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8 Upper

Court and Spark

By Tom Scocca | Posted 11/3/1999

Eight months from now, in June, the San Antonio Spurs are going to win another NBA title. I just want to get that out of the way. The Spurs' Tim Duncan, who won't even turn 24 till April, was already better than everyone else in the league last year, and he'll be stronger and more experienced this time around. Barring catastrophe, the defending champions will defend.

Generally, this sort of situation puts a damper on basketball. There are simpleminded sports, such as football and boxing, in which having a prohibitive favorite can be part of the appeal. But basketball, like baseball, is best when there's an interesting plot line. Make the season a foregone conclusion—as in the meat-grinder certainty of the Yankees' triumph in the World Series, or the long, dull reign of the Chicago Bulls—and everything that's not a direct part of the march of the champions comes off as a listless and futile sideshow.

But this year's NBA sideshows might be as compelling as the main attraction. The Spurs may be squarely and competently on top of things, but the rest of the league doesn't seem ready yet to sink back into its Bulls-era torpor. The Nov. 2 tipoff games, which come as this issue is rolling off the presses, are the most promising-looking thing in TV sports since—well, since the Spurs cut down the nets last June.

I'm even looking forward to seeing the Washington Wizards. The Buzzards had been so pointlessly bad I'd stopped paying attention to them. But in the off-season, they let passive and underachieving swingman Calbert Cheaney go to Boston, and they picked up Ike Austin to play center. For the first time in memory, Washington's starting lineup has five certifiable NBA players, each playing his proper position—from full-service point guard Rod Strickland to full-sized center Austin. With smooth-shooting rookie guard Richard Hamilton coming off the bench, the Wizards even have a hint of depth and a hope for the future. They'll probably fail anyway, because they're the Wizards, but they shouldn't be as hapless as usual.

All around the league, there are similar construction and reconstruction projects underway. A year ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves were a promising two-man gang of point guard Stephon Marbury and 7-foot multipurpose forward Kevin Garnett. Then Marbury, envious of Garnett's nine-figure contract, forced a midseason trade. Garnett, with his various and expanding talents, demonstrated the ability to fill almost every statistical column; as the centerpiece of the re-formed T-wolves, he has Terrell Brandon to help with the passing, Joe Smith to rebound, and Wally Szczerbiak to chip in with the scoring.

The Houston Rockets, meanwhile, dumped almost everyone but Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon, making bulk trades with the Pacific Northwest that brought in disaffected ex-Maryland guard Steve Francis from Vancouver and sent disaffected Scottie Pippen off to the Portland Trail Blazers. Like the Wizards, the Rockets spent the last few years playing with only half a team (albeit a much better half-team than Washington's). Now the Hall of Fame-bound front line has a fast and young backcourt of Francis and Shandon Anderson, which will be either an amazing complement or a bizarre mismatch.

The most pronounced internal tensions, though, will likely follow Pippen to Portland. When last we saw the Trail Blazers, in a playoff loss to the Spurs, point guard Damon Stoudamire was stumbling into the seats off a 360-degree spin move by San Antonio's Avery Johnson, whom Stoudamire had smugly declared would never carry a team to a title. It was Stoudamire too who'd started whining about his postseason playing time, dashing his team's reputation for selflessness and cooperation. Now he's been joined by Pippen, who spent last season whining about his role in the Houston offense.

But watching the Blazers come unglued (or watching the Lakers, who remain the Lakers, do the same) is a mean-spirited diversion, to be saved for later in the year. In November, I want to see teams coming together. Last year's Sacramento Kings, the connoisseurs' favorite, had a Jason Williams-to-Chris Webber-to-Vlade Divac passing attack that made them the highest-scoring team in the league. Now, in Philadelphia, league scoring champion Allen Iverson has the lead-footed but graceful rookie center Todd MacCulloch to work with, as the 76ers try to add a playoff-quality offense to last season's playoff-quality defense. Up in Toronto, 5-foot-3 Baltimore native Muggsy Bogues joins the Raptors, using his elusive, low-to-the-ground ball-handling skills to run the point for the above-the-rim play of Vince Carter.

The teams with the most to worry about are the ones that tried to stand pat. The Jazz, bridesmaid to the Bulls, nearly got bounced from the playoffs by the Kings last year, but decided to keep their aging lineup together. The Heat did get bounced from the first round, by the jury-rigged Knicks, but are bringing their undersized, underachieving team back again, a year older and slower, for another winning but fruitless campaign.

Those Knicks, last year's runners-up, most embody the NBA's state of flux. A highly paid and bizarrely constructed team—no credible point guard, two all-star shooting guards—they limped into the playoffs, then stormed into the finals, despite losing center Patrick Ewing to a season-ending injury. With their current mix of superannuated veterans and erratic youth, they could go back to the finals, or they could miss the playoffs entirely. New Yorkers, in their ugly self-importance, will greet the former as a relief and the latter as a disgrace. For the rest of us, either result should be pure entertainment.

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