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Archive for Tuesday, October 28, 2003

NBA preseason capsules

October 28, 2003

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Eastern Conference

ATLANTIC DIVISION

NEW JERSEY NETS

Last season: 49-33, lost 4-2 to Spurs in NBA Finals.

Coach: Byron Scott, 4th season, 127-119.

Added: C Alonzo Mourning (free agent), G Zoran Planinic (draft, No. 22, Croatia), Doug Overton (free agent).

Lost: C Dikembe Mutombo (waived), G Anthony Johnson (free agent, Pacers).

Strengths: Coming off their second consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, the have been the class of the conference since Jason Kidd arrived. Kenyon Martin has the talent to be an All-Star, and Richard Jefferson is coming off a breakout season. If Mourning can recapture his form of three years ago, the Nets should win 50-55 games.

Weaknesses: Scott is entering the final season of his contract, and every three-game losing streak will bring questions about his job security. The Nets' lack of outside shooting was exposed in the finals, but they did not address that need in the offseason.

What they'll do: If Mourning stays healthy, should finish atop the weak Eastern Conference.




ORLANDO MAGIC

Last season: 42-40, eliminated 4-3 by Detroit in first round.

Coach: Doc Rivers, 4th season, 170-158.

Added: F Juwan Howard (free agent, Nuggets), G Tyronn Lue (free agent, Wizards), F Donnell Harvey (free agent, Nuggets), G Reece Gaines, (draft, No. 15, Louisville), G Britton Johnsen (undrafted rookie, Utah), F Zaza Pachulia (draft, No. 42, Turkey), G Keith Bogans (draft, No. 43, Kentucky).

Lost: F Grant Hill (injured), G Darrell Armstrong (free agent, New Orleans), G Chris Whitney (free agent, Washington).

Strengths: They were a better team than they showed in the playoffs, blowing a 3-1 lead against the eventual conference runner-up. Tracy McGrady took his game to the next level, leading the league in scoring (32.1 ppg) with the NBA's highest average in a decade. The signing of Howard should finally get them out of the first round of the playoffs.

Weaknesses: The point guards are young and the center position is undermanned. With Armstrong gone, there is little veteran leadership off the bench. McGrady's recurring back pain could cause problems is it continues to flare up.

What they'll do: McGrady, along with a supporting cast that's been completely overhauled in the past 12 months, could lead them to 50 wins.




NEW YORK KNICKS

Last season: 37-45, missed playoffs.

Coach: Don Chaney, 3rd season with Knicks, 57-88, 12th season overall, 322-470.

Added: C Dikembe Mutombo (free agent, Nets), F Keith Van Horn (trade with 76ers), F Michael Sweetney (draft, No. 9, Georgetown), F Maciej Lampe (draft, No. 30, Real Madrid).

Lost: F Latrell Sprewell (traded to Minnesota), F Lee Nailon (free agent, Atlanta).

Strengths: Addressed their most glaring need by bringing in size, which should keep them from repeating as the league's worst rebounding and shot-blocking team. Allan Houston will not be competing with Sprewell for shots anymore, and Antonio McDyess is expected to return sometime in the first few weeks of the season.

Weaknesses: No depth at shooting guard and small forward, and the trio of point guards -- Charlie Ward, Howard Eisley, Frank Williams -- is somewhat weak. Chaney and team president Scott Layden are both under pressure to break this franchise out of its two-year funk.

What they'll do: If McDyess returns and plays 55-60 games, they could be the East's most improved team.




PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

Last season: 48-34, eliminated 4-2 by Detroit in second round.

Coach: Randy Ayers, 1st season.

Added: F Glenn Robinson (trade with Hawks), F Marc Jackson (trade with Timberwolves), C Amal McCaskill (free agent), G Willie Green (draft, No. 41, Detroit Mercy), G Kyle Korver (draft, No. 51, Creighton).

Lost: F Keith Van Horn (traded to New York), F Brian Skinner (free agent, Milwaukee).

Strengths: Their franchise player, Allen Iverson, has been working with Ayers for the past four years and gets along with him well. Robinson is a more capable second option than Van Horn was, and Jackson will replace the rebounding that Van Horn provided. Korver could be their much-needed zone buster.

Weaknesses: One of the shortest teams in the conference, they again will use Derrick Coleman as their center. No offense to Ayers, but the Sixers figure to be worse off without Larry Brown -- one of the league's great teachers.

What they'll do: Live and die by the offensive exploits of Iverson, whose scoring average dropped nearly four points last season despite his career-high 1,940 shot attempts.




BOSTON CELTICS

Last season: 44-38, eliminated 4-0 by New Jersey in second round.

Coach: Jim O'Brien, 4th season, 117-95.

Added: C Raef LaFrentz, F Jiri Welsch (trade with Mavericks), G Marcus Banks (draft, No. 13, UNLV), G Mike James (free agent, Heat), C Kendrick Perkins (draft, No. 27, Ozen (Tex.) H.S.), F Jumaine Jones (trade with Cavaliers).

Lost: F Antoine Walker, G Tony Delk (traded to Dallas), G J.R. Bremer (traded to Boston), G Bimbo Coles (free agent, Miami).

Strengths: Much has changed under the leadership of Danny Ainge, with the biggest move coming Oct. 20 when they dealt Walker, a three-time All-Star, for LaFrentz -- an underachiever for two years, and Welsch -- a project. Paul Pierce will now be free to dominate the offense more than before. Vin Baker is said to be in his best shape in years.

Weaknesses: They've been criticized for relying too much on the 3-point shot, and now they've gotten rid of three outside shooters -- Walker, Delk and Bremer. Will have to rely heavily on Banks at point guard, as James and Welsch are the only backcourt backups.

What they'll do: Jack up fewer 3s and try to get 30 points per night from Pierce.




MIAMI HEAT

Last season: 25-57, missed playoffs.

Coach: Stan Van Gundy, first season.

Added: G Dwyane Wade (draft, No. 5, Marquette), F Lamar Odom (free agent, Clippers), F Samaki Walker (free agent, Lakers), G Rafer Alston (free agent, Raptors), F Cherokee Parks (free agent, Clippers), F Jerome Beasley (draft, No. 22, North Dakota), F John Wallace (free agent), G Bimbo Coles (free agent, Celtics), C Loren Woods (free agent, Timberwolves).

Lost: C Alonzo Mourning (free agent, New Jersey), G Travis Best (free agent, Dallas), G Eddie House (free agent, Clippers), C Vladimir Stepania (free agent), G Mike James (free agent, Boston), F Sean Marks (free agent, San Antonio), G Anthony Carter (free agent, San Antonio).

Strengths: The additions of Odom and Wade will allow the Heat to run an uptempo offense that will utilize the creativity of those two players. Along with Brian Grant, Caron Butler and Eddie Jones, the starting five is not that bad.

Weaknesses: Not much coming off the bench, which means most of the starters will have to log major minutes in order for the Heat to win. Former coach Pat Riley, before resigning Friday, wanted to turn Wade, a natural shooting guard, into a point guard. Jones shot a career-low .423 last season.

What they'll do: Try to adjust to the unexpected departure of Riley as soon as possible.




WASHINGTON WIZARDS

Last season: 37-45, missed playoffs.

Coach: Eddie Jordan, 1st season with Wizards; 3rd season overall, 33-64.

Added: G Gilbert Arenas (free agent, Warriors), G Jarvis Hayes (draft, No. 10, Georgia), G Steve Blake (draft, No. 38, Maryland), G Chris Whitney (free agent, Magic).

Lost: G Michael Jordan (retired), F Charles Oakley (free agent), G Tyronn Lue (free agent, Orlando), G Bobby Simmons (free agent, Clippers).

Strengths: The backcourt of Arenas and Jerry Stackhouse should be one of the best in the East if two things happen: Arenas lives up to his hefty contract and Stackhouse makes a speedy recovery from knee surgery.

Weaknesses: The team has gotten little out of Kwame Brown, the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft. He will play alongside Brendan Haywood for one of the league's youngest frontcourts. If Stackhouse stays sidelined long, the season could be lost by mid-December.

What they'll do: Compete with Heat and Hawks for worst record in East.




INDIANA PACERS

Last season: 48-24, eliminated 4-2 by Boston in first round.

Coach: Rick Carlisle, 1st season with Pacers, 3rd season overall, 100-64.

Added: C Scot Pollard (trade with Kings), G Kenny Anderson (free agent, Hornets), G Anthony Johnson (free agent, Nets).

Lost: C Brad Miller (traded to Sacramento), F Ron Mercer (traded to San Antonio), G Erick Strickland (free agent, Milwaukee).

Strengths: Have the East's most dominant big man in Jermaine O'Neal, who needs to get over the firing of his mentor, Isiah Thomas, by new team president Larry Bird. Pollard is a perfect replacement for Miller, providing more toughness. Artest can shut down almost anyone with his defense.

Weaknesses: Artest and Carlisle have already had a run-in during the preseason, and many are predicting a volatile clash of their personalities. Reggie Miller, 38, lost his shooting stroke in last year's playoffs and is nearing the end of his career.

What they'll do: Be much more consistent than they were last year, when they swooned in the second half and went down meekly in the playoffs.




DETROIT PISTONS

Last season: 50-34, eliminated 4-0 by New Jersey in Eastern Conference finals.

Coach: Larry Brown, 1st season with Pistons, 21st overall, 879-685.

Added: F Darko Milicic (draft, No. 2, Serbia), C Elden Campbell (free agent, SuperSonics), G Bob Sura (trade with Warriors), F Darvin Ham (free agent, Hawks), G Lindsey Hunter (trade with Raptors).

Lost: F Cliff Robinson (trade with Golden State), F Michael Curry (trade with Toronto), G Jon Barry (free agent, Denver), F Danny Manning (retired).

Strengths: Hired Brown, the man widely regarded as one of the NBA's two best coaches, and he will no longer have to rely on one player to provide the bulk of his offense. The Pistons were already a strong defensive team, and Brown should make them a better offensively.

Weaknesses: Their lack of scoring options was a huge weakness in the playoffs for the second year in a row. Barry's long range shooting and leadership will be missed.

What they'll do: Compete with the Pacers for the top spot in the division.




NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

Last season: 47-35, eliminated 4-2 by Philadelphia in first round.

Coach: Tim Floyd, 1st season with Hornets, 5th season overall, 49-190.

Added: G Darrell Armstrong (free agent, Magic), C Sean Rooks (free agent, Clippers), F David West (draft, No. 18, Xavier).

Lost: G Kenny Anderson (free agent, Pacers), F Jerome Moiso (free agent, Raptors).

Strengths: One of the best starting lineups in the conference, with a top point guard (Baron Davis) and small forward (Jamal Mashburn) playing alongside a steady power forward (P.J. Brown) and a rapidly improving center (Jamaal Magliore).

Weaknesses: Floyd finally gets a chance to show whether he can win with a talented team. He never had that chance in Chicago, and he's replacing a coach -- Paul Silas -- who was quite popular with his players. David Wesley's touch comes and goes, and he could be the starting five's weakest link.

What they'll do: Anything less that 47 wins would be a disappointment. Could contend for conference title.




TORONTO RAPTORS

Last season: 24-58, missed playoffs.

Coach: Kevin O'Neill, 1st season.

Added: F Chris Bosh (draft, No. 4, Georgia Tech), F Michael Curry (trade with Pistons), G Milt Palacio (free agent, Cavaliers), C Mengke Bateer (free agent, Spurs), F Jerome Moiso (free agent, Hornets), G Rick Brunson (free agent, Bulls).

Lost: G Lindsey Hunter (traded to Detroit), C Eric Montross (retired), G Voshon Lenard (free agent, Nuggets), G Rafer Alston (free agent, Miami).

Strengths: If Carter's knee holds up, they can field one of the conference's most experienced starting fives. Bosh, Moiso and Jerome Williams provide frontcourt depth, and the departure of Lenny Wilkens can be considered addition by subtraction.

Weaknesses: Antonio Davis has made no secret of his wish to be traded, Carter hasn't stayed healthy for two seasons and there has been a general lack of hunger among many of the veterans under long-term contracts.

What they'll do: Hope that Carter plays a full 82-game schedule for the first time since 1999-00.




CHICAGO BULLS

Last season: 30-52, missed playoffs.

Coach: Bill Cartwright, 3rd season, 47-90.

Added: G Kirk Hinrich (draft, No. 7, Kansas), F Scottie Pippen (free agent, Trail Blazers), G Kendall Gill (free agent, Timberwolves).

Lost: G Jay Williams (injury), G Rick Brunson (free agent, Toronto), G Fred Hoiberg (free agent, Minnesota).

Strengths: Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler are each entering their third season, and both are due to have breakout years. Curry came on very strong at the end of last season, and Pippen could be a key addition -- the Blazers were at their best when he was healthy last season.

Weaknesses: They were a league-worst 3-38 on the road last season, an abysmal record that was the mark of a young team. Marcus Fizer and Eddie Robinson have not contributed much in their Bulls careers.

What they'll do: Surprise people and perhaps make the playoffs.




CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Last season: 17-65, missed playoffs.

Coach: Paul Silas, 1st season with Cavaliers, 9th season overall, 286-313.

Added: G LeBron James (draft, No. 1, St. Vincent-St. Mary's (Ohio) H.S.), G Kevin Ollie (free agent, SuperSonics), G J.R. Bremer (trade with Celtics), F Ira Newble (free agent, Hawks), F Jason Kapono (draft, No. 31, UCLA).

Lost: F Jumaine Jones (traded to Boston), G Milt Palacio (free agent, Toronto).

Strengths: James will undoubtedly be one of the top players in the league in just a few years, and his outstanding passing ability and court vision will create good opportunities for his teammates. Darius Miles has improved his jumper, Bremer is an excellent shooter off the bench and Carlos Boozer is underrated.

Weaknesses: Ricky Davis was a one-man shooting machine last season, and he'll have to tone things down to get the ball into James' hands. The superhyped No. 1 pick needs to work on his jump shot. Dajuan Wagner begins the season on the injured list.

What they'll do: One thing for sure: They'll look better in their new wine and gold uniforms.




ATLANTA HAWKS

Last season: 35-47, missed playoffs.

Coach: Terry Stotts, 2nd season, 24-31.

Added: G Stephen Jackson (free agent, Spurs), F Lee Nailon (free agent, Knicks), G Jacque Vaughn (free agent, Magic), G Boris Diaw (draft, No. 21, France), G-F Travis Hansen (draft, No. 37, BYU).

Lost: F Glenn Robinson (traded to Philadelphia), F Darvin Ham (free agent, Pistons), F Ira Newble (free agent, Cleveland).

Strengths: Shareef Abdur-Rahim will have the ball in his hands a lot more now that Robinson has been removed from the equation. Jason Terry is coming off a strong year and Theo Ratliff managed to stay healthy last season.

Weaknesses: Got nothing in the Robinson trade except for Terrell Brandon's expiring contract. Bench is stocked with unproven youngsters and untradeable, overpaid big guys. Abdur-Rahim has never played for a team with a winning record.

What they'll do: Not repeat the mistake of guaranteeing a playoff spot.




MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Last season: 42-40, eliminated 4-2 by New Jersey in first round.

Coach: Terry Porter, 1st season.

Added: G T.J. Ford (draft, No. 8, Texas), F Joe Smith (trade with Timberwolves), F Brian Skinner (free agent, 76ers), G Erick Strickland (free agent, Pacers), G Damon Jones (free agent, Kings), C Daniel Santiago (free agent).

Lost: G Gary Payton (free agent, Lakers), G Sam Cassell, C Ervin Johnson (traded to Minnesota), F Anthony Mason (waived).

Strengths: Desmond Mason and Michael Redd are now the team's two best players, and they essentially play the same position. One will probably come off the bench.

Weaknesses: The roster has been completely revamped over the past two years, and the Bucks will rely on a rookie point guard (Ford) who can't shoot well and a starting center (Santiago) who wasn't even in the league last season.

What they'll do: Rue the day they traded Ray Allen while losing 55-60 games.

Western Conference

DALLAS MAVERICKS

Last season: 60-22, eliminated 4-2 by San Antonio in Western Conference finals.

Coach: Don Nelson, 7th season with Mavericks, 245-199, 26th season overall, 1096-828.

Added: F Antoine Walker, G Tony Delk (trade with Celtics), F Antawn Jamison, F Danny Fortson (trade with Warriors), G Travis Best (free agent, Heat), F Josh Howard (draft, No. 29, Wake Forest).

Lost: G Nick Van Exel, C Evan Eschmeyer, F Popeye Jones, G Avery Johnson (traded to Golden State), C Raef LaFrentz (traded to Boston), G Raja Bell (free agent, Utah), F Adrian Griffin (free agent, Houston).

Strengths: Seriously upgraded the league's No. 1 offense, bringing in a pair of 20-point scorers (Walker and Jamison) without having to sacrifice any of their big three: Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley or Steve Nash. Nelson is the perfect coach to unleash all those weapons, and Jamison has some of the low-post offensive talent Dallas lacked last season.

Weaknesses: Still do not have a center to match up with some of the conference's best big men, and the instant offense that Van Exel provided off the bench will be missed -- as will Griffin's defense.

What they'll do: Probably increase their average of 103.0 points a game, which led the NBA last season.




SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Last season: 60-22, won NBA championship 4-2 over New Jersey.

Coach: Gregg Popovich, 8th season, 339-185.

Added: C Rasho Nesterovic (free agent, Timberwolves), G Ron Mercer (trade with Pacers), G Hedo Turkoglu (trade with Kings), F Robert Horry (free agent, Lakers), G Anthony Carter (free agent, Heat).

Lost: C David Robinson (retired), G Stephen Jackson (free agent, Atlanta), G Steve Kerr (retired), G Steve Smith (free agent), F Danny Ferry (retired), G Speedy Claxton (free agent, Golden State).

Strengths: Brought back only five players from the title-winning team, but appear to have improved their offense despite all the changes. Manu Ginobili takes over Jackson's spot in the starting five, and Mercer and Turkoglu give the Spurs two offensive options off the bench that they didn't have a year ago.

Weaknesses: Nesterovic is being counted on to provide defense and rebounding, but neither were his strengths in Minnesota. Kerr's outside shooting was huge in the playoffs against the Mavericks and Nets, but San Antonio did not bring in a pure shooter to replace him.

What they'll do: With Tim Duncan doing his usual thing, another 60-win season is possible.




MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

Last season: 51-31, eliminated 4-2 by Lakers in first round.

Coach: Flip Saunders, 9th season, 328-276.

Added: C Michael Olowokandi (free agent, Clippers), G Sam Cassell, C Ervin Johnson (trade with Bucks), G Latrell Sprewell (trade with Knicks), F Mark Madsen (free agent, Lakers), G Fred Hoiberg (free agent, Bulls).

Lost: C Rasho Nesterovic (free agent, San Antonio), G Kendall Gill (free agent, Chicago), G Anthony Peeler (free agent, Sacramento), F Joe Smith (traded to Milwaukee), F Marc Jackson (traded to Philadelphia), C Loren Woods (free agent, Miami), G Mike Wilks (free agent, Houston).

Strengths: Seriously upgraded the offensive talent surrounding Garnett, adding a pair of proven playoff performers (Cassell and Sprewell) who should help the Wolves break their seven-year streak of being eliminated in the first round. Troy Hudson loses his starting job but becomes one of the league's most dangerous sixth men.

Weaknesses: Olowokandi has not progressed a lot since the Clippers made him the first pick in the 1998 draft. Wally Szczerbiak, hampered by a foot injury, will see a lot less of the ball. Sprewell has lost a step of his quickness.

What they'll do: For a change, scare someone in the first round.




HOUSTON ROCKETS

Last season: 43-39, missed playoffs.

Coach: Jeff Van Gundy, 1st year with Rockets, 8th season overall, 248-172.

Added: F Adrian Griffin (free agent, Mavericks), G Jim Jackson (free agent, Kings), G Eric Piatkowski (free agent, Clippers), C John Amaechi (trade with Jazz), G Mike Wilks (free agent, Timberwolves).

Lost: F James Posey (free agent, Grizzlies), F Glen Rice (traded to Utah), Jason Collier (free agent, Minnesota).

Strengths: Were already close to becoming a playoff team, and now have added a coach whose best work has always come in the postseason. Yao Ming has a year of experience under his belt.

Weaknesses: Van Gundy wants the offense to run through Yao, which goes against the style that Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley have been playing. Van Gundy has always worked with veteran teams, and the youth of the Rockets will test his patience.

What they'll do: Hear some griping from Francis and Mobley -- especially Mobley.




MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

Last season: 28-54, missed playoffs.

Coach: Hubie Brown, 2nd season with Grizzlies, 28-46, 11th season overall, 365-444.

Added: F James Posey (free agent, Rockets), G Troy Bell (draft, No. 16, Boston College), G-F Dahtnay Jones (draft, No. 20, Duke), C Jake Tsakalidis, F Bo Outlaw (trade with Suns).

Lost: G Brevin Knight, F Robert Archibald, C Cezary Trybanski (traded to Phoenix), F Mike Batiste (free agent).

Strengths: They got a taste of Brown's coaching last season, but this year they'll have had him -- and midseason acquisition Mike Miller -- from the start of training camp. Tsakalidis gives them the center they were lacking.

Weaknesses: Trying to make a big improvement in the West is exceedingly difficult. If the Grizzlies were in the East, they might contend for one of the top four spots. Jerry West's draft picks were questioned, but he's got a track record when it comes to finding talent.

What they'll do: Improve on last year's record, maybe even sniff .500.




DENVER NUGGETS

Last season: 17-65, missed playoffs.

Coach: Jeff Bzdelik, 2nd season, 17-65.

Added: F Carmelo Anthony (draft, No. 3, Syracuse), G Andre Miller (free agent, Clippers), G Voshon Lenard (free agent, Raptors), G Jon Barry (free agent, Pistons), G Earl Boykins (free agent, Warriors).

Lost: F Juwan Howard (free agent, Orlando), F Donnell Harvey (free agent, Orlando), G Shammond Williams (free agent, Orlando).

Strengths: The backcourt has dramatically improved, and the team's 3-point capabilities are light years ahead of where they were a year ago. Anthony has drawn raves with his preseason play, and Nene (formerly Nene Hilario) is one of the league's best young frontcourt players.

Weaknesses: Will need to rely on Marcus Camby to stay healthy, which is always a risky proposition. He has never played more than 63 games in a season, and injuries limited him to 29 each of the past two seasons. Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Rodney White have been disappointments thus far.

What they'll do: Struggle in a loaded conference, but still improve on last year's record.




UTAH JAZZ

Last season: 47-35.

Coach: Jerry Sloan, 16th season with Jazz, 781-400, 19th season overall, 875-521.

Added: G Raul Lopez (2001 draft), C Keon Clark (trade with Kings), F Aleksandar Pavlovic (draft, No. 19, Serbia), G Raja Bell (free agent, Mavericks), G Maurice Williams (draft, No. 47, Alabama).

Lost: F Karl Malone (free agent, Lakers), G John Stockton (retired), G Mark Jackson (free agent), G Calbert Cheaney (free agent, Warriors), F Tony Massenburg (free agent, Sacramento), C John Amaechi (traded to Houston).

Strengths: The departure of all the veterans means this is now Andrei Kirilenko's team, and the do-everything Russian is expected to have a breakout year -- even if Sloan continues to bring him off the bench. The Jazz have suddenly become very young, with Greg Ostertag (30) their oldest player.

Weaknesses: Lopez and Carlos Arroyo are vying for the point guard job, and neither will make anyone forget Stockton. DeShawn Stevenson figures to be the starting shooting guard, and the bench may be the weakest in the NBA.

What they'll do: Earn their first trip to Secaucus, N.J., for the draft lottery.



LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Last season: 50-32, eliminated 4-2 by San Antonio in second round.

Coach: Phil Jackson, 5th season with Lakers, 231-97; 14th season overall, 776-290.

Added: F Karl Malone (free agent, Jazz), G Gary Payton (free agent, Bucks), F Horace Grant (free agent), F Bryon Russell (free agent, Wizards), F Brian Cook (draft, No. 24, Illinois), F Luke Walton (draft, No. 32, Arizona), F Jamal Sampson (free agent, Bucks).

Lost: F Robert Horry (free agent, San Antonio), F Samaki Walker (free agent, Miami), F Mark Madsen (free agent, Minnesota), G Tracy Murray (free agent, Portland).

Strengths: On paper, they're practically unbeatable with four future Hall of Famers (Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Malone and Payton) surrounded by plenty of steady role players (Devean George, Derek Fisher, Slava Medvedenko, Rick Fox when he returns in January). O'Neal reported to camp in the best shape since his fourth year in the league, while Malone seems rejuvenated by the change of scenery and the realistic opportunity to win a title.

Weaknesses: The rape allegation against Bryant has cast a pall over the team, and it remains to be seen if Bryant can display anything resembling the superstar talent he showed the past several seasons. One or two injuries could seriously deplete them.

What they'll do: They'll be equal parts unique and fascinating, a circus show on the road and a fixture on television.




SACRAMENTO KINGS

Last season: 59-23, eliminated 4-3 by Dallas in second round.

Coach: Rick Adelman, 6th season with Kings, 246-132, 14th season overall, 603-384.

Added: C Brad Miller (trade with Pacers), F Tony Massenburg (free agent, Jazz), G Anthony Peeler (free agent, Timberwolves), G Rodney Buford (free agent), C Jabari Smith (free agent).

Lost: C Scot Pollard (traded to Indiana), F Jim Jackson (free agent, Houston), F Hedo Turkoglu (traded to San Antonio), C Keon Clark (traded to Utah), G Damon Jones (free agent, Milwaukee).

Strengths: By adding Miller, a personal non-favorite of Shaq's, they found an eventual replacement for the aging Vlade Divac -- another of O'Neal's foils. Bibby is now fully recovered from the foot injury that sidelined him for part of last season, and he was better than Jason Kidd on this summer's U.S. Olympic qualifying team. Bobby Jackson remains a huge offensive threat off the bench.

Weaknesses: Chris Webber won't return from knee surgery until December. The bench has changed quite a bit, with the Kings losing a couple of the weapons that made them so deep and dangerous.

What they'll do: Matching last season's 59 victories seems unrealistic in a conference with so many improved teams.



PHOENIX SUNS

Last season: 44-38, eliminated 4-2 by San Antonio in first round.

Coach: Frank Johnson, 3rd season, 55-58.

Added: F Zarko Cabarkapa (draft, No. 17, Serbia), C Cezary Trybanski, F Robert Archibald, G Brevin Knight (trade with Grizzlies), G Leandro Barbosa (draft, No. 28, Brazil).

Lost: C Jake Tsakalidis, F Bo Outlaw (traded to Memphis).

Strengths: Play a style that causes difficulty for many of the conference's better teams, especially the Spurs. Stephon Marbury is the best scoring point guard in the NBA, Penny Hardaway is a better-than-decent sixth man and Joe Johnson has been lighting it up in the preseason.

Weaknesses: The trade of Tsakalidis was perplexing -- the Suns have been trying to find a viable big body in the middle for a long, long time. Scott Williams now will fill that role, along with Jake Voskuhl -- a huge weakness for a playoff-caliber team.

What they'll do: Cause matchup problems for somebody in the postseason.




PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Last season: 50-32, eliminated 4-3 by Dallas in first round.

Coach: Maurice Cheeks, 3rd season, 99-65.

Added: F Travis Outlaw (draft, No. 22, Starkville (Miss.) H.S.), F Scott Padgett (free agent, Jazz), G Tracy Murray (free agent, Lakers).

Lost: F Scottie Pippen (free agent, Chicago), C Arvydas Sabonis (retired), G Antonio Daniels (free agent, Seattle), C Chris Dudley (retired).

Strengths: Zach Randolph appears ready to step in and help replace Sabonis. Damon Stoudamire and Jeff McInnis will not have Daniels competing for their minutes anymore. Rasheed Wallace remains one of the game's best offensive players, while Bonzi Wells is one of the most underrated. Cheeks has earned this group's respect.

Weaknesses: They will miss having the big body of Sabonis to match up with the better centers in the conference, and Pippen's leadership will be missed, too. Wallace is too often content to play away from the basket. They'll need him in the low post more than before.

What they'll do: Very hard to predict. Another 50 wins might be asking too much.




SEATTLE SUPERSONICS

Last season: 40-42, missed playoffs.

Coach: Nate McMillan, 4th season, 123-108.

Added: G Antonio Daniels (free agent, Trail Blazers), G Luke Ridnour (draft, No. 14, Oregon).

Lost: C Predrag Drobnjak (free agent, Clippers), C Elden Campbell (free agent, Detroit), G Kevin Ollie (free agent, Cavaliers).

Strengths: Fleeced the Bucks in the Ray Allen trade, adding a perennial All-Star in exchange for two players, one of whom -- Gary Payton -- was ready to leave Seattle anyway. Rashard Lewis has improved every year, and Brent Barry played some of the best basketball of his career after Allen was acquired.

Weaknesses: Lost their most productive center, Drobnjak, and are left with two overpaid underachievers -- Jerome James and Calvin Booth. The power forward spot isn't much better, with Reggie Evans and Vladimir Radmanovic. Not a lot of depth here, either.

What they'll do: If they can add a decent player along the front line or get something special out of James or Booth, making the playoffs is possible.




GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

Last season: 38-44, missed playoffs.

Coach: Eric Musselman, 2nd season, 38-44.

Added: G Nick Van Exel, C Evan Eschmeyer, G Avery Johnson, F Popeye Jones (trade with Mavericks), G Speedy Claxton (free agent, Spurs), G Calbert Cheaney (free agent, Jazz), F Cliff Robinson (trade with Pistons), G-F Mickael Pietrus (draft, No. 11, France).

Lost: G Gilbert Arenas (free agent, Washington), F Antawn Jamison, F Jiri Welsch, F Chris Mills, F Danny Fortson (traded to Dallas), G Bob Sura (traded to Detroit), G Earl Boykins (free agent, Nuggets).

Strengths: The backcourt of Van Exel and Jason Richardson is very good, and power forward Troy Murphy gives them a third solid starter. Biggest question mark is Mike Dunleavy as the starting small forward. Is he ready for that big of a role?

Weaknesses: After improving by 17 victories -- the largest increase in the NBA -- they made drastic changes, mostly for economic reasons. Van Exel is unhappy here and enters the season as one of the leading candidates to be dealt by the Feb. 19 trading deadline.

What they'll do: Regress after showing big improvement a year ago.




LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

Last season: 27-55, missed playoffs.

Coach: Mike Dunleavy, 1st season with Clippers, 11th season overall, 398-300.

Added: C Predrag Drobnjak (free agent, Sonics), G Eddie House (free agent, Heat), C Chris Kaman (draft, No. 6, Central Michigan).

Lost: F Lamar Odom (free agent, Miami) C Michael Olowokandi (free agent, Minnesota), G Andre Miller (free agent, Denver), G Eric Piatkowski (free agent, Houston), C Sean Rooks (free agent, New Orleans).

Strengths: Taking Odom out of the equation will mean more of an offensive role for Quentin Richardson and Corey Maggette, and Elton Brand remains one of the league's premiere power forwards. Dunleavy will make the best of what he has.

Weaknesses: Point guard tandem of Marko Jaric and Keyon Dooling is not very good. Kaman is not ready to be an NBA starter, and unproven Melvin Ely and Chris Wilcox will have to play major minutes.

What they'll do: It's a safe bet that Elgin Baylor will be back in his usual seat in Secaucus for the draft lottery.

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