King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NBA preview: Shaq and Kobe made the offseason headlines, but once the games count, the championship road goes through Detroit and San Antonio.

By Salon Staff
Published November 1, 2004 8:00PM (UTC)
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It was the biggest L.A. divorce since Tom and Nicole, the difference being that everyone saw it coming. The Shaq and Kobe show is no more, Shaquille O'Neal traded from the Lakers to the Miami Heat, and Kobe Bryant, out from under the rape charge that hung over him all last year, totally in charge at the Staples Center.

The Lakers jettisoned coach Phil Jackson for Bryant's benefit too, bringing in former Rockets head man Rudy Tomjanovich, who will coach the team and look after Kobe's cars.

For years Bryant and O'Neal had struggled for control of the Lakers, each insisting that if he were just given the chance to be The Man, the Lakers would be an even better team than the one that won three straight championships in 2000-02 and the Western Conference title last year.

Now they both get their wish. Bryant will be the man in Los Angeles and Shaq will be the man in Miami, and neither team will be anywhere near as good as the Lakers of the last five years. Well played, gents!

The hype is that Shaq moving to the Eastern Conference offsets the imbalance of power that's favored the West since the late '90s, but it doesn't. The East has made some strides in the last year or two, and of course the champion Detroit Pistons came out of the East last year, but the bulk of the good teams are still in the West, and once you get past the Pistons, the Pacers and, maybe, the Heat, you have a bunch of teams that look like they'd struggle to make the playoffs in the West.

The Pistons were a great story last year, a shutdown defensive team without a superstar that proved you can grind your way to a championship, the key being Rasheed Wallace, added in a trade late in the year. Wallace, famous for being a nutjob and a malcontent in Portland, became a solid citizen in Detroit, not to mention a solid scoring threat.

Wallace signed a new contract to stay with the Pistons, and now that he has that in hand there's always the danger he'll revert to his unstable ways. There's also always a chance for any champion to suffer from a hangover. But that aside, the Pistons have to be the favorite to win the East again.

In the West there are a lot of teams with hopes. The Rockets hope Tracy McGrady can team up with Yao Ming to contend for a title. The Mavericks hope Erick Dampier will be the center that's supposedly been the missing ingredient in their title hopes. The Nuggets, Grizzlies and Jazz hope to build on their surprising success of a year ago. The Suns hope Steve Nash can return them to the playoffs. The Timberwolves hope Kevin Garnett can have another crazy-great year and lead them even deeper in the postseason. The Kings hope their championship window hasn't closed.

They're all going to have to beat the Spurs, though, who only have to hope that playing in the Olympics didn't wear down Tim Duncan. Half a dozen teams have the talent to make a run at the conference title, but they'll have to beat the Spurs, who have a young backcourt -- Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- that's only getting better, and have added shooter Brent Barry to pull defenses off Duncan.

The NBA has realgined this year, dividing each conference into three five-team divisions. The expansion Charlotte Bobcats join the East, with the New Orleans Hornets moving to the West. The playoff format remains unchanged, except that now three division champs will get the top seeds in each conference instead of two. The next five best teams will be seeded four through eight, but the team with the better record, not the higher seed, gets home court in playoff series.

An important thing to remember about the new alignment is that, within each conference, the schedule is almost balanced. Teams play four games against their division rivals, and either three or four against teams in the other two divisions in their own conference, plus a home and home against teams from the other conference. What that means is that teams don't get punished for being in a tough division.

Here's a preview of the 2004-05 season, or, as I like to call it, the preseason, which begins Tuesday night. Please take note of the usual plea that you not use this column's always-wrong predictions as the basis for wagering.


Pacific Division

The Lakers will be better than you might think and more fun to watch than they have been, but they're overloaded with mediocre small forwards. They still have Kobe Bryant, though, and they're still the Lakers. Watch out a year or two down the road.

In Sacramento, Chris Webber is done and everyone knows it but him. The Kings could become the second Northern California franchise to make a disastrous decision regarding Webber if management eventually sides with him in his feud with Peja Stojakovic. But Kings management has been a lot smarter in recent years than Warriors management. Still, the Kings' moment appears to have passed.

The Warriors are the latest team to experiment with hiring a college coach, Mike Montgomery, late of Stanford. He should feel right at home, since he didn't have to move, and won't be coaching any NBA All-Stars. The Clippers, we are told, will play 82 games again this year, but as usual we won't be told why.

That leaves the Suns as a possible challenger. They got a lot better over the offseason by adding Steve Nash and Quentin Richardson, who will make the move to the NBA after spending four years with the Clippers. They pair with a frontcourt of Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion that's good and can become great if Stoudemire lives up to his potential. It's easy to forget he's only 22 -- in a few weeks, that is.

The Suns will be an exciting, up-tempo team that will be fun to watch, but they lack a center and a defense. They should be able to make a run in this suddenly weak division -- if it's possible for a division that never existed before to be "suddenly" anything -- but I don't think they'll win it, and they may have to win it to make the playoffs.

Predicted finish: L.A. Lakers, Phoenix, Sacramento, Golden State, L.A. Clippers

Northwest Division

The TimberWolves are coming off their best season, one in which they finally got a win in the playoffs. They have the same team back, and with one of the game's two or three best players in Kevin Garnett, they have high hopes.

Know what? These guys are in trouble. Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell are both 34, and both are whining about their contracts. Sprewell is feeling "insulted" in negotiations and wants to be traded. Here's the money quote: "Why would I want to help them win a title? They're not doing anything for me. I've got a lot at risk here. I've got my family to feed." Love when athletes talk like that. Sprewell is due to make $14 million this year.

Wally Szcerbiak wants more playing time when he's healthy, which he hasn't been more than half the time the last two years, which not coincidentally have been very good years for the T-Wolves. Plus: Michael Olowokandi. No team will ever win an NBA title with Michael Olowokandi on its roster. It would take a hell of a team just to get close, given that handicap. I think this team is going to stumble, and of course if it doesn't, I'll get 500 e-mails from Minnesotans about the first part of this sentence.

The Nuggets probably overpaid for Kenyon Martin, but that doesn't mean he's not a very good player, and Denver has one of the best front lines in the league, with Carmelo Anthony and Marcus Camby joining Martin, and Nene coming off the bench. Camby gets injured brushing his teeth, and what are the odds he'll have a second straight healthy year? But add Andre Miller and these guys can play with anybody's starting five. Lack of depth will do them in, but this should be a good team.

But maybe not as good as the Jazz, who, don't look now, have put the Malone/Stockton days behind them at last, all of two years later. In case you've missed it, Andrei Kirilenko has become one of the best players in the league. Carlos Arroyo -- cast your mind back to the Olympics -- is a decent point guard, and the Jazz signed solid power forward Carlos Boozer over the summer. They also gave a lot of money to Mehmet Okur, which I don't get. The Jazz aren't deep or good enough to go all the way yet, but if things break right for them, they could go a long way in the regular season, by which I mean the playoffs.

The Trail Blazers are Zach Randolph, Darius Miles and a bunch of unhappy guys. Oh, they got Nick Van Exel this offseason. He always cheers everyone up. Could be worse, though. They could be the Sonics.

Predicted finish: Utah, Denver, Minnesota, Portland, Seattle

Southwest Division

Wow, what a division. The perennial powerhouse Spurs and Mavs, with Tracy McGrady joining a still-developing Yao Ming in Houston, and, by the way, the Grizzlies and Hornets were playoff teams last year. There might be a division champ this year that wouldn't finish fourth in the Southwest.

The Spurs have Tim Duncan, they play defense, they're athletic, and with Brent Barry on board, they can even shoot. If you want to win the West, you have to go through San Antone.

The Mavericks have always lacked a true center, so they went out and got Erick Dampier. Think about that: The Mavs' title hopes are resting on the shoulders of Erick Dampier. To be fair, Dampier is probably better than you think he is, and he's almost certainly better than I think he is. But still. The Mavs let Steve Nash go, which caused much weeping and rending of "Shoot for Peace" T-shirts in Dallas, but Marquis Daniels will soon become a crowd favorite. With Dirk Nowitzki leading the way, this team still has a lot of firepower, especially if Jerry Stackhouse can stay healthy. But they still won't defend enough, and their window may have closed. No team coached by Don Nelson will ever win an NBA title, though they always do well in the regular season.

So the Spurs' main Texas rivals will come from Houston, where McGrady joins Yao and coach Jeff Van Gundy, who isn't likely to let the 25-year-old superstar sink into a funk when times get tough, which is what happened in Orlando last year. I don't think there's enough talent around them quite yet. The Rockets are in grave danger of Charlie Ward, aging right before your eyes, playing significant minutes. But they'll be fun to watch, and they can probably go a round into the playoffs.

The Grizzlies don't have any big stars, but they have a lot of pretty good players. They won 50 games last year with that depth, along with intensity, fundamentals and a little luck. This year, a lot of people are looking at the same roster and saying the Griz are going to backslide quite a bit. I don't know about that, but 50 wins does seem like a tall order. The Grizzlies' problem is they're undersized up front, so they don't rebound or play good interior defense. The last playoff spot would be a nice achievement again.

And speaking of 50 wins being a tall order: Welcome to the Western Conference, New Orleans Hornets, who comfortably made the Eastern Conference playoffs with 41 wins a year ago.

Predicted finish: San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Memphis, New Orleans

Predicted playoff teams (not predicted seeding): Division champs L.A. Lakers, Utah and San Antonio, plus Phoenix, Denver, Minnesota, Dallas and Houston

Predicted conference champion: San Antonio


Southeast Division

The four teams in this division that existed last year combined to go 116-212, and only the Heat, who went 42-40, won more than 28 games. But this is where you'll find the big story in the East.

The big story here is the big story everywhere he goes: Shaquille O'Neal moves to Miami. Having executed his escape from Kobe, O'Neal is in shape and motivated and, incidentally, now playing in a conference notably devoid of Yao Ming. But more importantly in this center-poor era, it's a conference that lacks the waves of great power forwards of the West. The reduced competition should mask Shaq's decline, which is ongoing, but he should be entertaining.

Shaq will team with Dwyane Wade, who will be even better with O'Neal on the floor, and Eddie Jones, plus a reasonably talented bench. The Big Fella's presence in the East alters the balance of power a little, but doesn't bring the East up to the West, and it doesn't bring the Heat up to the Pistons and Pacers.

The Magic, with a totally revamped roster -- you might call them the Houston Rockets alumni association after the McGrady trade -- are a hip pick to be a surprise team after losing about 12,000 games last year. They'll be entertaining too, with high schooler Dwight Howard learning the ropes and a general lack of defense to go with plenty of offense. They could sneak into the playoffs, but nobody's going to ride Steve Francis very far, it says here. Oh, and by the way: As of Monday morning, Grant Hill was still healthy in his latest comeback attempt.

The Wizards continue to try to recover from the Michael Jordan era, and they seem to be making some progress. They have three talented players in Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison, but notice anything those three have in common? That's right: The Wizards are trying to build around the roster of the 2002 Warriors, who lost 61 games. Good luck with that.

The Hawks are in complete rebuilding mode. Their message to fans: Yes, we're going to suck, but we've wiped the roster clean and we have gobs of salary-cap space. Give us a year and it's elevator going up. That's the plan. Hawks fans can take the word of this long-irrelevant team or not.

The Bobcats are an expansion team with orange uniforms and Emeka Okafor. They will do what expansion teams do, regardless of the color of their uniforms or the quality of their rookies: lose.

Predicted finish: Miami, Washington, Orlando, Atlanta, Charlotte

Central Division

This is the Pistons' division to lose. Considering how much they improved after they got Rasheed Wallace last year, you have to figure they'll be even better this year with pretty much the same club but a full year of Sheed.

If anybody's going to catch 'em it'll probably be the Pacers, but the Pacers are entering the season seriously banged up, with Jermaine O'Neal's foot and Reggie Miller's wizened old non-shooting hand being the marquee injuries, but not the only ones. A slow start will likely keep them from winning the division, but having Miller and, especially, O'Neal reaching April with fewer miles on them might be a good thing when the games start actually counting. Of course, I made this point about Sacramento and Chris Webber last year, so don't listen to me. In any case, Ron Artest can get his rest during suspensions.

The loss of Carlos Boozer really hurt the Cavaliers, who bounced back to respectability last year and were hoping for better things. That's because LeBron James is so good and developing so quickly that just starting with him, Cleveland is already only a few players away from contending for a conference title. Now they're James, deadly but brittle low-post scorer Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and a patchwork lineup. Then again, not so long ago, the Cavs barely existed, and James is still 14 months away from his first legal drink, so fans can afford a little patience.

The Bucks played .500 ball last year, which was a pleasant surprise and made everybody around town happy because they weren't expecting it. I think they'll play about .500 ball again, and people will kind of grumble, same as two years ago. But the Bucks seem to have things pointed in the right direction and they'll have cap space next year, so they might be getting close.

Unlike the Bulls, who do have some intriguing young talent. They always have intriguing young talent, though. That's what happens when you're always lousy.

Predicted finish: Detroit, Indiana, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Chicago

Atlantic Division

All five teams in the Atlantic are either in or trying to reverse a freefall. There's not a club here that could win 30 games if it were in the Western Conference. But according to the rules at least one of them, the champion, will make the playoffs.

I think it'll be the Knicks, and it wouldn't surprise me if they do it with a losing record. Isiah Thomas came in as general manager and shook everything up last year, and the Knicks played reasonably well, oozed into the playoffs and got swept by the Nets. This year they'll have a three-guard attack, with Jamal Crawford joining Allan Houston and Stephon Marbury, but their most interesting player should be second-year banger Michael Sweetney, who ought to get decent minutes.

Most people seem to be picking the 76ers, but I don't see it. This team goes as far as Allen Iverson can take it, and we saw in the Olympics how far Iverson can take a not-very-good team. Iverson's take-it-to-the-rim game has meant his 6-foot (yeah, right), 165-pound body has taken an absolute thrashing, and he's a very old 29. The nagging injuries keep mounting, and it won't help that he spent the summer playing on the national team. The Sixers' second option is Glenn Robinson. All you need to know.

The Raptors are an absolute mess, though it should be fun to see how rookie Rafael Araujo, a big, raw Brazilian center who played at BYU, develops. He at least allows Chris Bosh to move to forward, where he belongs. But as long as Vince Carter's around, this is a team with big problems. The Nets have gutted the roster that won three straight conference titles and appear to be in for some lean times, the only intriguing question in the Meadowlands being whether they can get anything of value for grousing superstar Jason Kidd.

The Celtics are either a mess or in the midst of an ingenious turnaround by general manager Danny Ainge. Considering that the turnaround involves having both Ricky Davis and Gary Payton on the roster, two of the league's sourest characters, one of whom is so done he's setting off your kitchen smoke alarm, I'm voting against ingenious.

Predicted finish: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, New Jersey

Predicted playoff teams (not predicted seeding): Division champs Miami, Detroit and New York, plus Washington, Indiana, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Boston.

Predicted conference champion: Detroit

Predicted NBA Finals: San Antonio over Detroit

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Short vacation [PERMALINK]

Now that you know who's not going to win in the NBA this year (that is, the teams I picked to win above), this column will take a short break. The traditional Friday NFL picks will appear in the column's Table Talk discussion while I'm on vacation. See you there, or back here next week.

Previous column: NFL Week 8

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