King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NBA preview: The new-school, up-tempo game is a ball. A synthetic microfiber ball, that is.

Published October 31, 2006 2:00PM (EST)

Long and rambly and wrong down to the last prediction, including that one, it's the 2006-07 Sports Daily NBA preview. This year's preview was created with synthetic material, replacing the traditional leather preview. Be careful, it's slippery when weeeeeeeettttttt.

The new microfiber ball is a hot topic as the NBA opens Tuesday night with a double-header, the Chicago Bulls at the champion Miami Heat and the Phoenix Suns at the Los Angeles Lakers. Both games are on TNT.

Players have been griping about the new ball, which they say bounces and feels different from the old leather ball and, most important, becomes slippery when it gets wet with sweat. Dallas Mavericks owner Marc Cuban asked physicists at the University of Texas-Arlington to study the ball and they've concluded it bounces more erratically than the leather.

Commissioner David Stern has thanked them all for their input and told them the ball's staying.

The idea is that the new balls are uniform. Every leather ball is a little different, feels a little different and wears a little differently over the course of its life. You may have seen the pregame ritual of a player from each team agreeing on which ball on the rack to use as a game ball.

Stern's probably right that the players will get used to the new ball. The league says scoring was up slightly in the exhibition season. But it seems like an odd time to make this switch. Players griping about the new ball shouldn't be the top story going into the season. The renaissance of the NBA should be the top story.

The NBA is coming off a fantastic, entertaining season, with an underdog championship run by the Miami Heat, led by one of the league's most charismatic young stars, Dwyane Wade, and featuring its most charismatic old one, Shaquille O'Neal. Quality of play has taken a quantum leap thanks to rule changes limiting contact on defense, with small lineups and uptempo offenses the strategy du jour.

Instead of fans and media griping about the slow pace, the low scoring, the thuggish behavior and the lack of dynamic stars, we're all talking about Wade and LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and the running and gunning style of the Suns and the Mavericks and their imitators.

Or at least we should be. Instead, we're talking about microfibers. I'm as loath to criticize Stern's moves as I am eager to criticize those of baseball commissioner Bud Selig, because while I don't always agree with Stern, I think that, unlike Selig, he's smart and savvy and he cares about what's best for the game.

But the new ball looks like a misstep.

Of far lesser import is Stern's latest sartorial edict, which prohibits arm sleeves, leggings and wristbands worn higher on the arm than the wrist. Good. Finally an end to fans' constant complaints, petition drives, boycotts etc. about players wearing their wristbands just below the elbow. That was really a problem.

And so to the preview, moving, as always in this column, west to east. The numbers in parentheses are each team's 2006 regular-season record, followed by the round in which they lost in the playoffs. Teams appear in predicted order of finish.


Pacific Division

Phoenix Suns (54-28, conference finals): The Suns were supposed to tank without Amare Stoudemire last year, and they went to the semis. Now, a year after micro-fracture surgery and then arthroscopic surgery on his knees, Stoudemire is back as a sixth man who has, as coach Mike D'Antoni says, good days and bad days. The fastest team in the league will ride two-time MVP Steve Nash and the running game to a lot of wins in the regular season, unless Nash starts showing his age, but they'll need Stoudemire to at least get close to full strength if they want to challenge San Antonio in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Lakers (45-37, first round): Kobe Bryant. The Lakers will go as far as their star can take them, which, with this roster, probably means the second round at best. If the Lakers had done nothing else this offseason, jettisoning Devean George would have improved the club. In fact, they didn't do much else.

Los Angeles Clippers (47-35, second round): Coming off the best season in the franchise's California history -- which is sort of like saying Tuesday was the best day of that week you had stomach flu -- the Clippers pretty much stood pat. Good as he was, point guard and team leader Sam Cassell's numbers were down for the second straight year, and he's 37 now. Elton Brand emerged as one of the top players in the game -- or he had a fluke career year and will return to being just very good. Maybe it's just because they're the Clippers and I can't believe they ever go any direction but down, but I think they'll backslide a bit this year.

Golden State Warriors (34-48): Sitting in the stands at the Missouri Valley Conference tournament last year, I got a chance to watch Patrick O'Bryant, the Bradley center who was being touted as a lottery pick. I thought, "He doesn't look like he's worth a lottery pick to me. I bet the Warriors take him." Bingo. Don Nelson's back as the coach so if you're optimistic you can pencil this club in for 50 wins and a loss in the first round of the playoffs. Even with an interesting and very young roster, I can't say I'm optimistic.

Sacramento Kings (44-38, first round): Ron Artest was an inspired pickup last season, but Bonzi Wells played a big part in the second-half surge too, and he's gone to Houston. Artest is a crapshoot, a terrific player who can self-destruct at any moment and take a team with him. And other than Artest and Mike Bibby, this team has that look of a franchise on the slide, with too many retreads and not-quites.

Southwest Division

San Antonio Spurs (63-19, second round): The Spurs set a franchise record for wins last season. In an off year. If Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili stay healthy this time around, you tell me why they shouldn't be a favorite to win it all.

Dallas Mavericks (60-22, Finals): Last year was probably their shot, though there's no real logical reason to believe that other than a trick knee or something. Still, I believe it. Ow. My knee. The Mavs are still deep and versatile and they still have Dirk Nowitzki. They're dangerous.

Houston Rockets (34-48): If Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady can both stay healthy, the Rockets have a chance to contend. They were a good team last year, after all, when that pair both played, which was rarely. They've picked up professional malcontent but solid player Bonzi Wells as well as Shane Battier, who does the dirty work that wins championships. Provided it's done by someone with a bunch of teammates who are really good players.

New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets (38-44): The surprise/feel good story of last season, the Hornets followed up their 38-win season behind Rookie of the Year Chris Paul by going out and getting Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler. Not exactly the haul you'd expect from an up-and-coming team, although I was surprised to be reminded that Stojakovic, who looks like he's on the downside, won't be 30 until June. I dissed 'em last year and they weren't half bad. This year I think they'll be not-half-bad, so of course they'll win 60. Or lose 60.

Memphis Grizzlies (49-33, first round) Star Pau Gasol will miss a couple of months with a broken foot, and this defense-first team's chief defender, Battier, was shipped to Houston. Could be a long year. The good news could be that the Griz got Rudy Gay, a spectacular talent, in the Battier trade. That could also be the bad news if Gay doesn't develop into a star, as many fear.

Northwest Division

Utah Jazz (41-41): Taking a flyer here and saying the Jazz are going to win this 90-pound division. I've been burned saying this before. Especially if Carlos Boozer can stay healthy, which he hasn't for a couple of years now, the Jazz have a strong enough frontcourt to plod their way to the playoffs and get smoked in the first round. They'll be paying for taking Deron Williams over Chris Paul in the 2005 draft for years.

Denver Nuggets (44-38, first round): I thought the Nuggets were on to something at this time last year, but they had a miserable season, though still good enough to win a weak division. Forward Nene got hurt two minutes into it, and that was kind of a high point. They're good and deep up front if some percentage of Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Nene and Marcus Camby can stay healthy and, in the case of Martin and Camby, interested. They have a fine point guard in Andre Miller. If 21-year-old shooting guard J.R. Smith, who went from Hornets coach Byron Scott's doghouse to the Bulls and then to the Nuggets this off-season, breaks through in his third year, the Nuggets could be on to something. At last report, Smith was measuring Denver coach George Karhl's doghouse for drapes.

Minnesota Timberwolves (33-49): It's looking more and more like the only way Kevin Garnett is going to help Minnesota win a championship is by getting traded for a fantastic package of players and draft picks. Slashing guard Randy Foye of Villanova is the future now -- for now. I think he'll be a good NBA player.

Seattle SuperSonics (35-47): The Sonics are a jump-shooting team that doesn't play defense. When the shots are falling, they can win some games, but it's not really a formula for success. There's not much help here for an aging Ray Allen.

Portland Trail Blazers (21-61): The Blazers made a dizzying series of trades on draft night -- at one point or another, every player in the NBA was on the Portland roster. The results were nothing short of stunning. This team that went 21-61 last year has a very good chance, if everything goes right, to go 22-60.

Predicted playoff teams: Division champs Phoenix, San Antonio and Utah, plus Dallas, Houston, L.A. Lakers, L.A. Clippers, Denver


Southeast Division

Miami Heat (52-30, won championship): I'm not buying a repeat. The Heat stood pat, which I never think is a good thing for a champion to do, and they were old last year. Dwyane Wade will be asked to do more, and since there's nothing Dwyane Wade can't do, he'll do it. But Shaq's another year older, and all those team-first models of comportment -- Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, Gary Payton -- well, they have their ring now.

Orlando Magic (36-46): All of a sudden the Magic are an exciting, young team, built around 20-year-old Dwight Howard and this guy at point guard, Jameer Nelson, who did the craziest thing, he went to college for four years. They turned over their roster last year, getting rid of Steve Francis -- always a good move -- and Kelvin Cato and adding Darko Milicic, Trevor Ariza and Carlos Arroyo. And Milicic played actual basketball as the Magic surged down the stretch. Any healthy minutes by Grant Hill are a bonus for this team, which won't contend yet but looks like it's ready to make a run at the playoffs.

Washington Wizards (42-40, first round): The Wiz have a Big 3 of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, and then aside from backup point guard Antonio Daniels, who can be pretty good, not much else. It may be enough to make the playoffs again, but signing shooting power forward Darius Songaila doesn't look like the quantum leap this club needs to make. Songaila has a pinched nerve and will miss some time early in the season.

Charlotte Bobcats (26-56): Charlotte was hammered by injuries last year, with Emeka Okafor and Sean May both missing most of the season. They're back, Raymond Felton is developing into a good point guard, Gerald Wallace has emerged as a solid small forward and Adam Morrison, the third overall pick, is an intriguing rookie. I think the Bobcats should play him at shooting guard, where they have a need. He can't defend there, but he can't defend at small forward either, so what the hey. The Bobcats are moving in the right direction, even though I think they reached for Morrison.

Atlanta Hawks (26-56): The Hawks are not moving in the right direction, and with a front-office power struggle spilling into the courts and creating chaos in the organization, they aren't going to be for a while.

Central Division

Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32, second round): On the one hand, the Cavs have LeBron James. On the other hand, Eric Snow starts for them. As Hubie Brown says: OK? The backcourt's the big problem here. Larry Hughes was the old joke about the bad restaurant: The food here's terrible -- and such small portions! He was lousy, and only played in 36 games. Donyell Marshall was also lousy. If those two improve to their habitual levels and Zydrunas Ilgauskas can stay healthy, King James could lead the Cavs to the conference title. Maybe even the division title in the brutal Central.

Chicago Bulls (41-41, first round): The Bulls are right behind the Cavs as up-and-comers. They made a big free agent splash by signing Big Ben Wallace, who is probably A) a little overrated, B) on the downside of his career and C) going to be a big help for this defense-minded team. If Tyrus Thomas can turn his athleticism and shot-blocking into a rounded NBA game and Chris Duhon's back holds out, the Bulls' bench can be one of the best in the league. Andres Nocioni would start for a lot of teams. The problem for the Bulls is they lack pop. They're an elite scorer away from real contention.

Detroit Pistons (54-18, conference finals): And the Pistons are more like up-and-going. They went into a fade in the second half last year, barely survived the Cavs in the second round, lost to the Heat in the conference finals and then lost Ben Wallace to the Bulls, replacing him with Nazr Mohammed, aka Big Ben Lite. The Pistons are another year older and no deeper. I think they'll dip below true contender status, but not out of the playoffs.

Indiana Pacers (41-41, first round): Another club on the downslope, but still pretty tough. Danny Granger has a chance to step up and be a nice replacement for the departed Stojakovic, but he's really replacing Artest, and that's a step down. If Jermaine O'Neal can stay healthy, he's one of the game's elites, but he doesn't have enough help to take this team deep in the spring. A solid playoff contender in the East that would probably be out of the money in the West.

Milwaukee Bucks (40-42, first round): Michael Redd leads a trio of promising young Bucks -- Andrew Bogut, Charlie Villanueva and Maurice Williams -- and if it all comes together, Milwaukee could finish fourth in the division! But it's a hell of a division. Trading undersized, oft-injured point guard T.J. Ford to Toronto for power forward Villanueva was a nice off-season move, allowing Bogut to move to his natural position, center, where he should improve from a solid rookie season. Free-agent forward Bobby Simmons was a big disappointment after a breakout walk year with the Clippers. Moving in the right direction, but unless everything goes right, not there yet.

Atlantic Division

New Jersey Nets (49-33, second round): The Big 3 of Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson are now the Big 4, with Nenad Krstic joining them. The Nets took some heat for only winning 49 games in the worst division since the late-'70s Smythe, but you know how many games teams play within their own division? Sixteen. If the Nets had gone undefeated in the Atlantic, they'd have won 55. There's almost nothing beyond the Big 4, so if anything happens, something like the 33-year-old Kidd showing his age or Carter going back to launching jumpers 24-7 or an injury, the Nets will be in trouble. Otherwise, they're in the mix to go deep in the playoffs.

Boston Celtics (33-49): The Sebastian Telfair experiment moves east. Good luck with that, Celts. I really have no clue what Danny Ainge is up to with this team. They have Paul Pierce and a couple of promising big men, Kendrick Perkins and Al Jefferson, who are both only 21, tons of other 6-6 and 6-7 wing types who aren't as good as Pierce, which isn't an insult, and these questionable point guards they've made an effort to go out and get, Telfair and Rajon Rondo, while leaving Marcus Williams of UConn, a lottery talent, on the board with the 21st pick. You tell me.

Philadelphia 76ers (38-44): The 76ers, on the other hand, I know what they're doing. They're heading for the cellar. When you've got Allen Iverson and Chris Webber as your two best players, you've got a shot to contend. For the 2001 championship. Iverson had a fabulous year last year, but he's 31 and at some point that little body is going to go kablooey. Webber's already has. This team is two very predictable injuries away from having Andre Iguodala as the go-to guy.

Toronto Raptors (27-55): Here's a team moving in the right direction, I think. The Raptors hired Bryan Colangelo as their general manager, and while I think he got fleeced in the Villanueva for Ford trade, he did a good job building the Suns, and it looks like he wants to remake the Raptors in the same up-tempo image. If Ford stays healthy, the trade won't be so bad. Chris Bosh has become an elite player, and if top draft pick Andrea Bargnani, a 7-foot small forward, can contribute right away at age 21, the Raptors should improve immediately. Two big ifs for this year, but in the long run, the future looks bright.

New York Knicks (23-59): If I had to pick the two most overrated guards in the NBA, the two guys I would not want on any team I rooted for because of their terrible decision-making and me-first play, those two would be Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis. Ladies and gentlemen, your New York Knicks backcourt. The surgeon general has advised that you avert your eyes when the Knicks are playing.

Predicted playoff teams: Division champs Miami, Cleveland and New Jersey, plus Chicago, Detroit, Orlando, Indiana, Washington.

NBA Finals: San Antonio over Cleveland

Previous column: Red Auerbach, World Series

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