Pistons look like NBA's best, but Lakers still tough

Those with a healthy admiration for team balance still see the Detroit Pistons as the team to beat this year in the National Basketball Association, even though New York, Cleveland, and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers have all played just about as well to date. With the 82-game season just moving past the one-quarter checkpoint, there is nothing to suggest that Detroit won't again win the Central Division title. It's true that Cleveland has kept pace to date, and that the Pistons have had some inexplicable head-to-head trouble with Milwaukee, losing two early-season games, but in the long haul they appear to have too much talent not to emerge on top.

Also, the Pistons seem to have adopted a whole new attitude, putting aside the petty differences that have sometimes beset them in the past. The 1988-89 edition is a team that shares the wealth on offense, the responsibilities on defense, and the camaraderie of the locker room.

Even though the Pistons are clearly one of the league's dominant teams, not one of their players is listed among the top 20 scorers. Instead they feature a balanced offense, with every player on the floor chipping in. Adrian Dantley and Isiah Thomas usually lead the way, while another big contributor this year has been guard Joe Dumars, who is having the best season of his four-year pro career.

Another important factor in Detroit's success is Bill Laimbeer, the rugged center who has the job of banging it out with the other team's No. 1 big man under the boards night after night. Indeed, although the world has generally has been slow to accept center Laimbeer as a fine clutch player, he is the man Detroit could least afford to lose.

Meanwhile the Atlanta Hawks, who were supposed to make it tough for the Pistons after off-season trades brought them center Moses Malone and guard Reggie Pheus, have had some unexpected problems on the road. The point is, if you can't win away from home in the NBA, even if you make the playoffs you are usually gone by the end of the first round.

But the Central also has another heavyweight contender in the Cleveland Cavaliers, where Brad Daugherty is rapidly becoming one of the best centers in the league. (Look for the Lakers to try to deal for him at the end of the season.)

As for the Atlantic Division, everything went up for grabs the minute all-league forward Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics was grounded by injuries. Although Bird is tentatively scheduled to rejoin the NBA wars in March, the Celtics will probably have acquired such a heavy deficit in the lost column by that time that they may even have to scramble to make the playoffs.

From now until the end of the season, the race for first place in this division will probably remain a close one between the New York Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers.

New York's Patrick Ewing has just about arrived as the equal of center Akeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets - and isn't it about time that somebody called attention to the superb coaching job Rick Pitino has been doing for the Knicks?

In the Pacific Division, the Lakers have obviously adjusted well to the diminishing skills of 42-year-old center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who retires at the end of the season.

Coach Pat Riley, by juggling the pivot position among Abdul-Jabbar, Mychal Thompson, and Mark McNamara (allowing Magic Johnson to decide how much Kareem belongs in the team's offense), has solved his most pressing problem.

But if the Lakers were put into a position in the playoffs where they had to handle an opposing center like Olajuwon or Ewing for seven games, they would be hard pressed to successfully defend their NBA crown. Right now, the Portland Trail Blazers look like the next best team in this division.

In the Midwest it's a four-club battle for first place among Denver, Utah, Dallas, and Houston. On paper, the Rockets have the personnel to win this division, but may not have the coach. On paper, the Nuggets have the coach to win this division, but may not have the personnel.

In business terms of ``all the traffic will bear,'' the Lakers probably have the league's No. 1 entrepreneur in owner Jerry Buss.

When Buss bought the team from Jack Kent Cooke in 1979, Cooke was getting $15 a ticket for his courtside seats, of which there are about 120. At the end of the 1987-88 playoffs, Buss told one of his executives to raise the price of those courtside seats for regular-season games from $175 each to $250. When the executive asked Buss what he should say if any of the season-ticket holders complained, Jerry replied:

``Tell anyone who puts up a fuss that I will pay him $1,000 in cash if he will give up his courtside tickets. In addition, I will give him two really good seats for the season elsewhere in the Forum at no cost.

Only one season ticketholder complained - then rejected Buss's offer as soon as he heard it.

Although it was never officially announced, several of the Forum's season ticketholders were allowed to buy Laker championship rings at the end of the playoffs for the wholesale price of $2,600!

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