Hallelujah! On Tuesday night, the only reality show worth watching resumes with four opening night tilts – a Western Conference double-header on TNT and, for the gluttonous, two additional offerings on League Pass.

It’s been a long wait, but we’ll gladly trade sleep and/or time spent with our loved ones during Premiere Week for a few answers to some of the nagging off-season questions: Do the Spurs look strong enough to repeat? Has the balance of power shifted to the Eastern Conference? How much weight did Charles Barkley put on during the off-season?

We’ll also undoubtedly see a deluge of video of NBA stars arriving at their arenas, so we can all get an early line on what might replace vintage jerseys as the unofficial off-court uniform of choice.

Do Duncan and the Spurs have what it takes to repeat?
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
“Here comes Allen Iverson in double-breasted Armani. Doesn’t he look resplendent, Marv?”


Opening Night may resemble Oscar night, minus Star Jones (who does make an appearance in the NBA Cares Celebrity Fantasy League, by the way), red carpet and miniature statuettes (after Earl Boykins is done standing for the National Anthem).

By day two, alas, we can expect a renewed interest in many more interesting storylines . So – envelope please – here are a few of my personal nominees for most interesting questions in 2005-06.

Can the Spurs Repeat? Their most formidable Western Conference rival lost its dominant wonder child until at least the All-Star break. Their top divisional foe handed them an All-Star shooting guard. Their opposition in the NBA Finals lost its Hall of Fame head coach. The stars are aligning nicely for the Spurs, who lost only Devin Brown, Glenn Robinson and Tony Massenburg from last year’s playoff roster. In their place: Michael Finley, Nick Van Exel and seasoned 6-10 Argentinian vet Fabricio Oberto, giving the Spurs more weapons than Carl Johnson on a trip through San Andreas.

What’s new with Philandkobe? The word just rolls off the tongue, so often are the names used in conjunction. Though many have speculated that Phil Jackson’s return has something to do with Jeannie Buss or breaking the nine-title tie with Red Auerbach, I personally think Phil’s publisher gave him a huge advance on his next book, and he’s spending this year to collect anecdotes. Like the ’93-’94 season in Chicago, this team will test Jackson’s coaching mettle. A 34-win team last year, Phil is relying on Smush Parker and Kwame Brown, and that has to make Red breathe a smoky sigh of relief.

Who is the NBA’s pre-eminent Wheel of Fortune Player? Handicapping might be easier in the NFL, where we’d have access to the Wunderlic scores, but the most cerebral among the list of contestants would appear to be Emeka Okafor. To the show’s credit, they didn’t take the opportunity to jack up the cost of a vowel: $250 still gets you A, E, I, O or U, which puts me in the corner of Amare Stoudemire, the only contestant whose name contains all five vowels. Stay tuned: http://www.nba.com/features/wof_2005.html.

Who will be the league’s breakout team? Last year, it was Seatte (52 wins) and Chicago (47) who defied predictions of most pundits. This year, Golden State and New Jersey look improved, but let’s go off the board and throw the LA Clippers into the mix. Playoff observers for the last eight seasons, the Clippers could shine with shooters Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley in the backcourt, opening the floor for Elton Brand, Corey Maggette and Chris Kaman. Second class citizens in their own arena, the Clippers would have more incentive if Staples Center officials made things interesting by offering the spacious Lakers lockerroom each season to the LA team that wins the most games.

How will the Suns fare in the absence of Amare Stoudemire? …and Joe Johnson?…and Quentin Richardson? Amazingly, only four players from last year’s 62-20 team will be on the Suns opening night roster. Only ER has survived that much turnover, but the Suns will fare better than you might think. Their defense will be improved with the additions of Kurt Thomas, Boris Diaw and Raja Bell. Former Pacer James Jones appears capable of picking up the scoring slack (16.6 ppg in the preseason). Shawn Marion is a stat-sheet stuffer, and MVP Steve Nash will put his teammates in a position to make shots. Only unknowns Jared Reiner and Pat Burke are taller than 6-9, but Thomas and Brian Grant are physical enough to compensate. I’ll predict 44 wins and a trip to the playoffs.

Is the East finally the better conference? The NBA Championship trophy resides in the West, but for the first time in recent memory, there are more elite teams in the East, where Detroit, Miami and Indiana seem like the best bets to unseat San Antonio. New York, Milwaukee and Cleveland all made pretty significant off-season strides as well. The West, however, will maintain bragging rights with a better overall head-to-head record because Atlanta, Toronto and Charlotte all need a hug right now.

Who will lead your fantasy team to the championship? If I knew that, I would have drafted a few studs instead of the sorry lot of clankers comprising my current roster. My cynicism belies the fact that I’m still undefeated. Guys I would have liked to take a late-round flyer on include Nenad Krstic, Marko Jaric, Zaza Pachulia and Raja Bell.

Who will be this year’s Comeback Player of the Year? Unfortunately, the award doesn’t exist, denying fans the Ron Artest award photo op with the commish. If there were such an award, Voshon Lenard of Denver and T.J. Ford of Milwaukee would both be early favorites after returning from injury to earn probable opening day starts. If we extend eligibility to players who didn’t go anywhere, it just seemed that way, Chris Webber is in the running. (In a related story, Grant Hill and Amare Stoudemire are already getting a head start on next year’s honor.)

This lineup may need more than two basketballs.
Victor Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
Are there enough basketballs to keep the Heat happy? If nothing else, at least Gary Payton (in Los Angeles) and Antoine Walker (in Dallas) have been through this routine before, though neither enjoyed a happy ending as a go-to guy putting his starring role aside for a championship contender. Out of sync for much of the preseason, the Heat have too much talent not to win their division; we’ll table the question until May.

What will Ron Artest do next? He’s reaching Rodman-esque territory with the Penthouse interview and the proposed video game combining boxing and basketball. Fortunately, the day-to-day grind of an NBA season leaves him little time to do anything but return to form as the most disruptive player in the NBA. With last year’s nonsense behind them, the Pacers are my pick to unseat Detroit for the Eastern Conference crown.

Is the league in good hands in the post-Shawn Bradley era? Certainly the league will feel the loss of 1992’s second overall pick, but a quick look around league rosters suggests that there are plenty of guys to pick up the slack. Here’s one man’s all 23-and-under team:

PGTony Parker, T.J. Ford, Chris Paul
SGDwyane Wade, Gilbert Arenas, Ben Gordon
SFLeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Andre Iguodala
PFAmare Stoudemire, Chris Bosh, Eddy Curry
CEmeka Okafor, Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler

Stat Corner

Surely, there a few of you share my soft spot for the rare guy who spends his whole career with one professional team. Maybe it conjures memories of the Magic & Bird era, maybe it’s a little less confusing, maybe you spent $200 on a Jason Williams jersey the day before the Grizzlies traded him. In any event, Reggie Miller’s retirement after 1,389 games with the Pacers makes Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett the new leader in NBA monogamy…for now. The following list represents the 10 players with the longest current tenure on their original team, and yes, that’s Adonal Foyle coming in at number six.

775 Kevin Garnett, Minnesota
627 Kobe Bryant, LA Lakers
610 Allen Iverson, Philadelphia
586 Tim Duncan, San Antonio
526 Paul Pierce, Boston
522 Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas
516 Adonal Foyle, Golden State
490 Austin Croshere, Indiana
487 Peja Stojakovic, Sacramento
479 Rashard Lewis, Seattle

Match the NBA journeyman to the team he currently plays for

1. Michael Ruffina. Houston
2. Milt Palaciob. Seattle
3. Lee Nailonc. Washington
4. Jason Hartd. Orlando
5. Rick Brunsone. Utah
6. Ruben Boumtje-Boumtjef. Cleveland
7. Jumaine Jonesg. Indiana
8. Mike Wilksh. Philadelphia
9. Jon Barryi. Charlotte
10. Samaki Walkerj. New Jersey
11. Lamond Murrayk. Sacramento

Answers: 1 c, 2 e, 3 h, 4 k, 5 b, 6 d, 7 i, 8 f, 9 a, 10 g, 11 j.

-- Bill Evans appears weekly on NBA.com, where he worked from 1996-99. Now a Milwaukee-based freelance writer, he has also worked with the Sonics, Bucks and Cavaliers.

Have anything to say? E-mail Bill at billnbatalk@yahoo.com