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We give the floor to Mychal Thompson, a cinch to be the least popular Laker in Boston this season. " Boston is going down," says Thompson, L.A.'s backup center. "The Celtics are getting older and don't have the depth."
Many players and coaches in the NBA share Thompson's opinion, even if they don't speak it quite so bluntly. Cleveland coach Lenny Wilkens puts it this way: "You have to wonder how much of a toll those playoffs last spring took on the Celtics [who very narrowly beat the Pistons in the Eastern finals and lost the championship round to the Lakers in six games]. Guys played a lot of minutes, and guys played hurt. Their bench is thin, and they didn't get any younger."
That sort of talk is just the thing to make the Celtics angry, of course, and in the past, angry Celtics have been dangerous Celtics, and dangerous Celtics have been far too much for the East to handle. But these are different times. There are two teams—Detroit and Atlanta—with not only the desire, but also the talent to unseat Boston. The opinion here is that the Pistons will do it. After taking a preseason peek around the league, here is one man's guess as to how things will shake out once the playoffs begin in April.
Detroit vs. Philadelphia: Over the last three seasons the 76ers have lost Bobby Jones, Moses Malone, Julius Erving and, for all the good he's done them, Andrew Toney, the shooting guard with the fragile feet. Point guard Maurice Cheeks and forward Charles Barkley—Mr. Cool and Mr. Fool, respectively—will get the Sixers into the playoffs, but no further. Detroit advances.
Chicago vs. Milwaukee: Experience, in the form of veterans Jack Sikma, Terry Cummings, Paul Pressey (let's vote him onto the East All-Star team this season, folks), John Lucas and Craig Hodges (the latter two had not signed as of last Friday but were expected to soon) should make the Bucks a force in the Central Division during the regular season. And they will become even stronger if Sidney Moncrief, Milwaukee's heart and soul, recovers from recent surgery on his left knee by January, as expected, and if Ricky Pierce, sixth man supreme, ends his holdout. But the Bucks may find themselves wilting by the end of April, and it figures to be a difficult first year for Coach Del Harris, who will find his predecessor, Don Nelson, a tough act to follow. Milwaukee, which last season gave up two first-round picks to get Sikma from Seattle, must face the fact that he didn't help them win it all in 1986-87 and won't this season, either. The Bucks need fresh blood.
Though they won only 40 games and barely managed to qualify for the playoffs last season, the Bulls are attracting an inordinate amount of attention. Can Michael Jordan get any better? Will rookie forward Scottie Pippen, out of Central Arkansas, be a player and not just a headline-in-waiting: PIPPEN TIP-IN LIFTS BULLS? The answers are yes and yes. Chicago should be peaking by the playoffs, when the Pip and another outstanding rookie, swingman Horace Grant from Clemson, have figured out when to zig, when to zag and when to just give the ball to Jordan and get out of the way and watch. Chicago advances.
Atlanta vs. Indiana: Coach Jack Ramsay says his Pacers are no better than they were last season, when they went 41-41 and made the playoffs for the first time since 1980-81. We say he's wrong. Ramsay has had a full season to encourage forward Wayman Tisdale to stay in shape. It remains to be seen if rookie Reggie Miller out of UCLA is just a one-dimensional player, but even if he is, that dimension—long-range shooting—is just what the Pacers need to open things up inside for Tisdale, Herb Williams, Steve Stipanovich and Chuck Person. If guard Scott Skiles stays healthy, the Pacers will have made perhaps the best trade this season—a second-round pick to Milwaukee for the second-year point guard from Michigan State who played in only 13 games in '86-87 because of back problems.
The feisty Person will be one of the better players in the East this season, provided no one knocks his block off. He and the Hawks' Dominique Wilkins have already squared off this fall, in an exhibition game. This could be a real rivalry by the time Atlanta and Indiana get a crack at each other in the postseason. Atlanta advances.