Rugby World Cup
This Week's Issue
Life of Reilly
SI for Women
CNN/SI - TV
Golf Pro Shop
MLB Gear Store
NFL Gear Store
SI FOR KIDS
Let the semi-season begin
Expect injuries, intensity and a new champion in '99
Posted: Thursday February 04, 1999 12:09 PM
By John Donovan, CNN/SI
ATLANTA -- The NBA rolls into its 1999 semi-season on Friday, with no one knowing quite what to expect.
Better games, or worse?
Who's better off, the wily veterans or the fresh-legged youngsters?
What of the Bulls, the Lakers and the Jazz? What about the Rockets?
And will the fans coming back? Indeed, are there any fans left?
The NBA's truncated, 50-game regular season begins Friday night with more anticipation than a season has generated in years. While the polls during the 204-day lockout clearly suggested no one cared, fans have flocked to free practices and preseason games.
So, exactly what can we expect from an abbreviated 50-game season?
Here are some guesses.
There are at least four teams in the West that could make it into the NBA Finals. And, with Michael Jordan gone and the Chicago Bulls up on blocks for a major overhaul, there are several in the East, too, looking to edge their way in.
"I think that there are probably a dozen teams who are going to training camp thinking they have a shot to be NBA champions," said NBA commissioner David Stern, who would say something like that. "I believe it's going to be one of our most competitive seasons"
Best bets? Well, our CNN/SI Power Rankings say the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz are the ones to beat in the West. In the East, there are the Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets and Atlanta Hawks.
"I think there are about a half a dozen teams that are poised to make a real good run for it now that Chicago is out," said coach Pat Riley of the Miami Heat, another team to watch. "Michael Jordan no longer looms over the confidence of other teams."
Said Lakers coach Del Harris, whose team Sports Illustrated picks to make it to the NBA Finals: "Let's face it, Shaq [O'Neal] missed better than a quarter of the season last year and we still won 61. If he would stay healthy the entire year this year, which we are praying for, then it's logical to assume [the Lakers would be a team to beat]."
Better games ...
Or, at the least, more interesting. With so many back-to-back games, you'll see coaches go to their benches more. Younger players will have to step in while veterans will take breathers whenever they can. With 32 fewer regular-season games, each one counts a little more. With Jordan gone, no game already is decided.
"I don't think you are going to have veteran teams like the Pacers and the Utah Jazz taking nights off because they are trying to pace themselves through an 82-game schedule," said Brian Hill, the coach of the Vancouver Grizzlies. "I think you are going to see these teams at their best night in and night our over a three-month period."
... except in the first month or so
With a shorter preseason, few teams will be polished enough to play an NBA-caliber game by the time the season starts. And, with nobody to lord over them during the long lockout, many players are still woefully out of shape. It translates to sloppiness and injuries in the first weeks of the season.
The short preseason will really hurt the teams with new coaches, too. It'll take them weeks to get their new systems in place.
"The teams that have their lineups set and are playing under the same coaches and the same system," Hill said, "I think they have a distinct advantage."
Injuries will be a major factor
And not just because of the players being out of shape. The main reason there will be more ouchies this spring is the packed schedule. With the games so close together -- back-to-backers are common, and every team has to play back-to-back-to-back games at least once -- there is less time to rejuvenate between games.
The injuries, of course, mean more, too. A two-week injury can cost your team eight games. In a normal season, it might only cost you five or six.
"The only problem I foresee is that if you have a major injury to one of your star players -- if he misses a couple of weeks -- that is a lot of games," Indiana Pacers coach Larry Bird said. "I think the team that stays the healthiest has probably got a better opportunity to win."
Games will be played differently
Every coach wants to stress defense, but it'll be hard to play great defense with so many games so close together. It's especially true of the frenetic, pressing teams in the league.
"Certainly you cannot press as much with all these back-to-back games," said Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino, "because you wear your own team out."
New faces wanting to take over for Jordan ...
Ray Allen of the Milwaukee Bucks comes to mind. The classic choices, Grant Hill of the Detroit Pistons and Kobe Bryant of the Lakers. Then there are real young guys like Tim Duncan of the Spurs, Antoine Walker of the Celtics, Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves. And even rookies like the Celtics' Paul Pierce.
... and some old ones, too
This is Charles Barkley's best, and maybe last, chance at a title. And his Houston Rockets are loaded this season, with Hakeem Olajuwon at center and newly acquired Scottie Pippen in town. Without Jordan's shadow to live under, expect a big year from Pippen. Other ring-less players looking for a chance are Knicks center Patrick Ewing, the Jazz combo of Karl Malone and John Stockton, Seattle point guard Gary Payton ... the list goes on.
Some of the best playoff games in years
With all the parity, you'll see even more emotion in the playoffs. And everybody will be on their best behavior in the league's showcase event, to prove that the NBA is indeed back.
"What the league has to do," said the Bucks' new coach, George Karl, "is just go play and show some positive enthusiasm for the game."
Copyright © 1999 CNN/SI. A Time Warner Company.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.