It seems like only yesterday that Kobe Bryant was kissing the championship trophy, Phil Jackson was lighting a victory cigar, and Shaquille O'Neal was giving himself the most fitting of his many nicknames--the Big Champion. The Los Angeles Lakers earned their right to celebrate, but the 20002001 National Basketball Association season is already underway, and it's time to start from scratch again with any outcome possible.
As new seasons tend to do, this one will bring new scenarios and some new characters. Here's one man's early glimpse of the teams and players to look for as it tips off.
The Miami Heat has had no problem winning the Atlantic Division. The problem has come at playoff time, especially against its archrivals, the New York Knicks. New York has eliminated the Heat three years in a row, all in deciding games, and all on Miami's home court. That means it's time to shake things up, and coach Pat Riley has done just that by trading for Eddie Jones and Anthony Mason. Eddie will give the Heat some of the scoring and athleticism it's lacked, and with stars like Jones, Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, Miami will again be an Eastern Conference power.
But its Florida rival, the Orlando Magic, will also be much improved, thanks to two big off-season acquisitions, Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill. Last season, NBA Coach of the Year Doc Rivers took an unheralded team to the brink of a playoff berth, led by one of the NBA's most underrated players, point guard Darrell Armstrong. Orlando also came up with a real find at center in British-born John Amaechi, the only NBA player who has tea time each afternoon. And now that the Magic has added two dynamic stars to the mix, the team could emerge as a genuine contender in the Eastern Conference.
Of course, when you talk about the Atlantic, you have to mention the Knicks, who went to the conference finals last season, and the NBA Finals the year before. But New York has some question marks. One of them is, how much does Patrick Ewing have left in the tank? (Assuming he's still around and not traded as was attempted in the off-season.) And, how will the Knicks address their biggest weakness--rebounding? The main problem, according to coach Jeff Van Gundy, is that the lineup has been too small with Latrell Sprewell and Larry Johnson as their starting forwards.
The Philadelphia 76ers have become Eastern Conference contenders, reaching the second round of the playoffs the past two years. The main reason has been high-scoring guard Allen Iverson. But as electrifying as he is, the Answer has often been the only answer on offense for the Sixers. He's had to carry too much of the load by himself, and the Sixers need more help from the supporting cast if they're to get to the next level. One thing that'll help is having Toni Kukoc for a full season.
What happens when you replace one Hall of Famer with another as head coach? The Indiana Pacers are about to find out, after saying goodbye to Larry Bird and hello to Isiah Thomas. Isiah inherits a team that went to the conference finals the past three seasons and made its first trip to the NBA Finals last year. It's a team with plenty of veteran leadership, which is another way of saying the Pacers are starting to get older. They do, however, have budding superstar Jalen Rose. Four of last year's starters were over 30, so look for Thomas to start mixing younger legs into the rotation and play a more up-tempo style. He'll look to players like Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender to help create a more versatile team. And they still have Reggie Miller!
Even though the Pacers made it to the Finals, they were just seconds away from going out in the first round. If Travis Best hadn't hit a clutch three-pointer from the corner, Indiana would have lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in five games. The Bucks have been coming on strong the last two years under coach George Karl, and they could be ready to take another big step up this season. Milwaukee features a trio of dangerous scorers in Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, Ray Allen and Sam Cassell. And the Big Three could very well be a Big Four with the rise of the talented Tim Thomas, a player who really came into his own last season. With this nucleus, the Bucks are on the verge of making serious noise.
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.
Over the past two years, the Sacramento Kings have been revitalized. They've not only become a winning team, they're also one of the NBA's most entertaining teams. That's due mainly to point guard Jason Williams and All-Star forward Chris Webber. The Kings also gained a lot of respect last season when they extended the Lakers to five games in the first round of the playoffs. But now they can't be satisfied just to make the playoffs anymore. The Kings need to find a way to advance, and it'll have to start with defense. Sacramento was the NBA's highest-scoring team last season, but the flip side was that it ranked third in points allowed. And it's defense that usually wins in the NBA playoffs.
Here's my Western Conference All-Star starting five: Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant at the guards, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan at forward, and Shaquille O'Neal in the middle. No season preview is complete without naming some of the rookies to watch. I've noticed some pretty big names from the 2000 draft. They include Seattle's Olumide Oyedeji, Sacramento's Hidayet Turkoglu, New Jersey's Soumaila Samake, Denver's Mamadou N'diaye and Phoenix's Iakovos Tsakalidis. I don't know how good any of them will be, but I just wanted to get their names down on paper right now, because I will find it impossible to say them on the air.
Ahmad Rashad covers basketball for NBC.