•The Hawks will edge the Hornets for the league's worst record--and at the worst time too, with no immediate savior likely to be found in this draft.
•Steve Nash will almost become the lowest-scoring MVP since Wes Unseld (13.8 points per game in 1968-69). But the Suns' point guard, who was averaging 16.3 at week's end, will finish second to Shaquille O'Neal, whose forceful play down the stretch will lift the Heat to the league's second-best record, behind the Spurs'.
• Flip Saunders will take over the Blazers, while Phil Jackson will take Saunders's old post in Minnesota. Kevin Garnett gives the Zen master the best chance to win his 10th ring as a coach.
• NBA players will be locked out as soon as the current contract ends July 1. But after their negotiations with the owners drag through the summer, the two sides will shake hands on a new deal shortly before training camps open.
• The Pistons will pull themselves together, reach the Finals and upset San Antonio in six games to defend their title. --I.T.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (O'NEAL)
GOT IT LICKED
Expect Shaq to win his second MVP award.