HOUSTON, FEB. 13 -- For once, there weren't chortles. Chortlers were always around. No, when the New Jersey Nets acquired Drazen Petrovic and Terry Mills for Greg "Cadillac" Anderson and a No. 1 pick, there was just acknowledgement that the Nets got the better of the deal.

And when's the last time you heard that?

Maybe, just maybe, the New Jersey Nets are finally turning things around. They stuck to their guns and took Derrick Coleman with the first pick in last June's draft. They got Reggie Theus for nothing -- a guard who can score after they waited years for Dennis Hopson to stop chipping paint with his jumpers.

And now they have Petrovic, who two years ago was supposed to be the best of the European imports. In Mills, they potentially have a rebounder and scorer. They already have Sam Bowie, Chris Morris and Tate George to play backup guitar.

Looky here. A nucleus.

"These may be the best 12 players we've ever had," said Willis Reed, vice president of basketball operations. "We've got much closer games than we did last year. And we've got five rookies on the team. You hope that you can keep these players around together."

The Nets are 15-34. They will be in the lottery again this spring, because the way that trade between New Jersey, Denver and Portland is set up, the earliest No. 1 the Nuggets can get from the Nets is their 1992 pick. And if New Jersey is one of the 12 worst teams in 1992 and one of the seven worst in 1993, the Nets won't have to relinquish a No. 1 until 1994.

"I look at it as borrowing money that you don't have to pay interest on for a year and a half," Reed said. "We can take a look at Petrovic and see how much he improves our team." A Salary Break?

It occurred to one general manager that the Spurs might not have to pay Rod Strickland during the time he will be out because his injury -- a broken hand during a fight involving his brother outside a nightclub -- wasn't basketball-related.

Said San Antonio GM Bob Bass: "I'm sure some clubs think about that. We didn't because we didn't know what purpose it was going to serve for us in the long range. . . . We've made a big effort to keep our starting five from last year together and get them all signed."

The situation is made more dicey because Strickland was told by the Spurs not to go to that club.

"He understands he made a mistake. He knows that he made a mistake," Bass said. "The mistake was being out there. It wasn't a mistake to protect your brother, particularily. I think you would have done that or I would have done that. He made a big mistake by going out there." . . .

Anyone expecting rah-rah speeches from the Pistons in Isiah Thomas's absence hasn't been watching the game the last four years.

"You look around, and you've been there before like we have, a lot of things go unsaid," Joe Dumars said. "There's not any reason to say a lot of things. Everyone realizes you've got to step up now and play hard or you're never going to play hard. . . . Playoff time comes, I like our team as well as anybody as far as focusing in, locking in. During the regular season we're going to win some and we're going to lose some." . . .

Craig Hodges hit 19 straight shots in the three-point shooting contest during all-star weekend. He had made only 20 in 37 games with Chicago beforehand. Something is wrong here. . . . Think Converse did cartwheels when Dee Brown told the media following the slam-dunk contest that Celtics teammate Kevin McHale (a Conversian) gave Brown the suggestion to pump up his Reeboks before every dunk?

The best line of the weekend came from George Gervin, after he played in the legends game. He griped because he thought there was a foul late in the game that wasn't called. "I'm old now," he said. "They can't fine me." . . .

Manute Bol was asked recently about his former team, the Bullets. "I'm not talking until the troops come home," he said. "I hate the war, man." . . .

Heat guard Jon Sundvold has pneumonia and sinusitis and likely will sidelined at least two weeks, prhaps two months. . . .

The NBA Players Association met with league officials in Charlotte, N.C., during the all-star break to discuss a league proposal that would allow teams to trade a restricted free agent to the team that signs him to an offer sheet. Currently, teams are allowed to trade such players to any team but the one making the offer.

Call it the "Hot Rod" Williams rule.

"That's the only person it would apply to at this time," said his agent, Mark Bartlestein. "I'm sure that was the focal point of the idea." Makes you think Williams will be in the land of Crockett and Tubbs before too long, doesn't it?

Question of the Week

We begin a new segment this week, in which we ask a cross section of coaches and general managers one question that piques our interest. This week's interrogatory: If money were not an issue, would you take a look at Chris Washburn? Washburn, who is under lifetime suspension by the NBA for drug use, is playing for Tulsa of the Continental Basketball Association, averaging 6.2 points and 4.8 rebounds in six games.

We asked six NBA types. Since Washburn is still the NBA property of the Atlanta Hawks, attributed responses might be construed as tampering. To this we say, lighten up.

And the answer is . . . don't call us. Five of the six said thanks, but no thanks. Perhaps surprisingly, his past was secondary for most to the notion that Mr. Washburn doesn't have NBA skills.

"For one thing, he's got to go a little longer through his dry period before he convinces me he's completely off," one general manager said. "With Atlanta, he didn't leave the game as a great player. The skills he had, you wonder if they haven't eroded."

Said another: "I don't see any reason. There's nothing now that would make you believe that he can play. We're not in a gambling mode right now. We will watch, but we will not be leading the parade."

And one more: "I think he's overrated. . . . He's got skills, but he has no idea how to play the game. I may be wrong. {The drugs} would bother me too."