In most years, the NBA season is a joke -- an 82-game charade to whittle away some of the league's bottom feeders so the elite can arrange schedules and get down to the real business of playoff basketball. Because of the lockout, this year's regular season will only be 50 games, making it even more of a waste of time.

The NBA season is just too long; too many games with too little meaning. Despite the NBA's spin that with a reduced schedule of contests this year "every game will mean more," fans and collectors just aren't buying it. For one thing, the first couple of weeks of games will be little more than extended exhibitions. Two weeks of practices and a couple of pre-season games aren't enough to tune up for any type of regular season.

As a result, the veteran teams will have a considerable leg up on the wannabes who had hoped to catch lightning in a bottle and put together an impressive winning streak. Even at 50 games, the teams that figure to be serious contenders will be serious contenders for the NBA title come summer (or the Fourth of July as a possible extended scenario has it). The teams that didn't figure to have a chance for the crown over an 82-game season won't fare any better with 32 fewer games.

It is possible, however, that a team or two that wouldn't have made the playoffs under the 82-game formula might sneak in under the K-Mart discounted campaign. But does anyone really think a team like the Dallas Mavericks or Philadelphia 76ers have a chance to be in the NBA finals when the playoffs are over? Not really.

As a result, the first season in the post-Jordan era will probably go pretty much the way it would have gone had the full compliment of games been played. Oh sure, there will also be some interesting jockeying for positions regarding home court advantage, but as real NBA fans will tell the farther you go in the playoffs the less home court seems to matter. Remember Michael Jordan's last shot in the NBA? It was in Salt Lake City, wrapping up the NBA title, not at the United Center.

The veteran teams in the East are the Indiana Pacers, who had more players under contract when the lockout ended than any other club, the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat. It should come down to those three teams come NBA Eastern Conference Finals time. The Pacers came within a half dozen points of shocking the Bulls and reaching the NBA finals last summer and they are primed for another serious run. The Knicks made some good off season moves acquiring Marcus Canby and Lattrell Spreewell. If Patrick Ewing can shake off the cobwebs from all of his negotiating during the lockout, he could be a factor. The Heat were blown away by the Knicks in the playoffs last year but they have the league's best coach in Pat Riley and could get hot in June.

Now that Jordan is off to the golf course, his partner, Scottie Pippen, has headed to Houston and Steve Kerr is in San Antonio, the Western Conference is the far superior one. There are more serious candidates for the NBA title in the West and as a result, the survivor of the playoffs here is going to be the favorite for the NBA title.

Pundits have fallen in love again with the Los Angeles Lakers, due in part to Shaq O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. But there are some holes in the Lakers' armor, particularly the question whether they have the depth to last the grueling run of a potential 26-game run.

Utah has come short up short twice against the Bulls and they still have volatile Karl Malone and venerable John Stockton. But the Jazz may be too veteran a team to make it back to the finals and the guess here is that Malone could pull a Dennis Rodman and lose it again come playoff time.

The San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets are the best bets to reach the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs have the best one-two combination of David Robinson and last year's rookie-of-the-year, Tim Duncan, and have added enough experience in the off-season to make a serious run. The Rockets, with Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley may take some time to jell during the abbreviated regular season but should have the playoff savvy to make a serious run for a return to the Finals. Trivia buffs will remember Houston is the only other team to have won a title in the 90s other than the Bulls.

The only real wild card in all of this is injuries which figure to be a more serious concern with a shorter season. A superstar going down early because he isn't in shape or didn't do the proper stretching can have a more profound impact come playoff time. Last year, a star who went down in say, December, had enough time to recuperate and take his time getting back into the lineup. Teams won't have that luxury this year.

So when the fireworks go off for the Fourth of July look for the Rockets and Pacers with Houston grabbing its third NBA title of the 90s. Wonder what Jordan's score on the golf course will be that day?