In a wide-open Eastern Conference, the up-and-coming Chicago Bulls have emerged as championship contenders after a long rebuilding process. The New Jersey Nets, meanwhile, represent the old guard.
The young Bulls visit the experienced Nets on Wednesday as both teams begin their quest to take the next step toward an NBA title.
While the Bulls enter this season with expectations as high as they've been in years, they'll have to overcome their struggles in New Jersey to get the season started with a victory - Chicago has lost 11 straight road games against New Jersey since a 100-94 win on April 17, 2001.
Chicago won six championships in eight seasons during the 1990s, but Michael Jordan's retirement and Scottie Pippen's departure forced the franchise to start over. After six consecutive losing seasons, the Bulls turned a corner in 2004-05, when they made the first of three straight playoff appearances.
Last season, the Bulls won 49 games en route to their best finish in nine years, then dethroned defending champion Miami with a four-game sweep in the first round of the playoffs. That postseason run ended with a loss to Detroit in six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Chicago returns with essentially the same squad for 2007-08 - only with added playoff experience.
"Last year, we did great but we can do a lot better this year," said forward Luol Deng, who's coming off a breakout season during which he averaged career highs in scoring (18.8), rebounding (7.1), assists (2.5), steals (1.2), field goal percentage (51.7) and foul shooting (77.7). "We have a lot of experience now, and I think we're more mature in terms of how to handle games and in terms of knowing what we need to do out there."
While the Bulls celebrated their first playoff series win in nearly a decade, the Nets celebrated their ninth in the last six seasons - second-most among East teams in that stretch, trailing only Detroit.
The Nets were a disappointing 41-41 during the 2006-07 regular season, but upset Toronto in six games before they were eliminated in the second round by eventual conference champion Cleveland. Despite their playoff success over the years, the Nets are still chasing that elusive first championship.
"There's a lot of pieces that I'm very excited about," said eight-time All-Star point guard Jason Kidd. "If we can be consistent throughout the long haul, then hopefully we'll be the team at the top - and not just the top of the Atlantic, but the top of the Eastern Conference."
One of the pieces Kidd is excited about is Vince Carter, the team's leading scorer last season who signed a five-year contract in July to stay with New Jersey. Carter averaged 25.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists last season, and Kidd added 13.0 points, 8.2 rebounds and 9.2 assists.
The Nets didn't make any major acquisitions over the offseason, but they expect to improve with two starters returning from major injuries that marred their seasons a year ago. Nenad Krstic missed the last four months of the season after injuring his knee Dec. 22, but expects to be ready for the opener.
"I think it's going to take some time and I have to be patient, but I can be even better," said Krstic, who was averaging 16.4 points and 6.8 rebounds - both career highs - before the injury. "When I was playing back home (in Serbia) I had a couple of serious injuries and I came back even better. That's part of my nature."
Richard Jefferson also missed much of last season with an ankle injury, but is fully healthy and determined to bounce back after averaging 16.3 points - his lowest average since 2002-03.
"I think he has a chip on his shoulder,'' Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. "Richard is ultracompetitive, and I think he understands and knows how good he can be, and he wants to prove it."
Despite rumors that continue to swirl about the possibility of acquiring Kobe Bryant from the Los Angeles Lakers, the Bulls have so far opted to improve from within. That's not a bad strategy for a team whose top three scorers - Deng and the backcourt combo of Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich - have each increased their scoring average in every season since their respective rookie years.
"We're definitely excited about where we're at," Hinrich said.
Ben Wallace is the projected starting center for Chicago, but he injured his ankle in a preseason game last Thursday and is questionable for the opener. If he can't play, second-year forward Tyrus Thomas or newcomer Joe Smith could get the nod.
Overall, the Bulls lost three of four against the Nets in 2006-07.
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