WHY IS THIS TEAM SMILING? Because the Sonics can relax now that they've shed their "playoff chokers" label; because their stars, point guard Gary Payton and power forward Shawn Kemp, have reached their prime; because, with the acquisitions of center Jim McIlvaine (page 124) and swingman Craig Ehlo, their supporting cast is even better than last year's; and because everyone is talking up the Lakers and the Rockets as Western Conference strongboys, which only motivates Seattle more. It appears that the Sonics are ready for their second straight trip to the Finals.
HOWEVER.... Kemp, who reportedly will be only the sixth-highest-paid Sonic at $3.3 million this season, underscored his unhappiness about that fact (and especially about McIlvaine's seven-year, $35 million deal) by missing the first three weeks of training camp. That's the kind of internal unrest that has brought down the Sonics in the past. Also, Dream Team III member Payton says he's entering the season fatigued because playing in the Olympics cut short his off-season recovery time.
DEFENSE NEVER RESTS: Already one of the most aggressive teams in the league, the Sonics should be even more willing to gamble with the shot-blocking McIlvaine around to erase their mistakes. That defense is what ultimately will distinguish Seattle from the Lakers and the Rockets.
2 Los Angeles
HE LOVES L.A.: "You're taking a team that won 53 games last year and adding a superstar to it," says center Shaquille O'Neal (page 76), who happens to be that superstar. "Think about that for a second." The rest of the league would rather not. With O'Neal, guards Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel and forwards Elden Campbell and Cedric Ceballos, the Lakers have one of the best starting fives in the league. Signing O'Neal to a seven-year, $120 million contract was a coup, but executive vice president Jerry West's greatest feat may have been building a bench with what little room he had left under the salary cap. Guard Rumeal Robinson and center Sean Rooks are serviceable backups, forward Jerome Kersey and guard Byron Scott will be valuable for their locker room influence, and rookie guard Kobe Bryant, 18, may be ready to help sooner than many think.
POTENTIAL PROBLEM: Jealousy. It reared its head when Magic Johnson returned to the team last season (remember Ceballos's unauthorized Jet Ski vacation?), and Magic wasn't making $120 million.
WORTH WATCHING: Jones could be ready for a breakout year now that Anthony Peeler, who shared minutes at shooting guard with him, is in Vancouver. Jones is an exceptional defender, and if he can stay healthy—he missed 30 games due to injury in his first two seasons—his offensive game should have a chance to blossom.
LIFE AFTER CHARLES: There's still plenty of talent in Phoenix, even without Charles Barkley, who was traded to Houston for guard Sam Cassell and forwards Robert Horry, Mark Bryant and Chucky Brown. The four former Rockets will make the Suns more formidable on defense, which has long been their biggest weakness. And together with forwards Michael Finley, A.C. Green and Danny Manning and oft-ailing point guard Kevin Johnson (he recently underwent hernia surgery), the newcomers make Phoenix younger, deeper and more athletic. The Suns won't win a title, but they won't regret the Barkley trade.