TEAMS WHO

COULD BEAT THE LAKERS

Sacramento has taken the Lakers to the brink two seasons in a row, losing more because of a lack of mental toughness -- and questionable officiating -- than a lack of talent. The big question: Will they get over their heartbreak and toughen up, like the Bulls and Pistons did in the 1980s and '90s, or will they find new excuses if they don't reach the NBA Finals?

San Antonio's Tim Duncan is the reigning most valuable player, and the Spurs have upgraded their roster to give Duncan more operating room. The Spurs added Kevin Willis and Mengke Bateer to back up aging David Robinson, and lightning-quick guards Speedy Claxton and Emanuel Ginobili will make the Spurs more dangerous in transition.

New Orleans has been a trendy pick the last two seasons but no team has endured as much adversity, with the death of popular guard Bobby Phills in 2000 and Jamal Mashburn's illness last season. Now in a new city, the Hornets are due a break. They have great front-court size, a lethal back court and gobs of depth. They just need to stay healthy.

Dallas has more scoring options than any team in the league but it won't win it all unless its defense improves. Center Shawn Bradley has shown early signs of a pulse and Popeye Jones is an understated acquisition. He will provide toughness, rebounds and great locker room leadership.

TEAMS PLAYING THE LEBRON JAMES SWEEPSTAKES

Cleveland may not draw as many fans this season with LeBron James up the road in Akron. Rookie guard Dajuan Wagner and forward Darius Miles will have plenty of highlights this season, in losing efforts. This team was built to have the best odds to win the draft lottery.

New York's season seems over before it started. No Latrell Sprewell, no Antonio McDyess, no center and no point guard amounts to no chance. Will GM Scott Layden be around next summer when the Ping-Pong balls are drawn in nearby Secaucus, N.J.?

Memphis has a solid young nucleus in Pau Gasol (the 2001-02 rookie of the year), Shane Battier and Drew Gooden, but the Grizzlies play in the daunting Western Conference. New boss Jerry West has a way of getting who he wants (see Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal in L.A.), and James would be a perfect fit for this team.

Denver is two years away from being two years away. The Nuggets are very young and very raw, but there is some nice talent. First-year coach Jeff Bzdelik will have them playing hard, but how long that effort lasts after the losses mount remains to be seen.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

WHILE YOU STILL CAN

Michael Jordan is in the final year of his contract with the Wizards and could be coming off the bench this season. He also turns 40 in February. This might be the last chance to catch the best player in league history.

Karl Malone has hinted that he may retire after this season. He just won't announce it until after Utah's season is over. Sounds like a farewell tour.

David Robinson's role for San Antonio continues to be secondary as Tim Duncan is in control of the middle for the Spurs. The Navy product has his NBA championship ring and a pair of Olympic gold medals. The end may be near.

Reggie Miller is the most prolific three-point shooter in league history, but the 37-year-old is hobbled by an ankle injury and on an Indiana team where the average age (25.3) and experience (3.8 years) can lead to early retirement.

John Stockton is the all-time leader in assists (15,177) and steals (3,128) and has played more games (1,422) than any active player. But if Malone leaves Utah after the season, to whom will Stockton deliver pick-and-roll passes?

ROOKIES WHO

COULD MAKE AN IMPACT

Yao Ming. No other No. 1 draft pick has begun his NBA career with as much mystery. How will the Rockets center handle the speed and athletic skills of his teammates and opponents? How will he handle Shaquille O'Neal in the lane? Stay tuned.

Jay Williams arrives from Duke with expectations of filling the Bulls' leadership role once held by No. 23. There will be growing pains, but if anyone can do it, Williams has the pedigree.

Drew Gooden could give Memphis its second rookie of the year (Pau Gasol last season). He should make an immediate impact on the offensive boards. Gooden, Gasol and Shane Battier give the Grizzlies a formidable front court.

Amare Stoudemire was the only high school basketball player selected in the draft in July. Phoenix hopes he could become a player in the mold of the Nets' Kenyon Martin. If starter Tom Gugliotta doesn't stay healthy (knee), the 19-year-old will get his chance.

TEAMS YOU DON'T WANT TO FACE IN THE FIRST ROUND

Washington now has some playoff-tested veterans in Michael Jordan, Jerry Stackhouse and Bryon Russell. If a healthy Jordan gets into the postseason with Stackhouse to lighten his load in the topsy-turvy Eastern Conference, there's no telling how far the Wizards could go.

Philadelphia has guard Allen Iverson, and there might not be a more dangerous player in a short series. And don't underestimate Coach Larry Brown, who always gets the most out of his teams.

Indiana's size, defense and lineup flexibility makes them hard to match up against. The young kids (C Jermaine O'Neal, G Jamaal Tinsley, F Jonathan Bender) have had time to grow up and the Pacers have the ultimate big-game weapon -- Reggie Miller.

Portland may be its own worst enemy but with Arvydas Sabonis returning to clog up the lane and more talent than any team in the league, the Trail Blazers could be unstoppable if they get hot.

PLAYERS WHO

HAVE PLENTY TO PROVE

Vince Carter returns from left knee surgery, which had him on the bench as Toronto snapped a 13-game losing streak and made a late-season run into the playoffs. However, the Raptors have only advanced past the first round of the postseason once in Carter's four seasons. Expectations are high.

Grant Hill joined Orlando in 2000 and has played in a grand total of 18 games. The Magic has made the playoffs both seasons but exited quickly in the first round. Hill claims his left ankle is healed after two years of surgery and rehab. Can a third comeback attempt be the charm?

Darius Miles was never asked to do it all when he played for the Clippers. After being acquired by Cleveland in a trade for all-star point guard Andre Miller, can he emerge as the go-to guy? Will he be up to the task?

Larry Hughes is in his fifth season in the league and with his third team. He never seemed to fit in Philadelphia or Golden State. But if the preseason is any indication, the 24-year-old could provide the Wizards with an added scoring threat and energy boost in transition.

Vin Baker believes moving to Boston, not too far from his home town of Old Saybrook, Conn., is the change he needed to improve as a player. But Celtics fans aren't as patient as Seattle fans, who endured five unproductive years where Baker earned the label of underachiever.

TRADES/SIGNINGS

OVER THE SUMMER

New Jersey deals Keith Van Horn and Todd MacCulloch to Philadelphia for Dikembe Mutombo. Mutombo gives New Jersey a much more authoritative presence in the post. Philadelphia, meantime, gets perimeter shooting from Van Horn and a young center in MacCulloch.

Sacramento signs Keon Clark. The Western Conference has been looking for a way to stop Shaquille O'Neal. Kings GM Geoff Petrie's solution this summer was to sign 6-11 Clark, who will complement Vlade Divac and give the Kings a heavy one-two punch to throw at the Lakers' big man.

Washington sends Richard Hamilton and Hubert Davis to Detroit for Jerry Stackhouse. Stackhouse's career average is 5.6 points better than Hamilton's, and his occasional tendency to not share well with others should be kept in check by the long shadow of fellow Tar Heel Michael Jordan.

Clippers swap with Cavaliers, getting Andre Miller for Darius Miles. Last year's league assists leader, Miller should bring some stability and direction to the youthful Los Angeles lineup. In exchange, Miles and his potential go to Cleveland.

Atlanta gets Glenn Robinson from Milwaukee. Robinson joins Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Jason Terry to give Atlanta three serious offensive threats. Hawks management has even guaranteed a trip to the playoffs. Milwaukee management is making no such promises, but separating Robinson and Ray Allen can only be a good thing.

COACHES ON THE HOT SEAT

Sidney Lowe. In Memphis, with Pau Gasol, Shane Battier, Drew Gooden and Jason Williams playing under him, and new General Manager Jerry West watching, Lowe better win early and often -- or West will find someone else who will.

Isiah Thomas. With a ripened batch of young Pacers and a veteran field general in Reggie Miller, Thomas -- who is in the last year of his contract -- has through the playoffs to go deep or get out of town.

Alvin Gentry. The Clippers' roster is particularly stacked to make progress this year and they had better at least make the playoffs, or Gentry will likely be out of work.

GAMES YOU CAN'T MISS

Nov. 1 -- Indiana at New Jersey (NBA League Pass); played double-OT classic in playoffs last season.

Nov. 17 -- Houston at Los Angeles Lakers (NBA League Pass); Shaquille O'Neal's toe could prevent first meeting with Yao Ming.

Dec. 25 -- Sacramento at Los Angeles Lakers (ABC); first meeting of Western Conference finalists.

Jan. 2 -- Washington at Chicago (TNT); Michael Jordan vs. the youthful Bulls of Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry and Jay Williams.

Jan. 17 -- Los Angeles Lakers at Houston (ESPN); Yao vs. Shaq II.

Feb. 13 -- Orlando at Detroit (TNT); Grant Hill finally comes home.

INSTANT REPLAY 101

For the first time in NBA history, instant replay has been implemented. It will be used:

* At the end of every quarter (including overtime), but only after made shots at the buzzer with no time showing on the clock;

* To determine the validity of baskets deemed good or no good;

* To determine whether a shot was a two- or three-pointer, whether the shooter was out of bounds or if a called foul happened after time expired, in which case the foul would be waved off. A foul can not be called if replay shows there was contact before time expired;

* Review plays at the buzzer automatically. The 24-second clocks that rest above the baskets will be triangular instead of flat-faced so they can be visible to television cameras from various vantage points. And instead of a singular red lamp above the 24-second clock illuminating at the sound of the quarter-ending horn, the entire outline of the backboard will light up red at the end of quarters.

-- Compiled by Rachel Nichols

and Steve Wyche

This could be Karl Malone's last season.Rockets 7-foot-5 rookie Yao Ming could loom large over the likes of 6-10 Danny Ferry. But time will tell how he adjusts to the NBA game.Vin Baker moves closer to home with Boston.