The NBA's transition didn't end with one bizarre, abbreviated season. It seems the entire league is rebuilding. New rules have been instituted to legislate a more aesthetic product, and five new arenas will open this season. Too bad it isn't that easy to produce a few more marquee teams and players the general sporting public finds irresistible, both of which the NBA needs.
It's the kind of transition the league hasn't seen since the late 1970s. It's almost unthinkable that Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin are all past 35, aching, declining and clearly on the way out. David Robinson, Scottie Pippen and Reggie Miller are 34. We could be on the verge of the most significant NBA exodus since the period when Elgin Baylor (1972), Wilt Chamberlain ('73), Lenny Wilkens ('73), Oscar Robertson ('74) and Jerry West ('74) all retired.
As soon as midseason the NBA could be the league of Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Stephon Marbury, Keith Van Horn, Michael Doleac, Steve Francis, Jason Williams, Jason Kidd and most certainly Tim Duncan, if it's not his league already.
Sooner than later, it should be a league that moves from old to young, defense to offense, from rasslin' to ballet, and certainly from East to West.
Never before have we seen the NBA map so absurdly tilted to the West. I can make the argument rather easily that the top four teams in the NBA are in the Western Conference--Portland, San Antonio, the Lakers and Minnesota. The league champion, San Antonio, is in the West. The best team, Portland, is in the West. The most entertaining team in the league, Sacramento, is out there. And so is the league's most notable psychology experiment: Phil Jackson trying to tame the Lakers.
So what does that leave in the East? Teams with expectations bigger than their talent (Miami, Philadelphia, New Jersey), teams with too much age (Indiana), teams with chemistry issues (New York, Charlotte), teams that may have to start over again (Detroit), teams that have too many new parts to know what to expect (Wizards, Orlando, Atlanta). The East has Vince Carter in Toronto, but talent-wise it's all downhill from there.
Normally, one would expect the conference finalist to be the conference favorite. But every team in the East is flawed, and that starts with the Knicks. Jeff Van Gundy still doesn't much like two of his three best players--Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby. But perhaps an even bigger problem is that Ewing still is trying to recover from the Achilles' injury that forced him to the sideline during the playoffs last spring. He may be out until January. And when he does return, the Knicks wonder whether he'll be willing to change his role to fit in, as Robinson did so successfully in San Antonio. All the folks who believe the Knicks don't need Ewing should remember the team was 8-3 in last year's playoffs with him, 4-5 without him.
Miami has been eliminated from the playoffs in the first round each of the last two seasons and hasn't made one significant personnel upgrade. It's still Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway playing with a bunch of spare parts. Pat Riley wears out his players trying to win 50-plus games in the regular season, and by the playoffs they're toast. With no new reinforcements, Miami probably will settle into a familiar pattern: great in the regular season, inadequate in the playoffs.
Putting any faith in Charlotte means believing Derrick Coleman and Anthony Mason, who play the same position, can coexist without drama. There aren't any real chemistry issues in Indiana, but it's difficult to figure how the aging Pacers can win this year's marathon when they couldn't break through in last year's 50-game sprint.
The top Eastern teams are flawed enough that teams such as the Wizards, Nets, Pistons, Bucks and Hawks probably figure they have a chance to elbow their way into serious contention. They don't.
The Wizards should be a lot better than they've been the last two years, what with Ike Austin aboard to play in the low post. If Austin can stay healthy and play beside the power forward combo of Michael Smith and Aaron Williams, the Wizards finally should be able to hold their own physically with the Knicks, Pacers and Heat. It's not often the Wizards have a full complement of players, with adequate backups at most every position. That new coach Gar Heard can bring a rejuvenated Tracy Murray, rookie Richard Hamilton and Williams off the bench is fairly impressive for a team that was so noncompetitive last season.
Even with the improved depth, some of the issues for the Wizards are familiar ones: rebounding, defense, health. If the starting five can stay on the court all season, the Wizards could finish sixth or seventh in the conference.
None of those first six or seven teams is anywhere near as good as Portland or San Antonio, in that order.
The Spurs will have trouble holding off Portland, which with Pippen, Steve Smith, Damon Stoudamire, Arvydas Sabonis and Brian Grant has the best starting five in the league. Rasheed Wallace, Detlef Schrempf, Jermaine O'Neal and Greg Anthony give the Trail Blazers the best bench in the league, too. Smith says the only deeper teams he has seen are the Olympic Dream Teams. Mike Dunleavy shouldn't need a whip and chair to manage his players now that Isaiah Rider is in Atlanta and Pippen is on hand to run the team on the court, but juggling minutes and massaging egos still will be taxing.
It is a team with quick, versatile players who should thrive under the new rules designed to force ball movement and eliminate much of the pushing and shoving that uglied the game increasingly in recent seasons.
And if the NBA and its officials can create a cleaner, more athletic game where skill is valued more than muscle, it will go a long way to facilitate the transition that in short time will dramatically change the league as we've known it.