tampabay.com

A subtle shift

Little seems changed as the season begins. But it's enough.

By Tom Jones
Published October 31, 2006


Not a lot changed in the NBA offseason. The defending champion Miami Heat looks the same. So does the team it beat in the title series, the Dallas Mavericks.

Sure, a few teams look better (the Chicago Bulls come to mind) and a few look worse (such as the Indiana Pacers). And the New York Knicks are still a mess.

But, all in all, the newest thing about the NBA is the ball that, apparently, everyone except commissioner David Stern hates.

Nevertheless, the NBA will roll out its synthetic ball tonight, and thus begins the race to the championship. To get you ready for the season, we give you this NBA primer. Since little has changed, we can expect another Heat-Mavs title series? Not so fast.

 

5 Teams to beat

1. Miami Heat: Virtually the same team back that won the title. Only question is whether Shaquille O'Neal, at 34, can withstand another long season.

2. Phoenix Suns :A healthy Amare Stoudemire, along with two-time MVP Steve Nash, makes the Suns the hot team in the West.

3. Dallas Mavericks: Few offseason changes from a team that was in the final two.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers: If Larry Hughes can lend LeBron James some offensive support, this could be the season the Cavs break through.

5. New Jersey Nets: If center Nenad Krstic develops as expected, the Nets should be serious contenders.

 

5 Things we love about the NBA 

1. Kobe vs. Shaq.

2. That Allen Iverson plays hard every single possession (except for practice. Man, we're talking about practice).

3. Its three best players (D-Wade, LeBron and Carmelo) will be around another 10 years.

4. L.A. vs. L.A. is actually an entertaining matchup.

5. Games on Christmas Day. (This year it's the Lakers against the Heat. Hey, that's Kobe vs. Shaq.)

Best announcer: Still nothing better than hearing Marv Albert say, "Yesssss."

Best studio analyst: Charles Barkley will say anything. And it's usually funny, controversial and, best of all, true.

Best game analyst: Bill Walton. The guy knows the game and does a good job relaying that to the fans without being condescending.


5 Burning questions 

1. Is this the season Steve Nash and the Suns eclipse the Mavs in the West?

2. Do the Nets have enough depth to overtake the Heat in the East?

3. Can the Pistons remain title contenders without Ben Wallace?

4. The Nuggets' Carmelo Anthony can play, but can he make others around him better?

5. Can the Magic's Grant Hill get through a season healthy? If he can, the Magic can secure a postseason berth.

 

Five rookies who will make an impact

1. Adam Morrison, Charlotte.

2. Randy Foye, Minnesota.

3. Brandon Roy, Portland.

4. Andrea Bargnani, Toronto.

5. Rudy Gay, Memphis.

 

Five players we would like to see on title caliber teams

1. Allen Iverson, 76ers

2. Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves

3. Gilbert Arenas, Wizards

4. Yao Ming, Rockets

5. Ray Allen, SuperSonics

 

Preseason All-NBA Team

G Steve Nash Suns

G Dwyane Wade Heat

C Amare Stoudemire Suns

F LeBron James Cavs

F Kobe Bryant Lakers

 

All-Underrated Team

G Ben Gordon Bulls

G Larry Hughes Cavs

C Brad Miller Kings

F Elton Brand Clippers

F Mike Miller Grizzlies

 

All-Overrated Team

G Stephon Marbury Knicks

G DeShawn Stevenson Wizards

C Eddy Curry Knicks

F Chris Webber 76ers

F Carlos Boozer Jazz

 

Three teams on the rise

1. Los Angeles Clippers

Picking up Tim Thomas and the emergence of Shaun Livingston puts the Clippers easily into the playoffs for the second straight season.

2. Chicago Bulls

Adding Ben Wallace makes one of the league's best defensive teams even better.

3. Utah Jazz

Finally have turned the page from the Stockton-Malone days and are moving up with point guard Deron Williams.

 

Three teams on the decline

1. Indiana Pacers

They've gone from a team with NBA title aspirations to one that just hopes to make the playoffs.

2. Minnesota Timberwolves

You have to wonder how much longer Kevin Garnett, the Wolves' first-round pick in 1995, will be in Minnesota.

3. Memphis Grizzlies

Will have serious troubles as long as Pau Gasol (broken bone in his left foot) is out.

 

Getting a handle on the new ball

The NBA has introduced a new official game ball, featuring a new design and material to offer what it says is better grip, feel and consistency.

"It will be great to get a ball that just feels the same no matter where you are and then it'll really give you that comfort that you need," 2006 Finals MVP Dwyane Wade said. "I think the grip is nice. ... I'll be able to do more tricks with it."

Ball by the numbers

29.5 Circumference of the ball, in inches.

2,250 The total number of new balls the teams will receive for the 2006-07 season.

40-million Number of times a Spalding basketball has been bounced during NBA games.

167,847,043 Number of basketballs placed side by side it would take to span the earth's circumference.

Prediction

On paper, the Heat should repeat. But the game is played on the court and we see Shaq eventually wearing down on it. Dwyane Wade can carry Miami only so far, so that's why we like LeBron James and the Cavs to finally break on through after surviving the Nets and Pistons. Out West, the Mavs should be the pick. Isn't that how it works? A team loses in the final, then comes back to win it? Makes sense, but it won't happen. Steve Nash won't win the MVP again (that will go to LeBron), but he'll win something better: an NBA championship.