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Western Conference capsules; Midwest Division

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Midwest Division

Dallas Mavericks

1997-98 record: 20-62.

Rank: Offense, 26th; defense, 19th.

Coming: Rookie Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, John "Hot Rod" Williams, Gary Trent.

Going: Kurt Thomas.

Outlook: After doing pratfalls all over the league in his return, Don Nelson has assembled an impressive-looking bunch of kids, with Nash, Nowitzki and Michael Finley.

Not that they're ready to do much this season. And not that they'll ever make much of a move without solving the Shawn Bradley problem.

The 7-foot-6 center, for whom Nelson traded five players, including useful ones like Sam Cassell and Chris Gatling, and who eats up $7 million of Nelson's cap space annually, has been relegated to the bench, making him a major disappointment with his third team in a row.

The player everyone wants to see is Nowitzki, the 20-year-old, 6-11 German phenom who torched American players his age on a tour of the States last spring, causing general managers to jump on each others' backs trying to trade up in the draft. If he's as good as advertised, Nelson will be on his way back, finally.

Denver Nuggets

1997-98 record: 11-71.

Rank: Offense, 28th; defense, 26th.

Going: General manager Allan Bristow, coach Bill Hanzlik, most of the roster.

Coming: Antonio McDyess, Nick Van Exel, Chauncey Billups, Monty Williams, rookies Raef LaFrentz and Keon Clark, coach Mike D'Antoni.

Outlook: Heady with the reacquisition of McDyess, the Nuggets are already celebrating their return to respectability.

Of course, the games haven't exactly started yet.

And there's a problem or two. LaFrentz was penciled in as the starting center, a stretch for a rookie who isn't considered a lock as a power forward. Eric Williams and Bryant Stith are coming off injuries that ended last season for them at four and 31 games, respectively. And Van Exel, expected to be signed long-term, has problem knees and, you may have heard, gets upset now and then. It's still an upgrade for the Nuggets, and it may be an education as well.

Houston Rockets

1997-98 record: 41-41.

Rank: Offense, 7th; defense, 24th.

Coming: Scottie Pippen, Antoine Carr, Stanley Roberts, rookies Michael Dickerson and Bryce Drew.

Going: Clyde Drexler, Mario Elie.

Outrlook: Someone must have forgotten to put a stake through their hearts because the vampires of the West are back for still another of their hurrahs.

You've got to like a team that starts with three of the game's top 50 players, but there isn't much depth. Dickerson, the 14th pick in the draft and no lead-pipe cinch, has been penciled in at starting shooting guard, alongside Matt Maloney, who is tough and can shoot but is slow.

This resulted in a spate of Kevin Johnson-to-Houston rumors, and coach Rudy Tomjanovich throwing his body between Maloney and the critics.

The big question is Tomjanovich's big three: Hakeem Olajuwon, who missed 35 games last season; Charles Barkley, who missed 43 in the last two, and Pippen, who's coming off back surgery. If they hold up under the pressure of 50 games in 90 nights, they won't be anyone you'd like to see in the playoffs.

Minnesota Timberwolves

1997-98 record: 45-37.

Rank: Offense, 2nd; defense, 25th.

Coming: Dean Garrett, Joe Smith, Bobby Jackson.

Going: Tom Gugliotta, Cherokee Parks.

Outlook: Kevin McHale, who rebuilt the Timberwolves, wound up with egg on his face and nothing else to show when Gugliotta left for Phoenix, having turned down Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell.

Not that it's all over here. Googs' departure opens the door for Garnett, the talented youngster who's beginning his $120 million contract and needs the extra responsibility and the extra shots.

Getting Garrett back helped, although the Timberwolves are still flimsy up front. Getting Smith, the top pick in 1995 who turned down an $80 million extension from the Warriors and is on a one-year, $1.75 million deal, could really help -- if he regains the hunger and scrappiness he showed at Maryland.

Things are coming to a head fast. Stephon Marbury, a free agent this summer, has made no secret of his desire to leave and he has a new agent: David Falk.

San Antonio Spurs

1997-98 record: 56-26.

Rank: Offense, 23rd; defense, 1st.

Coming: Mario Elie, Antonio Dan- iels, Steve Kerr, Jerome Kersey.

Going: Vinny Del Negro, Chuck Person, Monty Williams.

Outlook: They'd have liked to get a better athlete, like Latrell Sprewell, but the Spurs -- Twin Towers David Robinson and Tim Duncan and 10 mud huts a year ago -- fleshed out their roster and should continue to rise.

Duncan, who averaged 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists while shooting 54.9 percent as a rookie, is already the game's consensus No. 2 center. Shaquille O'Neal may want to reconsider talking trash at him because Duncan looks like the type who goes into the weight room and lifts for two hours every time he's insulted.

A year ago, there was a mummy in Sean Elliott's uniform. Struggling with sore knees and the old three-point line, his scoring average plummeted from 20 to 15 to 9 in three seasons. But this preseason, he looked explosive again.

Shooting guard, where journeyman Jaren Jackson starts, remains a problem, but that's about three fewer problems in the starting lineup than last season.

If this works, the Lakers had better watch out, this is the other half of the Western rivalry of the 21st century.

Utah Jazz

1997-98 record: 62-20.

Rank: Offense, 3rd; defense, 13th.

Coming: Thurl Bailey.

Going: Antoine Carr, Chris Morris.

Outlook: For the Jazz, which has aged so gracefully for so long, it was a tough lockout, with their stars enlisting on different sides. Karl Malone went from organization man to hawk overnight while John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek made dovish pleas at a union meeting and were shouted down.

What does this mean for team chemistry? Probably little. The Jazz always has been the most businesslike team in the West, and, in the last two seasons, when it posted win totals of 64 and 62, clearly its best.

Spurned by LaPhonso Ellis, they added no one of consequence, unless you count the 37-year-old Bailey, who has been out of the league for four seasons.

The bad news for opponents is they won't be any worse. The bad news in Utah is that with Stockton about to turn 37 and Malone 36, they won't be any better.

Vancouver Grizzlies

1997-98 record: 19-63.

Rank: Offense, 10th (tie); defense, 28th.

Coming: Rookie Mike Bibby, Cherokee Parks.

Going: Antonio Daniels, George Lynch.

Outlook: They don't have much of a past, but suddenly, the future beckons.

In the greatest thing that ever happened in the short, unhappy history of pro basketball in Canada, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who would have been the prize of this summer's free-agent class, re-signed for six years.

Abdur-Rahim averaged 22 points in his second season, improved his shooting from 45.3 percent to 48.5 percent and made 41 percent of his three-point shots.

Center Bryant Reeves is OK, if no bargain at $11 million a year. The point is Bibby, second pick in the draft.

Not that it has meant anything in the standings yet. The Grizzlies have yet to win 20 games. They looked like a lock last season when they went 7-10 in November under new coach Brian Hill but then posted monthly win totals of 3-3-1-2-3.

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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