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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Young Teams Poised As NBA Nears Tipoff

First of two articles

NEW YORK -- The sports pages are just no fun anymore. You have to be an arbitration lawyer to understand any of the articles. Baseball players are striking, hockey players have been locked out and the midweek football diet is slim. But beginning Friday, hope arrives as the National Basketball Association season gets under way.

The NBA, which mercifully and wisely reached a no-strike, no-lockout pledge with the players last week, has enough to worry about without its own labor problems. Last year, the Houston Rockets spent seven games in the trenches with the New York Knicks and emerged as champions, ushering in the era of victory by attrition. The games were low-scoring and ugly. The message was that with Michael Jordan -- and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird -- gone, all you need is muscle and hustle to win.

Yet all is not lost. During the off-season the league had the good sense to change a few rules to accentuate offense and keep the rough stuff in check: The three-point line is now 22 feet away from the hoop all the way around, and defenders can't handcheck ballhandlers until they're in the paint. That will translate into more scoring chances and, the Knicks notwithstanding, more wide-open basketball.

The Rockets and Knicks will be challenged this year by talented young teams such as Denver, Golden State, Indiana and Orlando. Do the Knicks have the gumption to get back into the finals after last year's wrenching loss? Can the Rockets repeat? Is this the Suns' last chance? Here's a look at the Western Conference.

Pacific Division

Phoenix Suns. Danny Manning may have found a fine home in Phoenix. Manning was supposed to be a leader for the Clippers and the Hawks, but he is the quintessential team player, unselfish to a fault. Now, with Charles Barkley as the brightest, hottest Sun, Manning can simply blend in. And score, score, score. The Suns should be there in June.

Golden State Warriors. The Warriors are the most explosive, exciting team in the league. They're deep, too, with a solid core: guards Tim Hardaway, Latrell Sprewell and Ricky Pierce; forwards Chris Mullin and Billy Owens; and center Chris Webber. Serious title contenders.

Seattle SuperSonics. Athleticism with an attitude. That's coach George Karl's Sonics. Newcomer Sarunas Marciulionis adds flavor to a spicy offense, but doubts abound about this team. After tallying the league's best record (63-19) last year, the Sonics were summarily bumped by the Denver Nuggets. This year they will be worse in the regular season and better in the playoffs.

Portland Trail Blazers. The most interesting new element to the Blazers is their rookie coach, former Seton Hall boss P.J. Carlesimo. He has a lot of charisma, but he'll need a good front line if his team is to contend this year. And Chris Dudley is not the answer.

Sacramento Kings. Mitch Richmond (23.4 ppg) is one of the best off-guards in the game. The team, however, will be hindered by a lack of size and speed.

Los Angeles Lakers. Who are these guys? Nick Van Exel? Tony Smith? Sure, Van Exel had a good rookie year, but he's no Magic. Guard Anthony Peeler missed most of last year on the injured list, and his return (and 14.1 ppg) will give the Lakers a boost. Still, it'll be a rough year for new coach Del Harris.

Los Angeles Clippers. Actually, it'll be a rough year for all Los Angeles basketball fans. The Clips have been described as the outhouse of the NBA, and there is no reason to think they will stink any less this season. Their best players -- Mark Jackson, Dominique Wilkins, Ron Harper -- are all gone.

Midwest Division

Houston Rockets. Everyone will be gunning for the champs this year, and they will have trouble repeating. MVP center Hakeem Olajuwon averaged 27.3 ppg and 11.3 rpg while playing like a champion last year. The backcourt is erratic, though, and the team will need a fast start.

Denver Nuggets. These guys are for real. They have a strong backcourt with Bryant Stith, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Robert Pack; a fine frontcourt headed by center Dikembe Mutombo and forward LaPhonso Ellis; and a great rookie guard in Michigan's Jalen Rose. Could go all the way.

San Antonio Spurs. They may go deep into the playoffs; then again they may stink. There's trouble in the backcourt, but they do have David Robinson at center.

Utah Jazz. This will probably be the last call for the Mailman, Karl Malone (25.3 ppg). With him and point guard John Stockton, who won his seventh straight assist title last year, the Jazz will play well. But that's all.

Dallas Mavericks. The dismal Mavs have won 24 games over the past two years, but things should improve this season. Jason Kidd of Cal comes in as rookie playmaker, and Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn will thrive with him.

Minnesota Timberwolves. What could be worse than a Wolves season? A Wolves offseason. They came that close to moving to New Orleans (The New Orleans Timberwolves?). Rookie Donyell Marshall will help, but 30 wins might be pushing it.

Friday: Eastern Conference preview