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At last, Nets ready
to capture NBA title

Oct 28, 2003 5:49 AM

The NBA season gets underway Tuesday and there have been many changes in both players and coaches across the league.

The latest is the sudden resignation of Miami Heat coach Pat Riley just a few days before the season begins. Assistant Stan van Gundy takes over and with new Houston coach Jeff van Gundy the NBA has the unique scenario of a pair of brothers coaching at the same time.

The balance of power clearly remains in the Western Conference with as many as five or six teams having a realistic shot -- at least based on roster talent -- of winning the NBA title. The Los Angeles Lakers are the preseason favorites but there are many questions that need to be answered.

The question that has received most of the attention during the off-season surrounds Kobe Bryant, the sexual assault allegations he faces and what the impact of an impending trial may have. But there are also health concerns for Bryant who underwent off-season surgery and will need time to round into shape.

The addition of future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton brings a ton of talent but how will they all co-exist with both Kobe and perhaps the most dominant player in the league, Shaquille O’Neal. Sacramento, San Antonio and Dallas are also strong contenders this season.

Minnesota reshaped its team in the off-season in an attempt to make progress in the playoffs and will be a serious contender. Want a good-looking long shot? How about the Phoenix Suns with a stud in Shawn Marion, a re-energized Stephon Marbury and last season’s rookie of the year Amare Stoudemire.

In the East, New Jersey and Detroit are again the teams to beat. The Nets should be as good as if not better than last season when they won the conference title for the second straight season. Detroit welcomes Larry Brown as their new coach and his track record speaks for itself. Look for the Pistons to show steady improvement during the season.

Brown’s former team, Philadelphia, could be in for a down season even with one of the top players in the NBA, Allen Iverson. Indiana, New Orleans and Orlando also figure to contend. Milwaukee made a coaching change that many observers believe to be a positive move with Terry Porter taking over for George Karl. With a wealth of talent on the roster, Milwaukee might be a fashionable long shot.

Ultimately we see New Jersey surviving in the East and Sacramento winning in what will again be a grueling playoff season out West. And the third time will be the charm for the Nets as their experience in the finals the past two seasons finally pays off. New Jersey defeats Sacramento in six games to win the NBA Title.

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

T’wolves at Nets (Fri): Minnesota bolstered its roster during the off-season and Kevin Garnett has several options to help relieve the pressure on him to do it all. The addition of Latrell Sprewell adds legitimate scoring. New Jersey seeks to win a third straight Eastern Conference title with a team that is still maturing with solid players such as Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson to complement Jason Kidd. If Alonzo Mourning is fully recovered any contributions are an added plus. This should be a high scoring, entertaining contest with neither team in action Thursday night. OVER.

Utah at Dallas (Sat): No Karl Malone. No John Stockton. No chance at making the playoffs for a 21st straight season. That is unless coach Jerry Sloan can pull a rabbit out of his hat. He has 82 games to reshape the Jazz but it will be a painful experience for the first two months. Dallas has far too many offensive weapons for an effective defensive strategy by Utah to keep the game close late. DALLAS.

Warriors at Lakers (Sun): The Lakers are filled with talent while some of the off-season moves made by Golden State are puzzling. Veteran Nick van Exel, an ex-Laker, will be called upon to provide both scoring and leadership. The Lakers should be pretty solid favorites and although they played the night before in Phoenix still have too much firepower for the Warriors. Golden State hosted Philadelphia on Saturday night. LAKERS.