Suns, but the Trail Blazers will no longer falter when presented with big challenges.
The last of those will be Jordan and the Bulls in the Finals, where Portland will employ the lessons it learned from its drubbing by Detroit last season—defensive intensity, concentration, toughness. Those lessons will enable the Blazers to win their first title since 1977.
Who will challenge Portland and Chicago? Which teams will make it to the playoffs? And who will stay home next April? Here are SI's assessments:
The Trail Blazers nearly imploded from bad chemistry two seasons ago, yet now they have as many leaders as any team. Portland has Buck Williams up front, quarterback Terry Porter and future $8 million man (his 1995-96 salary) Clyde Drexler in the backcourt, and now Ainge, Mr. Vim and Vinegar, off the bench. Watch out.
Let's face it: The rust had started to appear on Michael Cooper's game even before last season, and Orlando Wool-ridge's main talent was to look better than anyone in NBA history while missing a layup. General manager Jerry West got rid of both players during the off-season, and now Dunleavy's rotation has Perkins off the bench, mainly for A.C. Green, and Teagle off the bench for Byron Scott. Like Portland, L.A.'s big question mark is in the middle: The Lakers were disappointed with center Vlade Divac's off-season workout program—or lack thereof.
Can David Robinson, the NBA's unanimous rookie of the year last season, get any better? He can and probably will, and so will small forward Sean Elliott, who has bulked up 10 pounds to 215. Forward Terry Cummings, swingman Willie Anderson and Strickland round out this ultrasolid starting lineup. But even with Pressey, the Spurs may be thin off the bench.
Thin off the bench, the Suns are not. Certainly not with muscular and versatile Dan Majerle and jump-shooting machine Eddie Johnson ready, willing and able. Still, if other teams can find a way to slow down point guard Kevin Johnson, as Portland did in last season's Western final, the Suns can be beaten.
Sure, Jeff Malone will take some scoring pressure off Karl Malone, but his ball-handling skills are not sharp enough to take the pressure off point guard John Stockton. And Utah will need more than scoring from M & M to win the West—the team will need an improved season from center Mark Eaton, too.
Does any team in the NBA have as many out-and-out solid ballplayers as the Mavs? Roy Tarpley, Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, James Donaldson, Herb Williams, Brad Davis and now Lever, McCray and English. So why doesn't that put Dallas higher than sixth place? Because none of the above is a true superstar, a player who can push his team above the mundane night after night, a player like Magic, Karl Malone, Drexler, Robinson or Kevin Johnson. Tarpley is the possible exception, but his past history of drug and alcohol abuse, not to mention his out-of-shape condition when he reported to camp a few weeks ago, makes him a question mark.
Rookie shooting guard Bo Kimble spent most of his summer in Chicago, working on the film version of the classic basketball book Heaven Is a Playground. As Bo knows, life in Clipperland over the past decade has been a lot of playground and very little heaven. This year that changes. Even if Danny Manning is not, as new Clipper coach Mike Schuler has said, "perhaps the most versatile player in the NBA," he should now be able to lead a lineup that is rich in talent, if deficient in direction and confidence. Schuler will take care of the direction—he didn't wear well at Portland, but the unsuccessful Clippers have no reason to tune him out yet—and the expected return of high-scoring guard Ron Harper (from knee surgery) in January should take care of the confidence.
Kenny Smith, Akeem Olajuwon welcomes you with open arms. In the past, the Dream has criticized his mates and management for failing to get him enough help, and Smith, a point guard acquired in a trade with Atlanta, definitely helps. Still, the word "rebuilding" is being heard around Houston, and the final spot in the playoffs will not appease Mr. Olajuwon for long. Early vacation.
Relations between the front office and forward Xavier McDaniel took a turn for the worse in the off-season when McDaniel objected to being shopped around. There's talent here, though, and maybe new coach K.C. Jones and his understated ways will bring it out.
Coach Don Nelson has been instructing his players to grunt and groan to draw foul calls this season. Warrior fans will be doing the groaning by February.
Well, it's nice to see coach Dick Motta excited again. "If [rookie shooting guard] Travis Mays and [rookie small forward] Lionel Simmons don't play on the All-Star team within three or four years," said Motta, "then they've had bad coaching." Three or four years is a pretty good gauge of whether the Kings will be ready to challenge the top teams in the conference.
Coach Bill Musselman has already exhibited a considerable bit of his legendary temper in an intrateam squabble with Billy McKinney, the Timberwolves' director of player personnel. Musselman was upset because McKinney said to the press that the Wolves "could or should win 30 games" this season, when he, Musselman, didn't want to be burdened with any predictions. Thirty wins in the Western Conference for these Wolves? It won't happen.
While everyone waits to find out how great (Dennis) Scott is, the Magic will have to depend on rapidly improving Nick Anderson and the underrated Otis Smith, both of whom swing between small forward and shooting guard. For that matter, so do the rookie Scott and 6'8" Jerry (Ice) Reynolds. The Magic should graft any two of them together and make a center.
Paul Westhead has brought to the NBA not only what is destined to be the most laughable up-tempo system in history but also some of his California lingo. Not long ago he said his players were trying to "groove into the new system." Paul, it's going to be beaucoup bummers for a while, dude.
What, ultimately, will put the Bulls into the Finals? The continued maturity of forwards Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant (the latter has added 20 pounds for the jousting up front)? The addition of Hopson and Levingston? The expected contributions of last year's promising but inconsistent rookies B.J. Armstrong and Stacey King? Or will it be, finally, the brilliance of Jordan, who most assuredly cannot go through a career without making the Finals?
Answer: The Bulls will need all of those factors to beat back a team as strong and as proud as Detroit. But, it says here, the Bulls will make it happen.
Several worthies from the Pistons' last two championship teams—Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Bill Laimbeer, in particular—came to training camp in excellent shape. That was good news for coach Chuck Daly, who is seeking to become the third coach in NBA history (the others are Boston's Red Auerbach and John Kundla of the Lakers) to win three straight NBA titles. And Daly isn't concerned about third guard Vinnie Johnson, who reported late after a contract battle with general manager Jack McCloskey. Johnson had a subpar regular season last year but came through in the playoffs.
What has worried Daly is the ankle injury, carried over from the postseason, that kept Dennis Rodman from most of the exhibition action. Has Rodman recovered, or will the injury keep bothering him? One of the keys to Detroit's championship drive last season was the good health of its frontline players; the Pistons' top eight missed a combined 13 games among them. But Thomas, Laimbeer and Mark Aguirre were injured during exhibitions, and Daly worries that this could be a harbinger of the regular season. The Pistons have felt the Bulls' heat for three years, and, this season, Detroit will succumb to it.
In contrast to Detroit, the Cavaliers lost a total of 154 player games to injury last season. They can't be that unlucky again, particularly not with savvy center Brad Daugherty, who missed 41 games in '89-90 and whose presence is an absolute necessity if coach Lenny Wilkens's disciplined post offense is to function properly.
Yes, rookie Danny Ferry will help, though Cav fans shouldn't expect miracles. Ferry and $26.5 million man John (Hot Rod) Williams will make a highly versatile frontcourt combo. But the Cavs just don't have enough fire-in-the-belly players to beat back Chicago and Detroit.
Under new coach Chris Ford the Celtics featured an up-tempo running style in the exhibition season, but the ill-fated two-year regime of former coach Jimmy Rodgers started that way, too. So what's the difference this year?
A few things: the maturation of starting point guard Brian Shaw, whose strong preseason play has helped ease the strain of his rancorous summer-long contract wrangling with management, and of starting two-guard Reggie Lewis; the addition of rookie point guard Dee Brown, a legitimate burner; and the democratic touch of Ford, who has the respect and attention of Celtics veterans Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.
The 76ers were probably the biggest surprise in the NBA last season when they jumped out on top of the Atlantic Division and finished with 53 wins, third best in the East. But can they get any better? The plan, according to coach Jimmy Lynam, is to make Charles Barkley more effective by playing him fewer minutes, but is that going to be possible? Certainly Lynam can use Bol to spell his other aging frontcourtmen, Rick Mahorn and Mike Gminski, but the burden will still be on Barkley. If the Sixers' young 'kins guards—Hersey Hawkins and Johnny Dawkins—improve, Philadelphia will battle Boston all the way in the Atlantic.
The Knicks made few alterations and will be counting on the still-emerging talents of Patrick Ewing. And what else?
The steady leadership of point guard Maurice Cheeks? Maybe. The renewed enthusiasm and creativity of Mark Jackson, the Knicks' other point guard? Maybe. The health of forward Kiki Vandeweghe and the wealth of his outside shooting? Maybe. The rebounding and all-around gamesmanship of the sometimes pouty power forward Charles Oakley? Another maybe. Patrick, here's the ball. See how far you can take 'em.
The joke here is obvious: Moses Malone playing in a passing game. Ha, ha, ha. For Moses, passing has traditionally been something to do in the left lane of the freeway. The offense installed by new coach Bob Weiss is more properly called a motion offense. "Run correctly, it actually requires easier passes," says Weiss. It might be ideal for this talent-rich team that could never distribute the ball well enough to make ex-coach Mike Fratello's system work.
Is the core group of Reggie Miller, Chuck Person, Rik Smits and Detlef Schrempf strong enough to play with the big boys in the East? It isn't. Indiana won 42 games last season and will probably do a little better in '90-91, but the Pacers simply aren't strong enough to go deep into the playoffs.
Every year the Bucks are candidates for the NBA's most forgettable team, not because they're bad—they're not—but because they're so darned, well, unexciting. This year's additions include center Danny Schayes (from Denver) and forward Brickowski (from San Antonio). Need we say more?
The most talked-about player in the draft, after the Clippers' Kimble, was Kendall Gill, whom the Hornets got at No. 5. He will bring some defensive toughness to a team (Kelly Tripucka, Rex Chapman, Muggsy Bogues, ex-Knick Johnny Newman) that has trouble spelling the word defense.
The Nets, whose 17-65 record was the worst in the league last season, finally signed No. 1 pick Derrick Coleman Sunday for about $15 million over five years. Even when he gets in shape, it won't help. That's because the Nets' other key acquisition, guard Reggie Theus (18.5 career scorer), is 33 and always has been a one-dimensional player.
Slow and steady. That was the expansion philosophy set by the Heat, and that's what Miami has held to. Fifteen wins in '88-89 and 18 in '89-90. Figure between 21 and 24 wins for '90-91. Pity the Miami fans. The Heat desperately needs continued improvement from its young Syracuse connection—guard Sherman Douglas and center Rony Seikaly.
The Bullets spent more time whale-watching this summer than Greenpeace did. The object of their attention was 300-plus-pound forward John (Thar She Blows) Williams, who had not reported to Bulletland as of Monday. With Jeff Malone gone, the Bullets must now give the green light to third-year guard Ledell Eackles, a career .437 shooter, who also was unsigned.