1. Chicago Bulls
Coach: Phil Jackson
Forecast: Scottie Pippen’s ankle injury makes the Bulls vulnerable early in the season. Opponents better enjoy it while they can. Once he returns, Chicago will again be the prohibitive favorite to win its sixth title in the past eight years.
Key player: Michael Jordan. His will to win is legendary. Jordan is the premier athlete of his generation.
X-factor: Toni Kukoc. He must assume a bigger role in Pippen’s absence. There is an upside to his game that can make the Bulls even more formidable.
2. Atlanta Hawks
Coach: Lenny Wilkens
Forecast: The Hawks have one of the best starting fives in the league. A fast start could put Atlanta in position to win the division if it can hold off a second-half charge by the Bulls. Getting out of the East and into the finals will be a problem.
Key player: Mookie Blaylock. Dikembe Mutombo anchors the defense. Steve Smith and Christian Laettner are the leading scorers. But Blaylock is the heart and soul of this team. When he is on his game, the Hawks can beat any team.
X-factor: The bench. The deeper this team goes into the playoffs, the more it is hurt by the lack of a quality bench. Atlanta must develop a unit that doesn’t give away the edge the starters earn.
3. Miami Heat
Coach: Pat Riley
Forecast: Riley always seems to lead his teams into the thick of the playoff hunt. This season should be no different. Alonzo Mourning’s injury may prevent a fast start, but this team will still be there at the end.
Key player: Tim Hardaway. The Heat is built around Mourning. But Hardaway is the driving force to the team’s success on the court and the one who takes the big shots late.
X-factor: Jamal Mashburn. Miami doesn’t need gaudy numbers out of him. But he must develop into a more efficient player to ease the defensive pressure on Mourning and Hardaway.
4. Charlotte Hornets
Coach: Dave Cowens
Forecast: The Hornets exceeded expectations last season. That success and an improved backcourt should translate into even greater heights this time around.
Key player: Glen Rice. He blossomed into one of the league’s elite scorers in the second half of last season. His smooth stroke from the outside will set him apart even more now that the 3-point line will be moved back.
X-factor: Anthony Mason. He is a brash, dominant player who gives the Hornets a needed fire. But Mason runs the risk of alienating his teammates - and disrupting team chemistry - if he continues to yell at teammates who don’t perform to the level he would like.
5. New York Knicks
Coach: Jeff Van Gundy
Forecast: This team appears to be bored at times during the regular season. But dismissing the Knicks once the playoffs begin would be a mistake. If any team in the East is capable of delivering a knockout punch to the Bulls, it’s New York.
Key player: Patrick Ewing. A warrior. Ewing’s on a crusade to beat Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Time is running out.
X-factor: Larry Johnson. The Knicks didn’t acquire him to become a role player. Johnson needs to flash his former All-Star form for New York to improve.
6. Orlando Magic
Coach: Chuck Daly
Forecast: This franchise is still reeling from the loss of Shaquille O’Neal to free agency. But the Magic is on its way to forging a strong identity without him. Orlando could advance to the Eastern Conference finals, but it’s doubtful it can go much farther.
Key player: Anfernee Hardaway. The move to shooting guard should enhance his career and make the Magic even more formidable. Look for his scoring average to soar.
X-factor: Horace Grant. A wonderful, complementary piece up front. Grant, however, must avoid the injuries that have chipped away at his playing time over the course of his career for the Magic to reach their potential.
7. Detroit Pistons
Coach: Doug Collins
Forecast: This team wore down as the season wore on last season because too much responsibility was placed on Grant Hill’s shoulders. Help is on the way, but it’s doubtful the Pistons are ready to advance past the second round of the playoffs.
Key player: Hill. His game continues to soar. Hill gives the Pistons a chance to contend for the championship in the near future and allows NBA commissioner David Stern to sleep easy, knowing there will be life after Michael Jordan.
X-factor: Collins. An intense style has rubbed some of his players the wrong way. If Detroit stabilizes in the 50-55 win range and fails to advance deep into the playoffs, he risks losing the ears of his players.
8. Indiana Pacers
Coach: Larry Bird
Forecast: This team sunk farther than anyone envisioned last season. Still, it’s a veteran group that should rebound if everyone remains healthy. The days of challenging for a title, however, are gone.
Key player: Reggie Miller. He is a brilliant offensive force who is at his best when the game is on the line. The addition of Mullin should help Miller have an even bigger impact this season.
X-factor: Bird. Can one of the greatest players of all-time be a successful coach? Does he have the patience and the expertise to get the most out of his team?
9. Washington Wizards
Coach: Bernie Bickerstaff
Forecast: This team has a new name, a new arena and a new attitude. Still, the Wizards are a young team, and young teams often take longer to fulfill their promise than fans would like.
Key player: Chris Webber. There is flash and substance to his game. But for the Wizards to improve, he must show he can do the little things to help teams win and stay healthy.
X-factor: Calbert Cheaney. He is a passive player who often gets lost in the offensive shuffle. Cheaney must exert himself to balance the offense and make the Wizards a true team.
10. Milwaukee Bucks
Coach: Chris Ford
Forecast: It will be difficult to crack the playoffs because the East is so strong. But the Bucks clearly have a better offensive balance and a defensive presence that has been lacking in recent, dysfunctional years.
Key player: Terrell Brandon. His ability to score and distribute the ball will allow the Bucks to recast their offense. He will join Ray Allen to form one of the league’s best young backcourts.
X-factor: Glenn Robinson. He just couldn’t get his game to mesh with Vin Baker. Now that Baker has been traded to Seattle, Robinson is the undisputed first option of the team’s front line. That should help the Bucks’ chemistry and Robinson’s scoring average.
11. Cleveland Cavaliers
Coach: Mike Fratello
Forecast: This team won’t be better than it has been in recent years, but it will be more entertaining. The Cavaliers’ methodical style bit the dust the moment the team acquired Shawn Kemp. Maybe Cleveland can begin to lure the quality free agents that stayed away from Fratello’s system in droves.
Key player: Kemp. It’s been said money can’t buy happiness, but in this case, it’s a start. Kemp has a new contract and a new-found passion for the game. Look for him to return to his dominant form.
X-factor: Style of play. The Cavaliers will open things up, but Kemp still won’t be granted as much freedom as he and his teammates enjoyed in Seattle. This will be an adjustment for him and Fratello. But remember: Fratello worked with Dominique Wilkins earlier in his career, and he can work with Kemp.
12. Philadelphia 76ers
Coach: Larry Brown
Forecast: Turmoil. The Sixers have some talented players. What they lack is chemistry. Look for Brown to make changes as he tries to assemble a team that will work together.
Key player: Allen Iverson. A wildly talented player - emphasis on the word wild. Brown would like to see him tone it down a bit and do a better job of getting his teammates involved.
X-factor: Derrick Coleman. A few years ago he was considered the league’s best power forward behind Utah’s Karl Malone. Now, he’s just considered a tremendous pain. Philadelphia wants to move him, but no team has been willing to assume his contract.
13. Toronto Raptors
Coach: Darrell Walker
Forecast: The Raptors won’t make the playoffs this season. But the future is bright.
Key player: Damon Stoudamire. He does more than put up impressive numbers. Stoudamire is a competitor who has the physical skills and mental toughness needed to lead a team. His willingness to not sign an extension - giving the Raptors more salary cap flexibility for next season - shows he’s committed to the franchise.
X-factor: Marcus Camby. He’s a wonderful talent. But Camby must add muscle and carve a niche for himself on the front line.
14. New Jersey Nets
Coach: John Calipari
Forecast: This team should be competitive, which it hasn’t been in recent seasons. But it still has a long way to go.
Key player: Keith Van Horn. It’s a lot to ask of any rookie to be thrust into this role. But Van Horn should have a bigger impact than most. He is the central piece of the Nets rebuilding.
X-factor: Jayson Williams. He and Calipari have had their problems. But if he stays healthy and has a big year, he should be rewarded with a big contract when he becomes a free agent at the end of the season.
15. Boston Celtics
Coach: Rick Pitino
Forecast: The Celtics will run until they drop. The problem is on most nights, they will drop before their opponent.
Key player: Antoine Walker. He is poised for stardom. Walker can play every position on the floor, and Pitino is just the coach to do it. Look for him to have a monster year on a bad team.
X-factor: Chauncey Billups. Pitino expects a lot from his point guards. It remains to be seen if Billups is up for the task immediately or if it will take some time.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Coach: Del Harris
Forecast: Shaquille O’Neal missed 31 games with injuries last season and the Lakers still won 56 games. The Lakers have a chance to compile the league’s best record if everyone remains healthy. This team should be favored to win the West and advance to the finals.
Key player: O’Neal. The sport’s most overpowering player. Shaq-bashing remains a popular sport, but it’s unfair. O’Neal works hard on his game and should challenge for the league’s Most Valuable Player award this season.
X-factor: Youth. This nucleus has never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Until it does, it will be considered suspect. The strained relationship between Harris and Nick Van Exel will also play a role in the team’s success.
2. Houston Rockets
Coach: Rudy Tomjanovich
Forecast: The window of opportunity is closing, but it’s not shut yet. This team has the talent and experience to make another run at the title.
Key player: Hakeem Olajuwon. Charles Barkley makes more noise. But the Rockets’ entire offensive and defensive scheme is designed around Olajuwon’s talents. He may no longer be the best center in the league (O’Neal has assumed that role), but for one game or one playoff series, there is no center any better.
X-factor: Health. Houston’s Big Three of Olajuwon, Barkley and Clyde Drexler have a history of injuries. All three must be healthy during the playoffs for the Rockets to win.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Coach: Gregg Popovich
Forecast: The Spurs recorded the biggest turnaround in league history during David Robinson’s rookie season. His return from a bad back (and the addition of Tim Duncan) has positioned San Antonio to break that mark this season.
Key player: Duncan. His ability to play power forward next to Robinson gives the Spurs the league’s most formidable front line. An injury is the only thing that can keep Duncan from picking up the Rookie of the Year award.
X-factor: Robinson. Others have been robbed of their skills by back injuries. Will Robinson again be the center who won the league’s Most Valuable Player award, or will he have to settle for a diminished status?
4. Seattle SuperSonics
Coach: George Karl
Forecast: The SuperSonics won’t be as explosive as they have been in recent seasons. That doesn’t mean they won’t be better. Seattle has a chance to advance to the finals for the second time in the last three years.
Key player: Gary Payton. Karl considers Payton one of the top five players in the league. It’s hard to argue. His game has shown remarkable maturity from his days as a wild rookie.
X-factor: Vin Baker. He was a good player on a bad team in Milwaukee. Now he will be the offensive focal point of a championship contender. It will be interesting to see how he makes the adjustment.
5. Utah Jazz
Coach: Jerry Sloan
Forecast: The Jazz finally got over the Western Conference hump and advanced to the finals by compiling the conference’s best record. This was crucial because it gave the Jazz the home-court advantage in the first three rounds of the playoffs. John Stockton’s injury assures that won’t happen again this season.
Key player: Karl Malone. He loves to hunt, and last season Malone bagged his first MVP award. He has helped redefine the power forward position.
X-factor: Stockton. It’s impossible to gauge how efficient the Jazz will be in Stockton’s absence since he has missed only four games in his NBA career because of injuries. The doctor has said there is no assurance he will be 100 percent once he does return.
6. Portland Trail Blazers
Coach: Mike Dunleavy
Forecast: The Trail Blazers are loaded with good, young talent. A trip to the conference finals isn’t out of the question, but Portland appears to be a bit too erratic for that to happen.
Key player: Rasheed Wallace. He’s quickly blossoming into one of the league’s best young frontcourt players. Attitude problems that hurt him early are less frequent.
X-factor: Isaiah Rider. Hardly a month goes by that his name doesn’t appear on the police blotter. Rider has avoided serious problems so far, but it may only be a matter of time.
7. Phoenix Suns
Coach: Danny Ainge
Forecast: The Suns will be one of the most entertaining and innovative teams in the league. Phoenix doesn’t appear to have the size or talent it takes to get past the second round. That should be rectified next summer, when the Suns will be one of the big players on the free-agent market.
Key player: Jason Kidd. The Suns were floundering until they obtained Kidd from Dallas. Now they have a direction and a rare talent who will help the franchise attract quality free agents because of his unselfish play.
X-factor: Style of play. Ainge isn’t afraid to use a three-guard lineup or put a small forward at center for short stretches. This can pay dividends during the regular season but is usually more difficult to carry off in the playoffs.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
Coach: Flip Saunders
Forecast: The Timberwolves are coming off the first playoff appearance of their history. Now the goal is to rack up their first winning record. This is definitely a team on the rise.
Key player: Kevin Garnett. Da Kid revived this moribund franchise with his talent and enthusiasm. Garnett has the potential to have the same impact on the sport as Chicago’s Scottie Pippen.
X-factor: Finances. Owner Glen Taylor dished out $126 million to keep Garnett in the fold. Will he still have enough to keep Tom Gugliotta and Stephon Marbury, who can sign new contracts at the end of the season?
9. Golden State Warriors
Coach: P.J. Carlesimo
Forecast: The Warriors have some talented players, but not enough to challenge the elite. If Phoenix or Minnesota falters, Golden State may slip into one of the final two playoff spots. That’s about the best this team can hope to achieve.
Key player: Latrell Sprewell. An argument can be made that he’s the league’s most complete shooting guard after Chicago’s Michael Jordan. Sprewell is a terror on the offensive and defensive end.
X-factor: Joe Smith. The power forward can become a free agent at the end of the season. Look for Smith and the club to play a high-stakes game of chicken leading up to the February trading deadline.
10. Los Angeles Clippers
Coach: Bill Fitch
Forecast: The Clippers will once again be lost in the Lakers’ immense shadow. This team may once again overachieve and win 35 or so games, but it won’t be enough to secure a playoff berth.
Key player: Loy Vaught. A solid performer who hasn’t received the recognition he deserves because he plays for such a bad team. Vaught isn’t the sort of talent a franchise can build around, but he’s the best this team has.
X-factor: Brent Barry. An intriguing talent who hasn’t seen eye to eye with Fitch his first two years in the league. This is his time to show what he can do.
11. Dallas Mavericks
Coach: Jim Cleamons
Forecast: General manager Don Nelson proclaimed this team should challenge for a playoff spot. It’s hard to find anyone who agrees. The Mavericks will have to push the envelope to win 35 games, and that won’t get them into the playoffs.
Key player: Shawn Bradley. The future of this franchise (and Nelson’s reputation for evaluating talent) rests on his bony shoulders. He has the talent to excel. Now he must prove he has the consistency and temperament.
X-factor: Cleamons. His status as coach of this team is on shaky ground. If the Mavericks don’t embrace the triangle offense and show early improvement, he could be sacrificed.
12. Sacramento Kings
Coach: Eddie Jordan
Forecast: The Kings have gone from bad to mediocre in the 1990s. It’s difficult to imagine this team getting much better.
Key player: Mitch Richmond. He isn’t happy and wants to be traded. Still, Richmond is such a professional that he doesn’t allow this to drag down his performance.
X-factor: Bobby Hurley. He’s finally getting the chance to show if he can run a team. If he fails, his career could be winding to a close.
13. Vancouver Grizzlies
Coach: Brian Hill
Forecast: The Grizzlies have been left in the expansion dust of their countrymen in Toronto. Improvement for this team would be to win 20 games.
Key player: Shareef Abdur-Rahim. A silky smooth performer who should be a star in this league. He gives the franchise a centerpiece to build around.
X-factor: Antonio Daniels. A lot of responsibility will be placed on this rookie point guard. There are general managers in the league who believe Daniels is primed to succeed and others who think it will take time.
14. Denver Nuggets
Coach: Bill Hanzlik
Forecast: This should be an ugly season.
Key player: LaPhonso Ellis. He has fought back from several career-threatening injuries to be a productive player. Ellis should fill the role of team leader, which is crucial with this young group.
X-factor: Rookies. Bobby Jackson, Tony Battie and Danny Fortson will all receive significant minutes. That will be good for their development but bad for the team’s record.