As NBA season starts, eight key questions

It took the better part of a decade, but the NBA – finally – is past Michael Jordan. One generation of stars, including Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson, and Vince Carter, came and went without making anyone forget Air Jordan during the 1990s. Every year, the question persisted: When will the NBA rebound?

Last season, it did. The playoffs delivered a slew of scintillating series packed with Game 7 thrillers, back-and-forth match-ups, and the style points crucial to capturing casual sports fans. With a new season tipping off Oct. 31, the Monitor asks eight questions about the months ahead.

1) Is a new golden era upon us?

It's easy to dismiss the NBA as a league far removed from the glory days of Larry, Magic, and Michael, not to mention Sir Charles and Hakeem the Dream. Pro hoops briefly devolved into selfish scoring displays of "SportsCenter" highlight reels. No more. The faces of the NBA are young, talented, and indisputably dedicated to teamwork and winning. Thanks to the troika of the 2003 draft – Cleveland's LeBron James, Denver's Carmelo Anthony, and 2006 NBA Finals hero Dwyane Wade of Miami – pro hoops is must-see TV again.

Wade, star of the championship-winning Miami Heat, is making Spike Lee-directed Converse spots while James and Anthony scoop up celebrity cachet. But you can't become the face of the league until you actually win championships, cautions Kenny Smith, a TNT analyst and former NBA player. "LeBron last year took steps, and Carmelo this year will start to do that," he says.

2) Will the Knicks show a knack for improvement?

Madison Square Garden proved so toxic last season it should have been condemned. The Knicks' ballyhooed hiring of head coach Larry Brown left the franchise in tatters, replete with a wave of player injuries, front office and locker-room spats, and yet another change in head coaches. Brown is out, left to squabble with the Knicks over a contract settlement. His replacement, GM Isiah Thomas, has been given a win-or-else mandate by team management. Ominously, the Knicks caved to the Celtics in the preseason. Coming off a 23-59 season, New York didn't make any major player moves this off-season. Thomas could be unemployed by spring.

3) Can the Heat repeat?

Wade is a young superstar with limitless energy, but what about the rest of the cast, including the not-so-spry Shaquille O'Neal? Other key players (Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton) are also on the downside of their careers. "Miami is the best team in the [Eastern Conference], but they're dealing with age and with everyone gunning for them," says Greg Anthony of ESPN.

4) Is the ball in for a fall?

A new official game ball, manufactured by Spalding, debuts this season, though early reviews have been spotty. O'Neal recently compared it to a driveway relic from a toy store, but NBA observers say the carping will cease early on. Says one longtime scout and analyst, who wished to remain anonymous, "It will be a controversy until somebody makes 11 out of 13 shots in a game. Then, it will be a great ball."

5) Will the NBA develop great rivalries again?

Ever since the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls were dismantled in the late 1990s, rivalries have suffered. Lakers-Celtics? Nope. Sixers-Celtics? Ditto. Signs of hope have emerged, though. Last spring's Texas shootout between the Spurs and Mavericks brought thrills, and LeBron's Cavs nearly took the feisty Pistons to the mat in the playoffs. If and when these and other rivalries flourish, the NBA will see a spike in fan interest on top of recent successes (record attendance and revenue during 2005-06).

6) Can the NBA pull up its long socks ?

It took most of a season to overcome the nightmarish 2004 brawl between players and fans at a Pacers-Pistons game, and until recently the NBA seemed to be in much better graces. But during training camp, Pacers guard Stephen Jackson got into a fight at a strip club and fired his gun in the air. Also, Kings coach Eric Musselman was charged with driving drunk this month. If such incidents become commonplace, David Stern, the image-savvy NBA commissioner lambasted by critics for "nannying" the league, may have to come up with something more draconian than a dress code.

7) Whither Kobe and Cuban?

Sure, Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a single game last season and led the Lakers within a game of upsetting Phoenix in the playoffs, but he drooped in the deciding game – and Zen master Phil Jackson can't conjure enough motivation to make a mediocre team a contender. Now Bryant must grapple with off-season knee surgery, which hobbled him throughout training camp. As for Mark Cuban, the dot-com billionaire last seen cheering his beloved Dallas Mavericks all the way to the NBA Finals, his team could take the crown behind the ascendant Dirk Nowitzki and an enviable depth-laden roster.

8) Who else should we be watching?

Orlando, with young star Dwight Howard, is on the move, as are the Hornets, led by Chris Paul, reigning rookie of the year. Defensive stopper Ben Wallace left Motown for the Second City, setting the Bulls up to make some playoff noise for the first time since you-know-who left. Phoenix, with a dazzling fast-break style and gee-whiz point guard Steve Nash, could fly even higher with the return of Amare Stoudemire. If you think Tim Duncan and the internationally minded Spurs may be passé, take another look. All the talk of LeBron's Cavs and Wade's Heat shouldn't make you give New Jersey short shrift, either with the ever-brilliant Jason Kidd leading the way, the Nets strengthened their bench and their hopes.

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