As Michael Jordan surveys the NBA's changing landscape, he sees the results of perhaps the biggest off-season upheaval in league history, which involved Shaquille O'Neal signing a $121 million deal to turn the Los Angeles Lakers into a potential league power, Charles Barkley going to Houston to help the Rockets regain their championship touch, and Larry Johnson and Allan Houston joining the rejuvenated New York Knicks.
All were moves made, in part, to help their new teams topple the Chicago Bulls. And all were moves that have left Jordan unfazed.
"The job may be tougher for us," Jordan said. "But if we stay healthy and keep working hard, I feel good about our chances of winning another title. I want another championship."
Jordan's run has been incredible: In the last four full seasons he has played basketball, he has won a title each time (Jordan did not play in 1994 and did not play a full season in 1995, when the Rockets won back-to-back championships). Last season, he led the league in scoring for the eighth time, while leading the Bulls to the NBA regular-season record of 72 wins.
Despite all the off-season changes, the Bulls will begin their season tonight with a roster pretty much intact from last year. And in this, the 50th anniversary of the NBA, Chicago is still
considered by many the team to beat in the NBA.
But there will be many challenging that status, and not only New York, Houston and Los Angeles. The Seattle SuperSonics are still the dominant team in the Western Conference. In fact, each conference boasts 10 teams with legitimate chances for the playoffs, with the Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs, Washington Bullets, Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers all fielding highly competitive squads.
For a span of about two weeks, Riley thought he had a shot at that elite status, having added free agents Juwan Howard and P. Brown. But the league voided Howard's contract, sending him back to Washington. And the Heat, which went into the free-agent market with the most money to spend, got burned.
"Having Juwan Howard would have made us a great team," Miami forward Kurt Thomas said. "Now we might not be as good as people think."
In the East, it's the Knicks who are the closest to the elite level, after having traded for Johnson and signing free agents Houston and guard Chris Childs.
The Knicks have made valiant runs at the championship in recent years, but have never had any offensive stars surrounding Patrick Ewing. That problem has apparently been solved, and the team appears ready to make a run at the Bulls. But to be successful, the Knicks cannot abandon the defensive intensity that has earned them league-wide respect in recent years.
"People are not going to give us games because we're the New York Knicks," forward Charles Oakley said. "We have a better team than last year, on paper. We might have the best paper stats in the country. But we have to be ready for the challenge."
The Lakers are another team looking good on paper, having signed O'Neal to a contract that's worth $17 million a year. That works out to about $210,792 a game, not a whole lot less than the $247,000 that teammates Byron Scott and Jerome Kersey will make for the season.
With O'Neal in Los Angeles, the balance of power in the Western Conference seemingly has shifted, with the Lakers appearing ready to challenge Houston and the SuperSonics for the conference championship.
But then L. A. ended the preseason looking like the Clippers, losing their final three games. That had coach Del Harris -- apparently feeling the heat from the high expectations -- livid entering the regular season.
"We're first place in talk," he said, "but when it comes time to really concentrating and doing the little things it takes to survive in the big pool, we haven't done it," Harris said.
"We have to forget about reading the national publications and watching the basketball TV shows and get down to the business of playing together. I don't sense an urgency on anybody's part to excel. I sense a feeling that we've already been donated a spot in the playoffs."
But the Lakers will be in the postseason chase and so will the Rockets, who gave up key contributors Sam Cassell and Mark Bryant in the Barkley deal. The Rockets hold the distinction of having three players among the NBA's 50 greatest of all-time: Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
If all three were in their prime, the Rockets might be a shoo-in for the title. But with Barkley (33), Olajuwon (33) and Drexler (34) approaching the end of their careers, the team has a win-now approach.
"We put a bunch of young guys together, and they put a bunch of old guys together," Lakers guard Cedric Ceballos said of the Rockets. "We have an opportunity to try and step on them, put the old guys out of commission."
When that message was relayed to Barkley, he laughed.
"We'll be there, brother. And we won't take no spring break in the middle of the season," Barkley said, referring to Ceballos going AWOL with the Lakers last season.
With all the talk about the Rockets and Lakers, the team to beat in the West is still Seattle. Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton return as the heart of the defending conference champions. While the moves made during the off-season were subtle, the signing of former Washington Bullets center Jim McIlvaine gives Seattle a presence in the middle, and takes some of the pressure off Kemp.
And that should be enough to help the Sonics regain a berth in the finals, where they likely will face the Bulls or the Knicks. Though the Bulls dominated the regular season last year, they realize winning 72 games is not likely to happen again in a league in which some of the top teams have improved.
"I'll be happy with 60 wins," Chicago coach Phil Jackson said. "I think that will be good enough to win the conference and guarantee home court into the finals. We know how to win in a playoff situation. We'll just have to get there."
And Jordan, the most competitive player in the league, has no doubt the Bulls can do it once more.
"If anything, we have more to prove now," Jordan said. "We've got to prove it wasn't a fluke last year."
Pub Date: 11/01/96