The NBA needs more than a dress code to make things better. The league could use a great team full of colorful characters with a crazy coach. It could use a rivalry in metropolitan New York between the talented Nets and the finally relevant Knicks. The NBA needs Kobe and Kevin Garnett to be in playoff contention, Shaq to be healthy, more teams scoring 110 points a game like the Suns did last season. And as always, in a league driven by and perhaps even slavishly devoted to outsize personalities and performers, the NBA needs stars to bubble up in a hurry.

The season begins tonight with Phil Jackson back, Ron Artest back, Amare Stoudemire out and the San Antonio Spurs trying to defend their title in a suddenly weakened Western Conference. After seven seasons of superior basketball being played out west, the best players, the best teams (after the Spurs) and the best stories are all in the East.

And we might as well start in South Florida with the Miami Heat, where the struggle for playing time isn't nearly as interesting as the struggle for coaching time. Stan Van Gundy got Miami within one fluke Dwyane Wade injury of the NBA Finals. Yet, Pat Riley gave the team something approaching a makeover when a tweaking was in order and came closer than he'll admit to dumping Van Gundy so that he, Riley, can resume his coaching duties. Already, Van Gundy may have been undermined.

The formula of Shaq plus Wade worked so well, you have to wonder how long it will take for the Heat to incorporate newcomers Jason "White Chocolate" Williams, who needs the ball, Antoine Walker, who needs the ball, and Gary Payton, who needs the ball. Normally, if it takes a team 20 to 30 games to find its groove, there's no problem; the NBA season is interminable. But do we really think Riley will allow a team he built to go, say, 16-14, without snaking Van Gundy and finding his way to the bench? Ah, no.

But that's part of the beauty of watching Miami this season. How quickly will these players be able to play together efficiently and how many games can they win, particularly if Shaq and Wade are healthy? (Wade, by the way, will be the league's most valuable player in 2006.)

And finally, there's plenty of competition in the East for the crown. Some folks are picking the Indiana Pacers because Artest is back from his 2004 suspension. Given that Artest seems overly interested in producing girl groups and pay-per-view boxing matches with Ben Wallace, I think having Artest back is going to sink the Pacers sooner or later, especially since that team won't have the calming effect or clutch shooting of the retired Reggie Miller.

The two-time finalist Pistons, now playing for ex-Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, lost Larry Brown, which will be extremely difficult to overcome. Rasheed Wallace, a Tar Heel, responded to Brown, a Tar Heel . . . but who else? The best news for the Pistons is that Darko Milicic started to show in the preseason why he was taken No. 2 in the NBA draft a couple of years ago. You think the league, always thinking globally, couldn't use a young Eastern European star?

After Miami, Indiana and Detroit, there's no shortage of legit challengers, starting with New Jersey, which ought to run right to the top of the Atlantic Division, what with Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter all healthy to start the season. After that, there's a group of teams -- the Wizards, Bulls, 76ers, Celtics, Cavaliers, Knicks -- that should provide the other four playoff teams.

The next logical step for the Wizards, after being swept out of the second round by Miami, is to make a much better showing in the second round. Larry Hughes's defection to Cleveland has to help LeBron James, but it shouldn't hurt the Wizards. The threesome of Caron Butler, Chucky Atkins and Antonio Daniels is better than Hughes. Coach Eddie Jordan now has much more flexibility in how he wants to use Gilbert Arenas, who absolutely is one of those emerging stars. Washington's problem is not having enough front-court size and strength to get past Miami, Detroit or Indiana.

Of the second-tier Eastern Conference teams, the one that appears most likely to break through is Philly, which does have some size with 7-footers Sam Dalembert and Steven Hunter, both of whom are 25 years old. The Sixers have an electrifying player perhaps on the verge of stardom in Andre Iguodala, of course Allen Iverson, and a really good coach in Mo Cheeks, who must feel he is in heaven, having been released from the nuthouse that is the Portland Trail Blazers.

There will be a ton of talk about the Knicks simply because they have Larry Brown and Eddy Curry, the 7-footer with the feet of a gymnast, fabulous hands, the rebounding numbers of 5-foot-3 Muggsy Bogues, and a heart that scared the Bulls into trading him. The Knicks will lead everybody except Miami in headlines, but will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs, even with Brown and his roster in excess of $100 million.

All of these teams are more provocative than anybody out west except the Spurs, who seemingly are a mortal lock for the No. 1 seed because they added Nick Van Exel and Michael Finley to a championship roster of mostly players in their prime (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) still getting better.

What really would have created some anticipation for the league would have been a slightly improved Phoenix Suns team going after the Spurs. But the primary fear now, for the entire league and not just the Suns, is that Stoudemire, after microsurgery on his knee, is going to miss the entire season.

Talk about big losers since the season ended. The Suns traded Quentin Richardson to the Knicks, dealt Joe Johnson to Atlanta when it was obvious he was going to jump as a free agent, and now have lost their best player and probably the brightest new star in the West, Stoudemire. It's a killer, really, especially when you realize the Kings are no longer the proven contenders they were for six years, when the Lakers have less talent than the Clippers, and when Garnett and the T-Wolves could again miss the playoffs.

Houston and Dallas are nice teams, and watch for Yao Ming to take a big step forward. But they're no threat to the Spurs. If you're looking for sleepers in the West, consider the Warriors making the playoffs. And the Denver Nuggets could be a tough out for the Spurs in the race to the conference title.

So here's the way it should all tumble out after 82 games: The Western Conference teams (in order, 1 through 8) will be San Antonio, Denver, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Memphis, Golden State and Sacramento. The Eastern Conference teams will be Miami, Detroit, New Jersey, Indiana, Philly, Washington, Chicago and Cleveland.

Miami, still playing for Stan Van Gundy, will top the Spurs in the NBA Finals.