Dawning of a new NBA set to tip-off

There is excitement surrounding the Clippers, while Oklahoma City and Memphis are legitimate contenders. In addition, the NBA might have a pretty good rookie class for a draft that wasn’t supposed to be very good.

Everyone is talking about Clippers excitement. The Lakers, Spurs, and to some extent, the Celtics, who basically have dominated the last decade of the NBA, appear to have little chance to compete for a championship. Small market teams like Oklahoma City and Memphis are legitimate contenders.

Yes, it looks like a new NBA, though no one is exactly forgetting about LeBron, Wade and the Heat, even though everyone may be getting a bit tired of booing them. They’re not that scary, after all.

So it is a new time, and not only with the shortened 66-game schedule. And what says new more than the new players coming into the NBA?

The NBA began its equally short preseason Friday, and in watching a few games — yes, sadly for what my life has become, I was watching Golden State/Sacramento Saturday night — it looked like the NBA might have a pretty good rookie class for a draft that wasn’t supposed to be very good.

You’d figure it would be toughest for rookies without a real training camp and such a long break. But the only other lockout-shortened season, 1998-99, produced a pretty good rookie class. Vince Carter was rookie of the year with Jason Williams runner up. But there was also on the all-rookie team Paul Pierce, Mike Bibby, Matt Harpring and Antawn Jamison. No. 1 overall pick Michael Olowkandi made second team, but that was pretty much his highlight.

I got a look at No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving the other night and he looked impressive, able to drive the ball and another point guard who’ll benefit from the way the game is now played and officiated. It does give the Cavs a start even if they are not a playoff team. Obviously, a lot of rookies haven’t even played yet. And even if the hype probably wasn’t warranted, I was impressed with Ricky Rubio. Maybe he can’t shoot, but neither can Rajon Rondo. Rubio plays with poise and reminds me some, though not nearly as fast or physical, of Jason Kidd as a rookie, but also with those hands which will lead to steals. Plus, Rubio has been playing in high level leagues. It means something. He’s my early rookie of the year choice.

What actually may give some rookies an edge is with so many games coming so fast and so few practices, there will be less time to practice game plans to attack the weaknesses of new players. And less time for some coaches to load them down with plays and schemes and make them tentative. Also, with the way the game is played these days the guards have an edge. Which should help someone like Rubio with less physical contact permitted on the perimeter. And it is a guard heavy class that looks among the best.

Perhaps the most uncertainty coming into the draft was about Jimmer Fredette, the high scoring Brigham Young guard obviously short on defense. But Fredette can shoot, and looks like he can make some plays off the dribble. Though the Kings are not very good, they played Fredette some against players who won’t drive, like Dorell Wright. I also liked the Warriors’ Klay Thompson. He didn’t have a great game and has said he will be rookie of the year, which is little chance playing with Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry. But he is another guy who really can shoot and score.

I saw some possibilities with Brandon Knight, which makes you wonder what Detroit will do with newly signed Rodney Stuckey and Ben Gordon. Could Gordon be an amnesty player next year? He’d be a heck of a steal for someone. And Derrick Williams looks like he really can shoot for a big man, though Kevin Love seems to want to do that as well. The question in Minnesota is who will play, and I can see coach Rick Adelman having enough of Darko soon and going with his best players. Heck, he played 6-5 Chuck Hayes at center.

I don’t see Minnesota as a playoff team. But the last two or three playoff spots in the West are going to be wide open with the West as uncertain as ever. That Minnesota lottery pick that went to the Hornets in the Chris Paul deal may not be all that great, especially with Adelman coaching. With him over Kurt Rambis they’re at least five or six games improved even if they hadn’t added any players.

As an aside, if you’re looking for bad, it’s going to be tougher to be worse than Charlotte, Toronto and maybe Washington.

Don’t take 76ers lightly

-- My East sleeper team to maybe crack the top four this season is Philadelphia. There’ll be no 3-13 start with some of the most improbable losses imaginable, twice giving overtime games to the Wizards. Jrue Holiday now has the point guard role, Evan Turner seems improved and Andre Iguodala appears to have accepted the most unselfish role of his career. Doug Collins told me he’s been thrilled with what he’s seen from Iguodala, and he told the Philadelphia media: "He and Jrue have a real good connection on the floor together. He can impact the game in so many ways. If you average seven assists a game that almost puts you in the top 10 in assists. He can average six, seven rebounds. I think he has first-team all-defense talent. He's going to get you assists, he's going to give you those rebounds, he's going to give steals and get you out in the open court. He's been really, really good.” Iguodala has been saying he sees Holiday as a top five point guard. ... Appears as if they’re doing some veteran hazing on the Mavs. Shawn Marion’s hair is now blonde, looking somewhat Demolition Man, Dennis Rodman and Ivan from Rocky. Might be for toughness with Tyson Chandler and Caron Butler gone. Like Bart Simpson once said, “Blond guys aren’t dumb; they’re evil.” ... New Raptors coach Dwane Casey has adopted the “pound the rock” philosophy (you know, keep trying and eventually you’ll succeed) often mentioned by Gregg Popovich in San Antonio and originally authored by Danish philosopher Jacob Riis, who wasn’t a cheesy guy. But I’d feel better about if it I had Tim Duncan and Tony Parker instead of Jamaal Magloire and Jose Calderon. Casey put a large stone in the locker room, a large, inanimate object not to be confused with Aaron Gray.

Green loss a setback for Boston

-- Tough break for the Celtics, but especially Jeff Green, who undergoes heart surgery next month and will miss the season. As Doc Rivers noted, it’s a positive because it was caught in the physical on his new, one-year $9 million deal and may have saved his life as the scary stories hang over the franchise of Reggie Lewis and Len Bias. The Celtics said Green can return next season and everyone sure hopes so as he’s a good kid and a talent. But his situation may change the thinking of a lot of players around the NBA, if not sports. I’ve heard team executives for years scratch their heads when guys turn down big deals to play out their contracts. Yes, there can be more money involved, but what about the risk? Isn’t it better to bank that first big payday, $30 million, or $40 million or $50 million? Then you’re set and whatever happens you are protected for life. It always seems to me the players’ agents often — though some do — don’t have the best interests of their players in mind but their own commissions and using a big deal to attract (steal?) new clients. “Hey, look how much I got so and so.” Green rejected a five-year deal estimated at $40 million to $48 million last season in Oklahoma City, which eventually got him traded. The Thunder, a great young team, could not pay Green more with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Green took a chance. Now with his situation a contract likely cannot be insured, so it’s problematic he’ll ever get another big deal. Yes if he can play he should make a great living in the future if going to aging Boston isn’t going to do much for his future competitive position. But if anyone asks me, I always say take that first big deal as soon as you can and then it’s house money the rest of your life. Though that’s always been my problem. I never knew the difference between having $50 million and $80 million. ... Old pal Derrick Byars had a dozen in 14 minutes for the Heat Sunday against Orlando and could stick in Miami. ... By the way, the Celtics are done. How about this roster overhaul — after also basically telling Rajon Rondo and the world they wanted someone else — after losing Delonte West, Nenad Krstic, Shaq and Glen Davis: Brandon Bass, Keyon Dooling, Greg Stiemsma, Sasha Pavlovic, Chris Wilcox, E’Twaun Moore, and JaJuan Johnson. To paraphrase Charles Barkley, “Togo Palazzi would be rolling over in his grave.” No, he’s still alive, thank goodness.

Barring injuries, Knicks could take Atlantic Division

-- So here’s the question: Is it better to reveal your emotions and be honest about your disappointment, if also not thinking very well, like Chauncey Billups? Or to lie like Baron Davis? I can’t say for sure Davis is faking injury, though he does tend to recover faster when he feels like it. But I would hardly be surprised to see Davis back soon with the Knicks, who supposedly got him after no post-amnesty claim by any team following the injury report he’d be out eight to 10 weeks. No, the NBA hasn’t closed very many loopholes, and if Davis is back quickly, as I suspect, the Knicks should have a good shot to win that division assuming Amar’e Stoudemire doesn’t go down. OK, forget that, as he always does. ... Though I’m not quite on board with Mike D’Antoni’s prediction they’ll win the title. But what is he supposed to say? New York media, of course, already have new assistant Mike Woodson replacing D’Antoni.

NBA news and notes

-- Stephen Jackson is going to talk himself out of the NBA, though we’d hardly be surprised, I guess. After declaring he was excited to go to a playoff contender in Milwaukee from rebuilding Charlotte, Jackson came up with back spasms to miss the first preseason game in Minnesota. Seems with two years left at a total of about $20 million, he is ready for an extension. You earn those by playing, not posturing. The future of the NBA with harsher luxury tax penalties in two years could be value draft picks and veterans. Perhaps Jackson understood, but this sort of stuff as he hits 34 this season will end his career at 36. Meanwhile, the Bucks had to wince with the slimmed down Drew Gooden telling Milwaukee media he “still felt pain” after missing 47 games last season with plantar fasciitis. With Andrew Bogut again healthy and Jackson on board the Bucks could be a playoff team, but ... Though perhaps it’s a fair trade with Corey Maggette out in Charlotte with back spasms. Yes, the guy I hate for the guy you hate. The classic NBA trade. ... Boris Diaw appears to be the Bobcats opening night center with DeSagana Diop coming to camp 30 pounds heavier. Shawn Kemp award winner? ... Local media estimated attendance at the Pistons first exhibition game at maybe 3,000 with an announced gathering of 7,927 ... Hawks coach Larry Drew is talking about Tracy McGrady and Jerry Stackhouse (yes, he’s back, too) providing leadership for the team. Uh oh. ... Hadn’t heard that one before. Flip Saunders wondered before the first preseason game who were his “popcorn” players, meaning players who raise to a higher level when they smell (hear?) the popcorn popping in the arena. So the Wizards fell behind by 40 in the third quarter to the 76ers with hardly anyone ever looking to pass the ball. ... Biggest active NBA streak went down Sunday night with Magic’s 21-game preseason winning streak broken in a blowout loss to the Heat. Which, of course, raised immediate questions of Dwight Howard not caring anymore. This isn’t going away, and if the Magic is losing, well, Stan Van Gundy just may explode. Howard got five points against Joel Anthony, Dexter Pittman and the threat of Eddy Curry returning in a month. With the matchup, South Florida media speculated about a deal for Howard with Heat centers in foul trouble minutes into the game. Who else but for LeBron James? Wouldn’t the Heat be better with the league’s best center to go along with Wade and Chris Bosh? I’m fairly sure the Magic would do it. Wouldn’t that be sweet? Nah, not happening.

-- You can’t argue with the Mavs’ plan to go into free agency next summer by not extending any long term deals. They got their championship, after all, though a lonely ring ceremony with almost half the team gone. But in adding Lamar Odom and Vince Carter and we thought they were old before? ... It seems less an issue these days, but you wince when you hear T.J. Ford, now in San Antonio, tell the San Antonio Express about his spinal stenosis and potential spinal cord complications “I am taking a risk. There’s no other way to put it. If I was their child, (the doctors) wouldn’t want me to play. But this is my passion. This is my life. This is what I want to do.” ... Manu Ginobili to teammates talking about the NFL: “Who is this Tim Tebow?” ... The Spurs would like to get Antonio McDyess back for another run. He is said to be retired, but he may be a heck of a late season pickup for someone. ... So how did that first Hornets/Lakers/Rockets trade happen without the league objecting? Speculation is Lakers and Rockets executives took advantage of novice Hornets GM Dell Demps and persuaded him not to tell the league until the deal was done and figuring the league couldn’t stop it then. Lakers and Rockets officials are moaning about the cancellation with Rockets GM Daryl Morey answering reporters that he can’t comment on advice of counsel. Huh? Suing the league? With Luis Scola in the original deal, there’s speculation around the league Scola will be traded and the Rockets may be preparing to break it up for a major free agency assault as Morey’s continued search for a star player continues to fail. Funny to read local media saying Houston, called Clutch City when they won two titles in the 90’s, is now Chump City after losing out in the Chris Paul deal. ... Interesting to see the usually conservative Jazz to take on Josh Howard and Jamaal Tinsley, two players who have had, well, issues. ... With Tinsley in Utah, Stackhouse and McGrady in Atlanta and Bonzi Wells in Minnesota, it does show jobs remain the nation’s No. 1 issue. Wells, after being out of the NBA almost four years, said he finally learned calm and control by playing golf. And the rest of us thought that was a source of frustration. ... Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy? The Lakers think going after former Pacers will get them back? Although the Lakers reject it, questions about Pau Gasol being traded for perhaps younger pieces and draft picks are going to hang over the team all season as they try to figure a way to get Dwight Howard. ... The Oregonian newspaper reported Jamal Crawford said he paid $12,000 to get No. 11 from Luke Babbitt, this being another example of why the owners settled for too lenient a deal. Guys still just have too much money. In playing 137 minutes last season and shooting 27 percent, Babbitt didn’t even know he had a number.

-- I know a lot of NBA executives are saying the Clippers should have been more patient with their young core and continued to build with the draft picks, that they would have had depth with all the top West teams in decline. But I like taking a shot at a star player even if Chris Paul has had injuries. You also have to show Blake Griffin you are serious. How badly would the Lakers love to have him? I’ve got to consider the Clippers getting ahead of the Lakers this season. ... Chauncey Billups is on his ninth NBA team and fourth in the last five seasons. So maybe you’re not that indispensible? He’ll start with Paul with Mo Williams off the bench ... The Suns don’t look like a playoff team even with Steve Nash and Grant Hill back. But they can go after free agents next summer and we’ll see if Phoenix has the lure it has had in the past. ... As I wrote about, I like Jimmer Fredette, though I fear for him as Marcus Cousins told Sacramento media he wants Fredette to move in with him. What, and cut into Cousins’ allotment of 10 bags of potato chips a day? A slimmer Cousins said he’s about kicked that habit and his agent told the Sacramento Bee: "Now, I don't think of him as sexy, but he's certainly feeling very good about himself.” Not so big sexy?