Western Conference's Great 8


1. Portland Trail Blazers:
President and general manager Bob Whitsitt has done a tremendous job amassing a wealth of talent for coach Mike Dunleavy.

In the off-season Whitsitt added all-star experience by landing Scottie Pippen (14.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Steve Smith (18.7 ppg, 3.3 apg) and Detlef Schrempf (15.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg).

The only question to be answered is how these newcomers will mesh with the old guard. Brian Grant (11.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg), Damon Stoudamire (12.6 ppg, 6.2 apg) and Rasheed Wallace (12.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg) should welcome and benefit from the veteran experience.


AP
With Phil Jackson running the show, Kobe Bryant (left) and Shaq (right) could dominate the West.
2. San Antonio Spurs:
Unlike Portland, the Spurs stood pat during the off-season. The defending NBA Champions can't be faulted for that.

San Antonio has what many believe to be the league's best player, Tim Duncan (21.7 ppg, 11.4 rpg). David Robinson (15.8 ppg, 10.0 rpg) will continue in his role as the other half of the "Twin Towers" and share his veteran knowledge with Duncan.

One of the Spurs sometimes overlooked assets is the stifling defense the team plays. They were the #1 ranked field goal percentage defense in the league last season.

3. Los Angeles Lakers:
The Lakers have a new arena and a new coach, with the coach grabbing most of the attention.

Phil Jackson enters the spotlight in a town where the spotlight can sometimes burn a hole in its target. It shouldn't be a problem for Jackson though, his resume is impeccable and his calm demeanor may be just what this team needs. Shaquille O'Neal (26.3 ppg, 10.7 rpg) still has the potential to be the most dominant player on the floor any given night. Kobe Bryant (19.9 ppg, 3.8 apg) is electrifying but may be hampered by missing the first month or two of the season.

The key to the Lakers' success may rest on whomever assumes the point guard position. Ron Harper (11.2 ppg, 3.3 apg), who was exposed to Jackson's triangle offense in Chicago, may take the spot. If Harper isn't right for the job, Derek Fisher (5.9 ppg, 3.9 apg) is waiting in the wings.


AP
Are the Utah Jazz and Karl Malone over the hill?
4. Utah Jazz:
With the Jazz, it seems the most frequently raised question each preseason is 'Is Utah over the hill?' Then perennial MVP candidate Karl Malone (23.8 ppg, 9.4 rpg) and point guard John Stockton (11.1 ppg, 7.5 apg) take the floor, take the team on their shoulders and carry the Jazz deep into the playoffs.

The problem for the Jazz is that, after a couple of seasons when it was felt that it was "their" year, they didn't get it done.

This is not "their" year. Utah is just a half-notch below the top three.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves:
The T'wolves have one of the league's most exciting players in Kevin Garnett (20.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg). Point guard Terrell Brandon (14.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg), with a low assist-to-turnover ration is one of the most efficient in the league at his position. If healthy, Joe Smith (13.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg) can take some of the scoring pressure off Garnett.

The problem for Minnesota is that the center position is a question mark and the bench is thin.

They also will have to do a better job taking their act on the road this season to be considered serious contenders.

6. Sacramento Kings:
The addition of Nick Anderson (14.9 ppg, 1.9 apg) in the off-season allows the Kings to put a solid starting five on the floor.
Chris Webber (20.0 ppg, 13.0 rpg) can be dominating, Vlade Divac (14.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg) is a proven veteran and Jason Williams (12.8 ppg, 6.0 apg) has a game that supports his flashy style.

These guys can't play 48 minutes a night, though. The Kings bench is thin and that will hurt down the stretch as the rigors of a long season takes its toll.


AP
Can Scottie Pippen push the Trail Blazers over the Top?
7. Houston Rockets:
A season-long highlight for the Rockets will be the Charles Barkley (16.1 ppg, 12.3 rpg) Farewell Tour, coming to an NBA city near you.

Houston is hoping it plays out as gracefully as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's did than the NHL's Dominck Hasek's.

Veteran Hakeem Olajuwon (18.9 ppg, 9.5 rpg) will patrol the pivot for the Rockets and no doubt deliver his usual solid performance. If rookie Steve Francis develops, Houston may have a surprisingly strong backcourt when Francis teams with Shandon Anderson (8.5 ppg, 1.1 apg).

8. Phoenix Suns:
The Suns have the best backcourt in the league.

Jason Kidd (16.9 ppg, 10.8 apg) is a viable league MVP candidate and perhaps no one is more valuable to his team. Anfernee Hardaway (15.8 ppg, 5.8 apg) is a proven scorer in the league and Phoenix is hoping the two complement each other.

Tom Gugliotta (17.0 ppg, 8.9 rpg) is a consistent scorer and rebounder. Phoenix is another team that has questions to answer at the center position and their bench is weak. If rookie Shawn Marion develops quickly, the Suns could make a little more noise.

Produced by Larry Roth and John Esterbrook. ©1999 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed