Yes, Detroit knows it has the bodies to be champion. But does it have the mind-set? The Pistons appear to walk a fine line between discord and harmony—discord seemed to prevail last season. This delicate situation may be the inevitable flip side of all that depth. But Thomas insists that this is now a happy team, and he may be right. In the NBA a happy team is one that spreads the wealth around, and after Saturday's game Detroit had nine players averaging seven or more points per game. (The leading Piston scorer, Dumars, at 17.9, was only the league's 41st leading scorer after Saturday's games.) And in the NBA a happy team is one with renegotiated contracts, too; within the last year Detroit management has redone packages for Thomas (which puts him at about $2 million per year), Rodman ($500,000) and Dumars ($550,000). A potential storm system lies in the Pistons' path, however. The front office may soon want to reinstate center William Bedford, who has been inactive while receiving drug counseling, but the players don't want him back.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are a team "in semitransition," according to Riley. The primary change from last year has been the acquisition of Orlando Woolridge, an unrestricted free agent who spent most of last season injured or in drug rehabilitation. Woolridge wanted to stay near his rehab support group in Van Nuys, Calif., and he also wanted to play with a winner, having spent the last two seasons with New Jersey. The Lakers, who usually draft near the back of the pack, rarely get a chance to land a player of Woolridge's talent, and he was certainly worth the money, if only to satisfy Magic's request to "get someone who plays above the rim." Woolridge does that, all right, and his size (6'9") and quickness make him a formidable force in the Laker pressure defense. But it remains to be seen if his reputation as a poor clutch player is well-founded.
Los Angeles's primary shortcoming this season has been its failure to get something besides farewell speeches out of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who will officially retire at the end of this season. (He endured his second bye-bye ceremony along the endless trail on Saturday.) The plan going into the season was to play Abdul-Jabbbar in six-and seven-minute spurts for a total of between 26 and 29 minutes a game. Riley figured this would produce numbers approximating those of last year, when Abdul-Jabbar averaged 14.6 points and 6.0 rebounds a game, but it hasn't. At week's end, Abdul-Jabbar's stats were 8.5 and 5.4. He shot well against Detroit, making seven of 10 attempts, but he had only one rebound and was not on the floor for the final 5:17. At times he is even being waved out of the pivot to allow Magic to post up or to give Worthy space to maneuver. "I don't take it personally," says Abdul-Jabbar. "This is a year where I'm being phased out of the offense."
Eventually the Lakers will have to work out exactly what it is they need from their grand old man; remember that although Mychal Thompson is an excellent backup center, a backup center is what he is.
What the Lakers still have is the power generated by that terrific threesome of Magic, Scott and Worthy. Scott (22.5 points per game) scores so effortlessly and in so many ways that one wonders how many points he would get if he attempted a Jordanesque 25 shots per game instead of his modest 16.7. And he has become, according to assistant coach Bill Bertka, "a dominant defensive player too." Worthy is still bothered by tendinitis in his left knee at times, but one wouldn't know it by his 22.7 scoring average.
And as for Magic, well, his teammates say he is playing at a higher level than in his MVP season of 1986-87. As the result of an off-season dieting and running program, Johnson is eight pounds lighter and has 4% less body fat than last season.
"What sets the Lakers apart from us?" mused Laimbeer last week. "Only one thing. A 6'9" guard."
Ultimately, the Magic factor may well be the one that puts the Lakers over the top. Or it may be depth that lifts the Pistons to their first NBA title. But it's far too early to tell, as even Saturday's winners agreed. "Put it like this," said Detroit's Dumars, a man of few words. "It's good to be one up on them, but...and then put in those three little dots that means it's not finished." Consider it done, Joe.