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  DRIBBLING TOWARDS INFINITY: THE 2004 NBA SEASON PREVIEW.  
   
 

Another year, another completely batty realignment of the geographic system as the National Basketball Association sees it. We're just finishing up one of the best baseball seasons in a long time and have the ultimate betting match coming next Tuesday, so all this NBA talk -- the NBA's starting already? -- might seem like an intrusion to you. Deal with it.

First off, look for some seriously weird results this year from the divisions-sort of like the 1980s for the AFC Central in football, where the Steelers and Browns would tussle just to get to 9-7 while the powerhouses in the East and West would roll to massive win-seasons and use the Central Division winner as puppy chow en route to the Super Bowl.

Now that Shaquille O'Neal has moved back east to Sunny Florida, where he'll play until he retires (he's on the East Coast, which is part of the rules-if you're from New Jersey, you go to the east side of Florida; if you're from Ohio, the west side), things look a little more even. But why ask me? (Note: Self-deprecating moment coming.) Last year, mixed in between a couple of buried insights was my prediction that the Orlando Magic would somehow make it to the NBA Finals, and they rewarded that sentiment by turning into one of the worst teams in the league.

Well, I've learned my lesson this year, by picking the Knicks to do well. Crafty, no?

In other words, all predictions almost guaranteed to be wrong.

 

 

Atlantic Division

 

 
 

New York Knicks: (Playoff Seed: 3)

I can't believe I'm doing this. But this is one of the consequences of an unbalanced number of divisions -- a couple of them get packed with mediocre squads.

 
 

And with Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Allan Houston (assuming he heals) and Kurt Thomas -- actually a good player -- they might have just enough to put together a dubious division title. Marbury, unfortunately, is the East Coast version of Chris Webber: With him, you're building on mud. Of course, if it all goes south, it will be because of this: A few months ago, when asked about re-signing Vin Baker, Isiah Thomas said, "With a fresh start at training camp with the team, we know he'll be an even more productive force." Where? At the chow line? Was Oliver Miller not available? And why, pray tell, just a two-year contract, Isiah? Why not six years? Eight? A lifetime pass to Gallagher's Steak House? Predicted record: 48-34

 

 
 

Philadelphia 76ers: (5)

It was interesting to see, in this year's Summer Olympics, that Allen Iverson took on the role of the "sage veteran." Kind of like Mark Cuban, Dallas

 
 

Mavericks owner, mocking people for having a short attention span. Iverson's one of those guys who gives his entire body to the game every night he's out there, and that's an admirable quality for millionaires to have. Still, that doesn't make the 76ers all that interesting a squad, nor does it make Philadelphia a nicer a city. They could steal the division, under the theory that someone has to win it, but I just don't see it happening -- they haven't improved themselves much, and Iverson and new coaches don't mix well. 45-37

 

 
 

New Jersey Nets: (7)

The best call I ever made was whilst I attended Rutgers University and spied a new Chinese restaurant in a notoriously cursed address for food establishments. It

 
 

was called "Soon to be Famous." I pegged it "Soon to be closed," and four months later, the restaurant made good on that prediction. Which is kind of how this squad should be viewed. With a couple of nice years dressed up a preposterous history in the swampland of Northern New Jersey, that old adage about reverting to the mean has become relevant for this franchise. Their best player is the antagonized and antagonistic Jason Kidd, who has worn out his welcome in every city he's played after three years, and they let Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles go. Soon, they'll be in Brooklyn, making Byrne Arena "soon to be closed." 43-39, a deceptive finish for a lousy squad.

 

 
 

Boston Celtics:

New England fans looking for the Celtics to continue the current ride being engineered by the Boston Red Sox and the New England Patriots should be thankful for the

 
 

glory of those two squads. Or find another way to satiate themselves, perhaps with a big plate of Boston baked beans, which will produce a similar result as this year's Celtics squad -- lots of flatulent groaning and the need to lie on a couch. Again, we're going to see three guys draped all over Paul Pierce while an unhappy Gary Payton sulks on the sidelines and a bunch of other dudes stand around trying to "work hard." Not going to be pretty. 33-49

 

 
 

Toronto Raptors:

The really pressing matter around this squad is whether the prescription drugs they're taking are safe or not, because, well, you know, Canada's got some awfully

 
 

shaky drug operations up there and all. Locating a franchise in this country only aids terrorists, and that's not something Good Americans can get behind. And another thing: Next time a team thinks about naming its squad after a prehistoric monster, I suggest the Beast of Baluchistan, also known as Baluchitherium, a house-sized rhino that didn't need any horns because it would just, well, run you over. As opposed to something out of a Spielberg movie -- which gets more dated every year. Oh, they'll suck this year, too. 27-55

 

Central Division

 

 
 

Detroit Pacers: (1)

It's hard to argue against a team composed mostly of players who are still swinging upward, and that applies to Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups and

 
 

Tayshaun Prince. Hell, even Darko Milicic is getting better, although his improvement only really lifts him to the level of "extreme crapitude." And then, of course, there's Rasheed Wallace, a headhunter with a weird spot of gray hair who harnessed his inner Charles Manson for good use, helping these guys win a title. They'll certainly be there for the end of this thing again. They could use a bit more on the bench, but we're quibbling here. 59-23

 

 
 

Indiana Pacers: (4)

In the Atlantic Division, this team would finish first in a walk, and in this division, they could still win it. At some point the Pacers will realize they don't need Reggie

 
 

Miller anymore, and they'll leave him in New York to argue with Spike Lee over the finer points of She Hate Me. No complaints about this group, which is well coached, stacked and as far away from Isiah Thomas as possible. 58-24

 

 
 

Cleveland Cavaliers: (6)

Selecting Zydrunas Ilgauskus for your fantasy team is one of those "playing with fire" moves that ensures either a fruitful season or a long wall-punching

 
 

escapade in mid-December. The guy's that brittle. Big Z, who's seven-foot-three, has had two seasons of missing just one game, and that's lovely and all, but now he doesn't have Carlos Boozer to get his back, and so it's only a matter of time before he's writhing in agony with another leg injury. So LeBron James, who inside two years will be the best player in the NBA, will go it alone a lot of the time. That's a lot to ask. 43-39

 

 
 

Milwaukee Bucks:

A deadeye shooter in Michael Redd. A surprising -- if injured -- star in T.J. Ford. And then there's Keith Van Horn. The Bucks found a way to make things

 
 

interesting last year but don't count on that to continue this year; they've done very little to improve and can't expect to fool anyone this go-round, either. They'll be a capable-enough squad to compete for a playoff spot, but not much further than that. John Kerry's campaign might want to contact Senator Herb Kohl, the owner, and see if he can quickly sign Eminem and Barbra Streisand to help push this swing state. It's not that I'm partisan -- it's just that I believe in getting maximum value for your investment, and the Bucks are severely undercapitalized right now. 34-48

 

 
 

Chicago Bulls:

Fool me once, Eddy Curry, shame on you. Fool me … uh … you don't fool me again. And I ain't fooled this year, especially after the Bulls traded Jamal Crawford

 
 

and left themselves with the dregs of society on that roster. That five-year plan to turn this thing around after the Last Days of Jordan has been officially extended to a 12-year plan. 25-57

 

Southeast Division

 

 
 

Miami Heat: (2)

Don't believe the hype. Shaquille O'Neal may be on top of the world now, but he's older and no longer has the supporting cast. Even the young Penny Hardaway and

 
 

Nick Anderson outdo anyone else on this team, and about halfway through the season, Shaq's going to be beheading his teammates, Klaus Kinski-style. They'll be left there, rolling around on the floor, still talking about how they need the ball more, when Shaq dunks their heads and breaks the glass. Sure, him and Dwyane Wade are enough to win yet another weak division, but that's about it, and Hack-a-Shaq will send this team home early in the playoffs. Makes for lots of fun photo ops in Miami, though. 49-33

 

 
 

Washington Wizards: (8)

This is another one of those fresh start teams, this time with a guy who played at Rutgers as their coach. They've got Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison to do

 
 

most of the scoring and ball-handling, and maybe this year Kwame Brown will play hard for about 40 games instead of last year's 20 games. (By the time the 2007-2008 season rolls around, Kwame's going to rock.) Eddie Jordan's got enough pluck to get these guys to 40 wins in one of those Doc-Rivers-work-them-until-they-die approaches. That's about as far as it goes. 40-42

 

 
 

Orlando Magic:

Single-named squads drive me batty, just because most of the major newspapers in the country think they have to stick with AP style and keep referring to this

 
 

single-named team as if it's one person rather than a group of people. Obviously, having one of the best scorers in the league wasn't enough for this team, so they traded Tracy McGrady for a couple of ball-hogs, imported a Turkish guy and stitched that together with The Return of Grant Hill, Book V. For the uninitiated, Grant Hill has played 47 games in the past four seasons, making Marcus Camby look as durable as the U.S. Customs House in downtown Manhattan. One of those teams that generally inspires thoughts of, "Hey, they could be good!" But they won't. Seriously, it's not happening. 36-46

 

 
 

Atlanta Hawks:

Looking over this roster, one could be fooled in thinking this was the expansion team. Malcontented castoffs (Kenny Anderson), hangers-on (Kevin Willis), "Hey, it's

 
 

that guy!" (Tony Delk) and one legit player who has worn out his welcome in two cities (Antoine Walker) combined with an inexperienced coaching unit. Hell, this is an expansion team, albeit one that's been in existence for 50 years. Fun fact about this squad: Rookie Josh Smith was born in 1985. Kevin Willis, 19-year veteran center, was playing in the NBA in 1985. 22-60

 

 
 

Charlotte Bobcats:

Who the hell are these guys? Tamar Slay? Eddie House? Where's Eldridge Recasner when you need him? On the team's official Web site, new coach/general

 
 

manager Bernie Bickerstaff is lauded for having "a history of leadership and is a natural choice to guide the Bobcats as both general manager and head coach in the expansion club's first season." Which is code for admitting he can't win with good squads, doesn't cost much and will be easy to fire. His last two NBA coaching outings have gone the same way: brought in to replace a struggling coach in the middle of a disappointing season; fired two seasons later, struggling through a disappointing season. Bernie, mark December 19, 2006 on your calendar -- that's the day to pick up the want ads. 15-67

 

 

Northwest Division

 

 
 

Minnesota Timberwolves: (2)

They had a nice season last year, but it got derailed at the end, and it leaves a person in the position of wondering whether last year's squad was

 
 

Badmotorfinger, meaning, there's a more dizzying height to approach, or whether it was Superunknown, which means a disappointing album and a break-up is just a couple of years away. Kevin Garnett's not the type to allow his teammates to get complacent, but there's a sinking feeling that this team might have hit its high-water mark. If they can delay that for a year -- and they haven't improved the squad markedly, which is a concern -- then we'll all be feeling Minnesota come playoff time. With the Kings and Lakers tailing off, this could be the year. 57-25

 

 
 

Denver Nuggets: (4)

Not a group of guys you want to meet in an alley: Kenyon Martin, Francisco Elson and Nené. Surprised a lot of people last year, and this year's team doesn't

 
 

even depend on Marcus Camby staying healthy because they've added some firepower. The Nets of 2001-2003 have moved west, and expect a run-and-gun operation that benefits from the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Andre Miller jelling with Kenyon. They'll run through and run over a lot of teams, and with Michael Cooper, the only guy who could ever guard Larry Bird, as an assistant coach, there's going to be a lot of Operation Shutdown this year in the Rockies. Me likey. 55-27


 
 

Utah Jazz: (8)

Salt Lake City is quite charming. It's manageable enough to get a feel for inside of a day, just large enough to warrant three days of exploration. And with

 
 

the Wasatch Range surrounding the city, it's picturesque, too. Maybe that's why Jerry Sloan has had the good fortune to avoid those creepy transition years from an established good team to a shaky good team. With do-it-all-forward Andre Kirilenko and the twin Carloses -- Arroyo and Boozer -- running things, the Jazz didn't take much time making fans forget about Stockton and Malone. Not too shabby, boys -- third place in a reasonably strong division. 48-34

 

 
 

Seattle Supersonics:

There's not much out here to recommend this team. Ray Allen is here, Brent Barry is gone, and, aw, shit, I'm bored. 36-46

 

 
 

Portland Trail Blazers:

This year, if some kid screws up whilst singing the national anthem, head coach Mo Cheeks would be prudent to take the opportunity to cancel the game or

 
 

announce an unexpected rain delay. Every year, there's a team that looks like a capable squad that ends up absorbing all the losses that result in wins for lots of other teams. Last year, my pick was Seattle, and I was wrong (it was Phoenix). I say it's this team this year (no, the Clippers don't count -- they're expected to be lousy). 33-49

 

Pacific Division

 

 
 

Sacramento Kings: (3)

The warning signs are there, but right now, they've got enough to ride to a division title. Peja Stojakovic and Brad Miller continue to improve as Chris Webber

 
 

diminishes, and they've still got Mike Bibby, too. They won't miss chain-smoking Vlade Divac, although in the quest for more size upfront, they decided on Greg Ostertag, another center Shaq used to eat for lunch on a nightly basis. Thankfully, the Big Aristotle is in Miami, and the Kings can rely on talent to get them to the playoffs. From there, though, they're on their own. Not impressive. 51-31


 
 

Los Angeles Lakers: (7)

They're making this trade out to be one of those Wilt Chamberlain-for-Woody-Allen-and-Arlo-Guthrie-type trades from the 1960s, when it may actually end up

 
 

resembling the Seattle Mariners trade of Ken Griffey Jr. a few years back. Kobe Bryant is still really freaking good. And, he's going to be motivated, with the rape trial behind him (sadly denying us any more train-wreck press conferences from Colorado District Attorney Mark Hurlburt). Sometimes, steady-and-solid role players, combined with a superstar with a killer instinct, can do a variety of damage. If Caron Butler and Brian Grant fill their roles well enough, Lamar Odom becomes the second scorer and new coach Rudy Tomjanovich plays sure-handed Luke Walton enough, there's the potential for a division title, although this team will be beat by a more balanced squad in the playoffs. 50-32

 

 
 

Phoenix Suns:

It's an intriguing mix of athletic guys and lead-footed former Communists, but that's what we said last year, when this team stumbled its way to a 29-53 record. On

 
 

paper, they're better than last year thanks to the addition of Steve Nash, and they've still got Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudamire, which is enough to make them interesting. They'll bounce back this year, just enough to be interesting. 44-38


 
 

Los Angeles Clippers:

A change of storyline would help this squad, such as a move to the suburbs. This is exactly what they should do: Move to Anaheim, and hire the writers of "The

 
 

O.C." to pen some type of arc that would involve star Elton Brand sailing off in a yacht to Tahiti, only to end up in a prison colony in Venezuela or something like that. Come to think of it, that storyline from "The O.C." could have been ripped from the death of Bison Dele/Brian Williams, who sailed into oblivion and was later killed by his brother, except, of course, actor Adam Brody isn't a big freak with a Native American pseudonym. Still, I'm thinking the Clippers might have a copyright infringement case here. 31-51


 
 

Golden State Warriors:

It's always been intriguing that this team decided to take its location from the nickname of the state they play in, rather than the actual city or even the state, or

 
 

heck, even the region, like New England. One wonders whether, in that case, they should have then named their squad after the city itself, like, "The Golden State San Franciscans," or the "Golden State Oaklanders," or something. This is the sort of thing that amuses me, especially when the choice is snide comments or actually analyzing this collapsed pile of drywall substituting for a basketball team. Were it not for the expansion squad, they'd be the worst in the league. 18-64

 

Southwest Division

 

 
 

San Antonio Spurs: (1)

It's fitting these guys wear black -- they're a death squad. Bad luck in the Lakers series and a bit of subpar play doomed these guys last year, so they went out

 
 

and got laser-eyed Brent Barry, who, along with Emanuel Ginobili, Bruce Bowen, Tony Parker and a cast of thousands, backs up the glass-using-no-personality superstar Tim Duncan. Another team in which most of the major players are either peaking or at their peak, and they've brought in good-luck charm Robert Horry to boot. Best squad in the league, and give them a ticket to the Finals, too. 62-20


 
 

Houston Rockets: (5)

The pundits are out there wringing their hands about how Tracy McGrady might not team well with Yao Ming because the former demands the ball too much, but

 
 

remember that instead of having a pair of undisciplined ball-hogs in Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley to play with Yao, now they've got a dead-eyed assassin who can take over the game or feed the big man. It's tempting to go away from my predictions here, just because they've got Juwan Howard, who for some reason, suckered me into thinking he was capable enough to be the other piece to help the Magic get to the finals last year (nicely done on my part). I'd be happier if this team had one more sharpshooter in the mold of Allan Houston, Michael Redd or hell, even Voshon Lenard, but this will have to do. 53-29

 

 
 

Dallas Mavericks: (6)

On some level, it would seem they've cleaned out the closet: getting rid of Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker, but losing Steve Nash. The return is mixed.

 
 

Erick Dampier played hard for a full year for the first time last year in his contract year, but Jason Terry is the real deal, on a par with Nash, and will mesh just as well. Which leaves the problem of Jerry Stackhouse, who needs to get locked in a bathroom somewhere in Fort Worth for about six months with Shawn Bradley. It's too bad his contract couldn't get canceled along with the shark-jumping fiasco "The Benefactor". This team should more closely resemble the sleek squad from two years ago rather than the cluttered team from last year, but importing one underachieving center from Golden State isn't an answer to the no-defense style of play these guys employ. 52-30

 

 
 

Memphis Grizzlies:

I was right about them having a lot of upside, but underestimated just how much. They've got a lot of guys, like James Posey and Brian Cardinal, who work

 
 

hard, and yet … they're dealing with the fact that they're in the toughest division in the league. These guys might have a case against the league for geographical misconduct -- Memphis isn't anywhere near the Southwest! They should be in the Southeast, with Phoenix in this division, Portland in the Pacific and the Bucks in the Northwest, although that creates more problems, at least until some team moves to Boise. 44-38


 
 

New Orleans Hornets:

Well, at least the Jamal Mashburn injury is out of the way early. Another tough team moves into the better conference and a better division. One super-stud in

 
 

Baron Davis, some nice role players and an uphill battle for new coach Byron Scott. They'll play hard, but sorry, guys -- not this year. 37-43

 

The Playoffs

All that said, we're looking forward to the NBA adding two more teams to the league so they can split everything into eight four-team divisions, or maybe 16 two-team divisions, which would be lots of fun, and seeing as how 16 teams make the playoffs, all the division winners would get in! Huzzah!

But the San Antonio Spurs once again look like the class out West, and as much as I like the Pacers, the Pistons are still on the upswing and will probably outwork everybody to get to the big dance again. But the Duncans of Texas will continue the Richard Gere tradition of one stellar effort for every three years or so and take the title.

 

David Gaffen sees a lot of advertising from his couch and has never once lost an argument with his television.