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Western Conference

THE BALTIMORE SUN

(In predicted order of finish)

Midwest Division

Utah Jazz

Last season: First (55-27), lost to Portland, 4-2, in conference finals.

Coach: Jerry Sloan (298-228 career record)

New faces: G Jay Humphries (acquired from Milwaukee), F Larry Krystkowiak (acquired from Milwaukee), rookie G John Crotty (free agent).

Outlook: After winning a franchise-record 55 games last year, only a trip to the finals will satisfy an experienced Jazz cast led by John Stockton and Karl Malone.

Keys: The Jazz were nearly unbeatable (37-4) at home, but must prove capable of winning on the road, particularly in the playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs

Last season: Second (47-35), lost to Phoenix, 3-0, in first round of playoffs.

Coach: Jerry Tarkanian (pro debut)

New faces: G Dale Ellis (acquired from Milwaukee), G Vinny Del Negro (free agent), F Larry Smith (free agent), C Dave Hoppen (free agent), G Lloyd Daniels (free agent), F David Wood (acquired from Houston).

Outlook: Tarkanian is trying to pick up the pieces left by departed Larry Brown. F Terry Cummings is lost for the year with a knee injury.

Keys: Daniels could be a surprise if he avoids off-court temptations. David Robinson must develop into a take-charge player.

Houston Rockets

Last season: Third (42-40), failed to make playoffs.

Coach: Rudy Tomjanovich (16-14 career record)

New faces: F Robert Horry (draft), G Scott Brooks (acquired from Minnesota), G Curtis Blair (draft), C Tom Copa (free agent), C Wayne Tinkle (free agent).

Outlook: This is a make-or-break year for Rockets nucleus of Hakeem Olajuwon, Otis Thorpe, Kenny Smith and Vernon Maxwell, starting their third season together.

Keys: Olajuwon must end his lengthy pout and become a true leader, and the guards must do less free-lancing and capitalize on inside strength.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Last season: Sixth (15-67), failed to make playoffs

Coach: Jimmy Rodgers (109-137 career record)

New faces: F Christian Laettner (draft), F Marlon Maxey (draft), F Bob McCann (free agent), G Micheal Williams (acquired from Indiana), F Chuck Person (acquired from Indiana).

Outlook: The Timberwolves bolstered their front office with the hiring of ex-Pistons boss Jack McCloskey, who made instant changes. Frontcourt will boast a new look with Laettner and Person.

Keys: The Wolves need a new go-to man after shipping Tony Campbell to New York.

Denver Nuggets

Last season: Fourth (24-58), failed to make playoffs.

Coach: Dan Issel (pro debut)

New faces: F LaPhonso Ellis (draft), F Bryant Stith (draft), C Robert Werdann (draft), G Robert Pack (acquired from Portland), G Kelvin Upshaw (free agent).

Outlook: Issel has no track record as a coach and is now stuck with a team that finished near the bottom last season in shooting, scoring and defense.

Keys: If Ellis and Stith live up to expectations, Issel will have nice nucleus with C Dikembe Mutumbo.

Dallas Mavericks

Last season: Fifth (22-60), failed to make playoffs.

Coach: Richie Adubato (104-201 career record)

New faces: G Jim Jackson (draft, unsigned), C Sean Rooks (draft), F Dexter Cambridge (free agent).

Outlook: The Mavericks still are trying to recover from the loss of drug-troubled Roy Tarpley. By trading G Rolando Blackman to New York, Dallas made a strong commitment to youth.

Keys: F Doug Smith must continue to progress, and Jackson must lend all-around skills to rebounding.

Pacific Division

Portland Trail Blazers

Last season: Finished first (57-25), lost to Chicago, 4-2, in NBA Finals.

Coach: Rick Adelman (193-88 career record)

New faces: G Rod Strickland (free agent), G Dave Johnson (draft), G Mario Elie (free agent), F Tracy Murray (draft, traded by San Antonio), F Reggie Smith (draft).

Outlook: Adelman is under extreme pressure to win it all after losing in the finals two of past three seasons. He is gambling that Strickland will provide court leadership, but where does that leave Terry Porter?

Keys: Keeping Strickland focused for more than a month, and stopping C Kevin Duckworth's grousing.

Phoenix Suns

Last season: Third (53-29), lost to Portland, 4-1, in conference semifinals.

Coach: Paul Westphal (pro debut)

New faces: F Charles Barkley (acquired from Philadelphia), G Danny Ainge (free agent), C Tim Kempton (free agent), F Oliver Miller (draft).

Outlook: The Suns hope they solved a need to get tougher by acquiring Barkley and Ainge, but could miss gritty Jeff Hornacek more than they expect.

Keys: Barkley and Mark West must fill the rebounding void left by Tim Perry and Andrew Lang's departure.

Golden State Warriors

Last season: Second (55-27), lost to Seattle, 3-1, in first round of playoffs.

Coach: Don Nelson (719-493 career record)

New faces: G Jeff Grayer (free agent), G Latrell Sprewell (draft), G Steve Henson (free agent), F Byron Houston (draft, traded by Chicago)

Outlook: The Warriors will continue to bedevil rivals with a free-wheeling, explosive offense, but still lack a dominant big man, especially on defense.

Keys: Nelson must find ways to rest Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway, who averaged more than 41 minutes a game last season. Valuable sixth man Sarunas Marciulionis will miss the early part of the schedule recovering from leg and ankle surgery.

Seattle SuperSonics

Last season: Fourth (47-35), lost to Utah, 4-1, in conference semifinals.

Coach: George Karl (146-191 career record)

New face: G-F Doug Christie (draft, unsigned).

Outlook: The Sonics were 27-15 after Karl took over in midseason and upset the Warriors in playoffs. Seattle has a talented veteran cast, but Ricky Pierce and Eddie Johnson turn 35 this year.

Keys: Shawn Kemp is on the brink of stardom and must lead Sonics to the next level. Playmaker Gary Payton needs to justify his lottery choice three years ago.

Los Angeles Lakers

Last season: Sixth (43-39), lost to Portland, 3-1, in first round of playoffs.

Coach: Randy Pfund (pro debut)

New faces: C James Edwards (free agent), G Sean Higgins (free agent), G Anthony Peeler (draft), G Duane Cooper (draft).

Outlook: The Lakers must recover from shock of Magic Johnson's second retirement just before the season opener.

Keys: Finding a new leader on and off the floor.

Los Angeles Clippers

Last season: Fifth (47-35), lost to Utah, 3-2, in first round of playoffs.

Coach: Larry Brown (622-408 career record)

New faces: F John Williams (acquired from Washington), F Kiki Vandeweghe (free agent), C Stanley Roberts (acquired from Orlando), C Elmore Spencer (draft), C Tito Horford (free agent), G Mark Jackson (acquired from New York), G Jaren Jackson (free agent), G Randy Woods (draft).

Outlook: After making giant strides last season, Brown decided to try a new approach, shedding Doc Rivers and Charles Smith and gambling on the good intentions of overstuffed Roberts and Williams.

Keys: Keeping Roberts and Williams away from buffet tables. Ron Harper must regain dynamic form he showed with Cavaliers.

Sacramento Kings

Last season: Seventh (29-53), failed to make playoffs.

Coach: Garry St. Jean (pro debut)

New faces: G-F Walt Williams (draft), G Vincent Askew (free agent), F Marty Conlon (free agent).

Outlook: Stuck in the NBA's toughest division, the cellar again beckons the Kings, who have a giant hole in their middle. St. Jean will have to rely on scoring punch of Williams, Mitch Richmond and Lionel Simmons.

Keys: New owner Jim Thomas will require a world of patience until the Kings get lucky in lottery and land a much-needed center.

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