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1.Chicago
2.Charlotte
3.Atlanta
4.Detroit
5.Indiana
6.Milwaukee
7.Toronto
8.Cleveland

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  Pistons
 
Quiz time. Category: NBA Contenders. Question: Which team recently engaged its dapper coach in tortuous negotiations, then signed him to a big-dollar contract but made no promises extending beyond this season; re-signed a shooting guard who's a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame; and will count on a flaky but productive frontcourt player for emotional spark and big rebounds?

If you answered Chicago, you get only partial credit, because you, my friend, have overlooked Detroit. We can't really blame you, though. After blazing to a 42-14 start last season, the Pistons staggered home with a 12-14 record and fell to Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs. During the off-season the hot question was whether coach Doug Collins would be back. Collins has won 100 games in two seasons, the best such start by a coach in Pistons history, but after the playoff loss to the Hawks, speculation raged that the intense Collins would give up coaching—which he admitted was draining him—and perhaps return to broadcasting. In June, however, he agreed to continue as Pistons coach, signing a two-year contract that gives each party the option to end the relationship after this season.

Collins will have his nucleus of the past two years back. Small forward Grant Hill made a strong case for being the league's best all-around player last season, when he became the first man to average at least 20 points, nine rebounds and seven assists since Larry Bird in 1989-90. And in July the team re-signed Joe Dumars, guaranteeing that the aforementioned future Hall of Famer will be back for a 13th season. Dumars, 34, is no longer a 20-point-per-game player, but he remains productive, and Collins has no plans to trim his playing time. "Eventually we've got to be able to cut back on Joe's minutes, but I'm so trusting in him right now it's hard for me to get him off the floor," says Collins.

Rounding out the backcourt is Lindsey Hunter, who, though nominally the point guard, played far better after yielding much of the ball-handling burden to Dumars and Hill, both of whom averaged more than twice as many assists. Hunter does do a good job checking the opposing team's point, and he and Dumars make up arguably the best defensive backcourt in the game.

To shore up the front line and provide the rebounding, Detroit signed enigmatic center Brian Williams to a seven-year, $45 million deal, quite a fiscal improvement for a guy who made just over three grand a game this past spring as a late-season Bulls pickup. Williams had missed most of '96-97 with a knee injury that was aggravated, according to rumors, by his penchant for parachuting. "That came from my agent, who is now my ex-agent," Williams said of such talk. "I parachuted. So did George Bush."

Williams will be spelled either by Don Reid—a tough guy in the mold of Rick Mahorn—or by Mahorn himself. Either way, opposing centers will take a beating: Reid committed a foul every 4.4 minutes last year, and when the 39-year-old Mahorn finally retires, his elbows ought to be put on permanent display in the Hall of Fame. Last year's part-time center, Theo Ratliff, will slide into the starting power forward spot, which opened up after Detroit sent Otis Thorpe—who had a much-publicized feud with Collins last year—to the Grizzlies for a future first-round draft pick.

The Pistons picked up a reclamation project in swingman Malik Sealy, who had been languishing with the Clippers and was only too happy to sign a one-year deal with a team that isn't, well, the Clippers. "It's good to be back in the NBA," he said when he met the Detroit media after signing.

Sealy's versatility will allow Collins to open up the Pistons' offense, which squeezed off fewer shots last year than any team except Cleveland. "I envision a small lineup sometimes of Lindsey, Joe, Malik, Grant and Brian on the floor together if we're not playing against an overpowering power forward," Collins says. "We'd have some speed and quickness, and you can do a lot of things with a lineup like that. What I'd like is a team that creates some more opportunities in the running game so we can get out and not have to work so hard to get scores."

Quiz time. Category: The '97-98 Season. Question: How will the Pistons' moves shake down in the won-lost column? Let's call on the intense-looking guy in the back. "I don't know," says Collins. "But it's a process. You get greedy. You get a piece and you say, 'Let's get another one.' You've just got to be patient."

For a coach who might not be back after the season, that won't be so easy.

—Mark Bechtel