Bulls have goods to work own magic


After winning three straight titles for the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan was driven from the basketball court to the baseball diamond for the most part by lack of a challenge. Upon his return last season, many expected the Bulls to just waltz through the latter part of the season on their way to the title.

But for Jordan, the comeback turned out to be a humbling experience. Now Jordan's back for a full season, and it will be interesting to see whether he can help the Bulls again reach their championship level, or show the skills of an aging veteran.

Here's a view of how the 1995-96 season shapes up, from one man's perspective:

* Eastern Conference champions: The Orlando Magic had their way in the East, by far the weakest division in basketball last season, in their run toward the NBA Finals. And with their main competition in the Atlantic Division coming from a New York Knicks team whose members are close to cashing in on retirement benefits, the Magic, even with Shaquille O'Neal sidelined through late December, should win the division title easily.

Yet the Magic won't represent the East in the NBA Finals because the Bulls, once again, are loaded. Jordan is back, he's hungry after getting embarrassed in last year's Eastern Conference semifinals, and he's reportedly in the best shape of his career. With a starting lineup that includes Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen and with Toni Kukoc coming off the bench, the Bulls have the firepower to compete with the Magic.

* Western Conference champions: The Houston Rockets. The way they've played in the playoffs the last two seasons, it's hard to bet against the Rockets. Houston's biggest test in the West will come from the Los Angeles Lakers, who gained confidence during their impressive run through last year's playoffs.

* NBA champions: Chicago Bulls, over the Rockets.

* Most Valuable Player: Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls. And that's only because Hakeem Olajuwon is such an unselfish player. Because whereas Olajuwon will pass the ball to an open man, Jordan will jack up shots at a rapid pace.

* Rookie of the Year: Jerry Stackhouse, Philadelphia 76ers. Here's a guy who broke a bone in his hand and was expected to miss several weeks. But then he puts on a soft cast and demonstrates his multi-talents.

* Coach of the Year: John Lucas, Philadelphia 76ers. Lucas is taking some major risks in taking problem players like Vernon Maxwell and Richard Dumas under his wing. But if they stay on track this season and if Shawn Bradley continues on his improvement, Philadelphia should be in the playoff hunt by season's end.

Ripple dribble

Let's just call it the ripple effect of the Chris Webber deal with the Washington Bullets. When Webber signed a six-year deal for an average of $9.5 million, it set a new standard for salaries. Which is why Charlotte Hornets center Alonzo Mourning is seeking a seven-year deal worth $13 million a year, turning down a seven-year contract worth $10 million per year.

After Mourning, represented by David Falk, turned down the $70 million deal, the Hornets announced they would trade the center. And with the season starting tonight, that's leaving the Hornets with the prospect of playing without their All-Star. Mourning skipped practice on Wednesday morning, and has refused to discuss the matter publicly.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a distraction," Hornets coach Allan Bristow said. "It's been a distraction to me, a distraction to my players.

"It's key if we can get an All-Star player in return, but it won't be at center," Bristow added. "Why would a team trade an All-Star center for an All-Star center?"

Quote of the week

From Boston Celtics owner Paul Gaston, speaking of the concerns of filling seats at the new FleetCenter (Boston's string of 661 sellouts ended when a preseason game against Houston played to less than capacity): "Sure I'm worried. My idea of good marketing is a good basketball team. I think we know our team stinks."

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