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Insights: Sports—NBA Preview

Taking a look at the NBA teams and players to watch in the coming season
Ahmad Rashad
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

It seems like only yesterday that Kobe Bryant was kissing the championship trophy, Phil Jackson was lighting a victory cigar, and Shaquille O'Neal was giving himself the most fitting of his many nicknames--the Big Champion. The Los Angeles Lakers earned their right to celebrate, but the 2000­2001 National Basketball Association season is already underway, and it's time to start from scratch again with any outcome possible.

As new seasons tend to do, this one will bring new scenarios and some new characters. Here's one man's early glimpse of the teams and players to look for as it tips off.    

ATLANTIC DIVISION  

The Miami Heat has had no problem winning the Atlantic Division. The problem has come at playoff time, especially against its archrivals, the New York Knicks. New York has eliminated the Heat three years in a row, all in deciding games, and all on Miami's home court. That means it's time to shake things up, and coach Pat Riley has done just that by trading for Eddie Jones and Anthony Mason. Eddie will give the Heat some of the scoring and athleticism it's lacked, and with stars like Jones, Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, Miami will again be an Eastern Conference power.  

But its Florida rival, the Orlando Magic, will also be much improved, thanks to two big off-season acquisitions, Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill. Last season, NBA Coach of the Year Doc Rivers took an unheralded team to the brink of a playoff berth, led by one of the NBA's most underrated players, point guard Darrell Armstrong. Orlando also came up with a real find at center in British-born John Amaechi, the only NBA player who has tea time each afternoon. And now that the Magic has added two dynamic stars to the mix, the team could emerge as a genuine contender in the Eastern Conference.  

Of course, when you talk about the Atlantic, you have to mention the Knicks, who went to the conference finals last season, and the NBA Finals the year before. But New York has some question marks. One of them is, how much does Patrick Ewing have left in the tank? (Assuming he's still around and not traded as was attempted in the off-season.) And, how will the Knicks address their biggest weakness--rebounding? The main problem, according to coach Jeff Van Gundy, is that the lineup has been too small with Latrell Sprewell and Larry Johnson as their starting forwards.  

The Philadelphia 76ers have become Eastern Conference contenders, reaching the second round of the playoffs the past two years. The main reason has been high-scoring guard Allen Iverson. But as electrifying as he is, the Answer has often been the only answer on offense for the Sixers. He's had to carry too much of the load by himself, and the Sixers need more help from the supporting cast if they're to get to the next level. One thing that'll help is having Toni Kukoc for a full season.    

CENTRAL DIVISION  

What happens when you replace one Hall of Famer with another as head coach? The Indiana Pacers are about to find out, after saying goodbye to Larry Bird and hello to Isiah Thomas. Isiah inherits a team that went to the conference finals the past three seasons and made its first trip to the NBA Finals last year. It's a team with plenty of veteran leadership, which is another way of saying the Pacers are starting to get older. They do, however, have budding superstar Jalen Rose. Four of last year's starters were over 30, so look for Thomas to start mixing younger legs into the rotation and play a more up-tempo style. He'll look to players like Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender to help create a more versatile team. And they still have Reggie Miller!  

Even though the Pacers made it to the Finals, they were just seconds away from going out in the first round. If Travis Best hadn't hit a clutch three-pointer from the corner, Indiana would have lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in five games. The Bucks have been coming on strong the last two years under coach George Karl, and they could be ready to take another big step up this season. Milwaukee features a trio of dangerous scorers in Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, Ray Allen and Sam Cassell. And the Big Three could very well be a Big Four with the rise of the talented Tim Thomas, a player who really came into his own last season. With this nucleus, the Bucks are on the verge of making serious noise.  


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