Western conference - NBA Preview Trash Talkin'
Dallas Mavericks www.sportingnews.com/nba/teams/mavericks
PROJECTION: 2nd (Midwest); 3rd (West)
BIG TALK: PF Dirk Nowitzki, SG Michael Finley and PG Steve Nash should continue to put up impressive offensive numbers. Nowitzki worked on his low-post game over the summer. Finley and Nash are rested after logging exhausting minutes down the stretch and in the playoffs last season. Nowitzki is effective on the pick-and-roll with Nash, and Finley uses his athletic ability to get to the basket for layups or free throws. The Mavs love to shoot long-range jumpers off the break, and when they're knocking down three-pointers, they're tough for even the elite teams to handle.
SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS: PF Popeye Jones and SF Adrian Griffin must help upgrade the team's defense and rebounding. Jones was signed to add rebounding muscle. Jones, who's slow-footed, would seem a puzzling addition for an up-tempo team, but he will fit in well when the Mavs play a half-court game. He doesn't need the ball to be successful. Jones will set screens and shoot only when he's wide open. He'll get the bulk of his attempts on dunks and follows. Griffin does his best work on the defensive end, checking shooting guards and small forwards. He's an accurate midrange shooter and isn't afraid to drive on bigger defenders. Using Griffin as a starter brings balance to a lineup that is dominated by offensive-minded players who need plenty of touches.
THE DISSING INGREDIENT: Coach Don Nelson continues to try to draw fire and consistency out of under-achieving C Shaw Bradley. Bradley got himself on Nelson's bad side with lack-luster efforts, and he never grasped the new defensive rules. Bradley was a workout warrior in the summer, but he has spent previous offseasons in the weight room without showing any improvement on the court. Nelson wants Bradley to try to intimidate opponents with his 7-6 frame.--Ken Sins
What a letdown. It seemed certain the Mavs would make a major offseason move. Wait till the February trading deadline.
PF DIRK NOWITZKI Will attempt to match his offensive excellence with improvement on defense.
SF ADRIAN GRIFFIN A defensive specialist who brings balance to an offensive-minded lineup.
C RAEF LaFRENTZ A long-range shooting threat who draws opposing centers away from the basket.
SG MICHAEL FINLEY Must continue to pass up jumpers and go to the basket with authority.
PG STEVE NASH Coming off his best season and should benefit from having Nick Van Exel spell him more often.
THE ROTATION (in order of appearance) PG Nick Van Exel, PF Popeye Jones, SF Eduardo Najera, C Shawn Bradley.
THE REST (in order of appearance) SG Tariq Abdul-Wahad, C Evan Eschmeyer, PG Avery Johnson.
Denver Nuggets www.sportingnews.com/nba/teams/nuggets
PROJECTION: 7th (Midwest); 14th (West)
BIG TALK: Because the team is focused on the future--particularly next summer, when it could have $20 million in salary-cap room and two first-round picks--its youngsters will be key this season. Rookie SF Nikoloz Tskitishvili, 19, has great skills for a 7-footer, but he's still very raw and, at 225 pounds, could get pushed around. That won't happen to rookie Brazilian PF Nene Hilario, 20, a 6-11, 260-pound specimen who only has been playing basketball since the mid-1990s, when he sometimes threatened to punch teammates who didn't pass him the ball. The team hopes he now will take his frustrations out on opponents.
SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS: It's tough to classify C Marcus Camby as a supporting player, considering he was so vital to the Knicks. But he's an after-thought to the Nuggets' many young players. The team would love for Camby to stay healthy, which he rarely has done in recent seasons. But if he doesn't--and he already is out until at least December after hip surgery last week--not much will be lost. Most of the other key members of the supporting cast are young. The team acquired intriguing SF Rodney White, the ninth pick in the 2001 draft who had a mediocre rookie year with the Pistons. The Nuggets also have high hopes for PG Kenny Satterfield, who moved into the starting lineup after the team bought out PG Mark Jackson's contract. But Satterfield still must mature after playing just two years in college, especially after essentially winning the job by default.
THE DISSING INGREDIENT: PF Juwan Howard is a consummate professional. He's also a $20 million anchor who won't be with the team next year. Howard, who had career lows last season in average points (14.6) and minutes (32.5), figures to get decent minutes early. But if the team falls hopelessly out of contention, his time likely will be cut and the youngsters will play.--Chris Tomasson
They're rebuilding, but they have prideful veterans in Juwan Howard and Marcus Camby. Expect the Nuggets to surprise some teams.
PF JUWAN HOWARD Was disappointed after the Mavs traded him last season but hasn't been disruptive.
SF GEORGE McCLOUD If he starts, he'll be warming the spot for Nikoloz Tskitishvili or Rodney White.
C MARK BLOUNT With Camby out, rookie Nene Hilario might share the job.
SG JAMES POSEY Like Howard and McCloud, he probably is in his last season with the Nuggets.
PG KENNY SATTERFIELD Must learn on the job after starting only four games last season.
THE ROTATION (in order of appearance) SF Rodney White, SF Nikoloz Tskitishvili, F/C Nene Hilario, SF Ryan Bowen, PF Chris Andersen.
THE REST (in order of appearance) SF Donnell Harvey, SF Vincent Yarbrough, SG Predrag Savovic, PG Junior Harrington, C Marcus Camby.
Golden State Warriors www.sportingnews.com/nba/teams/warriors
PROJECTION: 6th (Pacific); 12th (West)
BIG TALK: By acquiring SF Mike Dunleavy Jr. and G/F Jiri Welsch in the draft, the team believes it has added players who give it a better chance of succeeding in close games. Each has significantly more basketball savvy than most of the team's returning players. This team has a talented young core--PF Antawn Jamison, SG Jason Richardson and PG Gilbert Arenas--but none of those players can make a teammate better. The Warriors led the league in turnovers last year, and the sure-handed play of Dunleavy and Welsch will go a long way toward fixing that problem. Dunleavy gives the team a competent ballhandler and passer up front, and Welsch can play as many as three positions.
SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS: Much will hinge on the improvement of Richardson and Jamison. Richardson had a solid rookie season, proving he can shoot the ball from the perimeter and finish on the fast break. He still needs work on defense and hasn't proved he can beat a defender off the dribble. Coach Eric Musselman wants Richardson to get to the free-throw line more. Jamison has proved he can score in the NBA. The next step is showing he can do more, such as playing defense and passing the ball. He struggles in the low post against bigger defenders and on the perimeter against quicker ones. Last year, he averaged 2.0 assists, which is too low for the playing time he gets.
THE DISSING INGREDIENT: Arenas is being asked to do something he's not comfortable doing--running a team. Last season, this team tried the same thing with Larry Hughes, but by midseason the experiment had failed. The job went to Arenas, who is more of a shooter than a playmaker. Arenas is coachable and talented, but making him a decision-maker is asking for trouble. So, the team plans to use veteran SG Bob Sura some at the point, and he could wind up as the starter.--Matt Steinmetz
Golden State's tough early schedule will provide a rude introduction to head coaching for rookie Eric Musselman.
PF ANTAWN JAMISON Must do things other than score to turn around his tarnished image.
SF MIKE DUNLEAVY More of a basketball player than anyone on the roster.
C ERICK DAMPIER Never has come close to duplicating his second-year numbers of 11.8 ppg and 8.7 rpg.
SG JASON RICHARDSON: A better shooter than once believed who still must work on his passing and defense.
PG BOB SURA The best on the team at penetrating and passing to open shooters.
THE ROTATION (in order of appearance G/F Jiri Welsch, PF Troy Murphy PG Gilbert Arenas, C Adonal Foyle, PF Danny Fortson.
THE REST (in order of appearance) PC Rafer Alston, SF Chris Mills.
Houston Rockets www.sportingnews.com/nba/teams/rockets
PROJECTION: 3rd (Midwest); 6th (West)
BIG TALK: Despite persistent migraines and a shoulder problem that required offseason surgery, PG Steve Francis had a breakout season, landing on the Western Conference All-Star team and averaging 21.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.4 assists. He shot just 40.7 percent, but the hope is that was caused by his ailing shoulder. The team's other big gun, SG Cuttino Mobley, has become a take-it-at-anyone scorer (21.7 points) who is capable of going for 40-plus points on any given night. He could improve his shot selection and dishing--he averaged just 2.5 assists.
SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS: Much will depend on how well PF Maurice Taylor and SE Glen Rice--both coming off injuries; Taylor was limited Taylor to zero games and Rice to 20--fare, as well as the continued development of PF Eddie Griffin. Taylor, who was sidelined after blowing out his Achilles, is a smooth-shooting big man, but with Yao Ming in the middle, the Rockets need Taylor to be more of a low-post scorer/rebounder/bully. Rice's credentials are without question, and he could play in either the motion offense coach Rudy Tomjanovich is contemplating or an isolation scheme, But after knee surgery and at 35, Rice's ability to fit into the Rockets' scheme is questionable. Griffin showed a flashes of brilliance last year, especially as a shot blocker and rebounder, but he needs to improve on a 36.6 percent shooting performance from the field.
THE DISSING INGREDIENT: While training camp has produced the usual number of comments from moody C Kelvin Cato about how this year is going to be different and how he has a better attitude, it's hard to see. Cato, once envisioned as the successor to Hakeem Olajuwon, cannot be happy that Yao arrived amid so much fanfare. But for now, the team is willing to give Cato the benefit of the doubt.--Michael Murphy
If healthy, the Rockets are stacked at every position, Getting Steve Francis and Yao Ming on the court together should be a big help.
PF MAURICE TAYLOR A good scorer who needs to throw some of his 265 pounds into rebounding.
SF GLEN RICE Regarded as a premier perimeter shooter, he hasn't topped 44 percent since 1997-98.
C YAO MING A gifted offensive player who must learn how to rebound like a 7-5 center.
SG CUTTINO MOBLEY A scoring threat who might be better suited for a sixth-man role on this team.
PG STEVE FRANCIS Not a pure point guard but an effective player whose greatest asset is his hunger to win.
THE ROTATION (in order of appearance) SF Kenny Thomas, PF Eddie Griffin, C Kelvin Cato, PC Moochie Norris, G/F Bostjan Nachbar, C Jason Collier.
THE REST (in order of appearance) SF Terence Morris, G/F Oscar Torres PG Tito Maddox, PG Tierre Brown.
Los Angeles Clippers www.sportingnews.com/nba/teams/clippers
PROJECTION: 4th (Pacific); 7th (West)
BIG TALK: PG Andre Miller has looked magnificent in training camp and should elevate the team all by himself. That's what an obsessive passer with a brilliant basketball mind can do for a team that often has distributed the ball like it's covered in glue. Miller could turn a group of me-first, contract-concerned players into a team that actually shares the ball. Miller should work well with PF Elton Brand, the team's No. 1 interior option on offense. Brand is a gritty rebounder and hard worker; Miller will rack up assists while Brand collects rebounds and garbage points.
SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS: SF Corey Maggette is the team's best defender, lie did an excellent job last season against a diverse array of players, including SG Tracy McGrady, SF Kevin Garnett, PG Gary Payton and SG Kobe Bryant. If Maggette can guard those players so well, why didn't he play more? Well, his shot isn't always on, and maybe he tries to do too much by himself on offense. But his skills outweigh his shortcomings, and he definitely needs more playing time. SF Lamar Odom remains hobbled with an injured right ankle and will miss the start of the season. If he returns to his 2000-01 form, this team could really make its mark.
THE DISSING INGREDIENT: SGs Quentin Richardson and J Eric Piatkowski are strong offensive players with defensive problems. Neither has good lateral movement. So while they averaged a combined 22.1 points last season, they often gave up more on defense, forcing coach Alvin Gentry to bring Maggette into the game. Richardson is being hyped as a 22-year-old guy who can be an impact player. But Gentry might not agree. In training camp, he said it wasn't certain that Richardson would start opening night. If neither Richardson nor Piatkowski gets the job done, Gentry could move Maggette to the backcourt.--Joe Stevens
This team could be among the NBA's best in a couple of years--if its young players manage to stay together that long.
PF ELTON BRAND Must prove he's the leader of the team by producing wins, not lust double-doubles.
SF LAMAR ODOM Will miss the start of the season (ankle) and will be rusty after missing most of last year.
C MICHAEL OLOWOKANDI One of the best big men in a league with few great centers but must be more consistent.
SG QUENTIN RICHARDSON One of the league's best sixth men last season, he likely will get a chance to start.
PG ANDRE MILLER If he can average 109 assists with the lowly Cavs, what will lie do with the Clippers?
THE ROTATION (in order of appearance) SF Corey Maggette, PG Marko Jaric, SG Eric Piatkowski, PF Chris Wilcox, F/C Melvin Ely.
THE REST (in order of appearance) C Sean Rooks, PF Cherokee Parks, SF Tremaine Fowlkes, PG Keyon Dooling, SG Bryant Stith.
Los Angeles Lakers www.sportingnews.com/nba/teams/lakers
PROJECTION: 2nd (Pacific); 4th (West)
BIG TALK: While C Shaquille O'Neal's fitness to start the season is in doubt, SG Kobe Bryant's fitness never has been better. O'Neal had surgery September 11 to remove bone spurs from his arthritic right big toe, and the three-time NBA Finals MVP could miss the first week or two. Meanwhile, Bryant spent the summer working out and reported to camp sporting 15 pounds of new muscle. All of which means that in their now-friendly battle for center stage, Shaq again has conceded November to Kobe. As for the months ahead, a pain-free O'Neal and a stronger Bryant offer opponents little hope for a Lakers downturn.
SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS: An essentially unchanged cast features PG Derek Fisher and PF Samaki Walker in improved health and SF Devean George continuing to improve off the bench. For Fisher, this should be his first 80-game season since 1997-98 after missing the first 62 and 12 games of the past two years because of foot injuries. With the Lindsey Hunter experiment over, Fisher is secure again in the guard spot alongside Bryant. Walker is feeling good after knee and elbow problems limited him to 12.6 minutes per game and reduced his effectiveness in the playoffs. George survived a year of uncertainty after the Lakers declined to pick up his option in 2001, but now he faces the pressure of living up to a new four-year, $18.45 million contract.
THE DISSING INGREDIENT: The Lakers are thin in the backcourt behind Bryant and Fisher, so PG Brian Shaw, 36, will be asked to play the 20 or so minutes a night the first-guard-off-the-bench slot could demand. Shaw is touting improved fitness, but he's coming off career-low averages in minutes (10.9), points (2.9) and assists (1.5). SG Kareem Rush is the team's most promising rookie in years, but coach Phil Jackson never is in a hurry to lean on kids.--Kevin Modesti
The status of Shaquille O'Neal's health always is a concern, but he should be fit in time for a late May redux against the Kings.
PF SAMAKI WALKER Should be more comfortable, physically and mentally, in his second season with L.A.
SF RICK FOX He's 33 and likely will give up more of his playing time to Devean George.
C SHAQUILLE O'NEAL Likely to start slow after off-season surgery but will be there when needed.
SG KOBE BRYANT Added muscle should help his rebounding and Phil Jackson hopes, his 3-point shooting.
PG DEREK FISHER Now sure of his health and his starting job, he can settle into a steady complementary role.
THE ROTATION (in order of appearance) PF Robert Horry, SF Devean George, PG Brian Shaw, F/C Slava Medvedenko, SG Kareem Rush.
THE REST (in order of appearance) SF Tracy Murray, F/C Mark Madsen.
Memphis Grizzlies www.sportingnews.com/nba/teams/grizzlies
PROJECTION: 6th (Midwest); 11th (West)
BIG TALK: Though Rookie of the Year Pau Gasol will D begin the season as the starting power forward, team president Jerry West and coach Sidney Lowe will play Gasol some at center when they get a matchup to their liking. The team lacks a true big man, and with 2002 first-round pick Drew Gooden and 2000 first-rounder Stromile Swift around, the power forward spot is jammed. Gasol is not wild about the idea of playing center, and the trick will be to avoid taking him away from what he does best--shooting several feet from the basket. His jumphook is difficult to defend.
SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS: There was nothing wrong with PG Jason Williams' averages of 14.8 points and 8.0 assists last season. But with SG Michael Dickerson supposedly recovered from the stress fracture that limited him to four games in 2001-02 and veteran sharpshooter Wesley Person in reserve, Williams needs to keep the 3-point shot in his holster more often. But the reality is this: Once he decides teammates aren't knocking down enough outside shots, he'll take matters into his own quick-trigger hands. On any given night, Williams will carry the team to victory or run it into defeat. With Person on board, Lowe gradually can increase Dickerson's minutes as he plays his way back into shape. With Dickerson and Person at shooting guard, Shane Battier can settle in at small forward. Battier, who averaged 14.4 points as a rookie, devoted his offseason to honing his midrange jumper.
THE DISSING INGREDIENT: West tried to trade Swift in the offseason but couldn't make a deal without giving him away. It might yet come to that. Swift is more athletic than Gooden or Gasol, but he lacks their basketball knowledge as well as a consistent midrange jumper and passion on defense. Deep into last season, he still didn't know all the plays. He does get credit for maintaining a good attitude in a tough situation.--Don Wade
The biggest thing working against the Grizzlies is that they have not moved to the East, and there is little room in the West to move up.
PF PAU GASOL Rookie of the Year hopes improved strength translates into bulked-up numbers.
SF SHANE BATTIER In only his second year, he's becoming the true leader of the team.
C LORENZEN WRIGHT If the Grizzlies have to make due with Wright, they need him to play more than 43 games.
SG MICHAEL DICKERSON Coming off a stress fracture that wiped out last season, he has much to prove.
PG JASON WILLIAMS This might be his last and best shot to prove there is some substance to his style.
THE ROTATION (in order of appearance) PG Brevin Knight, SG Wesley Person, PF Stromile Swift, SG Gordon Giricek, C Tony Massenbug.
THE REST (in order of appearance) PF Drew Gooden, PG Earl Watson, C Cezary Trybanski, PF Robert Archibald, SF Chris Owens.
Minnesota Timberwolves www.sportingnews.com/nba/teams/timberwolves
BIG TALK: Statistically, SF Kevin Garnett is almost a lock for another 20-10-5 (points, rebounds, assists) season, but his impact goes beyond the numbers--in both positive and negative ways. With the retirement of SF Sam Mitchell, Garnett will assume the role of team leader, on the floor and in the locker room. He's a great teammate who plays with desire and has a terrific work ethic--which leads to the downside. Garnett has had trouble maintaining his energy at late-season and postseason crunch time, and he has yet to carry this team when the clock is winding down and the Timberwolves need points in a crucial game. Will he make those big fourth-quarter shots this season?
SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS: Wally Szczerbiak's move from small forward to shooting guard last year helped showcase his perimeter skills and took some of the pressure off him as a defensive player. He has improved his footwork on defense and spent much of the offseason working on his ballhandling. The most important player on the team, however, might be PG Terrell Brandon. He sat out the end of last season with a knee injury, and preseason reports on the knee aren't overly optimistic. If he can't play, the offense will be in big trouble. Chauncey Billups, who filled in nicely for Brandon last year, signed with the Pistons as a free agent. Newcomer Troy Hudson probably is the No. 2 choice at point guard, and European import Igor Rakocevic is getting a look in camp.
THE DISSING INGREDIENT:. SG Anthony Peeler quickly is wearing out his welcome in Minnesota. A streaky shooter, Peeler's defensive lapses and poor shot selection were major concerns last season for a team that could use his potential firepower off the bench. The uncertainty in the backcourt would be lessened if the veteran could be counted on to take pressure off the young point guards, but no one expects that to happen.--John Millea
Unless Terrell Brandon's knee is healthy by January, this team could be due for a swift decline without a playmaking point guard.
PF JOE SMITH After a down season, he must prove he's worth a big contract and lost draft picks.
SF KEVIN GARNETT Still the key to everything but needs more help than he has been getting.
C RASHO NESTEROVIC Coming off his best year but must keep moving in the right direction.
SG WALLY SZCZERBIAK Blossomed into an offensive force last season and is young enough to get even better.
PG TERRELL BRANDON The health of his injured knee is the biggest key to the teams season.
THE ROTATION (in order of appearance) SG Anthony Peeler, PF Gary Trent, F/C Marc Jackson, SG Felipe Lopez, PG Troy Hudson.
THE REST (in order of appearance) PF Reggie Slater, SG Kendall Gill, C Loren Woods, PG Maurice Evans, PG Igor Rakocevic.
Phoenix Suns www.sportingnews.com/nba/teams/suns
PROJECTION TALK: 7th (Pacific), 13th (West)
BIG TALK: SF Shawn Marion set a goal of averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds a game last season, and he barely missed (19.1, 9.9). Marion (6-7, 220) is a much better shooter than many gave him credit for when he was drafted out of UNLV three years ago, and he's terrific in transition. To be an elite-level scorer, however, Marion has to get to the free-throw line more often. That means not only absorbing hits, but creating contact on the way to the basket. Defensively, he's capable of more, but pound for pound, he might be the best rebounder in the NBA.
SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS: The Suns are expecting a different version of PG Stephon Marbury than they saw last season, when he was plagued by bad ankles and a sore hamstring. Marbury underwent offseason surgery on both ankles and arrived at training camp in better condition. Second-year SG Joe Johnson was the buzz of the team's summer league program. He has grown an inch to 6-8 and weighs 233 pounds, giving him the size to take advantage of smaller guards. But he must overcome a knack for disappearing in games. Finally, the team again is relying on PF Tom Gugliotta, who underwent another offseason rehab program in an effort to fully recover from knee surgery in March 2000. If Gugliotta can't stay healthy, rookie PF Amare Stoudemire will have to make a sudden impact.
THE DISSING INGREDIENT: Last season, the team's biggest problem arguably was SG Penny Hardaway. He wasn't healthy and didn't approve of being moved to the bench behind Johnson. He suggested he would like to be traded. Hardaway says his attitude has changed. He could go from the dissing ingredient to an important one if that new attitude is genuine and lasts through the season. And if he plays well, he might even create a market for the trade he wanted last season.--Bob Young
So far, so good on the rebuilding process. But bloated contracts remaining on the payroll still are holding back the Suns.
PF TOM GUGLIOTTA Could flourish in a new offense that will: accentuate his strengths.
SF SHAWN MARION On the cusp of becoming an All-Star with his all-out hustle and rebounding.
C JAKE TSAKALIDIS Came on strong late last season when given consistent minutes.
SG JOE JOHNSON Terrific in practice but must carry it over into games.
PG STEPHON MARBURY At 25, he's already in his seventh year but has played in just eight postseason games.
THE ROTATION (in order of appearance) PF Bo Outlaw, SG Penny Hardaway, PF Amare Stoudemire.
THE REST On order of appearance) C Jake Voskuhl, PG Randy Brown, PF Alton Ford, SF Dan Langhi, F/C Scott Williams, SG Casey Jacobsen.
Portland Trail Blazers www.sportingnews.com/nba/teams/trailblazers
PROJECTION: 3rd (Pacific); 5th (West)
BIG TALK: PF Rasheed Wallace is the team's top weapon and will lead it in scoring for the fourth consecutive season. Although he has been reluctant at times to be the go-to guy, he is capable of generating offense from inside and outside. He's good defensively, too. Wallace hasn't been able to subdue the explosive temper that too often gets him into trouble with the officials. Though Wallace mellowed a bit last season under first-year coach Maurice Cheeks, he led the league in technical fouls for the third consecutive season.
SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS: The Blazers solidified their backcourt with the addition of guards Antonio Daniels and Jeff McInnis and beefed up at center by convincing 7-3 Arvydas Sabonis to return after a one-year layoff. Sabonis will back up Dale Davis and is expected to average no more than 20 minutes a game. His speed is terrible, but Sabonis provides an inside presence that was sorely lacking last season, and he still passes as well as any big man in the league. McInnis is going head-to-head with PG Damon Stoudamire for playing time, and the versatile Daniels is hoping for minutes at either guard spot and possibly some at small forward. Stoudamire has the edge in outside shooting but, at 5-10, has trouble defending bigger guards. Daniels and McInnis are both 6-4 and were acquired more for their defensive abilities than for what they do with the ball.
THE DISSING INGREDIENT:. Stoudamire had his best season as a Blazer a year ago, then flopped in the playoffs. Even if Stoudamire's starting job isn't in jeopardy, Daniels and McInnis are threats to cut into his minutes. The team insists having that much depth and versatility is a strength, but will all three players be content with the minutes they receive? If even one of them pouts, will that be enough to throw the entire team into disarray? Probably not.--Jim Beseda
Arvydas Sabonis is back, and the playing-time gripes started in August. Looks like it's just another season in Portland.
PF RASHEED WALLACE A dominant player on both ends when he concentrates on his game and not on the refs.
SF SCOTTIE PIPPEN Is slowing down considerably but still is one of the best on-ball defenders.
C DALE DAVIS Exceeded expectations last season and won't wear down as much with Arvydas Sabonis back.
SG BONZI WELLS Strength, quickness and leaping ability make him one of the toughest players to defend.
PG DAMON STOUDAMIRE His offense, which includes a new pass-first mentality, outweighs defensive shortcomings.
THE ROTATION (in order of appearance) SF Ruben Patterson, SG Derek Anderson, PG Jeff McInnis, C Arvydas Sabonis, SG Antonio Daniels.
THE REST (in order of appearance) PF Zach Randolph, SF Qyntel Woods, F/C Amal McCaskill, C Ruben Boumtje Boumtje, PG Charles Smith.
Sacramento Kings www.sportingnews.com/nba/teams/kings
PROJECTION: 1st (Pacific), 1st (West)
BIG TALK: PF Chris Webber and SF Peja Stojakovic are the team's two All-Stars, but Webber and PG Mike Bibby are its best players. Webber's across-the-board productivity makes him one of the league's most valuable performers. Bibby--though he has a broken right foot and will be out until at least late November--likely will show a new level of leadership and production coming off a tremendous postseason. The expectations for Webber are to be a dominant scorer, rebounder, passer and shot blocker. Bibby will be expected to hit clutch shots and combine with Webber to become a dynamic pick-and-roll combination.
SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS: The Kings have as many strong supporting players as any team. PG Bobby Jackson, SF Hedo Turkoglu and SG Doug Christie are three who perform differing and important roles that must be filled for the team to continue to improve. Jackson is capable of playing point and shooting guard and excels at each end of the court. He offers fire, competitiveness and a heart as big as Shaq's foot. Jackson continues to work on his perimeter shooting and to improve his ballhandling. Turkoglu can play every position, although he's most naturally a shooting guard and small forward. He'll receive increased ballhandling opportunities and needs to be more aggressive. He also must take shots when they present themselves. Defensively, he needs to stay solid and in front of his man. Christie is the variable in the equation. He's the team's best defender, but the question is whether he will continue to take and make shots that come his way.
THE DISSING INGREDIENT: The Kings have no true weaknesses, but Stojakovic and Christie have something to prove in the playoffs. Both struggled mightily last spring, and a Kings team that is so close to knocking off the Lakers can't afford two perimeter starters to misfire again when the stakes are so high.--Marty McNeal
The team's uptempo motion offense is having an impact around the league. The next step is for it to have an impact on the Lakers.
PF CHRIS WEBBER His trial date and ability to stay healthy will determine his success.
SF PEJA STOJAKOVIC Carried the team early last season when Webber was hurt.
C VLADE DIVAC His selflessness and passing are as valuable as his usual 11 points and 8 rebounds,
SG DOUG CHRISTIE A willing role player whose role is to guard the opponent's best perimeter player.
PG BOBBY JACKSON Will hold down Bibby's spot well, but the team will miss his energy off the bench.
THE ROTATION (in order of appearance) C Scot Pollard, PG Bobby Jackson, SF Hedo Turkoglu PF Keon Clark, SG Gerald Wallace.
THE REST (in order of appearance) PF Lawrence Funderburke, PG Mike Bibby, PG Mateen Cleaves.
San Antonio Spurs www.sportingnews.com/nba/teams/spurs
PROJECTION: 1st (Midwest); 2nd (West)
BIG TALK: PF Tim Duncan is coming off an MVP season with career-best averages in points (25.5), rebounds (12.7), assists (3.7) and free-throw shooting (79.9). Already the league's second-most dominant player--behind Lakers C Shaquille O'Neal--Duncan should be more aggressive than ever. He has confidence in his left knee, something he lacked at the start of last season. With C David Robinson retiring after this season, Duncan understands the team is his to lead. If the supporting cast makes shots within the team's motion offense, Duncan should have his best year yet.
SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS: Though PG Tony Parker was a clutch performer as a rookie, his overall shooting--41.9 percent from the field, 32.3 percent on 3-point attempts and 67.5 percent at the foul line--obviously needed work. During the offseason, he worked on finishing his follow-through motion and on developing a teardrop runner he can release in the lane. Now more confident in his game and more comfortable with his teammates, Parker should be a better all-around point guard. No Spur has added more to his game over the past few seasons than PF Malik Rose. Already noted for his limitless energy, rebounding and versatile defense, Rose developed a consistent midrange jumper last year. This summer, he worked on his ballhandling. With Robinson's durability in doubt, Rose may get more playing time than last year.
THE DISSING INGREDIENT. The Spurs can survive without Robinson for stretches, but they won't be able to get past Shaq and the Lakers if Robinson is not healthy. The good news for the team is Robinson's back didn't need surgery. The bad news is a disk particle still is floating loose in his back and could cause problems again. In an effort to stay healthy, Robinson spent the summer strengthening his abdominal muscles and improving his running and jumping technique.--Johnny Ludden
Don't expect David Robinson to spend the season collecting farewell gifts. He will contribute as long as he's suiting up for the Spurs.
PF TIM DUNCAN Should have another MVP year but will need more help to get past the Lakers.
SF BRUCE BOWEN A tough, hard-nosed player who might be the best on-ball defender in the league,
C DAVID ROBINSON Back problems again could be a concern as The Admiral sets sail on his last season.
SG STEVE SMITH After disappearing in the playoffs, he'll have to fight Emanuel Ginobili to keep the starting job.
PG TONY PARKER After working out and working on his shot this summer, he likely won't have a sophomore slump.
THE ROTATION (in order of appearance) PF Malik Rose, SG Emanuel Ginobili, SF Danny Fern PG Speedy Claxton, C Kevin Willis, G/F Stephen Jackson
THE REST (in order of appearance) SG Steve Kerr, PG Erick Barkley, C Mengke Bateer.
Seattle Supersonics www.spotingnews.com/nba/teams/supersonics
PROJECTION: 5th (Pacific); 10th (West)
BIG TALK: PGs Gary Payton and Kenny Anderson give this team a pair of aces unparalleled in the league, a one-two combination made all the more powerful because both are in the final year of their respective contracts and playing for future paychecks. Payton is the better scorer, a future Hall of Famer who is as durable as rawhide and able to back smaller guards down in the post. Anderson still has a whippet-quick dribble and an up-tempo mentality that suits the Sonics' quick-shooting style. Anderson doesn't consider himself a backup but knows there's no way he will displace Payton as the starter.
SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS: Trading PF Vin Baker made SF Rashard Lewis the team's No. 2 option on offense, and now he's being paid like a franchise pillar. The question is his left shoulder, which he injured during last season's playoffs. He opted against offseason surgery but recently experienced pain in the shoulder. His playing skills are not an issue; Lewis was the team's second-leading scorer (16.8 ppg) and top rebounder (7.0 rpg) last season. SG Brent Barry is coming off a career year in which he was the only NBA player who attempted more than 200 3-pointers and made more than 50 percent of his field goals. Scoring (14.4 ppg) and minutes (3,040) were both career highs, but in the playoffs Barry's production dropped.
THE DISSING INGREDIENT: C Calvin Booth is ar riddle in the middle. Last season, he was limited to 15 games because of an ankle injury. The team says he is back with a combination of shot-blocking and shooting ability that allows him to play power forward or center. But with Baker gone, Booth better be ready because the team lacks offensive production from both spots. C Jerome James has soft hands and shows some potential, but he has to maintain his desire now that he has his big money.--Danny O'Neil
Remember when Gary Payton seemed so much more mature leading the Sonics last season? Check back in January.
PF VLADIMIR RADMANOVIC Has an outside shot that can create mismatches but must stiffen his defense
SF RASHARD LEWIS Has a soft shooting touch, but the team needs him to toughen up inside.
C JEROME JAMES A big body with big potential who is a big risk now that he has a $15 million contract.
SG BRENT BARRY His career year ended on a down note last spring with his playoffs struggles against the Spurs.
PG GARY PAYTON The Glove, 34, hasn't lost the grip on his game: averaged a career-high nine assists fast year.
THE ROTATION (in order of appearance) SG Desmond Mason. C Calvin Booth. PG Kenny Anderson. F/C Predrag Drobnjak.
THE REST (in order of appearance) SF Ansu Sesay, PF Vitaly Potapenko SG Joseph Forte, SF Kei Madison.
Utah Jazz www.sportingnews.com/nba/teams/jazz
PROJECTION: 5th (Midwest); 9th (West)
BIG TALK: Yes, they're old. Yes, their best days are behind them. Still, PG John Stockton and PF Karl Malone will make sure the Jazz can't be easily dismissed. As has been the case for nearly two decades now, the combo will pick-and-roll (and elbow-and-flop) its way to numerous victories. Whether there is enough of a supporting cast to land the Jazz in the playoffs for the 20th consecutive season is open to debate. Despite their advanced age--Stockton is 40, Malone 39--there is no reason to expect a major drop in production by either. Both are in great shape.
SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS: SF Andrei Kirilenko showed flashes of brilliance last season when he became the first Jazz rookie since Malone in 1985-86 to have a double-figure scoring average. He also led the team in blocked shots. More is expected of him this season, especially because the small forward job is all his now that Donyell Marshall is gone. The team is concerned about his health, however. Kirilenko missed time in the offseason with a sprained ankle and lost 14 pounds he can't afford to lose. A trio of newcomers also is expected to log major minutes. Matt Harping will be given a chance to battle DeShawn Stevenson at shooting guard, PG Mark Jackson will back up Stockton and G/F Calbert Cheaney will be expected to fill the same role G/F Bryon Russell did.
THE DISSING INGREDIENT: Utah always has coveted a center who can score. The club thought it might have acquired one--John Amaechi--last season. Instead, Amaechi was a bust, shooting 32.5 percent from the field and averaging 3.2 points. Amaechi never has been a good rebounder, so when he wasn't scoring he became useless and was relegated to the end of the bench. Drafting C Curtis Borchardt in the first round last June showed that the team has all but given up on Amaechi and needs someone else to step up.--Loren Jorgensen
John Stockton and Karl Malone are old, but we're used to that, The real problem is that every other player on the team is a puppy.
PF KARL MALONE Isn't slowing down much in his quest to become the league's all-time scoring leader.
SF ANDREI KIRILENKO Has a huge upside if his rail-thin body can withstand 82 games as a starter.
C JARRON COLLINS A decent shooter but will try to stay out of Malone's way on offense.
SG MATT HARPRING Will try to fill the void left by Jeff Hornacek's retirement several years ago.
PG JOHN STOCKTON An ageless wonder who can hold his own against players born while he was in college.
THE ROTATION (in order of appearance) PG Mark Jackson. C Greg Ostertag. G/F Calbert Cheaney. SG DeShawn Stevenson. SF Scott Padgett
THE REST (in order of appearance) F/C John Amaechi, C Curtis Borchardt, PG Carlos Arroyo PG Raul Lopez.
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