Richie Adubato stood humbled in the wreckage of his dream. When he came out of preseason the Dallas Mavericks' coach envisioned a team led by Roy Tarp-ley, finally free of his personal demons, stepping into greatness. He saw a three-guard rotation of Derek Harper, Rolando Blackman and Fat Lever that was the equal or better of any in the league. He saw Herb Williams filling in the cracks up front and Brad Davis handling spot duty in the backcourt.

Now he sees the lottery.

In the Western Conference, where seven teams have a winning percentage of .524 or better, the Mavericks aren't going anywhere. They're 15-26, after losing Tarpley for the season with a knee injury in early November and then seeing Lever go down for two months after arthroscopic surgery. Williams just returned to the lineup last week after he was out 17 games with bursitis in his right knee.

"I was in New York four years {as assistant to} Hubie Brown," Adubato said. "The first two years were great years for us with Bernard King and Billy Cartwright leading us. Then Bernard got hurt and Billy got hurt and we won 24 and 22 games. We went from 50 to 22. You can't lose top-notch people. It's just impossible. We lost Tarpley for the year and we lost Fat Lever for the year, basically."

The Mavericks still have talent. They have Blackman and Harper and Rodney McCray and Alex English. But they don't scare anyone. Teams attack gimpy James Donaldson with impunity, knowing Tarpley isn't there to close the driving lanes. Davis, 35, is playing 17 minutes a night as the third guard. Second-year forward Randy White, whom the Mavericks had just about given up on, now has to produce. And Dallas can win only when the game slows to comatose levels. The Mavericks took just 71 shots against the Bullets Saturday.

"Our feeling is that we'll be stronger next year when we get Tarpley back, and we get a high draft pick, and we get Fat back," Adubato said. "At the beginning of the year, Randy White was looking at 10 minutes a game. Now he's looking at 35. . . . The last couple of nights he's given us more of a complete game."

This is what happens when you make prescient trades and take care of your veteran players and do everything right.

"It's been very disappointing," Adubato said, "but you can't let that disappointment carry over. No matter what level, you still think you can win games. But we found out a long time ago you have to have talent." Dantley's Not Forgotten

The Lakers' A.C. Green for the Pacers' LaSalle Thompson rumors still hang in the air. After this, the scenario goes, Indiana signs Adrian Dantley. The longer Charles Barkley stays hurt, the 76ers also get more and more interested in ex-Maverick Dantley, the unemployed Washingtonian with the 24.5-point scoring average for 14 NBA years. And Philadelphia is still dangling Ron Anderson around. Speaking of the Sixers, nice to see that Tony Harris, the last cut of the Bullets' camp in preseason, is getting a look on a 10-day with them. . . .

A trade made: Charlotte acquired 6-foot-11 Eric Leckner yesterday from Sacramento, for a 1995 second-round draft pick and future considerations. In his third NBA season, he averaged 2.9 points, 2.7 rebounds and 11.8 minutes in 32 games for the Kings. But can he spell (Mike) Gminski? That's what the Hornets want from him. . . .

Isiah Thomas has decided he won't hang around The Palace while his wrist heals. He won't sit on the bench with the Pistons until he's ready to play again. But the prospect of playing the rest of the season without their captain, inspirational leader, best speaker and access to management doesn't leave his teammates spinning.

"We don't deal with one-man attitudes," John Salley said. "We deal with positive attitudes, not negative ones. No problem." Not yet, anyway . . . The Bulls Do Rage

So Michael Jordan wants to be a general manager too. He told Chicago writers last week the Bulls would be much better off if he, and not Jerry Krause, was running the personnel department. The specific source of Jordan's ire was Chicago's failure to get Walter Davis from the Nuggets before the Trail Blazers scarfed him up in a beautiful offense-by-defense action. Namely, the Spurs, Suns and other Western Conference contenders wanted Davis badly, but Portland made a preemptive strike.

Bulls players also wonder why Krause is so fired up about Yugoslavian pro Toni Kukoc, who reportedly has been offered $2.5 million a year for five years. He couldn't play for Chicago until next season anyway.

"None of those {European players} came in and dominated this league," Scottie Pippen told Newsday. "They say this guy is supposed to be totally different, but they say the same thing every time one of the guys comes over. If he comes over and deserves all the publicity, it's a great job on the front office's part. But if not, then they have to eat their words." . . .

Magic Johnson isn't kidding when he talks about the Lakers' defense. Los Angeles is second in the league in low points allowed at 99.7. Only Detroit is better. . . . Why is it taking the Cavaliers so long to take care of Lenny Wilkens's contract? It's up at the end of the year. Someone's not actually thinking of making him the scapegoat for Cleveland's injury-flogged season, are they? . . .

The Pacers were worried at how long it was taking Vern Fleming to come back from his pinched nerve. But he returned to practice Monday. And Indiana has gotten a pleasant surprise from oft cast-off Michael Williams at the point. . . . Larry Bird, out 11 games with back problems, has returned to Celtics' practice.