THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : Put This on Marquee: Lakers Do the Right Thing

How to describe the Lakers' start?

Embarrassing?

No.

Humiliating?

Nope.

I lean more to necessary . Also inevitable with a dash of courageous thrown in.

Anyone who thought the Lakers could avoid this day or rebuild without it was dreaming. It popped onto their schedule when Magic Johnson retired and without it, the odds against returning to glory would be prohibitive.

Great teams are built around great players, such as Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, not merely good ones, which Anthony Peeler and Doug Christie might grow into.

Great players in the salary-cap era come from the lottery. To draft a great player, you need a terrible finish and a lot of luck, or Orlando Magic General Manager Pat Williams to draw your Ping-Pong ball.

Of course, a terrible finish will just about finish them off in the Laker front office.

Before the season, Jerry Buss said 50 losses would be "sheer torture." His club could be 20% of the way there by Wednesday night.

General Manager Jerry West used to suffer all the torments of hell when the Lakers were great.

Attendance is dropping like a rock. The Lakers peaked at an average of 17,498 in 1988-89, Pat Riley's last season, and were still holding at 17,055 in '91-92, the first without Johnson.

This season, it's running at 12,974, a 24% drop in 18 months.

The mistake would have been to try to put it off, to try to mollify the fans by bringing in a "marquee player" like Dominique Wilkins, a move reportedly discussed last season. Marquee players don't draw fans, winning teams do. Otherwise, Wilkins' annual appearance here would be met with something more than yawns.

The same would hold for a marquee coach like Johnson, another move that was discussed last season. Fans paid to see no-look passes, not Earvin in a double-breasted suit stuck on the sideline, trying to teach 12 kids which end is up.

Instead, West did the right thing. Others may remember him for the moves that got James Worthy or Byron Scott or A.C. Green, but his greatest was his toughest, trading Sam Perkins for Benoit Benjamin and Christie. Perkins was a professional, Benjamin a slug of the first order and Christie an unsigned rookie with a problem knee.

With that, the Lakers announced that mere respectability wouldn't do and they would go to any lengths for a promising young player. They launched themselves out of the middle of the pack, a seductive limbo still inhabited by the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons.

After that, there could be no going back. A season later, without having exercised a top-10 pick in 11 years, the Lakers are much younger, far more athletic and intermittently exciting. In other words, they have started up the road back.

There is even the possibility of a sudden breakout.

With the salary-cap rules shattered by the Chris Dudley rulings, the rich are expected to have 300 shopping days before a new collective bargaining agreement closes the loophole.

Thus, if you have money, as Buss does, and a salary slot, like Green's $1.8 million, and the glamour, sunshine and endorsement potential that have always made your team a preferred destination, you can dream of hitting it big next summer when you could offer a free agent a $40-million, 10-year deal with a one-year "out."

The landscape is dotted with young free agents-to-be, starting with Danny Manning, Horace Grant and perhaps restricted free agent-to-be Derrick Coleman, who seems to be trying to force the New Jersey Nets to trade him.

In the meantime, pray for Chick Hearn.

THE NO-PFUND LEAGUE

No amount of counsel can be expected to keep the wolf from Randy Pfund's door, not as long as there's talk radio.

So before the cries for his head arise anew, let's cut to the key question:

What difference would it make?

Is there anyone who thinks Magic, Rick Pitino or Roy Williams could pass his hand over this Boy Scout troop and turn it into an NBA contender?

Granted, Johnson has a lot of experience in trying to keep Vlade Divac awake, but it was hard enough when he could walk up to Divac and stick his finger in his face.

Pfund's young players, some of whom have already completed their first NBA season, are sending messages through the media that they want to run more. Of course, were they a little better than No. 26 in a 27-team league in defense, they wouldn't have to take the ball out of the net and inbound it so often, a handicap for running teams.

His players need to play. Everyone else needs to face reality.

THE CONFERENCE RACES (THROUGH NOV. 27)

Predictions are fun but are based on paper calculations and exhibition games, the equivalent of gossamer and air.

Now that we've actually had a look at everyone, let's jump to a few conclusions:

EAST

ELITE TEAMS (1)--New York Knicks.

Riley's biggest task this season is keeping his team awake while walking over this suddenly pathetic conference.

PLAYOFF TEAMS (5)--Charlotte Hornets, Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Celtics.

However, the Hornets aren't as good as they think they are, the Cavaliers appear to have aged overnight under Mike Fratello, the Celtics have definitely aged and the Bulls, without Scottie Pippen and Scott Williams, look like a CBA team.

ON THE BUBBLE (6)--Atlanta Hawks, Pistons, Miami Heat, Washington Bullets, New Jersey Nets, Indiana Pacers.

Until he got the Hawks' rabble off to a 7-4 start, I suspected Lenny Wilkens' records sprang from sheer longevity. However, Dominique Wilkins, free agent-to-be, is on his way out of town, so what does it all mean?

Larry Brown has had only one losing season, but he used to be smarter about choosing jobs. Instead of inheriting David Robinson or Manning, he got Detlef Schrempf for an exhibition season.

It looks as if the Heat peaked in Year 4. This is Year 6.

It's nice that Wes Unseld's Bullets are having this moment.

ALREADY GONE (2)--Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers.

Mike Dunleavy is finding out what overachieving with the league's worst talent gets you.

If Dunleavy wants to learn how to live down to expectations, the 76ers can show him.

WEST

ELITE TEAMS (3)--Houston Rockets, Seattle SuperSonics, Phoenix Suns.

Houston's born-again banditos have built the league's best defense around Hakeem Olajuwon. Through their first 12 games, all victories, opponents averaged 89.9.

Everyone doubts the SuperSonics (too helter-skelter, no go-to guy, etc.) but no one had beaten them until Cleveland did it Saturday night.

Everyone doubts the Suns (no size, defense, etc.) but Kevin Johnson has gone back to being Kevin Johnson, giving them two unstoppable players, at least until Charles Barkley punches out a minister in a Scottsdale bar in front of witnesses.

PLAYOFF TEAMS (4)--Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors.

The Jazz will not go softly into that good night, at least not until the playoffs.

Insiders loved the Trail Blazers in exhibition play, but they haven't jelled and still look like the jugheads of old.

The Spurs need a scorer but will stay decent, if volatile, unless Dennis Rodman becomes a Trappist monk.

When Chris Mullin gets back, the Warriors will stop being underdogs every night. Chris Webber is the real deal.

ON THE BUBBLE (2)--Clippers, Denver Nuggets.

ALREADY GONE (4)--Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, Dallas Mavericks.

They're rebuilding. In Minnesota's case, perhaps forever.

FACES AND FIGURES

Michael Jordan had a news conference last week to announce the formation of MJ Golf Co., which will put up teaching facilities with driving ranges, putting greens and classrooms. Said Jordan: "This is simply another of my efforts to give something back to the community. We have a lot of social problems, and I feel that golf can be one more wholesome activity made available to young people. I've grown to love it and benefit from it as a person. I know that others can do the same." Those of you who are so inclined, make your own jokes. . . . Utah President Frank Layden, on the SuperSonics: "Seattle's got the best team, but I feel they've got the poorest coach (George Karl). Well, he's a CBA coach. He's been fired everywhere he's been. His team is going to require a lot of discipline and intelligent endeavor and he's not capable of doing it." Karl was flabbergasted, but held his once-undisciplined tongue.

Ted Turner's superstation, TBS, will go to an NBA game of the week next season but is stuck with Hawk telecasts until then. This season's first two games got 0.7 and 1.0 ratings, just above the audience for a test pattern. . . . Rodman's heralded return to the Palace as a Spur resulted in two delay-of-game calls, two technicals and the Worm's ejection, after which he smashed the TV in the visitors' dressing room. "If I had my way," Rodman said, "I wouldn't come back here. The people treated me like I had some kind of disease."

Orlando's players didn't like the preseason trip to London. Said Dennis Scott, Shaquille O'Neal's roommate: "I'm not an ambassador of basketball. I just carry the ambassador's suitcase." . . . Doub-Bull, Trip-Bull, Disposa-Bull: Horace Grant, on Chicago's 1-5 West Coast trip that would have been 0-6 if the Lakers had held that five-point lead in the last 24 seconds: "We've been on top for so long that I guess now it's our turn to bite the bullet. It's weird being on the other end of it. It's a drag."

Phil Jackson's "Huh?" quote of the week: "We're having trouble keeping enough guys on the floor who know what they're doing. They're still introducing themselves to one another in different languages. Three guys played in foreign countries last year, Pete Myers, Bill Wennington and Toni Kukoc. So these guys are still learning the language, so to speak." Myers and Wennington are, of course, fluent in English. . . . Fast dialing by Detroit General Manager Billy McKinney located a home in Denver for over-the-hill Alvin Robertson, who attacked McKinney and is owed $6.9 million over the next three seasons. Said Washington General Manager John Nash, declining to bid: "Alvin is a good player, but I haven't taken my martial arts class recently."

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