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MavKikiNYC
10-28-2003, 07:16 AM
New Season: Something for Everyone
By CHRIS BROUSSARD

Published: October 28, 2003


avid Stern said he did not see it there, hovering above Staples Center, Madison Square Garden and every other National Basketball Association arena that Kobe Bryant will play in this season. There is nothing dismal shadowing his league, Stern said, nothing threatening to render all the dunks, the passes, the rivalries and the title quests an afterthought.

According to Stern, the N.B.A. commissioner, the 2003-4 season, which begins with three games tonight, is about basketball, not the rape case of Bryant, one of the league's most celebrated superstars.

"We know there's no cloud hanging over us," Stern said last month, moments after addressing the league's incoming class of rookies. "We know the season will begin and the world will come to appreciate again not only what our players do on the court, but what they do off the court.

"There was more player movement, more coach movement and more exciting rookie prospects in tandem than I can think of in the past decade. When you add all of those up together, you begin to see that this is going to be an extraordinary basketball time."

There is no arguing that, even if many will follow the season mainly for the drama surrounding Bryant, who maintains that he and his alleged victim had consensual sex, rather than for the drama on the court.

Perhaps not since Michael Jordan returned from his first retirement, in March 1995, has there been so much intrigue surrounding an N.B.A. season. Compelling basketball themes abound, the foremost being the retooling of the Los Angeles Lakers, who have obtained the future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton to play with Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal in an effort to regain the title. But even with one of the most distinguished starting lineups in history, the Lakers are far from a lock for the championship. To many, they are not even the favorite, with the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, the Sacramento Kings, the Dallas Mavericks, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Nets adding personnel that, at least on paper, makes them better than they were a year ago.

But the strengthening of the league's powerhouses is only part of the story. This is, of course, the beginning of the LeBron James era, at least according to the hype. Yet James, who is already among the league's most popular players, may not even win the rookie of the year award.

The No. 3 pick in the draft, Carmelo Anthony, appears to have adjusted seamlessly to the N.B.A. and could lead a resurgence in Denver. There is also Detroit's Darko Milicic, the latest mystery figure from Europe, who is eventually supposed to turn the league upside down.

In addition, several previously ballyhooed rookies are expected to bloom this season, lifting their teams to new levels. In Chicago, Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler and Jamal Crawford are viewed as the foundation of the next great Bulls run. Miami is looking for Lamar Odom to jump-start his sputtering career, along with its sputtering franchise. And will Washington's Kwame Brown, the first high school player selected No. 1 in the draft (2001), begin proving that Jordan's first impression of him was not a delusion?

Finally, 11 clubs, including 5 that made the playoffs last season, hired new coaches. Of those 11, Larry Brown, Rick Carlisle and Jeff Van Gundy are expected to have an immediate impact on their teams.

Off-Court Distractions

With such potential for thrills, Stern is hoping that fans will pay attention to what is happening on the court and not just in the courtroom.

Despite their credentials, there is the potential for problems on the Lakers. How will Malone and Payton, first options on offense throughout their careers, adjust to being the third and fourth options? How will Payton, used to dominating the ball and backing down smaller point guards, exist in the triangle offense, where the point guard is all but irrelevant?

Developing the necessary chemistry to beat San Antonio and Sacramento could be a long and arduous process, especially if Bryant is often out of the lineup because of his trial. Phil Jackson, the great motivator, is the perfect coach for the job, and despite all the Lakers' talent, leading this crew to a championship would be his greatest accomplishment.

The good signs are Malone and Payton's willingness to take major pay cuts to play for the Lakers and O'Neal's rededication to being in shape after last season's debacle.

"We went out reeling," Jackson said of last season's second-round loss to San Antonio. "We're not happy about it as players, as coaches and an organization, and we want a chance to come back and bring that championship back here. To do so, we have to challenge ourselves."

San Antonio could be better than it was last season, with Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili improving and a host of talented newcomers. But the retirement of David Robinson should not be underestimated simply because his offensive production had declined. He was still an awesome defender, teaming with Tim Duncan to make the Spurs nearly impenetrable. His replacement, Rasho Nesterovic, will make up for Robinson's offense but probably not his defense and rebounding.

"David's defensive presence along with Tim Duncan was what separated the Spurs from everybody else the last few years," said Steve Kerr, a member of San Antonio's championship team last season and now an analyst for TNT. "I like Nesterovic, but it remains to be seen if he can play the type of defense that David Robinson gave them."

Sacramento is the third team that most analysts believe has a legitimate chance of winning the title. The Kings have probably been the best team the past two seasons, falling to the Lakers because of bad luck and poor foul shooting two years ago and succumbing to Dallas after Chris Webber was injured last season.

But while Webber, who will miss the first month of the season while recovering from off-season knee surgery, Mike Bibby, Bobby Jackson, and the newly added Brad Miller are all young, their starting center, Vlade Divac, is 35, and there is a growing sense that the Kings need to win a championship before their window of opportunity closes.

Support for Garnett

In its quest to end seven straight years of first-round playoff exits, Minnesota has surrounded Kevin Garnett with the newcomers Michael Olowokandi, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell. But that still might not be enough to get out of the first round in the powerful Western Conference. And Dallas has everyone scratching their heads and giggling at the latest mad concoction put together by Don Nelson, who added two 20-point scorers, Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison, to the highest-scoring team in the league. With hardly a solid defender among them, the Mavericks seem resigned to allowing 110 points a game. But their plan is to score 120.

The Nets are the only Eastern Conference team worth mentioning alongside the top five teams in the West. But to win a championship, they have to beat only one great Western team. If that one does not feature a fired-up O'Neal, a healthy Alonzo Mourning could make it happen.

"They faced the greatest in Shaq and couldn't beat him, and they faced the greatest in Duncan and couldn't beat them," Pat Riley, who resigned as coach of Miami last week, said of the Nets. "That's probably one of the reasons why New Jersey hasn't won a ring."

No contemporary star or legend not Jordan, Magic Johnson, Garnett, Bryant or Duncan entered the league with as outlandish publicity and pressure as that of the 6-8 James. The 18-year-old James must become nothing less than Jordan or Johnson to fulfill Cleveland's expectations. If he is Clyde Drexler or Scottie Pippen, it will be a disappointment.

Period of Adjustment

But no one enters the N.B.A. straight from high school and plays like an All-Star, let alone dominates. So what will fans, expecting the world, do when James, who has played poorly at times during the preseason, struggles through February or, perhaps, the entire season?

Not only will he have the difficult task of adjusting to the N.B.A., but he will also have to do so with the league's top players gunning for him because of his publicity.

"He's got a lot of hype coming in, so he's got to prove himself," said the Nets' Kenyon Martin, one of the league's best defenders.

Martin's teammate Richard Jefferson said: "After awhile you're going to feel bad for the kid. You can tell he's got a long way to go."

Anthony's way does not seem as far. He shot nearly 50 percent in leading Denver in scoring (17.4 points a game) during the preseason. The two players may forever be linked, and Stern does not mind stirring the pot of competition between them.

Regarding James's hype, a smiling Stern has said more than a few times, "It has acted as a pretty good motivation for Carmelo Anthony."

James's coach, Paul Silas, is one of the league's 11 new or relocated coaches. He will not be under immediate pressure to win big like Brown and Carlisle or to make the playoffs like Van Gundy, but he is facing pressure of a different sort. He must figure out how to coach, lead and chastise the league's next great prodigy all while playing him 35 minutes a game.

"If I don't start my young phenom," Silas said at last month's Rookie Transition Program, "I'll probably hear it from David Stern."

With the N.B.A. wanting the focus on basketball rather than Bryant's legal issues, there may be a ring of truth to that.

Rod1975
10-28-2003, 09:44 AM
David Stern is a politician and a salesman, not a leader. He will spin everything into what he believes will sell tickets.
There should be term limits for NBA commissioners. I'm sick of Stern's NBA spin doctoring.

jacktruth
10-28-2003, 11:43 AM
Stern is just an idiot who is out of touch with the world around him. That's why the NBA is so far behind.