by Greg Davis - 10/25/2005
After years of Western Conference dominance the NBA has finally started to see a shift in power that started with the Pistons shocking upset of the Lakers in the Finals two years ago. Even more shocking was the Lakers following off-season move to trade one of the most dominant forces in NBA history to Miami as well as parting ways with Coach Phil Jackson. Jackson will return this year but without he and Shaquille O'Neal the Lakers became the Clippers and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since the 1993-94 season. All of a sudden the West lost one of its top teams and the East gained an instant title contender.
Continuing that trend this year, Phoenix will have to enter this season without their franchise player Amare Stoudamire, who will be sidelined a minimum of four months after microfracture surgery. At 22, the hopes are that the dreaded surgery won't have the same effect it has had with others such as Penny Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn and Chris Webber, all of whom never came back 100 percent. Over in the East, the Pacers welcome back 2003-'04 Defensive Player of the Year Ron Artest from his season ending suspension after he touched off a riot last November. Right now there are more legitimate title contenders in the East than in the West for the first time since the Jordan era.
All that being said, the road to the NBA Championship will once again go through San Antonio barring any major injuries. The defending champs are again the favorites to take home the O'Brien Trophy. As much as the Eastern Conference has improved, the Spurs have maintained their edge on the rest of the league by not only keeping their core of players intact, but also adding depth and experience with Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel, as well as Argentine Fabricio Oberto, who teamed with Manu Ginobili to win the gold medal for Argentina in the 2004 Athens games. What's even scarier is when you consider how set this team is for the future. The big three of Tim Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker are 29, 28 and 23 respectively, and are all under contract until the 2009-10 season. Throw in one of the best coaches in the league in Gregg Popovich not to mention salary cap flexibility and you are looking at a potential dynasty. As far as this year goes, if you can find them at 5/2, as they are at Sportingbet, you have to like them. In reality you are simply betting that they will not have any catastrophic injuries.
The biggest obstacle to the Spurs in the West will likely come from Houston. The Rockets' combination of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady ranks among the best duos in the league along with Miami's Shaq and Dwyane Wade and the Suns combo of Steve Nash and Stoudamire when healthy. With a year under their belt they should be even better this season. Adding an extremely athletic and versatile Stromile Swift, a former No. 2 overall pick who averaged nearly two blocks per game last year, will only further improve a very talented and defensive minded frontcourt that includes reserve Dikembe Motumbo. The backcourt, however, is definitely a question mark even with the additions of rookie Luther Head and Derek Anderson, which may help a little, to go along with Bob Sura, David Wesley and Jon Barry. I've seen huge disparities on the odds as far as the Rockets are concerned. BetCRIS has the Rockets at a tantalizing 25/1 while Bodog has posted an 8/1 line. As always you are best served to shop around for the best value before making your wager.
As a long shot to contend in the West, I still like Phoenix despite the injury to Stoudamire, and the questionable off-season moves of trading away rising star Joe Johnson and three-point sharp shooter Quentin Richardson. It's hard for me to fathom reigning MVP Steve Nash allowing them to fall off too much. A lot will be asked of Nash, as well as soon to be perennial All-Star Shawn Marion, but if he can keep his team in striking distance until the All-Star break anything is possible. The best-case scenario has Stoudamire returning in February. If he is able to return to his old form the Suns could be a steal at 30/1 as they are listed at Sportingbet.
The Eastern Conference, in my mind has three true contenders. As great as LeBron James is and soon will be, I'm not buying the Cavaliers as a title contender yet despite the addition of Larry Hughes, which I really like. They will be much improved and should make the playoffs but will not be able to win a playoff series from the likes of Detroit, Indiana or Miami.
Regardless of how it happened Larry Brown is no longer coaching the Pistons as Flip Saunders has now taken over. Brown has finally landed his "dream job" as coach of the Knicks but they will be hard pressed to make the playoffs in a steadily improving Eastern Conference. Brown is simply the best coach in the league and will surely be missed in Detroit, but from all indications Dumars and the Pistons players, led by Rasheed Wallace, have welcomed Saunders with open arms. The Pistons roster from last year is virtually intact and Saunders has promised more minutes for Darko Milicic who is finally starting to show signs.
This is a very deep team that has a lot of character and should not be taken lightly no matter who is coaching them. Another key point is that they seem to have figured out a blueprint for defending, if not slowing down Shaquille O'Neal as they have eliminated his teams the past two years including a Game 7 this past year in Miami. The Pistons are going off at anywhere from 9/1 as they are at Bodog, to a much more appealing 15/1 at SportingBet USA.
Miami was rumored to be making a coaching change this off-season as well before wisely deciding to stick with Stan Van Gundy, who took the Heat deeper into the playoffs than ever before with the addition of O'Neal. But it seemed as though the Heat were bound and determined to shake things up one way or another by letting starters Eddie Jones and Damon Jones get away. They also lost top reserves Rasual Butler and Keyon Dooling. They definitely added talent but it remains to be seen how well players such as Jason Williams, Antoine Walker and a rapidly aging Gary Payton will fit in. The Heat are way overpriced in my opinion-listed as high as 11/4 at BetCRIS. Although Dwyane Wade has clearly become one of the NBA's elite and Shaq can still dominate like no other when he's healthy, I can't see this team getting to the Finals. Shaq's numbers have been declining the past couple years particularly in points and his team still faces a major dilemma down the stretch of close playoff games when deciding whether or not they can risk going to him in the clutch knowing the opposition will likely put him on the line. A contender to be sure -- I just don't see this team getting past Detroit or Indiana.
The Pacers are actually my pick to make it out of the East. The oddsmakers apparently agree that this is a very capable team. I was hoping for much more value but you will likely do no better than the 10/1 line posted at both BetCRIS and SportingBet. Although I would prefer taking them to just win the East. Of course you are still taking a gamble that Ron Artest will not come unglued again. With his return, Indiana boasts a tremendous defensive team whose best players are also its strongest defenders.
Jermaine O'neal is getting better each year and should be healthy once again. Steven Jackson, who will take Reggie Miller's spot in the starting lineup at shooting guard, is a strong defender with an excellent shooting touch when he's not in the stands throwing wild haymakers at random fans. Other than having Artest back, the Pacers really made only one move in the off-season bringing in Lithuanian standout Sarunas Jasikevicius as a free agent. You may recall how Jasikevicius torched the U.S. Olympic team in both the 2000 and 2004 Games averaging over 23 points in three meetings. For now, Jasikevicius will back up Jamaal Tinsley at the point and could likely steal some of his minutes but I look for Rick Carlyle to give him time at shooting guard as well as the season progresses. In a year where so many draft picks are made based on potential alone, I believe Jasikevicius could be a solid play as a long shot to win Rookie of the Year honors.
Although the Eastern Conference has made significant progress, San Antonio is clearly still the team to beat. As for my prediction on which team will take home the trophy, keep in mind everything is predicated on which teams can survive key injuries. I still have to go with San Antonio to win until they prove me wrong. Even at 5/2 odds I see good value. They should cruise through the regular season before taking out Houston in the Western Finals. In the East, I like Indiana to beat Detroit likely in seven games (hopefully for the sake of this prediction Ron Artest will be able to keep his cool). From there, Tim Duncan, Manu and the rest of the Spurs will once again be too much to handle as they will win back-to-back titles in a hard fought defensive series that will undoubtedly be labeled as boring basketball by the critics.
Fans of the Magic, Bird, and Jordan eras (myself included) often forget that what we witnessed in the 80's and early 90's was a "golden age" of pro basketball in which its excellence combined with entertainment will likely never be matched. Today's brand of NBA play may not be as entertaining due to many, many factors but nothing should be taken away from what this Spurs team has done especially if they go on to win it all again this year.
Here is a complete list of odds to win the NBA Championship from Bodog Sportsbook:
San Antonio 9/5
New Jersey 30/1
L.A. Lakers 35/1
Golden State 40/1
L.A. Clippers 55/1
New York 70/1
New Orleans 200/1
The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Doc's NBA picks service.