Kings count on rookie center Lasalle Thompson in bid to regain NBA playoff status

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There are still a few National Basketball Association coaches around, like Cotton Fitzsimmons of the Kansas City Kings, who have the ability to convince even veteran writers that what they are doing is meaningful. Their team can be full of question marks and they can still make the phrase ''transition period'' sound like a key to the Magic Kingdom.

''OK, so we're not prime time yet,'' Fitzsimmons was telling reporters, referring to a Kings defeat that had just been shown live on one of the cable TV networks. ''Remember I saw the same mistakes out there on the court that you did and, you're right, we're not reacting well against the good teams. But give us time; give us a chance to get it all together and we will.''

Sitting on the Kansas City bench in street clothes watching while the Kings were losing was LaSalle Thompson, the team's No. 1 draft pick who had not signed until after the season started and was waiting out a suspension for being overweight. LaSalle, a 6 ft. 10 in., 245-pound center from Texas was college basketball's leading rebounder last year, with more than 13 a game.

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''With a training camp behind him, Thompson would have been able to start for us; that's the kind of player he is,'' Fitzsimmons explained. ''Now we have to wait for him to get ready. For a coach, situations like that are frustrating. For LaSalle's teammates, it's another rookie they have to take into the system. You live with it because what else can you do, but it's never easy.

''Actually we've got a lot of people, particularly among our forwards, who have the ability to play well in this league,'' Cotton continued. ''But you don't make the playoffs if you don't have a center who can consistently get you the ball and we think Thompson can do that. It's simple. Give up one shot, create two for yourself by controlling both boards and invariably you're going to win.''

The Kings actually started the season better than expected, posting a 5-3 record over the first couple of weeks to jump into first place in the NBA's Midwest Division. The long-range goal, of course, is to keep it up and gain a playoff berth - for which they are in direct competition with three teams that finished ahead of them last season (San Antonio, Denver and Houston), plus Dallas and Utah.

San Antonio, the defending division champion with 48 victories last season, has since added center Artis Gilmore from the Chicago Bulls. Gilmore gives the Spurs one of the best big men in the league, another scorer, and another rebounder.

Artis has also played consistently well over the years against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an ingredient San Antonio coach Stan Albeck felt the Spurs had to add if they are to have a bona fide chance in the Western Conference playoffs. It is more or less assumed that San Antonio will win its division.

While Denver's defense usually betrays it in the playoffs, the Nuggets should be capable of between 45 and 50 wins during the regular season, which probably would be higher than any figure Kansas City could muster.

But Houston, having traded center Moses Malone (the league's MVP last year) to the Philadelphia 76ers, now probably has the worst personnel in the league. In fact, about the only thing coach Del Harris can look forward to is being fired. Forced by management to play overage destroyer Elvin Hayes, who was a superstar on offense in his prime, Harris is locked into a situation that is not entirely his fault.

Although the Kings shouldn't have to worry about finishing ahead of either Houston or the Utah Jazz, they do have to be concerned with the upstart Dallas Mavericks, who now seem capable of beating any NBA team on any given night. In fact, Dallas has a good chance of finishing right around .500.

Until Thompson gets into shape and begins to play regularly, Fitzsimmons will be going with sophomore Steve Johnson and veteran Leon Douglas at center. Johnson, with only 459 rebounds last season, still leaves a lot to be desired on the boards. Even though Douglas is a hard worker, he is finishing a career, not starting one.

Where Fitzsimmons has cornered the market is at forward, where 96 minutes of playing time has to be divided among Eddie Johnson, Joe C. Meriweather, Reggie Johnson, Reggie King, Kevin Loder and rookie Ed Nealy. However, Loder can also play guard.

The Kings starting backcourt now features Ray Williams, obtained from the New Jersey Nets, and Larry Drew, who has the same kind of potential Norm Nixon had six years ago. Backup help is available from Mike Woodson and rookie Brook Steppe of Georgia Tech.

Prior to last season, when Kansas City went 30-52 and missed the playoffs, Fitzsimmons had a three-year record with the Kings of 135-111. While the club's future isn't exactly mortgaged to Thompson, the quality of his play might well decide the value of Cotton in Kansas City.

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