Starting fives

Five top teams in the NBA:

1. Houston Rockets: Two straight titles finally have earned them respect.


2. Chicago Bulls: The return of the old Michael Jordan, not the impostor who was erratic last season.

3. Orlando Magic: Only after Shaquille O'Neal returns in December.


4. Los Angeles Lakers: Young team with nice nucleus.

5. San Antonio Spurs: Without Rodman, there's a bigger load for David Robinson to carry.

Five teams on the decline:

1. New York Knicks: With increasing age, team did nothing in the off-season to get better.

2. Phoenix Suns: As long as Phoenix plays without a real center in the Western Conference, chances of a title are slim.

3. Utah Jazz: Karl Malone and John Stockton never will win NBA rings.

4. Seattle SuperSonics: Regular-season renegades, postseason pups.

5. Cleveland Cavaliers: This team has been on the decline for years, but still managed a playoff berth last season. No postseason play this time around.


Five players you want with the ball with the game on the line:

1. Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers: Not afraid to take the big shot in close games, needs to work on dominating from the start.

2. Nick Van Exel, Los Angeles Lakers: Yeah, he talks major-league trash. But throughout regular season and playoffs, he hit one big shot after another.

3. Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets: He beats you in so many ways, from his arsenal of shots to his passing ability.

4. Anfernee Hardaway, Orlando Magic: Maybe the league's most exciting player, comes back stronger this season.

I= 5. Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks: He'll find the open man.


Five rookies who'll make the biggest impact:

1. Jerry Stackhouse, Philadelphia 76ers: Dominated in preseason despite broken bone in left hand.

2. Antonio McDyess, Denver Nuggets: Perfect fit for athletic Nuggets team.

3. Joe Smith, Golden State Warriors: Will get better as strength improves.

4. Damon Stoudamire, Toronto Raptors: Assumes tons of responsibility running the expansion team.

5. Tyus Edney, Sacramento Kings: Second-round pick could be the biggest surprise.


Five teams that made the biggest off-season improvement:

1. Chicago Bulls: Dennis Rodman, despite his wacky ways, is a perfect fit.

2. Philadelphia 76ers: Jerry Stackhouse is awesome, Vernon Maxwell and Richard Dumas are great pickups -- but not without risks.

3. Detroit Pistons: Otis Thorpe provides frontcourt muscle, and rookie Theo Ratliff will be a surprise.

4. Miami Heat: Pat Riley is good for maybe 10 to 15 more victories.

5. Washington Bullets: Traded for Mark Price, and then Robert Pack to correct glaring weakness at point guard. Success will be a matter of health.


Five most overrated players:

1. Dan Majerle, Cleveland Cavaliers: Not much thunder from this Dan.

2. Danny Ferry, Cleveland Cavaliers: Makes list only because of size of contract. At age 29, still waiting for breakthrough season.

3. Roy Tarpley, Dallas Mavericks: Years out of league did not help him grow up.

4. Shawn Kemp, Seattle SuperSonics: After six years in the league, still waiting to see from Kemp a more versatile offensive display.

5. Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks: Increasing age makes him less of a factor.


Five most underrated players:

1. Popeye Jones, Dallas Mavericks: Solid rebounder (10.6 rpg) who led all players in offensive boards (329).

2. Mookie Blaylock, Atlanta Hawks: Only from a fan's perspective, coaches know what he can do.

3. Vin Baker, Milwaukee Bucks: "Big Dog" gets the credit; Baker does the work.

4. Mario Elie, Houston Rockets: Fearless, not afraid to take big shots.

5. Robert Pack, Washington Bullets: Finally gets chance, with Mark Price out. Could be another Dana Barros story.


Five bona fide stiffs:

1. Yinka Dare, New Jersey Nets: The nickname -- "Stinka" -- says it all.

2. Jack Haley, Chicago Bulls: The Kato Kaelin of the NBA.

3. Benoit Benjamin, Vancouver Grizzlies: Has a lifetime membership on the all-stiff squad.

4. Chris Dudley, Portland Trail Blazers: Big dollars, little game.

5. Bryant Reeves, Vancouver Grizzlies: Liked "Big Country" in college, question his effectiveness as a pro.