By Sam Smith
Tribune pro basketball reporter
October 30, 2002
The Los Angeles Lakers go where no Bull ever tread, in serious search of a fourth consecutive NBA title. It sounds impressive, but two were miraculous, with the Trail Blazers' meltdown in the 2000 conference finals and the Kings' seventh-game meltdown in last season's conference finals.
The Kings, incensed by questionable officiating, said it never should have come to that and attached an asterisk to the Lakers' most recent title, much like Phil Jackson did to the Spurs after they won in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. Rick Fox and Doug Christie already had it out in an exhibition game Friday. Too bad they don't meet again until Christmas.
Although most are counting on a Kings-Lakers conference finals rematch, there are other possibilities. The Mavericks will win a lot of games again, and who knows what Don Nelson has in mind to upset Shaquille O'Neal now that the NBA says it will enforce free-throw-line violations that the Mavericks accused O'Neal of committing.
It is the last season for the Spurs' David Robinson, but don't count him out. He comes into the season as healthy as he has been in five years. The Trail Blazers, like the Pistons in the East, don't have a superstar, but they can throw more talent at opponents than any other team in the conference. Plus they have Arvydas Sabonis back.
And yikes! It's Yao Ming! Yao, the Rockets' No. 1 overall pick, will be the curiosity piece of the early season. Glen Rice and Maurice Taylor are back from injuries to help Yao, Steve Francis and the Rockets. Also watch the improving Clippers with Andre Miller, and, of course, Utah's John Stockton and Karl Malone taking one last bow.
(In predicted order of finish)
Last season: 57-25, lost to Kings 4-1 in conference semis.
They are a good regular-season team for now. They'll win a lot of games but don't have the muscle to go anywhere in the playoffs. They are deep with Nick Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz there for a full season. They say Shawn Bradley is a new man, but we have heard that before. The Steve Nash-Dirk Nowitzki combo may be the NBA's most fun to watch. And Michael Finley is steady. So they add yet another offensive player in Walt Williams. This is a classic Don Nelson team.
San Antonio Spurs
Last season: 58-24, lost to Lakers 4-1 in conference semis.
The last season for one of the best and one of the good guys, David Robinson, who could go out at any time with back problems. It's going to take some time for much-hyped Argentine Emanuel Ginobili, and Tony Parker is just 20 now. It appears Tim Duncan will re-sign after the season to lead the redevelopment. For now, he will have to carry this team again.
Last season: 44-38, lost to Kings 3-1 in first round.
Another farewell tour? Who knows with John Stocktonhe could play until he's 45 and be effective. Figure Karl Malone wants a shot at the Finals again and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring record, so he'll probably leave the Jazz when his contract expires after the season. The zone rules hurt their pick-and-roll, but it is still effective. It is uncertain whether Matt Harpring can replace Donyell Marshall's scoring and post play. They are rebuilding with DeShawn Stevenson and Andrei Kirilenko, but it is still the Stockton-and-Malone show.
Last season: 28-54, missed playoffs.
It was a disastrous season in terms of injuriesGlen Rice (knee) and Maurice Taylor (Achilles')and illnessSteve Francis' never-ending headachesbut it got them the No. 1 draft pick, 7-foot-5-inch Yao Ming of China. He's not Shaq, but he is a center, and there aren't many of them around. They have enough perimeter scoring with Francis and Cuttino Mobley, and rookie disappointment Eddie Griffin could be a defensive presence. If Yao can step in and hang in, they could make a significant move.
Last season: 50-32, lost to Mavericks 3-0 in first round.
Is this the fate of Kevin Garnett? He is on the verge of surpassing Grant Hill's record for first-round playoff eliminations. Without Terrell Brandon they were a .500 team last season, and Brandon is injured again and may retire. Garnett has never been comfortable with Wally Szczerbiak as his sidekick or as the go-to scorer. Joe Smith missed all of training camp, so his contribution is questionable again. Garnett becomes a free agent after next season. Do you try to deal him now before he gets tired of the mounting criticism and leaves?
Last season: 23-59, missed playoffs.
General manager Jerry West appears to be having an impact already. Jason Williams has played under control, and No. 4 pick Drew Gooden is looking like rookie-of-the-year material. He joins reigning rookie of the year Pau Gasol on a small but athletic front line. Wesley Person was a nice addition, Croatian import Gordon Giricek has been a pleasant surprise and Michael Dickerson, who averaged 16.3 points in 2000-01, is back from a groin injury to provide some depth.
Last season: 27-55, missed playoffs.
The Cavaliers' rival in the lose-on-purpose derby to get a shot at high school phenom LeBron James. Their first-round picks, Nene Hilario and Nikoloz Tskitishvili, probably will be slow to develop. As Juwan Howard wonders where he'll be next season, they will have James Posey, Ryan Bowen, Mark Blount and Chris Whitney as starters. Center Marcus Camby, obtained for Antonio McDyess, is out indefinitely after hip surgery.
Last season: 61-21, lost to Lakers 4-3 in conference finals.
Is it their time? They think it is, having suffered long enough at the hands of the Lakers, who have eliminated them the last three seasons. They believe they had the series stolen from them last season, but someone shot those air balls in Game 7. Keon Clark is a nice addition to spell Vlade Divac, whom they need most in the playoffs to withstand Shaquille O'Neal. Mike Bibby misses the first month with a fractured right foot, but Chris Webber did that last season and it didn't hold them back much. They are deep and motivated. Is it enough?
Los Angeles Lakers
Last season: 58-24, won third consecutive NBA championship.
They have the mind-set of the old Bulls that they will get you in the playoffs because they always have. But they don't have the health of the old Bulls. O'Neal opens the season on the injured list after toe surgery and could be in and out of the lineup. Kobe Bryant will open up his game more this season, but they are weak up front when O'Neal can't play. They have no true backup center and they fear having to play Robert Horry too much before the playoffs. There's uncertainty at power forward, but no team is as confident.
Portland Trail Blazers
Last season: 49-33, lost to Lakers 3-0 in first round.
Arvydas Sabonis returns to try to stand up to the Lakers a bit more. They are exceptionally deep and talented, and while roles are in question, they should win a lot of games. Don't be surprised to see them challenging the Lakers in the division. At point they have Jeff McInnis, Antonio Daniels and Damon Stoudamire. They have swingmen Derek Anderson, Bonzi Wells, Ruben Patterson and Scottie Pippen, who is going into the final season of his contract. Up front are Dale Davis and Rasheed Wallace. Coach Mo Cheeks might have just the right mix of discipline and understanding to make it work.
Los Angeles Clippers
Last season: 39-43, missed playoffs.
Is this their breakthrough season? In point guard Andre Miller they added a stable, talented guard to go along with Elton Brand, Quentin Richardson, Corey Maggette, Lamar Odom (when he returns from wrist and ankle injuries) and improving Michael Olowokandi. Odom's irresponsible nature remains a concern. With Brand and Miller, they appear to have made the moves to be taken seriously.
Last season: 36-46, missed playoffs.
They are trying to rebuild while persuading ticket buyers that they are still competitive. Joe Johnson moves in for oft-injured Penny Haradway, who has been looking better. They like high schooler Amare Stoudemire, who will come off the bench while he learns to pass. Stephon Marbury will play through the seasonif he canand then have foot surgery. They will try to run, but their limited front line, Shawn Marion being the exception, can be handled inside.
Last season: 45-37, lost to Spurs 3-2 in first round.
They kept Rashard Lewis, though he is battling recurring shoulder problems. The big question is whether they will keep Gary Payton, who becomes a free agent after the season. Payton is 34, and management doesn't want to give him a long extension. They are eyeing the Nets' Jason Kidd, also a free agent at season's end. There is some depth with Desmond Mason and Brent Barry at guard, and Yugoslavians Predrag Drobnjak and Vladimir Radmanovic are developing. They also got rid of troubled Vin Baker, but center remains a problem with Jerome James and Calvin Booth.
Golden State Warriors
Last season: 21-61, missed playoffs.
Top pick Mike Dunleavy is having trouble adjusting to the speed of the pro game, and they need Jason Richardson to take fewer shots from the perimeter. Antawn Jamison is back at small forward, despite his dislike for the position, with Troy Murphy making a run at power forward and Danny Fortson odd man out again. Point guards Gilbert Arenas and Bob Sura don't scare anyone. It has been good that the baseball Giants kept attention away from them.
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