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Team-by-team previews

The Baltimore Sun

Listed in order of predicted finish

NBA West

Spurs

2005-06 record -- 63-19

Outlook -- In a season in which little worked out, they still had the most wins in the league before losing to the Mavericks in a seven-game second-round series after Dallas won the pivotal Game 3 with the help of many close calls. Nevertheless, coach-GM Gregg Popovich set about finding help up front for Tim Duncan, 30, letting methodical Nazr Mohammed and Rasho Nesterovic go, and bringing in springy Francisco Elson and athletic Jackie Butler. More important, Duncan is healthy again after playing hurt all last season and posting career lows of 18.6 points and 48.4 percent from the field. Manu Ginobili, who was supposedly set to take off, didn't, but he's healthier, too.

Bottom line -- Three stars, a rock-solid defense and no egos mean they'll be back.

Mavericks

2005-06 record -- 60-22

Outlook -- Despite his madcap behavior, owner Mark Cuban was smart enough to accept Don Nelson's nomination of Avery Johnson as the next coach, even if Cuban and Nellie didn't get along. Johnson made the Mavericks bigger and tougher with D.J. Mbenga, whose skill level wouldn't have cut it under Nelson. Once-soft Dirk Nowitzki was approaching superstar status when they blew that fourth-quarter lead in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Their 0-4 plummet as the team switched hotels and bristled at the press suggested they were sucked into Cuban's anguish.

Bottom line -- Winning another 60 when everyone knows they're coming will be harder, but they're still the biggest, deepest team of all.

Clippers

2005-06 record -- 47-35

Outlook -- No, really. Having shocked the world, they're not a surprise anymore. Everyone knows they're no longer a laughingstock. Instead of the old just-passing-through atmosphere, there's a deep, businesslike, unified roster. Coach Mike Dunleavy enjoys unprecedented power. Since his arrival, owner Donald T. Sterling, whose previous record was $15 million (Eric Piatkowski's five-year deal), has offered $40 million or more to Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Gilbert Arenas and Chris Kaman.

Bottom line -- Of course, only they could give someone all that power without locking him up.

Suns

2005-06 record -- 54-28

Outlook -- Everything seemed set up for them when Amare Stoudemire returned last spring, but his comeback lasted three games. He's still not his old, explosive self and, at least for the moment, neither are they. Without three starters, coach Mike D'Antoni created another high-powered offense last season around Steve Nash, Shawn Marion and newcomers Boris Diaw and Tim Thomas. However, when Vladimir Radmanovic jilted the Clippers for the Lakers, Thomas jilted the Suns for the Clippers. Giving away size, the Suns have to make three-pointers.

Bottom line -- The key may be Kobe Bryant's favorite, Raja Bell, who made 44 percent of his threes last season and 32 percent in exhibitions.

Rockets

2005-06 -- 34-48

Outlook -- Short of disbanding, they couldn't have done worse, dropping 17 games in the standings while Tracy McGrady sat out 35 with minor ailments, before hard-working Yao Ming got hurt and missed the last 25 games. Assuming Yao is healthy and McGrady feels like playing, they should be back, at least part way. They traded for solid Shane Battier and signed Bonzi Wells, who averaged 22 points in the playoffs last spring for Sacramento. Jeff Van Gundy, who was good at his slow-down style, says he's going small and pushing the ball with Battier at power forward and McGrady moving from guard to small forward.

Bottom line -- It's no longer safe to assume anything, but they should make the playoffs standing on their head.

Jazz

2005-06 record -- 41-41

Outlook -- In limbo for three seasons since bidding farewell to Karl Malone and John Stockton, the Jazz finished on a 7-3 run. After months of cringing at comparisons to Chris Paul, whom the Jazz passed up, rookie PG Deron Williams made 54 percent of his threes after the All-Star break. Now the Jazz has Derek Fisher backing him up. Carlos Boozer missed 49 games and Andrei Kirilenko 13, but they finally met up to form one of the league's best tandems. Mehmet Okur led the team at 18 points and nine rebounds a game.

Bottom line -- They're big, young and deep.

Warriors

2005-06 -- 34-48

Outlook -- If people forgot, this was a promising team until it fell apart under Mike Montgomery, and even at 66, Don Nelson remains one of coaching's rainmakers. After Nelson's departure in 1995, the Warriors went 11 seasons without making the playoffs, amid horrors such as Latrell Sprewell choking coach P.J. Carlesimo. This team was built to play small. Instead of worrying about the missing big man, Nelson moved power forward Troy Murphy to center and Mike Dunleavy Jr. to power forward. Baron Davis, who had a bad back and scant regard for Montgomery, is aching to reclaim his place after a lost season.

Bottom line -- They've been down so long, this would look like way up there to them.

Nuggets

2005-06 record -- 44-38.

Outlook -- Carmelo Anthony (Towson Catholic) is almost as talented as his pals, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Unfortunately, Anthony isn't as mature, so it's no accident his teams haven't done as well. Their high-powered offense sagged, coming in No. 30 in three-point shooting. Their hopes of acquiring Paul Pierce last season were dashed when Nene was lost opening night. Coach George Karl feuded with fading Kenyon Martin while the Clippers ousted them in the playoffs.

Bottom line -- With Hornets reject J.R. Smith and free-agent rookie Yakhouba Diawara at shooting guard, they'd better get Pierce, or someone.

Kings

2005-06 record -- 44-38

Outlook -- Ron Artest led the Kings to a 26-14 finish after joining them at 18-24, a pace that would project to 53 wins, but it's never that simple with him, is it? Unfortunately, the Kings have other issues. Mike Bibby, who's out two weeks because of a thumb injury, thinks it's still his team. Power forwards Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Kenny Thomas don't like each other. Then there's Artest and hard-nosed new coach Eric Musselman, who replaces Rick Adelman.

Bottom line -- They'll make the playoffs or there'll be a big hole where Arco Arena is now.

Lakers

2005-06 record -- 45-37.

Outlook -- Things were looking dim for the Laker five. And then training camp opened. In the West, where there are even fewer sure wins, the Lakers were in enough trouble before their horrific exhibition season with Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Chris Mihm out and Kwame Brown joining them on the sideline. They made a remarkable move last season, climbing 11 games in the standings and going from No. 11 to No. 7, but this season looks like a desperate effort to hang on for No. 8. Signing Vladimir Radmanovic gives them a shooter, but they will need Brown and Lamar Odom to keep improving and Andrew Bynum to break out.

Bottom line -- That's a lot to hope for.

Timberwolves

2005-06 record -- 33-49.

Outlook -- Since falling to the Lakers in the 2004 West finals, they have fallen apart, wasting the prime of Kevin Garnett. Sam Cassell (Dunbar), Latrell Sprewell and Flip Saunders were replaced by Marko Jaric, Rashad McCants and Dwane Casey as they went from 58 wins to 33. Now 30, Garnett looks destined to get no further than the first round of the playoffs, if that far. Nevertheless, no team with a 7-foot annual MVP candidate should ever be out of the running.

Bottom line -- The real question is how long will Garnett sit still for trying to finish No. 8?

Hornets

2005-06 record -- 38-44

Outlook -- Fleeing Hurricane Katrina, the Hornets became last-season's feel-good story, starting 31-25 before finishing 7-19 and looking the way they had been expected to. But with an infusion of cash from Oklahoma City fans in their major league audition, the heretofore inept front office signed Peja Stojakovic and Bobby Jackson and traded P.J. Brown, 37, for Tyson Chandler, 23. Instead of last season's little front line, they'll look more like an NBA team.

Bottom line -- Just staying where they were will require another big step, like Chris Paul, who was spectacular as a rookie, learning to shoot.

Grizzlies

2005-06 record -- 49-33

Outlook -- Jerry West took a franchise that had never had 24 wins in a season to 50, 45 and 49 in the past three, but his time may be ending. With Duke teammates Brian Davis and Christian Laettner buying the team, West has been offered a lifetime deal amid speculation he'll retire at season's end. Coach Mike Fratello, who picked up where Hubie Brown left off, is on an expiring contract. The new hope is rookie Rudy Gay (Archbishop Spalding), but they no longer have the luxury of breaking him in slowly. Even in a best-case scenario, Gay wouldn't be ready to lead anyone anywhere this season.

Bottom line -- They still have good complementary players in Eddie Jones and Mike Miller.

SuperSonics

2005-06 record -- 35-47

Outlook -- Proving the NBA is harder than the coffee business, Starbucks magnate Howard Schultz just sold the team. This means someone else is now threatening to move the team. That's the new owner, Oklahoma City's Clay Bennett, who could take it to his avid hometown if the Hornets return to New Orleans. The Sonics managed a 14-11 finish under Bob Hill, replacing Bob Weiss, who was fired 30 games after he was hired. They have Ray Allen and a promising young player in Chris Wilcox (Maryland).

Bottom line -- There may be a place for them, but it'll be a while before they find it.

Trail Blazers

2005-06 record -- 21-61

Outlook -- Proving the NBA is also harder than the software business, owner Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, can't even figure out what he wants to do. After taking offers last season, he then took the team off the market. GM John Nash was let go when his contract ran out. President Steve Patterson interrupted his feud with the local media to conduct a search for a new GM and then appointed himself. Still trying to emphasize character, they've given up on Darius Miles and are still trying to win over Zach Randolph, who had another brush with the law when he was implicated but not charged in a sexual assault case over the summer.

Bottom line -- With a big draft coming, it's a good season to finish last again.

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