five story lines to watch
Can Shaq win a ring for the King?
Is Cleveland big enough for two of the largest and most recognizable players in the NBA? The Cavaliers hope so, after pulling off the biggest move of the offseason and forcing the "tropical" Shaquille O'Neal to dwell in a cold-weather city for the first time in his career. O'Neal joins forces with LeBron James, the league's reigning most valuable player, who is missing some valuable hardware and a ring before he can officially receive his crown. O'Neal has been paired with a phenomenal perimeter talent in each of his stops. He reached the NBA Finals with Penny Hardaway in Orlando, won three championships with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles and captured another title with Dwyane Wade in Miami. He never won a playoff series with two-time MVP Steve Nash in Phoenix, missing the playoffs altogether for just the second time in his career last season. O'Neal was unable to share the spotlight with Hardaway, Bryant or Wade, leaving each on less-than-amicable terms, but at 37, O'Neal said he is content with being James's caddie. If he can win a "ring for the King," will it be enough to keep James in Cleveland beyond 2010?
2.The circus returns to Los Angeles
Something was missing from the Lakers' championship run last season -- there was no sideshow or soap-opera drama. The major story line of the NBA Finals was Bryant's facial expressions. Boring! The Lakers ditched the tranquillity for some good old-fashioned absurdity when they signed Ron Artest, above, one of the league's best defensive players and most interesting personalities. Artest already delivered a head-scratching moment by picking his jersey number (37) based on the number of weeks that Michael Jackson's "Thriller" album was No. 1. Lamar Odom married reality television personality Khloe Kardashian to ensure that the Lakers really are tabloid fodder.
3. Birth of the big-spending Spurs
Not only did the San Antonio Spurs fail to keep their streak of odd-numbered championships alive last season, but they also failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time with Tim Duncan healthy. Realizing that Duncan is aging and Manu Ginóbili's ankle has become too unreliable, Spurs owner Peter Holt opened up his wallet, laughed at the recession, and decided to do whatever it took to put the Spurs closer to a fifth championship. They traded for Richard Jefferson, signed Antonio McDyess, above, and drafted DeJuan Blair, a roster overhaul that resulted in a $10 million luxury tax bill for the small-market Spurs.
4. From the big three to the old four
Kevin Garnett's right knee injury nixed the Celtics' pursuit of an NBA best 18th NBA championship last season. It also placed more urgency on the aging Garnett (33), Ray Allen (34), both shown above, and Paul Pierce (32) to win a second championship together. The Celtics added some unofficial Garnett insurance in the form of the 35-year-old Rasheed Wallace, who remains one of the best defensive big men in the league and adds another hungry veteran to the mix. Rajon Rondo, Glen Davis and Kendrick Perkins still provide the core for the future, but Garnett, Allen, Pierce and Wallace cannot afford to look beyond this season. This might be their last -- and best -- chance at another title.
5.Could Portland be another Orlando?
The Orlando Magic made a shocking run to the NBA Finals last season, winning the Eastern Conference with an unconventional playing style and a dominant big man. Orlando also benefited from Kevin Garnett's bum right knee and a matchup advantage over Cleveland. But can Portland be another opportunistic small-market team, led by a young star, to shake up the NBA power structure and force the rest of the league to take notice? The Trail Blazers have a good chance to be a surprise team after quietly building a solid contender around the talents of Brandon Roy, above, and by signing Andre Miller this summer.
-- Michael Lee