Plenty of Possibilities To Bounce Around

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The nightmarish spring and summer aren't entirely forgotten. Most of the iconic players, the ones who drive the league's popularity, either didn't make the playoffs or were dumped quickly. Lack of interest in the championship series was measurable. The stench of the referee scandal remains. The No. 1 draft pick with the irresistibly sweet demeanor is injured and out for the season. Unarguably, the NBA is in need of a rebound.

The ideal bounce back would be to have a team for the ages with an all-time superstar, a nutty supporting cast and an overbearing coach dominate the league. An overpowering team with a touch of arrogance is good for what ails any league. But in the absence of such a rock star team, what might provide the NBA some relief and legitimate interest in the 2007-08 season is a dead scramble from opening night tonight through season's end.

That's something the NBA actually can do: trot out at least a half-dozen teams with a reasonable chance to get to the NBA Finals, and more than a dozen teams that appear to be a serious threat to reach the conference finals.

The competitive story lines are usually easy to identify in the NBA. Very often it's not difficult at all to forecast at the end of October just who'll be standing in mid-June, but not this year. It's fair to wonder on the eve of this new season who'll quarterback all that talent in Boston, whether this group of Dallas Mavericks is too emotionally scarred from successive playoff meltdowns to ever be great, whether the Phoenix Suns will ever stumble into some good luck, whether the Detroit Pistons have one more run in them, whether the Chicago Bulls can win with a whole bunch of very good players but without a truly great one, and whether the San Antonio Spurs can do the only thing they've never done: repeat.

Once again, the three best teams in the league reside in the West: San Antonio, Phoenix and Dallas. Take your pick. Which one gets through to the Finals will pretty much depend on health and, well, chance -- such as who loses a player or two to suspension or something else equally unforeseeable. It's virtually impossible to separate the three of them, although it's difficult to see Dallas recovering completely from the trauma of the postseason losses to Miami and Golden State.

What just might push the Suns over the top is the arrival of Grant Hill, one of those perfect marriages of player and situation. Hill will play with Steve Nash, but even more importantly, he will take over some of the playmaking duties that will finally allow Nash to rest or play off the ball. Not only will Maryland's D.J. Strawberry make the squad, he already has earned the vets' respect as a kid who knows how to play some serious defense. The Suns talk openly of how much they want to win a championship, and need to win a championship. To that end, Nash, 33, has to stay healthy, as does Hill, 35.

Amare Stoudemire is the early pick here for MVP. He and the Suns don't want to be what Sacramento was from 2001 to '04, which is to say the most lavishly skilled, totally selfless, fabulously entertaining team that never won.

Three teams out West -- Utah, Denver and Houston -- think they can crack, or at least join, the big three. Only one can: Houston. Okay, the Nuggets are loaded with an again-healthy Kenyon Martin teaming up with Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony and Marcus Camby. But the Nuggets have one huge problem: not nearly enough outside shooting. What should push Houston up a couple of notches in the West is Rick Adelman's offense (featuring Yao Ming as a passer and shooter in the high post) and the addition of Luis Scola, the 245-pound Argentine import who is the best power forward complement Yao has had. Adelman never wins it all, but his teams play beautiful offense (Portland, Sacramento) and get very, very close, which is a big step forward for Houston's Tracy McGrady, who finally will win a playoff round.

For a change, the East will have professional basketball worth watching. Okay, not in Philly, Atlanta, Charlotte or Indianapolis. But the Celtics will be better than at any time since Larry's Bird's last great teams of the late 1980s. The Bulls, unless they trade away half their team for Kobe Bryant, will be better than at any time since Michael Jordan's final championship team 10 years ago. Washington, defensively challenged as it is, should be better than at any time since Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes led the franchise to the Finals 30 years ago. Even the Knicks now have the talent to make a jump.

The same can't be said about the Cavaliers and Heat, not from where we sit now. Not only did the Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers not get a needed talent infusion to help LeBron James, they still haven't signed two of their top eight from last season: Sasha Pavlovic and Anderson Varejao. And if acquiring Ricky Davis is Miami's big move, the Heat could slip a couple of notches, too.

Finally, it appears possible, maybe even probable, that the Wizards should finish ahead of Miami and win the Southeast Division. The Wizards were already fourth in the NBA in scoring last year and certainly will be more potent this season. Their preseason obsession has been defense, but players around the league laugh at the notion that these Wizards, who live to score, are going to remake themselves in the image of Buddy Ryan.

With the Wizards, and to a greater extent Chicago, we're talking about a core group of players getting better. With Boston we're looking at a sea change. The legitimate question about the Celtics, as motivated as Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are, is whether they'll actually play together or simply take turns. The person who will determine that, largely, is the point guard, the talented but completely unproven Rajon Rondo, who barely cracks 20 percent from three-point range and hasn't shown the instincts that suggest he's a great distributor.

Somewhere in the middle, operating with upheaval but in mild transition, are the Pistons. The starters -- Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess -- are the same. But Joe Dumars has spent the last couple of offseasons adding young blood, most noticeably explosive forward Jason Maxiell and rookie guard Rodney Stuckey, who could help come spring.

The most fascinating team in the East, and perhaps in the entire league, could be the Bulls, who will try to disprove the notion that you have to have an iconic player to win an NBA championship. The Pistons did it in 2004, but that Detroit team and the Sonics in 1979 are the only teams in league history to win without an obvious Hall of Fame player. On one hand, the Bulls appear loaded with Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon at guard, Luol Deng, Tyrus Thomas, Andres Nocioni and Joe Smith at forward, Ben Wallace and rookie Joakim Noah in the hole. But the Bulls appear, by historical standards, to be missing the player who takes over games in May and June, which is why the Lakers have been calling offering Bryant every day the last week.

At the end of 82 games and another interminable regular season, the Eastern Conference playoff teams should be, in order of seeding, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Cleveland, Miami, Toronto, New Jersey, with the Celtics and Bulls playing in the conference finals. The Western Conference playoff teams will be Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Utah, New Orleans, Golden State, with the Suns and Spurs meeting once more, this time in the conference finals.

Finally, in mid-June a pair of star-studded teams will be standing, the Suns and Celtics, two teams that can produce a level of basketball worthy of a championship series, with the trophy going to the team that has known only heartbreak in the postseason, the Phoenix Suns.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company