If you're looking for the one franchise forced to deal most directly with the NBA's new landscape, go down to the Big Easy and check out the New Orleans Hornets.
Entering their third season in Louisiana, the Hornets have switched coaches twice, are coping with trade demands by their best player and this offseason were sent packing to the Western Conference's new Southwest Division. That last move changed them from perennial playoff contender to postseason long shot.
"They couldn't have put us in a tougher, more competitive division," said Allan Bristow, the Hornets' general manager. His team will battle the likes of title contenders San Antonio, Dallas and Houston -- and, taking Memphis into account, all four teams in the Hornets' new division finished with more wins last season than New Orleans.
High-profile trades such as Shaquille O'Neal from Los Angeles to Miami and Tracy McGrady from Orlando to Houston, fractured alliances within powerhouse franchises such as the Lakers and New Jersey Nets and a realignment of the league along geographical lines are expected to cause seismic shifts as the new season opens tonight.
Personnel moves aside, perhaps the most long-term change the league faced this offseason was the decision, made in April 2003, to realign into six five-team divisions with the arrival of the expansion Charlotte Bobcats. "The league was becoming too unwieldy," NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said.
The move will have a nominal effect on playoff races -- eight teams from each conference will still qualify; division winners earn home-court. But it does promise to forge new divisional rivalries even as it diminishes others. No longer will the Los Angeles Lakers vie for the Pacific division crown with the Portland Trail Blazers, now in the new Northwest division with Denver, Minnesota, Utah and Seattle. Regular season duels between the Miami Heat and New York Knicks, two of the East's top teams during the 1990s, will take on less meaning with the Heat in the Southeast.
"When I got here, there was a very heated rivalry with the Lakers," said Portland Coach Maurice Cheeks, in his fourth season. "It's been something major since I've been here. But now Shaq's not here."
Nothing shook up the game more this offseason than the Lakers' trade of O'Neal to Miami for Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Caron Butler and a future first-round draft pick. By obtaining O'Neal, with his three NBA championship rings, a most valuable player title (2000) and a career-scoring average of 27.1 points per game, the East takes a giant step toward matching the talent level of the West, which has seen its teams win five of the past six NBA championships.
"We get Shaq back in the East and now the East is starting to come back," said Boston Celtics Coach Doc Rivers. "I think the West is still more talented than the East, but the East is catching up."
Some of O'Neal's critics doubt his durability or whether he possesses the same skill level he once did. At 32, O'Neal has missed 15 games in each of the last three seasons. Former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, one of O'Neal's biggest supporters, said in his recent book that O'Neal is not the same player he was during the Lakers' championship streak (2000, '01, '02).
But O'Neal has reportedly dropped more than 20 pounds and replaced it with muscle in an effort to prove his doubters in the Lakers' front office wrong. Even if he's good for only two-thirds of his former production, the 7-foot-1, 340-pound O'Neal would still be the East's best big man and a force powerful enough to hand the Heat instant elite status, according to many NBA observers.
Realignment was another lucky break for the Heat, which went 42-40 last season.
In the reorganization, Miami had the good fortune of ending up in the newly created Southeast with the Bobcats, Washington Wizards, Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic. The Heat is the only member that earned a postseason birth last season, and no team in this group has a big man who can contend with O'Neal.
The operatic breakup of the Lakers, which saw O'Neal and guard Gary Payton traded, and Jackson ushered toward the exit, overshadowed the dismantling of the Nets in New Jersey.