,b>Dallas Mavericks

COACH: Don Nelson (8th season, 297-229).

LAST SEASON: 52-30, 3rd in the Midwest Division. Lost in the 1st round of the playoffs.

MEN AT WORK: Swingman Michael Finley (18.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and all-star F Dirk Nowitzki (21.8, 8.7 rpg) will be the top two offensive options, with newly acquired PG Jason Terry (16.8 ppg, 5.4 apg) also a threat. The Mavs hope that acquiring Erick Dampier (12.3 ppg, 12 rpg) will fill defensive holes in the post. The Mavs re-signed Orlando native Marquis Daniels (8.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg), traded for SG Jerry Stackhouse (13.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and drafted PG Devin Harris at No. 5.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Dallas was the NBA’s top-scoring team (105.2 ppg) but was second-to-last in points allowed (100.8 ppg). Dampier is a legit shot-blocker and rebounder (if healthy), but Nowitzki will have his hands full trying to defend opposing Western power forwards. The Mavs chose not to re-sign PG Steve Nash, who made their team go. Relying on Terry to master Nelson’s offense is going to hurt the team early. Stackhouse, a usual starter, is going to be the sixth man. He’s never been known for team play.

EXIT: Losing Nash will hurt the Mavs, but not enough to take a huge dive. They’re still a threat to win 50 games.

Houston Rockets

COACH: Jeff Van Gundy (2nd season, 45-37).

LAST SEASON: 45-37, 5th in the Midwest Division.

MEN AT WORK: Houston made one of the biggest trades of the summer, acquiring former Orlando Magic all-star Tracy McGrady_who led the league in scoring (28 ppg, 6 rpg, 5.5 apg) – along with Juwan Howard, Reece Gaines and Tyronn Lue. C Yao Ming (17.5 ppg, 9 rpg) is one of the NBA’s best big men. Swingman Jimmy Jackson (12.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg) provides leadership, scoring and defensive play the Rockets will need. Lue (10.5 ppg, 4.2 apg) and Howard (17 ppg, 7 rpg) will help carry the scoring burden – as will former Florida State G Bob Sura when he returns from back surgery.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: The Rockets are a sexy pick for the NBA Finals, but the depth chart at point guard and center (which includes Dikembe Mutombo) are not championship quality. Houston was one of the best defensive teams but lost a solid shot-blocker (Kelvin Cato) in the McGrady trade. Mutombo must play better post defense, or Yao will have to play too much.

EXIT: One of the best things to watch this year (for non-Magic fans) will be the start of the McGrady-Yao era. Houston should win 50 games and gain home court for the first round of the playoffs.

Memphis Grizzlies

COACH: Hubie Brown (3rd season, 78-78) guided the Grizzlies to their first playoff berth.

LAST SEASON: 50-32. Lost in the 1st round of the playoffs.

MEN AT WORK: Free-agent SF Brian Cardinal (9.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg), aka "The Janitor," is expected to provide hustle and defense to Brown’s blue-collar bunch. Pau Gasol (17.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg) is on the verge of all-star status, while defensive whiz James Posey (13.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg) teams with scorers Bonzi Wells (12.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and Mike Miller (11.1 ppg, 3.6 apg) on offense. Stromile Swift (1.5 bpg) and Shane Battier (1.3 steals per game) anchor the interior defense.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Brown is a master at fixing damaged NBA players, from curing Posey’s shooting woes to getting free-spirited PG Jason Williams (10.9 ppg, 6.8 apg) under control in the half court. The Grizzlies had turnover problems last year (14.4 per game) and were below average in 3-point shooting (34 percent). Can they grind it out in the half court, and can Gasol become a consistent go-to guy?

EXIT: Brown gets the most out of his players and demands fundamental play on rebounding and defense. The roster is the same as last year, but Memphis will not sneak up on teams as it did then. The playoffs are in question.

New Orleans Hornets

COACH: Byron Scott (1st season) takes over in New Orleans after being fired by the New Jersey Nets early last season. He guided the Nets to consecutive NBA Finals appearances.

RECORD: 41-41, 3rd in Central Division.

MEN AT WORK: With Jamal Mashburn (knee injury) out for the season, the heavy lifting on offense falls to all-star PG Baron Davis (22.9 ppg, 7.5 apg). C Jamaal Magloire (13.6 ppg, 10.3 rpg) made his first all-star team last season and was one of the few Hornets to play well down the stretch. Second-year F David West (3.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg) should see more minutes, and free-agent additions Rodney Rogers (7.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Chris Andersen (3.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg) add outside shooting and interior defense.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Davis took more 3-pointers (582) than anyone, but the Hornets were 17th in the NBA in scoring (91.8 ppg). The live-or-die attitude from outside was New Orleans’ undoing as the season wore on and its shooters cooled off. There are rifts between Davis and the team’s front office.

EXIT: After looking like the class of the East at the start of last season, the Hornets were bounced in the first round of the playoffs. They aren’t as deep as they used to be and won’t push for more than 30-35 wins in their new home in the Western Conference.

San Antonio Spurs

COACH: Gregg Popovich (9th season, 396-210).

LAST SEASON: 57-25, 2nd in the Midwest Division.

MEN AT WORK: Two-time NBA MVP Tim Duncan (22.3 ppg, 12.4 rpg) is the focus of the offense and pairs with C Rasho Nesterovic (8.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg) to form an intimidating interior defense. SG Manu Ginobili (12.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg) signed a long-term deal to stay in town, while PG Tony Parker (14.7 ppg, 5.5 apg) is on the verge of all-star status. Combo guard Brent Barry (10.8 ppg, 5.8 apg) is the Spurs’ prized free-agent signing of the summer and should make up for the departure of Hedo Turkoglu to Orlando.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: San Antonio has ranked no higher than 20th in free-throw shooting in the past three years, including a last-place finish last season. Aside from the foul-line woes, the Spurs have to hope that Duncan’s left knee and ankle are fully healed from last year’s injuries. Ginobili takes risks with the ball and needs to play under control, and Parker must master Popovich’s offense. When San Antonio loses, it’s often because other players are too busy watching Duncan and not moving.

EXIT: Only Indiana and Minnesota had more wins than San Antonio last year. The Spurs likely will push for 60 wins and a spot in the West finals.


Denver Nuggets

COACH: Jeff Bzdelik (3rd season, 60-104).

LAST SEASON: 43-39, 6th in the Midwest Division.

MEN AT WORK: SF Carmelo Anthony led the team in scoring (21 ppg) and minutes (36.5 mpg) and finished among team leaders in 3-point percentage, rebounds and steals last season. The Nuggets base much of their hope on Anthony and his teammates up front, Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby. Martin (16.7 ppg, 9.5 rpg) was added as a free agent to toughen up the interior defense and scoring. Another healthy season for Camby (8.6 ppg, 10.1 rpg), who played in 72 games last year, would not hurt.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: General Manager Kiki Vandeweghe has kept the Nuggets’ core together while adding Martin and Greg Buckner to provide depth. Denver takes pride in trying to run teams out of games but was susceptible last year to watching players go one-on-one in the half-court set. Integrating Martin into the offense could slow the half-court game. Also, Anthony must become a more willing passer.

EXIT: Denver, which made the playoffs last season for the first time since 1994-95, has a solid core in Anthony, PG Andre Miller and Martin. It should push the 50-win mark and challenge for the Northwest Division title.

Minnesota Timberwolves

COACH: Flip Saunders (10th season, 386-300).

LAST SEASON: 58-24. Lost in the Western Conference Finals.

MEN AT WORK: MVP Kevin Garnett (24.2 ppg, 13.9 rpg) is the face of the franchise, while Sam Cassell (19.8 ppg, 7.3 apg) and Latrell Sprewell (16.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg) helped get Garnett and the `Wolves to the West finals for the first time. Wally Szczerbiak (10.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg), a former all-star, is recovered from last year’s foot injury. The Timberwolves have a capable stable of big men, including Cs Michael Olowokandi and Ervin Johnson and PFs Mark Madsen and Eddie Griffin.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Sprewell and Cassell, both volatile personalities, are angry at management for not reaching contract extensions with them, and Szczerbiak is being mentioned in trade talks. Szczerbiak, Troy Hudson and Olowokandi missed stretches of last season with injuries. The T-Wolves lack a solid third point guard who can step in if Cassell and/or Hudson are injured again.

EXIT: Minnesota’s playoff run ended two wins short of the NBA Finals. If Saunders can work out the playing time/ego issues among Garnett’s supporting cast, the Wolves should run away with the Northwest Division, get 60 wins and challenge for the NBA’s best record.

Portland Trail Blazers

COACH: Maurice Cheeks (4th season, 140-106).

LAST SEASON: 41-41, 3rd in the Pacific Division.

MEN AT WORK: PF Zach Randolph (20.1 ppg, 10.5 rpg) is the reigning NBA Most Improved Player and seems poised for the start of many all-star appearances. PGs Nick Van Exel (12.6 ppg, 5.3 apg) and rookie Sebastian Telfair give Portland a change of pace from starter Damon Stoudamire (13.4 ppg, 6.1 apg). Theo Ratliff (7.9 ppg, 3.6 bpg), Shareef Abdur-Rahim (16.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg), Ruben Patterson (6.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and Darius Miles (10.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg) round out the Blazers’ athletic front court.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Patterson wants to be traded, Abdur-Rahim would rather be the starting small forward than back up Randolph, and Qyntel Woods is in trouble with the law (again). Cheeks can manage problems like these, but it often detracts from his ability to get the Blazers to play as a team. For all its individual talent, Port-land was 21st in scoring (90.7 ppg) and 18th in rebounding (41.7 rpg).

EXIT: The problems this year aren’t as bad as in seasons past. The Blazers missed the playoffs for the first time in 21 years last season, but Cheeks should be able to get 40-45 wins out of this group.

Seattle SuperSonics

COACH: Nate McMillan (5th season, 160-153).

LAST SEASON: 37-45, 5th in the Pacific Division.

MEN AT WORK: The Sonics have solid backcourt players in all-star SG Ray Allen (23 ppg, 5.1 rpg), second-year PG Luke Ridnour (5.5 ppg, 2.4 apg) and Ronald "Flip" Murray (12.4 ppg). Seattle acquired troubled PF Danny Fortson (3.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg) in its only major move of the summer. Fortson is expected to provide rebounding help as Seattle waits for rookie Nick Collison to develop.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: McMillan did a decent job of holding the team together until Allen returned from ankle surgery Dec. 23. Seattle was in the playoff race until January, but shooters such as Allen and Murray couldn’t hide the Sonics’ lack of bulk and defense. Seattle collected the fewest rebounds in the league last season (3,225) and could remain near the bottom even with Fortson and Collison playing major minutes. Allen will be among the league’s top 10 scorers, but Seattle will be manhandled in the post often.

EXIT: Every team in the Northwest Division made significant offseason changes and is to be in the playoff race except one: Seattle. The Sonics should be a decent open-court team, but they won’t win more than 30-35 games that way.

Utah Jazz

COACH: Jerry Sloan (17th season, 917-561).

LAST SEASON: 42-40, 7th in the Midwest Division.

MEN AT WORK: SF Andrei Kirilenko (16.5 ppg, 2.8 bpg) made his first all-star team last season. Free agents Mehmet Okur (9.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Carlos Boozer (15.5 ppg, 11.4 rpg) and rookie Kris Humphries add size and defense to fix a soft front court. Ex-Magic player Matt Harpring (16.2 ppg, 8 rpg) is recovered from knee surgery. PG Carlos Arroyo (12.6 ppg, 5 apg) led Puerto Rico’s upset of the U.S. team at the Olympics and former Orlando SF Gordan Giricek (11.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg) gets a full camp with Utah.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Owner Larry Miller was one of the biggest spenders this summer, signing Okur and Boozer to long-term deals and re-signing Giricek and Arroyo. Utah needs to make sure Kirilenko is locked into a contract extension so that does not become a distraction. Harpring, Giricek and Arroyo must hit 3-pointers and open up the inside for Okur and Boozer.

EXIT: Sloan got 42 wins out of an underdog team mostly on his coaching and an up-tempo offense. With the new additions, a healthy roster and Kirilenko’s continued growth, Utah figures to push for 43-48 wins and a return to the playoffs after last year’s absence.


Golden State Warriors

COACH: Mike Montgomery (1st season).

LAST SEASON: 37-45, 4th in the Pacific Division.

MEN AT WORK: High-flying SG Jason Richardson led Golden State in scoring last season (18.7 ppg) and is expected to team with PGs Speedy Claxton (10.6 ppg, 4.5 apg) and free-agent signee Derek Fisher (7.1 ppg, 2.3 apg) to provide a pressuring backcourt. Ankle injuries slowed the progress of PF Troy Murphy (10 ppg, 6.2 rpg), but he is a double-double threat if healthy. The offseason trades that brought big man Dale Davis (4.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and defensive specialist Eduardo Najera give the Warriors an experienced front court.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Montgomery, who coached at Stanford for 18 years, will rely on assistants Mario Elie and Terry Stotts to help him learn how to manage as an NBA coach. The Warriors don’t have prima donnas, but Montgomery must learn to deal with the egos of NBA players. C Adonal Foyle’s new contract (six years, $42 million) sets him for life, but Golden State will be disappointed if he never provides the offense that departed C Erick Dampier did.

EXIT: Golden State is still behind Phoenix, the L.A. Lakers and Sacramento (in that order) in the Pacific Division. Don’t expect more than 28-34 wins.

Los Angeles Clippers

COACH: Mike Dunleavy (2nd season, 28-54).

LAST SEASON: 6th in the Pacific Division.

MEN AT WORK: The Clippers return their top two scorers, Elton Brand (20 ppg, 10.3 rpg) and ex-Orlando Magic swingman Corey Maggette (20.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg). They hope the trade that brought swingman Kerry Kittles (13.1 ppg, 4 rpg) will add veteran leadership for a young team in need of guidance. Chris Kaman (6.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg) has the size (7 feet, 265 pounds) to be a decent NBA center, and the Clippers hope he can shore up their interior defense.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: The Clippers have enough offense to make the playoffs, but do they have enough defense? The Clippers were 28-51 by the end of the 2003 calendar year, marking the 10th time since 1994 that they failed to win 30 or more games in a year. As usual, the reason for L.A.’s failure was defensive lapses. The Clippers allowed the third-most points per game in the NBA (99.4). PG Marko Jaric is a decent perimeter defender, but most Clippers are more focused on scoring averages.

EXIT: Last year’s troubles could be blamed partially on injuries to Brand. A 35-win season and some signs of defensive improvement in Dunleavy’s second season are the least to expect.

Los Angeles Lakers

COACH: Rudy Tomjanovich (1st season).

LAST SEASON: 56-26, 1st in Pacific Division. Lost in NBA Finals.

MEN AT WORK: Team owner Jerry Buss turned over the team to SG Kobe Bryant (24 ppg, 5.1 rpg) by trading away C Shaquille O’Neal (21.5 ppg, 11.5 rpg) and giving Bryant a long-term deal. Brian Grant (8.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Caron Butler (9.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Lamar Odom (17.1 ppg, 9.7 rpg) were the Lakers’ asking price for sending O’Neal to Miami. Former Lakers C Vlade Divac (9.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg) is back.Chucky Atkins (8.4 ppg, 3.5 apg) and Chris Mihm (6.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg) were traded from the Boston Celtics and round out the Lakers’ depth.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Bryant’s obsession with proving he’s the next Michael Jordan will be challenged. He won’t have O’Neal there to clean up his mistakes, so Bryant has to trust his teammates now. Grant and Divac are solid defensive players, but they’re injury prone. Backups Mihm and Slava Medvedenko (8.3 ppg, 5 rpg) don’t scare anyone. The Lakers’ low-post game, a strength in the past, will be exposed by good (and mediocre) post players.

EXIT: Even without O’Neal, the Lakers could come close to 50 wins. It all depends on how willing Bryant is to share the ball with his new supporting cast.

Phoenix Suns

COACH: Mike D’Antoni (2nd season, 21-40).

LAST SEASON: 29-53, 5th in the Pacific Division.

MEN AT WORK: The Suns’ youthful core of Amare Stoudemire (20.6 ppg, 9 ppg), Shawn Marion (19 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and Joe Johnson (16.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg) remains in tact, but an offseason overhaul to the backcourt is a big upgrade. After trotting out untested but talented rookie Leandro Barbosa and washed-up Howard Eisley last season, all-star Steve Nash (14.5 ppg, 8.8 apg) spurned Dallas to sign a free-agent deal. Quentin Richardson, also a free-agent signee, defected from the Los Angeles Clippers.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Nash, Stoudemire, Marion and Richardson should mesh and thrive in the up-tempo style of game that is becoming en vogue in the West. D’Antoni will have his hands full breaking Richardson (a career 41 percent shooter) of some bad habits he picked up the past two years in L.A. Zarko Cabarkapa is probably Phoenix’s most skilled center, and he’s a second-year player coming off a wrist injury.

EXIT: Luckily for the Suns, the Pacific Division might be the weakest in the Western Conference. Phoenix is a year or two from the Pacific crown, but a 40-45 win season and a chance at the playoffs are possible.

Sacramento Kings

COACH: Rick Adelman (7th season, 301-159).

LAST SEASON: 55-27, 2nd in Pacific Division. Lost in Western Conference semifinals.

MEN AT WORK: PF Chris Webber (18.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg) is considered the Kings’ best player, but all-star SF Peja Stojakovic (24.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg) kept Sacramento together last season while Webber recovered from a knee injury. The play of all-star C Brad Miller (14.1 ppg, 10.3 rpg) gave the Kings reason not to re-sign Vlade Divac. PG Mike Bibby (18.4 ppg, 5.4 apg) is one of the league’s top clutch players. His backup, Bobby Jackson (13.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg), is a great sixth man and could start for many teams.

DANGEROUS INTERSECTION: Stojakovic asked to be traded in the offseason, and there are rumors of bad chemistry on what has been one of the NBA’s most tight-knit teams. Sacramento was in the top 5 in scoring average (second), field-goal percentage (first) and 3-point percentage (first) but was a poor shot blocking-team and allowed 13.2 offensive rebounds a game (28th). Defense needs to be a priority.

EXIT: After a 61-win season in 2001, the Kings slowly have begun to fall back in the West each year. Expect a 50-win season, the Pacific Division title and a spot in the conference semifinals.

(c) 2004, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.