by Marcel Mutoni

First off, major thanks and shout-outs to everyone who agreed to be interviewed for the Team Previews. It’s much appreciated; you guys and gals were great!

Now, it’s my turn to chime in on this upcoming season (anyone not watching TNT’s doubleheader tonight is no friend of mine) by revealing the top ten stories and subplots I’m looking forward to following the most:

10-How long will Isiah survive in NYC? The potential for hilarity here, is quite simply, off the charts. Zeke is already calling out his doubters (see: Anthony, Greg) after his team’s performance in the PRESEASON. I sincerely hope he lasts the whole season, if only because it’ll give me a reason to read the NY Post each and every day.

(Oh, and of course, there’s the whole Renaldo thing that I gotta keep an eye on. Matter of fact, according to Suns Gossip, that’s who I’m going as for Halloween. The Internet scares me.)

9-The Amare Factor: I’ll be honest, I don’t think he’s making the full recovery. Call it an educated guess. But that doesn’t mean I won’t watch him any chance that I get. Here’s the thing about Amare (and ultimately, the Suns): If he’s back to 100%, the Suns win the title. Write it down, underline it three times, tell a friend, it’s a wrap. I don’t care what anyone else in the league does, the Phoenix Suns, with a healthy and dominant Amare Stoudemire would be the best team in the Association. Of course, if he doesn’t make a full recovery, they don’t go any further than the Western Conference Finals. Hell, they might not even make it that far this time around: Nash isn’t getting any younger; the Mavs are still right there; the Lakers gave them a scare last season and have gotten better; Duncan and the Spurs are itching to get back to the Finals; and the Clippers are one free agent move away from being a title contender. But if Amare comes all the way back, none of what was written above matters; the Suns win the ‘chip.

8-Carmelo in Vegas: ‘Bout damn time! Barring injury, Anthony is going to be an All-Star this year, and should remain one for as long as he wants it. He should have been one last year (26.5ppg, 4.9rbp), but it wasn’t in the cards. People had started forgetting about him for a minute after he came into the 04/05 season a bit heavy, and of course there was the whole ‘Snitching’ incident. The future of the league was clearly in the hands of Wade and LeBron, and ‘Melo’s place was in question. So, what does the Syracuse product do? He goes to work. He beasted out over the summer and came into 05/06 lean and mean; he became the most clutch shooter in the Association (leading the league in game-winning shots); got along with the cantankerous George Karl; and led his team to the playoffs. It’ll be good to see ‘Melo rewarded for his maturation as a ballplayer and a person by getting an invite to Sin City.

7-Houston: T-Mac’s body broke down (plus he dealt with some tough personal issues), Yao was bitten by the injury bug, and the bags under Jeff Van Gundy’s eyes became heavier. It was a disastrous season in Houston. Now, Tracy says that he feels physically great, and Yao should make a full recovery from the cut-up he got on his feet. If those two are healthy, there’s no reason that team shouldn’t make the playoffs. The additions of Shane Battier and Bonzi Wells don’t hurt either.

(It was interesting to see McGrady’s name no longer being mentioned among the game’s giants last season. Kobe had a silly year, Iverson continued to put up huge numbers, Lebron was an MVP candidate, and Wade led the Heat to the title. McGrady was kind of a forgotten man. Did people forget that dude has unlimited range, that he can lock up just about any guard and forward in the NBA when motivated, that he almost single-handedly beat a loaded Mavs team in the 2005 playoffs? If he’s healthy (and that’s a big IF), Mac is one of the coldest players on the planet. In case you need a reminder, click here. Don’t sleep on the sleepy-eyed one.)

6-Historic Performances: Last season we had Kobe’s 81 (and the 62 in three quarters against Dallas), Lebron’s constant flirtation with the triple double, guys dropping 50 like it was nothing, and several other eye-popping performances. I see no reason for this trend to stop. The NBA has basically given the middle finger to defensive players, especially on the perimeter (just ask the Mavs in charge of checking D-Wade in the Finals). Scoring is up, and everyone is happy. Well, everyone but the defensive players.

(My hope is for Dwight Howard to get a quadruple double this year. I don’t think I’m asking for too much here.)

5-Rick Kamla on NBA TV: If you’re not already watching his fantasy show, I implore you to do so. Just trust me. He’s by far my favorite NBA television personality at the moment, and I’m not even that big a fan of fantasy sports. There’s just something about Rick. My old roommate Stephane and I would watch his show practically every night around 1 a.m. and laugh ourselves silly while listening to Kamla lovingly explain the fantasy value of Shawn Marion and berate his callers for making the wrong decisions in their leagues.

I love Rick’s show (NBA TV Fantasy Hoops) for many reasons, but perhaps my favorite aspect of it is that he shouts pretty much throughout the whole thing. But it’s not done in the ugly and condescending manner that a schmuck like Stephen A. Smith does it; it is entirely without pretension. He’s just a stat geek with a passion for the game, and I respect that.

4-Tim Thomas: Not only my least favorite ballplayer, but quite possibly, the most loathsome athlete I’ve ever had to watch. Everything about him bugs me. From the laziness, the smugness, to the cancerous effect he had on some of my favorite teams (namely, the Bucks of the Big Three era), the fact that he always seems to land on a good team, right down the hideous Tony Yayo-esque celebration after big baskets. And yet, I watch him whenever I get a chance. With the hope that something bad happens to him. Sick, I know. Let’s just move on.

3-CP3: The last true point guard. It’s like watching someone who got lost on his way to an ESPN Classic game from the mid-80s and found himself on the court today. An absolute joy to watch: the change of pace in the open floor, the crisp passes that find teammates in perfect stride, the fearless takes to the cup, and the simple (no silliness; just straight business) yet deadly one-on-one moves in the half-court offense. Hornets fans should count their lucky stars that they get to watch this guy every day.

2-Artest Watch: You just know he’s going to do something memorable, the question is what. And when. It’s like the rising of the sun; it’s inevitable. I can’t wait until he returns to the Palace in January. Or his visit to Indy in February. Or just some random day when he wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and takes it out on someone. Take your pick, Ron. Don’t let me (us) down.

1-The Debate: Who’s the best player, pound for pound, in the game? This season marks yet another opportunity for someone to step up and claim Jordan’s old crown. After Mike brushed aside Bryon Russell and the Utah Jazz for his sixth title, and then rode off into the sunset, numerous players have stepped up to claim the title of top dog. Everyone from Iverson, Garnett, Shaquille, Nash, Duncan, Kobe and Kidd has had the title for a season, a playoff series, or a string of games even, but no one has really held on to it for any prolonged amount of time. Can anyone this season step up and be considered the best in the game without argument? Only time will tell.

We’ll be watching.