Western Conference

NBA Season Preview

October 29, 2001|By Don Markus

Western Conference

Midwest Division

San Antonio Spurs

Coach: Gregg Popovich (221-139 in five seasons)

2000-01 record: 58-24, first, lost to Lakers in Western Conference finals

Best off-season acquisitions: Steve Smith, Bruce Bowen

Key off-season losses: Derek Anderson, Avery Johnson

What has to go right: David Robinson, 36, still has enough left to help Tim Duncan challenge Shaquille O'Neal more than they did in last season's playoffs while Steve Smith is a better clutch player than he was in Portland.

What can go wrong: All the older Spurs - from Robinson and Smith (32) to Terry Porter (38) and Danny Ferry (35) - collectively go south, leaving Duncan trying to battle the top-heavy Western teams by himself. Also, Antonio Daniels is not as good as the team's starting point guard as he was coming in to spell Johnson.

Likely scenario: Another second-round playoff loss.

Dallas Mavericks

Coach: Don Nelson (fifth season, 960-750 in 23 seasons)

2000-01 record: 53-29, tied for second, lost to San Antonio in Western Conference semifinals

Best off-season acquisition: Tim Hardaway

Key off-season losses: Howard Eisley, Calvin Booth

What has to go right: Owner Mark Cuban takes a lower profile and allows his talented team to not worry about what the NBA's richest groupie is going to say. Hardaway gives point guard Steve Nash a little help running the team, particularly in the playoffs.

What can go wrong: Juwan Howard returns to the malaise that affected him in Washington and 7-foot-6 Shawn Bradley gets knocked around by bigger, stronger centers in the West.

Likely scenario: With All-Stars like Michael Finley and Nash and rising star Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks make a bid to knock the Spurs out of the top spot in the Midwest. Doing the same to the Lakers is another story.

Utah Jazz

Coach: Jerry Sloan (14th season, 784-448 in 16 seasons)

2000-01 record: 53-29, tied for second, lost to Dallas in first round)

Best off-season acquisition: John Amaechi

Key off-season losses: Danny Manning, Olden Polynice

What has to go right: Karl Malone and John Stockton don't suddenly disappear, and Bryon Russell continues to be a solid third option, taking the Jazz as far as the Western Conference finals with the right draw.

What can go wrong: Malone and Stockton start playing like people approaching 40 - or in Stockton's case hitting 40 - and players such as Amaechi and Donyell Marshall can't deliver.

Likely scenario: Still among the smartest teams in the league, it's a question of how long before the team's collective age will catch up with Jazz.

Houston Rockets

Coach: Rudy Tomjanovich (432-304 in 10 seasons)

2000-01 record: 45-37, fifth, missed playoffs

Best off-season acquisitions: Kevin Willis, Glen Rice, draft pick Eddie Griffin

Key off-season loss: Hakeem Olajuwon

What has to go right: The backcourt of Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley, one of the most dynamic in the league, continues to find enough shots for each other, and with Maurice Taylor apparently lost for the season with a torn Achilles' tendon, gets help inside from Kelvin Cato and Kevin Willis, 39, who returned last week in a three-way trade.

What can go wrong: The loss of Taylor is too much for a team on the brink of making the playoffs last season to overcome, and Francis doesn't have as good a third season as he did a second.

Likely scenario: Stevie Franchise lives up to his nickname, but losing Olajuwon and more recently Taylor might make it difficult for Rockets to get into playoffs.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Coach: Flip Saunders (227-213 in six seasons)

2000-01 season: 47-35, fourth, lost to San Antonio in first round

Best off-season acquisition: Joe Smith

Key off-season loss: LaPhonso Ellis

What has to go right: Smith becomes more than the third or fourth option that he was in his first stint in Minnesota, and Terrell Brandon becomes more of a true point guard than he has been.

What can go wrong: The loss of all those draft picks for signing Smith to an illegal contract starts catching up with the T'wolves, who don't have a true star except for Kevin Garnett.

Likely scenario: The T'wolves take a step back in their development because of the Smith deal and miss the playoffs.

Denver Nuggets

Coach: Dan Issel (171-191 in five seasons)

2000-01 season: 40-42, sixth, missed playoffs

Best off-season acquisitions: Isaiah Rider, Avery Johnson, Scott Williams

Key off-season loss: None

What has to go right: The Nuggets overcome the recent loss of All-Star forward Antonio McDyess, who will be out for at least three months after knee surgery for a torn patella tendon. Raef LaFrentz keeps showing an ability to score, and Johnson gives the Nuggets another solid ballhandler.

What can go wrong: McDyess' rehab goes slowly and the Nuggets are forced to play the entire season without him. Also, they have to count on Rider, which means they might finish behind the Grizzlies.

Likely scenario: Certainly not the record of last season.

Memphis Grizzlies

Coach: Sidney Lowe (second season, 56-161 in three seasons)

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