- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

Guess what? The NBA really is a showbiz affair. Only super-producer David Stern isn’t pulling all the behind-the-curtain strings (otherwise, New York somehow would have won the draft lottery).

To the contrary, the league lurches along in the manner of an over-budget, out-of-control Hollywood spectacular — propelled by the ego of big-money players, rife with jaw-dropping plot twists, subject to endless rewrites.

And to think: We haven’t even mentioned the Los Angeles Lakers.

Following one busy summer, it’s time to grab some popcorn and settle in. With the movies in mind, here are 10 stories to watch in 2003-04:

1. “The Accused”

Regrettably, the biggest news of the season has nothing to do with basketball. Kobe Bryant’s upcoming sexual assault trial figures to dominate the headlines, casting a pall over a Los Angeles Lakers organization that has reloaded for a title run with the addition of perennial All-Stars Gary Payton and Karl Malone. Best-case scenario for the Lakers? Bryant is found innocent. Worst-case scenario? Bryant goes to prison. In the meantime, in-season court dates and an ongoing media circus are bound to take a toll on the club, particularly now that Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal are feuding openly again.

2. “The Original King of (Jump Shot) Comedy”

Charismatic preps-to-pros phenom LeBron James — perhaps you’ve heard of him? — is expected to carry the weight of a sagging league on his precociously broad shoulders. Question is, can those same shoulders launch an adequate jump shot? While basketball observers marvel over King James’ physical gifts and deft passing touch, his fading, hitching jumper leaves something to be desired. In James’ first nationally televised pro game, the Lakers’ Devean George gave the much-hyped rookie a three-foot cushion, daring him to shoot. The result? A 4-for-18 performance in which James didn’t make a single shot from beyond 15 feet. Clank. When he’s not holding news conferences or filming Nike commercials, LeBron better LePractice.

3. “There’s Something About Larry”

Normally, it would be easy to lampoon the Detroit Pistons for canning Rick Carlisle, a coach who led the club to consecutive division titles while picking up 2001-2002 coach of the year honors. But when Carlisle’s replacement is none other than hoops vagabond/Hall of Famer Larry Brown … well, sometimes a team’s gotta do what a team’s gotta do. Probably the best basketball teacher in the biz — John Wooden is retired, after all — Brown inherits a hard-nosed, team-first squad and a rookie big man, Darko Milicic, who’s ready and eager to learn. Sounds like a perfect match, even if the Pistons are probably another big-time scorer away from serious championship contention.

4. “Rasho-Mon”

No one in the NBA has larger shoes to fill — figuratively and literally — than San Antonio’s Rasho Nesterovic. After all, the sweet-shooting 7-footer will be moving into a center spot vacated by arguably the best and most popular player in franchise history, David Robinson. Though Nesterovic’s soft touch and decent mobility should make him an effective offensive complement to Tim Duncan, it’s doubtful he can replace Robinson’s speed and shot-blocking on the defensive end of the floor. Instead, expect the defending champs to rely on a center-by-committee approach — Nesterovic, Duncan, undersized Malik Rose and new addition Robert Horry — against the Lakers’ O’Neal and the rest of the tall timber in the Western Conference.

5. “Feeling Minnesota”

Speaking of tall Timber(wolves), Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett finally has some help. And no, we’re not talking about Kendall Gill and Joe Smith (was he really worth an under-the-table deal?) Wolves GM Kevin McHale let loose the dogs of player acquisition over the summer, adding three new starters: Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell and Michael Olowokandi. The mouthy Cassell brings guts and two championship rings; Sprewell adds much-needed perimeter quickness; and Olowokandi clogs the lane and is a former No. 1 draft pick. Better still, laterally challenged Wally Szczerbiak slides back to his natural position at small forward, while playoff hero Troy Hudson takes on the role of high-energy supersub. Lakers coach Phil Jackson calls Minnesota one of the league’s most-improved clubs. Barring injury and/or chemistry issues, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

6. “Good Mourning, New Jersey?”

Alonzo Mourning was all set to sign with the Dallas Mavericks — that is, until he talked to Jason Kidd. Credit the New Jersey Nets point guard with yet another assist. The lack of a credible post presence has cost the Eastern Conference champs dearly over the last two seasons, when the O’Neal-led Lakers and Duncan-led Spurs powered past the pivot-less Nets in the NBA Finals. New Jersey newcomer Mourning looks to change all that. But can the former All-Star make it through an entire season? A chronic kidney condition has limited Mourning to 88 games the past three seasons — he missed all of last year — and could force him to retire for good at any time. Willing to take the risk, New Jersey would love to get the fearsome ‘Zo of old. Barring a medical miracle, however, 20 to 25 hard-nosed minutes a night is probably more realistic — and in the Lilliputian East, likely more than enough.

7. “Carlisle’s Way”

When Carlisle became available, new Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird jumped at the chance to hire his former Celtics teammate and Pacers assistant, dumping then-coach Isiah Thomas in the process. The only problem? Bird didn’t consult with team superstar/Thomas loyalist Jermaine O’Neal, who signed a seven-year, $126 million deal with Indiana just one month earlier. Upset, O’Neal told reporters that he wouldn’t have re-upped with the Pacers had he known Thomas, a father figure, was on the way out. Bird replied that he would be happy to accommodate any unhappy players, provided he got “something good in return for them.” Publicly, the two have patched their rift; privately, it will fall on Carlisle to earn O’Neal’s trust. Guiding the talented-but-inconsistent Pacers to a deep playoff run would go a long way toward soothing O’Neal’s hurt feelings — and keeping him in town.

8. “Maverick(s)”

Attention, gamblers: If you’re betting on the Dallas Mavericks, by all means take the over. Oh, and somebody get these guys a red-white-and-blue ABA ball. Already known as a points-first, defense-last outfit, the Mavericks added more of the former and little of the latter in the offseason, picking up high-scoring forwards Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker. Good thing coach Don “Small Ball” Nelson likes to be unorthodox. While skeptics joke that the Mavericks will have to win every game 128-126, both “Ants” should fit in rather nicely: Jamison is an up-and-down slasher, while Walker’s point forward passing skills will be much appreciated by the big three of Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley and Steve Nash. Newcomer Danny Fortson adds fireplug toughness, but asking a foul-prone, 6-foot-8, 260-pounder to log major postseason minutes at center may be a stretch. Then again, he can’t be any worse than Shawn Bradley.

9. “The Men Who Would Be Kings”

Trendy contender or yesterday’s news? The Sacramento Kings looked like both last season, rolling through the regular season before falling to Dallas in the playoffs. Unable to muster an inside attack behind 35-year-old Vlade Divac after losing star forward Chris Webber in Game 2 of the Mavericks series, the Kings went after size in the summer, trading away subs Scot Pollard and Hedo Turkoglu in exchange for All-Star center Brad Miller. The rough ‘n’ tumble Miller will get a chance to justify his $68 million deal early; Webber is expected to miss the first month of the season following knee surgery. Sacramento still runs the most fluid offense in the league, but Los Angeles, Minnesota and Dallas all have amassed more talent. In other words: The window of opportunity isn’t opening any wider.

10. “Gigli”

In honor of the year’s worst film, we humbly present the league’s worst team: The once-proud Utah Jazz. Hall-of-Fame pick ‘n’ roll partners John Stockton and Malone are long gone, taking their 18-straight playoff appearances and two trips to the NBA Finals with them. Even worse, the suddenly cap-rich Jazz failed to sign any of their free agent targets — Jason Terry, Corey Maggette, Elton Brand, Andre Miller — during the offseason. So what’s in coach Jerry Sloan’s cupboard? Matt Harpring, Andrei Kirilenko, Keon Clark and an extra-large bottle of Maalox. Count on the Jazz giving maximum effort, but if Sloan can coax 25 wins out of this crew, he deserves a Coach of the Millennium trophy.

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