Go west to find NBA title contenders this year

With the 1999-2000 National Basketball Association (NBA) season just under way, the one thing already clear is that little is clear.

The league does vow to limit excessively physical play with stricter enforcement of the rules. But that vow has been uttered before, then abandoned.

So which team will be screaming and acting stupid next summer when the NBA championship is finally determined? It seems likely it will be either the defending champs, the San Antonio Spurs, or the terrifically talented Portland Trail Blazers.

But is it just as likely to be the Los Angeles Clippers or the Vancouver Grizzlies?

Certainly not. That's a little joke. Yet there are at least a dozen other teams that conceivably could be the last group standing.

But basketball, where one collision under the hoop can alter the landscape dramatically, is a fragile game. This means either the Spurs or the Trail Blazers could fall apart in a heartbeat.

The four best in the 14-team Western Conference:

San Antonio Spurs. Until the champ is splattered, he's the champ. The Spurs look splatter-proof, what with Tim Duncan, considered the best player in the NBA, and his buddy, David Robinson, a man of class, substance, and ability, leading the way.

Robinson also has been an enthusiastic mentor to Duncan, who averaged 21.7 points per game last year thanks to his amazing jump hook and often more amazing understanding and use of bank shots. Duncan also pulled down 11.4 rebounds per outing. And he is not even near the top of his game.

Question marks: How will the Spurs do without outstanding shooter and defender Sean Elliott, who had surgery and whose future is uncertain? Might their average backcourt torpedo them?

Portland Trail Blazers. This is the only team the Spurs will be eyeing warily. Television commentator Bill Walton wrote in Hoop magazine, "The Blazers have no voids." They did get superstar Scottie Pippen in the off-season, and Pippen is acting awestruck at the new company he's keeping. He needs only to buff up his attitude, which grew sour last year when he was at Houston. Another starry acquisition is talented guard Steve Smith, once figured to be the next Magic Johnson. If Brian Grant and Rasheed Wallace can dominate inside, the puzzle is missing no major pieces.

Question mark: Might Portland have too much talent? Five guys and one ball on the court at one time may not provide enough action for everyone.

Los Angeles Lakers. Some figure the Lakers to wind up looking down on all others.

After all, they hired former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, brainy and wily. He got the Bulls to win all the time with mercurial Dennis Rodman on the team. There can be no greater kudos to his genius.

The good news is there's no reason to think Shaquille O'Neal won't be dominant again. The bad news is there's no reason to think he'll quit clanking free throws. Young Laker star Kobe Bryant and O'Neal haven't gotten along great, but word is they are doing better. The problem for the moment is that Bryant has been hurt and that when he resumes full stride, they'll want him to play defense.

Question mark: Will Jackson be a great coach without Michael Jordan as one of his players?

Utah Jazz. They deserve to win an NBA title after so many times on the cusp. Alas, they probably won't. Karl Malone, Jeff Hornacek, and John Stockton are all back and they play together - 42 years combined NBA experience - like no other three in the NBA. But age is starting to show. Coach Jerry Sloan seemed noncommittal as the season was starting: "We'll see where we are."

Question mark: Will 7 ft., 2 in. center Greg Ostertag decide to play with effort?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the 15-team Eastern Conference doesn't seem to have a single team as good as any of the top six or perhaps more in the Western Conference. The best of a suspect lot:

Charlotte Hornets. They have proved that less definitely is more by sending unhappy Glen Rice packing. As soon as Rice was outta there and grumpy Dave Cowens was axed as coach late last season, the Hornets immediately became a happier and better-performing bunch. Anthony Mason is healthy after missing all of last season and should team well with Eddie Jones to provide lots of scoring.

Question mark: The players have respect and affection for new coach Paul Silas but might they take his kindness and understanding as a sign of weakness?

New York Knicks. All kinds of potential problems, but if - if - everyone would pull together, they have an excellent chance.

However, glowering Patrick Ewing is still hurt from last season and may not play until January. Latrell Sprewell has awesome talent when he chooses to engage it. But he is an adventure in the wilderness. To start things off this season, he failed to show up for training camp.

And then there is coach Jeff Van Gundy, whom management wanted to fire last season. But the Knicks playoff brilliance, which got them to the finals against the Spurs, precluded anything precipitous. Management is still looking for a reason to get rid of him.

Question mark: Can Van Gundy get his team to cooperate for the greater good?

Indiana Pacers. Like the Jazz, the Pacers are beginning to look a trifle wizened.

Reggie Miller still has his sweet shots but his best years likely are behind him. Ditto Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin, Rik Smits, and Sam Perkins. Still, they've been close, and maybe their savvy will get them to the NBA Finals this season before this group takes up Early Bird Specials and shuffleboard.

Question mark: Can coach Larry Bird threaten and cajole this team into putting forth the all-the-time effort the Pacers will need to rise to the top?

Milwaukee Bucks. It sounds funny to list the Bucks as contenders. Yet, it could be true. The main reason for optimism is the acquisition of Sam Cassell from the Nets, a veteran with undiminished skills.

Star Glenn Robinson is out of sorts after hearing he was a candidate to be traded. But if Cassell and Robinson can get on the same sheet of music, the sounds could be sweet.

Question mark: Can the Bucks do it without a top-notch center?

And where are the once-mighty Chicago Bulls? Nowhere. If it weren't for the Clippers, the Bulls might be the worst team in the NBA.

Imagine that.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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