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Western Conference preview

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 2000

Midwest division

San Antonio Spurs

LAST SEASON: 53-29, eliminated 3-1 by Phoenix in first round.

COACH: Gregg Popovich, 163-115, fifth season.

ADDED: G Derek Anderson (free agent, Clippers), F Danny Ferry (free agent, Cavaliers).

LOST: G Mario Elie (free agent, Phoenix), C Felton Spencer (free agent, New York), F Jerome Kersey (free agent).

STRENGTHS: No team matches up better with the defending champion Lakers, who strike no fear into the likes of Tim Duncan and David Robinson. Anderson is a much-needed upgrade from Elie at shooting guard, and Sean Elliott plans to be back after missing most of last season with a kidney ailment.

WEAKNESSES: Duncan, who missed the playoffs last season, is coming off knee surgery. Robinson is a year older (35). Elliott is fragile. Plenty of question marks on the bench.

WHAT THE SPURS WILL DO: Hope the road to the championship round goes through Los Angeles, not Portland.

Utah Jazz

LAST SEASON: 55-27, eliminated 4-1 by Portland in second round.

COACH: Jerry Sloan, 637-296, 13th season; 731-417 overall.

ADDED: F Donyell Marshall (trade with Warriors), G John Starks (free agent, Bulls), F Danny Manning (free agent, Bucks), G DeShawn Stevenson (draft, No. 23, Washington Union HS, Fresno, Calif.), G John Crotty (free agent, Pistons).

LOST: G Jeff Hornacek (retired), G Howard Eisley (traded to Dallas), F Adam Keefe (traded to Golden State), F Armen Gilliam (free agent).

STRENGTHS: Stockton and Malone, together again and ready to pick-and-roll their way through another winning season. Marshall and Starks should be able to replace the scoring that Eisley and Hornacek provided, and Hornacek has hinted he might come out of retirement and rejoin the team for the playoffs.

WEAKNESSES: Last season's loss to Portland showed that certain teams just seem to have Utah's number, and the Jazz's post-season success could come down to whether it has a favorable draw in the West seedings.

WHAT THE JAZZ WILL DO: Hope Starks isn't as washed up as he looked last season. Hope Marshall isn't the stiff he was in the late '90s.

Dallas Mavericks

LAST SEASON: 40-42, missed playoffs.

COACH: Don Nelson, 75-123, fourth season; 926-752 overall.

ADDED: F Christian Laettner (trade with Pistons), F Loy Vaught (trade with Pistons), G Howard Eisley (trade with Jazz), G Courtney Alexander (draft, No. 13, Fresno State), F Etan Thomas (draft, No. 12, Syracuse), F Donnell Harvey (draft, No. 22, Florida), F Eduardo Najera (draft, No. 38, Oklahoma).

LOST: G Robert Pack (traded to Boston), F Cedric Ceballos (traded to Detroit), C Sean Rooks (traded to L.A. Clippers), G Erick Strickland (traded to New York), G Damon Jones (free agent).

STRENGTHS: Loaded up over the summer with a horde of promising draft picks and an established big man in Laettner. One of the hottest teams in the NBA over the second half of last season, Dallas has become one of the league's preferred destinations among players eager to be coddled with creature comforts.

WEAKNESSES: Despite all their power forwards, they will be at a disadvantage in the low post against the better teams in the West. Will have to fight hard for a playoff berth.

WHAT THE MAVS WILL DO: Live in luxury, with flat-screen DVD players in their lockers and special chairs on the bench courtesy of Mark Cuban's Internet fortune.

Houston Rockets

LAST SEASON: 34-48, missed playoffs.

COACH: Rudy Tomjanovich, 387-267, 10th season.

ADDED: F Maurice Taylor (free agent, Clippers), C Jason Collier, (draft, No. 15, Georgia Tech).

LOST: F Charles Barkley (retired), F Tony Massenburg (free agent, Vancouver), G Bryce Drew (traded to Chicago), F Anthony Miller (free agent).

STRENGTHS: Steve Francis will be the focal point of the offense from the get-go, unlike last season when his role was defined as the season wore on. The Rockets got Taylor for next to nothing, signing him for the $2.25-million salary-cap exception after it seemed certain he'd end up elsewhere.

WEAKNESSES: The core of this team is not used to winning, and it'll be an uphill battle to compete against bigger, more experienced teams. Hakeem Olajuwon is on his last legs.

WHAT THE ROCKETS WILL DO: End the Olajuwon era somewhere slightly south of .500.

Minnesota Timberwolves

LAST SEASON: 50-32, eliminated 3-1 by Portland in first round of playoffs.

COACH: Flip Saunders, 180-178, fifth season.

ADDED: G Chauncey Billups (free agent, Magic), G Todd Day (free agent, Suns).

LOST: G Malik Sealy (deceased), G Bobby Jackson (free agent, Sacramento).

STRENGTHS: Kevin Garnett has evolved into one of the most complete players in the game; Terrell Brandon remains one of the best point guards in the league; and the supporting cast is solid, if unspectacular.

WEAKNESSES: Malik Sealy was killed in an auto accident in the off-season and commissioner David Stern came down hard on the team last week for making a secret agreement with Joe Smith. Lost five first-round draft picks and was fined $3.5-million. Owner Glen Taylor and general manager Kevin McHale could face suspensions.

WHAT THE WOLVES WILL DO: Have a tougher time in the race for the playoffs than they did last season.

Denver Nuggets

LAST SEASON: 35-47, missed playoffs.

COACH: Dan Issel, 131-149, fifth season.

ADDED: G Robert Pack, G Calbert Cheaney (trade with Celtics), F Mark Strickland, G Voshon Lenard (trade with Heat), G Tracy Murray (trade with Wizards), C Mamadou N'diaye (draft, No. 26, Auburn).

LOST: G Bryant Stith, G Chris Herren (traded to Boston), F Popeye Jones (traded to Washington), F Chris Gatling (traded to Miami).

STRENGTHS: On paper, it appears they got the better of the deal in each of their three trades. Their three-point shooting will be improved, and they have an underrated top threesome of Antonio McDyess, Raef LaFrentz and Nick Van Exel.

WEAKNESSES: Tended to go adrift for long stretches last season, turning a nice start into a season of mediocrity. Size will be a problem in their conference, especially at center.

WHAT THE NUGGETS WILL DO: Possibly be the sleeper team in the West.

Vancouver Grizzlies

LAST SEASON: 22-60, missed playoffs.

COACH: Sidney Lowe, first season; 33-102 overall.

ADDED: F Stromile Swift (draft, LSU, No. 2), F Tony Massenburg (free agent, Rockets), C Isaac Austin (trade with Wizards), G Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (free agent), G Damon Jones (free agent, Mavericks).

LOST: G Felipe Lopez, G Dennis Scott, F Obinna Ekezie, F Cherokee Parks (traded to Washington), F Antoine Carr (free agent).

STRENGTHS: Deep at power forward, with a very tradable commodity in Othella Harrington. Michael Dickerson is coming off a breakout year. Shareef Abdur-Rahim would be an All-Star if he played elsewhere.

WEAKNESSES: Many aren't particularly happy to be playing in NBA Siberia, and it sometimes shows in a lack of effort. Fans are convinced the team will be moved in two years, and many have stopped attending games.

WHAT THE GRIZZLIES WILL DO: Lay claim to the same spot in the cellar that has become their permanent habitat.

* * *

Pacific Division

Portland Trail Blazers

LAST SEASON: 59-23, eliminated 4-3 by Los Angeles Lakers in Western Conference final.

COACH: Mike Dunleavy, 140-74, fourth season; 348-358 overall.

ADDED: F Shawn Kemp (trade with Cavaliers), F Dale Davis (trade with Pacers), C Will Perdue (free agent, Bulls), G Erick Barkley (draft, No. 28, St. John's).

LOST: F Detlef Schrempf (retired), F Brian Grant (traded to Miami), C Jermaine O'Neal (traded to Indiana), G Gary Grant (traded to Cleveland), F Antonio Harvey (free agent).

STRENGTHS: If not for their fourth-quarter meltdown in Game 7 of the conference final, they might be defending champs. The addition of Kemp and Davis to the nucleus of Arvydas Sabonis and Rasheed Wallace makes them better than they were last season, with weapons in the low post to match anything the Lakers or Spurs can throw at them.

WEAKNESSES: The point guard duo of Damon Stoudamire and Greg Anthony is a notch below the NBA standard, and it remains a big question how Kemp and Davis will respond to significantly reduced roles from the ones they're used to.

WHAT THE BLAZERS WILL DO: They'll win the West and the title.

Los Angeles Lakers

LAST SEASON: 67-15, won NBA championship 4-2 over Indiana.

COACH: Phil Jackson, second season; 612-208 overall.

ADDED: F Horace Grant, C Greg Foster (trade with Sonics), G Isaiah Rider (free agent, Hawks), F Mark Madsen (draft, No. 29, Stanford).

LOST: VP Jerry West (retired), F Glen Rice, C Travis Knight (traded to New York), F A.C. Green (free agent), G John Celestand (free agent, Dallas), C John Salley (retired), G Brian Shaw (free agent).

STRENGTHS: On the verge of losing Rice and getting nothing in return, general manager Mitch Kupchak pulled off a great trade to land Grant -- an upgrade over last season's starter, Green. In Foster, Kupchak also found an adequate backup for Shaquille O'Neal.

WEAKNESSES: Will have to fight the letdown syndrome after winning the title in Jackson's first season. Brought in Rider, who has been a headache wherever he has played.

WHAT THE LAKERS WILL DO: Stay neck and neck with the Blazers, see even more "Hack-a-Shaq" defenses.

Phoenix Suns

LAST SEASON: 53-29, eliminated 4-1 by Lakers in second round of playoffs.

COACH: Scott Skiles, 40-22, second season.

ADDED: C Iakovos Tsakalidis (draft, No. 25, AEK Greece), C Chris Dudley (trade with Knicks), G Tony Delk (free agent, Kings), G Mario Elie (free agent, Spurs), G Paul McPherson (rookie free agent, DePaul).

LOST: C Luc Longley (traded to New York), G Kevin Johnson (retired), G Toby Bailey (free agent, Bulls), F Don MacLean (free agent, Heat), G Todd Day (free agent, Timberwolves), C Oliver Miller (free agent).

STRENGTHS: After being hurt by injuries last season, should have a healthy cast by December when Tom Gugliotta returns. Jason Kidd and Penny Hardaway comprise one of the best backcourts in the league, Shawn Marion is the real deal and Cliff Robinson is an exceptional defender.

WEAKNESSES: Scoring in the middle will be an even bigger problem than it used to be, and there's no big rebounder at the starting power forward spot or off the bench.

WHAT THE SUNS WILL DO: Wish they were in the East, where they'd win 60 games.

Seattle Supersonics

LAST SEASON: 45-37, eliminated 3-2 by Utah in first round of playoffs.

COACH: Paul Westphal, 70-62, third season; 236-125 overall.

ADDED: C Patrick Ewing (trade with Knicks), F Desmond Mason (draft, No. 17, Oklahoma State), C Pervis Ellison (free agent, Celtics).

LOST: F Horace Grant, F Chuck Person, G Emanuel Davis, C Greg Foster (traded to L.A. Lakers), F Lazaro Borrell, C Vladimir Stepania.

STRENGTHS: After years of trying, finally found a dominant center -- albeit one who hasn't been dominating the past three seasons. Gary Payton is coming off the best year of his career, and Vin Baker isn't carrying around 15 extra pounds. Rashard Lewis and Shammond Williams are two of the better unheralded players in the NBA.

WEAKNESSES: Will miss Grant and his durability and might rue trading him to a conference contender. Baker still has a distaste for banging around in the low post. The bench is not deep. Payton and Baker don't exactly have warm and fuzzy feelings for Westphal. Ewing is 38.

WHAT THE SONICS WILL DO: Give it a shot with Ewing, and tear it apart again next summer if things don't work.

Sacramento Kings

COACH: Rick Adelman, 71-61, third season; 428-313 overall

ADDED: G Doug Christie (trade with Toronto), G Bobby Jackson (free agent, Timberwolves), F Hidayet Turkoglu (draft, No. 16, Efes Pilsen, Turkey).

LOST: F Corliss Williamson (traded to Toronto), G Tony Delk (free agent, Phoenix), F Tyrone Corbin (free agent).

STRENGTHS: Play a wide-open style that can frustrate opponents into playing down to the Kings' level. Vlade Divac and Chris Webber are on par with some of the other big-man tandems in the conference, and Christie will be an improvement over Nick Anderson.

WEAKNESSES: Jason Williams has run afoul of the league's drug program and will serve five-game suspensions for any subsequent violations.

WHAT THE KINGS WILL DO: Be known as last year's flavor; drop in popularity.

Golden State Warriors

LAST SEASON: 19-63, missed playoffs.

COACH: Dave Cowens, first season; 136-111 overall.

ADDED: F Danny Fortson (trade with Celtics), F Adam Keefe (trade with Jazz), G Bob Sura (trade with Cavaliers), G Vinny DelNegro (trade with Bucks), F Chris Porter (draft, No. 51, Auburn), F Chris Mullin (free agent, Pacers).

LOST: F Jason Caffey (traded to Milwaukee), F Donyell Marshall (traded to Utah), F Bill Curley (traded to Dallas), F Billy Owens (traded to Milwaukee), F Mark Davis (free agent).

STRENGTHS: Will have Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison playing alongside each other for the first time, as Jamison missed the second half of last season because of injury.

WEAKNESSES: Very weak at center, and loaded with players on the bench past their peaks. Didn't have a first-round pick, having sent it to Orlando to complete the Chris Webber-Penny Hardaway trade many years ago.

WHAT THEY WARRIORS WILL DO: Be the answer to the question: Whatever happened to so-and-so?

Los Angeles Clippers

LAST SEASON: 15-67, missed playoffs.

COACH: Alvin Gentry, first season; 88-93 overall.

ADDED: F Darius Miles (draft, No. 3, East St. Louis H.S), G Keyon Dooling (draft, No. 10, Missouri), G Quentin Richardson (draft, No. 18, DePaul); F Derek Strong, G Corey Maggette (trade with Magic), C Sean Rooks (trade with Mavericks), G Earl Boykins (free agent, Cavaliers), C Zendon Hamilton (free agent).

LOST: G Derek Anderson (free agent, San Antonio), F Maurice Taylor (free agent, Houston), G Eric Murdock (traded to Dallas), C Keith Closs (suspended), F Pete Chilcutt (free agent, Miami).

STRENGTHS: Making yet another fresh start under a new coach, this time the Clippers should at least be fun to watch with their baby-faced cast of players 22 and under.

WEAKNESSES: Everyone who comes there eventually wants to leave, creating a revolving door culture.

WHAT THEY CLIPPERS WILL DO: Appear on national television vs. Minnesota on Dec. 20. Really.

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