Scales shift West as league powers lose their balance

After the first month of the season, the NBA's balance of power appears to be tilting toward the Pacific. Only five of 14 teams in the Eastern Conference -- the defending champion Chicago Bulls, the Orlando Magic with rookie sensation Shaquille O'Neal, the surprising Milwaukee Bucks, the New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets -- have winning records.

The Knicks, a preseason pick to challenge the Bulls for the title, are struggling at 5-4 after being swept on their first Western trip.


The Detroit Pistons, with Dennis Rodman on suspension, are in the Central Division cellar, and the Boston Celtics are having a hard time adjusting to life without Larry Bird.

Heading into last night's game, Boston (2-7) had lost its past five games and was off to its worse start since finishing 29-53 in 1978-79.


"My guys are working hard, and the intensity is there," said Celtics coach Chris Ford. "But we have to almost play a perfect game to win now. We can't make the same mistakes over and over, and that's what we've been doing."

Meanwhile out West, early returns show title contenders emerging in Portland, Phoenix, Seattle and Utah, and the Los Angeles Lakers are still deep in talent despite Magic Johnson's sudden retirement.

The Trail Blazers, who made the NBA Finals two of the past three seasons, appear primed for a third title shot after resolving problems with the additions of point guard and swing man Mario Elie.

With All-NBA guard Clyde Drexler's playing time diminished following knee surgery, Blazers coach Rick Adelman has had a chance to team Rod Strickland and Terry Porter in the backcourt with favorable results. Porter, never a natural playmaker, has thrived at the shooting-guard spot and sank seven straight three-pointers against Golden State.

Flak attack

Utah superstar Karl Malone is tired of being branded the heavy in Johnson's decision to retire.

Johnson said he was offended and hurt because Malone did not confront him when they were Olympic teammates last summer.

"I'm not a genius, and I'm not a doctor," said Malone, "but there are always going to be fans who say I made Magic retire.


"But when the time comes, I'll talk to him personally and the media will never know it.

"And I don't need other players telling me I did the right thing. I did it because I don't think myself or some guy in the CBA should have to play against anyone with the HIV virus."

Pearls of wisdom

Earl Monroe, not Walt Bellamy, holds the one-game scoring record for a Washington Bullets rookie.

When freshman forward Tom Gugliotta scored 39 against the Utah Jazz Saturday night, Bullets record-keepers overlooked the 56-point outburst Monroe notched against the Lakers, Feb. 13, 1968 at the then-Baltimore Civic Center.

Before Monroe's historic game, Lakers great Jerry West called the Bullets' precocious rookie "Ben," confusing him with another former collegian. After his record-setting game, Monroe shook West's hand and said, "The name's 'Earl. It rhymes with Pearl."