OK, enough about the new dress code. It's opening night in the NBA, and that means the wait is over for the return of the best show on television.
Not the NBA preseason -- or, as the league quaintly calls it, "regular season" -- which is an OK TV show, not nearly as good as the playoffs but better than, say, "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart." What I mean is TNT's studio show, "Inside the NBA," during and after the network's Thursday night double-headers.
But yes, it's also time for the NBA to begin its five-month project of deciding which middle-of-the-pack teams will miss the playoffs and which will lose in the first round. The whole thing gets going at 7 p.m. EST with two such teams, the Milwaukee Bucks visiting the Philadelphia 76ers.
TNT has an opening-night double-header of the Denver Nuggets at the champion San Antonio Spurs followed by the Dallas Mavericks at the Phoenix Suns. The other game Tuesday night is the Sacramento Kings visiting the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets in their temporary home.
Everybody else debuts Wednesday night, and all of Tuesday night's teams except the Suns and Spurs play again, which conjures the question: If you're going to have a busy night like that, why not just have all 30 teams play on a big-splash opening night?
Of course, that would mean taking a lesson from the NHL, which one does at one's peril.
Last year the NBA got the stage to itself as the NHL sat the year out. The result of the unprecedented lack of competition: An NBA Finals that got public-access cable ratings. NBA commissioner David Stern acted decisively in response, mandating that players dress in "business casual" attire when in public on league business.
On the court the San Antonio Spurs -- you might have missed it, but they beat the Detroit Pistons for the championship last year -- are the odds-on favorite to repeat, which would give them three of the last four titles and four of the last seven.
But one thing that seems to be changing is that the Western Conference finals are no longer the de facto NBA Finals. The Eastern Conference, a poor stepchild of the West in the years since Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls -- the second of his three retirements, if you're keeping score that way -- has been improving.
There are four solid, widely recognized contenders for the conference championship this year, the Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and New Jersey Nets. That's an upgrade from the traditional one or two contenders of recent times, and that's not counting dark-horse candidates like the Cleveland Cavaliers and, if you believe in the magic of Larry Brown, the New York Knicks.
And the Eastern Conference is home to the toughest division in the league, the Central. It's not on par with the West yet, but it's gaining.
Here's a team-by-team look at the NBA, in order of predicted finish, which is to say, in random order.
Sacramento Kings: Their moment as a serious championship contender has passed, but they're still a dangerous team. Bonzi Wells is the fabulous Mike Bibby's new backcourt partner, and Wells is a first-class bonehead. But his big problem in Memphis last year involved playing time, and he'll play in Sacramento. The Kings also have a healthy Brad Miller and a contract-year Peja Stojakovic. They're good enough to make the playoffs and win a series. They also could finish out of the money without shocking anyone.
Los Angeles Lakers: We're about to find out, over the next couple of years, if Phil Jackson is a great coach without a pair of great players. He has one, and that one, Kobe Bryant, theoretically learned some important lessons last year when this team was handed to him and he led them to oblivion. I think Jackson's good enough to improve the Lakers enough to put them in that pack of teams fighting for the last playoff spot. But here's my big prediction. Kwame Brown will be a useful player.
Phoenix Suns: The Suns were a lot of fun last year. Now Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson are gone and Amare Stoudemire is out till February -- if not all year -- following knee surgery. If they can hang around till Stoudemire gets back, if he does, he'll get them to the playoffs, but just hanging around is a tall order in the West. My contention last year was that Stoudemire, not Steve Nash, was Phoenix's best player, which was not intended as an insult to Nash. We'll see if I can use this season as evidence.
Golden State Warriors: As a former fan -- full disclosure, I switched over to the Kings in frustration about a decade ago -- I'd love to get on the Warriors bandwagon, which Baron Davis is driving. Stat you hear everywhere: The Warriors went 18-10 with Davis at point guard after they got him in a trade with the Hornets. But I look at that frontcourt and I just can't get aboard. They're moving in the right direction, but they're not there yet, even in the unlikely event Davis stays healthy.
Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers have some talent and on paper they look like they could fight for a playoff spot. This is almost always true, and almost never happens. They're the Clippers. Come on.
You can't get this kind of analysis just anywhere.
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San Antonio Spurs: If you can think of a reason why the defending champs shouldn't be favorites to repeat, you're ahead of me. My favorite I've seen so far: They have too many good players! I tried to cook up a theory by which Nick Van Exel screws everything up, but my heart just wasn't in it. But I will do this for you: I won't pick them to win the title, because just about everyone else is.
Dallas Mavericks: Another team whose moment may have passed. But maybe not. I like the Mavs better with Avery Johnson coaching and preaching defense than I did when Don Nelson was the boss. I thought they had a chance last year when Johnson took over, but I was wrong. Dirk Nowitzki is the Mavericks' best player, and that being the case, it's awfully tough to win with defense. Still, there's a lot of talent here, and if Johnson can strike the right balance, the Mavs can go a long way.
Houston Rockets: In Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, the Rockets have the two stars who can anchor a championship team, but this isn't that team just yet. The Rockets brought Stromile Swift in from Memphis. Out of Pau Gasol's shadow, and on a team that gets on TV now and again, he'll surprise people with his offensive skills. But aside from those three, this club is mostly old and ordinary, and it lacks an enforcer inside to play the power game that Yao doesn't. A playoff team, but not a championship team.
Memphis Grizzlies: The Griz made the playoffs the last two years, barely, and lost in the first round. Jerry West has overhauled the roster, and Memphis is now, well, older. Wells, Swift, Jason Williams and James Posey are gone in favor of Bobby Jackson, Damon Stoudamire, Bobby Jackson and rookie Hakim Warrick. Maybe it's about a wash, and I don't like arguing with Jerry West, but I don't really get it. I do think Warrick, who's supposedly a tweener who'll have trouble in the NBA, will be fine.
New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets: If everything goes right for the Hornets this season, they'll be the best pro basketball team ever to play its home games in Oklahoma City.
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Denver Nuggets: Pretty much the same team that finished last year 32-8 under new coach George Karl. I can't think of a reason why they won't keep playing Karl's uptempo style with a lot of success, if not quite .800 kind of success. The Nuggets aren't just good, they're deep, and their best player, Carmelo Anthony, is still learning.
Utah Jazz: Injuries, especially to Andrei Kirilenko, and a lack at point guard killed this team last year. Also, Carlos Boozer was underwhelming. They drafted point guard Deron Williams of Illinois, who I think will be competent but not great in the NBA. If they can stay healthy, he ought to be good enough even as a rookie to help them reach the playoffs, which would be a huge achievement after a 22-win season.
Seattle SuperSonics: Last year's surprise team lost coach Nate McMillan and reserves Antonio Daniels and Jerome James. They'll miss Daniels, who's a better player than the point guard he backed up, Luke Ridnour, but not James, who's a stiff who had a couple of nice playoff games. This is still a good team, but it may have overachieved just a bit last year, and I don't know that retread coach Bob Weiss is the guy to get them to do it again.
Minnesota Timberwolves: The best player in the league and not much else. The T-Wolves came close two years ago, but two years is a long time. Kevin Garnett will keep them from being terrible, but I fear that's about the best thing there is to say about them.
Portland Trail Blazers: Let's see if McMillan has another magic trick up his sleeve. There's some decent talent here, but nothing terribly special. Someday Sebastian Telfair might team with Zach Randolph to create a dynamite duo. Or Randolph could peter out with a sore knee and Telfair could continue to shoot poorly and lose his job to rookie Jarrett Jack.
Western Conference playoffs: San Antonio, Denver, Sacramento, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles Lakers, Utah, Seattle
Conference champion: San Antonio
Miami Heat: I'm not a huge fan of the big trade that brought Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and James Posey to Miami, and I think Pat Riley is fixing to force coach Stan Van Gundy out and return to the bench. Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade are a championship-level duo, but the meter's running on Shaq. If the Heat are going to break through, they'd better get to it, but I don't know that they're quite there.
Washington Wizards: They'll miss Larry Hughes, who helped lead them to their first playoff appearance in eight years, but they signed former Sonic Daniels, who'll make up for some of that production. The Wizards aren't strong enough up front to contend for the title, but they can make the playoffs and win a series.
Orlando Magic: The Magic have young guy Dwight Howard, old guy Grant Hill and in-between guy Steve Francis. And they're not very good.
Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks should put top pick Marvin Williams in the lineup and let him take his lumps. His learning curve figures to be the best thing about this season in Atlanta. He's the future, so might as well get to it.
Charlotte Bobcats: They're a couple of years away, but they seem to have an idea what they're doing. This year's draft picks, Tar Heels Raymond Felton and Sean May, seem to have been taken with at least one eye on the box office, but it'll still be interesting to see how they fare in the NBA.
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Indiana Pacers: The Pacers looked like the best team in the East last year before the early-season brawl in Detroit blew their season to smithereens. Ron Artest is back, and that's huge. Everyone who's ever had a knucklehead for a boyfriend knows how you can wait around a long time for a knucklehead to change his ways, and Artest is a knucklehead. But he's saying the right things and making lovey-dovey with Larry Bird on the cover of magazines. If Artest can keep his suspensions down to a game or two at a time and the Pacers can stay healthy, they're good enough, deep enough and well-coached enough to win it all.
Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James' team has added slasher Larry Hughes and shooter Donyell Marshall, and with center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, there are a lot of ways these guys can score. The Cavs aren't deep, but their starting lineup is good enough to get them to the playoffs and win a series, maybe two.
Detroit Pistons: The defending conference champs lost their coach and chief distraction, Larry Brown. Other than that, this is the same team that went to the NBA Finals and lost to San Antonio. Flip Saunders is a good coach, but I'm suspicious of teams that stand pat.
Chicago Bulls: The Bulls had a nice run last year and made the playoffs for the first time since the Jordan era. They traded away Eddy Curry rather than deal with his heart condition, and it's hip to say they're going to take a step backward this year. But I like their lineup and think they have a chance to be just as good as they were last year, though 47 wins probably won't be good enough for second place again in this brutal division with an improved Cleveland and a brawl-free -- one assumes -- Indiana.
Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks took Andrew Bogut with the top pick, a move I'm not big on because I think he'll only be a good player, not a great one. But good is better than bad, right Michael Olowokandi? They also signed Bobby Simmons, traded for Jamaal Magloire and are expecting point guard T.J. Ford to be healthy, so if everything falls into place, the Bucks, a terrible disappointment, will also be much improved this year, meaning they'll be the best last-place team in the league.
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New Jersey Nets: A hip pick to have a rebound season, and why not. With a healthy Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson and a full season of the new, revitalized, hardworking Vince Carter, who was an absolute monster after the trade last year, the Nets should get to the playoffs on their fast break alone. They're not deep, but they're probably as good as they were in their conference championship years. Problem is, that's not good enough to win the conference championship anymore.
New York Knicks: If nothing else, they'll be interesting. Can Larry Brown and Stephon Marbury coexist? How about Brown and Isiah Thomas? Can Brown get Eddy Curry to play with maximum effort? Will Brown be maneuvering for the Miami job by Christmas? Brown alone probably gets this team, with 33 wins last year, to a flirtation with the .500 mark and a playoff spot, but if there's some kind of long-term plan at work here, it's escaping me.
Philadelphia 76ers: Allen Iverson was fantastic last year, carrying this team to the playoffs almost single-handedly. But he's 30, he's small and he takes a beating every night. He's a good candidate to decline in a hurry. Chris Webber has already declined, though he still could be a fine player if he'd adjust his game to the new reality of his gimpiness. All you really need to know about the 76ers is that Kyle Korver, a Steve Kerr-type bomber who should come off the bench for a few minutes a game, starts for them.
Boston Celtics: Danny Ainge's rebuilding project is in the sausage-making stage. It's going to turn out nicely, but I don't think you want to look right now. With a lot of young talent -- I'm a big Al Jefferson fan -- and no real point guard, the Celtics, the defending "division champs" after winning 45 games last year, are going to struggle. Grouchy Paul Pierce cheering up a little would increase his trade value, which would benefit both the Celts and him.
Toronto Raptors: The Charlotte Bobcats' best hope for not finishing 15th in the conference. Chris Bosh is a fine player. In a couple of years he'll escape Toronto and you'll get to see him on the TV.
Eastern Conference playoffs: Indiana, Miami, New Jersey, Cleveland, Detroit, Washington, Chicago, New York
Conference champion: Indiana
NBA Finals: Indiana over San Antonio
Previous column: Wellington Mara and revenue sharing
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