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Orlando's next step: to live up to buildup COULD IT BE MAGIC? NBA PREVIEW

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ask Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal about his team, and he talks of the best starting five in the league. Ask newly

acquired forward Horace Grant -- who picked up three championship rings with the Chicago Bulls -- about his new team, and he says that winning his fourth ring is inevitable.

But through all the buildup, the magazine cover stories, the media predictions, coach Brian Hill tells his team to check the history books. They don't have to look back very far.

"I try to tell them to forget about the press clippings. We've beeto the playoffs once, and haven't won a playoff game," said Hill, referring to his team's three-and-out performance against the Indiana Pacers in the first round of last season's playoffs. "We're guardedly optimistic."

Forget baseball. Forget hockey. The NBA season tips off tomorrow night with promises of another wide-open season. The Houston Rockets are the reigning NBA champions, and are essentially unchanged from last season. Neither the Rockets nor the New York Knicks is a shoo-in for a return trip to the NBA Finals.

No, this should be the season where the champagne will be flowing in a new setting.

In addition to Orlando, there are the Phoenix Suns, who fizzled in their title run last season. But the team was strengthened by some off-season maneuvering in which players took pay cuts to come aboard, and if Charles Barkley can stay healthy the Suns should be back in the hunt.

"It's becoming pretty clear that we're pretty hard to stop," said Suns coach Paul Westphal, after his team averaged 129.4 points in its first five preseason games.

The Seattle SuperSonics improved by adding a real -- albeit aging -- low-post center in Bill Cartwright, and put a lot more dollars into the already bulging pockets of Shawn Kemp.

The Denver Nuggets, last season's playoff surprise, added veteran Dale Ellis, the game's greatest three-point shooter.

The Golden State Warriors finally got the center they have long needed, trading forward Billy Owens to the Miami Heat for Rony Seikaly yesterday. Now if they can get holdout Chris Webber back in uniform and keep their players out of the hospital, they will be hard to beat.

And if the San Antonio Spurs can find a way to get Dennis Rodman to conform, they might be able to mount a strong challenge to the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Rockets.

In case you didn't notice, most of those teams are in the Western Conference. "Over the last few years, the West has gotten more and more talented teams," said Seattle coach George Karl. "It's wide-open. It's the most competitive basketball in the league."

The same can't be same in the East, where age is creeping up on the conference champion Knicks.

That should clear the way for Orlando to challenge for the Eastern title. Anfernee Hardaway ended his holdout, point guard Brian Shaw left Miami and took a pay cut to join the Magic and Grant came on board.

Grant is not in Orlando to be the man -- O'Neal holds that honorGrant's role will not differ from the one he had in Chicago, where Grant at times detested playing a supporting role to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

"There's not going to be a lot of plays for him here, and he knowthat," Hill said. "But he became an All-Star doing those other things, and he can continue to be an All-Star."

What Grant does for Orlando is provide leadership and some power at power forward. That position has been one of the Magic's weakest, and Grant should be able to help O'Neal by keeping defenders honest.

That's the reason for the all the excitement in Orlando. The Magic will make 20 appearances on national television, the maximum allowed by the NBA. "I don't know if it will happen this year or next year," Grant said. "But I guarantee we will win a couple of championships here before I retire."

In Chicago, Pippen led the Bulls to a surprising second-place finish in the Central Division and a hard-fought Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Knicks. But Will Perdue in the middle? Larry Krystkowiak at power forward?

The Charlotte Hornets improved by acquiring Robert Parish and Michael Adams to play key backup roles and could contend in the East.

But don't be surprised if the Pacers emerge when the smoke clears.

Last season, they took the Knicks to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals without a point guard. This season, with Mark Jackson to run the point, a solid, athletic front line, a 7-foot-4 scoring center in Rik Smits and the league's best shooting guard in Reggie Miller, Indiana could reach the NBA Finals.

Also this season, when the Atlanta Hawks win their 13th game, Lenny Wilkens will move ahead of Boston Celtics legend Red Auerbach (938) as the league's all-time winningest coach.

Wilkens' nearest challenger is Dick Motta (856), who is one of nine coaches taking over new teams this season. Motta, Bill Fitch (Los Angeles Clippers), Del Harris (Los Angeles Lakers) and Jim Lynam (Washington Bullets) will give the game a 1980s flavor -- although the teams they are coaching won't do much for their career won-lost records.

Another theme this season focuses on older centers who stilmanage to pull down hefty paychecks.

Cartwright, 37, was on the verge of retirement after becoming free agent, but signed with Seattle. Parish, 41, was signed by Charlotte to back up Alonzo Mourning. Moses Malone, 39, is in San Antonio, and James Edwards, 38, is in Portland. All of those centers have won NBA titles.

"They're in high demand because they're 7 feet tall and there'not too many big players around," said Charlotte coach Allan Bristow, who plans to play Parish between 18 and 24 minutes a game. "Robert is an amazing athlete. Hopefully, he's rubbing some of that experience -- the right way to do things -- off on some of our younger players."

STARTING FIVES

FIVE TOP ROOKIES

1: Grant Hill, Detroit Pistons -- When he wins the Rookie of the Year award going away, he'll put to rest any notions that Duke players can't cut it in the NBA.

2: Donyell Marshall, Minnesota Timberwolves -- Smooth player, who's extremely versatile. Probably got a bad rap when he was criticized for missing key free throws in the NCAA tournament.

3: Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks -- If he can work on his off-the-court problems and his shot, he'll have a tremendous impact on the league's worst team.

4: Glenn Robinson, Milwaukee Bucks -- Without stepping onto the court, he's already ticked off Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Dikembe Mutombo among others. If and when the "Big Dawg" signs, he'll have a big bull's-eye on his back.

5: Eddie Jones, Los Angeles Lakers -- Versatile guard/forward should star on a struggling Lakers team.

FIVE TEAMS ON THE BALL DURING THE OFF-SEASON

1: Phoenix Suns -- Danny Manning joins a star-studded lineup, and Wayman Tisdale gives to the team insurance for Charles Barkley's aching back. If that talent can overcome the absence of a real center (Joe Kleine is the team's best in the pivot), the Suns should be hoisting a championship banner in June.

2: Indiana Pacers -- Do you remember Mark Jackson? With the New York Knicks he was Rookie of the Year and an all-star, but he's been in exile with the Los Angeles Clippers the past two seasons. He joins a Pacers team that was a point guard away (Haywoode Workman started last season) from making it to last season's NBA Finals. The pickup of Baltimore native Duane Ferrell also helps.

3: Orlando Magic -- Last season: See Shaq post. See Shaq get double-teamed in the post by the opponent's power forward because of Orlando's weakness there. This season: See Shaq dish off to Horace Grant, an all-star with the Chicago Bulls last season who knows what to do with the ball. With Grant, Orlando becomes a serious playoff threat.

4: Seattle SuperSonics -- With no real center, Seattle was quickly dismissed in the first round of the playoffs. Although aging, Bill Cartwright at least gives the team a presence in the middle. And Sarunas Marciulionis, if he's recovered from the torn ligament in his right knee, will add even more firepower from the bench.

5: San Antonio Spurs -- Quietly, the Spurs acquired Chuck Person, Sean Elliott and Avery Johnson. Now if Dennis Rodman can get in touch with his human side, the Spurs could make a step forward.

FIVE REASONS TO HOPE YOUR SON GROWS TO BE 7 FEET TALL

1: Yinka Dare, New Jersey Nets -- After standing 7 feet in college, he's shrunk to 6-10 -- and his game is a lot smaller. Dare went scoreless in several games last season at George Washington University. Teammates have already nicknamed him "Stinka."

2: Benoit Benjamin, New Jersey Nets -- His number, 00, matchehis NBA accomplishments. The 7-footer doesn't care, doesn't try, doesn't miss a pay day.

3: Dwayne Schintzius, New Jersey Nets -- Yes, with the 7-2 Schintzius, the Nets have cornered the market on scrubby centers. The question is: which center does the teaching in practice?

4: Luther Wright, Utah Jazz -- Makes the list with an asterisk. The 7-2 Wright suffered from a mental illness last season, limiting his play. But the memories are still strong from when this former first-round pick was less than effective at Seton Hall.

5: Greg Dreiling, team unknown -- Dreiling was in Cleveland'preseason camp, but who knows how long he'll remain with the team. Still, despite having zero talent (his career average is 2.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg) Dreiling has managed to survive eight seasons for an NBA team near you, happily waving his towel at the end of the bench.

FIVE PLAYERS NOT TO INVITE TO AN ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT BREAKFAST

1: John Williams, Indiana Pacers -- Reported to training camp at 314 pounds, 20 pounds less than he was in July. It has yet to be confirmed whether his team photo in the media guide is a centerfold.

2: Stanley Roberts, Los Angeles Clippers -- He reported to camp at 328, looking to rebound from the ruptured right Achilles' tendon that forced him to miss most of last season. So what happens this year? He ruptures his left Achilles' tendon, and will miss the entire season.

3: Gheorghe Muresan, Washington Bullets -- Not fat, but at 7-7, 303 the man is huge.

4: Oliver Miller, Detroit Pistons -- True, Miller got his weight under control with Phoenix last season. But you have to think he's just a six pack of Twinkies away from a major relapse.

5: Kevin Duckworth, Washington Bullets -- He's down to 301from nearly 340 a year ago. With Duckworth and Muresan, the Bullets pound-for-pound have the meatiest center combo in the league.

FIVE MOST OVERRATED PLAYERS

1: Dominique Wilkins, Boston Celtics -- True, Atlanta had a better chance of reaching the NBA Finals last season with Wilkins rather than Danny Manning last season. But can 'Nique be a savior in Boston? No.

2: Chris Dudley, Portland Trail Blazers -- After playing just six games last season, Dudley opted out of his seven-year, $10.5 million contract and was rewarded with a six-year, $24 million deal. With career averages of 4.6 points and 6.3 rebounds, it sure does make you wonder about he brain trusts of some NBA teams.

3: Shawn Kemp, Seattle SuperSonics -- A star, yes. A superstar? The games best power forward? Hardly. Kemp can soar better than anyone else in the game, but he's got Shaquille O'Neal-itis -- aside from the dunk, he has nothing else to offer offensively. O'Neal, as a center, can get away with it. Kemp, as a power forward, needs to expand on his offensive game.

4: Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks -- You can't win without Ewinin New York, and you can't win with him. With the game on the line, be assured that Ewing will be on the perimeter, launching a jumper. In a recent video of the top 10 dunks from last season, Ewing was beaten defensively in five.

5: Dennis Rodman, San Antonio Spurs -- One preseason magazine called him "Bill Russell without a brain." A great rebounder, a great defender, yet a head case whose antics cost

San Antonio dearly in the playoffs.

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