Shaq’s in South Beach. KMart’s a mile high (and so is Carmelo). Nash is in the Valley of the Sun, and ‘Toine is in the ATL. This NBA season promises to be one of the most interesting, if not most competitive ever.
Storylines are abundant on every team, from expansion to divorce to firesales. Superstars are unhappy, rookies are untested, and most of all, every team is undefeated (except the Rockets, Kings and Nuggets) as we begin play in 2004-2005.
The Nets come in as the early favorite because they still have JKidd, Richard Jefferson and a healthy Alonzo Mourning. The big question is who will replace the traded Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles? Eric Williams and Ron Mercer are not exactly comforting words for Nets fans to hear. The Celtics upgraded the point guard position with Gary Patton, but still have too many question marks and not enough big men. The Knicks face a similar problem. Jamal Crawford will help, but the backcourt depth wasn’t their problem.
The Raptors are humorous. Their superstar wants out, their coach is probably better than half their roster, and their big off-season signing Rafer Alston, is no better than an energy guy off the bench. The interesting team here is Philly. The 76ers could be very good if Allen Iverson adapts to the point and Andre Iguodala is the real deal. I’m not sold on Brian Skinner and Samuel Dalembert up front, though.
Detroit looks very solid all around, having acquired Antonio McDyess for depth on the frontline. Indiana is a definite threat, but there are too many distractions there, including Ron Artest, Reggie Miller being injured and Jamaal Tinsley’s inconsistency. I see them struggling a lot more than most people think.
A team that’s real dangerous is the Cavaliers. LeBron has a year under his belt, and even though the loss of Carlos Boozer will hurt, Drew Gooden and DaJuan Wagner will step up and be great role players for them. Milwaukee kept it interesting last year, in large part to the coaching of Terry Porter. The loss of T.J. Ford to injury is huge, though. The Bulls will try for the seventh time to break the mold since the MJ era ended. I don’t see it happening this year. Chandler, Curry, Deng, Gordon and Hinrich are all young and talented, but no one’s ready to lead them.
This division shouldn’t even be in the NBA. The ACC is clearly the best basketball being played in this region of the country. Miami is the heavy favorite, but one sprained ankle for Shaq or Dwayne Wade and it’s lottery bound.
The Wizards are interesting, and if Gilbert Arenas defers to Antawn Jamison (something he didn’t do in Golden State), they may sneak into the playoffs. Kwame Brown’s in a contract year, so he’ll play better. Aside from watching Antoine Walker shoot 12 threes a game, there’s nothing exciting going on in Atlanta with the Hawks. If anyone can name three Bobcats, please do, because I can’t. But watch Gerald Wallace, he’s young, athletic and nasty. The real sexy team in this division is Orlando. Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley bring their show east and team with rookie Dwight Howard and a healthy Grant Hill. They could win 45 games.
Let’s start with the best. Minnesota is very good. Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell are unhappy, but MVP Kevin Garnett will take care of them. Portland is a walking heart attack for coach Maurice Cheeks. The Trailblazers just gave one of their biggest headaches, Zach Randolph, a big contract extension too.
The Sonics are ugly. They may be the worst team in the league. The Jazz improved, getting Mehmet Okur (who I’ve never been sold on) and Carlos Boozer for the frontcourt, but they won’t make the playoffs. Denver, on the other hand, is one of the most exciting team and my pick for fourth seed out west. KMart won’t be as dominant as he was in the East, but the attention teams must pay to him down low will open it up for ‘Melo.
Until someone beats the Lakers in this division, I’m picking them. Kobe, Olympic star Lamar Odom and up-and-coming Chris Mihm will really help this team. The Kings are unbearable. One superstar wants out. They want the other superstar out, but no one will take his contract. Coach Rick Adelman has worn out his welcome, and anything less than an NBA title will likely spell the end of his time in Sacto. Golden State is doing some nice things there with Chris Mullin bringing in Mike Montgomery and Derek Fisher, but they’re two years away. The Clippers came Kerry-close to getting Kobe, and now his re-signing will set them back another 10 years. Like Orlando in the East, the team to really love is Phoenix. Amare Stoudemire and Steve Nash will be a destructive force for years. Shawn Marion may be used to lure Peja Stojakovic from the Kings. The Suns are a dark horse contender for a run to the Finals.
Definitely the most delicious division in the league, with Memphis’ Barbecue, Texas’ Tex-Mex and New Orleans’ Cajun cuisine. I like the Grizzlies, who have steadily improve every year. They should make the playoffs again. The Spurs are the Spurs. They’re consistent and deep, but I don’t see a title run this year. Next year, my pick will be the Rockets, but they need a year for TMac and Yao to gel and to figure out their point guard situation. Byron Scott is one of the unluckiest men in the league. He takes over a talented Hornets team just as their best player, Baron Daris, wants out, another star, Jamal Mashburn is out for the year and the team moves from the soft East to the tough West. This is going to be a long first year on the job for Mr. Scott. The Mavs are the pick here. Their defense is the best it’s ever been, and turning the reins over to a rookie point guard, Devin Harris, will inject energy into that team. The scoring of Jason Terry and Jerry Stackhouse off the bench will be invaluable.
So, the playoff teams in the East are Detroit, New Jersey, Miami, Philadelphia, Indiana, Cleveland, Orlando and New York. In the West, look for Minnesota, the Lakers, Dallas, Phoenix, Denver, San Antonio, Memphis and Sacramento to be playing in May. You heard it here first: KG breaks through and the T-Wolves win the NBA Finals, 4-2, over Larry Brown’s Detroit Pistons.