To open a 1988-89 NBA season when the Jazz have plans of becoming genuine Western Conference championship contenders, we bring you the Seattle SuperSonics.

Imagine this: They feel as good about themselves as the Jazz do."I don't know how we're going to come out of the gate," said Coach Bernie Bickerstaff, "but I sure have a feeling this is going to be an excellent basketball team."

Sports Illustrated, in fact, is picking the Sonics to win the West, ahead of the Lakers and the Jazz. The Sonics and Jazz start the eight-month ordeal tonight in the Salt Palace.

The Sonics arrived in the West picture in 1986-87 when they were only 39-43 but stormed through the playoffs all the way to the conference finals against the Lakers. They lost to Denver in the first round of the playoffs last spring, but that was after they went 44-38 in the regular season.

They expect to keep improving, with rebounding king Michael Cage coming in a trade with the L.A. Clippers to replace Tom Chambers, who went to Phoenix as a free agent. Chambers' exit leaves guard Dale Ellis and forward Xavier McDaniel to do the scoring, which they can handle.

Bickerstaff expects to start second-year forward Derrick McKey and bring McDaniel off the bench. Jazz Coach Frank Layden, meanwhile, has decided to keep his preseason lineup intact _ meaning that Thurl Bailey, who made only 10 starts last season, will start and play his usual big minutes. So will all the regulars, while Bobby Hansen and Mike Brown are injured. "We're going to have to do that for about a month," said Layden.

This time, they'll have several days to recover. The only NBA team with Saturday night off, the Jazz will not play again until Wednesday.

The Jazz will open the season with Bailey and John Stockton waiting for new contracts, but nothing dramatic is apparently in the works. "I'll be there," promised Bailey.

The Jazz and Sonics had a rivalry brewing last season, when Seattle officialssent videotapes to the NBA office protesting Malone's rough play. But the Jazz went on to rule the series (4-1), winning the last two games in Seattle _ including a one-pointer on the final weekend of the season when Scott Roth, who was re-signed by the Jazz Thursday, delivered a three-point shot.

Malone downplays any emotion in the Jazz-Sonics series. "Every team is a rival, you know what I'm saying?" he mused. "I don't think you can compare Utah-L.A (Lakers) to Utah-Seattle. Last year, some things were overreacted to. The amazing thing was, when we played you couldn't tell any of that stuff had happened."

In any case, both teams are more worried about how they'll open the new season than about any building rivalry. The Jazz spent most of the week working on special end-of-the-game plays. "One of my concerns was how we handled ourselves at the end of a game; I think we'll be better prepared," said Layden.

Layden's chief worry is being ready for any tricks from the Sonics; the Jazz scouted them twice during the preseason, but Seattle also had a full week to gear up for the opener. "You don't know what they're going to do," he says.

Same for the Jazz, who have lost their last six season openers. They played well at Dallas last November, only to lose by two on Derek Harper's three-pointer with one second left. We'll see what happens this time. "It's our first game, and that could very well set the tone for our season," says Malone.