Five Things To Look Out For This Season
The Beast in the East I admit it; I’m excited. Very excited. Giddy even. Although I was too young to remember most of Shaq’s first stay in Florida, from what I hear it was pretty impressive to say the least. Flicking through old media guides and game reports from his blue-and-white days, I see words like “dangerous”, “dominant” and “invincible” alongside pictures of a seven-foot man-mountain with a massive grin spread all over his similarly giant face.
Then came the move. Then came a ring. Then another, and a third for good measure. Peaches and cream, right? Not quite. Things were starting to bother the Diesel out in La La Land, what with the constant sniping between he and Kobe, the injuries, decreased productivity and the escalating feud with Mitch Kupchak. Something had to give. It turned out to be Mitch, who gave the Miami Heat the best gift a team could hope for: a true low-post force in a league of weak centres, meaning a shot at a championship.
Now the Big Aristotle is, in his own words, “back home”, as part of a team he loves which loves him back. Following a summer of taking his anger out in the gym he’s fit, focused and fired up. In short, he’s ready to do the things that made people start comparing Wilt to him, not the other way around. Hold onto your hats, people: Shaq is back.
T-Mac and Yao. Yao and T-Mac. What’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing, that’s what. The good people of Houston somehow found themselves the recipients of perhaps the league’s most talented scorer while retaining what is likely, in very little time at all, to be the league’s second-strongest centre behind Miami’s newest resident. Throw in a decent supporting cast and you’ve got a squad which, while still growing, isn’t far from challenging the sharks out west.
Houston fans are starting to get hyped, and with good reason. We all know that one-two combos can have their problems and that things rarely turn out as well as expected with such a mix of stars, but somehow we’ve thrown such negative thoughts aside with these two. Something about the pairing simply fits in my mind in a way it didn’t with K.G and Starbury, Payton and the Reignman and all the other double-headed attacks tagged as the future. Perhaps it’s the fact that Tracy can light it up from the outside or take it right to the rack with equal efficacy. Perhaps it’s that Yao is the most modest, accommodating young star the league has seen for years. Perhaps I’m subconsciously thinking “peanut butter and jelly.” Whatever the case, I have utter confidence that these two talented young men are about to write a chapter in the Rockets’ annals which won’t soon be forgotten. The folks down in Texas seem to as well.
As a long-time Denver fan, I’ve suffered through mediocrity, disappointment and outright nastiness for the better (if that’s the right word) part of the past five years. I was marginalised, vilified and mocked for my support of a squad which considered double-figure win totals a reasonable season. When asked who I supported I would mumble or change the subject, every year hoping I wouldn’t have to admit that my team was the one with six wins at All-Star break and that uniform.
Now, however, I can boast that I back the team in the new Pepsi Center and the UCLA colour scheme. With the ability to run out Andre Miller, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Nenê and Marcus Camby at the same time, at least twenty-five teams will have severe matchup issues. Although our starting five will most likely be Miller, Lenard, Anthony, Martin and Camby, that means that we have the potentially brilliant Brazilian and the turbocharged Earl “The Squirrel” Boykins in reserve, eagerly poised to change the tempo of the game. Assuming the returning Nuggets play nicely with the new kids and Coach Bzdelik finds a way to accommodate such a wealth of talent while placating any egos, Denver should be pushing for fifty wins or more and an extended postseason run.
Admit it. You’re morbidly curious. The decent half of you wants to see the new franchise establish themselves and make Charlotte proud to be an NBA city again. The other half, however, wonders how few games they might win, how badly some teams will beat them and whether basketball will ever thrive again in North Carolina, and these thoughts are hardly unjustified. With a rookie and a forward with career averages of 3, 2 and 0.5 as the franchise players you’d be forgiven for expecting the worst from this young squad of perpetual reserves and cast-offs. Most (including myself) strongly hope that Bob Johnson’s boys can gain some respect early on, but at the same time are fully aware that they may have to endure a few seasons of beatings before they begin to claw their way up the standings. Whatever the case, the Bobcats’ efforts should make for entertaining viewing this year, even if we should feel guilty for enjoying it.
The upcoming season is full of uncertainties for the superstar swingman who, with the end of his high-profile court case, was relieved of some of the massive burden on his shoulders. Unfortunately for Kobe, the other courts will only bring more pressure as he finally has the “opportunity” to play without Shaq, undeniably the most important player in recent league history. While he has a decent number of supporters on his quest to prove that he can make it on his own, the revamped Laker roster may take some time to form a cohesive unit, and all problems will be attributed to Bryant. As Shaq himself noted, now that he is no longer on the left coast the Lakers will be requiring a new scapegoat, particularly in a season where consistency is about as likely as a Shaq/Kobe reconciliation.
Kobe? It’s a sink-or-swim situation for this young man now. He could provide fuel for the cynics as he finds himself alone and incapable out of O’Neal’s considerable shadow. He could blow up in a big way and force writers to break out the M.J. comparisons. We could guess, but conjecture is all it would be as not even Kobe himself knows if he has it in him to thrive in the harshest of basketball climates. For now we can but watch and wait.