League's parity even more evident

The Baltimore Sun

There are plenty of curiosities about the NBA this season. Take, for example ...

The long-running, prime-time drama that is the New York Knicks.

The lost - and losing - stars in Boston, Minnesota, Indiana and Philadelphia.

The return of Don Nelson to Golden State.

Michael Jordan's re-emergence as part-owner in Charlotte.

Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson: still together, still in Los Angeles.

The question of when Mount Artest might blow up.

The defense of the Chicago Bulls.

And the offense of a half-dozen other teams.

Wondering whether the big man/little man combination in Houston finally will work.

All that and myriad other dramas involving franchise sales, purchases, relocations and maybe a dozen coaches' futures being reconsidered ... whether they want them to be or not.

But as the 2006-07 season gets under way, the most intriguing questions are who is going to win the NBA championship, who is going to face that team in the Finals and does anybody really have any idea? Vulnerable to parody, perhaps it is time for parity in the NBA.

"Who knows?" New Jersey Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. "I hope people didn't forget that Detroit did win 64 games despite not winning the championship. Chicago, obviously, when you look at adding an impact player plus going 10 or 12 deep. Cleveland, with one of the top three players in the league. Toronto with all their new faces. Orlando had a great preseason and finished up the year strong.

"So I think there's a case for a lot of teams right now."

And that's just in the East.

The San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks are the favorites in the West after their memorable second-round, seven-game series that might have been the best NBA playoff series in decades.

"We could have easily won last year, and so could Dallas or some other team, Detroit or whoever you want to plug in there," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.

But there's more. The Phoenix Suns and even the Los Angeles Clippers, the Sacramento Kings, the Houston Rockets, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Nets are talking somewhat realistically about their championship hopes.

"Picking the Finals participants this year is more difficult than ever," said TNT analyst Steve Kerr, who played for Bulls and Spurs championship teams. "There are a lot of teams that have a chance, but nobody really stands out."

There's Tim Duncan and the Spurs, but they were out of the playoffs early last season.

The Pistons, their Finals dancing partners for consecutive seasons, lost defensive anchor Ben Wallace to the Bulls.

What did Shaquille O'Neal score in the decisive Finals game? That's right, nine points.

What we do know is no one knows.

The NBA conducts an annual survey of general managers. In addition to private questions about the best lobster dinners and excessively priced hotel rooms, it asks the GMs to predict what will happen in the playoffs.

The GMs named eight teams for the Finals: the Spurs, Mavericks, Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves in the West, and the Miami Heat, Pistons, Bulls and Orlando Magic in the East.

The consensus was Spurs-Heat in the Finals. Risk-takers, eh?

One playing-court leveler this season is the increased emphasis on free movement by perimeter players. It limits the advantage of teams with a top big man and opens up play for small teams like the Suns. It's why even the Lakers and Bryant and the Cavaliers and LeBron James believe that, with the right breaks, they could go to the Finals.

Sam Smith writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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