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NBA PREVIEW CENTRAL DIVISION

Teams are listed, with records, in predicted

order of finish.

Chicago Bulls (64-18)

COACH: Phil Jackson.

LAST SEASON: 69-13.

BACK IN THE FOLD: Michael Jordan, G (29.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Scottie Pippen, F (20.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Dennis Rodman, F (16.1 rpg), Ron Harper, G (6.3 ppg), Toni Kukoc, G (13.2 ppg).

DEARLY DEPARTED: Robert Parish, C (retired), Brian Williams, F/C (free agent).

ARRIVALS: Scott Burrell, F (from Golden State), Joe Kleine, C (from New Jersey).

THE LOWDOWN: So good are these Bulls that the loss of Pippen until January, the overall age of the team and the uncertainty of Rodman's commitment are good enough for no more than five extra games in the loss column. As long as Michael is playing and Jackson is coaching, nothing else really matters. Bulls remain the best in the league.

REMEMBER THIS: Jackson, Jordan, Rodman and GM Jerry Krause have vowed this will be the last year for the star-studded lineup. How likely are they to go out as losers?

Charlotte Hornets (58-24)

COACH: Dave Cowens.

LAST SEASON: 54-28.

BACK IN THE FOLD: Glen Rice, F (26.8 ppg), Anthony Mason, F (16.2 ppg, 11.4 rpg), Vlade Divac, C (12.8 ppg, 9.0 rpg), Dell Curry, G (14.8 ppg), Matt Geiger, C (8.9 ppg).

DEARLY DEPARTED: Ricky Pierce, G (waived).

ARRIVALS: Bobby Phills, G (12.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg), David Wesley, G (16.8 ppg, 7.3 apg), J.R. Reid, F (6.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg).

THE LOWDOWN: In a furious off-season of personnel moves, the Hornets made themselves instant contenders. The backcourt is most improved as Wesley is likely to start at point and eliminate some of the problems Mugsy Bogues had during the playoffs. Phills brings a defensive presence the Hornets lost with the departure of Alonzo Mourning two seasons ago.

REMEMBER THIS: Mason and Rice were first and second in the NBA last season in minutes played. The two averaged more than 42, which led to tired legs in the playoffs. The additions will lift some of that burden.

Atlanta Hawks (55-27)

COACH: Lenny Wilkens.

LAST SEASON: 56-26.

BACK IN THE FOLD: Steve Smith, G (20.1 ppg), Christian Laettner, F (18.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg), Mookie Blaylock, G (17.4 ppg, 5.9 apg), Dikembe Mutombo, C (13.3 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 3.30 bpg).

DEARLY DEPARTED: Jon Barry, G (free agent).

ARRIVALS: Ed Gray, G (1st-round pick, 22nd overall).

THE LOWDOWN: The Hawks felt so confident about their performance last season, they made few changes. However, the addition of Gray, who will spell Blaylock at the point and Smith at shooting guard, could prove wise as the season drags on. Look for Alan Henderson to break out in the small forward or power forward spot.

REMEMBER THIS: Consistently beaten at small forward last season, the Hawks spent much of the off-season courting former Boston F Rick Fox. Fox, however, signed with the Lakers and journeyman Tyrone Corbin again gets the start.

Detroit Pistons (50-32)

COACH: Doug Collins.

LAST SEASON: 54-28.

BACK IN THE FOLD: Grant Hill, F (21.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg), Joe Dumars, G (14.7 ppg, 4.0 apg), Lindsey Hunter, G (14.2 ppg).

DEARLY DEPARTED: Otis Thorpe, F (trade w/Vancouver), Terry Mills, F (free agent).

ARRIVALS: Brian Williams, C (free agent from Chicago), Scott Pollard, C (1st-round pick, 19th overall), Charles O'Bannon, G (2nd-round pick).

THE LOWDOWN: Although aging, Dumars, 34, can produce and should be a calming influence to a team in flux. Still, the Pistons fire when Hill fires. The sensational wing player, and heir apparent to Jordan, will have to match, if not improve on, last season's effort if Detroit is to run at the Bulls. The loss of Thorpe will hurt unless Williams can duplicate the playoff form he showed with the Bulls.

REMEMBER THIS: Detroit lacks a true center and will platoon Williams, Don Reid and Theo Ratliff. Despite Wiliams' playoff effort, that lineup strikes fear in the hearts of few.

Indiana Pacers (48-34)

COACH: Larry Bird.

LAST SEASON: 39-43.

BACK IN THE FOLD: Reggie Miller, G (21.6 ppg), Rik Smits, C (17.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Dale Davis, F (10.4 ppg, 9.7 rpg), Mark Jackson, G (9.9 ppg, 11.4 apg).

DEARLY DEPARTED: Erick Dampier, C (trade w/Golden State), Duane Ferrell, G (trade w/Golden State).

ARRIVALS: Chris Mullin, G (14.5 ppg; trade w/Golden State), Austin Croshere (1st-round pick, 12th overall).

THE LOWDOWN: What a thrill it must be for the likes of Miller, Mullin and the rookie Croshere to have a three-point shooting legend in Bird as their new coach. Bird was never shy about pulling the trigger, and his charges may follow suit. Of course, Bird also was fond of playing defense.

REMEMBER THIS: With so many guns ready to fire, the Pacers are going to need outstanding point-guard play from Mark Jackson. That's the same Jackson who led the league in assists last season, snapping John Stockton's nine-year run.

Toronto Raptors (44-38)

COACH: Darrell Walker.

LAST SEASON: 30-52.

BACK IN THE FOLD: Damon Stoudamire, G (20.2 ppg, 8.8 apg), Marcus Camby, F (14.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Walt Williams, F (16.4 ppg).

DEARLY DEPARTED: Hubert Davis, G (waived).

ARRIVALS: John Wallace, F (from New York), Tracy McGrady, F (1st-round pick, 8th overall).

THE LOWDOWN: Williams and Doug Christie are coming off career years, mostly becaue of Stoudamire's extraordinary season. The point guard is back, and the Raptors have added high school phenom McGrady, who is more versatile than Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant were when they entered the league.

REMEMBER THIS: What Toronto lacked, apart from experience, was a scoring forward, and the Knicks provided that in the Wallace trade. Should Wallace blossom in the open-court style, as he did at Syracuse, Toronto will rise from the cellar.

Cleveland Cavaliers (42-40)

COACH: Mike Fratello.

LAST SEASON: 42-40.

BACK IN THE FOLD: Danny Ferry, F (10.6 ppg), Bob Sura, G (9.2 ppg, 4.8 apg).

DEARLY DEPARTED: Terrell Brandon, G (trade w/Milwaukee), Chris Mills, F (free agent), Bobby Phills, G (free agent), Tyrone Hill, F (trade w/Milwaukee).

ARRIVALS: Shawn Kemp, F (18.7 ppg, 10.0 rpg), Sherman Douglas, G (9.7 ppg, 5.4 apg), Derek Anderson, G (1st-round pick, 13th overall), Brevin Knight, G (1st-round pick, 16th overall).

THE LOWDOWN: Change almost always is a good thing. Right? Fratello's troops reported to camp with more new faces than new basketballs. Of course, the biggest name is Kemp, and the rain man brings with him a reputation as sensational and sensitive. Which Kemp will show up, consistently? The key may be the development of Sura as a main ball handler. He should like Kemp's up-and-down style.

REMEMBER THIS: Last season the Cavs averaged just 87.5 points by employing a mechanical, time-consuming offensive scheme. News flash: That's about to change.

Milwaukee Bucks (40-42)

COACH: Chris Ford.

LAST SEASON: 33-49.

BACK IN THE FOLD: Glen Robinson, F (21.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Ray Allen, G (13.4 ppg).

DEARLY DEPARTED: Vin Baker, F (trade w/Seattle), Sherman Douglas, G (trade w/Cleveland), Johnny Newman, F (trade w/Denver).

ARRIVALS: Terrell Brandon, G (from Cleveland), Tyrone Hill, F (from Cleveland), Ervin Johnson, C (from Denver), Danny Fortson, F (1st-round pick, 10th overall), Michael Curry, G (free agent).

THE LOWDOWN: Here's why some teams remain in the cellar: They trade their best player. Baker was the Bucks' most stable and efficient producer. Sure, his departure should open the floor for the likes of Robinson and Allen. But unless you're the Bulls, a proven low-post scorer is essential. Who will Milwaukee turn to, Ervin Johnson?

REMEMBER THIS: Brandon is a brilliant open-floor point guard who was restricted in Fratello's robotic offense. This change will be inspiring. It will be particularly inspiring to Allen and Robinson, who have pined for such a capable point man.

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