A chic question these days is this: Does the ORLANDO MAGIC (page 86) have the best collection of talent in the NBA? With two coveted free agents—three-ring-bearing forward Horace Grant and point guard Brian Shaw—joining center Shaquille O'Neal, forward Nick Anderson and guard Anfernee Hardaway, the regular-season answer, arguably, is yes. But here's an even more chic question: Come next spring, will that be enough? This answer is even more arguable. Last season the Magic won a franchise-high 50 games but got swept by the Indiana Pacers in the first round of Orlando's first-ever postseason. While Grant injects playoff experience, he also gives the Magic another iffy free throw shooter (.596 in '93-94) to go with Shaq. "No predictions," Grant says. "But I'll guarantee this: We won't lose in the first round."
In the pop vernacular according to coach Pat Riley of the NEW YORK KNICKS, there's a name for it: the Principle of the Perfect Painful Progression. In three years under Riley, the Knicks have not failed to reach the playoffs, and each time they have ventured as far as or further than the year before, last season coming up 90-84 losers to the Houston Rockets in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The cause of that defeat: New York's paucity of perimeter punch. "I want to stay with the same scheme," says Riley. "I just want to find seven more points."
He may have them. In acquiring 6'6" swingman Doug Christie (unavailable until December because of ankle surgery) from the Dos Angeles Lakers and drafting smooth-shooting 6'8" Monty Williams from Notre Dame, the Knicks ensured themselves against the unreliable play of, small forward Charles Smith. Better shooting could also take the offensive burden off center Patrick Ewing, 32.
Riley's biggest hurdle could be the league's new defensive rules, which endanger what he deems "the taproot" of his team's success. Last season New York allowed a league-low 91.5 points per game and 63 times held opposing teams under 100 points. Often the Knicks held them literally, and many thought the NBA was aiming its new anti-hand-checking rule directly at tenacious point guard Derek Harper. Further, the tighter strictures on double-teaming could rein in one of the league's top "help" defenders, 6'9" power forward Charles Oakley, who's already hampered by a dislocated toe.
Center Rony Seikaly was in Greece when he heard that the MIAMI HEAT had let Shaw sign with Orlando. "Ridiculous," Seikaly said. "How can I get pumped when everyone else is making moves to get better and we go backwards?" Coach Kevin Loughery dismissed the comments as more noise from "the MTV generation." But over the last few years the Heat has whiffed on deals for Scottie Pippen, Danny Manning, Clyde Drexler and Derrick Coleman, and frustration has set in. "You see a lot of teams make moves," says forward Glen Rice. "We're a team that over history only talks about them."
However, top draft pick Khalid Reeves should give morale a boost, especially if he permits Steve Smith to slide over from the point to off-guard. And look for Rice to step forward—about two feet. One of the league's purest shooters, he will thrive with the shorter three-point arc, as will the Heat, which was 34-12 last season when Rice topped 20 points.
M.L. Carr has gone from being a towel-waving bench warmer for the BOSTON CELTICS to being their contract-waving executive vice president and director of basketball operations. Carr signed two big-name free agents, forward Dominique Wilkins and center Pervis Ellison, even though both had more lucrative offers elsewhere. Once his knees heal, Ellison will join rookie Eric Montross and second-year man Acie Earl in a pivot-by-committee to replace Robert Parish. Wilkins will be asked to do what he does best—score—and he already feels comfy at his new home along the Charles River, catching a bass on his first expedition there. For depth, Carr has also reeled in two former Milwaukee Bucks, swingman Blue Edwards and forward Derek Strong.
More than any other team in the league, the NEW JERSEY NETS will live or die on the viability of their coach's philosophy. Butch Beard enters where Hall of Famer Chuck Daly dreaded to return, bringing with him fresh ideas about nonstop running, interchangeable positions and maybe even a two-platoon substitution system. Nevertheless the Nets' All-Stars, Coleman and point guard Kenny Anderson (still bothered by a hamstring injury and a lingering wrist ailment) are in danger of becoming Stockton & Malone East: leading lights in endless search of the right supporting cast. Drafting an outside shooter would have helped, but New Jersey chose raw 7'1" center Yinka Dare, who won't. "I have to figure out how to do things," Dare says.
Shawn Bradley's return to his alma mater lasted all of 31 seconds. While attempting to block a shot in a preseason game at BYU, Bradley, the 7'6" center for the PHILADELPHIA 76ERS, hurt his left knee, the same one that he had injured in '93-94 and that caused him to sit out 33 games. Last season, with Bradley in uniform, the Sixers were 20-29; without him they were 5-28. With or without Bradley, this will still be a rebuilding season for John Lucas, Philly's fourth coach in four years and fourth G.M. in six. Adding free agent Scott Williams and rookie Sharone Wright (page 136) to the front line will enable 6'7" Clarence Weather-spoon to line up at small forward, where he is too explosive to handle.
Jim Lynam, the new coach of the WASHINGTON BULLETS, is counting on two sources of improvement: better leadership at the point and a more significant contribution in the pivot. The former will come from 30-year-old Scott Skiles, who was acquired from Orlando. The latter could come from a slimmed-down Kevin Duckworth, who went from 340 pounds to 300, and from Gheorghe Muresan, who last season went from being just another 7'7" Romanian to being a real factor (5.6 points, 3.6 rebounds) for 15 to 20 minutes a game. But it's just as easy to count up the things Lynam can't count on: Juwan Howard, the 6'9" rookie forward from Michigan, who as of Monday had yet to sign; physical play underneath the hoop; and a defense that allowed opponents to shoot a league-high 50.8%.