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THE NBA: 1994-95 PREVIEW : Lakers Thinking Playoffs Already : Pro basketball: One season as a lottery team was more than enough for them, thanks.


AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — All clear!

It's OK to be a Laker again, safe to emerge from the bunker. The worst is over, along with 1993-94. Some coincidence.

Starting tonight, against the Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills, 1994-95 should bring the first step up after riding the runaway down escalator, from 58 victories to 43 to 39 and, finally, to 33 last season. That provided their first look at the lottery system up close and the fewest victories in 19 seasons.

Enough improvement for the playoffs? Baby steps, first.

"Right now, my goal is to win the first game and then go from there," Coach Del Harris said. "I believe in short-term goals."

So they will start with an eye on respectability, hoping to put an end to all those "Remember when . . . " stories at every stop around the league that measured the youth movement against Showtime. Hoping to put an end to a franchise-record 10-game losing streak, which is technically still alive after a six-month hiatus.

Hoping then to sneak up on someone for the playoffs.

The Lakers need to win eight more games this season to get back to .500 and nine more to match what Denver needed last season to qualify as the eighth-place team in the Western Conference. These seem realistic goals after the addition of Cedric Ceballos and Eddie Jones and the projected maturation of Nick Van Exel that goes with being an experienced point guard instead of a rookie. But that still might not be enough improvement to make the postseason class of '95.

Assuming a 47-victory campaign that owner Jerry Buss has said is realistic--even though 14-game improvements are rare--the Lakers will need some help. Maybe the Nuggets getting hit by injuries after avoiding them last season, or maybe merely the Nugget backcourt playing like the Nugget backcourt and finally being made to pay for its turnovers. Or maybe the Portland Trail Blazers continuing to age so fast it comes off as time-lapse photography. Still, the sight of Clyde Drexler looking stronger in training camp than he has in years can't be a comforting thought around the Forum.

"I just want to get to the playoffs," Ceballos said. "I don't care how many wins we get, as long as we get to the playoffs. From there, you never know what can happen."

Said Jones, the rookie who will start at shooting guard, barring a late change by Harris: "That has to be the goal. There's nothing else. Once we get there, then we'll have other goals."

If they get there. All they need to do in the first 82 games, of course, is show improvement in shooting, scoring, rebounding and defense. In no particular order.

That's where Ceballos comes in. Already obvious is that he is one of the game's best rebounding small forwards. He has finished sixth and first in the league in field-goal percentage the last two seasons and is a potential 20-point scorer. That makes him the known.

Then there are the unknowns:

--George Lynch, terrific inside last season as a rookie small forward, will try to handle the step up in weight class as a 6-foot-7, 230-pound power forward playing in the same division as Charles Barkley, Chris Webber and Shawn Kemp, with their teammates poised to collapse inside to provide defensive help. The bottom line is that the Lakers finished 23rd in rebounding last season, even with Vlade Divac averaging 10.8, greatly hindering the running game, and will need a contribution from Lynch in this area.

"It's going to be interesting," said Jerry West, executive vice president and a major Lynch supporter. "He's going to have nights when he is outmanned physically. But he'll never have a night when he is outmanned from an effort standpoint."

--Jones has won praise for his offense and defense, but he will need to shoot better than his 41.7% in the exhibition season. Harris says Jones has the mental toughness to deflect any pressure, predicting that the No. 10 pick overall could become a first-team all-rookie selection.

--Van Exel has said he plans to pass more and shoot less. Now he has to show it. Either that or shoot better than 39.4%.

NBA Season Preview

The Times previews of the Western and Eastern conference races, published earlier this week, are still available on the TimesLink online service, along with more reports on the teams, players, and coaches of the NBA.

Detail on Times electronic services, B4.


Pos No. Player Yr. F 23 Cedric Ceballos 4 F 30 George Lynch 1 C 12 Vlade Divac 5 G 9 Nick Van Exel 1 G 25 Eddie Jones R


Pos No. Player Yr. C 31 Sam Bowie 9 F/C 41 Elden Campbell 4 C/F 40 Antonio Harvey 1 F 2 Anthony Miller R G 1 Anthony Peeler 2 G 34 Tony Smith 4 G 3 Sedale Threatt 11 F 42 James Worthy* 12

*--Injured List

Head Coach: Del Harris.

Assistants: Bill Bertka, Michael Cooper, Larry Drew.

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