The almost eight-month journey from NBA preseason to NBA finals begins this week.
There are many new faces on a vast majority of teams. Several begin with key performers sidelined by injury, including Mike Bibby of Sacramento and Shaquille O’Neal of the three time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Some teams, such as the New York Knicks, may be doomed to a dismal season because of the prolonged or short-term absence of key players. The Knicks were hit hard with the loss of newly acquired Antonio McDyess for the season and All Star Latrell Sprewell for an indeterminate period.
The Knicks were a playoff team just two seasons ago but might contend for one of the worst records in the NBA.
The power in the league is again in the West. Sacramento and the Lakers are the early favorites but Dallas and San Antonio should again be factors. Utah also will rely on several new faces to go with veterans Karl Malone and John Stockton in what might be their last hurrah.
The Eastern Conference appears wide open with many observers skeptical of whether New Jersey, Detroit and Boston can duplicate their huge rise through the standings last season.
Atlanta is a fashionable longshot to show significant improvement. New Orleans, home of the former Charlotte Hornets, has talent and could thrive in a stable environment. Orlando, with a finally healthy Grant Hill to complement Tracy McGrady, could have a magical season.
There has been a great influx of young talent throughout the league and this season should again produce its share of new stars.
Here’s a look at three games to be played this weekend.
Pacers at Nets (Friday): Indiana took the Nets to the wire last season and has one of the most dangerous sharp-shooters in NBA history in Reggie Miller. The improving supporting cast should help the Pacers do better than the No. 8 playoff spot.
New Jersey is out to prove last season was no fluke. With Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin as anchors, the Nets should again be a playoff contender. The Nets should be solid 4-to-6 point favorite and the underdog look good. INDIANA.
Kings at Grizzlies (Saturday): Memphis has developing young talent and might be able to make a great leap. Pau Gasol and Shane Battier, both in their second seasons, form a good nucleus.
Sacramento should be a solid favorite, but the Grizzlies have optimism and a chance to knock off one of the elite. Play the upset with points. MEMPHIS.
Blazers at Lakers (Sunday): With O’Neal sidelined, teams will force someone other than Kobe Bryant to lead Los Angeles. In Rasheed Wallace the Trailblazers have one of the league’s best players and a supporting cast in transition between youth and age.
The Lakers will be heavily favored, but early-season underdogs make excellent plays until the linesmaker adjusts. The regular season presents the best opportunity for a team to make a dramatic move up the standings due to the importance of each individual player. PORTLAND.