Teams face difficult choices when a player demands a trade
By Jack McCallum
It's "Basketball New Year," or so the NBA tells us in its new marketing campaign for the 2004-05 season. And while there won't be a huge Spalding dropping from a building on Times Square, nor will Dick Clark be counting down the seconds until the referee tosses the first jump-ball, the league did sent out party hats, noise-makers and a desk-sized countdown clock to media members.
With Shaquille O'Neal (Heat) and Tracy McGrady (Rockets) in new uniforms, a 30th team (the expansion Charlotte Bobcats) and a six-division format, the NBA has reason to tout this season as a fresh start. But in other ways it's still business-as-usual. Another defending champ looks an awful lot like it did a year ago and an all-too familiar feud that threatens to derail a title contender has yet to run its full course.
It all gets underway Tuesday night with three contests, highlighted by the Rockets at the Pistons (TNT, 8 p.m. EST). It will be the first chance to see T-Mac and Yao Ming together in a real game, not to mention those gaudy championship rings (reportedly said by some players to be worth $18,000 each) for the Pistons. Here then is a primer on what else to look for in the coming months.
Can the Pistons repeat?
Coach Larry Brown's defending champs return all of their key players, including Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups. They also added former all-star forward Antonio McDyess and Argentinean swingman Carlos Delfino to replace the departed Mehmet Okur (Jazz) and Corliss Williamson (Sixers). But will Rasheed continue to behave now that he's got his fat new contract? And will they continue to heed Brown's call to "play the right way?" The task will be all that much harder now that the Pistons won't be able to sneak up on foes like they did a year ago. "We have to understand that now we're kind of a marked team," Brown said. "Everyone in the league will respect us. ... We have to bring our A game every single night."
Shaq and Kobe, one more time
They now play on opposite coasts, but we haven't heard the last of the Shaq-Kobe Bryant soap opera. Both superstars will be out to show they can lead their teams to success without the other. Shaq is in the best shape in years, and he joins Dwyane Wade in making the Heat a top contender in the East. Kobe has been the leader of the new-look Lakers, organizing offseason team workouts and logging heavy minutes in preseason games. Which player and team do better will be a major story all season, and their first meeting on Christmas Day (with Phil Jackson possibly providing analysis on ABC) promises to be a classic.
A new dynamic duo in Houston
On paper it looks like a dream pairing for the Rockets. Two-time defending NBA scoring champ McGrady joins 7-foot-5 center Yao for a dynamite inside-outside combination. T-Mac, acquired in a trade with the Magic for Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley, just got a new contract extension and wants to restore his image after a lackluster showing in Orlando a year ago. Yao, meanwhile, should be more involved offensively now that Francis and Mobley aren't overdribbling on the perimeter. The Rockets still might need a year to add more depth, but coach Jeff Van Gundy will get them to play team defense and the McGrady/Yao pairing should provide enough offense to make Houston a top contender in the West.
East meets West
Houston's aspirations would get a big boost if Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming are able to forge a beautiful friendship.
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
So much for all that talk about the NBA needing to re-seed the playoffs. The Pistons' championship last year and Shaq's move to Miami have helped balance the competitive scales between the Eastern and Western conferences -- at least at the top. Most analysts believe three teams in the East (Detroit, Indiana and Miami) have a realistic shot at winning the '04-05 NBA title, while four teams can make that claim in the West (San Antonio, Minnesota, Houston and Sacramento). However, the West still boasts far more quality teams overall. The Nuggets, Jazz, Grizzlies, Mavs, Blazers and Suns would all be considered upper division teams in the East. To make it worse, the Hornets actually chose to switch to the West this year (for rivalry reasons) instead of staying in the East where they likely would have been a playoff contender.
Storm clouds on the labor front
The collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players expires this summer, and there is talk of a possible lockout next fall. The NBA is said to be seeking, among other things, a limit on contract lengths (perhaps four years) and a minimum age rule (20). The players are said to want an end to the escrow system and more freedom of movement. Both sides say they want to avoid a work stoppage and will do everything they can to avoid what is happening right now in the NHL. But word around the league is that the two sides are far apart right now, and player reps have been warning the rank-and-file to start saving money. Preliminary negotiations have begun, but it is possible the battle could drag on all season and into the summer.