1 CHICAGO BULLS
JORDAN (STILL) RULES: Even at 33, Michael Jordan makes defending
champion Chicago an automatic pick to win its fifth NBA title
this decade. When questioned about whether he might be on the
down slide, Jordan bristled and said, "I still don't see anybody
playing me straight up."
AGING BULLS: Already the oldest team in the league, the Bulls
became longer in the tooth by signing center Robert Parish, 43,
as a backup.
THE X FACTOR: Last season renegade forward Dennis Rodman was
relatively well behaved. Can he go two years in a row without
creating a major disruption?
THE LAST TANGO FACTOR: The Bulls won't match their record 72
regular-season wins of 1995-96, but they'll repeat as champs if
Jordan stays healthy. Their motivation? It may be the final run
together for these Bulls--especially if coach Phil Jackson
leaves after the season, as he has hinted.
2 INDIANA PACERS
POINT AND COUNTERPOINT: With Mark Jackson traded to Denver, the
Pacers' point guard duties will be shared by former Nugget Jalen
Rose (who will also log some time at shooting guard and small
forward) and untried second-year man Travis Best. Their job will
be to get the ball to All-Star shooting guard Reggie Miller and
to center Rik Smits when he returns from off-season surgery on
THE (MC)KEY: To equal or improve on last season's 52-30 record,
the Pacers need another player to score more--such as sometimes
explosive small forward Derrick McKey.
NOW OR NEVER? If the Pacers don't make a serious run at the
title, general manager Donnie Walsh will have to retool.
3 ATLANTA HAWKS
SWITCH! Mookie Blaylock shoots too many treys for a point guard,
and Steve Smith doesn't shoot enough for a shooting guard.
Nevertheless, they give the Hawks a formidable backcourt duo.
Blaylock, who last season was second in the league in steals,
should be able to gamble even more now that he has eraser center
Dikembe Mutombo (page 112) to cover for him.
SWEETNESS AND LIGHT: Last season's rift between coach Lenny
Wilkens and forward Ken Norman has apparently healed. Norman
figures to share time at small forward with Alan Henderson, who
could move into the power-forward slot whenever Christian
Laettner's back acts up.
STAN KASTEN, TAKE A BOW: Kasten, the Hawks' president, has put
together a team that should improve on last season's 46-36
record. Mutombo will anchor one of the league's best defenses.
BACKCOURT HARD HATS: Point guard Terrell Brandon and shooting
guard Bobby Phills are industrious late bloomers. Brandon served
four years as Mark Price's backup before becoming a starter
after Price was traded to Washington last season. The result: a
breakthrough season in which Brandon averaged 19.3 points and
GLASS CLEANERS NEEDED: Former All-Star power forward Tyrone Hill
seems to be his old board-sweeping self after sitting out early
last season with a bruised spinal cord. Further rebounding help
could come from Ukrainian-born rookie power forward Vitaly
LOOK OUT BELOW! Coach Mike Fratello's patented slowdown style
may again lull foes into defeat, but the frontcourt's play may
determine whether the Cavs improve on last year's 47 wins.
5 CHARLOTTE HORNETS
COACH DAVE'S TOP 10 WISH LIST: With apologies to David
Letterman, new Hornets coach Dave Cowens should hope:
10) Rookie Tony Delk makes a smooth transition from college
shooting guard to pro point guard, so Muggsy Bogues will have a
9) Long-range shooting forward Scott Burrell, who underwent
surgery last February to repair a dislocated shoulder, makes a
8) Former Knicks forward Anthony Mason aptly replaces Larry
Johnson on the court and as a team leader.
7) He gets a mention in the tonsorial billboards that Mason
6) Vlade Divac, second among NBA centers in assists last season,
remains as pass-happy in Charlotte as he was as a Laker.
5) There is no more locker room grousing from All-Star swingman
4) Owner George Shinn opens his wallet to help Charlotte acquire
3) The sellout streak at Charlotte Coliseum--317 games heading
into the season--continues even if the team struggles.
2) There is marked improvement on defense. (The 41-41 Hornets
allowed 100 or more points 53 times last season and were 18-35
in those games.)
1) To make the playoffs.
6 DETROIT PISTONS
BAD IS BACK: Point guard Joe Dumars, the only remaining starter
from Detroit's Bad Boy title teams of 1989 and '90, can swap
memories with returnee forward Rick Mahorn, 38. Mahorn should be
a mentor to promising forwards Theo Ratliff, Don Reid and Jerome
MISSING PART: Who's going to replace the long-range bombing of
shooting guard Allan Houston (page 106)? Stacey Augmon, acquired
from the Hawks, will inherit Houston's job, but he brings more
defense than scoring to the table. Lindsey Hunter could get a
lot of minutes if he can keep hitting the trey consistently.
TOO MUCH FOR GRANTED: All-Star small forward Grant Hill had to
carry so much of the load last season that he was burned out
down the stretch. It could be the same story this year. Without
Houston, the Pistons will be hard-pressed to duplicate last
season's 46-36 record.
7 MILWAUKEE BUCKS
FORWARD, MARCH: Vin Baker and Glenn Robinson give Milwaukee a
potent frontcourt. The 6'11" Baker is a leader who can be
counted upon to deliver 20 points and 10 rebounds. Robinson is
more flamboyant but is less dependable and must play better
LOOKING FOR MR. BIG: The current center candidate is journeyman
Andrew Lang. Milwaukee also picked up some beefy backups in Joe
Wolf and Armon Gilliam.
GUARDED OPTIMISM: Rookie Ray Allen could make an immediate
impact at shooting guard, and point man Sherman Douglas, who
played well for new Bucks coach Chris Ford at Boston, figures to
be at home in Ford's up-tempo offense. The Bucks could improve
on last season's 25 wins, but they're still a player or two
short of being a playoff contender.
8 TORONTO RAPTORS
RAPTUROUS FUTURE: Rookie Marcus Camby, the draft's second pick,
joins second-year guard Damon Stoudamire to give second-year
Toronto (21-61 last season) the foundation of a team that should
be a contender before the millennium. The 6'11", 220-pound Camby
will shift between small and power forward, his playing time
dependent upon how he handles the rigors of the NBA schedule.
STILL THE PLAYMAKER: Executive vice president Isiah Thomas
continues to make shrewd moves. Besides drafting Camby, Thomas
got relentless rebounder Popeye Jones from Dallas and signed
talented big guard Walt Williams for the league minimum for
GIVE THE KID A BREAK: Last season Stoudamire had to play so many
40-minute-plus games that he wore out. Stoudamire would no doubt
appreciate it if new coach Darrell Walker finds some playing
time for unheralded rookie Donald Whiteside.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ICONS BY MICHAEL CUSTODE [Icon featuring basketball and farm buildings]
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER Too often Detroit runs on only one Piston--small forward Hill (33), who can't carry the team by himself. [Grant Hill in game]
COLOR PHOTO: LAYNE MURDOCH/NBA PHOTOS The Bucks need Robinson (13) to elevate his game to frontcourt mate Baker's level. [Glenn Robinson in game]