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Conditioned Pacers back in running

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Throughout the more than six months of the NBA lockout, a time when Kenny Anderson contemplated selling his eighth car and Shawn Kemp got lumpy, the Indiana Pacers were diligently working out.

For the most part, 10 players participated -- including most of the team's key components.

"We wanted to be ready," said Pacers point guard Mark Jackson, who along with Reggie Miller conducted the sessions, which included conditioning drills. "We wanted to have an advantage when it started."

With that dedication alone, the Pacers have to be the early pick as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, now that Michael Jordan has allowed other teams to claim a championship with his retirement last week.

Indiana, Miami, the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah and San Antonio all seem capable of taking advantage of the window of opportunity presented by the expected demise of the Chicago Bulls.

"Everybody's path becomes easier without [Jordan]," said Jackson. "Other teams are looking at it the same way. He's been a headache to a lot of teams for a long time."

Said Lakers forward Eddie Jones: "Everybody knows that the championship [went] through Chicago. And now Scottie [Pippen] might be somewhere, Michael's retiring. I mean, it's wide-open. I think it's us."

Just who is the team to beat might depend on what transpires this week, when trades and free-agent signings are allowed. Rumors are that Pippen could end up with the Lakers or the Houston Rockets, making either of those teams an instant front-runner.

Where Latrell Sprewell winds up (he might get traded by the Golden State Warriors at 12: 01 tomorrow) also could affect the balance of power. Despite his image, Sprewell is extremely talented and, with proper coaching, could make the difference for a team like the Spurs, the Heat or the New York Knicks.

The Pacers came within a game of the NBA Finals, and their veteran group could take them to the top. Which means they should be happy that Jordan's retired, although Miller said he's sorry to see him go because his team was never able to conquer the Bulls.

"It's unfortunate, but we should have taken advantage of the opportunity we had," Miller said. "I guess I have to go to my grave knowing I never got another shot at him."

Well, many teams will get their shot at the rebuilding Bulls. And Minnesota Timberwolves forward Sam Mitchell can't wait.

"For all the years they done destroyed people, it's payback time," Mitchell said. "And people are not going to care that Michael and Scottie are not there.

"All they are going to see is that Chicago Bulls jersey and if you can beat them by 50, by God, beat them by [50]," Mitchell added. "They're gonna get drilled."

Fat chance

One of the biggest concerns early on in the season will be the level of play. A lot of NBA players haven't been on a court competitively since last April, leaving them more than eight months without basketball.

"When it starts, it's going to be ugly, real ugly," Orlando Magic guard Nick Anderson said. "Guys tried to stay in shape, but no one is used to being away from basketball this long."

Added Magic forward Horace Grant: "You've heard of Abbott and Costello? Well, that might be what it looks like at the start."

The bad play is something the league, which will schedule as many as four games a week with some teams playing three consecutive nights, will have to endure in its attempt to win back fans.

"Yes, I think there will be a bit of a drop-off in the caliber of play," said NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik. "The drop-off is inevitable."

It will be interesting to see the level of play of the Cleveland Cavaliers' Kemp, who was listed at 256 pounds last year but seems to be pushing 300 these days.

Asked about his ideal weight, Kemp replied, "My optimum weight is 20 points and 10 rebounds.

"When you're a player, you play basketball. You go through a lot of criticisms. They didn't bring me to Cleveland to do a lot of talking. I'll play as well as I did last season."

Passive Pistons targets?

Is Detroit Pistons forward Grant Hill a marked man?

His teammate, Jerome Williams, seems to think so. Williams said that while in New York recently when a new collective bargaining agreement was finally agreed on, he had heard "more than once, more than twice" that players would go after Hill because of his passive stance during the lockout.

Hill, in Detroit on Monday after the team's first informal workout, said he's not concerned.

"My first year in the league, [Charles] Barkley, as crazy as he can be sometimes, gave me some good advice," Hill said. "He said, 'There's a lot of jealousy and a lot of selfishness in this league. People are going to take shots at you, and that's part of it. And if you can deal with it, you can survive.' "

Teammate Joe Dumars, also criticized for being silent, said he doesn't make much of the threats.

"I'm marked too?" Dumars said. "You're always going to hear talk like that. Grant may go through an entire year and not get one hard foul. Talk and feelings are different than actions.

Said Rick Mahorn, a Piston from the "Bad Boy" era: "Put it this way, as long as we're wearing the same color uniform. I got everybody's back on my team."

Around the league

Without a game having been played, Dallas coach Don Nelson already is saying that 20-year-old German Dirk Nowitzki -- the Mavericks' first-round pick -- is the early favorite for Rookie of the Year. "One reason is we're going to play him a lot," Nelson said. "The other reason is he's so darn good."

Free-agent forward Derrick Coleman says he wants to play alongside a dominant center, naming Shaquille O'Neal, Dikembe Mutombo, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning. The question is whether those centers would want to play next to an underachiever like Coleman.

After spending the first part of the last week working out with the Heat -- and getting criticized for it -- Ewing worked out at the Knicks' practice facility Thursday. On the first day with the Heat, Ewing showed up wearing a Knicks T-shirt and was asked to reverse it by Tim Hardaway and Keith Askins.

When NBA teams opened their facilities for workouts Monday, zero players showed up for two teams -- the Milwaukee Bucks (36-46 last season) and the Toronto Raptors (16-66).

Quote of the week

"My favorite is when he would turn his back around and walk to the bench to take a breather. Then I knew we've got two or three minutes to get something done."

-- New Jersey Nets forward Jayson Williams, on his favorite Michael Jordan move.

Jerry Bembry can be reached via the Internet at JeryB@aol.com

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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