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NBA Preview

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

Boston Celtics

Coach: Rick Pitino: 3rd season (145-151 in 4 NBA seasons overall, 55-77 with Celtics)

Last season: 19-31, missed playoffs

Strengths: Small forward Antoine Walker and swingman Paul Pierce are two of the best young players in league. Point guard Kenny Anderson still has talent to be one of the best in league, but isn't.

Weaknesses: Pick any position on frontcourt where Walker isn't. Centers Andrew DeClercq and Vitaly Potapenko incite little fear or respect. Combine tenacious Danny Fortson (6-7) and underachiever Tony Battie's height (6-11) and Celtics would have an All-Star power forward.

Analysis: The multimillion-dollar "Boy Genius" has yet to bring any of that Kentucky Big Blue magic to Celtics green. Ricky P's system is strictly for college; he doesn't have enough good players and the good ones he does have don't like him. Pressure mounts as Celtics again fail to make playoffs.

Miami Heat

Coach: Pat Riley: 5th season (947-404 in 17 NBA seasons, 191-105 with Heat)

Last season: 33-17, Atlantic Division co-champions, lost in first round

Strengths: Alonzo Mourning (20.1 ppg, 10.1 rpg) is the best center in the Eastern Conference and is coming off MVP-caliber season. P. J. Brown emerged as one of top power forwards in league.

Weaknesses: Backcourt, especially if aging Tim Hardaway can't regain All-Star form after injury-marred season. Voshon Lenard and ancient Dan Majerle are top two guards only because Riley still can't acquire a real one after four seasons of trying. Letting Terry Porter go to San Antonio was big-time mistake.

Analysis: Pressure is on Heat. Two straight first-round playoff exits to the New York Knicks puts now-or-never aura over the three-time defending Atlantic Division champs.

New Jersey Nets

Coach: Don Casey: 2nd season (54-102 in 3 NBA seasons, 13-17 in half-season with Nets)

Last season: 16-34, missed playoffs

Strengths: Dynamic point guard Stephon Marbury, versatile small forward Keith Van Horn and silky swingman Kerry Kittles are best under-25 nucleus around.

Weaknesses: Center Jayson Williams' broken right leg was a devastating blow last season, and no one knows for sure when he'll be 100 percent. Jim McIlvaine, Gheorghe Muresan and geriatric Michael Cage don't even make a good center by committee.

Analysis: Team has entirely too much talent not to make the playoffs. Marbury is there for entire season, and if Williams and Kittles recover fully from injuries, Nets could win 50 games.

New York Knicks

Coach: Jeff Van Gundy: 5th season (140-97 with Knicks)

Last season: 27-23, lost in NBA Finals

Strengths: Swingmen Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston and forward Marcus Camby all blossomed when Patrick Ewing went down with Achilles' injury. The Knicks actually have an offense that can run and score.

Weaknesses: Even before he got hurt, Ewing was fading. Chris Dudley isn't viable option. Power forward Larry Johnson's chronic back makes him a decade older than he is. Neither point guard Charlie Ward nor Chris Childs can play.

Analysis: It's a frightening thought when your success depends on the wildly unpredictable Sprewell. Still no matter what craziness may or may not come, the Knicks have too much talent and depth not to at least make the playoffs.

Orlando Magic

Coach: Doc Rivers: 1st season

Last season: 33-17, Atlantic Division co-champions, lost in first round

Strengths: At least NBA sixth man and most-improved player Darrell Armstrong is back. Second-year men Matt Harpring and Michael Doleac could blossom with more playing time.

Weakness: The trades of Penny Hardaway, Nick Anderson, Ike Austin and Horace Grant leave the Magic with little more than building blocks. Rivers has never coached before.

Analysis: The Magic could be this year's version of the Chicago Bulls -- first to worst. Every move from the trades to coach Chuck Daly retiring was made to rebuild.

Philadelphia 76ers

Coach: Larry Brown: 3rd season (683-553 in 16 NBA seasons, 229-107 in four ABA seasons, 59-73 with Sixers)

Last season: 28-22, lost in Eastern Conference semifinals

Strengths: Electrifying guard Allen Iverson is reigning NBA scoring champion, and there's no reason to believe he won't be ready for an encore. When healthy, shot-blocker Theo Ratliff is one of the top defensive presences.

Weaknesses: Injuries to Ratliff and center Matt Geiger have devastated a frontcourt that already had offensive questions. Sixers still have no one who can consistently make a three-pointer.

Analysis: Iverson is "The Answer," but the Sixers' hopes for returning to the playoffs depend on how well second-year guard Larry Hughes has improved and whether know-their-role players such as point guard Eric Snow, forward George Lynch and forward Tyrone Hill can give even more than last year.

Washington Wizards

Coach: Gar Heard: 1st season (9-44 in 1 NBA season)

Last season: 18-32, missed playoffs

Strengths: When point guard Rod Strickland isn't missing practice, pouting or getting sick after stuffing himself on junk food, he's the game's top creator. Despite a subpar season, shooting guard Mitch Richmond is still a top scorer. Forward Juwan Howard would be better appreciated on team where he didn't have to be the star.

Weaknesses: Which Ike Austin will show up? The contract-seeking demon who played two years ago for the Clippers or the overweight bowwow who dogged through last season with Orlando. Losing forwards Otis Thorpe, Terry Davis and Ben Wallace didn't help frontcourt.

Analysis: If Richmond, who has a new contract, regains his Hall of Fame form and Strickland is there 90 percent of the time, Wizards could move into playoff hunt. Heard could be best of first-time coaches.

Central Division

Atlanta Hawks

Coach: Lenny Wilkens: 7th season (1,151-927 in 26 NBA seasons, 282-178 with Hawks)

Last season: 31-19, lost in Eastern Conference semifinals

Strengths: Center Dikembe Mutombo is always at the top of the list for Defensive Player of the Year. Forward Alan Henderson continues to improve, and off-season additions Lorenzen Wright and J. R. Rider have potential to be great.

Weaknesses: Are you kidding? Rider has already skipped first couple days of training camp and been ejected from preseason game for fighting. High talent, much higher maintenance. Nice-guy Wilkens had better be up for this.

Analysis: If Rider detonates, then trading Steve Smith for him will be worst thing the Hawks ever did. If he doesn't, then Atlanta may finally be able to take the next step.

Charlotte Hornets

Coach: Paul Silas: 2nd season (100-181 in 4 NBA seasons, 22-13 with Hornets)

Last season: 26-24, missed playoffs

Strengths: Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell made everyone forget that Lakers were supposed to have gotten best of Glen Rice trade. David Wesley isn't a great point guard, but rookie Baron Davis will be.

Weaknesses: Any team that has habitual bad boys Derrick Coleman and Anthony Mason has potential to implode.

Analysis: Many consider them a favorite to win Eastern Conference. If Coleman can at least stay around the 280-pound mark and Mason comes back healthy, there's no reason the Hornets can't be.

Chicago Bulls

Coach: Tim Floyd: 2nd season (13-37 with Bulls)

Last season: 13-37, missed playoffs

Strengths: Toni Kukoc -- we guess. Duke All-America forward Elton Brand shouldn't have been first pick in the draft, but he's still best player on this team.

Weaknesses: Take your pick, but start with general manager Jerry Krause and team president Jerry Reinsdorf. Kornell David? Rusty LaRue? What did classy Hersey Hawkins do to deserve this?

Analysis: If Krause actually is smarter than everyone else and manages to sign both Tim Duncan and Grant Hill as free agents next season, no one will care how low the Bulls have sunk since winning the title in 1998.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Coach: Randy Wittman: 1st season

Last season: 22-28, missed playoffs

Strengths: If Shawn Kemp spent the summer hanging out with Richard Simmons, then he should again be one of the top power forwards in the game. Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas is legit when he can stay healthy, which he can't.

Weaknesses: How much faith can the Cavs have in point guard Brevin Knight and off-guard Bob Sura when they used their two lottery picks on Andre Miller and Trajan Langdon?

Analysis: If Kemp is in shape, Ilgauskas can come back healthy and Miller and Langdon grow up fast, the Cavs could have the biggest turnaround in the league.

Detroit Pistons

Coach: Alvin Gentry: 3rd season (60-63 in 3 NBA seasons, 45-42 with Pistons)

Last season: 29-21, lost in first round

Strengths: Versatile swingman Grant Hill is still top-10 player but can't do it by himself. Forward Jerome Williams is solid, and Jerry Stackhouse can score, if not shoot.

Weaknesses: Center Bison Dele was a weird guy, but at least he was a "big" weird guy. His retirement makes bad frontcourt worse. Loy Vaught and Christian Laettner can't stay healthy and make a lot of money. Joe Dumars is retired.

Analysis: Hill becomes free agent next season, and the Pistons don't seem to have enough going for them to entice him to re-up for a stagnant career in Motor City.

Indiana Pacers

Coach: Larry Bird: 3rd season (91-41 with Pacers)

Last season: 33-17, lost in Eastern Conference finals

Strengths: Veterans such as Derrick McKey, Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, Sam Perkins, Rik Smits and Dale Davis know what it takes to get to conference finals.

Weaknesses: Veterans such as Miller, Jackson, Mullin, McKey, Perkins, Smits and Davis never figured out how to get to NBA Finals.

Analysis: This is it. There is no tomorrow for this team. Bird has already announced he's not coming back next year, Jackson, Mullin, McKey, Perkins and Smits are at the end of contracts. They didn't have enough last season and have less now.

Milwaukee Bucks

Coach: George Karl: 2nd season (531-348 in 12 NBA seasons, 28-22 with Bucks)

Last season: 28-22, lost in first round of playoffs

Strengths: Slick off-guard Ray Allen and small forward Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson are explosive 1-2 scoring punch. A healthy Sam Cassell is top-notch point guard. Karl knows what he's doing.

Weaknesses: Karl hated 6-11 center Ervin Johnson when both were in Seattle and doesn't love him now. At 6-7, Robert "Tractor" Traylor should be playing power forward instead of center. Scott Williams? Armon Gilliam? No wonder they can't rebound.

Analysis: Is this the year former Villanova forward Tim Thomas finally emerges from his two-year NBA funk? His heart is reminding people more of a young Scottie Pippen than his game. Didn't add anything, but Robinson and Allen should make them a playoff team.

Toronto Raptors

Coach: Butch Carter: 3rd season (28-55 with Raptors)

Last season: 23-27, missed playoffs

Strengths: Rookie of the Year Vince Carter made fans forget that Air Canada Centre was built for the Maple Leafs. Tracy McGrady may finally be ready to step up. Doug Christie seems chronically unhappy in Toronto but can score. Forward Antonio Davis adds instant depth.

Weaknesses: Center Kevin Willis is entering his 15th season, and forward Charles Oakley is starting his 14th. If both show their age, frontcourt is devastated.

Analysis: A mixture of great new with cousins -- Carter and McGrady -- and savvy old with veterans Willis, Oakley, sweet-shooting Dell Curry and Dee Brown. Trading high schooler Jonathan Bender to Indiana for Davis was a good short-term move but may come back to haunt them someday.

Western Conference

Midwest Division

Dallas Mavericks

Coach: Don Nelson: 3rd season (867-679 in 21 NBA seasons, 35-81 with Mavericks)

Last season: 19-31, missed playoffs

Strengths: Guard Michael Finley is a terrific offensive player lost in the wasteland that is Dallas. Second-year forward Dirk Nowitzki may become a player and point guard. Steve Nash's dismal season has to be an aberration.

Weaknesses: Don Nelson never recovered from Chris Webber debacle and fiasco of that brief tenure in New York. The guy hasn't been a good coach since 1993-94. Do we really have to say more than Shawn Bradley?

Analysis: What? They're the Mavericks. They haven't had a winning season since 1989-90 and Nellie let one of his better players -- Samaki Walker -- walk out of town for nothing in return.

Denver Nuggets

Coach: Dan Issel: 1st season (96-102 in 3 previous seasons with Nuggets)

Last season: 14-36, missed playoffs

Strengths: Antonio McDyess is one of the top forwards in the game. Point guard Nick Van Exel is over his L.A. withdrawal. Ron Mercer for Danny Fortson and Eric Williams was highway robbery.

Weaknesses: Youth and a legacy of losing make it hard to move up in the tough Western Conference. Ancient small forward George McCloud isn't the answer, and Xavier rookie James Posey might not be yet.

Analysis: Center Raef LaFrentz was Rookie of the Year candidate before going down with a season-ending knee injury. Adding Mercer to a core that includes McDyess, Van Exel and LaFrentz makes it virtually impossible for Nuggets not to move significantly toward .500.

Houston Rockets

Coach: Rudy Tomjanovich: 9th season (353-219 with Rockets)

Last season: 31-19, lost in first round of playoffs

Strengths: Power forward Charles Barkley, calling it a career, still has enough juice for one last title try. It helps that center Hakeem Olajuwon is still top-notch player. Guard Steve Francis will be Rookie of the Year.

Weaknesses: You can't lose Scottie Pippen, traded to Portland, and say it doesn't hurt.

Analysis: Personal feelings should never take precedence over a good business move, and the Rockets made a mistake by not moving Olajuwon to Toronto for Kevin Willis, Doug Christie, the No. 5 and No. 12 picks in the draft. Add two more top draft picks to Francis, and Houston would be set.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Coach: Flip Saunders: 5th season (130-146 with Timberwolves)

Last season: 25-25, lost in first round of playoffs

Strengths: Power forward Kevin Garnett has arrived as the NBA's Millennium Man. Y2KG is a flat-out star. Now that point guard Terrell Brandon has new contract, the Wolves can begin to recover from the loss of Stephon Marbury.

Weaknesses: Dean Garrett is a serviceable center at best, and shooting guards Dennis Scott, Anthony Peeler and Malik Sealy don't scare anyone.

Analysis: If former Sixers forward Joe Smith truly has rediscovered the skills that made him the first overall pick in Garnett's draft and rookie swingman Wally Szczerbiak can translate his all-around game to the NBA, Wolves could finally get past first round.

San Antonio Spurs

Coach: Gregg Popovich: 4th season (110-86 with Spurs)

Last season: 37-13, won NBA championship

Strengths: Forward Tim Duncan is best player in the game, and center David Robinson still has enough left to make these "Twin Towers" work. Avery Johnson is headiest point guard in the league.

Weaknesses: The loss of small forward Sean Elliott, who had a kidney transplant, was a physical and emotional blow to extremely tight team.

Analysis: If former Dallas Maverick Samaki Walker can take over Elliott's role, there's no reason Spurs can't ride Duncan and Robinson to second straight title.

Utah Jazz

Coach: Jerry Sloan: 12th season (676-392 in 14 NBA seasons, 582-271 with Jazz)

Last season: 37-13, lost in Western Conference semifinals

Strengths: Ageless wonder and reigning MVP Karl Malone still one of top 5 players in the league. Point guard John Stockton is 37, but still shouldn't be written off.

Weaknesses: Old age. Last year the Jazz veterans barely held off the Sacramento Kings and couldn't move them past the younger Portland Trail Blazers.

Analysis: How much gas will be left in the tank after an 82-game regular season? Stockton and off-guard Jeff Hornacek are ready to call it a career, and losing talented young swingman Shandon Anderson to division rival Houston didn't help.

Vancouver Grizzlies

Coach: Brian Hill: 3rd season (218-209 in 6 NBA seasons; 27-105 with Grizzlies)

Last season: 8-42, missed playoffs

Strengths: Small forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim and point guard Mike Bibby really are good players. So is center Bryant Reeves when he lays off the doughnuts.

Weaknesses: Vancouver, British Columbia. It may be one of the most beautiful cities in North America but darn if the Grizzlies don't have the toughest time getting players to want to go there.

Analysis: The last thing this sorry lot needed was the distraction of a possible relocation to St. Louis after the team was recently sold.

Pacific Division

Golden State Warriors

Coach: P. J. Carlesimo: 3rd season (177-201 in 5 NBA seasons, 40-92 with Warriors)

Last season: 21-29, missed playoffs

Strengths: Sure the Warriors traded the eventual Rookie of the Year (Vince Carter) for him, but Antwan Jamison recovered from a slow start to post a solid second half. Donyell Marshall isn't great, but at least he's not a bust.

Weaknesses: P. J. Carlesimo and Garry St. Jean. Even with 20-20 hindsight, these guys probably would've still taken Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan.

Analysis: When a bad team trades the 10th overall pick in the draft for a 10th-year point guard (Mookie Blaylock) whose skills are declining and takes too many bad shots, it's easy to see where the season is going.

Los Angeles Clippers

Coach: Chris Ford: 2nd season (300-324 in 8 NBA seasons, 9-41 with Clippers)

Last season: 9-41, missed playoffs

Strengths: Can they really have any? Center Michael Olowokandi, the No. 1 overall pick last year, will either become a great center or the Clippers' biggest bust since Benoit Benjamin. Rookie Lamar Odom may become the best player out of this past draft or wash out of the league.

Weaknesses: Start at the top. Owner Donald Sterling's eccentric meddling has prevented the Clippers from ever moving forward.

Analysis: Trading Lamond Murray to Cleveland for talented guard Derek Anderson was a rare good move by the Clippers, but Sterling immediately tarnished it by refusing to sign forward Maurice Taylor -- the team's best player -- to a new contract, meaning he'll be a free agent at the end of the season.

Los Angeles Lakers

Coach: Phil Jackson: 1st season (545-193 in 9 NBA seasons)

Last season: 31-19; lost in Western Conference semifinals

Strengths: Obviously adding a coach with six NBA championship rings is a plus. Shaquille O'Neal is still unstoppable when he wants to be. Kobe Bryant gets better each year, and Glen Rice should be an All-Star.

Weaknesses: Chemistry. Whose team is it? Who's going to take the last shot? Who has the better rap album? Plus point guard Derek Fisher failed as a starter.

Analysis: Jackson can't change perceptions that any coach could've won with Michael Jordan, but he has the chance to show that he can win without MJ.

Phoenix Suns

Coach: Danny Ainge: 4th season (123-83 with Suns)

Last season: 27-23, lost in first round of playoffs

Strengths: If Penny Hardaway and Jason Kidd can co-exist, the Suns have backcourt for the ages. Small forward Tom Gugliotta should be much improved.

Weaknesses: Luc Longley and Oliver Miller don't cut it at center. Lack of quality depth in the frontcourt is a problem.

Analysis: Better, but not good enough to knock off Portland, San Antonio or the Lakers.

Portland Trail Blazers

Coach: Mike Dunleavy: 3rd season (289-335 in 8 NBA seasons, 81-51 with Blazers)

Last season: 35-15, lost in Western Conference finals

Strengths: Take your pick. Adding Scottie Pippen, Detlef Schrempf and Steve Smith to a team that advanced to the conference finals while removing bad seed J. R. Rider should've been illegal. When Arvydas Sabonis is the weak link in your lineup, you're really good.

Weaknesses: Well, it rains a lot in Portland. Valuable forward Brian Grant will probably lose some minutes to accommodate Pippen and Schrempf. Can point guard Damon Stoudamire check ego for good of team?

Analysis: If the game were played on paper, the league could simply ship the Larry O'Brien trophy to Portland.

Sacramento Kings

Coach: Rick Adelman, 2nd season (354-223 in 8 NBA seasons, 27-23 with Kings)

Last season: 27-23, lost in first round of playoffs

Strengths: Double-double power forward and rebound king Chris Webber could've been first-team All-NBA. Flashy point guard Jason Williams could've been Rookie of the Year. Vlade Divac at center and newly acquired Nick Anderson at shooting guard.

Weaknesses: Defense. What defense?

Analysis: The addition of Anderson is just what the dynamic duo of Webber and Williams need to reach next level. The playoffs are just where the expectations start for the Kings.

Seattle SuperSonics

Coach: Paul Westphal; 2nd season (216-113 in 5 NBA seasons; 25-25 with Sonics)

Last season: 25-25, missed playoffs

Strengths: Point guard Gary Payton is still one of the top all-around players in the league. Power forward Vin Baker should regain All-Star form with a full training camp and a new contract.

Weaknesses: When Greg Foster is your only option at center, you trade gifted rookie Corey Maggette to the Orlando Magic for Horace Grant. That guard Vernon "Mad Max" Maxwell is considered a strength.

Analysis: General manager Wally Walker won the power struggle with coach George Karl but buried the Sonics' present and future in the process. Karl won at least 55 games for six straight seasons but got fired. Westphal will be lucky to have a second straight .500 campaign.

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