Spurs lookin' good, but it's a long way till June
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It's been two months since Magic Johnson declared, "It's over," and now, finally, it begins.
Yes, folks, nothing but a repeat is in store, and Magic isn't the only one who says so. In a poll of 12 NBA experts here at ESPN -- yes, we have a dozen experts on the payroll (What? Too many?) -- every single one chose San Antonio to become the NBA's first repeat champion in four years. All that brainpower could never be wrong, right?
Well, it's a 30-team league, and 29 of those teams would probably be best served by taking exception. A few of them, to be sure, actually have a fighting chance.
"We believe, honestly, that there are five, six, seven other teams that have just as much of a chance to win the championship as much as we do. The fact that we're favored is pretty meaningless to us," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
What Pop neglected to mention was that a majority of those so-called contenders reside in the Eastern Conference.
So who exactly was Pop talking about? We'll make that Question 1 as we explore the top 10 questions of the upcoming season:
Q: Who but the Spurs might win it all?
A: At first glance, it seemed each of the teams thought to represent the top competition in the West had taken a serious hit.
With Phoenix losing three-fifths of its starting five (Amare Stoudemire is out four months after microfracture surgery on his knee, and Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson were traded), the team that led the NBA last season with 62 victories is a shell of its former self. So there's no chance Pop was talking about the Suns, was there?
But aside from the Suns ...
Did Dallas (Michael Finley, Shawn Bradley) and Houston (Bob Sura) really lose that much? The Mavericks will have depth (Jerry Stackhouse, Marquis Daniels, Keith Van Horn and Devin Harris coming off the bench) to match anyone in the conference except the Spurs. Meanwhile, the Rockets redid their backcourt, adding Rafer Alston and Derek Anderson, and will bring Stromile Swift, David Wesley, Jon Barry and Dikembe Mutombo off the bench.
The Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat are everyone's top three in the East, but the New Jersey Nets have championship-caliber talent and a deeper bench than a year ago, while the Cleveland Cavaliers provided enough experienced, complementary pieces (Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, Damon Jones) to LeBron James to at least be considered a legitimate contender to break into the East's top four.
Not sure if our list matches Popovich's, but it has to be close.
Q: Where will things go sour first?
A: It's too easy to say Oklahoma City, where the Hornets will struggle to win 10 games. That's like saying the Spurs will be good.
But check out central Florida, where things were going south fairly precipitously for the Orlando Magic at the end of last season, and it's hard to see any way Brian Hill can make a quick fix after the team made what amounted to zero significant moves in the offseason.
The Magic play eight of their first 12, and 18 of their first 27, at home, and it'll be a long, slow trip through the final four months of the season if Steve Francis, Dwight Howard and their supporting cast don't start strong.
Q: So Brian Hill is the favorite to be the first coach fired?
A: No. Not when they just brought him back.
The hot seat will belong to Rick Adelman of Sacramento if Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic's preseason shooting woes presage what's ahead for the Kings, who should be the class of a weak division. If they aren't in first place a month from now, look for the Maloofs to jettison the only coach the franchise has had for seven-plus seasons. They would have axed Adelman over the summer if Phil Jackson had been interested.
If Adelman isn't the first to go, it might just be Toronto's Sam Mitchell or the Hornets' Byron Scott. The Hornets have already fired just about everyone else.
Q: Which teams are being overlooked?
A: In the West, there's been so much speculative talk about the possible rise of the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers that everyone seems to be ignoring the Memphis Grizzlies, whose additions of Eddie Jones, Damon Stoudamire and Bobby Jackson bring a veteran maturity that was lacking the past two years as the Grizz were swept out of the first round. Shane Battier keeps getting better, and Pau Gasol was super sharp in the preseason.
"I think we accomplished what we wanted to. The next step for this franchise is to get back [to the playoffs], but then to win," coach Mike Fratello said.
In the East, plenty of folks are already flip-flopping on their gloomy preseason predictions for the Milwaukee Bucks, who now have a big lineup playing for a coach who expected to play small ball.
Q: On the flip side, which teams are being overrated?
A: At a time of the year when optimism flows like jump shots from Ricky Davis' right hand, it's hard to say anyone is being out-and-out overrated.
But expectations might have raised perhaps a little too high in Golden State and Denver, while Washington won't have an easy time getting back to the second round. New York Knicks fans truly believe Larry Brown can get them the eighth seed, but it'll be a long climb out of a deep hole if New York's start is as bad as Brown expects.
Q: Which rookies will be difference-makers?
Deron Williams should be the starting point guard in Utah before too long.
One experienced rookie to keep an eye on is Sarunas Jasikevicius. Indiana's coaching staff already considers him to be the team's best pure shooter. He was the MVP of the last two Euroleague Final Fours with Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Jasikevicius (pronounced yah-sa-KEV-uh-chiss) knocked down four 3-pointers against Stephon Marbury in the Olympics when Lithuania handed the United States one of its three defeats.
Q: What about trades? Any big names going to change teams?
A: Right now, all eyes are on Paul Pierce of the Celtics as Boston transitions to a youth movement, but Danny Ainge is having a hard time finding a decent offer as opposing GMs try to pull off the type of steal Rod Thorn made for New Jersey last year when he acquired Vince Carter.
If things start extra slowly in New York, don't be shocked if Larry Brown convinces Isiah Thomas to get rid of Marbury. There's deeper animosity between the two than either would have the public believe.
Things also aren't going so swimmingly in Portland between Zach Randolph and new coach Nate McMillan. The Trail Blazers also would be willing to move Ruben Patterson to free up time for Travis Outlaw, and Theo Ratliff is being paid too much ($11.7 over this season and the next two) to be a backup center. Someone in need of size will be willing to take a chance.
Denver would deal Nene Hilario if it got a big man and a shooting guard in return, but that'll be hard to pull off with Nene making only $3.04 million.
Q: What's going on in Week 1 that might ratchet up the interest of casual fans?
A: Well, Ron Artest plays in a game that matters for the first time since the Palace Brawl when Indiana opens at Orlando on Wednesday, and it'll be interesting to see how he responds if the league's referees keep Artest on a short leash.
Nuggets-Spurs on opening night could be a preview of the Western Conference finals.
Phil and Kobe at Denver is the late game of Wednesday night's doubleheader.
Larry Brown's home debut is Friday, as is the first Cavs-Spurs game.
The Bobcats open their new building Saturday, and Sam Cassell goes against his former Minnesota teammates on Monday.
Q: What about Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson? Can they coexist after what Phil said about Kobe in his book?
A: Both men claim they've put it behind them, though they haven't actually had a discussion about what Jackson wrote. And since one of the things Jackson wrote was that Bryant is a grudge-holder, this thing still has the potential to boil over.
Neither is accustomed to prolonged stretches of losing, and both are capable of sending harsh signals to the other through the media.
So the over/under on the date of their first feud is Dec. 22.
Q: Anything else worth mentioning?
A: Yeah, the Pistons are even deeper than they were the past two seasons, and maybe most of us -- including the majority of the experts at ESPN -- are overlooking or forgetting exactly how formidable they were the past two seasons.
Chris Sheridan, a national NBA reporter for the past decade, covers the league for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
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