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Michael Jordan

Is this Mike's last season?

The NBA: Praise and Predictions

By Mack Williams Sports Columnist

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The NBA is back in business for what could be the last season of David Robinson, John Stockton, and Michael Jordan. Meanwhile, we look forward to watching newcomers such as Houston's Yao Ming and Denver's Nene Hilario on new game networks ABC and ESPN. So what else is in store this season? Let's dive right in.

East Side

The New Jersey Nets raised their Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference championship banners in a ceremony that some feel was, in a sense, twenty-five years late. Of course, we will never know what would have happened had the 1970's Nets owner, Roy Boe, been willing and/or able to bring his entire ABA championship team—including Julius Erving—into the NBA. But many older fans who had the opportunity to see the Doctor in the ABA remain convinced that his Nets team would have had a real chance at playing for the NBA title in the first post-merger year of 1976-77.

Tragedy, bad picks, bad luck and bad play epitomized the Nets experience for most of the next twenty-five years. But led by Jason Kidd, they advanced to the 2002 finals, and now stand even stronger—at least on a short-term basis—after trading Todd MacCullough and Keith Van Horn to the Sixers for Dikembe Mutumbo. Dikembe is on the back end of his career, but remains the most intimidating defensive force in the game. His presence in the middle makes J. Kidd and the Nets' already potent fastbreak even more lethal, as will more court time for high-flying Richard Jefferson. They should be the clear favorites in the East.

That said, both of the other recent conference champions that have fallen victim to the three-peating Lakers like their chances as well. Any team with Allen Iverson has a shot at success, though the 76ers' shot may hinge on Iverson taking less ill-advised shots and learning to trust and lead his teammates. The Indiana Pacers are young and athletic, and still have one of the game's greatest clutch shot-makers in Reggie Miller. Neither of these teams can be counted out.

Joining them in the playoffs will be New Orleans, Orlando, and Washington. The new city Hornets are extremely talented with players like Baron Davis, Jamal Mashburn, and David Wesley, and should benefit from fan euphoria during their first year in New Orleans. The Magic may have as good a chance as anyone if Grant Hill can remain healthy and finally get to team up with Tracy McGrady.

Naturally no storybook ending—if, in fact, this is to be the ending—of MJ's career would be complete without the rebuilt Wiz Kids making a playoff run. The other two playoff spots will be filled by two of the "bubble" teams— the Toronto Raptors; Boston Celtics; Milwaukee Bucks; and the "playoff-guaranteed" Atlanta Hawks. Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson is off to a great start— to the chagrin, no doubt, of former Bucks teammates such as Ray Allen - but nonetheless, Hawks management may need to get their season ticket-holder rebates ready.

The Wild, Wild West

We all know the deal. Shaquille O'Neal is the best center in the game, and Kobe Bryant is arguably the best all-around player in the game. These Lakers are, in the eyes of some, the closest to having Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan on the same team.

So is yet another L.A. parade inevitable? Maybe not. The Sacramento Kings—or, as per Shaq, the "Sacramento Queens"—certainly don't think so. They might point to the fact that they could have defeated the champs in the 2002 Western Conference finals had the Lakers' Samaki Walker's Game 4 halftime three-pointer, which came after the buzzer, not counted - especially since the Lakers went on to win that game 100-99.

Kings fans would say that the two teams were virtually even, and that the Kings have been the only one to improve as a result of getting frontcourt help in Keon Clark. Laker fans might counter by pointing out that the Lakers improve collectively each year by virtue of Kobe's individual improvement. In any case, these two may very well battle to the end again this coming spring.

There are probably several Western Conference teams that would like to secede to the East. Both the Utah Jazz and the Minnesota Timberwolves would be strong contenders in the East, but may have a hard time getting beyond the first round in the West. The Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trailblazers are each among the deepest teams you'll ever see, and hope that their overall talent level can catapult them into the finals.

As long as the San Antonio Spurs have Tim Duncan and David Robinson-and a real chance at winning the Midwest Division title and a great playoff seed- they cannot be totally counted out. The final playoff team will come from the "bubble" Phoenix Suns and Seattle SuperSonics, edge to the Sonics.

Finally, as far as TV is concerned, Disney/ABC got the league's network contract, but fortunately TNT still has a piece of the cable package… because there is little on the tube that is more entertaining than "Inside The NBA" with Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley, and Ernie Johnson. There are also few announcers as excitable and exciting as TNT's Kevin Harlan. Edge to TNT.

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-- November 16, 2002

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