NBA enters new ‘zone’

Oct 30, 2001 8:15 AM

The NBA season gets underway this week and 28 teams will take aim and try to dethrone the two time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

Several rules changes are in effect this season with perhaps the most noteworthy one being the allowance of teams to play zone defenses. It will be very interesting to see how the Lakers and especially Shaquille O’Neal will be affected by this new rule.

The off-season acquisition of Lindsey Hunter might actually make the Lakers a much stronger team. Hunter can drain the three and could get some good looks at the hoop when teams collapse on Shaq and turn their attention to Kobe Bryant.

The Lakers deserve to be the prohibitive favorite to make it three in a row. Around Las Vegas, the Lakers are pretty much an even money favorite to win the NBA Championship.

Los Angeles’ other team, the Clippers, is a fashionable choice to show marked improvement this season and make a rare appearance in the Playoffs.

Resembling a recent college all-star team with a sprinkling of veterans, the Clippers should get off to a strong start but questions about leadership, presence and stamina could mean the Clippers will have a better first half of the season and might fade after February.

Dallas, Minnesota and Sacramento also figure to be contenders in the Western conference along with San Antonio and Utah.

The Mavericks, Timberwolves and Kings are teams on the rise with a nucleus of maturing players while the Spurs and Jazz have those great leadership intangibles of San Antonio’s Tim Duncan and David Robinson combo and the duo of Utah’s Karl Malone and John Stockton.

Portland remains a question mark following some offseason moves but their key will be whether or not star Rasheed Wallace is able to get his temper under control and avoid those costly technical fouls that get him tossed from games and hurt the TrailBlazers down the stretch.

Phoenix is also a question mark after trading Jason Kidd for Stephon Marbury which might hamper the development of Shawn Marion. If Marbury can be less selfish and get his teammates more involved the Suns should be able to make the Playoffs.

Houston will be a team in transition following the departure of longtime C Hakeem Olajuwon. The Rockets will hope for Steve Francis to become more of a team player and if that occurs Houston might contend for a bottom Playoff berth.

Seattle is a team still in decline that will still rely on Gary Payton for most of their offense.

Denver’s progress will be hampered by the loss to injury of Antonio McDyess until perhaps January.

Golden State has potential for improvement and could be a solid pointspread play early in the season as underdogs with Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison continuing to develop.

Vancouver is now in Memphis and might show improvement as well after acquiring talented though enigmatic G Jason Williams in the offseason and drafting Duke’s Shane Battier. Battier has tremendous upside because of his strong work ethic which, despite his rookie status, could lift the play of his teammates.

In the East, Philadelphia remains the favorite on the strength of league MVP Allen Iverson and a force in the center with Dikeme Mutombo. Last week’s acquisition of Derrick Coleman is puzzling although if Coleman comes to play he can be a solid offensive complement to Iverson.

Guard Eric Snow will be lost for quite some time but that will enable Speedy Claxton, who missed last season due to injury, to make a contribution. Last season’s Sixth Man award winner, Aaron McKie, will also be more of a force with the departure of both George Lynch and Tyrone Hill.

Milwaukee should be the most formidable challenger to the 76ers after solidifying their roster by signing Anthony Mason. The Bucks seem to be a very complete team with perhaps the exception being the lack of a big time center, a deficiency that would be more of a problem if the Bucks were in the Western conference.

Toronto’s acquisition of Hakeem Olajuwon improves the Raptors to the extent of Olajuwon’s stamina and ability to be free from injury. Vince Carter remains the star of the team.

The most significant development in the Eastern conference is the return of Michael Jordan as a member of the Washington Wizards. Opinion is divided as the impact His Airness will have insofar as Washington’s place in the standings is concerned but almost everyone agrees he will have a major positive impact on his employees, er, teammates.

Boston and New Jersey present some of the best opportunities for pointspread success early in the season and improvement in the standings. The Celtics will rely on Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker and a more disciplined style under coach Jim O’Brien who replaced Rick Pitino in the middle of last season.

New Jersey will improve with the addition of Jason Kidd and could challenge for the Playoffs if Kenyon Martin can stay healthy.

New York, Indiana and Miami are contending with age at key positions but all three have enough to make the Playoffs if they can avoid major injuries. The Knicks appear to be the deepest of the three teams with Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston poised to shine once again.

Miami will hope that C Alonzo Mourning can maintain his strength despite his kidney problems which is a cause for concern as to whether he can hold up physically over a grueling 82-game schedule.

Orlando is another fashionable choice to challenge in the East with a supposedly healthy Grant Hill teaming with Tracy McGrady and an aging Patrick Ewing.

Charlotte will rely on a strong backcourt of Baron Davis and David Wesley and have decent balance with Jamal Mashburn and P J Brown. The Hornets should again be in the Playoffs.

The prospects are not as bright for Detroit who, aside from Jerry Stackhouse, have little firepower. Stackhouse could see many double and triple teams this season.

Atlanta is a team on the rise but appear to be a season away from challenging for the Playoffs. The same can be said for Cleveland although G Andre Miller will be one of the best players in the conference this season.

Cleveland is continually plagued by an above average number of injuries and they’ve already been dealt a setback as the oft-injured Zydrunas Ilgauskas begins the season sidelined.

Chicago will again be the worst team in the conference and perhaps will challenge Memphis for the league’s worst record. The Bulls seem to be lacking direction. They will get leadership from veteran Charles Oakley but aside from Ron Mercer there appear to be few consistent scoring threats on the roster.

The early season prognostication is for Los Angeles to face Milwaukee for the NBA Title next June. The Lakers are clearly the favorites to win it all once again but at a price that has been seen between 10-1 and 15-1 around town, Milwaukee may be worth a shot as a legitimate longshot to dethrone the champs given the multiple options on the Bucks’ roster.

Here’s a look at some of the more attractive matchups this weekend.

Friday, Nov. 2
Mavs at Raptors:
Dallas has a talented trio of Michael Finley, Dirk Nowitzki and Juwon Howard while Toronto is paced by Vince Carter, Antonio Davis and Hakeem Olajuwon. Both teams are capable of running the court although Dallas would appear to have more options than the Raptors. Take DALLAS.

Saturday, Nov. 3
Sixers at Wizards:
The much awaited matchup of a mature Allen Iverson against Washington’s ”˜Comeback Kid,’ Michael Jordan. Philly won all four meetings last season but only one game was decided by more than six points. Use that six to eight point line as a guideline, laying under six with PHILLY or taking more than eight with WASHINGTON.

Sunday, Nov. 4
Jazz at Lakers:
These teams split four meetings last season and return much of the same cast of players although the Lakers have made a few more changes in the off-season. If the Lakers won at Utah on Thursday the preferred play for this rematch will be the UNDER.