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PACIFIC THE SONICS ARE BIGGER UP THE MIDDLE, BUT THE LAKERS, WITH SHAQ, HAVE MUSCLED INTO CONTENTION

Nov. 11, 1996
Nov. 11, 1996

Table of Contents
Nov. 11, 1996

NBA Preview 1996-97

PACIFIC THE SONICS ARE BIGGER UP THE MIDDLE, BUT THE LAKERS, WITH SHAQ, HAVE MUSCLED INTO CONTENTION

1 SEATTLE SUPERSONICS

This is an article from the Nov. 11, 1996 issue Original Layout

WHY IS THIS TEAM SMILING? Because the Sonics can relax now that
they've shed their "playoff chokers" label; because their stars,
point guard Gary Payton and power forward Shawn Kemp, have
reached their prime; because, with the acquisitions of center
Jim McIlvaine (page 124) and swingman Craig Ehlo, their
supporting cast is even better than last year's; and because
everyone is talking up the Lakers and the Rockets as Western
Conference strongboys, which only motivates Seattle more. It
appears that the Sonics are ready for their second straight trip
to the Finals.

HOWEVER.... Kemp, who reportedly will be only the
sixth-highest-paid Sonic at $3.3 million this season,
underscored his unhappiness about that fact (and especially
about McIlvaine's seven-year, $35 million deal) by missing the
first three weeks of training camp. That's the kind of internal
unrest that has brought down the Sonics in the past. Also, Dream
Team III member Payton says he's entering the season fatigued
because playing in the Olympics cut short his off-season
recovery time.

DEFENSE NEVER RESTS: Already one of the most aggressive teams in
the league, the Sonics should be even more willing to gamble
with the shot-blocking McIlvaine around to erase their mistakes.
That defense is what ultimately will distinguish Seattle from
the Lakers and the Rockets.

2 LOS ANGELES LAKERS

HE LOVES L.A.: "You're taking a team that won 53 games last year
and adding a superstar to it," says center Shaquille O'Neal
(page 76), who happens to be that superstar. "Think about that
for a second." The rest of the league would rather not. With
O'Neal, guards Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel and forwards Elden
Campbell and Cedric Ceballos, the Lakers have one of the best
starting fives in the league. Signing O'Neal to a seven-year,
$120 million contract was a coup, but executive vice president
Jerry West's greatest feat may have been building a bench with
what little room he had left under the salary cap. Guard Rumeal
Robinson and center Sean Rooks are serviceable backups, forward
Jerome Kersey and guard Byron Scott will be valuable for their
locker room influence, and rookie guard Kobe Bryant, 18, may be
ready to help sooner than many think.

POTENTIAL PROBLEM: Jealousy. It reared its head when Magic
Johnson returned to the team last season (remember Ceballos's
unauthorized Jet Ski vacation?), and Magic wasn't making $120
million.

WORTH WATCHING: Jones could be ready for a breakout year now
that Anthony Peeler, who shared minutes at shooting guard with
him, is in Vancouver. Jones is an exceptional defender, and if
he can stay healthy--he missed 30 games due to injury in his
first two seasons--his offensive game should have a chance to
blossom.

3 PHOENIX SUNS

LIFE AFTER CHARLES: There's still plenty of talent in Phoenix,
even without Charles Barkley, who was traded to Houston for
guard Sam Cassell and forwards Robert Horry, Mark Bryant and
Chucky Brown. The four former Rockets will make the Suns more
formidable on defense, which has long been their biggest
weakness. And together with forwards Michael Finley, A.C. Green
and Danny Manning and oft-ailing point guard Kevin Johnson (he
recently underwent hernia surgery), the newcomers make Phoenix
younger, deeper and more athletic. The Suns won't win a title,
but they won't regret the Barkley trade.

THESE CENTERS CANNOT HOLD: The Suns' choice is between a pair of
34-year-olds, 6'11" John (Hot Rod) Williams, a true forward who
will start the season on the injured list, and 7-foot Joe
Kleine, who has played 11 seasons without ever averaging double
figures in points or rebounds. Phoenix plans to experiment with
a Bulls-style triangle offense and increased full-court
pressure, but that won't be enough to completely hide the hole
in the middle.

WHO WANTS THE BALL? More specifically, who wants it at crunch
time? Phoenix may miss Barkley the most at the end of close
games, which was when he demanded the ball. There is no obvious
replacement for him in that role, and if Phoenix wants to make
any noise in the playoffs, one of the Suns will have to step up.

4 SACRAMENTO KINGS

A LITTLE HELP: After using 5'10" Tyus Edney and 6-foot Bobby
Hurley at point guard last year, the Kings needed one player who
couldn't be taken advantage of defensively. The best they could
do was wispy 6'1" Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. The former Nugget isn't
much of an improvement on D, but he will take some of the
scoring load off shooting guard Mitch Richmond, who welcomes the
help. But Richmond is unhappy about his $3.5 million salary,
which is small change compared with what elite off-guards like
Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller and Allan Houston make.

FROM PRINCETON TO THE PROS: Pete Carril's arrival sounds like
the premise for a bad movie. An erudite 65-year-old former Ivy
League coach joins a team of hip, talented, millionaire pro
players. If this were a film, Carril would learn to rap, center
Olden Polynice would become a Shakespearean scholar, and the
Kings would win the NBA title. In real life, however, Carril is
merely an assistant on coach Garry St. Jean's staff, and
Sacramento will be battling for one of the last playoff spots
again.

PLAYER TO WATCH: The Kings will give 6'9" Billy Owens the chance
to finally grow into the Scottie Pippen-Grant Hill role of
multitalented small forward. If he excels, Sacramento could
become something more than an admirable blue-collar team.

5 PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

A COACH'S DREAM: Portland is loaded with talent, much of it
recently arrived. Isaiah Rider is one of the league's most
explosive shooting guards, Kenny Anderson has the capability to
be one of its best point guards, and forward Rasheed Wallace can
score, run the floor and block shots. Among the holdover Trail
Blazers, forward Clifford Robinson is good for 20 points a game,
and center Arvydas Sabonis is the NBA's best passing pivotman.
Coach P.J. Carlesimo has lots of reasons to smile.

A COACH'S NIGHTMARE: He also has lots of reasons to worry. Rider
had so many scrapes with his coaches, his teammates and the law
that the Timberwolves were thrilled to unload him. Anderson is a
poor defender who seemed to lose some of his enthusiasm last
year with the Nets and the Hornets. Wallace, formerly of the
Bullets, tends to be headstrong and difficult to control.
Robinson, unhappy about not getting a contract extension, has
asked to be traded. Sabonis is the only Blazers starter whose
attitude isn't in question, but his surgically scarred legs are
a constant concern.

TRULY FOUL SHOOTING: The Blazers are almost sure to improve
their free throw shooting, thanks to Anderson (76.9% last year)
and Rider (83.8%). Portland shot 66.2% from the line in 1995-96,
the worst mark since the 1968-69 Lakers shot 65.0%.

6 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

WHINE COUNTRY: It seems there's always someone unhappy at Golden
State. Two years ago there was the Chris Webber-Don Nelson
dispute, last season Tim Hardaway and Latrell Sprewell continued
their feud, and this season center Rony Seikaly kept up the
tradition by demanding to be traded. Golden State finally
accommodated him last Saturday when it sent Seikaly and forward
Clifford Rozier to Orlando for centers Felton Spencer and Jon
Koncak and forward Donald Royal. Without Seikaly, the Warriors
still won't be winners, but they will no longer be whiners.

THE GOOD NEWS: Sprewell is back to playing like an All-Star
shooting guard. He and second-year forward Joe Smith are solid
cornerstones for the Warriors to build on, and guard Mark Price
looks sufficiently recovered from foot problems to be a
free-agent steal.

INFERIOR INTERIOR: The addition of journeyman Spencer gives the
Warriors experience at center but little distinction. With
Spencer, rookie Todd Fuller and second-year man Andrew DeClercq,
Golden State won't get much from the middle except 18 fouls.

7 LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

TOUGHEST MAN ON THE TEAM: It might be coach Bill Fitch, 62, who
was ready for the start of training camp despite suffering a
mild heart attack and undergoing triple-bypass surgery in
August. "I haven't gone through all this just to fish and play
golf the rest of my life," he says. If his players are as
ornery, the Clippers might continue on the upswing that saw them
increase their victory total by 12 (to 29) last season.

BRAND-NEW CLIPS: Guard Brent Barry, winner of last year's
All-Star slam-dunk contest, could be the exciting player the
Clippers historically have lacked. Barry and forward Rodney
Rogers proved that the deal that brought them to L.A. from
Denver in June 1995 for Antonio McDyess and Randy Woods wasn't
another one of the Clippers' front-office blunders. Power
forward Loy Vaught continues to give the Clippers solid scoring
and rebounding.

SAME OLD CLIPS: With free-agent center Brian Williams far from
certain to re-sign, the Clips will rely more on rotund
(290-pound) Stanley Roberts. After his last three seasons were
shortened by Achilles tendon injuries, Roberts celebrated his
return with a 14-day suspension after shouting profanities at
Fitch during a preseason practice. That's just the kind of thing
that makes the Clippers the Clippers.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ICONS BY MICHAEL CUSTODE [Icon featuring basketball and wave]COLOR PHOTO: JAY CRIHFIELD/SPURLOCK PHOTOS The Blazers' lack of direction won't be remedied unless Anderson (7) can revive his old drive at the point. [Kenny Anderson in game]COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER The playoffs will be within the reach of Lionel Simmons (22) and the Kings. [Lionel Simmons reaching for basketball in game]