Bird and Magic are out, Tark and Shaq are in. Barkley is in Phoenix, Chuck in Jersey. The Knicks aren't the Knicks. There are nine new coaches, dozens of players on new teams. It's kind of hard to follow. Is Pooh Richardson a Pacer or Wolve? Is Dale Ellis a Buck or Spur? Has anyone seen Blue Edwards?
But don't worry. Making sense of this NBA season is not as complicated as it sounds. There's just one essential question: Can anyone beat the Bulls?
The answer, of course, is yes. The Knicks, if you recall, scared the ever lovin' strut out of them last spring. Psyched them out. Took them to a seventh game. Not even a particularly good Knicks team. If they got that close, it can happen.
Not that the Bulls, having won two straight titles, are just an old, creaking jalopy ready to fall apart, like the Pistons after their two. Michael Jordan is 29, Scottie Pippen 27. They may not get much better, but they're not ready to slip.
But the Knicks did show everyone how to get to them. They got rough, real rough, with Pippen. He didn't like it. He disappeared. And Jordan, contrary to common wisdom, can't do it alone.
So, are there any teams who can pull it off? Does Larry Brown change jobs?
PTC The Knicks are the popular choice, but they've performed major surgery on their lineup and I'm not sure about it. It's an interesting blend, with Rolando Blackman and Doc Rivers in the backcourt, and Charles Smith, Tony Campbell and Charles Oakley up front with Patrick Ewing. That's a talented team, but there's one problem: How good can they be if the Nets have better starters at four positions?
Yeah, that's right. Drazen Petrovic and Kenny Anderson in the back, Chris Morris and Derrick Coleman up front -- I'd take that over what the Knicks have. Yes, the Knicks are deeper, but with Chuck Daly coaching, the Nets have become a talking point. But, right, I hear you: the Nets?
In Boston they're all weepy over Bird's departure, but the collection of young Celtics will be better now that they don't have to stand around pretending to care whether Larry's back is better. Remember, they went 15-1 without him down the stretch last year. But haven't I seen pictures of Robert Parish and Kevin McHale trying to block George Mikan's hook shot?
Cleveland is the East team with the best shot at the Bulls. The Pistons are about as stable as Woody and Mia. The Sixers' management was tired of Barkley, so now they'll have an easier life in last place. Shaq needs a few years to warm up in Orlando. The Bullets are in diapers. The Cavs are basically the same as last year, only they signed the Knicks' Gerald Wilkins, who gives Jordan trouble. File it away.
In the West, there are a lot of pretenders. The Lakers weren't going to win even with Magic, who was too slow. The Rockets have somehow made Hakeem Olajuwon a liability. The Warriors are fun, but can't stop anyone. The Jazz added the depth they needed, but if you can win the title by adding Jay Humphries and Larry Krystkowiak, why are we paying attention?
The Spurs are going to win with Jerry Tarkanian, you watch, but not in the year they're starting over. The Clippers set a record for bad off-season moves, acquiring fatties Stanley Roberts and John Williams, pouting Mark Jackson and washed-up Kiki Vandeweghe. Larry Brown will be coaching Il Messaggero next year.
Meanwhile, here's a toughie: Can you name the Kings' coach even if I tell you his first name is Garry?
The chalk in the West is Phoenix and Portland, in that order. The Blazers might have won the title a year ago if Thurman Thomas had put his helmet on for the first play from scrimm . . . oops, sorry, wrong sport. But right message: The Blazers, like the NFL's Buffalo Bills, are professional runners-up. They're strong, just not strong enough. Signing head case guard Rod Strickland won't help.
This is the Suns' year to make the Finals. The Barkley trade was a seminal moment. They won't miss what they gave up, and with Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers, Dan Majerle, Danny Ainge and now Barkley, it's a balanced and versatile team, tough enough to play rough with the Bulls.
That brings us back to the original question: Can anyone beat the Bulls? Sure. But will anyone beat the Bulls?
There are some who think Jordan, after playing non-stop the last year, will be too tired to get himself up again. But his Olympics were about as stressful as a tap-in for par. He'll be ready. And the Bulls have not stood still, picking up dependable depth in Rodney McCray and Trent Tucker.
So, here's the deal: Bulls over Cavs and Suns over Blazers in the conference finals. And in the Finals: Bulls over Suns in six. Best man wins, again.