Five seasons ago, Shaq landed in Miami. He promised silverware, and eventually delivered in ’06 while Dwyane Wade emerged as a superstar. Five years later The Diesel is on the move again, this time to aid LeBron on his quest for his first ring. The Spurs completed their dynasty by winning in ’05 and ’07. KG and Allen finally provided Pierce with help in ’08 and Kobe stepped out from underneath Shaq’s gigantic shadow in ’09. Five seasons ago, the Knicks were chosen to win the Atlantic Division. That failed miserably. The Cavs and Magic were middle of the pack teams in ’04, and are now contenders in ’09. The Spurs are still the Spurs, the Seattle Supersonics changed zip codes and the Hornets drafted that kid from Wake Forest. The Pacers rumbled and crumbled, while the Suns shipped out Marbury and automatically started winning. As the new season approaches, let’s look back five years on Lang’s season preview and gasp and awe at how dramatically the basketball landscape has shifted.—Matt Lawyue
by Lang Whitaker
They never even had a chance to enjoy it. Within days of the Pistons completing their surprising NBA Finals victory over L.A., pretty much all the Lakers who mattered announced they were ready to move on, and the sports media pounced. It set the tone for one crazy NBA summer, in which legitimate superstars were swapping teams like trading cards, a summer in which role players signed hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts.
Of course, with so much movement, it gets hard to predict the future. No matter how great they are, teams can’t just show up and win each night, as the Lakers proved last year. It takes teamwork and chemistry, and those things don’t come for free. This is why, when we look into our platinum ball, we see the Timberwolves and the Pistons in the NBA Finals this season. Both teams posted dominant performances last season, and both rosters are relatively unchanged. Most importantly, each franchise has experienced enough recent hardship and success to know what it takes to make the Finals. Indiana, Miami, San Antonio, Sacto and Denver will all be right there, but it’s not their time right now.
What follows are our fearless predictions for 2004-05, division by new division. And as long as the injury bug doesn’t bite them too seriously, we feel comfortable saying it right now: the Pistons will repeat as Champs. Say it with us…Deee-troit Bas-ket-ball!
For the past few years, proud New York Knicks fans have had to accept the fact that their neighbors across the river were the best the East had to offer. Not anymore.
1. NEW YORK KNICKS: Turns out the fans were right. They chanted “Fire Layden!” for years, and once Scott Layden got driven out of town, look what happened. Isiah Thomas has changed the face of the franchise, although NY is now in more cap trouble than Julian Tavarez. Acquiring guard Jamal Crawford gives the Knicks one of the deepest backcourts in the L, provided Allan Houston’s knees start bending again. And of course, how can we pick against Stephon Marbury? The Knicks win the division, but they lack the frontcourt depth to go far in the playoffs.
2. BOSTON CELTICS: Very quietly, Danny “Fingers” Ainge is turning things around in Boston. Some things we know: Paul Pierce will be his dominant offensive self, Ricky Davis will be sporadically brilliant, and Gary Payton (assuming he doesn’t sit out the season in protest, as he had threatened) should be better than he was last year. On the interior, though, the Celts are still soft, with Mark Blount their best returning player. Raef LaFrentz, we need you! New coach Doc Rivers will induce effort from his team every night, and don’t be surprised to see Al Jefferson put up numbers every once in a while. The leprechauns aren’t dancing just yet, but they’re starting to warm up.
3. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS: Zzzzz. Who would’ve thought that a team built around Allen Iverson could be so boring? The bigger question is, can new boss Jim O’Brien get them to play some defense? Defense? We’re talking about defense? Yeah, defense. New SLAM Rookie Diary keeper Andre Iguodala will provide needed backcourt size, but it’s too bad he can’t play power forward, too.
4. TORONTO RAPTORS: We rank them here for now, but the Raps are the first of two East sleepers this season. Between Vince Carter (assuming he’s still there) and Jalen Rose, the Raptors have ample firepower to outscore most teams in the East. Young buck Chris Bosh continues to impress as he improves, and of course we’re happy to see Rafer Alston earn a serious deal—here’s hoping he continues to justify it. First-time coach Sam Mitchell is an inspired choice to lead the team. One of the L’s most well-rounded former players, Mitchell will finally give Toronto a coach who understands it all. The only thing Toronto has going against it is that Pete Babcock is involved. Hawks fans will understand.
5. NEW JERSEY NETS: How the mighty have fallen. After three straight division titles, the Nets were looking to cut salary, so they traded Kenyon Martin for a pack of gum and Kerry Kittles for some anti-virus software. Jason Kidd could be out until ’05 with knee issues—or be out in Portland, for that matter—and though Alonzo Mourning has talked of coming back, his health remains paramount. Only Richard Jefferson should be happy, having inked a long-term extension over the summer. Still, the Nets appear tattered. We’re about to see Lawrence Frank age 10 years in the next nine months (hey, he might finally look old enough to drink). No sleep ’til Brooklyn, fellas.
Seeing that they’re the defending champs and all, the Detroit Pistons are gonna need to play every game like it’s their last. That shouldn’t be a problem.
1. DETROIT PISTONS: To borrow a line from Jada and Ali, the champ is here. Now the Pistons will go through an entire season with everyone gunning for them. They retained last year’s core of Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed and Ben Wallace. They then added Larry Brown favorite Derrick Coleman, a recovering Antonio McDyess and Argentinian sniper Carlos Delfino, but it’ll be that air-tight defense that will once again carry them to the Finals. Which brings up just one lingering question: Anyone seen Darko?
2. INDIANA PACERS: I thought the Pacers would go all the way last year, and of course, they didn’t. They’ve added instant offense in Stephen “Whooo!” Jackson, but losing Al Harrington could be devastating to what was the League’s deepest bench. If they can avoid the late-season injury bug, if Jamaal Tinsley can maintain all year, if Jermaine O’Neal has another MVP-type season, if Ron Artest keeps his head on straight, if Jonathan Bender steps up and if Reggie Miller finds that lost step, the Pacers will be among the elite. That’s a lot of ifs, though.
3. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: About halfway through last season, the Cavs seemed like they were finally figuring it out. Jeff McInnis and LeBron James worked together like Bush and Cheney, and Carlos Boozer was doing all the Karl Rove work in the paint. They missed the playoffs by a game, but the future looked bright—until summer came, and Boozer skipped town and LeBron became LeBronze. Ouch. But the Cavs are young and will surely bounce back. Drew Gooden was acquired to negate Boozer’s departure, and rookie Luke Jackson will do a little bit of everything. For the Cavs to make the playoffs, they’ll have to stay healthy. This high-wire act is working without a net.
4. MILWAUKEE BUCKS: Hey, where do you think you’re going? Last year’s Bucks were the surprise of the East, getting their hustle on nightly and finishing sixth in the conference. Michael Redd blossomed into an All-Star, and TJ Ford looked like the steal of the Draft until a neck injury put him on the chilling list for the final third of the season. The Bucks lost Damon “Basketball” Jones over the summer, but brought in promising young pg Mo Williams. Their perimeter attack lacks a proven interior complement, though, and they’ve lost the element of surprise that was so, well, surprising last season.
5. CHICAGO BULLS: One of these days, the Bulls will run again. Just don’t look for it to be this year. As bad as the Bulls were last year—and they were really bad, finishing 38 games out of first in the East—their best player from that team is now a New York Knick. Da Bulls spent the summer adding Ben Gordon, Luol Deng and gold-medalist Andres Nocioni, but any future success in The Crilla rests with solid second-year guard Kirk Hinrich and the still unproven young bigs, Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. As the baby Bulls enter their fourth NBA seasons, they’ve reached the tipping point. Which way will they fall?
Turning Shaq loose in the East was bad enough. But letting him play in a division with an expansion team and the team with last year’s worst record? That’s just cruel.
1. MIAMI HEAT: Yeah, we can dig it, Shaq. The Heat were a young, exciting and talented squad last season, and they managed to gel just in time for an impressive playoff run. Now the Diesel has landed, and the Heat automatically become the inaugural favorites for the Southeast Division title. Look for a big year from Eddie Jones, who should be able to spot up and launch wide-open threes all season long. And look for Dwyane Wade to improve on a debut season that was better than pretty much anyone expected. Still, it’s Shaq’s world, and we’re all just living in it. Sure, they may lack frontcourt depth, but as long as the most dominant player in the history of basketball stays healthy, the Heat will be able to lean back and do the Rockaway. Without Shaq, their best interior player becomes Michael Doleac. Yeah.
2. WASHINGTON WIZARDS: Three years ago, the New Jersey Nets came together and shocked the Eastern Conference. Could this be the year for a similar uprising in DC? Over the summer, the Wizards stealthily went out and added offensive maestro Antawn Jamison, who will team with Gilbert Arenas to form an awesome duo on NBA Jams. Kwame Brown looked to finally be figuring things out last season, posting career-high averages in points and rebounds. If Brown continues to improve and the solid supporting cast steps up, look for the Wizards to do some damage in the East.
3. ORLANDO MAGIC: After the Magic put together the worst record in the NBA last year—yeah, Tracy McGrady’s team really did finish 21-61—everyone knew that changes were in order down in O-Town. But surely no one thought that those changes would be so hardcore. Out are T-Mac, Juwan Howard and Drew Gooden, and in comes Francis—thankfully not another hurricane, but three-time All-Star Steve Francis. He’s joined by fellow former Rockets Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato as the keys to the Magic’s latest rebuilding effort. First-round rooks Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson will probably see significant playing time, so we don’t expect big tricks from the Magic right away. They’re on the right track, though.
4. ATLANTA HAWKS: The good news is, it’s all uphill from here. GM Billy Knight spent the summer putting together a roster of athletic guys between 6-5 and 6-9, importing Al Harrington, Antoine Walker, and rookies Josh Smith and Josh Childress. The Hawks are planning long-term, so all things short-term (like the 2004-05 season, for example) aren’t really all that important. Still, Atlanta has assembled an explosive squad. For the Hawks to have a shot at making the playoffs this year, Toine will need to average about 40 points per, and late-summer signee Kenny “Mr. Chibbs” Anderson should be more than happy to assist. Employee No. 8 will get the looks. Toine: You average 40, we promise you a cover.
5. CHARLOTTE BOBCATS: Duh.
With the Spurs, Grizzlies, Mavericks and Rockets waiting to greet them, maybe the Hornets would have been better off staying in Charlotte.
1. SAN ANTONIO SPURS: Welcome to the Division of Death, featuring four very strong teams and the Hornets. The Spurs get the early nod, simply because they have Tim Duncan, whose robotic personality complements his machine-like dominance. Factor in free-agent signee Brent Barry and the improved Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, and the Spurs already have a better roster for Gregg Popovich to draw from. For the Spurs to have a real shot at a title, they’ll need consistent production from Rasho Nesterovic, which is sort of like trying to light a wet match.
2. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: If you saw any of the Olympic basketball competition, you saw Pau Gasol look like the best offensive player in the world. Especially against “Team” USA, Gasol was scoring every time down the floor, drawing fouls and knocking down free throws. Spain appeared to be the gold medal favorite, until they reached the medal round and went out right away. Similarly, the Grizzlies put together a great regular season run last year, then crumbled in the playoffs. This year, they’ll continue to improve, but that big hole in the post will continue to cause them post-season distress—Jake Tsakalidis and Brian Cardinal just aren’t the answer. Still, Jason Williams remains one of the greatest shows on League Pass, and James Posey is criminally undervalued.
3. DALLAS MAVERICKS: Maybe Mark Cuban is the one who needs a benefactor. The Mavs have reloaded more often than Neo, and every year they end up flaming out during the playoffs. This season they’ve lost Steve Nash, Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison, a trio that accounted for 42 ppg, 22 rpg and 15 apg last season. Stepping into that void are the underrated Jason Terry, the enigmatic Erick Dampier and Jerry Stackhouse, who battled injuries throughout the ’03-04 season. They still have key cogs like Mike Finley and Marquis Daniels, but it all rests on the tender ankles of Dirk Nowitzki. As versatile as Dirk has always been—averaging 22 ppg and 9 rpg last year—this is his time to step up and carry the Mavs. If Dirk can do it, maybe Cubes will just give him the million bucks.
4. HOUSTON ROCKETS: Give the Rockets credit for trying. When Tracy McGrady became available, Houston moved heaven and earth to get him, trading away their starting backcourt and a key frontcourt contributor. The pairing of T-Mac and Yao Ming creates one of the most intriguing one-two punches in the NBA, and Juwan Howard always comes to play. But aside from those three, this team is frightfully thin. The FSU Reunion backcourt of Bob Sura and Charlie Ward is fun, but they’re one injury away from scuffling with the Hornets for that final spot in the division. We love Jeff Van Grumpy, but he may need to drop a few Alka-Seltzers into those Diet Cokes this season.
5. NEW ORLEANS HORNETS: Byron, Baron, Jamaal… see you on Bourbon Street, fellas.
Last season, the only thing that kept the Minnesota Timberwolves from the Finals was Shaquille O’Neal. This time, no one should stand in their way.
1. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES: Kevin Garnett has the whole world in his hands, and that includes the Western Conference. For years, the Wolves couldn’t graduate past the first round, and now—especially with Shaq in the East—they can’t be stopped. Over the last two seasons, Wolves VP Kevin McHale has assembled the deepest team in the West. Besides KG, Minnesota will lean on Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell and Wally Szczbabffjeabfjn. They also re-signed defensive specialist Trenton “Household” Hassell and energy guy Troy Hudson, who has apparently recovered from the worst sprained ankle in the history of mankind. Climb aboard KG’s shoulders, fellas. This is the year you finally get to the Finals.
2. DENVER NUGGETS: Forget pyrite. Kiki Vandeweghe went prospecting over the summer and struck gold. The Nuggets took advantage of the fire sale in Jersey and stole Kenyon Martin, giving them a crazy-athletic frontcourt rotation of Kenyon, Marcus Camby and Nenê alongside Carmelo Anthony. The backcourt remains solid, thanks mostly to Andre Miller and Earl Boykins, one of the tougher point guard combos in the L. Voshon Lenard played the bulk of the minutes last year at off guard and wasn’t bad, but the Nuggets could still upgrade here. More than anything else, they need someone to step up and lead. Can Carmelo mature that quickly, or does Kenyon head the takeover?
3. UTAH JAZZ: They crept up on the entire League last year, with a team full of no-names and a graying coach. But no team in the NBA played harder than Utah, and credit for that goes to Jerry Sloan, who pushed all the right buttons. The Jazz never lost faith that they could pull out a win, no matter the opponent. This year they’ve added Carlos Boozer to the mix-tape ready duo of Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Arroyo. And don’t sleep on the outside shooting of Gordan Giricek or the hustle of rookies Kirk Snyder and Kris Humphries. If you’re on the Jazz, you come to play every night. If not, Sloan will find you a nice slice of real estate on the pine. And the wins just keep on coming.
4. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS: It’s a kinder, gentler Portland franchise. Rasheed’s talent and temper were shipped out, and…well, everyone else is still there. But it’s different now, really! The Blazers retained the vastly improved Zach Randolph, but until he learns how to pass out of the double team, the Blazers will continue to rely on the perimeter exploits of Damon Stoudamire, Derek Anderson and Darius Miles. They added Nick Van Exel, giving them the most clutch player in the League. Lost in the shuffle is Shareef Abdur-Rahim, an All-Star in a contract year marooned down the depth chart, where he’ll sit and watch with rookie Sebastian Telfair (who should totally pattern his game after Van Exel). But for all of owner Paul Allen’s Microsoft money, the Blazers’ best center is Joel “Ghostface” Pryzbilla. The Blazing in Portland this year might be of this roster at the trade deadline.
5. SEATTLE SUPERSONICS:—All Alone 34.
With Shaq gone and the Lakers in full makeover mode, the Sacramento Kings should have their best shot at a title since—well, every other year.
1. SACRAMENTO KINGS: Everyone thought the Kings would’ve at least made the Finals by now, right? Well, maybe until this summer, when things got weird. Peja asked for a trade, Chris Webber either did or did not criticize Peja, Vlade took his stubble back to the Lakers, and then they brought in Greg Ostertag to bumble in the post. They’ve still got Bibby and Bobby, and the Divac departure frees up more time for Brad Miller. Can this team get any better, or are they destined to post another 55-win season and exit in the conference finals? Hey, at least they can crash in the Real World Suite at the Palms in Vegas if it all falls down.
2. LOS ANGELES LAKERS: After a year of questions in Hell-ay, we finally have answers. Kobe Bryant is a free man. Shaq and Phil are gone. Coach K is still in Durham. Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant all need West Coast housing. This franchise feels so different, they should get new uniforms. Whether or not the celebs come out to support the new-look Lake Show, it’s now Kobe’s team, for better or worse. Rudy T. will have his hands full trying to blend these parts into a cohesive whole, especially with Gary Payton and Derek Fisher both fleeing. The Lakers got their extreme makeover. It’s just that they didn’t look that bad to begin with.
3. PHOENIX SUNS: When the Suns traded Starbury, they said it had nothing to do with finances, that the team was looking to improve. Soon after, the franchise was sold and new ownership endorsed this summer’s big signing of Steve Nash, who joins Quentin Richardson, Joe Johnson and Shawn Marion, plus interior beast Amare Stoudemire, who averaged a quiet 21 and 9 last year. Now, for the Suns to really rise in the standings, they’ll have to unearth defense, a bench and a center.
4. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: They were thisclose. Kobe had narrowed his choices down to the Clippers and Lakers, and the Clips had even agreed to play a few games in Anaheim to keep him happy. It would’ve been the beginning of a new era, a franchise reborn. But with one announcement from KB8 spokesman Jim Gray, the dream was shattered; the Clips were still the Clips. The good news is, they’ve still got Elton Brand, who puts up 20 and 10 in his sleep, and they went to the Nets garage sale and came away with Kerry Kittles for nothing. They drafted raw rookie pg Shaun Livingston, and let QRich (and Brandy) set up shop in Phoenix. In the end, the Clippers remain the Clippers: perpetually talented, perpetually young, and seemingly stuck on a treadmill to nowhere.
5. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: In his first go-round as an NBA exec, Chris Mullin has brought in vets like Dale Davis, Derek Fisher and Eduardo Najera, as well as rookie banger Andris Biedrins. But do you really want to hand a rebuilding franchise over to first-time NBA coach Mike Montgomery? The last college coach to successfully make that jump was…OK, so it hasn’t happened in our lifetime. Maybe Monty will break the trend. Or maybe not.