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NBA PREVIEW

Times NBA writer John Harris ranks the teams for the upcoming season and offers prognoses and predictions:1. Phoenix

Coach: Cotton Fitzsimmons (third year, 109-55).

1989-90 record: 54-28, third in Pacific Division.

1989-90 playoffs: Beat Utah in Western Conference first round 3-2; beat Lakers in Western Conference semifinals 4-1; lost to Portland in Western Conference finals 4-2.

Will contend for NBA title if: Starters, especially point guard Kevin Johnson, remain healthy.

Will not contend if: Starters, especially Johnson, don't remain healthy.

Prognosis: One of the best starting lineups in the NBA, backed by one of the strongest benches, this is a team with no glaring weaknesses.

Prediction: First in Pacific Division.

2. Chicago

Coach: Phil Jackson (second year, 55-27).

1989-90 record: 55-27, second in Central Division.

1989-90 playoffs: Beat Milwaukee in Eastern Conference first round 3-1; beat Philadelphia in Eastern Conference semifinals 4-1; lost to Detroit in Eastern Conference finals 4-3.

Will beat out Detroit for homecourt advantage in playoffs if: Rest of the Bulls take the load off Michael Jordan's shoulders.

Will not beat out Pistons if: Load becomes too heavy for Jordan to bear.

Prognosis: Balance is the key here. Jordan will get his points, but Chicago will not advance farther in the playoffs unless Stacey King gets his too.

Prediction: First in Central Division.

3. L.A. Lakers

Coach: Mike Dunleavy (first year).

1989-90 record: 63-19, first in Pacific Division.

1989-90 playoffs: Beat Houston in Western Conference first round 3-1; lost to Phoenix in Western Conference semifinals 4-1.

Will contend for NBA title if: Vlade Divac and Magic Johnson become one of the league's best center-guard combinations.

Will not get out of the West if: Divac does not continue his steady improvement from last season.

Prognosis: The Lakers could finish anywhere from first to third place in their own division. It's not that the team isn't good enough to defend its Pacific Division title for the 10th straight year; rather, the Pacific Division might have finally caught up with the Lakers.

Prediction: Second in Pacific Division.

4. Detroit

Coach: Chuck Daly (eighth year, 369-205).

1989-90 record: 59-23, first in Central Division.

1989-90 playoffs: Beat Indiana in Eastern Conference first round 3-0; beat New York in Eastern Conference semifinals 4-1; beat Chicago in Eastern Conference finals 4-3; beat Portland in finals 4-1.

Will three-peat if: William Bedford more than adequately replaces James Edwards in the low post.

Will not three-peat if: Age and injuries finally catch up with them.

Prognosis: The Pistons have chemistry. They do not have a superstar at any position, other than point guard Isiah Thomas, but they have several good players who know how to blend their skills.

Prediction: Second in Central Division.

5. Portland

Coach: Rick Adelman (third year, 73-44).

1989-90 record: 59-23, second in Pacific Division.

1989-90 playoffs: Beat Dallas in Western Conference first round 3-0; beat San Antonio in Western Conference semifinals 4-3; beat Phoenix in Western Conference finals 4-2; lost to Detroit in finals 4-1.

Will return to finals if: Center Kevin Duckworth loses weight and works harder on defense.

Will not return to finals if: Three-guard rotation of Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter and Danny Ainge does not solve team's perimeter shooting problems.

Prognosis: Powerful rebounding club with excellent fastbreak capabilities. Last year's playoff experience could be invaluable, but Portland must make better use of the halfcourt (read: playoff) offense.

Prediction: Third in Pacific Division.

6. San Antonio

Coach: Larry Brown (third year, 77-87).

1989-90 record: 56-26, first in Midwest Division.

1989-90 playoffs: Beat Denver in Western Conference first round 3-0; lost to Portland in Western Conference semifinals 4-3.

Will contend for Western Conference title if: Brown settles on a solid rotation at backup center and backup point guard.

Will run into a Western Conference roadblock if: David Robinson is forced to do too much, too often.

Prognosis: This is a team that should improve as the starters learn to play together and to play for Brown. Even minimal improvement from point guard Rod Strickland and small forward Sean Elliott could pay big dividends.

Prediction: First in Midwest Division.

7. Utah

Coach: Jerry Sloan (third year, 95-52).

1989-90 record: 55-27, second in Midwest Division.

1989-90 playoffs: Lost to Phoenix in first round 3-2.

Will contend for title if: There is enough overall talent to balance the declining skills of center Mark Eaton and forward Thurl Bailey.

Will continue to be a good but not great team if: Newly acquired Jeff Malone doesn't score enough points to support All-Star guard John Stockton and All-Star forward Karl Malone.

Prognosis: Sloan will have an even better feel for his players in his third year of coaching them. He doesn't have a great bench, but with Karl Malone, Jeff Malone and John Stockton, he doesn't need one. Eaton's skills are declining, but Mike Brown, a powerful rebounder, could help.

Prediction: Second in Midwest Division.

8. New York

Coach: Stu Jackson (second year, 45-37).

1989-90 record: 45-37, third in Atlantic Division.

1989-90 playoffs: Beat Boston in Eastern Conference first round 3-2; lost to Detroit in Eastern Conference semifinals 4-1.

Will win Atlantic Division if: Point guard Mark Jackson returns to his Rookie of the Year form and small forward Kiki Vandeweghe spends more time on the court than in the trainer's room.

Will make another early playoff exit if: Suitable outside shooting does not materialize.

Prognosis: The Knicks probably had the best team in the Atlantic Division last season. They were in first place until power forward Charles Oakley was injured late in the campaign. They should be in a three-team race with Philadelphia and Boston again this season.

Prediction: First in Atlantic Division.

9. Philadelphia

Coach: Jim Lynam (fourth year, 115-88).

1989-90 record: 53-29, first in Atlantic Division.

1989-90 playoffs: Beat Cleveland 3-2 in Eastern Conference first round; lost to Chicago in Eastern Conference semifinals 4-1.

Will capture second consecutive division title if: The backcourt of guard Hersey Hawkins and Johnny Dawkins continues rapid development.

Will lose ground in the division if: Rick Mahorn's back doesn't hold up and team's defensive effort declines.

Prognosis: Improved balanced scoring helped the Sixers win seven more games last year than the year before. Philly won its first division title in seven seasons, but the Sixers are an aging team, almost as old their arch-nemesis, the Boston Celtics.

Prediction: Second in Atlantic Division.

10. Boston

Coach: Chris Ford (first year).

1988-89 record: 59-23, second in Atlantic Division.

1989-90 playoffs: Lost to New York in Eastern Conference first round 3-2.

Will make better than a respectable showing in post-season if: Larry Bird avoids further injury to his feet and back and guards Brian Shaw and Dee Brown resurrect the Celtics' fastbreak of old.

Will not improve on last year's early playoff exit if: Bird's injuries worsen, adding more pressure to Celtics' inexperienced backcourt.

Prognosis: Boston improved its record by 10 games over 1988-89 because of the return of Bird, but it is unreasonable to expect similar advances. The Celtics are fortunate to be playing in the NBA's weakest division.

Prediction: Third in Atlantic Division.

11. Dallas

Coach: Richie Adubato (second year, 42-29).

1989-90 record: 47-35, third in Midwest Division.

1989-90 playoffs: Lost to Portland in Western Conference first round 3-0.

Will become a legitimate contender for NBA title if: Roy Tarpley plays a full season for the first time since 1987-88.

Will live down to expectations if: Adubato cannot find a happy medium with the three-guard rotation of Derek Harper, Rolando Blackman and Fat Lever.

Prognosis: Talented, but a team badly in need of an infusion of youth. One of the oldest teams in the league, the Mavericks' top eight players from last season have a total of 72 years' experience, an average of nine years per man.

Prediction: Third in Midwest Division.

12. Houston

Coach: Don Chaney (third year, 86-78).

1989-90 record: 41-41, fifth in Midwest Division.

1989-90 playoffs: Lost to Lakers in Western Conference first round 3-1.

Will save Chaney's job if: Kenny Smith turns out to be a first-rate point guard.

Will remain a .500 team if: Center Akeem Olajuwon remains the total focus, instead of the Rockets playing a five-man game.

Prognosis: One of the best centers in NBA history, Olajuwon has played with some of the worst backcourts. Guard help must be found to remove some of the pressure from Olajuwon.

Prediction: Fourth in Midwest Division.

13. Indiana

Coach: Dick Versace (third year, 64-71).

1989-90 record: 42-40, fifth in Central Division.

1989-90 playoffs: Lost to Detroit in Eastern Conference first round 3-0.

Will contend for division title if: Players realize the importance of team defense.

Will struggle to improve if: Center Rik Smits remains on the bench because of foul trouble.

Prognosis: The Pacers led the Central Division for a month before beginning to fade. However, the team did win 14 games more than the previous season. Three players had their finest seasons _ shooting guard Reggie Miller, power forward Detlef Schrempf and Smits _ and the team will look to them for leadership.

Prediction: Third in Central Division.

14. Cleveland

Coach: Lenny Wilkens (fifth year, 172-156).

1989-90 record: 42-40, fourth in Central Division.

1989-90 playoffs: Lost to Philadelphia in Eastern Conference first round 3-2.

Will regain 1988-89 form if: Depth forms behind talented starters, and center Brad Daugherty and power forward Larry Nance play more than 41 and 62 games respectively.

Will experience another mediocre year if: Injuries strip Cavs' ability to survive in the tough Central Division.

Prognosis: The team has four solid starters. However, the fifth starter, shooting guard Craig Ehlo, has been unable to cope with most NBA regulars. When the Cavs traded Ron Harper, they lost one of the best shooting guards in basketball.

Prediction: Fourth in Central Division.

15. Seattle

Coach: K.C. Jones (first year).

1988-89 record: 41-41, fourth in Pacific Division.

Will reach the playoffs if: Rookie point guard Gary Payton can run the offense, play sticky defense and talk trash all at the same time.

Will not make the playoffs if: Olden Polynice does not emerge at center and score better than 4.6 points a game.

Prognosis: Seattle is a team in transition. Young and talented players like Payton and 20-year-old Shawn Kemp are learning to play with veterans Dale Ellis, Xavier McDaniel and Michael Cage in a tough division.

Prediction: Fourth in Pacific Division.

16. Milwaukee

Coach: Del Harris (fourth year, 135-111).

1988-89 record: 44-38, third in Central Division.

1988-89 playoffs: Lost to Chicago in Eastern Conference first round 3-1.

Will show dramatic improvement if: Jack Sikma plays more like a center than a guard and point guard Jay Humphries stops playing like a shooting guard.

Will struggle to improve if: Forwards Larry Krystkowiak, Greg Anderson and Jeff Grayer miss another 99 games with injuries.

Prognosis: This is a team with an aging center (Sikma) who would rather shoot three-pointers than bang under the boards, with a point guard (Humphries) who would rather shoot than pass, and with other key players who always seem to be injured. Harris did an impressive job holding the team together last year.

Prediction: Fifth in Central Division.

17. Atlanta

Coach: Bob Weiss (first year).

1989-90 record: 41-41, sixth in Central Division.

Will be a playoff team again if: Moses Malone can regain some of the mobility and strength that enabled him to be the NBA's top rebounder of the 1980s.

Will fail to make the playoffs if: Players fail to absorb the new motion offense.

Prognosis: Atlanta has a problem with defense, allowing teams to shoot 49.6 percent from the floor last season. Perimeter shooting remains a question mark, resulting in forward Dominique Wilkins assuming too much offensive responsibility.

Prediction: Sixth in Central Division.

18. L.A. Clippers

Coach: Mike Schuler (first year).

1989-90 record: 30-52, sixth in Pacific Division.

Will reach playoffs for the first time if: Ron Harper returns successfully from knee surgery.

Will once again miss the playoffs if: Young players have trouble adapting to Schuler's disciplinarian coaching style.

Prognosis: With the exception of five-year veteran Benoit Benjamin, none of the players on the team has been in the NBA more than three seasons. This is a young team that won nine more games than the season before and could duplicate that effort this year.

Prediction: Fifth in Pacific Division.

19. Golden State

Coach: Don Nelson (third year, 80-84).

1989-90 record: 37-45, fifth in Pacific Division.

Will show marked improvement if: Veteran center Alton Lister and rookie forward Tyrone Hill help fill the team's glaring rebounding void.

Will make slow progress if: Once again they are forced to depend on players who are most comfortable playing 20 feet from the basket.

Prognosis: Nelson made the center-less system work in 1988-89, guiding the Warriors to the playoffs and a first-round victory over Utah. Last season they led the league in scoring, but were next-to-last in scoring defense and last in rebounding. Lister's return from a serious Achilles' tendon injury is vital to the Warriors' inside game.

Prediction: Sixth in Pacific Division.

20. Washington

Coach: Wes Unseld (fourth year, 101-118).

1989-90 record: 31-51, fourth in Atlantic Division.

Will again qualify for NBA draft lottery if: John Williams does not work himself back into playing shape.

Will regress even more if: Ledell Eackles does not fill in capably for Jeff Malone, who was traded.

Prognosis: The Bullets don't have an inside game. They don't even have an outside game, hitting just 37 three-pointers last season. Pervis Ellison, acquired in a trade with Sacramento, will start at center. But he has a history of injuries and is incapable of carrying a team for any period of time.

Prediction: Fifth in Atlantic Division.

21. Denver

Coach: Paul Westhead (first year).

1989-90 record: 43-39, fourth in Midwest Division.

1989-90 playoffs: Lost to San Antonio in Western Conference first round 3-0.

Will score lots of points and be a competitive team if: Orlando Woolridge and Chris Jackson learn the shoot-within-seven-seconds offense and Jerome Lane controls the defensive boards.

Will struggle to maintain respectability if: Creative offense doesn't offset disparity in talent.

Prognosis: The Nuggets are a poor defensive team and a weak rebounding club, a dangerous combination. Keeping this team above .500 should qualify Westhead for Coach of the Year consideration.

Prediction: Fifth in Midwest Division.

22. Minnesota

Coach: Bill Musselman (second-year, 22-60).

1989-90 record: 22-60, sixth in Midwest Division.

Will improve on last year's record if: Rookies Felton Spencer and Gerald Glass have an impact similar to point guard Pooh Richardson, the club's first No.

1 pick.

Will not improve on last year's record if: Players lose their defensive intensity under Musselman, who is a taskmaster.

Prognosis: Of the four expansion teams that entered the league during the past two seasons, the Timberwolves were the best in their initial season. This is not a team dominated by young players, so improvement will be based on good play by rookies and better overall team chemistry.

Prediction: Sixth in Midwest Division.

23. Sacramento

Coach: Dick Motta (second year,

16-38).

1989-90 record: 23-59, seventh in Pacific Division.

Will become a surprise team if: Top rookies Lionel Simmons and Travis Mays play beyond their capabilities.

Will not show much improvement if: New players are slow to learn Motta's system.

Prognosis: The Kings' biggest problems last season were scoring and rebounding. Working so many new players into the system (including four first-round draft picks) might cause serious delays in the team's progress.

Prediction: Seventh in Pacific Division.

24. Miami

Coach: Ron Rothstein (third year, 33-131).

1989-90 record: 18-64, fifth in Atlantic Division.

Will enhance the club's building-with-youth policy if: Young players start performing like veterans.

Will hurt the maturation process if: Center Rony Seikaly does not have an injury-free season.

Prognosis: With players such as Seikaly and Sherman Douglas, the Heat appears to be successful at developing young talent. To avoid becoming a team with average talent, the Heat needs at least two more good players.

Prediction: Fifth in Atlantic Division.

25. New Jersey

Coach: Bill Fitch (second year, 17-65).

1989-90 record: 17-65, sixth in Atlantic Division.

Will be a surprisingly competitive team if: Rookie Derrick Coleman can start immediately and take some of the pressure away from center Sam Bowie.

Will remain one of the league's mystery teams if: Mookie Blaylock, Chris Morris and Reggie Theus become more concerned with individual play than team ball.

Prognosis: The worst team in the league last season, New Jersey finished last in two-point field-goal percentage and last in assists. With Bowie and Coleman, the Nets should get higher-percentage shots. Both Theus and Blaylock are known for making questionable and difficult passes, leading to turnovers.

Prediction: Sixth in Atlantic Division.

26. Charlotte

Coach: Gene Littles (second year, 11-31).

1989-90 record: 19-63, seventh in Central Division.

Will be a better defensive team if: Undersized center J.R. Reid becomes an improved rebounder and shot-blocker.

Will continue to run an undisciplined offense if: Guard Rex Chapman is allowed to free-lance with the ball.

Prognosis: This is a young franchise that needs to emphasize younger players over veterans. Charlotte is at least a year behind Miami, which entered the league at the same time, because of a decision to play older players the first year.

Prediction: Seventh in Central Division.

27. Orlando

Coach: Matt Guokas (second year, 18-64).

1989-90 record: 18-64, seventh in Central Division.

Will become a better basketball team if: Young players such as Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott and Michael Ansley receive enough playing time to improve their skills.

Will struggle to improve if: Poor ballhandling and a lack of defensive rebounding continue to provide the opposition with easy scoring chances.

Prognosis: The Magic could have a better team than last year, but playing in the Midwest Division will adversely affect the team's victory total. The Magic, which has a pair of first-round draft choices in next year's draft, hopes to select a franchise-type center. Center is the team's weakest position.

Prediction: Seventh in Midwest Division.

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