EASTERN CONFERENCE : Fortified Magic, New Rules Put Knicks on Run : Grant Joins O'Neal to Bolster Orlando; New York's Riley Plans to Abandon Physical Game fora Gentler Approach

Times Staff Writer

Teams are listed in projected order of finish.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

NEW YORK KNICKS

1993-94 record: 57-25.

Scoring average: 98.5 (21st).

Defensive average: 91.5 (first).

Having failed to climb through their window of opportunity last season when it was wide open, the Knicks are back, not as young, not as strong and no longer allowed to be as rough.

Never fear, Riley is on the case. Having popularized both "Showtime" and "Ugly Ball," he went back to the drawing board and will finally introduce the running game to New York.

Having Derek Harper all season will help but the invaluable Charles Oakley has a troublesome toe injury and Patrick Ewing, who sagged last season, had his arthroscopic surgery on his problem knee and missed the exhibition season.

Meanwhile, everyone wants to know why Riley won't sign that $3-million-a-year extension he has been offered. Maybe it isn't an accident that he never changed his watch from West Coast time.

ORLANDO MAGIC

1993-94 record: 50-32.

Scoring average: 105.7 (sixth).

Defensive average: 101.8 (13th).

The question isn't so much if as when? Horace Grant, 29, comes from Chicago to fill the power forward hole. He and Shaquille O'Neal, 22, are the scariest tandem since the Philadelphia 76ers' Wilt Chamberlain and Luke Jackson in the '60s.

Point guard Anfernee Hardaway, 22, is a comer. Nick Anderson, 26, averaged 20 points before the new arrivals reduced him to a role player. They have only to accumulate some experience and keep their heads on straight to be the next dynasty.

Last year's sweep by the Indiana Pacers hangs from their necks like an albatross, especially that of second-year Coach Brian Hill. Nobody cares about potential anymore, they want to see it happen on the floor.

MIAMI HEAT

1993-94 record: 42-40.

Scoring average: 103.4 (seventh).

Defensive average: 100.7 (11th).

A pall is all there is over Miami now.

The Heat tried to land Danny Manning, tried to trade for Scottie Pippen, tried to sign Manning as a free agent and went 0 for 3.

Billy Cunningham, who built the franchise from expansion weakling, is selling out but it won't be final until January.

Coach Kevin Loughery was put on hold for weeks before being re-signed last spring. Players are lamenting the inability to acquire a star and wondering who's running this team.

Cunningham replies they should grow up and become a team at long last but it hasn't happened yet.

NEW JERSEY NETS

1993-94 record: 45-37.

Scoring average: 103.2 (eighth).

Defensive average: 101 (12th).

Chuck Daly, patron saint of survivors, bailed out, which is all you need to know.

Two years of Derrick Coleman, the prototype law-unto-himself rock head, plus Benoit (Huh?) Benjamin and high-strung, low-producing Chris Morris was enough for Daly. Snits R Us now turns to--or upon--young Butch Beard, who is personable, intelligent and overmatched.

General Manager Willis Reed, who already has the Benjamin trade on his conscience, compounded the felony by wasting a No. 1 pick on a Benoit-in-training, Yinka Dare, already nicknamed "Stinka" by teammates.

BOSTON CELTICS

1993-94 record: 32-50.

Scoring average: 100.8 (16th).

Defensive average: 105.1 (21st).

Remember Red Auerbach blowing clouds of cigar smoke on the bench? What went around is coming around.

The Celtics lost 50 games last season, their second-worst finish since Auerbach joined the franchise in 1950. Red is only a consultant these days and even he can't figure a way out of this hole in the age of the salary cap. His designated successor, Dave Gavitt, arrived at the wrong time, never adjusted to the league and was forced out.

M.L. Carr became general manager after Larry Bird turned it down, in the hope M.L.'s popularity could get the press off ownership's back. M.L. got headlines, signing Dominique Wilkins and offering a No. 1 pick just for the right to talk to Michael Jordan. But the latter was meaningless and the former will help the Celtics win 35 games--and miss the premium lottery slots.

Is this a great life or what?

WASHINGTON BULLETS

1993-94 record: 24-58.

Scoring average: 100.4 (17th).

Defensive average: 107.7 (26th).

Bad finishes, worse luck. In 1992, for instance, after a 22-victory season, they drew the lottery pick that became Tom Gugliotta. The Hornets won 44 and drew Alonzo Mourning.

The talent deficit caught up with Wes Unseld, whose players learned to tune out his grizzly-bear growls. Owner Abe Pollin retired his old favorite to the front office and hired Jim Lynam, who didn't know when he was well off as general manager of the 76ers.

Pollin, desperate or trying to set the franchise up for a sale, tried to trade No. 1 pick Juwan Howard for Scottie Pippen but the Bulls wanted Gugliotta, too.

Howard, a model of industry at Michigan, promised to sign right away but hasn't been seen since the draft, and his agent, Washington-based David Falk, tortures the hometown team.

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

1993-94 record: 25-57.

Scoring average: 98.0 (22nd).

Defensive average: 105.6 (22nd).

Everyone knew Shawn Bradley would need time but at his current pace, by the time he becomes an NBA center, his teammates will have died of old age.

Bradley has looked more pathetic than awkward and hasn't impressed anyone with his attitude. Last season, 76er officials called him the Mormon Charles Barkley. Lynam, the general manager who signed him, now coaches the Bullets and says that, given the size of their contracts, he prefers 7-7 Gheorghe Muresan. Fast-talking John Lucas has taken over as coach and general manager and has dispensed with Fred Carter's gentle treatment of Bradley. So far, no results.

CENTRAL DIVISION

INDIANA PACERS

1993-94 record: 47-35.

Scoring average: 101.0 (15th).

Defensive average: 97.5 (eighth).

Larry Brown's first Pacer season produced the usual miracle, only bigger. He took a team that had never won an NBA playoff series to within one victory of the finals.

This was followed by the usual speculation he was getting antsy again. Reports circulated that his wife, a Californian, didn't like Indianapolis.

A funny thing happened on the way to the airport. Instead of looking around, Brown signed a contract extension, underlining his commitment to his old buddy, General Manager Donnie Walsh.

The Pacers have youth, energy and size. The front line of Rik Smits, Dale Davis and Derrick McKey goes 7-feet-4, 6-11, 6-11, and they're backed by a coveted young player, 6-9 Antonio Davis. And there's an emerging star, Reggie Miller. They also picked up Mark Jackson for a song.

Now, anything is possible.

CHARLOTTE HORNETS

1993-94 record: 41-41.

Scoring average: 106.5 (fourth).

Defensive average: 106.7 (24th).

Having built a powerhouse with two lottery draws, the Hornets prepared themselves for elite status, giving Larry Johnson that $84-million extension. Johnson missed most of the season with back problems.

They were going to give Alonzo Mourning a $100-million extension this year but he hurt his toe in camp. Instead of forging bravely ahead as they had with Johnson, the Hornets decided to wait.

Don't say these guys can't learn from their mistakes.

Everything will be OK if L.J. returns to form but only the regular season will tell. He missed most of the exhibition season with an ankle injury.

Robert Parish joins up to provide veteran leadership. Very veteran. He's 41. The search for a point guard to back up 5-3 Muggsy Bogues yielded 5-9 Michael Adams. Coach Allan Bristow is still on thin ice. Aside from that, our dynasts are right on schedule.

CHICAGO BULLS

1993-94 record: 55-27.

Scoring average: 98 (23rd).

Defensive average: 94.9 (third).

Since the spring of 1993, when the Bulls won their third title, they have lost Jordan, Grant, Bill Cartwright, John Paxson, Scott Williams, Stacey King, assistant coach John Bach, assistant coach Tex Winter and Chicago Stadium.

Only Pippen, B.J. Armstrong and Will Perdue remain from the '93 champions.

On the other hand, the Bulls signed Ron Harper of San Quentin, er, the Clippers. Consigned to the junk heap of history after Jordan's retirement, the Bulls instead went 55-27. Only home losses the last weekend of the season to the Celtics and Knicks kept them from finishing No. 1 in the East. Only Hue Hollins' call in Game 5 of the Knick series kept the Bulls from coming home with a 3-2 lead in their series.

If Phil Jackson does it again, he ought to go right to the Hall of Fame. The party's over and now it's just a matter of how fast the guests leave.

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

1993-94 record: 47-35.

Scoring average: 101.2 (12th).

Defensive average: 96.9 (sixth).

If only they hadn't traded Ron Harper for Danny Ferry.

If only Rick Mahorn hadn't clothes-lined Mark Price two months before the '89 playoffs with the Cavaliers off to a 43-12 start.

If only Brad Daugherty had had that back surgery last summer. If only his back hadn't gone out again this fall. If only Larry Nance were still around. If only Gerald Wilkins, who had finally learned to shoot, hadn't blown out an Achilles' tendon this fall.

If only Mike Fratello could get his NBC gig back as czar of the Telestrator.

DETROIT PISTONS

1993-94 record: 20-62.

Scoring average: 96.9 (24th).

Defensive average: 104.7 (20th).

Nice rebuilding program. The Pistons hung on to their two greatest assets, Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, traded Dennis Rodman for Sean Elliott, traded Elliott . . . and then lucked into Grant Hill.

Mike Krzyzewski swore anyone who passed on his Dukie would feel foolish one day and, sure enough, Hill had a monster exhibition season. People are already comparing him to Jordan which is, of course, ridiculous. But comparisons to Pippen are possible. Off the exhibitions, Hill looks about like Pippen did after three seasons in the NBA.

ATLANTA HAWKS

1993-94 record: 57-25.

Scoring average: 101.4 (11th).

Defensive average: 96.2 (fourth).

Lenny Wilkens improved the Hawks by an amazing 14 victories and General Manager Pete Babcock went for broke, trading 34-year-old Dominique Wilkins--and whatever title chance they had--for Danny Manning and a shot at a future.

Manning left, though, taking their future with him. Sometimes you do the right thing and it just doesn't work out.

Wilkens has Mookie Blaylock, now an elite point guard, and hustling Stacey Augmon but little else to build on. The Hawks may sneak back into the playoffs but they're headed back to Square one.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS

1993-94 record: 20-62.

Scoring average: 96.9 (25th).

Defensive average: 103.4 (15th).

Big Doggie, come home. Coach Mike Dunleavy, who salivated all summer at the thought of Glenn Robinson, is still drooling while Robinson's agent, Dr. Charles Tucker, tries to get his mind around the idea that his rookie isn't going to get sport's first nine-figure salary.

Dunleavy has built up a pool of talented young players--Vin Baker, Eric Murdock, Todd Day. Robinson's late arrival will hurt but by January, he should be wowing them. It might be too early for the Bucks to make a playoff run but their future is bright.

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