NBA to take off

Nov 2, 2004 3:17 AM

The NBA gets underway on Tuesday and there have been several significant changes since Detroit won the NBA title last June.

Perhaps the biggest story in the off-season was the trading of Shaquille O’Neal from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Miami Heat and the concurrent retirement of Lakers’ head coach Phil Jackson.

But that’s not all: two other major changes have occurred. The Charlotte Bobcats became the NBA’s 30th franchise. This required the move of the New Orleans Hornets from the Eastern to the Western Conference to balance each conference with 15 teams.

Bigger than this has been the rearrangement of each conference into three Divisions rather than the two that has existed for many seasons.

Even with the departure of Shaq, the West remains the strongest conference with more "good" teams expected to contend for the playoffs. The Lakers, however, should be considerably weaker than in recent seasons and that should leave Minnesota and San Antonio as the top contenders to win the West.

Sacramento, Dallas and Houston should also be in the race for one of the top four seeds but keep an eye on Houston, Utah, Denver and Phoenix to perhaps supplant the Lakers for a playoff berth.

Detroit may still be the team to beat in the east although Indiana will still be a formidable contender, as will Miami. Recall last season when Miami started so poorly, then turned things around and advanced to the second round of the playoffs where they lost to Indiana in six games. The Heat lost some depth by acquiring Shaq, but it’s hard to argue with their moves when the most dominant player in the game comes aboard. The Heat will be a factor.

Cleveland and Orlando also appear improved but New Jersey might take a step or two backwards. Fortunately for the Nets they play in the very weak Atlantic Division and might win the Division by default with a record close to or perhaps even below .500.

New Jersey is our pick to win the Atlantic Division with Philadelphia expected to provide the biggest challenge and perhaps even make the playoffs. Toronto seems stronger than last season while both the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics are likely to struggle the most.

Detroit and Indiana are clearly the top two teams in the Central Division and are likely to have the two best records in the East. Cleveland and Milwaukee both seem improved enough to contend for a playoff berth while Chicago is still rebuilding.

Miami is the class of the newly-formed Southeast Division, although Orlando looks as though they are improved from last season. Atlanta and Washington might give the Magic a run for the playoffs with the newest franchise, Charlotte, experiencing the normal growing pains of a team looking to integrate an entire roster of new players.

In the West the newly-created Southwest Division looks to be the deepest in the entire league with each of the five teams not just capable of making the playoffs, but of finishing with winning records. San Antonio has to be considered the favorite but Houston, Dallas, Memphis and New Orleans each have solid rosters and decent depth.

Minnesota is the favorite to win the Northwest Division but don’t be surprised if Denver makes a true run at the Division title. Utah is also improved and will challenge for the playoffs as well. The bottom two teams, Portland and Seattle, appear to be rebuilding or reshaping their rosters and are likely to trail the top three teams by a significant margin.

Many experts expect the Lakers to finish in the middle of the Pacific Division with both Sacramento and Phoenix picked to finish one-two. But don’t yet discount the Lakers’ prospects with Kobe Bryant now fully in charge. The addition of both Caron Butler and Lamar Odom from Miami in the Shaq trade provide some nice support even though the void in the middle can never be adequately replaced. New coach Rudy Tomjanovich has NBA title experience with Houston and is a proven leader. Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers are still several key players away from being serious Playoff contenders.

 

Our picks for the coming season are for well-balanced Detroit to defeat Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals and for Minnesota to defeat Division rival San Antonio in the West. And in what has become a more frequent occurrence over the past decade and a half after going such a long time without it, Detroit is the pick to win a back-to-back NBA championship.

Now, here’s a look at three games to be played this weekend.

San Antonio at Los Angeles Lakers (Friday): It just won’t be the same without Shaq as the Spurs and Lakers renew their rivalry. The Lakers are clearly Kobe Bryant’s team while the Spurs revolve around Tim Duncan whose unselfishness has made the Spurs better than the sum of their parts. It might take a while for Kobe to get his new teammates more involved and comfortable with their supporting roles. With nobody on the Lakers to match up with Duncan the Spurs should come away with a comfortable win. SAN ANTONIO is the play.

Memphis at Dallas (Saturday): Memphis is a well-balanced team without any true superstar while Dallas has more name players, including Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley and the newly acquired Jason Terry and Erick Dampier. Despite the presence of all this offense the teams played UNDER the total in their final three meetings last season. Defense is the strength of Memphis Coach Hubie Brown, who will use the deliberate style of play to counteract Dallas’ superior offensive talent. UNDER the total is the preference.

Portland at Toronto: Two of the game’s top players — Portland’s Zach Randolph and Toronto’s Vince Carter -- highlight Sunday’s short schedule. Both have solid though unheralded second bananas with Toronto’s Donyell Marshall and Portland’s Sharif Abdur-Rahim sporting solid and consistent credentials. Neither team receives dominant pivot play and we could see a fast paced game with Toronto more willing to run after Sam Williams replaced defensive minded Kevin O’neil as coach. OVER the total is the preferred play.