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NBA's new powers look to wipe out Pistons WESTERN WAVE

Doomsayers who blame the California quakes, mudslides, fires and droughts on the Earth's westward tilt might also have had the National Basketball Association in mind.

The balance of NBA power is swinging heavily to the Western Conference. Gone are the days when Eastern bullies from Detroit, New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago had their way with teams from San Antonio, Phoenix and Utah.

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The white flags and sunshades have been tucked away. A

combative atmosphere is emerging out West, where as many as six teams are viewed as threats to deny the Detroit Pistons a third straight title.

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The Western contenders are talking tough.

"Face facts," said Geoff Petrie, Portland Trail Blazers vice president of operations. "The Western Conference has the majority of the talented young players and the majority of the talented young teams."

OC Portland and the Utah Jazz apparently believed they were only a

shooting guard away from making a serious run at the Pistons. The Blazers acquired Danny Ainge from the Sacramento Kings, and the Jazz pried Jeff Malone from the Washington Bullets.

"This trade put us in the position to challenge the top people," said Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, who believes Malone's outside shooting will open the inside for Karl Malone and Thurl Bailey.

The Dallas Mavericks did their best to emulate the Pistons' effective three-guard rotation of Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson by acquiring all-purpose guard Fat Lever from the Denver Nuggets to team with Derek Harper and Rolando Blackman. Dallas also added versatile forward Rodney McCray.

"On paper, we're now a great basketball team," said Harper. "But we still have to make it work. We're not automatically going to the championship round."

San Antonio Spurs coach Larry Brown says his young team is mature enough to win it all. Center David Robinson, a former Naval Academy star, said "There is no reason why we can't take it all this time."

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Even the Los Angeles Lakers, who looked long in the tooth last season, are itching for a good fight.

"We're still pretty good," said general manager Jerry West. "We're a younger team now with people like Sam Perkins and Vlade Divac up front, and we still have a couple of great players in Magic Johnson and James Worthy to make it tough on anyone."

The Phoenix Suns are another team that can make it tough; last season, they eliminated the Lakers in the Western semifinals.

The Pistons hardly are cowering in a corner. They are determined to succeed where the Lakers failed in seeking a third straight crown.

"There are a lot more capable challengers this year, especially out West," said Pistons coach Chuck Daly, who spurned a more lucrative network sportscasting offer from NBC to accept the "three-peat" challenge that proved too much for the Lakers' Pat Riley, who did accept an offer from NBC.

"I believe we've still got the talent," said Pistons captain Isiah Thomas, "but we've got to go through a minefield this year."

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It should prove easier for the Pistons to tiptoe through the East, where most of the top contenders seem to have an Achilles' heel.

The Chicago Bulls still are basically Michael Jordan and the Whos, the New York Knicks have Patrick Ewing and the Whats and the Boston Celtics have a vulnerable front line of Robert Parish, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, all older than 30 and past their primes.

The days when the Bird-led Celtics and the Magic Johnson-led Lakers were all but guaranteed a spot in the NBA Finals are over. The Celticscould not survive the opening round of the playoffs last season, and the Lakers were beaten in the Western semifinals in five games.

New superstars have emerged.

"Magic and Bird captured the imagination of basketball fans a long time ago," said Spurs president Bob Bass, "but our own David Robinson and [the Bulls'] Michael Jordan have stepped in to give the NBA a real positive image."

It will take more than image or reputation to beat the Pistons. Their tough-minded approach has gained the respect of rival general managers and coaches.

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"As a basketball purist, there are some things about their physical style of play that I don't like," said West, "but I love their team as a whole. They make a total commitment to shutting people down."

Added coach Stu Jackson, whose Knicks were eliminated in five games by the Pistons last May: "They push you, bump you, spit on you. Even watching the films, I can't make it to the end of the game."

Another major reason for Detroit's success is Daly's open mind.

"It's a players' game, and I know my role," Daly said. "The players are the ones playing, and I might want them to do something they're not capable of or something that won't work. You've got to be a psychologist and hear them out."

NBA owners were hearing ominous noises in the early 1980s when the league was besieged by spiraling salaries, drug problems, sagging attendance and a diminishing television audience. Championship games were seen on tape delay or picked up in progress after the late news.

But now, the game never has been more popular or prosperous. The league played to 92 percent capacity last season. The expansion Minnesota Timberwolves attracted more than 1 million fans, despite winning only 22 games. League attendance averaged 15,600 a game.

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The salary cap, now $11.8 million, has allowed most owners to turn a profit despite paying average annual salaries of more than $900,000. More than 36 players will earn $2 million this season.

Most of the team revenue comes from network and cable-television contracts totaling $875 million for the next four years. The NBA also has prospered overseas, selling tapes and merchandise in more than 75 countries. Phoenix and Utah will begin the 1990-91 season with two weekend games in Tokyo.

On TV

NBC: 22 games (mostly Saturdays). Announcers: Marv Albert, Dick Enberg, Mike Fratello, Steve Jones, Pat Riley (studio co-host), Bob Costas (studio host).

TNT: 50 games (mostly Tuesdays and Fridays). Announcers: Pete Van Wieren, Ron Thulin, Bob Neal, Hubie Brown, Doug Collins, Jack Givens, Craig Sager (studio host).

TBS: 20 Atlanta Hawks games. Announcers: Skip Caray, Rick Barry.

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Channel 20: 28 Washington Bullets games. Announcers: Mel Proctor, Phil Chenier.

Home Team Sports: 30 Bullets games. Announcers: Proctor, Chenier, Al Koken (pre-game host).

WWOR: Seven New Jersey Nets games. Announcers: TBA.

WGN: 20 Chicago Bulls games. Announcers: Jim Durham, John Kerr.


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