1 NEW YORK KNICKS
START SPREADIN' THE NEWS: Center Patrick Ewing and forward Charles Oakley, New York's nucleus for the last eight seasons, find themselves surrounded by a cast of newcomers who give the team a fresh identity. Formerly bumpers and grinders, the Knicks gave some defense but loaded up on firepower by adding starters Larry Johnson (small forward), Allan Houston (shooting guard) and Chris Childs (point guard).
YOUNG AND OLD: Three first-round draft choices with star
potential--forwards John Wallace, Walter McCarty and Dontae' Jones--add depth to the frontcourt. So does 15-year veteran Buck Williams, a free-agent acquisition. Williams will provide leadership for the kids and be a hang-around guy for fellow geezers Ewing, 34; Oakley, 32; and backup center Herb Williams, 38.
EXTRA, EXTRA: Coach Jeff Van Gundy has been pushing his players to sacrifice individual stats in the interest of team play. Case study No. 1: shooting guard John Starks, whose starting job has been usurped by Houston (page 106). What if Starks doesn't respond well to his new role as sixth man? That's the stuff of New York tabloid heaven and coaching hell.
IF THEY CAN MAKE IT HERE: Especially if Childs settles in at the point, the Knicks will be the conference's top threat to unseat
2 ORLANDO MAGIC
THE UNSHAQLED TRUTH: Orlando is one of the few teams that can lose an All-Star of the magnitude of center Shaquille O'Neal, who decamped for the Lakers, and still be a team many foes will fear. This is guard Penny Hardaway's show now, and with his increased offensive load, expect him to challenge for the league scoring title.
THE OTHER GUYS: If the Magic, who couldn't win a title with
Shaq, is to approach last season's 60-22 record without him, its new acquisitions--center Rony Seikaly and forwards Derek Strong and Gerald Wilkins--have to complement Hardaway. Even more important, hot-and-cold shooters forward Dennis Scott and guard Nick Anderson must perform as consistently as power forward Horace Grant.
PIVOTAL acquisition: Seikaly, obtained from the Warriors last
Saturday, gives the Magic a low-post threat in the middle to
replace O'Neal, which is one more reason the Magic will still be a formidable team. But it's worth noting that Seikaly's scoring average has steadily declined from 17.1 four years ago to 12.1 last season.
WEATHER REPORT: Mild and mostly sunny, typical for Orlando, where Penny World, not Disney World, could become known as the Magic Kingdom.
3 WASHINGTON BULLETS
JUWANGATE: To make a long story short, free-agent forward Juwan Howard, who figures to be an All-Star for the next decade or so, is back in Washington after an aborted attempt to jump to the Heat. With Howard still in place, and with guard Rod Strickland coming in to run the show, the Bullets, 39-43 last season, should become a playoff team and could even be the "in" attraction inside the Beltway.
LYNAM SCHOOL OF DIPLOMACY: Strickland, acquired from Portland, and power forward Chris Webber, who's coming off shoulder surgery, have reputations for being hard to handle. But coach Jim Lynam says that so far the team is just one big happy family. "I don't like that phrase to handle," said Lynam in
response to a question about how he would deal with Strickland and Webber.
WASHINGTON MONUMENT: Gheorghe Muresan, the 7'7" Romanian-born pivot, was voted the NBA's Most Improved Player last season, but he still must show he can hold his own against the division's better centers, such as Ewing and Miami's Alonzo Mourning.
4 MIAMI HEAT
AFTERGAFFE: When the Juwan Howard deal blew up in coach Pat Riley's face, he had to go to Plan B--the signing of two other free agents, guard Dan Majerle, a former All-Star, and forward P.J. Brown, a steady player who already seems to be a Riley favorite. "P.J.'s an exceptional defensive player, one of the best I've coached," says Riley, "and he's got a good inside game."
MIAMI NICE: Center Alonzo Mourning and point guard Tim Hardaway give Heat fans a reason to believe that, even without Howard, the team can improve on last season's 42-40 record. "They're looking to me as the franchise player," 'Zo says. And Mourning better come through: Miami is paying him $105 million over seven years. They're also looking for Hardaway to continue his work of last season, when he led Miami with eight assists per game and was second in scoring with a 15.2 average. In addition, forward Kurt Thomas showed enough promise in his rookie year to possibly become a major contributor.
A DETOUR ON THE CAUSEWAY: The failure to land Howard was a severe blow to Riley's fast-lane rebuilding plan. "This is not the team we wanted to build," Riley admits. "Our identity will develop as the year goes on." This sounds like a variation on the old wait-till-next-year theme.
5 NEW JERSEY NETS
THE BOSS: New Jersey gave new coach-director of basketball operations John Calipari a five-year, $15 million contract, thus assuring the former UMass coach that the Nets don't expect miracles overnight.
NO JERSEY JOKES: In 7'6" center Shawn Bradley and 6'10" power forward Jayson Williams, the Nets have two budding giants. Combined, they averaged more than 18 rebounds and four blocked shots for last season's 30-52 team. In Kendall Gill the Nets have a solid shooting guard. Assuming he stays healthy, Robert Pack should be at least serviceable as Chris Childs's replacement at the point. In the preseason Calipari liked what he saw of guard Kerry Kittles, the team's first-round draft pick.
EDDIE O, TAKE YOUR SHOT: Calipari hoped free-agent signee David Benoit would be the answer at small forward. But when Benoit went down for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, Ed O'Bannon, who was disappointing as a rookie, suddenly began showing the sort of play that led the Nets to make him their first-round draft pick in '95.
6 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
BACK (COURT) TO THE FUTURE: Spectacular but turnover-prone rookie point guard Allen Iverson, 21, the first player picked in last spring's draft, and second-year shooting guard Jerry Stackhouse should feed nicely off each other. Along with Philly's new arena, the CoreStates Center, they at least give Philly's long-suffering (five straight losing seasons) fans
reason to show up.
A MIXED BLESSING? Power forward Derrick Coleman, who was sidelined for all but 11 games last season by an irregular
heartbeat and a sprained ankle, has declared, "I'm ready to make myself known to the people of Philadelphia." Hmmm. Coleman might learn by watching the effort of underappreciated small forward Clarence Weatherspoon.
THINGS TO WORRY ABOUT: Coleman's weight, his sulking and a propensity for injuries; the inexperience of rookie coach Johnny Davis; 34-year-old Michael Cage starting at center...and so on. The 76ers appear to be headed in the right direction, but the distance between Philly and New York is a lot farther than it looks on the map.
7 BOSTON CELTICS
LOOKING FOR LARRY: Under shrewd top executive Red Auerbach, the Celtics were always able to find fresh superstars to replace those who departed. However, now they're essentially a team of nonentities. Or, to put it another way, nobody has ever viewed forward Dino Radja, last season's leading scorer, as the second coming of Larry Bird. "We're still looking for that one-two combination that can contend with, say, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen," says coach-director of basketball operations M.L. Carr. First-round draft pick Antoine Walker might eventually fill one of those one-two vacancies.
CALLING RICK PITINO? The Celts have two chances to match last season's 33-49 record: slim and none. They have quantity at both shooting guard (Dana Barros, Dee Brown, Rick Fox and Greg Minor) and small forward (Fox, Walker and Eric Williams), but there's not enough quality to keep them out of the cellar--or Carr in his coaching job for long.