New NBA season set to begin play

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The Independent Online

Michael Jordan's retirement was only the first change for the American National Basektball Association.

Michael Jordan's retirement was only the first change for the American National Basektball Association.

Since then, there have been 25 trades involving 79 players, and all the maneuvering, disassembling and retooling has one common goal: to get teams to a championship level that's far easier to attain in what has become a wide-open NBA.

"There are a lot of tough teams, especially in the Western Conference, that have really stocked up to make a run at the title," said Tim Duncan of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. "Everybody, they're looking at us now. They want to take us out of the top spot."

With the new season set to start on Tuesday, fans of American basketball are adjusting to a myriad of changes.

In Portland, Microsoft co-founder and Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen has added three veterans in Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith and Detlef Schrempf. As a result, Portland has become a preseason favorite a season after reaching the conference finals.

The Los Angeles Lakers have overhauled their system by bringing in coach Phil Jackson, who led Chicago to six championships and now will try to make Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Glen Rice - and who knows, maybe even Dennis Rodman - proficient in the triangle offense.

The Sacramento Kings, the highest-scoring and most exciting team to watch last season, have added Nick Anderson to their starting lineup.

"I think the West (conference) is stronger. It's a powerhouse right now," the Kings' Chris Webber said. "It seems like the powers have switched to the West."

In the East, the New York Knicks proved last season how much of a crapshoot the conference has become. They became the first eighth-seeded playoff team ever to make it to the finals before losing 4-1 to the Spurs.

The Knicks will have virtually the same team returning, with the most noticeable change being the move of Latrell Sprewell and his increasingly imitated hairstyle to the starting lineup.

The Indiana Pacers tinkered with their team by trading one of their big men, Antonio Davis, to Toronto for teen-ager Jonathan Bender. The Miami Heat also made minimal changes to a team that has won the Atlantic Division three straight years.

It was a different story, however, for the Orlando Magic and, to a lesser degree, the Atlanta Hawks - two of the conference's most consistent winning teams for the past several years.

The Magic made many trades, sending away four of last season's starters and thereby playing a big role in the overstocking of the West. Penny Hardaway went to Phoenix, Anderson to the Kings and Horace Grant to the Sonics.

The Hawks swept clean their backcourt, sending Mookie Blaylock to the Warriors and Smith to the Blazers, leaving an opening for Eastern teams like Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Charlotte and Toronto.

"I think there are some teams in the East who are going to be better than people think," Bucks coach George Karl said. "The West is less wide open just because the champions are there, but the East has a number of teams who could take over. You saw the Knicks do it last season. They've had a tremendous amount of talent for a number of years, but then, somehow it all comes together. That can happen for anyone."

A big factor will be which teams with the best young players can take the next big step.

Allen Iverson became the league's leading scorer last season and led his 76ers to the second round of the playoffs. Vince Carter became a regular on TV highlights for a Raptors team that nearly made the playoffs. Kevin Garnett emerged as a force for a Timberwolves team eager to move on to a more stable season.

"Now anybody can step up and play to the best of their abilities, and they'll have a shot at a championship. I think it's exciting," said Don Nelson, who begins the season on the hot seat in Dallas, which missed out on the free-for-all.

This definitely will be the last season for Charles Barkley in Houston - he says - and Jeff Hornacek in Utah, while six teams will have their first seasons in new buildings: the Hawks, Nuggets, Heat, Clippers, Lakers and Pacers.

There are several rules changes designed to improve the flow of the game, the most noticeable of which will be a ban on forearm checking. Referees also have been told to crack down on overly physical play away from the ball.

The All-Star game in Oakland, California, will feature the return of the slam dunk contest, and three spots will be open on the all-NBA Olympic team that will compete at the Sydney Games next September.

One of those spots figures to go to O'Neal, who will be asked to become more of a thinker and passer in Jackson's new Lakers offense. O'Neal addressed one team problem over the summer by attending Bryant's 21st birthday party, and the two say they have put their differences aside.

"People who say that Shaq won't fit into the offense are mistaken," Jackson said. "Wilt Chamberlain thrived in this offense back in his time because it takes full advantage of a big man's skills."

Jordan thrived in it, too, but that was in a different era.

It's post-Michael time now, and this is a whole different NBA.