NBA hopes soaring, since Jordan isn't Knicks, Suns, Sonics are top heirs to Air


Listen to Portland Trail Blazers coach Rick Adelman on the phone and you can almost sense his excitement as he describes the possibility of his team walking out on the playing floor next June to take on the Eastern Conference champions in the NBA Finals.

"There's definitely more hope when you get to the finals," Adelman said, "and Michael Jordan isn't on the other end of the court. With him out of there, everything is just so wide open."

Even down in Miami, where the Heat failed to make the playoffs last season, coach Kevin Loughery carries that same sense of anticipation.

"Before Michael's retirement, you'd have to say that Chicago was definitely the favorite to win it all," Loughery said. "His retirement has definitely opened things up."

Seems the departure of one man has changed the thinking of the entire NBA.

It was just a month ago that Michael Jordan shocked the NBA, announcing his retirement and basically explaining that, after three straight titles, he was simply too good for the rest of the league.

So with that back-handed slap from Jordan, why is the rest of the league rejoicing? It's simple: the Chicago Bulls are no longer the Invinci-Bulls, which sets the stage for the crowning of a new NBA champion.

When the NBA season tips off with 13 games tomorrow night, including Washington's opener at Philadelphia, it will begin one of the most wide-open battles for a title in recent years with the New York Knicks, the Phoenix Suns and the Seattle SuperSonics all being mentioned as potential NBA champions.

The two teams who figure to rise from the Eastern Conference this season are the Knicks and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Both hold the distinction of being bounced by the Bulls in each of the past three years.

"New York and Cleveland are the two elite teams in the East," said Charlotte Hornets coach Allan Bristow. "And there are a lot ofteams who are trying to break into that set."

Such as his Hornets team, which improved 13 games last season and gave the Knicks a battle before losing in the Eastern Conference semifinals. By adding Hersey Hawkins and Eddie Johnson to a cast that includes Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning, Charlotte is looking to improve on last year's 44 wins and battle the Cavaliers for the Central Division title.

"With our talent we should be a factor," Bristow said. "I feel like we're one of the teams in the next couple of years that should be held up to that elite group."

Chicago should be good enough to make the playoffs, but without Jordan the stay will be brief.

In the Atlantic Division, the Knicks, who lost a six-game series to Chicago in the Eastern Conference finals, are coming off a 60-win season and should win the division easily. With Patrick Ewing looking more determined with each season, the Knicks figure to gain their first berth in the NBA Finals since 1973.

Although not yet a threat to the Knicks, the Orlando Magic improved with the drafting of Anfernee Hardaway, whose $65 million contract made Shaquille O'Neal the second-highest paid player on the team. But there will be no animosity from Shaq, who realizes that the addition of Hardaway can only help the Magic earn its first playoff berth.

In the Western Conference, Phoenix coach Paul Westphal doesn't believe Jordan's departure will have any affect at all on his team -- he's worried about playing in a conference where as many as five teams have a shot at reaching the finals.

"We have to emerge from the West, and there will be some good teams that won't make it because the [conference] is so tough," Westphal said. "With Jordan out, the Knicks will make the finals, barring a disaster. I don't consider ourselves favorites."

Although Westphal won't claim front-runner status, having Charles Barkley makes Phoenix the team to beat in the Pacific Division and the conference. The off-season acquisition of free agent A. C. Green doesn't hurt, though the team lost small forward Richard Dumas (drug relapse).

The Suns will face their biggest challenge from the SuperSonics, who this week improved their chances by trading for versatile forward Detlef Schrempf. After obtaining Schrempf and guard Kendall Gill, coach George Karl said he will be disappointed if his team doesn't win an NBA title in three years.

"We're on a very positive progression and it's an exciting atmosphere here," Karl said. "We have a team that's very young and very together."

Other Western Conference teams with shots at the NBA Finals include the Houston Rockets, the San Antonio Spurs and the Trail Blazers. Golden State had figured to contend with the drafting of Chris Webber, but a series of decimating injuries to Sarunas Marciulionis, Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin could land the Warriors back in the lottery.

Even without Jordan soaring through the air and putting the Bulls supporting cast on his back, the season should still end up with an exciting NBA Final -- probably New York-Phoenix. Neither Ewing nor Barkley are getting any younger, and this could be the last chance at a championship ring for both (especially if Jordan returns next season, a possibility he has left open).

The pick: New York will win the title, in an exciting series over the Suns. As NBA fans will find out starting tomorrow, the league goes on without Michael Jordan.

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