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Key addition. Power forward Mark Bryant, who came to Houston as
a free agent from the Portland Trail Blazers. He will give the
two-time champion Rockets the muscle they lacked since trading
Otis Thorpe last season and will allow emerging star Robert
Horry to swing between power forward and his natural
small-forward slot. Bryant also will occasionally give All-Star
center Hakeem Olajuwon valuable relief.

Why you shouldn't bet against a three-peat. Since Rudy
Tomjanovich became coach in 1992, the Rockets are 10-1 in games
in which they faced playoff elimination.

Good news. Last June the space shuttle Atlantis took a jersey
with Houston's silly-looking new logo--a needle-nosed,
sharp-toothed rocket orbiting a basketball--into outer space.

Bad news. The shuttle didn't leave it there.

Outlook. With guard Clyde Drexler around for a full season, the
Rockets should have a regular-season record more befitting a
defending champion than last year's 47-35. Another long playoff
run seems likely.



Group therapy, anyone? The biggest concern for the Spurs, who
lost to Houston in the Western Conference finals after having
the best record (62-20) in the league last season, is avoiding a
hangover from that elimination. They will probably take their
cue from center David Robinson, whose MVP award seemed to stand
for Most Victimized Player after he was carved up in the
playoffs by Olajuwon. A fast start is essential for both
Robinson and the Spurs.

Animal atmosphere. "It was like a zoo last year," Robinson
says, referring to the climate created by the perpetual
distraction, Dennis Rodman. Now, with Rodman traded to the
Chicago Bulls, all is serene.

Incredible feet. The Spurs are counting on power forwards J.R.
Reid and Carl Herrera (from Houston) to fill Rodman's shoes, but
center Will Perdue, who came in the Rodman trade, might be more
suited to the task. Perdue's shoe size is 21AAAAA.

Outlook. The Spurs will be formidable but might not get past
the second round of the playoffs.



How much longer? That's how questions about Utah usually begin.
How much longer can forward Karl Malone, 32, and guard John
Stockton, 33, continue to play at All-Star level? How much
longer until the Jazz forsakes any ambition of winning a
championship with its present cast, breaks up the team and
starts over? The two Utah mainstays, models of
consistency--Stockton has played in 445 straight games and
Malone, 303--have performed brilliantly together for 10 years but
have never reached the NBA Finals.

The doughnut problem. You know, a hole in the middle. Center
Felton Spencer ruptured his Achilles tendon last January, and he
isn't expected to return to action until midseason. In the
meantime, the desperate Jazz will have to rely on a rookie, 7'2"
first-round draft choice Greg Ostertag.

Outlook. The Jazz has four proven scorers--Stockton, Malone,
ex-New Jersey Net forward Chris Morris and guard Jeff
Hornacek--and a solid supporting cast that includes David Benoit,
Antoine Carr and Adam Keefe. If Spencer is healthy, Utah could
be a postseason surprise.



Youth is served. None of Dallas's top four players--guards Jimmy
Jackson and Jason Kidd and forwards Jamal Mashburn and Popeye
Jones--is older than 25. In a few years their sights will be set
much higher than a playoff spot, but for now earning a
postseason berth would be a significant accomplishment. Jackson,
who averaged 25.7 points a game last season, and Mashburn (24.1)
are big-time scorers; Kidd, last season's co-Rookie of the Year
and a brilliant passer, gets them the ball; and Jones, who led
the NBA in offensive rebounds, corrals their misses. Only a thin
bench and a thinner center, 6'9", 213-pound Lorenzo Williams,
hold back the Mavs.

Internal problems. Troubled forward Roy Tarpley, who returned
to Dallas last season after a suspension for violations of the
league's substance-abuse policy, then clashed with coach Dick
Motta, has pancreatitis. His future with the Mavs is uncertain.
Dallas should go instead with rookie big men Cherokee Parks and
Loren Meyer.

Outlook. If Kidd hits from outside and Parks helps inside,
Dallas will make the playoffs for the first time since 1990.



The buzz. Rookie power forward Antonio McDyess, the second pick
of the draft (then traded to Denver by the Los Angeles
Clippers), was impressive in the preseason. He dominated an
exhibition-game matchup with Golden State Warrior rookie Joe
Smith, who was picked ahead of him. "We knew he was good, but we
didn't know how quickly he would become a player in this
league," Golden State coach Rick Adelman said of McDyess.
"Obviously it's going to be very quick."

If troop. If forward LaPhonso Ellis recovers from two broken
kneecaps that kept him out most of last season, he, McDyess and
center Dikembe Mutombo could give the Nuggets one of the most
formidable front lines in the league. If Jalen Rose's off-
season work on his outside shot pays off, he could join the
league's elite point guards. If Mutombo stops worrying about
scoring more points and settles for being the best shot blocker
in the league, he would be a lot better off.

Outlook. The Nuggets have improved, but so has the rest of the
conference. They'll have to fight for the last playoff spot again.



The truth hurts. Kevin McHale, Minnesota's new vice president
of basketball operations, has described the Wolves (21-61 last
year) as "a laughingstock" and "the worst franchise in pro
sports." Sounds like he has a firm grasp of the situation.

Too young to know. Nineteen-year-old Kevin Garnett, the 6'11"
forward Minnesota drafted out of high school, named teammate
Isaiah Rider as one of the players he looks up to.

Why that's scary. Rider has been a constant source of
aggravation for Minnesota. For example, he spent part of this
past Labor Day weekend in jail for violating his probation for a
1994 assault conviction.

The good stuff. Rider is a terrific offensive player when he
behaves himself; Christian Laettner and Tom Gugliotta are
excellent ball handlers and passers for big men; and swingman
Doug West is the kind of hard worker the Wolves need.

Outlook. Minnesota's problem isn't so much a lack of talent as
it is the players' morose attitude, and McHale will use the
season to decide which malcontents to weed out.



Biggest priority. The first thing Vancouver has to find out is
whether 7-foot rookie Bryant Reeves can play. If Reeves proves
he is potentially a top-flight center, the expansion Grizzlies
have the player to build a team around. If Big Country is a big
bust--which looked like it might be the case during the
exhibition season--things could get grisly for Vancouver.

Why the Grizzlies won't look like an expansion team. Because
they have an experienced backcourt that will include Greg
Anthony, Byron Scott and Gerald Wilkins. Anthony is a good
defender, but he has always seemed to have a higher opinion of
his offensive talents than anyone else. It is time for him to
put up or shut up.

Why the Grizzlies will look like an expansion team. Their
uniforms. Expansion teams tend to have ugly uniforms, and
Vancouver, with its teal-and-black color scheme, fits right in.

Outlook. The Grizzlies are thinking long-term. Their goal this
season is to be better than their expansion cousins, the Toronto
Raptors. However, on paper, Toronto seems to have the edge.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Denver may have found a golden Nugget when it traded for McDyess. [Antonio McDyess]

COLOR PHOTO: PHIL HUBER Jackson's star is still rising. [Jimmy Jackson]