It's a Great Start but No Guarantee


So the Lakers are a dynasty, Shaquille O'Neal is a city landmark and a financial bargain and the parade route is permanently marked through downtown, all the better to save planners time every June.

And then Laker owner Jerry Buss woke up.

Euphoria in the wake of the O'Neal signing is one thing, but so are the other details. This season, for example.

They have a Dream sequence in Houston too. It goes something like this: The Rockets trade for Charles Barkley, pair him with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, squeeze 47 or 48 more victories out of all the broken-down bodies, then come together for the playoffs.

In Seattle, the SuperSonics only now realize how good they can be. And if Jim McIlvaine signs on, as expected, they may even have a starting center who plays more than 20 minutes a game.

O'Neal may have jumped conferences away from Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, but there's minefields galore out here. The Rockets could reload. The SuperSonics were 11 games better than the Lakers last season and don't exactly appear on the downside. The San Antonio Spurs have David Robinson, Sean Elliott and underrated Avery Johnson, the Utah Jazz a two-man game with John Stockton and Karl Malone that still gives opponents fits.

Third-place teams from the West--Houston and red-hot Portland last season--are feared heading into the playoffs. Not so the East, which lacks the depth, though the expected improvement of Miami and New York will help. On the other hand, Orlando won't be a 60-victory team again.

It is, of course, too soon to truly start doping out the Lakers' chances. The Rockets are an unknown because they could have Barkley starting at power forward . . . or they could have some guy from the CBA. Much of where people pick the SuperSonics will depend on whether they re-sign Hersey Hawkins. The Golden States Warriors will probably re-sign Latrell Sprewell, but they could also trade center Rony Seikaly, giving the starting job to rookie Todd Fuller and putting him right next to Joe Smith, all of 21 years old, on the front line.

Summer league isn't even over. So much is still to be determined. But say the Lakers are contenders to win the West and no one will dispute it. But this is still a team that today will offer a 17-year-old and a relative unknown from Arkansas Little Rock as proof of depth in the backcourt, so don't go overboard.

Say they're very intriguing now and filled with potential. That much is reality.

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