With Jordan out to pasture, the path is somewhat clearer for Malone and Stockton. And Scottie Pippen wasted no time in fleeing the Windy City — Houston gave him the best deal, and Pippen wants badly to win his first title without Michael.

There are a handful of teams that stand above the pack as we examine the season. The New York Knicks are set to do what they couldn't while Jordan was in the league — get to the NBA Finals. With the off-season additions of the reviled but immensely talented Latrell Sprewell and young star Marcus Camby, the Knicks, who were already a contender, are even stronger.

Pat Riley has a contender of his own down in Miami. The Heat returns with the same nucleus that won 55 games last year, but with another year's experience.

The Indiana Pacers took the World Champion Bulls to seven games in last year's Eastern Conference finals. Word is that the team stayed together and scrimmaged regularly during the lockout. They could be a few weeks ahead of the pack.

The Utah Jazz have been bridesmaids for the past two years, finishing as runners-up to the Bulls. Karl Malone and John Stockton are closing in on social security and would like nothing more than to win now. With Jordan out to pasture, the path is somewhat clearer for them.

Scottie Pippen wasted no time in fleeing the Windy City. Houston gave him the best deal, and Pippen wants badly to win his first title without Michael. Aging veteran Charles Barkley will be motivated when he makes what will most probably be his final run at an NBA championship that has proven maddeningly elusive so far.

The Los Angeles Lakers sport the best young duo in the league — one that has a chance to win the most win championships since well, Michael and Scottie. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are not far from making the breakthrough. The Lakers may need a little more help to get over the hump, and had been hoping to get Minnesota forward Tom Gugliotta, but alas, "Googs" went to Phoenix.

The Suns have to be considered one of the favorites in the West. They have a nice blend of veterans and young players. Although they lost Antonio McDyess to Denver, if Danny Manning can stay healthy for once and Jason Kidd can start to knock down the jumper with regularity, the Suns may beging to make some people really nervous.

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