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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gazing Inside the Crystal Basketball

NEW YORK -- Inside our crystal basketball, we predict in the 1996 to 1997 season ...

?Penny Hardaway will win MVP; Corliss Williamson of the Sacramento Kings will be the most improved player; Jimmy Lynam of the Washington Bullets will be the coach of the year; Indiana's Jalen Rose will be the best sixth man; Marcus Camby will give the Toronto Raptors their second straight rookie of the year; the New York Knicks' Ernie Grunfeld will win executive of the year in a landslide. Hardaway will edge Michael Jordan because the loss of Shaquille O'Neal will force him to blossom from very good to great.

?Portland will win 50 games and shock someone in the playoffs, because the Trail Blazers are not only potentially dangerous to themselves but everyone else. Make no mistake, there are nutcases on the Blazers. But is this the year Isaiah Rider matures? And Kenny Anderson becomes an All-Star again? And Rasheed Wallace gets his head straight? And Clifford Robinson keeps it together for the playoffs?

?The Philadelphia 76ers will have a tough time adjusting to Allen Iverson, who can't break bad habits right away. Iverson's instincts are to score, and that could present problems with Jerry Stackhouse, Derrick Coleman and Clarence Weatherspoon, three other Sixers used to getting 10 to 15 shots a game.

?The Houston Rockets will have no problem adjusting to Charles Barkley, because they believe him when he says he just wants to win a title. If Sir Charles can pull back during the Olympics, when he voluntarily sat out an entire game to give his minutes to others, then Barkley can sacrifice for Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.

?Second-year pro Greg Ostertag will become the best Utah Jazz center since Mark Eaton, which isn't saying much, considering he's following James Donaldson, Felton Spencer and Greg Foster. But Ostertag has a wide body, decent footwork and a reliable baby hook, and can only get better as he goes against Shaq, Olajuwon and David Robinson regularly.

?The most underrated free-agent signee will be Tracy Murray. He shot 42 percent on three-pointers last season in Toronto and should see plenty of open looks in Washington, where Juwan Howard and Chris Webber are sure to see double teams.

?The most unheralded draft pick will be Denver guard Jeff McInnis, the 37th player taken. When McInnis left North Carolina a year early, Dean Smith held the door open, and many NBA teams thought McInnis made a mistake. But after some eye-opening play in the preseason, he is a lock for the rotation and could become a better scoring option than Bryant Stith, a defensive specialist.

?Jordan will lead the league in scoring for the eighth time in his career. But right behind will be O'Neal, who now plays in the wide-open West, and Hardaway.

?The Knicks won't hear a peep from John Starks, at least not in the regular season. That's because Allan Houston will average nearly 23 points a game and the Knicks will win 60. But once the playoffs begin, all bets are off. If the Knicks meet Jordan, Starks will suggest the Knicks put the better defender (i.e., himself) on the floor.

?New Jersey's John Calipari will win fewer games than Butch Beard. The Nets have no true talent and a thin bench, and 30 wins, which Beard managed in each of the two years he coached, will be beyond their reach.

?Magic Johnson will not return to the Los Angeles Lakers even though he'll bounce the thought off everyone inside and outside the organization.

?Rod Strickland will be the Bullets' MVP and the point guard they badly needed to go with Howard and Webber. Howard and Webber, especially, are great finishers and Strickland excels on the break.

?Kevin Garnett will make the All-Star team because he already has a money shot, a 15-foot turnaround on the baseline that is difficult to stop because of his wingspan.

?The San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics will undergo coaching changes by the end of the season. Bob Hill is working on a one-year contract in San Antonio, and anything short of an NBA Finals appearance will be the end for him; M.L. Carr will finally get the hint and dismiss himself after the Celtics make another lottery appearance.

?Kobe Bryant will get more minutes than Jermaine O'Neal, and both will be happy they took the direct route to the pros, playing for money rather than college credits.

?The Charlotte Hornets, not Raptors, will be the worst team in the East, and Anthony Mason and Dave Cowens will square off more than once.

?There will be unrest in Detroit between Coach Doug Collins and Grant Hill, who's still upset about the way the Pistons lost Houston. Collins has pushed and prodded Hill in an effort to make him one of the game's elite, but Hill already has grown tired of Collins' act.