At tip-off, it's tossup; Season: Michael Jordan's retirement leaves wide-open lanes on the road to the NBA Finals, with as many as seven teams carrying legitimate title hopes.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

From New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing, there was disappointment. Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller said the news left him with an empty feeling. And Miami Heat coach Pat Riley spoke of not having that one last chance to defeat his No. 1 rival.

All three were responding to the retirement last month of Michael Jordan, and the disappointment they felt of not being able to beat him on the road to a championship.

On the surface, those responses seemed rather noble. But, deep down, those three -- as well as others in the league who expressed similar sentiments -- probably were bubbling with joy.

They all knew that Jordan's departure meant the end of the Chicago Bulls' dynasty.

And improved their chances of winning a championship.

After a six-month lockout cost the league the first three months, the condensed, 50-game regular season that begins tonight will be far from artistic. In fact, based on the exhibition games, some of the play might be downright unbearable to watch.

"The total shortness of the season and the confusion will bring an ugliness to the game," said George Karl, new coach of the Milwaukee Bucks.

But there is anticipation. For while the drastically pared-down Bulls prepare for the NBA lottery, many teams are excited about the wide-open race for the title.

"I think there are about a half-dozen teams that are poised to make a real good run for it now that Chicago is out," Riley said. "Michael Jordan no longer looms over the confidence of other teams."

Judging from early reports, the two teams that remain mostly intact from last season, the Indiana Pacers and Utah Jazz, are the early favorites. There is some belief that a young, deep team like the Boston Celtics -- while hardly a championship club -- can benefit from the grueling schedule and possibly sneak into the playoffs.

And on the eve of the season, there is still one man who can drastically shift the balance of power -- Dennis Rodman. Despite his bizarre persona, the free-agent power forward and his rebounding prowess can provide the missing piece for a contending team.

Here's a look at seven teams -- three from the East, four from the West -- that stand out as legitimate contenders.

Indiana Pacers

The skinny: While Cleveland Cavaliers forward Shawn Kemp spent his time at the breakfast bar during the lockout, most of the Pacers were in Indianapolis working out as a team.

The result: When the lockout ended and most coaches had to watch teams struggle with their endurance, the Pacers were working on a game plan they hope will catapult them to the NBA Finals.

"I think that's up to them," coach Larry Bird said when asked what separated his team from the championship. "They worked hard during the off-season and kept themselves in pretty good shape. They came back here, and it seems like they are focused. I think they are anxious to get the season started and see where they stand among the elite in the NBA."

The Pacers have a star in Reggie Miller, a capable floor leader in Mark Jackson, bruising forwards in Dale Davis and Antonio Davis, an offense-minded center in Rik Smits and a deep bench that includes Jalen Rose, Chris Mullin, Derrick McKey and Sam Perkins.

And Bird has the right temperament to lead this group, with last season's Coach of the Year falling one game short of the NBA Finals.

Why the Pacers can win it all: Experience. Six of the key players have at least 11 years' experience.

What could hurt the Pacers: Smits' feet, which have been a problem and could bother him with the rigors of the season. And rebounding, where the Pacers ranked 27th last season.

New York Knicks

The skinny: The Knicks had become stagnant. Patrick Ewing was getting old, Larry Johnson's game was continuing its downward spiral from above the rim to inches from the floor, and John Starks remained streaky.

So changes were made. On the plus side, the Knicks dealt Starks, Terry Cummings and Chris Mills to Golden State for Latrell Sprewell. The talented problem child has been Mr. Politeness since his arrival in New York.

On the negative side, the Knicks dealt Charles Oakley to Toronto for Marcus Camby. Instead of getting younger and more athletic, the Knicks wound up with a 6-foot-11 softy ("Marcus Can't-be" is what the New York writers call him) who might start the season ninth in the rotation.

Why the Knicks can win it all: In Sprewell, you have maybe the league's best shooting guarding who's going to score 20-plus points a game. With him, Allan Houston, Ewing and Johnson, this team might have the scoring balance and unselfishness to be among the elite teams.

What could hurt the Knicks: Size. With Charlie Ward, Houston, Sprewell and Johnson, you have four starters standing below 6-6.

"By the end of the year, if we can't say we had the smallest starting team with the biggest heart," said coach Jeff Van Gundy, "then we're going to have a lot of trouble winning games because we'll not be able to rebound the ball."

Miami Heat

The skinny: You have to be smart to win games, and Alonzo Mourning wasn't smart when he took a swing at the Knicks' Johnson during last year's playoffs -- earning a suspension and costing his favored team in the opening-round series.

"I know he wants [to win]," Riley said this week. "No one wants it more. Zo has to mentally focus and prioritize that this has to be his year keep his mental outlook during the games very professional and very aggressive at the same time."

If Mourning doesn't explode, the Heat has a shot, although the team's chances weren't helped by a leg injury that could keep shooting guard Voshon Lenard out up to 10 weeks.

Dan Majerle moves to shooting guard, which severely hampers the team's chances. In a season when getting out of the blocks quickly is crucial, it didn't help that Tim Hardaway and Terry Mills reported out of shape.

Why the Heat can win it all: Mourning and Hardaway are among the league's best players, and if Lenard heals quickly, Miami could be tough to beat.

What could hurt the Heat: A lack of quality depth, which is why Riley was interested in Rodman.

Los Angeles Lakers

The skinny: Look at the roster -- Shaquille O'Neal, Eddie Jones, Kobe Bryant, Robert Horry -- and the talent is scary. With key players signed to long-term contracts, the Lakers are poised to become the next premier franchise in the league.

But they need to win now. Getting swept in the Western Conference finals by Utah last season once again exposed this team as being too young and immature.

Gone is Nick Van Exel, a sometimes negative influence. Added is veteran Derek Harper, who might provide leadership and professionalism as a backup to point guard Derek Fisher.

Why the Lakers can win it all: Not only is this team talented, but it's also extremely young, which can help in a season when games will be crammed together.

What could hurt the Lakers: Immaturity, which has doomed the Lakers in the past. Can Bryant accept his role as a backup to Jones?

San Antonio Spurs

The skinny: The nucleus -- David Robinson and Tim Duncan -- was already in place. Avery Johnson is a capable floor leader. But aside from that, the Spurs had nothing, which is why they were easily defeated by Utah in the five-game Western semifinals.

But the pieces are coming together. Small forward Sean Elliott, limited to 75 games over the past two seasons, played like an All-Star in camp. The addition of veterans Jerome Kersey and Steve Kerr will help.

Why the Spurs can win it all: Although he lacks O'Neal's power, Duncan is the most fluid big man in the game. The twin towers of Duncan and Robinson complement each other well.

What could hurt the Spurs: Jaren Jackson is the starting shooting guard. Enough said.

Utah Jazz

The skinny: It was a tough off-season for the Jazz. First, Karl Malone said he would never play in Utah again, then apologized for those remarks. John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek were shouted down by fellow union members when they suggested a softer stance during the lockout.

Still, the team that extended the Bulls to six games in the NBA Finals returns pretty much intact. Malone, Hornacek and Stockton seem capable of playing at a high level. And their durability might help in the compacted season.

Why the Jazz can win it all: This team has been to the Finals two years in a row, and might have won a title if not for some unbelievable games by Jordan, who's no longer around to haunt Utah.

What could hurt the Jazz: The loss of Antoine Carr. He provided a scorer off the bench, and in the playoffs his physical play helped keep O'Neal off-balance.

Houston Rockets

The skinny: The only other team in the 1990s to win a title other than the Bulls, the Rockets were excited to sign Scottie Pippen and put him on a front line with fellow NBA greats Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley.

It might have made for the league's most dominant team five years ago. But the trio is old, with Barkley and Olajuwon showing signs of age in recent years.

Why the Rockets can win it all: Pippen's experience and versatility will help. While he and the retired Clyde Drexler were comparable scorers, Pippen's a better floor leader and defender.

What could hurt the Rockets: This team is extremely vulnerable to injuries. And the lack of a quality backcourt doesn't help.

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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