3-peat in the works? 1995-96 NBA preview; Title shot: Although the Bulls, Magic and Spurs make strong cases, don't bet against the Rockets winning a third straight championship.

To Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, the disrespect toward his team is not a problem -- in fact, he believes his players thrive on it. And yet with a team that has won two straight NBA titles, boasts the league's best player in Hakeem Olajuwon, and has played through tremendous postseason adversity, he often finds himself wondering what else the Rockets have to accomplish.

"It's typical," Tomjanovich said. "But we use that theme as fuel. This team has such a competitive nature, that's what we need. When someone pushes us in a corner, that's when we're at our best."


Tonight on 14 different courts throughout the league, the 1995-96 NBA season will tip off. There will be a big spotlight at the United Center in Chicago, where the Bulls -- 3-1 favorites to win the NBA title -- will get a lift from Dennis Rodman and a full season from Michael Jordan. Another spotlight will shine at the Orlando Arena, where the Magic is also at 3-1 to win it all despite the loss of center Shaquille O'Neal for two months with a broken thumb.

The spotlight won't be as big in Houston, where the Rockets -- one of five teams with odds placed at 8-1 -- will raise another championship banner and no doubt open quietly against the Golden State Warriors.


In a season that starts with a lot of unknowns, let's begin with the known: There are two new expansion teams in Canada -- the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies -- and both will be bad. The Grizzlies will be so bad they will have difficulty winning 15 games.

But the rest of the league should be competitive with a long list of unknowns: Can Jordan, in his first full season back since his retirement, regain the form that helped the Bulls win three straight NBA titles? Can Dennis Rodman stay off the sideshow circuit for at least one season, and provide the rebounding and muscle the Bulls need to compete? Can the Magic survive until Christmas, when O'Neal is expected to return?

/# And can the Rockets three-peat?

Jordan's challenge

For a man who had gained legendary status on the basketball floor when he was helping the Bulls to three straight titles, Jordan last year looked downright mortal. Sure, he scored 55 points during a regular-season game against the New York Knicks. But in the playoffs, Jordan was turning the ball over during crunch time, opponents were blocking his shots and he at times even hung his head, seeming almost unsure of himself.

"Those 17 games last year were not me," Jordan said. "It was a transitional Michael Jordan from baseball to basketball.

"This year is a different story. If it doesn't happen this year, then, quite frankly, I'll have to look at myself and my skills," he added. "But I think I'm prepared mentally and physically. I have an individual challenge to prove my game is no different than it was two years ago."

Jordan began the proving process during the preseason, when he finished third in scoring, averaging 22.1 points (behind Cedric Ceballos' 24.1 and O'Neal's 22.3). But it will take more than Jordan to propel the Bulls to the top of the Eastern Conference, which makes the acquisition of Rodman most important.


During the conference semifinals last season, the Bulls were dominated on the boards by Orlando. Rodman answers that question, bringing his 16.8 rebounds per game and aggressiveness to Chicago. The big key will be keeping Rodman on the court and in games. During the preseason, Rodman received five technical fouls and was tossed out of Chicago's next-to-last game.

"It's tough trying to keep him calm on the court," Jordan said. "The more time he spends on the basketball court, the better we can be."

In Rodman, Jordan and Scottie Pippen, the Bulls possibly could place three All-NBA first-team defenders on the court at the same time.

"You have a lineup with three players who are at the top of their craft pretty much at their position," said Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Dunleavy. "You have the best rebounder in the game, and with both Jordan and Pippen able to play the point, you can push the ball pretty well.

"We beat them four of five times last year because we were able to take advantage of them at the power forward position," Dunleavy added. "We won't be able to do that anymore."

Best guard-center combo


While the Bulls assume the roles of favorites in the East, the Magic is still the defending conference champion. In O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway, the Magic has the best guard-center combination in the league. But Orlando will have to make it

through the first part of the season without O'Neal.

"Of course, we'll miss the big guy, but we have to play through it," said Hardaway, who gained a spot on the all-NBA first team in just his second NBA season. "This is a situation where we're going to have to change our style, and everyone will have to step up."

Much of the Knicks' success over the past four years was due to leadership of Patrick Ewing and coaching of Pat Riley. But a disagreement with Knicks management sent Riley south to Miami, where he faces his toughest coaching challenge.

"Patience is something I'm going to have to rely on a little more than I did in the past," said Riley, who, until last year, had finished first in his division in each of his first 12 years as a coach.

Out west, the San Antonio Spurs are coming off a season in which they had the best record in the league (62-20). Rodman and his play during the regular season helped the Spurs roll into the playoffs as favorites. And Rodman and his rebellion during the postseason helped the Spurs get eliminated in the conference finals.


Now there's an air of sanity out in San Antonio and coach Bob Hill is enjoying it.

"We're going into the season without distractions," Hill said. "This team's going to be better, from a confrontation level and from a chemistry level. We just had too many distractions all year."

The Los Angeles Lakers have shown signs of bringing "Showtime" back to the Great Western Forum. The Phoenix Suns, with a healthy Charles Barkley, will be competitive. And so will the Utah Jazz and Seattle SuperSonics, though neither team has had any recent success in the playoffs.

And just where does that leave the Rockets? They probably won't have the best record in the West. They probably won't have the league's Most Valuable Player. And they probably won't get noticed all that much during the regular season.

But over the past two years, they have owned the playoffs with clutch play from Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Robert Horry among others, and brilliant coaching from Tomjanovich.

Bet against the Rockets? Better bet on them sharing the spotlight come June.


"We want to do it again," Tomjanovich said. "And I honestly think that we can."