Robinson/Duncan

David Robinson and Tim Duncan hoist the spoils over victory. (Ray Amati/NBA Photos)


A new feeling arrived in Sacramento during the 1998-99 NBA season: Optimism. Not surprisingly, Kings fans, who were not only thrilled with the Kings' exciting playoff performance but also encouraged about the future, embraced it.

For the first time in 14 years in Sacramento, the Kings finished with regular-season record that was better than .500, and they did it with a flare that captured the league's attention. Only inexperience and a John Stockton 20-foot jump shot with seven-tenths of a second left in Game 4 prevented them from knocking off the No. 3, seed Utah Jazz. The Kings had a 2-1 series lead, and had Stockton missed, they would have advanced to the second round. Instead, the Jazz went on to win the fifth game and the first-round series.

That, however, did not dim the enthusiasm in Sacramento. Forward Chris Webber, who came to Sacramento from Washington during the offseason, led the NBA in rebounds with 13 per game; rookie point guard Jason Williams was scintillating, bringing an electrifying, creative approach to the game that was reminiscent of a few moves not seen since the retirements of Pete Maravich, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas; and Vlade Divac was solid in the middle. The Kings had a lot of fun, and were a lot of fun to watch. And their future is brighter than it has ever been in Sacramento.

Still, in the end, the 1998-99 NBA season will be remembered as the year Tim Duncan and David Robinson led the San Antonio Spurs to the first championship in franchise history, a 4-1 Finals victory over the New York Knicks.

The Knicks had become the first eighth-seeded team in NBA history to advance to the Finals, defeating Miami, Atlanta and Indiana in earlier rounds.

For veteran players like Robinson, Sean Elliott, and Avery Johnson (three long-time Spurs), the championship meant even more.

It goes a long ways towards fulfilling a lot of [my NBA] dreams," Robinson said. " You know that one big goal that I had, achieving that goal, has been met. Now I have to set new goals and new things, and if this was easy, though, it really wouldn't be worth the journey, and that's what makes it so special. You go through all those hard times, you get through all the creases and everything else, then you're able to finally get it done. And it's satisfying."

Johnson, for his part, was the hero in the Spurs' title-clinching win at Madison Square Garden by knocking down an 18-foot baseline jumper with 47 seconds to give San Antonio a 78-77 victory.

"It's funny," Johnson said. "When we signed Steve Kerr and I met him the first time and I had not met him, but got a chance to talk to him in training camp. That's one of the first questions I asked him, about hitting the big shots against Utah. He said it's unbelievable, an unbelievable feeling. But the main thing is you have to know you're going to shoot it. Don't hesitate, shoot it, let it go, get to the spots where you like to operate. I got right there within 18 feet, which is where I like to operate, and it felt good."

Finals MVP Duncan was feeling good all season. The playoffs offered a chance to prove he has become the best player in the league. And after his postseason performance, few observers would argue that notion.

After Game 5 Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said of Duncan: "Getting ready for them in preparation, watching a lot of film, he's obviously the best player in the NBA right now. Not just because of his skill level, I think his maturity, knowledge of the game, that he just cares about winning. You can just watch a guy play and know if he's truly into winning or not. That guy's truly into winning."

With a 37-13 regular-season record and a dominating march to the NBA title, the same thing should be said about the entire 1998-99 Spurs team.

Finally, here's a divsion-by-division capsule of how all 29 teams fared.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Miami (33-17): A stellar regular season could not have ended worse for Pat Riley's Heat, who won the division with relative ease. Miami became only the second No. 1 seeded team in league history to fall victim to an eighth-seeded team in the First Round when --of all teams -- their arch-rival New York Knicks won Game 5 at Miami Arena. Guard Tim Hardaway had knee troubles that dulled his quickness, making him less effective. No other perimeter player gave Miami a lift. And so, a brilliant year by All-NBA First Team center and Defensive Player of the Year Alonzo Mourning (20.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and a league-leading 3.91 blocks) went to waste.

Orlando (33-17): Coach Chuck Daly ended up retiring weeks after the Magic went poof in the first round, losing to upstart Philadelphia in four games. He said it was time to quit, but it could not have helped that free-agent signee Isaac Austin did not seem to fit in at center or that guard Penny Hardaway struggled. Guard Darrell Armstrong (13.8 points, 6.7 assists) was a revelation as the league's Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year.

Philadelphia (28-22): Guard Allen Iverson turned skeptics into believers by earning All-NBA First Team honors. The mercurial guard also led the league in scoring with 26.8 per game. In the Sixers' first-round playoff win against Orlando, Iverson was spectacular as he averaged 28.3 points to go along with 6.0 assists and 4.0 steals. It helped that center Matt Geiger gave them a presence inside and that rookie Larry Hughes showed serious scoring acumen. But against Indiana in the second round, the 76ers' lack of depth, particularly inside, was a factor as they were swept.

New York (27-23): The Knicks struggled to get the last Eastern Conference playoff spot, but then turned into a postseason juggernaut, knocking off Miami, Atlanta and Indiana to advance to the NBA Finals against San Antonio. Much of that damage was done without center Patrick Ewing, who was lost to an Achilles injury in the Pacers series. Allan Houston emerged as a star after beating Miami with a buzzer-beater and Latrell Sprewell was explosive off the bench particularly when Ewing was hurt. After a slow start, Marcus Camby became a Knick energizer in their improbable playoff run.

Boston (19-31): The Celtics pressed teams full court and ran at every opportunity, but to less-than-average success. Forward Antoine Walker went through a slump that frustrated him, his teammates and the Boston faithful who so desperately want the franchise to return to its former glory. Guard Kenny Anderson admitted to "underachieving." And the team's inside play left Coach Rick Pitino exasperated.

Washington (18-32): The acquisition of guard Mitch Richmond improved the Wizards only incrementally as Washington again missed the playoffs. Backcourt mate Rod Strickland was not as brilliant as the previous year, and the idea of defense seemed to elude the team. The results were very disappointing.

New Jersey (16-34): There was not much that went right for the Nets, who had such high expectations. A midseason trade for point guard Stephon Marbury could not make up for the slow start, which led to the dismissal of Coach John Calipari. Injury problems plagued the Nets all season as All-Star big man Jayson Williams broke his leg and forward Keith Van Horn his hand. The rest of the Nets were mere shells of what was anticipated coming into the season.

CENTRAL DIVISION

Indiana (33-17): For all their preseason workouts together during the lockout, which shortened the season by 32 games, the Pacers still struggled much of the season and then were whacked in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Knicks. The Pacers were the sixth-leading scoring team during the regular season, but had their problems in the playoffs. In the conference finals, Reggie Miller averaged only 16.2 points while shooting 36 percent from the field. Center Rik Smits' foot problems also limited the Pacers, and threatened Smits' career.

Atlanta (31-19): What will be remembered most is how the Hawks were embarrassed in the second round of the playoffs, when the Knicks swept them in four. They were exposed as slow, prodding and unimaginative on offense. That led to be offseason changes as the Hawks attempted to get younger and more athletic.

Detroit (29-21): It was another year of good-but-not-great play for the Pistons, who still have not advanced beyond the First Round of the playoffs with star Grant Hill (21.1 points per game). Detroit was sorely hurt by inconsistent inside play from center Bison Dele, among others. Joe Dumars had a solid last year before retiring, but the other guards were shaky.

Milwaukee (28-22): Forward Glenn Robinson finally made the playoffs, but a bad knee hampered him. The Bucks were overmatched by Indiana in the first round, but Ray Allen emerged as a potential star at guard. Milwaukee was left wondering what could have been if point guard Sam Cassell, acquired via a trade, was not shelved by ankle troubles.

Charlotte (26-24): The Hornets made a mad (and futile) playoff rush under Coach Paul Silas with trade-acquisitions Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell, along with veteran Bobby Phills, leading the charge. But they were starving for quality play at the point. Still, if versatile forward Anthony Mason hadn't missed the entire season with a torn bicep, Charlotte might have played in the postseason.

Cleveland (22-28): It started with the Cavaliers losing center Zydrunas Ilgauskas for the year to a broken foot and ended with Mike Fratello being fired as coach. In between, little happened to create excitement with the notable exception of highlights from Shawn Kemp (20.5 points per game).

Chicago (13-37): No Michael Jordan & Co. meant the end of the Bulls' dominance. They were afflicted by the ultimate basketball curse they could not consistently score points. Toni Kukoc averaged 18.8 points, but had little support. That should change, however, as the Bulls added No. 1 pick Elton Brand and Ron Artest in the draft.

MIDWEST

San Antonio (37-13): The brilliance of Tim Duncan, who is considered by many to be the best player in the game, and David Robinson, along with a savvy group of role players, enabled the Spurs to win their first NBA title. The Spurs struggled at first with a 6-8 record, but erupted to win 31 of their final 36 regular season games to capture the home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. With Duncan and Robinson dominating the paint at both ends of the court, the Spurs became the first former ABA team to win the NBA title.

Utah (37-13): After two losses to Jordan and the Bulls in the Finals, the Jazz was hoping to break though and win its first title, but it was not to be. Karl Malone (23.8 points, 9.4 rebounds per game) won his second MVP award and the Jazz tied the Spurs for the best record in the league. But after narrowly escaping the Kings in the first round, the Jazz could not keep up with the more athletic Blazers in the second round. The Jazz's sweet music ended after six games.

Houston (31-19): The acquisition of Scottie Pippen was billed as the injection that would lead the Rockets back to the summit. Instead, Pippen took a long time adjusting to the new system and often seemed lost on the floor. Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon, both at the tail-end of their careers, could not prevent a First-Round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Minnesota (25-25): Guard Stephon Marbury wanted out and forced a trade, but the Timberwolves, with Terrell Brandon at the helm, continued to grow. No one advanced more than forward Kevin Garnett (20.8 points, 10.4 rebounds), whose game reached superstar level. Free-agent Joe Smith more than adequately replaced the departed Tom Gugliotta.

Dallas (19-31): The Mavericks have a keeper in Michael Finley, who averaged 20.2 points a game. But Steve Nash struggled in his first season as a starting point guard, and Shawn Bradley still isn't the dominant center that Coach Don Nelson had hoped for, even though Bradley did average 3.24 blocks (second in the league). The Mavericks, however, missed the playoffs for the ninth consecutive year.

Denver (14-36): The Nuggets got Antonio McDyess back from Phoenix, and he was the only reliable offensive source. New acquisition Nick Van Excel was outstanding at times, erratic at others. The Nuggets were hurt when rookie Raef LaFrentz, who averaged 13.8 points in the first 12 games, was lost for the year with a major knee injury.

Vancouver (8-42): The Grizzlies remain a team with a youthful nucleus that shows promise. Shareef Abdur-Rahim finished fourth in the league in scoring with a 23-point average. Rookie guards Mike Bibby and Felipe Lopez had their moments, but the Grizzlies have never won more than 25 percent of their games in their four seasons. They remain a team in need of veteran leadership and veteran depth.

PACIFIC DIVISION

Portland (35-15): The Blazers had no true superstar, but they did have a team of superior athletic talent that ran almost 12 deep. Forward Rasheed Wallace elevated his status with strong playoff efforts, but when the Blazers had to match up in the Conference Finals with the Spurs, they were lacking in big game experience and big men, and the result was a sweep.

Los Angeles Lakers (31-19): Despite the record and a first-round victory over Houston, it was a difficult season for the Lakers. Coach Del Harris was released early in the season, Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell were traded for Glen Rice, Dennis Rodman was signed and released, and the result was there was no flow in the Lakers' season. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are two of the top talents in the NBA, but analysts questioned their ability to play together. They should find out this season when Phil Jackson brings his six rings and thoughtful approach to the Lakers bench.

Sacramento (27-23): The Kings had the exciting inside-outside game with Chris Webber scoring 20 points a night and Jason Williams averaging almost as many highlights. Vlade Divac contributed 14.3 points and 10 rebounds and forward Corliss Williamson and veteran guard Vernon Maxwell played valuable roles while averaging in double figures.

Phoenix (27-23): The Suns went with a small lineup in an attempt to outrun opponents with point guard Jason Kidd, who led the league in assists, making it happen. But when the game slowed down, Phoenix had problems. Tom Gugliotta and Luc Longley were good additions, but the Suns were hurt by the loss of Antonio McDyess to Denver.

Seattle (25-25): Vin Baker had a sub-par year, especially from the foul line, where he shot only 45 percent. His struggles typified the SuperSonics' year, which ended outside the playoffs for the first time in nine years. All-Star guard Gary Payton played with his usual passion and defensive zeal, but was openly frustrated by the Sonics' struggles.

Golden State (21-29): The Warriors flirted with making the playoffs on the strength of John Starks' leadership and solid team play. They were not happy with their point guard play, however, which prompted them to deal for Mookie Blaylock from Atlanta at the 1999 NBA Draft. Rookie Antawn Jamison developed as the season progressed, as did center Eric Dampier.

Los Angeles Clippers (9-41): A typical Clippers season in that they were not a threat to make the playoffs. Center Michael Olowokandi, the top pick of the 1998 draft, had his troubles in his first NBA season, but forward Maurice Taylor showed signs of blossoming into an impact player. And there was more hope. With their solid Lottery-bound record, the Clippers landed the fourth pick in the draft, which resulted in Lamar Odom.