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NBA MIDWEST DIVISION PREVIEW

Teams are listed, with records, in predicted

order of finish.

Utah Jazz (60-22)

COACH: Jerry Sloan.

LAST SEASON: 64-18 (1st place).

BACK IN THE FOLD: Karl Malone, F (27.4 ppg, 9.9 rpg), John Stockton, G (14.4 ppg, 10.5 apg), Jeff Hornacek, G (14.5 ppg), Byron Russell, F (10.8 ppg).

DEARLY DEPARTED: None.

ARRIVALS: Jacque Vaughn, G (first-round draft pick).

THE LOWDOWN: As in Houston, all the main pieces are back. Geez, if this team had a real center instead of Greg Ostertag, it would be scary. Only question here is age. Malone, Stockton and Hornacek can play at this level for only so long. Still, the Jazz shouldn't suffer too much with Stockton out early. Look for it in the Western Conference final again.

REMEMBER THIS: Last season was an emotional ride for the Jazz and its loyal fans. After finally reaching the Finals and bringing Malone the MVP award, what will be the team's motivation?

Houston Rockets (55-27)

COACH: Rudy Tomjanovich.

LAST SEASON: 57-25.

BACK IN THE FOLD: Hakeem Olajuwon, C (23.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg), Charles Barkley, F (19.2 ppg), Clyde Drexler, G (18.0 ppg), Kevin Willis, F (11.2 ppg).

DEARLY DEPARTED: Sedale Threatt, G (free agent).

ARRIVALS: Rodrick Rhodes, G/F (first-round draft pick).

THE LOWDOWN: It's true this team isn't getting any younger, but it still has one of the best collections of talent in the league. All the key components are back from a squad that probably should have gone to the Finals. As usual, if it can endure the long season and remain reasonably healthy, it will be one of the best teams in the NBA again.

REMEMBER THIS: Keeping Olajuwon, Barkley and Drexler healthy is the key. Last season the Rockets were 32-8 when all three were in the lineup and 5-6 when only one suited up.

San Antonio Spurs (54-28)

COACH: Gregg Popovich.

LAST SEASON: 20-62.

BACK IN THE FOLD: David Robinson, C (17.7 ppg, 8.5 rpg), Sean Elliott, G (14.9 ppg), Chuck Person, F (10.9 ppg).

DEARLY DEPARTED: Dominique Wilkins, F (playing in Greece).

ARRIVALS: Tim Duncan, F (first-round draft pick).

THE LOWDOWN: Everyone better savor those wins over the Spurs last season because they're not likely to come so easily. Robinson's return from injury and the addition of Duncan make this team an instant contender again. Plenty of experience around here. Only question is the bench, where Will Perdue and Cory Alexander reside.

REMEMBER THIS: Duncan is supposed to concentrate on rebounding and defense, but he led the team in scoring in three of the first four preseason games.

Minnesota Timberwolves (38-44)

COACH: Flip Saunders.

LAST SEASON: 40-42.

BACK IN THE FOLD: Tom Gugliotta, F (20.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Kevin Garnett, F (17.0 ppg), Stephon Marbury, G (15.8 ppg, 7.8 apg).

DEARLY DEPARTED: Dean Garrett, C (free agent), James Robinson, G (free agent).

ARRIVALS: Paul Grant, C (first-round draft pick), Stanley Roberts, C (trade w/Clippers).

THE LOWDOWN: Hard to believe that after reaching its first playoffs, this club seemingly has rested on its meager laurels. After giving Garnett the bank, the Wolves had little left to bring in anyone else. Thus, their core is solid, but the supporting cast is suspect. Teams will challenge the Wolves, no longer league darlings. That will make a post-season repeat a tall order.

REMEMBER THIS: The longer three-point shot could hinder them. The departed Robinson arguably was their best long-distance shooter.

Vancouver Grizzlies (24-58)

COACH: Brian Hill.

LAST SEASON: 14-68.

BACK IN THE FOLD: Shareef Abdur-Rahim, F (18.7 ppg), Bryant Reeves, C (16.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg), Anthony Peeler, G (14.5 ppg).

DEARLY DEPARTED: Greg Anthony, G (renounced rights), Lawrence Moten, G (free agent).

ARRIVALS: Antonio Daniels, G (first-round draft pick), Otis Thorpe, F (trade w/Detroit).

THE LOWDOWN: This club ought to be better than last season, but considering it won only 14 games, that's not saying much. Daniels will provide instant help, as will Thorpe if he decides to put aside his displeasure with being in the Northwest. But plenty of holes remain, and a rash of preseason injuries means those problems won't get fixed soon.

REMEMBER THIS: Hill was the most successful coach in Magic history. His skill should be worth at least 10 more wins for the Grizzlies.

Dallas Mavericks (19-63)

COACH: Jim Cleamons.

LAST SEASON: 24-58.

BACK IN THE FOLD: Michael Finley, F (15 ppg), Robert Pack, G (14.3 ppg, 8.4 apg), Shawn Bradley, C (13.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 3.4 bpg), Erick Strickland, G (10.6 ppg).

DEARLY DEPARTED: Sasha Danilovic, G; Derek Harper, G; Ed O'Bannon, F.

ARRIVALS: Dennis Scott, F (trade w/Orlando), Hubert Davis, G (free agent), Chris Anstey, C (trade w/Portland).

THE LOWDOWN: This team is a study in how not to build a winning franchise. GM Don Nelson cleaned house last season yet did little to upgrade during the off-season. Finley and Pack are solid, but the rest of this squad is hurtin'. Scott and Davis give the Mavs some perimeter shooters, and Strickland could surprise once healthy. But the Mavs still lack scorers, rebounders and good defenders. Basically, they are not very good.

REMEMBER THIS: The Mavs were 26th in scoring last season and have a 34-year-old (A.C. Green) as their starting power forward.

Denver Nuggets (17-65)

COACH: Bill Hanzlik.

LAST SEASON: 21-61.

BACK IN THE FOLD: LaPhonso Ellis, F (21.9 ppg), Bryant Stith, G (14.9 ppg), Anthony Goldwire, G (6.5 ppg).

DEARLY DEPARTED: Antonio McDyess, F (trade w/Phoenix), Dale Ellis, G (free agent), Sarunas Marciulionis, G (renounced rights), Ervin Johnson, C (signed w/Milwaukee).

ARRIVALS: Bobby Jackson, G (trade w/Seattle), Danny Fortson, F (trade w/Milwaukee), Dean Garrett, C (free agent), Eric Williams, F (trade w/Boston), Priest Lauderdale, C (trade w/Atlanta).

THE LOWDOWN: If a team is going nowhere faster than the Mavs, it's this bunch. Folks in Denver still can't believe McDyess is gone. Alas, he is, and so are any hopes the Nuggets have of being anything more than a division doormat. Fortson and Jackson have promise, but it's a season or two from being realized. In the meantime, pray for Hanzlik. He needs it.

REMEMBER THIS: Hanzlik is Denver's seventh coach this decade and inherits a team that finished 23rd or worse last season in points allowed (104.1), FG percentage (.439), rebounds allowed (43.2) and turnovers (16.6).

_ DARRELL FRY

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