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Mesarwi’s Crystal Ball Can See

All the Way to the NBA Finals

By Amir A. Mesarwi

GUEST COLUMNIST

NFL training camps are opening, the Major League baseball season is just beginning it’s second half (with another home run chase heating up), so this can be time for only one thing: the official start of the 1999-2000 NBA season.

That’s right. With the moratorium on deals through the month of July over, teams will be looking to build around such free agents as Charles Barkley, Penny Hardaway and Mitch Richmond. With rumors spreading like wildfire, the outcome of the coming season is difficult for even the most avid fan to predict. Here’s one possible outcome, sorted by division.

Atlantic division

The Heat were the top seed in last year’s playoffs but were shocked by the New York Knicks largely because of a lack of outside shooting. One rumor has Glen Rice coming to the Heat for P.J. Brown. This will only happen if the Lakers are able to grab a replacement, maybe in the Rockets’ Scottie Pippen.

Losing Dan Majerle would be serious trouble for the Heat. The Magic were also upset in the first round, and rumor has it Penny’s out of there. The best move the Magic can make is to ship him to L.A., who would love to reunite him with Shaq.

The Knicks aren’t going to be lucky enough to make the Finals again without some help in the post. They’re looking at picking up Otis Thorpe to make their roster even older and solidify the post. The Wizards are looking to unload Mitch Richmond; other than that, they will be relatively quiet this off-season, as will the Sixers. The Celtics and Nets will need major overhaul to contend.

Prediction: Miami takes the division title with or without Rice.

Central Division

The Pacers will always be the favorite after Jordan’s retirement until proven otherwise, despite the fact that they need full time babysitters for the two teens on the roster. They will need to find a replacement for Antonio Davis at power forward, perhaps looking at Toronto’s Charles Oakley. The Hawks and Pistons are unlikely to repeat last season’s performance with Steve Smith and Joe Dumars leaving their respective rosters. The rest of the division -- the Cavaliers, Bulls, Bucks, Raptors, and Hornets will only get respectable records beating up on each other.

Prediction: Indiana runs away with the division.

Midwest Division

The San Antonio Spurs are the obvious favorite, winning the title in impressive fashion and losing only Sean Elliot because of his kidney. They will likely pursue Shanden Anderson from Utah as a replacement. The Jazz will need to sign either Stockton or Hornacek or both if they are to have any chance to compete. They have talked to Charles Barkley, though those talks will die with the recent signing of Karl Malone.

The Rockets will need an outside shooter to work the inside/outside game. The deal sending Pippen to L.A. for Rice and former Rocket Robert Horry makes sense as it gives them another young body and a shooter, but they may have to settle for Ron Harper of the Bulls. The Timberwolves will be competitive with Terrell Brandon, Joe Smith (if he stays) and Kevin Garnett. They are a bench away from seriously contending, though. Dallas, Vancouver and Denver will compete for lottery picks.

Prediction: San Antonio will win a heated race with the Rockets.

Pacific Division

The Lakers will run away with this division hands down and return to the Finals after a nine year absence if they are able to sneak Penny Hardaway away from the Magic. Portland surprised many last year, but they are missing the leadership needed to take the next step.

The Steve Smith for J.R. Rider deal will help the Blazers but will not be enough. Sacramento impressed last year but are not deep enough to compete. The Suns are also in the Penny Hardaway hunt, which would add a scorer to a barren lineup. The Sonics, Warriors and Clippers will get no better, particularly if the Sonics get nothing for free agent Vin Baker.

Prediction: Lakers take the division by ten games over second place Portland.

Then what? I say the Lakers over the Pacers in the finals 4-2. Indiana will get over the hump and get the finals, but Shaq and Penny will get their first rings reunited in Hollywood.