The Midwest has produced three NBA champions in the 1990s: San Antonio won last season and Houston won back-to-back titles in 1993-94 and 1994-95. In addition, Midwest competitor Utah has been to two NBA Finals, in 1997 and 1998. But age has caught up with all of those teams, which might be looking at their last chance to win a title with their current lineups.
San Antonio won last year's championship on the strength of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, with help from Sean Elliott. But Elliott is out indefinitely after a kidney transplant, Robinson is a year older and Duncan is a free agent after this season.
Utah is praying for one more good season out of reigning league MVP Karl Malone and point guard John Stockton. In Houston, Charles Barkley has announced he will retire at the end of the season, and Hakeem Olajuwon might not be far from joining him. But the Rockets hope they've added some young spark in guards Steve Francis from Maryland and Shandon Anderson, who was a reserve in Utah last year.
If any of those three teams falter, Minnesota is waiting to move up in the division. Forward Kevin Garnett is one of the league's best players. He has a solid young supporting cast in forward Joe Smith and rookie guard Wally Szczerbiak, and a good point guard in veteran Terrell Brandon.
Denver should be better this season, with C-F Raef LaFrentz back after missing all but 12 games with an anterior cruciate ligament injury last year. He joins Antonio McDyess, entering his fifth year, and newly acquired guard Ron Mercer in what has the potential to be a spectacular core group of players.
At the bottom of the division, Vancouver could be good with forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim, but his supporting cast is questionable. Dallas needs to improve if Coach Don Nelson wants to keep his job.
Last season: 19-31 (5th)
Did not make playoffs.
Added: C Sean Rooks (trade with Lakers).
Lost: F Samaki Walker (free agent, Spurs), F A.C. Green (traded to Lakers), C Chris Antsey (traded to Bulls).
Coach: Don Nelson, third season, 35-81.
Keys to success: Two additions last season, point guard Steve Nash and F Dirk Nowitzki, were disappointments, although they showed promise near the end of the season. Nash didn't blend in well with star shooting guard Michael Finley, who had an off year as well. The Mavericks will also need good years from Fs Gary Trent and Cedric Ceballos. Nelson still has confidence in 7-6 C Shawn Bradley, despite his inconsistent play.
Last season: 14-36 (6th)
Did not make playoffs.
Added: G Ron Mercer, F Popeye Jones and C Dwayne Schintzius (trade with Celtics), F George McCloud (free agent, Suns), G-F James Posey (Xavier), G Chris Herren (Fresno State).
Lost: F Eric Williams, G Eric Washington and F Danny Fortson (traded to Celtics).
Coach: Dan Issel, fourth season, 96-102.
Keys to success: Raef LaFrentz, who was one of the league's best rookies before tearing a knee ligament, is back and will benefit from playing a full season alongside star F Antonio McDyess. The Nuggets, who move to the new Pepsi Center this season, added another scoring threat in Mercer, a lottery pick in 1997 who never got going in Boston.
Last season: 31-19 (3rd)
Lost to Lakers in first round.
Added: G Steve Francis (Maryland), C Kelvin Cato, G Walt Williams, F Stacey Augmon and G Ed Gray (trade with Trail Blazers), F Tony Massenburg and F Don MacLean (trade with Grizzlies and Magic), G Shandon Anderson (free agent, Jazz), F Kenny Thomas (New Mexico).
Lost: F Scottie Pippen (traded to Trail Blazers), F Antoine Carr, F Othella Harrington, G Michael Dickerson and G Brent Price (traded to Grizzlies), F Sam Mack (free agent).
Keys to success: Francis may fit better than Pippen did into the offense, with Hakeem Olajuwon at center and Charles Barkley at forward. While Francis was Maryland's top scorer, he regularly deferred to teammates. Barkley will split time at the two forward spots with two more former Maryland stars, Massenburg and Williams, who play power forward and small forward, respectively.
Last season: 25-25 (4th)
Lost to Spurs in first round.
Added: F Wally Szczerbiak (Miami of Ohio), G William Avery (Duke).
Lost: F Dennis Scott (free agent, Grizzlies).
Coach: Flip Saunders, fourth season, 130-146.
Keys to success: On offense, 6-11 Kevin Garnett will play small forward and 6-7 Szczerbiak will play shooting guard, a position he didn't play in college. On defense, Szczerbiak will guard the other team's small forward, while Garnett will guard the shooting guard. F Joe Smith (Maryland) needs to play like the No. 1 draft pick he was four years ago, and Terrell Brandon needs to re-establish himself as one of the league's best point guards. The team is also hoping for a solid year from C Radoslav Nesterovic.
San Antonio Spurs
Last season: 37-13 (1st)
Won NBA championship over Knicks.
Added: F Samaki Walker (free agent, Mavericks), F Chucky Brown (free agent, Hornets), G Terry Porter (free agent, Heat), C Felton Spencer (free agent, Warriors).
Lost: F Sean Elliott (inactive because of a kidney transplant), C Will Perdue (free agent, Bulls), F Gerard King (free agent, Wizards).
Coach: Gregg Popovich, fourth season, 110-86.
Keys to success: Find an outside shooter to replace Elliott. The Spurs signed Walker and Brown to compete for Elliott's small forward position, but neither brings the shooting ability, scoring or perimeter defense that Elliott provided. The NBA champions do return their superior big man tandem of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, which carried them last year.
Last season: 37-13 (2nd)
Lost to Portland in second round.
Added: C Olden Polynice (free agent, Sonics), F Pete Chilcutt (free agent, Grizzlies), F Quincy Lewis (draft, Timberwolves), C Andrei Kirilenko (Russia), F Scott Padgett (Kentucky).
Lost: G Shandon Anderson (free agent, Rockets), C Greg Foster (free agent, SuperSonics), C Todd Fuller (free agent, Hornets), F Thurl Bailey (free agent).
Coach: Jerry Sloan, 12th season, 582-269.
Keys to success: Perhaps the team's best young player and reserve scoring threat was Anderson, who left for a chance to start in Houston. Lacking a capable replacement, the team will need Gs John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek to score more for longer periods of time. C Greg Ostertag showed flashes of improvement last year and must continue to improve.
Last season: 8-42 (7th)
Did not make playoffs.
Added: F Antoine Carr, F Othella Harrington, Gs Michael Dickerson and Brent Price (trade with Rockets), F Grant Long (free agent, Hawks), F Dennis Scott (free agent, Timberwolves).
Lost: F Pete Chilcutt (free agent, Jazz), F Tony Massenburg (traded to Rockets), F Michael Smith, F Makhtar Ndiaye and F Rodrick Rhodes (traded to Magic).
Coach: Brian Hill, 3rd season, 27-105.
Keys to success: Harrington and Dickerson, acquired in the trade for Steve Francis, need to provide help at power forward and shooting guard, respectively. Reeves could benefit from Harrington's rebounding and become a scoring threat.