COUPLE OF KEYS: Former part-timers Bryon Russell and Greg Ostertag will have expanded roles. Russell won the starting job at small forward with a surprisingly strong playoff performance last spring, and Utah had enough faith in the 7'2", 280-pound Ostertag to trade last year's starting center, Felton Spencer. Look for Russell to make a run at the league's Most Improved Player award. Maybe then people will stop calling him Byron.
GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS: The good news is that the Jazz has finished .500 or better for 13 straight seasons, a streak that only the Celtics (separate streaks of 19 and 14 years) and the Lakers (16) have surpassed. The bad news is that Boston and L.A. won a combined 19 NBA championships during their runs; Utah has none.
IS THIS PROGRESS? Denver's four primary acquisitions all come with negative labels: guards Mark Jackson (too slow), Sarunas Marciulionis (too injury-prone) and 37-year-old Ricky Pierce (too old), and center Ervin Johnson (too one-dimensional). But they are veterans who should at least create a more professional atmosphere as well as fewer headaches than coach-president Bernie Bickerstaff had last season.
ADDITION BY SUBTRACTION: Center Dikembe Mutombo (page 112) left for the Hawks as a free agent, but his departure clears the way for forwards Antonio McDyess and LaPhonso Ellis to carry the offense. They won't have to compete with Mutombo, a defensive specialist who always fancied himself a scorer, for post-up position on the blocks. The Nuggets should surpass the 35 games they won last year with Mutombo.
LONG DROUGHT: With Jackson, McDyess, Dale Ellis, LaPhonso Ellis and guard Bryant Stith likely to have double-figure scoring averages, the Nuggets expect to have a balanced offense. But if Denver is to make the playoffs, one player, most likely McDyess, will have to be the go-to guy.
CAN'T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG? That's what new coach Jim Cleamons is asking his three squabbling stars—guards Jim Jackson and Jason Kidd (page 94) and forward Jamal Mashburn. Cleamons and the new Mavs ownership are so concerned with improving the club's chemistry that they have scrapped the "Three J's" marketing concept "because it left too much of the team out," says Jackson. The new marketing slogan is, Time to Play, and if Jackson, Kidd and Mashburn remember that, Dallas could make a major turnaround and Cleamons will be in the running for Coach of the Year honors.
CENTER JUMP: The Mavericks didn't just fill their hole at center, they stuffed it. First they traded for 7-foot, 270-pound Eric Montross, then they signed massive Oliver Miller, who is 6'9" and 280 pounds. Together they give Dallas the big bodies it has needed to hold its own in the middle. They will get help from forward Chris Gatling, who went from being an underrated player to an overpaid one when he signed a five-year, $21,329 million free-agent contract.
DON'T BE SURPRISED: Should Cleamons's efforts at peacemaking fail, the Mavs might deal either Mashburn or Jackson.