Spurs and Pistons stand at the head of the class
By David DuPree, USA TODAY
The NBA season tips off Tuesday. Much of the attention is on Shaquille O'Neal and what impact he will have now that he is no longer a Los Angeles Laker but a member of the Miami Heat.
Sixers coach Jim O'Brien has switched Allen Iverson to point guard.
By Sara D. Davis, AP
But the teams with the best chance to win the NBA title are the same teams that were the class of the league last season — the San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Pistons, Minnesota Timberwolves and Indiana Pacers. (Related item: Ranking the teams)
Those are the four teams ranked at the top by USA TODAY. However, because Detroit and Indiana are in the same division, they probably will have to face each other in an early round of the playoffs, which could open the door for the Heat to get to the Eastern Conference finals.
"Expectation is what makes the game," Miami point guard Dwyane Wade says. "We have to be confident we can be a championship team in the end or we won't be."
The defending champion Pistons know that repeating will not be an easy task.
"We're a marquee team, and everybody is aware that we accomplished a lot," coach Larry Brown says. "It's an unbelievable challenge to be ready to play every night."
Sam Cassell believes the Timberwolves would be defending the title had he not been injured in the playoffs last season.
"I know for a fact we'd be celebrating our first championship in the city right now," he says. The Timberwolves, who had the best record in the Western Conference, lost to the Lakers in the conference finals, and a hip injury made Cassell a non-factor.
Atop the rankings are the Spurs.
"I think our bench is a lot better than last year's," says point guard Tony Parker, whose Spurs had the second-best record in the West but were upset by the Lakers in the second round. "We improved at all positions. Me and Manu (Ginobili) have one more year of experience. Timmy (Duncan) is going to be very motivated because of what happened this summer (at the Olympics). Brent Barry is going to open up a lot of stuff for everybody."
Ranking the teams
1. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs will be more free flowing offensively but will still win with their defense. The only chink in the armor is at the free throw line, where they were last in the league last season.
2. Detroit Pistons
This team is deep, big and strong, and now, buoyed with confidence gained from last season's title run, it creates a matchup nightmare for any opponent. Opponents are going to have a very tough time scoring.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves
MVP Kevin Garnett doesn't have to do it all by himself. This is the deepest team in the league.
4. Indiana Pacers
Newly acquired Stephen Jackson was going to get more minutes at shooting guard than Reggie Miller before the veteran All-Star suffered a broken finger, making the Pacers more explosive than last season's 61-game winner.
USA TODAY's David DuPree predicts San Antonio will meet Detroit in the NBA Finals and that the Spurs will prevent the Pistons from successfully defending their NBA title.
5. Dallas Mavericks
Dirk Nowitzki had an off year, but because he won't have to play center this season after the acquisition of Erick Dampier, he should score and rebound more and shoot a better percentage.
6. Sacramento Kings
The window of opportunity is closing quickly, but the Kings have the goods to make one more run.
7. Miami Heat
Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade will get the headlines, but keep an eye on Eddie Jones, one of the most underrated players in the league.
8. Houston Rockets
They need a point guard to be a real contender. Neither Charlie Ward nor Tyronn Lue is the answer.
9. Los Angeles Lakers
Now that this is his team, expect Kobe Bryant to lead the NBA in shots attempted and scoring.
10. Denver Nuggets
They should get off to a fast start because 13 of their first 17 games are at home.
11. Utah Jazz
This could be the most improved team in the league with the additions of Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer and the return of a healthy Matt Harpring.
12. Phoenix Suns
This could be the most fun team to watch, a high-scoring, fast-breaking machine led by Steve Nash.
13. Memphis Grizzlies
Pau Gasol, after his impressive play in the Olympics, is ready to be an NBA All-Star.
14. Philadelphia 76ers
Moving Allen Iverson to point guard is a bold move by new coach Jim O'Brien.
15. Portland Trail Blazers
Zach Randolph is the sleeper in the scoring race. He could easily finish in the top five with his combination inside-outside game.
16. Cleveland Cavaliers
Even with the loss of Boozer, the Cavaliers are better. LeBron James has vowed to be as good a leader as he is a player, Drew Gooden will score and run the floor and Eric Snow gives them some toughness.
17. Orlando Magic
If Grant Hill is anything near what he was before he first injured his ankle, he and Steve Francis will be a tough duo to deal with, and Dwight Howard has shown he will have an immediate impact.
18. New York Knicks
Isiah Thomas isn't done dealing. Don't be surprised if he lands Vince Carter or another superstar of that caliber before the February trade deadline.
19. Boston Celtics
Newly acquired Gary Payton can go back to being Gary Payton now, giving the Celtics a tough-guy swagger that suits new coach Doc Rivers just fine.
20. New Orleans Hornets
A playoff team in the Eastern Conference last season, the Hornets could drop like a rock as they find out life in the Western Conference is not so pleasant.
21. Milwaukee Bucks
Losing Brian Skinner to free agency (Philadelphia) and point guard T.J. Ford indefinitely to a back injury spells disaster for the Bucks.
22. New Jersey Nets
Journeymen Ron Mercer and Eric Williams aren't enough to make up for the losses of Kenyon Martin, Lucious Harris, Kerry Kittles and Rodney Rogers.
23. Seattle SuperSonics
Nate McMillan is one of the coaches starting the season on the hot seat.
24. Washington Wizards
They have plenty of young talent, but Kwame Brown is the one who holds the key to the success of this team.
25. Los Angeles Clippers
Elton Brand and Corey Maggette are one of the most productive forward tandems in the league.
26. Golden State Warriors
Derek Fisher is the new leader of this team, and he should really help with the development of Jason Richardson and Mike Dunleavy.
27. Toronto Raptors
They were last in scoring last season, and nothing indicates things will be different this season.
28. Atlanta Hawks
Wins will be hard to come by, but the new forward duo of Antoine Walker and Al Harrington could be one of the best in the conference.
29. Chicago Bulls
Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler are on the spot for a franchise that doesn't look ready to turn anything around for a while.
30. Charlotte Bobcats
If the expansion Team Wins 20 games, it will be a monumental achievement.
The poster "pacertom" since this forum began (and before!). I changed my name here to "Slick Pinkham" in honor of the imaginary player That Bobby "Slick" Leonard picked late in the 1971 ABA draft (true story!)