Normally, when people tell you how bad the NBA draft is, one of the unmentioned goals is to keep rookie salaries from going through the roof. You say a player is great, you have to pay him great money. Say he stinks, and you can dicker about guaranteed bucks.

But this year there seems genuine concern about Wednesday's draft. Denver notwithstanding, most teams are trying to trade down, like Miami did, to get picks later in the first round. As usual, there is confusion about what the top teams are going to do.

New Jersey, for example, is either going to trade the first pick overall for Dominique Wilkins and a player, or take Georgia Tech gunner Dennis Scott. Or do something else. Seattle, with the second pick, will take Oregon State guard Gary Payton, or trade the pick plus Xavier McDaniel to the Celtics for Kevin McHale and Boston's pick, 13th overall. Or do something else.

Also on the rumor mill: Moses Malone is all but set to go from Atlanta to Milwaukee for sixth man extraordinaire Ricky Pierce. Phoenix offered Eddie Johnson to Chicago for Horace Grant. Boston and Indiana could be talking about -- gasp! -- Larry Bird. Or not.

Right now, New Jersey holds the ace. The Nets examined Syracuse forward Derrick Coleman last week and found his knee, which underwent arthroscopic surgery early in his senior season, to be sound. But New Jersey has a list of haunting reminders of draft-day mistakes -- Pearl Washington, Dennis Hopson, Chris Morris, to a certain extent -- and may take the more certain Scott over the occasionally moody Coleman.

After all, their leading scorer last season, Hopson, averaged just 15.2 points and shot 43 percent.

Denver moved into the top three by trading the ninth and 15th selections to Miami. Since they also traded Fat Lever, and Todd Lichti's career is in question after an automobile accident that killed his girlfriend, it would stand to reason the Nuggets will take a guard. But they also have horrific rebounders, so they could opt for a big man.

In either case, with John Thompson turning down their general manager-part owner offer Friday, Coach Doug Moe will be making the selections along with Peter Bynoe, a managing general partner, and Carl Scheer, the president.

"The general manager's job is a whole spectrum of things and it's over a period of time," Moe said. "This we can handle, the trades and the draft, with no problem. The way both deals worked out, if it hadn't gone this way, we probably wouldn't have been able to do it. The general manager makes a difference over a period of time."

If Scott goes to the Nets, and Payton to Seattle, that will leave Denver with the unenviable choice of taking or passing on 7-foot-2 center Dwayne Schintzius. Everyone is scared to death of the Florida pivotman, who quit the team in midseason after a series of run-ins with students and talk about his questionable attitude. Every team is equally scared that it won't take him and he'll dominate the league for 10 years.

"Whoever's taking him," Bullets Coach Wes Unseld said, "you've just got to be real careful. The guy seems to have -- he's got problems. He's had them, it seems, everywhere he's been."

If Denver passes on him, Orlando, picking fourth, would have a world of difficulty passing on the Florida star, even though they were turned off -- like everyone else -- by his poor physical condition and play at the postseason tournament there. The Magic has got to get some front-court help, and if they don't take him, it's possible they'd grab Louisville's Felton Spencer or a top-notch power forward such as Coleman, if he dropped that far, or Georgia's Alec Kessler.

Maryland's Jerrod Mustaf has played himself deep into the first round with a solid performance in the Chicago postseason camp. Teams from Dallas (picking 14th) to Minnesota (20th) could take the 6-10 forward, who entered the draft after his sophomore season. Lesser-known lights such as Ohio University guard Dave Jamerson -- "he's {Jeff} Hornacekish," Philadelphia director of scouting Bob Weinhauer said -- and Virginia Union's A.J. English could be late first-round selections.