Previewing the season's division races
A new NBA season starts Tuesday, Oct. 28, with several Latin American and Spanish representatives on different teams. A total of 17 players, scattered among 15 different teams, have come from Latin America or Spain to start season 2008-09.
There are five Argentineans, five Spaniards, three Brazilians, two Dominicans, a Mexican and a Puerto Rican. Two other players, Carmelo Anthony and Charlie Villanueva, are first-generation Puerto Rican and Dominican descendants, respectively, though both are American citizens.
Among the 17 representatives there are stars (Manu Ginóbili and Pau Gasol); starters (José Calderón, Al Horford, Luis Scola, Marc Gasol and Nené); some of them play from the bench while still having key roles in their teams (Andrés Nocioni, Leandro Barbosa, Fabricio Oberto, Anderson Varejao, Eduardo Nájera, Francisco García and Rudy Fernández); and others trying to strengthen their roles in their respective squads (José Juan Barea,, Sergio Rodríguez and Walter Herrmann).
As for the chances of the 30 teams, Boston and Los Angeles start off as favorites to lead their respective conferences and reach the Finals, but first they'll have to meet the challenge of several teams that have built up their rosters to become genuine contenders. Let's take a look at each division.
The Boston Celtics haven't made big changes for the coming season and lost an important roster player in James Posey, who signed with the New Orleans Hornets as a free agent. But the core of this team, with the powerful trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, remains intact and with a year's experience as a unit. This makes them favorites to repeat the divisional championship and at least reach the Eastern finals.
Toronto (with the acquisition of Jermaine O'Neal and Philadelphia (with Elton Brand) should give them a rough time, but it's hard to imagine them getting past the Celtics. New Jersey and New York will have to work hard not to end up last in this group. The Knicks will show a significant improvement in their performance, and will be much more entertaining and fun to watch with new coach Mike D'Antoni's high-octane offense, but they'll have a hard time qualifying for the playoffs.
The Detroit Pistons changed coaches but haven't made big personnel changes, preferring to blame their conference finals shortcomings on former coach Flip Saunders instead of looking at the players who disappeared in the key moments (Rasheed Wallace comes to mind). If they don't control their division and reach the league Finals, the players will have to start looking in the mirror to find the culprits.
Cleveland could be the team to win this division with the arrival of Mo Williams, who'll take some load off LeBron James in scoring duties and play assembly. This could give their superstar a chance to take a quality leap in his game, something that must really scare their rivals.
Milwaukee and Indiana should play better than they did last season, but Chicago is the team of which everyone is expecting a recovery and it would be a huge disappointment if it missed the playoffs for a second straight season.
The Orlando Magic will start off as favorites once more thanks to the improvement of Dwight Howard, the arrival of guard/forward Mickael Pietrus from Golden State, and one more year of Rashard Lewis' services, who'll feel more comfortable and confident in his second season without the pressure of having to prove he's worth the price of the juicy contract he signed last year.
Atlanta could join Orlando by making good use of its stars in Joe Johnson, Mike Bibby, Horford and Josh Smith, and taking advantage of the fact that their strongest rivals, the Washington Wizards, won't be counting on Gilbert Arenas until December. The Miami Heat could need some time to adjust, capitalize on the return of a healthy Dwyane Wade and play with a smaller, but versatile, squad that lacks a dominant center.
In Charlotte, Larry Brown will be able to do what he enjoys the most: start tutoring a young and talented group until it thrives, but they will need at least a year to grow into legitimate contenders.
Western ConferenceSouthwest Division
New Orleans dethroned San Antonio from the divisional kingdom last season and now, with Ginóbili lost to injury for two to three months; it's hard to imagine the Spurs recapturing what the Hornets took from them.
Those who can really challenge the hegemony of New Orleans in the Southwest Division are the Houston Rockets, who have upgraded a squad which already featured quality players like Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Luis Scola, by adding powerful forward Ron Artest.
Dallas has to deal with the question mark of whether they'll profit or suffer from their coaching change (from Avery Johnson to Rick Carlisle), while for Memphis things are pretty much the same; they are still the worst team of the group.
Utah isn't the most talented team in this division, but they are the best defensive- and team-oriented squad, reasons for which they should be able to dominate again. Portland and Denver should compete for the second place.
The Blazers saw a huge upgrade with the arrival of Fernández and the recovery of rookie center Greg Oden; while the Nuggets let go two very important defensive players (Marcus Camby and Nájera), so their defense, which was not very good before this loss, will be even worse.
Minnesota and Oklahoma don't have a chance. In fact, it would be a great achievement if Oklahoma City fans take to the former Seattle franchise like they did to the organization from New Orleans, while the Hornets were forced to play in this city a couple of years ago.
With the return of Andrew Bynum (who'll give Pau Gasol a chance to thrive in the No. 4 spot), the Lakers are favorites. We'll see if they can make it to the NBA Finals and, unlike last season, win it all.
The other team from L.A., the Clippers, has the chance to take second place away from Phoenix if they remain healthy. They lost Elton Brand and Corey Maggette, but they acquired two superb players in Baron Davis and Camby.
The Suns will have to get used to the more conservative style of play favored by their new coach Terry Porter, with a greater emphasis on defense, replacing the heavy-scoring, multiple possession style encouraged by former coach D'Antoni.
Golden State, without the services of Monta Ellis for 30 games, will compete with Sacramento to avoid the dubious distinction of ending up last in this group.
Carlos Morales currently is ESPN International's NBA analyst for its Spanish-language broadcasts. He has coached for over two decades in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, and coached Puerto Rico's national team at the highest levels of international competition.
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