1 SAN ANTONIO SPURS
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. WHIPPLE: World-beaters during the regular
season, the Spurs turn softer than Charmin in the playoffs. The
former should again be true, largely because the Spurs' two
All-Stars, center David Robinson (out for several weeks with a
back strain) and forward Sean Elliott, and point guard Avery
Johnson, one of the league's most underrated players, are potent
all-around performers. Looking to change its luck in the
postseason, San Antonio added instant offense in forward
Dominique Wilkins, 36, and hotheaded guard Vernon Maxwell (page
JOB INSECURITY: There has been friction between general manager
Gregg Popovich and coach Bob Hill, and when Hill asked for an
extension of his contract, which expires after this season,
Popovich turned him down. If he can't cure his team of its split
personality, Hill could be gone after the season--or possibly
sooner should San Antonio falter at the start.
POWERLESS FORWARD: Passive Charles Smith and Will Perdue remain
the best of the Spurs' power forwards. That puts this team at a
disadvantage when it faces the more muscular clubs in the
2 HOUSTON ROCKETS
YOU CAN QUOTE HIM: Adding garrulous forward Charles Barkley to
Houston's usually soft-spoken stars, center Hakeem (the Dream)
Olajuwon and guard Clyde Drexler, should ensure that the Rockets
aren't as overlooked as they have been, even during their NBA
championship seasons of 1993-94 and '94-95. For instance, in
dismissing his chronic back problems, Sir Charles says, "My back
only hurts when I play with crappy players."
IS THE PRICE RIGHT? The Rockets hoped to start promising but
untested free-agent signee Brent Price at point guard, but Price
broke his left elbow during the preseason and won't be available
for at least three months. For now, even more untested rookie
Matt Maloney is the starter.
THIN BENCH: Swingman Mario Elie is Houston's only reliable
reserve. That could be a huge drawback for coach Rudy
Tomjanovich, who figures to limit the regular-season minutes of
Barkley (who's 33), Olajuwon (33) and Drexler (34) so they will
be fresh for the playoffs. That could keep the Rockets from
winning the division. But if the big three are healthy in the
spring, Houston could still reach the conference finals.
3 UTAH JAZZ
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE: Utah has a new logo and uniforms that
feature snow-capped mountains, but everything else about the
team looks familiar. The Jazz has a solid supporting cast, led
by guard Jeff Hornacek, but it will go only as far as its aging
stars, power forward Karl Malone and point guard John Stockton,
can take it. Stockton, who will be 35 in March, led the league
in assists for the ninth straight year, but he appeared tired in
the postseason. Malone, 33, was inconsistent in the Western
COUPLE OF KEYS: Former part-timers Bryon Russell and Greg
Ostertag will have expanded roles. Russell won the starting job
at small forward with a surprisingly strong playoff performance
last spring, and Utah had enough faith in the 7'2", 280-pound
Ostertag to trade last year's starting center, Felton Spencer.
Look for Russell to make a run at the league's Most Improved
Player award. Maybe then people will stop calling him Byron.
GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS: The good news is that the Jazz has finished
.500 or better for 13 straight seasons, a streak that only the
Celtics (separate streaks of 19 and 14 years) and the Lakers
(16) have surpassed. The bad news is that Boston and L.A. won a
combined 19 NBA championships during their runs; Utah has none.
4 DENVER NUGGETS
IS THIS PROGRESS? Denver's four primary acquisitions all come
with negative labels: guards Mark Jackson (too slow), Sarunas
Marciulionis (too injury-prone) and 37-year-old Ricky Pierce
(too old), and center Ervin Johnson (too one-dimensional). But
they are veterans who should at least create a more professional
atmosphere as well as fewer headaches than coach-president
Bernie Bickerstaff had last season.
ADDITION BY SUBTRACTION: Center Dikembe Mutombo (page 112) left
for the Hawks as a free agent, but his departure clears the way
for forwards Antonio McDyess and LaPhonso Ellis to carry the
offense. They won't have to compete with Mutombo, a defensive
specialist who always fancied himself a scorer, for post-up
position on the blocks. The Nuggets should surpass the 35 games
they won last year with Mutombo.
LONG DROUGHT: With Jackson, McDyess, Dale Ellis, LaPhonso Ellis
and guard Bryant Stith likely to have double-figure scoring
averages, the Nuggets expect to have a balanced offense. But if
Denver is to make the playoffs, one player, most likely McDyess,
will have to be the go-to guy.
5 DALLAS MAVERICKS
CAN'T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG? That's what new coach Jim Cleamons
is asking his three squabbling stars--guards Jim Jackson and
Jason Kidd (page 94) and forward Jamal Mashburn. Cleamons and
the new Mavs ownership are so concerned with improving the
club's chemistry that they have scrapped the "Three J's"
marketing concept "because it left too much of the team out,"
says Jackson. The new marketing slogan is, Time to Play, and if
Jackson, Kidd and Mashburn remember that, Dallas could make a
major turnaround and Cleamons will be in the running for Coach
of the Year honors.
CENTER JUMP: The Mavericks didn't just fill their hole at
center, they stuffed it. First they traded for 7-foot, 270-pound
Eric Montross, then they signed massive Oliver Miller, who is
6'9" and 280 pounds. Together they give Dallas the big bodies it
has needed to hold its own in the middle. They will get help
from forward Chris Gatling, who went from being an underrated
player to an overpaid one when he signed a five-year, $21.329
million free-agent contract.
DON'T BE SURPRISED: Should Cleamons's efforts at peacemaking
fail, the Mavs might deal either Mashburn or Jackson.
6 MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
DOING THE MATH: In the last two years the Timberwolves have
subtracted underachieving forward Donyell Marshall (and his $42
million contract) and problem-child guard Isaiah Rider. They've
added versatile and dependable forward Tom Gugliotta; young
forward Kevin Garnett, a star in the making; and prized rookie
point guard Stephon Marbury. The bottom line: Minnesota is on
the right track.
ON THE AGENDA: The first 30-win season in franchise history is a
reasonable target, but a more important long-term goal is to
keep Garnett happy in Minnesota. The Wolves acquired his good
friend Marbury partly with that in mind. Garnett can become a
free agent after next season, and his departure would cripple
vice president Kevin McHale's master building plan.
PLAYOFFS: That's a word that shouldn't be used in connection
with the Timberwolves just yet, not with Marbury's having to
learn the NBA ropes, former Celtics bust Stojko Vrankovic at
center and a bench that's thinner than the wiry Garnett's calves.
MORE FIREPOWER: The Grizzlies were toothless on offense last
season. Their 89.8 points per game ranked last in the league.
They should have more bite this year with the addition of
sharpshooting guard Anthony Peeler, who made 41.3% of his
three-pointers as a Laker last season, and rookie forward
Shareef Abdur-Rahim, a 6'10" small forward who was the third
overall pick in the draft. Peeler and Abdur-Rahim will also keep
defenses from doubling up on center Bryant Reeves, who made
rapid improvement during his rookie year. Look for Vancouver to
improve slightly on last year's 15 wins.
HAPPY TRAILS: Rookie forward Roy Rogers, the 22nd pick of the
first round, could turn out to be one of the steals of the
draft. Rogers, a 6'10" shot blocker, had knee injuries his first
two seasons at Alabama, but he didn't miss a game or a practice
the last two seasons. His offensive skills also improved
significantly, which is reminiscent of another sleeper from
Alabama, Warriors guard Latrell Sprewell.
LOOKING AHEAD: The brightest spot on Vancouver's horizon could
be finance-related. As an expansion team, its salary cap (around
$18 million) is 75% of what other clubs are allowed. But next
year the Grizzlies will have the full cap to work under, which
will allow them to play the free-agent game.