Opponents of the Detroit Pistons share a common question: Will the defending NBA champions be as good without their No. 1 'Bad Boy' -- Rick Mahorn?
The powerful forward, whose glower and presence helped give the Pistons' their swagger, was gone before the Pistons even had their victory parade in June. Mahorn was lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the expansion draft.
'He gave them a self-image,' said Houston Coach Don Chaney. 'Rick Mahorn was a very important factor in their success. He was an intimidator, a guy who went out and ruled the boards. When people talked about the 'Bad Boys,' he was one of the guys out front.'
'He was the one who made it so Bill (Laimbeer) could say he was a 'Bad Boy,' too,' said Boston's Dennis Johnson.
The Pistons' image may change but their defense is not likely to be any softer. Detroit limited its playoff opponents to an average of 92.9 points per game, the lowest figure since the league adopted the 24-second rule before the 1954-55 season.
The quality and depth of the Pistons' team is proved by Mahorn being left unprotected. They are deep at each position, with standout guards Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars and excellent defenders in Dennis Rodman and John Salley.
Perhaps the most talented Piston is Coach Chuck Daly, who knew how to blend a collection of individuals with very healthy egos into a true team.
If the Pistons win again, it may be due to their having been toughened by the NBA's toughest division -- the Central. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks all play in the Central Division, the only one to have five teams over .500.
The Atlantic Division is a far easier one, with only New York and Boston expected to challenge for first place. Philadelphia is looking to the future more than the present; Bill Fitch can't make New Jersey a big winner in one season; Washington just doesn't have enough talent; and Charlotte will probably look like the second-year expansion team that it is.
Boston is the most interesting entrant, with Larry Bird healthy again after missing all but six games last season due to bone-spur surgery. The Celtics have just six players returning from the team which started the 1988-89 campaign.
Last year, Boston was a mediocre 42-40. The Celtics' frontcourt of Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Bird have a total age of 99 years and Coach Jimmy Rodgers intends to use a 10- or 11-man rotation to keep his older players fresh for the late, decisive minutes.
Boston has loaded its bench with young, capable reserves and good trades have brought it solid veterans Ed Pinckney, John Bagley and Joe Kleine.
'I wouldn't be surprised to see Boston in the finals,' said Chaney. 'They are a team on a mission.'
For Atlanta to win the title, the Hawks must overcome its internal problems and a history of always falling just short, despite its exceptional talent. Team scoring leader Dominique Wilkins can only offer points, not the needed leadership which Bird and Magic Johnson give to their teams.
'They've got the firepower, but whether they can get it to jell is the question,' said Boston assistant coach Chris Ford. 'And, last year, from their comments it was clear there wasn't a lot of harmony on that team.'
Chicago has three-time scoring champion Michael Jordan and finally gives him a talented collection of supporting players. Three first-round draft picks, led by Stacey King from Oklahoma, make the Bulls a threat to the Pistons. Former assistant Phil Jackson moves up to head coach with the firing of Doug Collins.
The Cavaliers, 57-25 last year but first-round playoff losers, need to show some good post-season results. Last year, young veterans Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper and Mark Price should have gained all the experience they needed, otherwise their potential will become a burden rather than a promise.
The Knicks may find out how much of their recent success was due to now-departed coach Rick Pitino, who left for Kentucky. Assistant coach Stu Jackson was elevated to his first head coaching job at any level of organized basketball.
'Rick Pitino certainly looked and sounded the part of the great motivator,' said Boston's Johnson. 'But maybe Stu will have that same effect. You don't know.'
Jackson plans to retain Pitino's fast-breaking style, but intends to make Patrick Ewing the team's dominant player, gearing the set-up offense around the strong 7-foot center.
Milwaukee's 49-33 record last year was one of the league's big surprises. The Bucks traded scorer Terry Cummings to San Antonio for guard Alvin Robertson and 6-10 power forward Greg Anderson, but lack sufficient talent or depth to reach the championship series.
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