"I hate this division," says Bill Blair, new coach of the lowly Minnesota Timber-wolves. With good reason. The Midwest could become the first division since the NBA realignment in 1970-71 to have four teams with 50 or more wins. It has the league's MVP and its leading scorer, rebounder, assist man and shot blocker from last season. And for the first time in 23 years, it has the NBA champion.
The HOUSTON ROCKETS, in case anyone forgot, won 58 games during the regular season, outran the Blazers and the Suns in the first two rounds of the playoffs, outworked the Jazz in the conference finals and outelbowed the Knicks to win it all. They had the game's top player (MVP Hakeem Olajuwon), the most prolific three-point-shooting attack in the league, a monster defense, a solid bench, terrific chemistry and a superb coach. The only thing they didn't get last year was respect—and an invitation to the White House. "I did some traveling this summer, and people didn't even know who the Houston Rockets are," forward Robert Horry says. "It's insulting."
More insulting, Houston hasn't been the unanimous pick to win the Midwest this season because it stood pat over the summer. "How could we trade without breaking up the team?" coach Rudy Tomjanovich says. "Chemistry was our biggest asset last year." The lack of recognition has motivated Houston. Olajuwon, who called winning the title "the ultimate in worldly affairs," is determined to repeat. Horry, who flourished late last year after Houston's failed attempt to trade him to Detroit, is on the rise.
But the biggest reason that Houston is even better than last year is guard Sam Cassell, whose rookie postseason was filled with gutsy plays at critical times.
Even a guest spot with David Letterman soon after the season did nothing to swell Cassell's head. "I didn't do any miracles," he says. "I hit some open shots, I made some passes." Cassell worked all summer to improve his game, studying tapes of every Rocket game from last year. In his second year he's poised to replace Kenny Smith at the point for the NBA champs. "At some point I want [the starting job]," Cassell says. "But as long as we're winning, I'm fine. I'm still learning. I'm going to make some mistakes."
Power forward Dennis Rodman of the SAN ANTONIO SPURS has two championship rings, rebounding titles in the last three seasons and—new this year—fuchsia hair. If coach Bob Hill, who's new this year himself, can keep Rodman from self-destructing, the Spurs have the talent to match last year's 55 wins and, for once, do something in the playoffs. That's a big if, however. Hill already has had troubles with Rodman this fall; the most serious occurred when the enigmatic forward showed up late for a preseason game (he wasn't scheduled to play but was expected to be on the bench). For that transgression the team fined Rodman $15,000, but more important than the money was the message: The Spurs' new regime won't let Rodman go his own way as he often did under John Lucas last year.
The Spurs added forwards Sean Elliott and Chuck Person (page 148), point guard Avery Johnson and center Moses Malone over the summer. Now it's Hill's task to mold this diverse group of players into a team. "It isn't going to happen overnight," says Spur center David Robinson, the reigning scoring champ. But as long as Robinson is around, the Spurs are a contender. "God sent him," Hill says.
"How many games do you have us winning?" G.M. Bernie Bickerstaff of the DENVER NUGGETS asks with a smile. "Eighty? Sixty?" Expectations are several miles high in Denver after the Nuggets came within one win of going to the conference finals. But as Bickerstaff is quick to point out, "We won 42 games—our feet are on the ground."
Still, there is real reason for optimism in Denver. The Nuggets are one of the deepest, most versatile, most athletic teams in the league when the lineup includes forward LaPhonso Ellis, who's out until late November with a stress fracture of his right knee. The signing of Dale Ellis filled the three-point-shooting void, but a point guard must emerge from a group that includes Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who's really a 162-pound shooting guard; Robert Pack, who's explosive but erratic; and rookie Jalen Rose, who's unproven.
Look for the 6'8" Rose, who was flinging passes and talking trash the second he got to camp, to eventually get most of the minutes because of his size and court vision. "I've been dreaming of playing in the NBA for 21 years, and here I am, Jalen Rose, number 5, Denver Nuggets," he says. "All I heard growing up was 'Jalen can't do this, Jalen can't do that. He's too big to play point, he's from the inner city.' And all it did was motivate me."