1 San Antonio
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. WHIPPLE: World-beaters during the regular season, the Spurs turn softer than Charmin in the playoffs. The former should again be true, largely because the Spurs' two All-Stars, center David Robinson (out for several weeks with a back strain) and forward Sean Elliott, and point guard Avery Johnson, one of the league's most underrated players, are potent all-around performers. Looking to change its luck in the postseason, San Antonio added instant offense in forward Dominique Wilkins, 36, and hotheaded guard Vernon Maxwell (page 118).
JOB INSECURITY: There has been friction between general manager Gregg Popovich and coach Bob Hill, and when Hill asked for an extension of his contract, which expires after this season, Popovich turned him clown. If he can't cure his team of its split personality, Hill could be gone after the season—or possibly sooner should San Antonio falter at the start.
POWERLESS FORWARD: Passive Charles Smith and Will Perdue remain the best of the Spurs' power forwards. That puts this team at a disadvantage when it faces the more muscular clubs in the playoffs.
YOU CAN QUOTE HIM: Adding garrulous forward Charles Barkley to Houston's usually soft-spoken stars, center Hakeem (the Dream) Olajuwon and guard Clyde Drexler, should ensure that the Rockets aren't as overlooked as they have been, even during their NBA championship seasons of 1993-94 and '94-95. For instance, in dismissing his chronic back problems, Sir Charles says, "My back only hurts when I play with crappy players."
IS THE PRICE RIGHT? The Rockets hoped to start promising but untested free-agent signee Brent Price at point guard, but Price broke his left elbow during the preseason and won't be available for at least three months. For now, even more untested rookie Matt Maloney is the starter.
THIN BENCH: Swingman Mario Elie is Houston's only reliable reserve. That could be a huge drawback for coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who figures to limit the regular-season minutes of Barkley (who's 33), Olajuwon (33) and Drexler (34) so they will be fresh for the playoffs. That could keep the Rockets from winning the division. But if the big three are healthy in the spring, Houston could still reach the conference finals.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE: Utah has a new logo and uniforms that feature snowcapped mountains, but everything else about the team looks familiar. The Jazz has a solid supporting cast, led by guard Jeff Hornacek, but it will go only as far as its aging stars, power forward Karl Malone and point guard John Stockton, can take it. Stockton, who will be 35 in March, led the league in assists for the ninth straight year, but he appeared tired in the postseason. Malone, 33, was inconsistent in the Western Conference finals.