O.K., Rick Mahorn was important. He gave Detroit a tough presence and didn't hesitate to kick a lazy teammate's butt in the locker room. Still, if Mahorn had been more than the eighth-most important player on the roster, the Pistons would have withheld him from the expansion draft. Anyway, veteran 6' 10" bruiser Scott Hastings, picked up from the Miami Heat, will be a reasonable, if less belligerent, facsimile of Mahorn.
Detroit is one of the most balanced teams in the history of the NBA, never mind the most balanced team in the league right now. Are the Pistons better than last season? Not necessarily. But who is? Chicago, perhaps. But the Bulls must step up and prove they're better than Detroit, and these ornery Pistons like nothing better than a challenge.
Expectations are not merely high in Chicago, they're running amok. Here's how the logic goes. The Bulls made it all the way to the Eastern finals last season, and they must be stronger this year with the arrival of three first-round draft choices: center-forward Stacey King, point guard B.J. Armstrong and forward Jeff Sanders.
Rookies, even two good ones like King and Armstrong (Sanders is out for a month with a broken foot), do not usually make a team better right away. That will be up to forwards Scottie Pip-pen and Horace Grant, who must learn to play hard every night; to center Bill Cartwright, who must find a way to integrate himself into the offense; and to Craig Hodges, who must make the outside shot with enough consistency to take the pressure off you-know-who.
Speaking of Michael Jordan, if coach Phil Jackson holds to his preseason plan, Jordan will be out on the wing, in the open floor. He won't be a point guard, and he won't be a rebounder. Sounds good—let's see if it happens.
This is a make-or-break season for Fratello and his nucleus of Wilkins, Malone and Doc Rivers. On the positive side, Atlanta knows what it must do to improve. If Malone wants another championship ring to go with the one he got in Philly six years ago, he knows that some of his celebrated sweat will have to be worked up by contributing to team play instead of griping that he's not getting the ball enough. Wilkins knows that if he is to join the Magic-Jordan-Bird pantheon, he must also become more of a team player. Rivers knows that now is the time to seize the leadership role that is his for the taking. Even if the Hawks respond to this challenge, subpar perimeter shooting will ultimately do them in.
They did not help themselves in the off-season, and the question is whether the group that general manager Wayne Embry worked so hard to assemble over the last three years is good enough to get past Detroit, Chicago or even Atlanta. We say no. Forward-shot blocker Larry Nance is lost until at least mid-December because of off-season ankle surgery. and. with the exit of Mike Sanders (to Indiana via free agency), sixth-man John (Hot Rod) Williams will have to play more. Nonetheless. Cleveland is a dangerous team. Look for the Cavs to get off to a slow start because of Nance's injury and center Brad Daugherty's injured right foot. The Cavs should get stronger as the season progresses.
Here is coach Jimmy Rodgers in the preseason: "Putting people together to finish a game is more important to us than who starts." Boy, how times have changed. It wasn't too long ago that the indefatigable five of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge would start the game, finish the game and play most of the minutes in between. No more. Johnson, 35, may not contribute much, Bird is coming off surgery to both heels, and the plan is to use McHale off the bench. If backup frontcourtman Joe Kleine and starting—for now—power forward Ed Pinckney can provide productive minutes, Boston will win the Atlantic Division. And who knows how far the Celtics' experience will take them in the postseason?