If there was ever a trade that fulfilled i specific need, it was the one Utah made to land two-time All-Star guard Jeff Malone from Washington. The Jazz needed a sharpshooter and it got one. Nice move, Utah. But don't be quick to think that Utah got Malone for a bargain-basement price. The Jazz, as part of a three-way deal with Washington and Sacramento, gave up guard Bobby Hansen and center Eric Leckner to the Kings, while center Pervis Ellison went from the Kings to the Bullets. Hansen is a competent seven-year pro, not to mention a favorite of defense-minded Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, while Leckner is an adequate backup frontcourtman. The move might help Utah to a few more wins during the regular season, but it won't be enough to make the Jazz the West's best.
Dallas acquired guard Fat Lever from Denver and forward Rodney McCray from Sacramento via trades and signed Denver forward Alex English as a free agent. So what's not to like? Lever and McCray are both excellent "blenders," players who can accommodate their skills to the needs of the Mavs. And English is a "need" player, in this case an experienced shooter who once every half-dozen games or so will be the go-to guy down the stretch. The Mavs couldn't have done better. Heck, it was nice that they pulled Lever and English from a burning building in the Mile High City and dusted off McCray after a house-cleaning in Sacramento. Figure the additions to give the Mavericks at least seven more wins.
We'll soon get to see whether former New Jersey Net Dennis Hopson, now with the Bulls, is a poor man's Michael Jordan. To get Hopson, Chicago gave up first-round draft pick No. 22, with which the Nets chose Tate George last June. The Bulls also landed veteran free-agent forward Cliff Levingston. Hopson's ability makes him more able to assist Jordan in the backcourt than almost any rookie. As for Levingston, he brings a joy and enthusiasm to the game that few bench players in the league can match. Jordan will like him and get along with him, and don't underestimate the importance of that. Hopson and Levingston will also add depth against Detroit in the postseason.
In a way, Philadelphia's landing of Manute Bol from Golden State was the biggest move of all, but that's only because Bol. the Sudanese Sultan of Swat, is 7'7". And since the 76ers were the smallest team in the NBA last season, that is of no, well, small consequence. But Bol is a player of limited skills who hurts a team on the offensive end; if he weren't, neither Washington nor Golden State would have let him go.
So, there are the moves. But which ones will make an impact on the standings, and which won't? Keep in mind that Dallas does not necessarily move ahead of, say, Phoenix, just because the Mavericks demonstrated some offseason slick-ness. With only 47 wins last season, the Mavs had to juggle their personnel more dramatically than the Suns, who won 54 and were basically satisfied with their upward movement.
In reality, only two teams from the East have a shot at making the Finals—Chicago and Detroit. Over the last three seasons, their rivalry has become, in many ways, as dramatic and as hotly contested as the Finals. And each year the competition has gotten closer. The Pistons eliminated the Bulls in five conference playoff games in '88, in six in '89 and in seven last season. This will be the year the winner changes, not because the Pistons will blow it, but because the Bulls will earn it.
We see Portland emerging from the West bloodied but battle-tough. Strong competition will come from the rejuvenated Lakers and the Suns, but the Trail Blazers will no longer falter when presented with big challenges.
The last of those will be Jordan and the Bulls in the Finals, where Portland will employ the lessons it learned from its drubbing by Detroit last season—defensive intensity, concentration, toughness. Those lessons will enable the Blazers to win their first title since 1977.
Who will challenge Portland and Chicago? Which teams will make it to the playoffs? And who will stay home next April? Here are SI's assessments: