10.28.2008

Basketball: NBA Preview 2008

by Hayden Alfano

No, the World Series isn’t over. Yet. And yes, we’re in the middle of another parity-filled pro football season. But Tuesday’s may remain an off-day for baseball (due to weather), and the next slate of football games won’t kick off for another five days. So among all the excitement, the National Basketball Association (NBA) season tips off tonight.

If you’re a die-hard NBA fan, this is the season you’ve been waiting for. If you’re a relatively disinterested newcomer to professional basketball, there’s never been a better time to, well, get interested.

Last year’s finalists, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, are the favorites to continue their storied rivalry and once again meet in the NBA Finals in June (the league’s reputation for a long, drawn-out regular season is well-deserved). These two teams headline the first day of NBA play — the Celtics host the Cleveland Cavaliers at 8 p.m. Eastern on TNT; and the Lakers host the Portland Trailblazers in the second half of the doubleheader. But there’s championship hope in a number of other NBA cities.

The excitement might be greatest in Houston and Philadelphia, where the Rockets and 76ers added big names in the offseason in an effort to put their teams over the top. Health might be the ultimate decider for these two squads. Newcomer Ron Artest won’t be enough for Houston if mainstays Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady can’t stay out of the infirmary. And Elton Brand arrives in the City of Brotherly Love fresh off a season in which he played just eight games, the victim of a ruptured Achilles tendon before last season.

Cleveland hopes that new point guard Mo Williams will the missing piece that gives LeBron James his first ring. It had better come fast — King James’ contract is up after next season, and if he doesn’t have any jewelry by then, the going wisdom is that he’ll bolt for a contender.

In contrast, the Detroit Pistons, Phoenix Suns, and Dallas Mavericks sat relatively quiet this offseason, rounding up their veteran squads for perhaps a final run at a title. And don’t rule out the San Antonio Spurs — Sports Illustrated’s pick for the championship. The Spurs have won the title in each of the last three odd-numbered years. To do it for the fourth time, they’ll have to beat, among others, the New Orleans Hornets and Chris Paul.

Elsewhere, there’s excitement even absent realistic championship hopes. The arrival of Jermaine O’Neal in Toronto finally gives Raptors star Chris Bosh a proper low post partner, and point guard T.J. Ford’s departure means the show is Jose Calderon’s to run now. Orlando Magic fans have the privilege of watching the continued development of Dwight Howard, the league’s best young big man.

Speaking of young big men, tonight marks the delayed debut of Portland center Greg Oden, the number one overall pick in the 2007 NBA rookie draft. Oden missed all of last season with a knee injury, and joins perhaps the league’s most intriguing team. The young Blazers overachieved last year, and with Oden in the fold, have a good shot at squeezing into the playoffs.

This summer’s top overall pick, Derrick Rose, takes over at point guard for a Chicago team that disappointed last year. The guy who went directly after Rose in the draft, Michael Beasley, is matched with a pair of legitimate stars in Dwyane Wade and Shawn Marion in Miami.

Even the league’s worst teams have players worth watching. Shooting guard O.J. Mayo — the NBA has been waiting on him since junior high school — will be given plenty of leash in Memphis to showcase his considerable talent. The Minnesota Timberwolves were the team that drafted Mayo, then sent him to the Grizzlies for Kevin Love — the fourth overall pick, and a good complement to Al Jefferson, who is ready to break out.

And then there’s Oklahoma City, the adopted home of the Hornets in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the city that got their own team when the Seattle SuperSonics moved there this offseason. Thunder fans should be just happy that they have a team, but they also have last year’s Rookie of the Year, Kevin Durant, to excite them in what will be a season full of losses.
















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