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All 25 returning NBA teams figure they're better this season, but they'll have a tough time matching Phoenix's improvement of last year. Especially the Suns, who went from 28-54 to 55-27.

"No one expects us to improve by 27 games again," noted Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. "That would make us 82-0. That might be a little difficult to do."San Antonio, meanwhile, left plenty of room for improvement at 21-61. The Spurs just might be 27 wins better, but they're not a division title contender just yet. Two teams coming off bad seasons could threaten, though - Dallas and Portland. The Mavericks will be much better than 38-44, if Roy Tarpley plays a full season. And The Trail Blazers will go way past 39-43, because of Coach Rick Adelman and forward Buck Williams.

Adelman has addressed the Blazers' chemistry troubles and Williams is just being himself.

"He's everything we'd hoped for, both on and off the court," Adelman said of Williams, acquired last summer from New Jersey for Sam Bowie and a first-round draft choice that became Mookie Blaylock. "He has such a positive influence on our team."

Williams survived eight seasons in New Jersey - strangely enough, the Nets made the playoffs his first five years, before winning only 24, 19 and 26 games the last three seasons. "Through all the tough times, I couldn't find anyone that said one negative thing about him," Adelman noted. "I see why, now."


CLIP & SAVE: The official, guaranteed regular-season NBA predictions:

Atlantic Division - New York 53-29, Boston 52-30, Philadelphia 45-37, Washington 40-42, New Jersey 30-52, Miami 20-62.

Central Division - Detroit 60-22, Atlanta 54-28, Cleveland 51-31, Chicago 48-34, Milwaukee 44-38, Indiana 32-50, Orlando 16-56.

Midwest Division - Jazz 52-30, Houston 48-34, Dallas 46-36, Denver 41-41, San Antonio 40-42, Charlotte 22-60, Minnesota 10-72.

Pacific Division - Phoenix 56-26, Lakers 55-27, Portland 48-34, Golden State 45-37, Seattle 43-39, Sacramento 32-50, Clippers 25-57.

Playoffs? Wait until April.


ADD LOSERS: "The prospect of playing on a winning team was quite exciting," says Williams.

Adds Adelman, "It gives him a new lease on life."

Same for guard Larry Drew, joining the Lakers after tough times with the Clippers and Kings.

"When you are associated with losers so long like I was, mentally, it can break you down," Drew told the L.A. Times. "You can get a label like you had something to do with it."

And more from ex-Clipper Michael Cage: "In a way, I feel sorry for them. They think what they are doing is so right, but it's always so wrong. That organization is just so screwed up. One of the best things they've got going is that they have Don Casey as their coach . . . But you wonder how long it will last? How long will they give him? Will they be patient, or will they abandon him at time of storm just like everyone else?"


AT RANDOM: The way he's played in the preseason, the Spurs' David Robinson has already won the Rookie of the Year award. Interestingly - against the Jazz, anyway - players drafted in the 20s of the first round last June were also impressive. Portland's Byron Irvin and Atlanta's Roy Marble, taken immediately after the Jazz's Blue Edwards, have played well . . . Add Xavier McDaniel to my Deseret News Fantasy Basketball team, announced last week.

Phoenix's Eddie Johnson is the reigning Sixth Man Award winner, making Fitzsimmons look good. Of course, Jazz assistant coach Phil Johnson had the same idea, in Kansas City a long time ago. "I had a terrible time selling him on that role," said Johnson. "He did not want to come off the bench" . . . Larry Miller, skip this sentence: The Celtics made a $12.2 million profit last season . . . Jose Ortiz makes a homecoming appearance with the Jazz at Oregon State tonight, but Portland was not sentimental - the Blazers cut OSU guard Eric Knox this week.