Before I get around to picking the Lakers to win the NBA title -- OK, I always pick the Lakers, on the theory they're the only team I've ever picked in any sport that has ever won -- a word or two about the Washington Bullets.
Granted, this is an unscientific poll, but among people I talk to, they prefer Newt Gingrich 3-to-1 over the Bullets.
When you think about the Bullets -- and, if attendance figures are a reliable guide, almost no one does -- they only drive you crazy. At a time when the NBA is a wonderful success story, we are stuck with a team that hasn't won more than 43 games in a season since 1979 and draws accordingly. This season, the Bullets will be lucky to win 30.
Of course, now they have John "Hot Lunch" Williams, their meal ticket, back. Unfortunately, Williams, who prefers potatoes and stuffing, took this meal-ticket business a little too seriously. Let's put it this way: Buster Douglas used to be a power forward, too. Williams, who hasn't stepped on a scale in months, predicts he'll need only two to four weeks to get back into shape. It is fair to note, however, that he didn't say which shape. For reference, see the picture, taken with an ultra-wide-angle lens, elsewhere on this page.
With or without Williams, the Bullets are a depressing season waiting to happen. You have to feel sorry for Wes Unseld, Bernard King and Darrell Walker, three guys who make a collective statement about work ethic. Fortunately, I've got cable, which means I'll be able to see all the Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan I can stand.
The big story in the NBA is the tilt toward the West. The West bias is so great, in fact, that the NBA is playing two RTC regular-season games in Japan, so far to the West that it's East (see: Columbus). In the Pacific Division, which the Lakers have won the past 11 seasons, some folks are picking Portland. Others are picking Phoenix. Many are picking the Lakers, who did win 63 games last season and who did improve themselves, to finish third. They won't. And even if they do, this time when the playoffs roll around -- yes, Bullets fans, they still have the playoffs -- the Lakers will be ready, despite a rookie coach, Mike Dunleavy. Pat Riley, remember, took his hair to TV, where it belongs.
In the off-season, Jerry West, who plays general manager nearly as well as he played guard, picked up Sam Perkins (inside) and TerryTeagle (outside) to come off the bench. The Lakers already have Magic Johnson and James Worthy, a young Vlade Divac at center, a renewed Byron Scott at guard. They may not win 60 games this season, but no one is going to win 60 games this season.
Certainly, the competition is genuine. Phoenix, however, may not be quite as genuine as supposed. The Suns, who knocked off the Lakers in the playoffs last season, are now thought to be legitimate successors. People once thought of Houston that way, and, a few years later, of Utah. But beating the Lakers in a playoff is no guarantee of championships to come. Portland beat Phoenix last season in the playoffs and picked up Danny Ainge to help what is the best starting five in the league. Phoenix stood still, which probably means taking a few steps backward.
The Jazz added Jeff Malone, giving Utah the missing part it needed. San Antonio still looks like the future of the NBA. Dallas, the team that annually disappoints, has added Fat Lever, Rodney McCray and Alex English and may be ready, finally, to surprise instead.
Then there is Denver, where Paul Westhead, mad scientist/Shakespearean scholar, is the new coach, bringing with him the same philosophy he employed at Loyola Marymount. What fools these mortals be. The theory, which worked much of the time in college, is that you play up-tempo, modern-jazz basketball, and you play it so fast that the other team runs out of gas and starts missing shots. In the NBA, they don't miss layups. The offense slows down only when a crashing dunk cracks the backboard, which isn't that effective a defense. Come on, Nevada-Las Vegas scored 160 points against Loyola last season in 40 minutes. My advice to the Denver assistants: Don't bother to unpack. Westhead won't see the ides of March. He'll be lucky to make it through November.
About 1,500 miles and 180 degrees from Denver is Detroit, the team that made defense popular in the NBA. The Pistons are going for a three-peat, you know. (OK, if you never say three-peat again, neither will I.) If it hadn't been for a bad call in Game 6 of the 1988 playoffs, the Pistons already would have won three in a row. Give them their due. They are a great team, even if they don't have great players. They have Isiah Thomas, who isn't as good as he might be. This is a team where Dennis Rodman, who can't shoot the ball at all, is probably the most important player. Chuck Daly, who kept his hair in the NBA, is a great coach. That said, I don't think the Pistons will even make it to the finals. Because . . . well, they have to crack sometime, don't they?