In a typical NBA season, the Cleveland Cavaliers, who visit the Washington Bullets tonight, would be considered the team to beat in the Eastern Conference with their .677 winning percentage.
But the Cavaliers (42-20) find themselves butting heads with the Chicago Bulls, who lead the Central Division by 9 1/2 games and are all but assured of the home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Cavaliers, who have won one of three meetings with the Bulls, realize that despite their giant strides this season, the Bulls still are overwhelming favorites to repeat.
As reserve guard John Battle said recently, "They're the world champions, and we're a good team."
Three years ago, after winning 57 games, the Cavaliers were being hailed as the team of the '90s. It took a buzzer-beating shot by Bulls superstar Michael Jordan to eliminate Cleveland in the opening round of the 1988-89 playoffs.
But that was before an inordinate number of injuries to such key players as Ron Harper (now with the L.A. Clippers), Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance and Mark Price kept coach Lenny Wilkens from evaluating his team's true potential.
Two years ago, the Cavaliers lost 154 man-games to injuries and finished 42-40. The injury count soared to 254 man-games last season when they slipped to 33-49. No wonder then that Wilkens calls his team "a work in progress."
This season, Cleveland managed to avoid the injury jinx until last week when versatile shooting guard Craig Ehlo suffered a knee injury that should keep him sidelined for at least a month.
But the Cavaliers are a confident bunch who say they possess the size, speed and offensive versatility to best challenge the Bulls, who rely on their exceptional athleticism to intimidate rivals.
One of the biggest improvements has been the depth of the Cavaliers' bench, featuring Battle, flashy rookie guard Terrell Brandon, prize sixth man John "Hot Rod" Williams, forward Danny Ferry, three-point specialist Steve Kerr, rugged Winston Bennett and explosive Henry James.
"When our bench is playing well," said Wilkens, "I've got all kinds fTC of options. . . . That kind of versatility makes it fun to coach."
General manager Wayne Embry, who took considerable heat for the 1989 trade of Harper and two first-round draft picks to the Clippers for Ferry, and for using No. 1 selections to choose Randolph Keys and John Morton, is winning praise for the way he has built the Cavaliers.
As Embry told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "I was talking to someone recently and said I thought our team, one through 12 on the roster, might be as good as anyone in the league.
"The man asked, 'What about Chicago?' I smiled in deference to Jordan and said, 'Well, maybe two through 12.' "
But Price remains almost as important to the success of the Cavaliers as Jordan is to the Bulls. In the 82 games Price missed due to injuries the past three years, Cleveland played .341 ball. With Price directing the offense, the team has won more than 60 percent of its games.
His scoring average (16.7) is his lowest in four years, but he is playing a lot fewer minutes while Wilkens grooms Brandon as his capable understudy.
If anything, Price says his game is stronger since undergoing reconstructive surgery in 1991.
"Early in the season, I felt a little tired. But now I feel real strong because Lenny did a great job of watching my minutes," Price told the Akron Beacon Journal. "I used to be a guy who took a long jumper or drove all the way to the basket. Now I have a lot of shots off the run, medium-range jumpers around the foul line. I'm also using my left hand more on drives. You have to keep coming up with something new to keep the defense thinking."
Almost as important as Price's return to good health has been the steady improvement of Daugherty, who ranks among the NBA leaders in scoring (22.0) and rebounding (10.7).