- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Spurs, Suns and Mavericks are the elite teams of the NBA, in whatever order one prefers.

The Suns are the fashionable pick to claim the championship in June because of the return of Amare Stoudemire.

Even if Stoudemire’s previous explosions around the basket are reduced by a pair of surgically repaired knees, his production in a scaled-down form provides the Suns with an edge that was lacking last season.

As it was, the Suns advanced to the Western Conference finals and won over the skeptics who saw them as a .500-like team after Stoudemire was relegated to the shelf.

The Suns have another physical condition deemed almost as worrisome as Stoudemire’s knees.

Steve Nash, the NBA’s two-time MVP, plays with a chronic back condition that is not apt to improve with age. Nash will turn 33 during the season, not a celebratory occasion for a player forced to go to the supine position after he leaves a game.

If Nash holds up and Stoudemire reprises a productive version of himself, the Suns have every reason to suspect the season before them is their best chance to secure a championship.

They certainly are poised to post the best record in the regular season, whatever that might mean to the Spurs and Mavericks.

The Spurs and Mavericks are playoff experienced enough not to fixate on the regular season.

The Heat showed that lesson last season and are prepared to do so again. The Heat will be content to register 50-54 wins and then see whether anyone has even the slightest answer for Dwyane Wade in the playoffs.

It is now his team, of course, with Shaquille O’Neal’s approval.

Although O’Neal’s slippage is pronounced, he still can be a load, just not consistently.

A 34-year-old O’Neal remains superior to the rest of the centers in the NBA, with the possible exception of the ever-evolving Yao Ming, coming off his first 20-10 season.

Until the postseason, O’Neal and the Heat will not be held to the usual judgments of the NBA intelligentsia. They plan to do just enough to be favorably positioned and rested going into the playoffs.

The advancing years of O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton demand this mind-set, jarring as it may be to the intensely driven Pat Riley.

The impressive quality of the Western Conference and the defining-down prospect before the Heat are the two dominant features of the NBA, begging the pardon of the marketing gurus stuck on the triumvirate of Wade, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

The urge to sell the three is understandable, even if it devalues the model organization of the Spurs and the beauty of the Suns.

But that is the culture of the NBA, forever predisposed to push the individual instead of the team.

The Spurs remain efficient in an old-school way, no doubt a reflection of coach Gregg Popovich and the fundamentally crafted Tim Duncan.

They lead a hopelessly professional team that has claimed three championships since 1999 and shown a remarkable capacity to add pieces that do not detract from the whole.

Tony Parker has morphed into an All-Star point guard, and the flop-happy Manu Ginobili is looking to return to his All-Star level of 2005 after being slowed by injuries last season.

Otherwise, the NBA has ushered in both a new ball and deportment standard that protects the referees.

Coaches and players with an interest in objecting to a referee’s call now must do so in the most understated, muted manner possible or be subjected to the NBA’s sensitivity police.

The civility rule promises to be a more difficult adjustment than the one with the new ball, if only because NBA referees have a tendency to see what they want to see in the context of a player’s reputation and the home crowd.

The initial peek comes tonight: the Bulls at the Heat, the Suns at the Lakers.

At last.

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