Which of these stars can get their team off on the right foot on the way to the 2007 NBA Title?
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By Michael Levine

Ever since the Miami Heat hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy more than four months ago, hoops junkies all around the world have had Tuesday, October 31st circled on their calendars as the day pro hoops comes back into their lives. And while there are lots of things to look forward to – a new crop of rookies, familiar faces in new places, and countless young superstars with another year under their belts – there can only be one objective for the upcoming campaign. Every team wants to get their hands on the hardware come June 2007.

Most Points, Opening Night History
54 - Michael Jordan, 11/03/1989 Chicago vs. Cleveland
50 - Michael Jordan, 11/01/1986 Chicago at New York
47 - Alex English, 10/25/1985 Denver at Golden State
47 - Kiki Vandeweghe, 10/27/1984 Portland at Kansas City
46 - Dale Ellis, 11/04/1988 Seattle at Utah
45 - Latrell Sprewell, 10/31/1997 Golden State at Minnesota
44 - Jerry Stackhouse, 10/31/2000 Detroit at Toronto
43 - Jalen Rose, 10/30/2001 Indiana at New Jersey
42 - Michael Jordan, 11/03/1995 Chicago vs. Charlotte
42 - Shaquille O'Neal, 11/05/1993 Orlando at Miami
42 - Nick Anderson, 11/06/1992 Orlando vs. Miami
Opening night is the first real step towards that goal, a step that will seem like a distant memory by the time the Playoffs are in full swing. Historically, however, a team’s first regular-season game is a strong indicator of what’s to come. In the NBA, it’s hard to start weak and finish strong.

Of the last 15 eventual champions, 13 triumphed on opening night. Most recently, Miami won by 19 points in Memphis to tip things off a year ago. The only teams to start their special season 0-1 in the last decade and a half were the 1997-98 Bulls (title No. 6, for those of you who are counting) and the Pistons of 2003-04. (Note: Chicago also lost its opener on its way to the franchise’s first title in 1990-91.)

While a strong first showing is important, an 0-1 start does not eliminate a team from contention. Plenty have started the year with a defeat and still fought their way to a title; one game does not a champion make.

In fact, two of the greatest dynasties in sports history struggled mightily on opening night. The Lakers and Celtics teams of the 1980s combined to lose five of the eight openers in seasons they would become champions. One memorable exception was L.A.’s 103-102 victory over the Clippers in Magic Johnson’s first NBA game. After Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hit a game-winning basket, he famously told the exuberant rookie to calm down as there were 81 more games to play.

Most Assists, Opening Night History
19 - John Stockton, 11/03/1989 Utah vs. Denver
18 - Tim Hardaway, 11/02/1990 Golden State at Denver
16 - Jason Kidd, 10/31/1997 Phoenix vs. L.A. Clippers
16 - Mookie Blaylock, 11/05/1993 Atlanta vs. Indiana
16 - John Bagley, 11/03/1989 Boston vs. Milwaukee
15 - Pooh Richardson, 11/05/1993 Indiana at Atlanta
15 - Larry Bird, 11/02/1990 Boston vs. Cleveland
15 - Pooh Richardson, 11/02/1990 Minnesota vs. Dallas
15 - Michael Cooper, 10/26/1985 L.A. Lakers at San Antonio
14 - Magic Johnson, 11/04/1988 L.A. Lakers at Dallas
14 - Isiah Thomas, 11/04/1988 Detroit at Chicago
14 - 12 more times
That evidence aside, if your favorite team does not quickly turn the ship around, it just might not be their year. A strong opening stretch is imperative on the drive to a title.

Of the 30 champions since the NBA-ABA merger, only one team – the since-renamed 1977-78 Washington Bullets – lost more than half of its first 10 games. That squad was 4-6 through 10 and hardly dominated the league en route to a 44-38 regular-season mark.

Of the other 29 champs in question, three started 5-5, eight started 6-4, three started 7-3, and five started 8-2. Of the eight 9-1 starts, two were accomplished by an opening-night loser that immediately got hot: the 1983-84 Celtics and 1986-87 Lakers. Two of the last 30 would-be-champs have started out 10-0 or better; the 1993-94 Rockets won 15 times before taking a loss, and the Bulls opened the 1996-97 season with 12 straight victories.

The Houston climate seems to be conducive for hot starts. The 1993-94 "Heart of a Champion" Rockets squad won its first nine games and eventually vaulted out of the West’s sixth spot to claim its second consecutive crown.

SEASON CHAMPION OPENING NIGHT W STREAK FIRST 10 FINAL
2005-06 Miami Heat 97-78 W @ MEM 1 6-4 52-30
2004-05 San Antonio Spurs 101-85 W v SAC 2 8-2 59-23
2003-04 Detroit Pistons 89-87 L v IND - 6-4 54-28
2002-03 San Antonio Spurs 87-82 W @ LAL 1 6-4 60-22
2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers 98-87 W v POR 7 9-1 58-24
2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers 96-86 W @ POR 1 6-4 56-26
1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers 91-84 W @ UTA 2 7-3 67-15
1998-99 San Antonio Spurs 101-83 W v SAC 2 5-5 37-13
1997-98 Chicago Bulls 92-85 L @ BOS - 6-4 62-20
1996-97 Chicago Bulls 107-98 W @ BOS 12 10-0 69-13
1995-96 Chicago Bulls 105-91 W v CHA 5 9-1 72-10
1994-95 Houston Rockets 90-86 W v NJN 9 9-1 47-35
1993-94 Houston Rockets 110-88 W v NJN 15 10-0 58-24
1992-93 Chicago Bulls 101-96 W @ CLE 1 8-2 57-25
1991-92 Chicago Bulls 110-90 W v PHI 1 8-2 67-15
1990-91 Chicago Bulls 124-116 L v PHI - 5-5 61-21
1989-90 Detroit Pistons 106-103 W v NYK 2 6-4 59-23
1988-89 Detroit Pistons 107-94 W @ CHI 8 9-1 63-19
1987-88 Los Angeles Lakers 113-109 W v SEA 8 8-2 62-20
1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers 112-102 L @ HOU - 9-1 65-17
1985-86 Boston Celtics 113-109 L @ NJN - 8-2 67-15
1984-85 Los Angeles Lakers 113-112 L @ SAS - 5-5 62-20
1983-84 Boston Celtics 127-121 L @ DET - 9-1 62-20
1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers 104-89 W @ NYK 6 9-1 65-17
1981-82 Los Angeles Lakers 113-112 L v HOU - 6-4 57-25
1980-81 Boston Celtics 130-103 W v CLE 1 6-4 62-20
1979-80 Los Angeles Lakers 103-102 W @ SDC 2 7-3 60-22
1978-79 Seattle SuperSonics 104-86 W v CHI 7 9-1 52-30
1977-78 Washington Bullets 117-109 W v DET 1 4-6 44-38
1976-77 Portland Trailblazers 114-104 W v NYN 2 7-3 49-33

But what does all that mean for this year’s contenders?

The defending champs look to have a pretty easy first stretch. After a tough season opener in which the improved Bulls come to South Beach Miami plays just three teams that made the playoffs last season in its next nine contests. The 10 opponents include zero 50-game winners from a year ago and combined for a .460 winning percentage.

Most Steals, Opening Night History
10 - Clyde Drexler, 11/01/1996 Houston vs. Sacramento
9 - Michael Adams, 11/01/1991 Washington at Indiana
8 - Larry Bird, 10/25/1985 Boston at New Jersey
7 - Michael Jordan, 11/02/1990 Chicago vs. Philadelphia
7 - Micheal Ray Richardson, 10/25/1985 N.J. vs. Boston
7 - Darnell Valentine, 10/25/1985 Portland vs. Phoenix
6 - Jason Kidd, 10/31/1997 Phoenix vs. L.A. Clippers
6 - Michael Jordan, 11/07/1987 Chicago vs. Philadelphia
6 - Alvin Robertson, 11/06/1987 San Antonio at Houston
6 - Bernard King, 10/27/1984 New York vs. Detroit
6 - 10 more times
One of the West’s best teams is going to start 0-1 because the Spurs visit the defending Conference champion Mavericks on Thursday in the opener for both. Dallas has a comparatively difficult first fortnight; six of its first 10 opponents made the playoffs last year and one of the teams that didn’t – Houston – will be much stronger this time around. Those 10 squads combined for a .510 winning percentage in 2005-06.

After the Texas tussle with the Mavs, San Antonio has an easy stretch to look forward to. Even including Dallas, the Spurs’ first 10 foes had just a .466 winning percentage last season. Drop the first game and that number drops to .436.

The Pistons may have lost Ben Wallace, but they still have the personnel to compete for a title. Their first 10 matchups, starting with a visit from the Bucks, will be a good litmus test: 10 solid opponents, no great ones and no weak ones. Every team had between 33 (Boston) and 49 (Memphis) victories last season, and the 10 combined for a .488 winning percentage.

Most Blocks, Opening Night History
8 - Andrei Kirilenko, 11/03/2004 Utah vs. L.A. Lakers
8 - Elton Brand, 10/30/2003 L.A. Clippers at Seattle
8 - Dikembe Mutombo, 02/05/1999 Atlanta vs. Cleveland
8 - Shawn Bradley, 10/31/1997 Dallas at Vancouver
8 - Shawn Bradley, 11/05/1993 Philadelphia vs. Washington
8 - Charles Smith, 11/02/1990 L.A. Clippers vs. Sacramento
8 - Mark Eaton, 10/26/1984 Utah at Seattle
7 - Alonzo Mourning, 02/05/1999 Miami vs. Detroit
7 - Patrick Ewing, 11/02/1990 New York at Charlotte
7 - Sam Bowie, 10/25/1985 Portland vs. Phoenix
7 - four more times
Phoenix has participated in the Conference Finals in each of the past two seasons and gets Amaré Stoudemire back this year, but it’s hard to imagine a harder opening stretch. After tipping off the season against the Lakers in a rematch of a classic first-round battle, the Suns play six straight teams that won at least half their games last season. The first 10 opponents, including both the Spurs and Mavs, amassed a whopping .567 winning percentage a year ago.

LeBron James and Co. got an early Christmas present in the form of a cushy November schedule. Cleveland starts things off at home against Washington, a team it dispatched in last year’s playoffs. After that, the Cavs get a crack at the bottom three 2005-06 finishers from the East (New York, Charlotte, Atlanta) and bottom two from the West (Portland, Minnesota) in the first few weeks. Their first 10 opponents combined for a .427 winning percentage last season.