Race for the trophy

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LeBron James and Kevin Garnett

The league begins its 2009-10 season on Tuesday with the 2008 champion Boston Celtics and Kevin Garnett back from injury against the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James, whom commissioner David Stern last week said may be the best player ever.(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)

Posted by Sam Smith | asksam@bulls.com | 10.26.09 | 9:40 a.m. CT

The NBA is back, starting Tuesday, and the NBA knows how to open a show. The league begins its 2009-10 season with the 2008 champion Boston Celtics and Kevin Garnett back from injury against the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James, whom commissioner David Stern last week said may be the best player ever. No dummy, Stern knows you sell tickets and ads on who is playing, not on whose jerseys are museum pieces.

Speaking of antiques, the Cavaliers acquired Shaquille O’Neal in an effort to help the Next Greatest at least win a game in the Finals for the first time in his career.

And those two teams weren’t even the 2009 Eastern champions. It was the Orlando Magic, who added the theatric Vince Carter to their own self proclaimed superman of a center, Dwight Howard. That’s the consensus three-team race in the Eastern Conference.

Though the informed opinion—certainly out west—is that no one is a match for the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. It’s an easy proposition to defend, and no less an authority than Ron Artest says this Lakers team may be the best NBA team ever. Who’d doubt Artest’s analysis?

The Lakers have arguably the best coach in Phil Jackson, the best player in Kobe Bryant, the best big man rotation in Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, and the player who has been considered the game’s best perimeter defender, Artest. And having Artest you also have to be prepared for off court defenses. But the Lakers seem overwhelming favorites to, at least, return to the Finals.

The San Antonio Spurs have loaded up for perhaps a last big run by adding Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess to put together maybe their best ever offensive starting five in their championship decade.

It’s debatable from there with the next best generally regarded as the youthful Portland team, especially if Greg Oden can be at least a lot of what he was hoped to be. And play like the 35-year-old he looks like. Then there’s Denver, Dallas, Utah, all hopefuls with hope transcending possibilities.

The competing storyline to the championship marathon is the ultimate destination for many of the principals. Next summer has long been eyed as the Great Free Agent Summer when the balance of power could change with the likes of James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson and Dirk Nowitzki possibly free agents. Should any of their teams falter, it’s conceivable there could be changes of address and future standings. Though a declining salary cap and talk of a 2011 labor stoppage could leave most of the potential free agents taking the safe road and the most money by resigning with their own teams.

That story will retain as much interest as the race for the trophy.

There’ll be curiosity about experiments, like Allen Iverson in Memphis, free agents Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva in Detroit, Elton Brand back in Philadelphia, Hedo Turkoglu in Toronto, the kids in Oklahoma City, Stoudemire’s health and future in Phoenix and the next great rookie in the Clippers’ Blake Griffin.

It begins Tuesday, and here’s one look at how it might end come the middle of April.

Eastern Conference

  1. Boston: They may only have surrendered their title because Garnett was injured and needed surgery. He says he’s fine and maybe has fresher legs. To the successful now comes the riches as they got Rasheed Wallace cheap. Though there have been whispers about Rajon Rondo and his relationship with his teammates (he doesn’t understand why it isn’t a Big Four), he’s shown he can be a near All-Star. They seem loaded, motivated and with the East’s best defense.
  2. Orlando: This is supposed to be Cleveland’s spot, but the Magic is deep with the additions of Carter, Brandon Bass, Ryan Anderson and Matt Barnes. There’s always a big If about whether Carter will defend. But in bringing back Marcin Gortat they also have unusual big man depth and Howard says he’s really going to make free throws this time.
  3. Cleveland: Many around the league keep telling me this Shaq thing will work, but I have my doubts. The Cavs were built on a defensive model and Shaq is ever less mobile. I don’t think he’ll clog up the middle so much and keep LeBron outside as some suggest. But I see too much confusion between Shaq’s offensive game and the staff’s defensive mindset. They’re looking for Anthony Parker to offset the uncertainty around Delonte West’s availability, though Shaq with Anderson Varejao certainly leaves it crowded around the basket.
  4. Atlanta: There’s been a lot of talk about how all the top teams—considered to be the Celtics, Magic, Cavs, Lakers and Spurs—made major changes and that’s another reason they are the only ones who can win this season. Though it used to be applauded to have continuity. The Hawks have stayed together and made a good sixth man addition of Jamal Crawford in the role that fits him best. They’re not much of a long-term playoff threat, but should win a lot of games.
  5. Bulls: They didn’t do much, and lost their leading scorer. But there is much more continuity from the opening of last season with the likes of Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes in key roles and still winning 41 games. Derrick Rose has to be healthy and playing at a high level, of course. But they should have Luol Deng all season, a bigger team, and a more committed Joakim Noah and motivated Tyrus Thomas to give them a good shot blocking threat and thus better defense. And then the idea is to add an All-Star in free agency and make 2011 the year to compete. Yes, more ifs. But they seem headed on the right path.
  6. Toronto: They certainly should, at least, win the Euroleague with Andrea Bargnani, Jose Caladeron, Hedo Turkoglu, Marco Belinelli and Rasho Nesterovic. They remade their roster also with Antoine Wright, Jarrett Jack, Amir Johnson and Reggie Evans. It’s all about persuading Bosh to resign. They seem a bit on the soft side with Bargnani at center 30 feet from the basket and Bosh not exactly a tough defender. And Turkoglu’s reputation is he always needs a bit of a push to get going. It’s a one season gamble to save the franchise.
  7. Philadelphia: The notion is they’ll have to find a point guard as Louis Williams won’t quite replace Andre Miller. Could be, but they’re in position to take advantage of speed with Williams, Thaddeus Young and Andre Iguodala. If Brand can return and put a body on the interior and with offense minded Eddie Jordan, they could remain at least a playoff team. Which won’t be easy in the East this season.
  8. Washington: Last spot? Most are saying they should be higher with the return of Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood. But they seem very thin up front, open the season with Antawn Jamison out at least a month and with a surfeit of shooters on the perimeter. I don’t think they have yet figured out how to play with the insouciant Arenas or he with them.
  9. Miami: This would be wishful thinking for Bulls fans. Heat misses playoffs. Wade has had enough and decides to come home to Chicago. As I said, mostly wishful thinking. But it is a spotty roster with ground based Jermaine O’Neal at center, erratic Mario Chalmers at guard and Michael Beasley somewhere. Too bad for the kid. He again was in the news after coming out of rehab this summer and shown passed out on a boat surrounded by beer bottles. The Heat came up with some sort of dog-ate-my-homework excuse which actually may be legit. But it looks bad. And no one has to carry a team more than Wade. Can he hold up another long season? Seems questionable.
  10. Detroit: For two decades they were a lot of things, but always tough. Now they are the tissue paper front line with Kwame Brown, Chris Wilcox, Jason Maxiell, Charlie Villanueva and the ghost of Ben Wallace. Former Bull Ben Gordon is a $12 million backup, which seems inconceivable. They were a team that always reflected their community, which now has fallen on hard times as well.
  11. Indiana: You can’t be serious if you still issue reports on when Mike Dunleavy will return. They’re upgrading and have an All-Star in Danny Granger. They have a few new hard workers like Dahntay Jones, and Tyler Hansbrough should provide more hustle when he can play. But they’re still too short on talent.
  12. Milwaukee: They’re in transition as Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut return from injuries around a potpourri of potential overachievers coach Scott Skiles is trying to mold. They’ve offloaded too much talent for now to go very far.
  13. New York: The big 2010 plan seems to be going the way of the mortgage industry and GM—just barely on life support. You need a plan and often it makes sense. But things change, General Custer, and it may not work. In addition to a mismatched set, everyone knows the team doesn’t want just about anyone there for next season, which should result in good teamwork.
  14. New Jersey: They have some interesting, youth athletes with Terrence Williams, Courtney Lee and Chris Douglas-Roberts. Brook Lopez is an intriguing future center, and if things don’t work out, the pending new owner could threaten to send them to Siberia. Motivation enough.
  15. Bobcats: Sixty-nine-year old Larry Brown probably has more energy than this group of mismatched big guys and small guards. They offloaded Emeka Okafor to save money, which wasn’t a bad idea, though Tyson Chandler should forget about any lobs from shooting point guards.

Western Conference

  1. Lakers: It’s looking more like the next great dynasty. Kobe with those bigs have a good five year run left in them. And you know Kobe isn’t stopping until get gets to that seventh championship, one more than Michael Jordan, David Stern’s formerly favorite superstar.
  2. San Antonio: Coach Gregg Popovich is stressing defense like never before because he has offensive options like never before. Richard Jefferson for Bruce Bowen. Antonio McDyess for Fabricio Oberto. Manu Ginobili is returning to health coming off the bench and rookie second rounder DeJuan Blair has been a beast on the boards. They won’t expend too much early, but with a healthy Tim Duncan, they can make a playoff run at the Lakers.
  3. Portland: Everything seem in place for them to make a move, though they are depending on Greg Oden finally looking like a No. 1 pick and big free agent Andre Miller figuring out where he fits with incumbent Steve Blake. Rudy Fernandez off the bench remains an embarrassment of riches. Long having a college atmosphere, we’ll see if they can absorb money, with Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge getting big deals, and playing time demands.
  4. Denver: I’d put them lower because I thought last year was a fluke and their interior is way undersized. But the Western Conference has fallen well off and there’s not much high level competition anymore. Chauncey Billups is a rare leader still and Carmelo Anthony is a big-time scorer who’ll keep them in games.
  5. Dallas: They changed their face with Shawn Marion, Drew Gooden, Tim Thomas, Quinton Ross and Kris Humphries. They still have Dirk and Josh Howard once the latter finally returns from another injury. They should overwhelm enough teams just on depth.
  6. Utah: Carlos Boozer is back. Against his will, of course. And whether he stays will hang over the team all season after they spent big money to retain Paul Millsap. They’ve got good pieces in Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur, though not enough on the perimeter.
  7. Clippers: This is my surprise of the season, and if they actually get here I may be surprised. But kids can revitalize you. Rookie Blake Griffin looks terrific. Baron Davis says he’ll reinvent himself and Eric Gordon and Al Thornton can score. Once Marcus Camby returns, Chris Kaman can come off the bench. They should be way better. But we often say that about the Clippers.
  8. Hornets: This is a team in decline with a seemingly practiced indifference that suggests varied agenda. Emeka Okafor skipped the preseason. They’ll try Julian Wright starting, though he is a limited shooter and they can’t seem to get much from Peja Stojakovic anymore. Chris Paul is going to see more traps than in a bear hunt.
  9. Golden State: Yes, you want to see them play Phoenix. They do have some tall guys like Andris Biedrins, and Anthony Randolph is among everyone’s most improved. They’re got explosive guards with Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry, Anthony Morrow, Corey Maggette and Stephen Jackson, the latter sure to explode any number of times. The over/under on Don Nelson bailing to Hawaii is Dec. 28.
  10. Phoenix: I think they’ve still got a lot of talent. But you can’t get away with having nobody who cares to rebound. Channing Fyre plays center. Amar’e Stoudemire wants to dunk. Grant Hill is 37. They’re going to run into some high, high scoring losses.
  11. Houston: No Yao. No McGrady. No Artest. Not too many wins. The Little Rockets Who Could are going to have to play all season this time. Who knows if McGrady can return and what he will be. Same with Yao. They’ve got competitors like Luis Scola and Shane Battier, a pocket rocket in Aaron Brooks and added Trevor Ariza, who’ll find those open threes harder without Kobe and Pau.
  12. Thunder: This seems, for now, to be a young team more satisfied to be noticed. You get fancy stuff from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, but little grind it out. James Harden should work his way in past Thabo Sefolosha at some point. They have a lot of pieces and if they connect may be able to do something.
  13. Grizzlies: I don’t think this Iverson/Randolph/Gay/Mayo thing will work very well. But I can’t disagree that it should be interesting and more entertaining to watch than what they had before. So why not take a shot. It’s the first time in several years we’ll want to see some Grizzlies’ games.
  14. Sacramento: They’re trying to build a team and an arena, and seemingly at about the same pace. Rookie Tyreke Evans is an impressively big point guard to work with Kevin Martin. Jason Thompson is a versatile big guy, if not a center, and they’ll run to a lot of losses for now.
  15. Timberwolves: Kevin Love had surgery, Al Jefferson is returning slowly from surgery, new coach Kurt Rambis is trying to run the triangle without shooters and Ricky Rubio isn’t being exposed yet. It will be a season as long as their winter.

NBA news and notes

-- Former Bulls guard and current agent for Derrick Rose, among others, B.J. Armstrong was selected by Illinois governor Pat Quinn as senior advisor for youth outreach, an honorary position. And I do intend to check if B.J. can do anything about all those late night highway lane closings when no one is working. … Everyone in sports has to be more creative in this economic environment, and the Nets have been among the most creative. Of course, in their lame duck situation they have to be. They are selling courtside seats, which, no surprise they have many unsold, for $25,000 for four seats for 10 games, which includes having a player come to your home for one hour for a party or event. It’s not clear if they have to be part of a minion if they come for a Bar Mitzvah. … This is what being a star is about. NBA players are saying the easing of the traveling rule is so LeBron James won’t be questioned again as he was after he tried to explain his crabwalk dribble and insisted it was perfectly legal and he’d always done it. … Larry Hughes finished the preseason shooting one of 23, which is 4.3 percent. … Wisconsin free agent Marcus Landry, who paid his own way to a Knicks tryout and for his own hotel accommodations, looks like he’ll make the team. Also, legendary good guy Linton Johnson, who’s had two turns with the Bulls, looks like he’s made the Magic roster as coach Stan Van Gundy was impressed with his toughness playing center.

-- Now the Celtics have joined the Knicks in eliminating game day home shootarounds. The Knicks did it for traffic congestion reasons. The Celtics also are starting practices later after coach Doc Rivers consulted a Harvard sleep specialist, who noted the sleep deprivation of NBA players with the late night games and then early wakeups. The Harvard guy had worked with the Trail Blazers last season as they looked for answers to doing poorly on road trips. They did improve their road record by seven games, but they also had improving players. I personally long have advocated this because I like to sleep late. One issue is players will have to come up with a new excuse instead of “overslept.”… The speculation in Indiana for the firing of Pacers longtime personnel guy Mel Daniels was that he may have leaked information that Larry Bird could resign after this season, though similar rumors about Bird circulate most every season. Daniels was a legendary center from the ABA and still has the strongest handshake in the NBA, for whatever that means. Mel’s the only guy players refuse to shake hands with for fear of being injured.

-- While the talk about the Spurs has been of Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess and the recovery of Manu Ginobili, the team’s two best players in the preseason have been rookie DeJuan Blair, averaging 7.9 rebounds in just 17.7 minutes, and second year guard George Hill, the team’s leading scorer and shooting 60 percent on threes. Both were again draft coups for the clever Spurs with Hill 26th and Blair 37th. … Quite the bon voyage from the replacement refs as Drew Gooden was ejected from the Mavs last preseason game and then called back as the refs overruled themselves. They actually did a competent job, but it’s good to start with the veterans.

-- You wonder if the Jazz is getting closer to reconsidering making a deal for Carlos Boozer. They’ve said they have no such plans and Boozer now says he hopes to remain in Utah. But now Kyle Korver and C.J. Miles are out after surgery, Ronnie Brewer is having back problems and Matt Harpring probably will retire, leaving the perimeter decimated. Time to move Boozer for a guard? One of the speculated deals when Boozer talked about wanting to come to the Bulls was Tyrus Thomas and Jerry Sloan favorite Kirk Hinrich for Boozer and a reserve guard. Though if you were the Bulls now with Derrick Rose having ankle issues all preseason, you’d have to be reluctant to deal Hinrich. And it has seemed that Thomas is coming on and could Boozer make that much difference to lose two of your top six players? Miami was Boozer’s other big summertime choice, though they’re not exactly loaded with guards. Or anywhere. … Hinrich also was mentioned in Portland media as a possible summer acquisition. Portland had salary cap room to absorb most of Hinrich’s deal. The advantage for the Bulls supposedly would have been having money for maybe two All-Star level free agents next summer. Though without getting back equal value, it would have limited the team this season and never came close to occurring. Now, you wonder if the Trail Blazers are regretting not pursuing Hinrich, whom they’d previously talked about as their GM is also a Kansas guy. Big free agent acquisition Andre Miller is backing up Steve Blake as Brandon Roy seems uncomfortable playing with Miller, who holds the ball and shoots more than Blake. It probably hasn’t helped Miller that as point guard he led the team in field goal attempts in the preseason. By a lot. Of course, with Greg Oden starting, it does give the Blazers’ some impressive depth with Rudy Fernandez also a reserve. Miller has started 530 straight games, the league’s longest streak. He says he’s fine with the team’s decision. And if you believe that one...

-- Stephen Jackson’s lost preseason began early when he picked up five first quarter fouls trying to guard Kobe Bryant and blamed the Warriors’ coaching staff for not backing him up with the refs. So in blasting everyone, Jackson took some shots at Bryant, who pulled a Jordan in going after and glaring at Jackson as the Lakers beat the Warriors last week. "He always finds a reason," new teammate Ron Artest told Los Angeles reporters. "'You looked at me the wrong way. I'm giving you 40. You don't want to say my last name. I'm giving you 40.'”… Andres Nocioni the new Bruce Bowen? Grant Hill got ejected last week after going off when he thought Nocioni had his foot where Hill came down after a shot, a tactic players often accused Bowen of. … The Suns, no surprise with Channing Frye at center, finished the preseason with the worst rebounding differential. … The Kings see possibilities with Israeli rookie Omri Casspi, who closed the preseason averaging 11.7 points in 21 minutes and shooting 53 percent on threes (eight of 14 and averaging more than 17 per game the last three of the preseason).