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.