Matt Slocum, Associated Press
Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki (41) is looking to erase last year's first-round playoff loss to Golden State.

Tim Duncan isn't close to being the flashiest player in the NBA. His replica jersey doesn't sell as well as, say, Kobe Bryant's or LeBron James'. His 10-foot bank shots don't get a lot of ohs and ahs — or even much airplay on SportsCenter.

But Duncan gets the job done and is, arguably, one of the top two or three basketball players on the planet. He's led the San Antonio Spurs to the NBA title four times since 1999.

Will the Spurs repeat? History says no.

As good as San Antonio has been, they have yet to win the title in back-to-back years. Plus it seems the Spurs only win in odd-numbered years — '99, '03, '05 and '07. This being the 2007-08 season, it looks like it may be another team's turn.

That would be good news for the Dallas Mavericks, who had a brilliant regular season spoiled by their old coach Don Nelson and the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs last spring. The team as a whole — and star forward Dirk Nowitzki, in particular — will continue to have the label of playoff chokers if the Mavs don't win a league title in one of the next couple of years. The good news for Mavs owner Mark Cuban is that his elimination from "Dancing With the Stars" came just prior to the regular season beginning. He can now watch his team — and scream at officials — from his courtside seats instead of practicing his tango.

Houston, the other talented team from Texas, could actually push the Spurs and Mavs for the division crown. The Rockets have a new coach and a new attitude. This just might be the year Tracy McGrady is able to get his team out of the first round of the playoffs.


2006-07 RECORD: 67-15

DIVISION FINISH: first, lost to Golden State 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs

COACH: Avery Johnson, fourth season

TOP ROOKIE: F Nick Fazekas

KEY ADDITIONS: G Eddie Jones, G Trenton Hassell

KEY LOSSES: G Greg Buckner

STRENGTHS: The roster is pretty much intact from the team that won an NBA-best 67 games last season — led by MVP Dirk Nowitzki, F Jason Howard and G Jason Terry. There is no reason this team shouldn't win at least 55 to 65 games again.

CONCERNS: Nowitzki had an incredible regular season — averaging 24.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists — but then failed to lead his team past the first round of the playoffs. That comes on the heels of blowing a 2-0 lead to the Heat in the 2006 NBA finals. Will the Mavs fold in the playoffs again in '08?


2006-07 RECORD: 58-24

DIVISION FINISH: second, won NBA championship 4-0 over Cleveland

COACH: Gregg Popovich, 12th season

TOP ROOKIE: G Darius Washington



STRENGTHS: F-C Duncan is a winner who has led this team to four championships. Tony Parker is a great point guard — and is now married to everyone's favorite Desperate Housewife. Manu Ginobili and Brent Barry give the team instant offense off the bench, while Michael Finley, Bruce Bowen and Fabricio Oberto are ultimate team players.

CONCERNS: The Spurs seemed to have a hard time staying focused during the regular season last year. Sure, they still won 58 games, but they lost ones they had no business losing and needed to turn it up several notches during the playoffs — which they did.


2006-07 RECORD: 52-30

DIVISION FINISH: third, lost to Utah 4-3 in the first round of the playoffs

COACH: Rick Adelman, first season with the Rockets

TOP ROOKIE: F Luis Scola

KEY ADDITIONS: G Steve Francis, G Mike James

KEY LOSSES: F Juwan Howard

STRENGTHS: The Rockets have two of the best players in the league in G Tracy McGrady (24.6 ppg, 6.5 apg) and C Yao Ming (25 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 2.0 bpg). PG Rafer Alston is serviceable (13.3 ppg, 5.4 apg) and the backcourt will be bolstered by the return of Francis. Scola, an NBA rookie from Argentina who has been a star in Europe, could be a key addition.

CONCERNS: As good as McGrady is, his teams have never advanced past the first round of the playoffs. With the Western Conference as loaded as it is, that streak may continue.


2006-07 RECORD: 39-43

DIVISION FINISH: fourth, missed playoffs

COACH: Byron Scott, fourth season with the Hornets

TOP ROOKIE: F Julian Wright

KEY ADDITION: G Morris Peterson

KEY LOSSES: F Desmond Mason, G Devin Brown

STRENGTHS: PG Chris Paul (17.3, 8.9 apg) is the real deal (although fewer people are saying the Jazz made a mistake taking Deron Williams before him). Peterson and F Peja Stojakovic (17.8 ppg) are both good outside shooters. F David West (18.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg) is verging on All-Star status.

CONCERNS: Will play all their games in New Orleans again — which may not be a good thing. Hornets had a big homecourt advantage in Oklahoma City. Injuries killed this team last year with Paul, West and Stojakovic all missing big chunks of action.


2006-07 RECORD: 20-62

DIVISION FINISH: last, missed playoffs

COACH: Marc Iavaroni, first season

TOP ROOKIE: G Mike Conley

KEY ADDITIONS: G Juan Carlos Navarro, F Darko Milicic

KEY LOSSES: G Chucky Atkins

STRENGTHS: F Pau Gasol (20.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg) is a star when healthy. G Mike Miller is coming off a strong season when he averaged 18.5 points. Navarro and Conley, the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, should help solidify the guardline.

CONCERNS: Gasol is injury prone and broke his foot during the offseason. Grizzlies will have a hard time getting out of the basement since they play in the toughest division in the NBA. Ivaroni, a former Jazz player, is a brand new head coach — although he has experience as a top NBA assistant.

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