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WESTERN CONFERENCE

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Houston’s victory in 1994 was a mild surprise but its successful defense last spring was an outright shock.

We’re going to keep writing them off until we get it right.

If any Western team is going to stand up to the best of the East, the Phoenix Suns will have to stay injury-free or San Antonio’s David Robinson will have to prove he can bring it in postseason play.

PACIFIC

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Phoenix Suns

1994-95 record: 59-23 (first)

Offense: 110.6 (second)

Defense: 106.8 (26th)

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The West’s best hope of fielding a great team. Problem: Kevin Johnson has missed 93 games in three seasons and Charles Barkley broke down in the last two playoffs. That makes Hot Rod Williams perfect. Not only is he their missing center, he was out with a sore back at the time of the trade. Danny Manning isn’t expected back for a while. In other words, situation normal, up in the air.

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Seattle SuperSonics

1994-95 record: 57-25 (second)

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Offense: 110.4 (third)

Defense: 102.2 (16th)

They are 120-44 the last two seasons, tops in the NBA, and 3-6 in the playoffs. Does that suggest a problem? How far can they go with a tempestuous owner, Barry Ackerley; a figurehead general manager, Wally Walker, and a forlorn coach, George Karl, pining for his departed sponsor, Trader Bob Whitsitt, who built the team in the first place? Which one of the franchise players in this Neverland will grow up first, Shawn Kemp or Gary Payton, and will either still be playing when it happens?

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Los Angeles Lakers

1994-95 record: 48-34 (third)

Offense: 105.1 (seventh)

Defense: 105.3 (21st)

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They improved by 14 victories with a starting team that averaged 26 years old, with Cedric Ceballos sitting out 22 games, Eddie Jones 18 and Sedale Threatt 23. The problem: They have big-time firepower but a leaky defense. Even with since-retired Sam Bowie, they were No. 26 in defensive rebounding and there were only 27 teams. By next summer, they can be $9 million under the salary cap. The hard part will be for this young team to keep coming in the meantime.

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Sacramento Kings

1994-95 record: 39-43 (fifth)

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Offense: 98.2 (tie for 19th)

Defense: 99.2 (tie for eighth)

Hard-nosed rookies Brian Grant and Michael Smith helped them improve last season to their best record in 10 seasons in Sacramento, and they would have made the playoffs if they could have won at Denver in their last game. Still a player away, they were delighted to take Corliss Williamson and his fallen star with the 13th pick and hurt-and-abandoned Tyus Edney at 47. Williamson was injured all exhibition season and Edney shot 36% as Bobby Hurley’s backup, but the clock is only starting.

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Portland Trail Blazers

1994-95 record: 44-38 (fourth)

Offense: 103.1 (10th)

Defense: 99.2 (eighth, tie)

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They have had trouble getting things to fall right lately, like the last 18 years. Owner Paul Allen gave Coach P.J. Carlesimo a $7-million contract, then hired a general manager--Whitsitt--who isn’t considered a P.J. fan. That gives him something in common with the best player, Rod Strickland, who, along with the next-best player, Cliff Robinson, are biding their time until Trader Bob gets a deal for them he likes. Arvydas Sabonis, the 7-foot-2 Lithuanian they chased for nine years, finally arrived at age 30 still looking impressive. If he had come aboard earlier, they might have won another title or two.

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Golden State Warriors

1994-95 record: 26-56 (sixth)

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Offense: 105.7 (sixth)

Defense: 111.1 (27th)

Rick Adelman takes over as coach of a team built in the image of Don Nelson. The lineup--Tim Hardaway, Latrell Sprewell, Rony Seikaly, Chris Mullin, Joe Smith--is respectable, but who knows what to expect of players who quit last season? Some of the problem children (Carlos Rogers, Vic Alexander, Keith Jennings) were weeded out, but chief culprit Sprewell remains. He and Hardaway have settled their differences--they say. Rookie Smith was tentative in his first exhibition season and even an admirer, Karl Malone, doubted that at 220 pounds he could play power forward.

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Los Angeles Clippers

1994-95 record: 17-65 (seventh)

Offense: 96.7 (22nd)

Defense: 105.8 (23rd)

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Don’t look now, but they are a lot better than they were last season and not just because they couldn’t have gotten any worse. Bill Fitch was right about Brian Williams. He is an NBA center. Now if they just keep him happy and get him signed. He can become a free agent next summer. Brent Barry looks like a rookie but one with some promise. Rodney Rogers, however, is still trying to fit in rather than take over.

MIDWEST

San Antonio Spurs

1994-95 record: 62-20 (first)

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Offense: 106.6 (fourth last season)

Defense: 100.6 (12th last season)

Talk about guys with something to prove. Robinson the supposed MVP, was greased by Hakeem Olajuwon in the playoffs. Coach Bob Hill, the silver-haired GQ entry on the sidelines, wants to show he’s not just a pretty face or uptight martinet. They all want to show that last season’s NBA-best record wasn’t attributable to a tattooed madman. The Spurs say their rebound stats were actually better in games without Dennis Rodman. If they’re right, they’ll be OK.

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Utah Jazz

1994-95 record: 60-22 (second)

Offense: 106.4 (fifth)

Defense: 98.4 (seventh)

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After years of miscalling their prospects, we have learned not to expect too much (they have reached the Western finals once in eight seasons) or too little (they have averaged 54 victories in that time). The core--Karl Malone, John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek--remains strong. Canny personnel chief Scott Layden signed ex-Net juvenile Chris Morris, who could settle down in a grown-up environment. Figure on 50-plus victories. After that, you’re on your own.

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Houston Rockets

1994-95 record: 47-35 (third)

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Offense: 103.5 (eighth)

Defense: 101.4 (14th)

It’s hard to believe, but they have a shot to match the Bulls as three-peaters. Written off as defending champions a year ago, they struggled, traded for Clyde Drexler, went 17-18 with him, then embarked on the most incredible playoff run in NBA history. After a bow to the now-incomparable Olajuwon, what can one say but, stick a fork in them. Hakeem had to sit out the exhibition season, so there goes any hope of a fast start. They still have Kenny (now you see him, now you don’t) Smith at point guard and emergency CBA pickups Charles Jones and Chuckie Brown on the bench. They soon will be complaining that they get no respect, that they use it as motivation, etc. Let’s see them prove last spring wasn’t a miracle.

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Denver Nuggets

1994-95 record: 41-41 (fourth)

Offense: 101.3 (13th)

Defense: 100.5 (11th)

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NBA scouts are already oohing and aahing at 6-9, 230-pound rooke power forward Antonio McDyess, who has looked as gifted as billed and further along than anyone predicted. If the Nuggets can re-sign Dikembe Mutombo, if still-rehabbing LaPhonso Ellis makes it back, if Jalen Rose is rally their point guard, look out.

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Dallas Mavericks

1994-95 record: 36-46 (fifth)

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Offense: 103.2 (ninth)

Defense: 106.1 (tie for 24th)

They finished 20-21 with their high-powered trio of Jim Jackson, Jamal Mashburn and Jason Kidd, but they are more than soft defensively they’re nonexistent. In exhibitions, they gave up 109 points a game. They are dying for a center, but Coach-General Manager Dick Motta spent the exhibition season looking for a way out of Roy Tarpley’s contract, that sill has four years and $16 million left on it.

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Minnesota Timberwolves

1994-95 record: 21-61 (sixth)

Offense: 94.2 (26th)

Defense: 103.2 (17th)

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General Manager Kevin McHale takes over this clueless crew that has averaged 61 losses, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the turnaround. Kevin Garnett, five months out of high school, is being brought along slowly. At this point he looks promising (nine points, six rebounds, 44% from the floor in exhibitions), but no Moses Malone-Shawn Kemp prodigy. Sean Rooks reported late, so Christian Laettner, a marginal power forward, is at center. Isaiah Rider, jailed over the summer for a parole violation, continues to break team rules. McHale wants to trade Laettner and Rider, so they’re basically at Square 1.

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Vancouver Grizzlies

Expansion team

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With the NBA fobbing off the Nos. 6 and 7 draft picks on the expansion teams (it’s amazing what $125 million buys these days), the Grizzlies looked lucky to get 7-foot Bryant Reeves but “Big Country” is, uh, warming up to the pro game slowly. He is 15th in scoring on the team in exhibitions among the 15 who played, averaging 2.4 points a game and shooting 26%. He’s backing up Benoit Benjamin. The rest of the lineup is made up of such veterans as Byron Scott and Gerald Wilkins, a dead-end approach.


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