NBA contenders hope all the pieces fit CHASING OF THE BULLS

November 01, 1991|By Alan Goldstein

Call it the "X" factor. That is "X" as in Xavier McDaniel, the bald and menacing forward who is expected to put new life into the New York Knicks.

But "X" really stands for the missing ingredient that all would-be title contenders hope they have added in their pursuit of the defending NBA champion Chicago Bulls.

In New York, it's not only the addition of McDaniel, but also the dawning of "The Riley Era," with the former Lakers coach expected to supply the same magic that produced four NBA titles in Los Angeles.

It was only a matter of weeks before rival coaches and players detected a positive change in the attitude of the Knicks, who were labeled classic underachievers last season.

After a recent exhibition game against the Knicks, Washington Bullets coach Wes Unseld said: "There's a definite [improvement] in their play and pride. You can see it in their faces."

The players, who performed like oddly fitting parts last winter, have responded quickly to Riley.

"The No. 1 thing he has instilled is getting players to play to their potential," said shooting guard Gerald Wilkins. "He gets you in a position to do what you do best."

Said Riley: "When I look at a Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Mark Jackson and Kiki Vandeweghe, I see veteran players who have talent and experience. But for some reason, they've been paralyzed the last two years, debilitated as a group because of something mental.

"But it doesn't make a difference what caused it. It's behind us. We're starting over. We're starting fresh."

In Boston, it's something old and special that has the Celtics faithful envisioning another championship banner hanging from the rafters.

The sight of Larry Bird, the unquestioned team leader, running and jumping unencumbered has rekindled the dream. Trimmed down markedly after back surgery, Bird is moving and shooting with renewed energy.

In Houston, it is the return to All-Star form of center Hakeem Olajuwon, back to lead the Rockets, who proved they could win consistently without him.

In Detroit, the bad-boy Pistons have taken a blood oath to rekindle the fury and combativeness that led to consecutive NBA titles before being swept aside by the Bulls last May.

Team captain Isiah Thomas, snubbed by the Olympic basketball selection committee, could turn this season into a personal crusade.

In Cleveland, it is the eventual return of point guard Mark Price, who will provide the leadership missing on a Cavaliers team that boasts all the other key ingredients to make a legitimate title run.

And in the West, the Portland Trail Blazers, the 1990 finalists who lost to the Lakers in last season's conference showdown, believe all the right pieces are already in place. It is just a matter of rededication.

"We have to take it to a different level now," said Blazers coach Rick Adelman.

"We learned that you not only have to be ready every game, but every quarter. The maturity is there, the hunger is there, and the confidence and ability is there. It's just a matter of sustaining our intensity."

No one is treating the Bulls -- Michael and the Jordanaires -- as one-year flukes.

Success breeds imitation, and teams that tried to emulate the intimidating style of the Pistons are now trying to impersonate the running, trapping, open-floor style of the Bulls, led by Jordan and budding star Scottie Pippen.

The Bulls debunked such long-standing myths as that a team cannot win a title without a dominating center or All-Star point guard.

Certainly, methodical center Bill Cartwright and John Paxson, a shooting guard in playmaker's clothing, were not viewed as franchise-makers. But both blended in perfectly with Phil Jackson's master plan.

As Houston coach Don Chaney said: "The game has changed. Teams are playing more of an open style, trying to exploit athletic ability."

Added Miami Heat coach Kevin Loughery: "Defenses have become more sophisticated in double-teaming and shutting down inside scoring. So we're now seeing an emphasis on speed and quickness. Chicago won a title this way, so you are going to see a lot of teams trying to play uptempo this season."

As the new trendsetters, the Bulls' main concern is keeping level-headed and maintaining their delicate team chemistry. It was already tested in the preseason when talented power forward Horace Grant wondered if there was a double standard when Jordan was permitted to skip a team tribute at the White House.

Jordan and Grant reached an accord, and there have been no new incidents to create disharmony. The rest of the country may be experiencing a recession, but in the NBA, it is still a Bull market.

Milestones to watch

* With 849 victories, Sacramento coach Dick Motta (849) needs 15 more to surpass Jack Ramsay as the NBA's second-winningest coach. Former Boston coach Red Auerbach (938) is the all-time leader.

* Milwaukee C Moses Malone, starting his 16th season, needs 973 points to surpass Oscar Robertson as the NBA's fourth all-time scorer.

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