Teams face difficult choices when a player demands a trade
By Jack McCallum
The NBA tips off on Tuesday with three games -- the first of 1,230 for the season. Since that's a little too much TV watching for most of us, I've combed through the season's schedule to pick out the dozen most noteworthy matchups, and looked into my crystal ball to see what happens in each:
November 2: Houston at Detroit, TNT
The tradition of letting the champs open the new season continues as the Pistons get their championship rings before a tough test against Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. But as far as close contests with high stakes go, Pistons vs. Rockets is likely to take a back seat to another one being decided on opening night -- Bush vs. Kerry.
November 3: Miami at New Jersey, ESPN
ESPN kicks off its coverage with the all-important Shaquille O'Neal vs. Nenad Krstic showdown in front of 33 near-suicidal fans in the Meadowlands. Prior to the game, the Nets take another step backwards when they trade Zoran Planinic and his Jeff Spicoli haircut to the Yakima Sun Kings for a roll of Garden State Parkway tokens and a used Bon Jovi CD.
Matters get worse for ESPN's telecast when sources reveal that Rupert Murdoch had secretly been running the network for several months and was the driving force behind Around the Horn, hiring Rush Limbaugh, and having all the analysts scream over imaginary airplane noise. The damage from the scandal only abates when Murdoch introduces an immensely popular game show in which blindfolded contestants have to guess whether they're listening to Stephen A. Smith or an air horn.
November 25: New Jersey at L.A. Clippers, TNT
No, that's not a typo: The two teams have already given up on a season that hasn't even started, and yet their first meeting is nationally televised. To add insult to injury, it's the second half of a doubleheader that leads off with a Minnesota-Indiana barnburner, so the dropoff in quality is sure to be jarring. Not even Kevin Harlan could feign excitement over this one.
As for the game itself, the "Kerry Kittles looks for revenge" angle quickly takes a back seat during the second quarter when Mike Dunleavy scans the lifeless crowd, says to himself, "My God, I'm coaching the Clippers. What have I done?" and calmly walks off the court with the game still in progress. That gives New Jersey the momentum it needs, as Ron Mercer scores eight points on 4-of-22 shooting to lead the Nets to a stirring 51-47 win.
December 14: New Orleans at Charlotte, NBA TV
Anyone want to take odds on whether George Shinn makes the trip? Jilted by the Hornets two years ago, Charlotte's fans will be out for blood in their first home game against their former tenants. The Bobcats could go 1-81 this year and nobody in the Queen City would care as long as they win this game. Which is good in a way, because they might actually end up going 1-81.
December 20: Washington at Golden State
This one will be doubling as the Warriors' old-timers game. Washington, fielding much of the Golden State team from 2001-02, travels to the Bay to meet the new-look Warriors who have mostly been drafted or acquired since then. With Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison comprising three-fifths of the starting lineup, the Wizards need only trade for Bobby Sura and Erick Dampier to make the transition complete. For added effect, my sources in D.C. say they'll bring in recently dispatched Eric Musselman on a one-game contract to coach and lure Mookie Blaylock out of retirement.
December 25: Miami at L.A. Lakers, ABC
ABC kicks off their national TV schedule with a doozy, the much-anticipated battle between two former teammates who said all the right things while obviously hating each other for years. Better yet, it takes center stage before a frothing Staples Center crowd so excited for the contest that many will show up by the end of the first quarter.
I'm referring, of course, to the long-awaited grudge match between Rasual and Caron Butler. Still smarting from years of being confused as brothers when both played for the Heat, the two 6-foot-7 forwards will stage a winner-take-all battle to prove once and for all who is the more forgettable role player.
January 22: Boston at Atlanta, NBA TV
Warriors fans might be having flashbacks on Dec. 20.
Mitchell Layton/NBAE via Getty Images
Strike up the band -- it's the Hawks' lone national telecast of the season! And better yet, it's against Boston, because, y'know, after finishing eight games behind the Celtics for the eighth seed in the East, everybody on the Hawks really wants a piece of these guys. At least they might if anyone besides the mascot was left from last year's team. On the bright side, the schedule-makers put this game on a Saturday night. I had figured the Hawks' TV appearance would be scheduled at a less convenient time, like, say, during the Super Bowl, or perhaps at 7 a.m. on New Year's morning.
February 24: New York at Philadelphia, TNT
This game is one of the centerpieces of the NBA's "Rivalry Week", which is unofficially subtitled, "We needed a ploy to keep people interested between All-Star weekend and the playoffs." Just a suggestion to the commish for future Rivalry Weeks: You might want to involve teams that are actually rivals.
Instead, the week includes games between fierce enemies like the Rockets and Spurs (um, okaaaaaay ...), the Cavs and Pacers (huh?) and, of course, the Knicks and Sixers. And the stakes will be raised because by this time, the two will be locked in a bitter contest to see who can win the Atlantic Division at 37-45. These two, er, rivals, haven't met in a playoff series since 1989, and the Sixers don't have a single ex-Knick on their roster. In fact, just for kicks, you could call up a Knicks fans, ask who his/her team's biggest rival is, and see how many teams get named before the Sixers. I'm guessing they'd rank somewhere between the Kentucky Colonels and the Dixie Chicks.
March 15: Utah at Cleveland
Clevelandcelebrates the return of forward Carlos Boozer, who is greeted with a predictable cascade of boos for his backstabbing routine in the offseason. Unbeknownst to most, Boozer's former agent Rob Pelinka is also at the game, working a hot dog stand near section 231 in what can only be described as an Erie coincidence. As for the game itself, it passes without incident until late in the fourth quarter, when LeBron James offers Robert Traylor "some of that Nike scratch" to take a flagrant-2 on Boozer, and the Tractor obliges by flattening the ex-Cav -- stopping only long enough to contemplate the irony of a guy named "Boozer" playing in Utah.
March 19: Utah at Washington, NBA TV
In all seriousness, I need to bring this one up because it's scandalous that the Wizards, who have one of the league's most exciting young teams and have a great chance to be this season's Memphis, don't have a single game on national TV this year. (I exclude the NBA TV games since apparently you can only get that channel if you live in Uzbekistan). Utah doesn't fare much better -- six times on ESPN, none on TNT. Considering these might be two of the league's six division winners (and no, I haven't been sharing the peace pipe with Ricky Williams, but thanks for asking), you'd think they could find more time for them. I mean, c'mon Mr. Stern -- you can find time to get Golden State and the Clippers on TNT, but you can't squeeze these teams in?
March 25: Indiana at Detroit, ESPN
Both teams should be pumped up for this one, since they only have to play four important games between now and June. Seriously, is there any point in even playing the Eastern Conference regular season or the first two rounds of the playoffs? Let's just have Indiana and Detroit play a seven-game series in January and have the winner advance to the Finals. The rest of the Eastern Conference season is only interesting if Jermaine O'Neal or Ben Wallace misplaces a kneecap.
April 20: San Antonio at Minnesota, ESPN
This is perhaps the biggest game of the regular season, as the two favorites to win the Western Conference go head to head in a game that could determine home-court advantage for the playoffs. My crystal ball says the T'wolves will take the lead with seconds left when Michael Olowokandi gets hit in the head by a Kevin Garnett pass and the ball bounces in the basket. But the Spurs will prevail on a last-second 3-pointer by newly acquired Brent Barry -- the shooter they needed a year ago -- propelling San Antonio to its third title in six years. Overcome with emotion, Tim Duncan nearly pumps a fist before getting a hold of himself.