Insights: Sports—NBA Preview
Taking a look at the NBA teams and players to watch in the coming season
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00
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The Toronto Raptors appeared to be on the same path after last season when they made the playoffs for the first time ever. But the Raptors took a step backward by losing Tracy McGrady. They'll still be an exciting team to watch, thanks to one of the most sensational players in recent memory, Vince Carter, a player so awesome he requires more than one nickname. "Air Canada" and "Half-Man, Half-Amazing" are just a couple. The key for the Raptors will be replacing the athleticism of McGrady. They also needed to come up with a bona fide point guard, a slot they have filled with newly acquired Mark Jackson. Before I leave the Eastern Conference, here's my starting five for the 2001 All-Star Game in Washington, D.C.: Eddie Jones and Allen Iverson in the backcourt, Grant Hill and Vince Carter at forward, and Alonzo Mourning at center.
The San Antonio Spurs already have a big reason to celebrate: superstar big man Tim Duncan announced in the off-season that he'd be staying in San Antonio. And that means the Twin Towers, Duncan and David Robinson, will still be a big part of the Midwest landscape. They led the Spurs to their first-ever championship in 1999, but with Duncan sidelined by a knee injury, San Antonio was eliminated last season in the first round of the playoffs. With Tim healthy again, and Sean Elliott set to play a full season following his kidney transplant, the Spurs feature virtually the same cast that won the title. They are a legitimate threat to capture the crown.
The Utah Jazz are beginning to look like a team whose time has passed. After trips to the Finals in '97 and '98, the Jazz are starting to slide back the other way, with second-round playoff defeats the past two years. Now Jeff Hornacek has retired, while John Stockton and coach Jerry Sloan may follow him out the door after this season. But people have counted out the Jazz before. The ageless Stockton and Malone are still in great shape. And Bryon Russell has taken on a larger role each season. But Utah faces some huge obstacles, including the Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers and the calendar.
Ever since my main man Kevin Garnett arrived on the scene, the Minnesota Timberwolves have shown steady progress, and last season they reached a milestone with their first 50-win season. But the Timberwolves have yet to achieve a breakthrough in the playoffs, going out in the first round four consecutive seasons at the hands of higher-seeded teams. One key for this season will be improving their playoff seeding. Garnett will certainly hold up his end, as he's become arguably the game's best all-around player. Minnesota also features a talented point guard in Terrell Brandon (who also happens to one of my main men and a former University of Oregon Fighting Duck) and one of last season's most impressive rookies, Wally Szczerbiak.
One team to keep an eye on is the Dallas Mavericks. When no one was looking, the Mavs finished last season 11-2, and won 30 of their last 48 games. They have one of the league's most unheralded stars in forward Michael Finley, plus a sharp-shooting forward in Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavericks could make some noise in the Midwest this season, and even if they don't, they are certain to lead the league in at least one category: assistant coaches. At last count, head coach Don Nelson had eight assistants, which leads to one question: What does Nellie do?
The Los Angeles Lakers were unquestionably the league's best team last season, capturing their first NBA championship in 12 years. But the road wasn't as easy as it might have seemed. The Lakers were pushed to the limit by the Sacramento Kings in the first round, shaken by the Blazers in the conference finals, and the Pacers gave them a tougher battle than expected in the NBA Finals. So to be talking about them as a potential dynasty does seem a bit premature. Still, L.A. has to be favored again this season, for three good reasons: the coaching of Phil Jackson, the spectacular play of Kobe Bryant, and the dominance of league MVP Shaquille O'Neal. No one has come up with a way to stop Shaq, except of course at the free throw line. For the man who's called himself the Big Felon, the Big Havlicek, the Big Aristotle and the Big Shakespeare, the big challenge may simply be to come up with some more nicknames.
With the Lakers receiving so much acclaim, it's easy to forget that the Portland Trail Blazers with Scottie Pippen were just one quarter away from the NBA Finals and a possible championship themselves. They had L.A. on the ropes in the Western Conference Finals, with a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 7. But the Blazers went cold at the worst possible time and gave the Lakers new life. This season, Portland will again be considered the biggest threat to the Lakers. If the Blazers are to be title contenders, they'll need big seasons from their young players like All-Star Rasheed Wallace and the unsung Bonzi Wells.
The Phoenix Suns had a breakthrough season, advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in five years. The Suns have an explosive attack, with the All-Star backcourt of Jason Kidd and Penny Hardaway plus the athleticism of Shawn Marion, the all-around game of Clifford Robinson, and Sixth Man of the Year Rodney Rogers. One big difference last year was the renewed emphasis on defense and tenacity from new head coach Scott Skiles. Heading into this season, the Suns shape up as one of the top teams in the West, but if they're to challenge the Lakers, they may need to make a move at the center position, because Shaq simply dominated them in last year's playoffs.
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