Chuck Daly poked nervously at his cottage cheese. There was an hour to go before the NBA draft, and already he had a vision of the future.

“Did you see what Philly did?” he said. “Oh, man. They’re going after Boston. What a front line! What a lineup! Wooh, boy.”

Charles Barkley. Jeff Ruland. Roy Hinson. That would be Philadelphia’s new front line — meaty, beefy, bouncy — thanks to a blockbuster trade earlier in the day that sent Moses Malone packing to Washington. You haven’t forgotten Houston’s Ralph Sampson, Akeem Olajuwon and Rodney McCray? Or Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Larry Bird of Boston? These are the front torsos of the three best teams in the NBA.

Get the picture?

Big is beautiful.

Of course, it always has been in this league. But now more than ever. The game is growing. Literally. So it was no surprise that the Pistons’ first pick Tuesday was John Salley of Georgia Tech, who tips the tape measure at 7 feet.

Big is beautiful.

“The game is changing,” Daly said. “You’ve got to have those 7-footers now. You saw how far Houston went, and they’re not even that good a team. It’s a sign of the times. There may be less movement. Less driving. It may not be as pretty a game, but the teams with those big guys all over are the ones who win.” Where are the guards?

So the Pistons took Salley and joined the duck-under-the- doorway club. They already have 6-11 Bill Laimbeer at center, and he will most likely stay there. “We’ll use Salley at power forward,” Daly said. “You don’t know until you get somebody in, but we’re hoping that he can come here and start at that spot.”

Now, a few years back, the idea of a 7-foot player anywhere but smack in the middle of the floor, blocking shots and staring down at the little people, would have been laughable. But now we have guards who are 6-9 (Magic Johnson) and a power forward who’s 7-4 (Ralph Sampson). Had 7-foot Brad Sellers been available, the Pistons would have taken him with their first pick and possibly

used him at small forward.

Small?

Well. We may soon have to redefine that word. It was no accident that with all the excellent guards available in Tuesday’s draft, only two were taken in the opening dozen selections. And the first of those was 6-6.

Look at this: 7-feet, 6-8, 6-11, 6-8, 6-8, 7-feet, 6-10, 6-6, 7-feet. That’s the height order of the first nine picks Tuesday. Cleveland took a center. Golden State took a center. Phoenix took a center. And all those picks could play forward as well.

Big is beautiful.

And everybody is after it.

Which brings us to the question that Detroit fans are all asking this morning: Bottom line — relative to the other teams — how did the Pistons do in this dialing-for-dunkers sweepstakes? Pistons need more help

They did OK. Just OK. Remember, they tried desperately to make more of this draft than just one college player. For one college player won’t make this team championship caliber.

They had the right idea, it says here, when they tried the Laimbeer-Kelly Tripucka-Vinnie Johnson number for Malone and the No. 1 from Philly. It didn’t happen. Philly dealt with Cleveland and Washington instead, and, as a result, those three teams “improved themselves more than any others,” Daly said.

Meanwhile, the Pistons are still saddled with Laimbeer, who is talented but limited (he won’t post-up, for example), and Tripucka, who is simply too small and defensively lacking for the forward spot. And Rick Mahorn, Kent Benson and Chuck Nevitt are, simply put, taking up space. A lot of it.

“We may have to move Kelly to guard fairly soon,” Daly said. “The guys he’s up against are so big now. Hopefully, with these picks we’ve added some speed. Maybe that’s the way to beat some of these big teams is speed.

“At least with Salley we’ll get a good passer and some shot blocking. We’ve really been missing that. That intimidates shooters and makes up for some flaws on defense. Besides, do you know how many of our shots were blocked this year?”

So call this a measure of revenge. A big measure; but not big enough. Salley will be welcome. A positive addition. But remember, most of the other Eastern Conference teams made similar additions Tuesday. More changes are needed if a championship banner is ever going to hang in the Silverdome, or Auburn Hills, or wherever.

For now, credit the Pistons with at least, in picking Salley, choosing the right dimensions. There is only one place to look for the future of NBA basketball these days.

Look up.

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