In basketball's topsy-turvy year, a breakthrough for fresh faces

Talk about a changing of the guard, not to mention forwards and centers, too. A quick peek at this year's NBA playoffs shows the glamour teams hailing from the Sunbelt still in the hunt and the familiar franchises staying home.

As the playoffs tipped off this weekend, a handful of surprise qualifiers illustrates not only a power shift in the NBA, but perhaps a renaissance for the game.

At the top of the heap, it's hot, as in the Phoenix Suns and the Miami Heat. Led by the phenomenal passing of point guard Steve Nash and a commitment to an up-tempo fast break style, the Suns produced an NBA-best 62 wins during the regular season.

In the rival Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat lit up their opponents for 59 wins. The Heat's success can be summed up with one word: Shaq. Besides his dominating inside presence, MVP candidate Shaquille O'Neal has been blessed with the firepower of guard Dwyane Wade. Together, they will severely test last year's champs, the Detroit Pistons, if both teams survive the early rounds of the playoffs.

But below these powerhouse teams lie a number of surprises.

Take the Chicago Bulls. A league doormat ever since Michael Jordan completed a six-title run with the team in 1998, the Bulls made the playoffs by sticking with youth. Ten of the 15 players on their roster have three years or less of NBA experience. Driven by fiery coach Scott Skiles and budding stars Tyson Chandler, Kirk Hinrich, and Ben Gordon, Chicago notched its first playoff appearance since the end of the Jordan era.

The Bulls' first-round opponent, the Washington Wizards, is another once-hapless club now bolstered by a trio of rising young players. The slashing style of forward Antawn Jamison, along with guards Larry Hughes and Gilbert Arenas, ended a Wizards playoff drought that has lasted since 1997.

Where's Kobe?

For all the enthusiasm over young faces making the playoffs, league executives openly fret over the absence of popular players and franchises in its showcase event.

The reasons are obvious. The Lakers and Knicks are the two most popular teams in the NBA, based on team merchandise sales this season. More important, the franchises inhabit the nation's two largest TV markets. Translation: Ratings for the playoffs will probably sag compared with last season, when O'Neal, who was paired with Kobe Bryant, took the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA Finals.

Without O'Neal, the Lakers missed the playoffs, though Bryant remained one of the league's top scorers.

"It is clear that the Lakers are the team to love or hate, and a playoffs without the Lakers are going to draw lower than one with them," says NBA Commissioner David Stern. "But aside from that, there are some interesting and exciting teams that are generating coverage, and a lot of young players and player combinations that people are talking about."

Beyond the Lakers and Knicks missing the playoffs, there are other concerns. For all the young talent leading the current crop of postseason competitors, the most popular new face, Cleveland's LeBron James, has already started summer vacation. James and the Cavaliers finished with 42 wins, but fell short of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference by virtue of a tiebreaker. His absence is a crushing blow, as James, the 2004 NBA Rookie of the Year, boasts both the talent and demeanor to serve as the league's poster child.

Also missing in action: Kevin Garnett, the charismatic MVP from last season. Garnett and Minnesota reached the conference finals a year ago; this season, they're out.

Comeback kids

But commissioner Stern and others around the league want the focus to be on who's playing rather than who's not. And, in a season that began with an ugly brawl between players and fans during a game between the Pistons and Indiana Pacers, the NBA looks to be in surprisingly good health.

The league set new highs for total and average game attendance during the regular season, beating the records set in the 1995-96 season. Marketing experts credit Stern for taking a frightening and despicable episode - some players and fans exchanged blows in the stands as well as on the court - and defusing it with both clarity and efficiency. (Ron Artest, an All-Star player, missed the entire season for his role in the fracas.)

"The response was handled so well, it actually, in some ways, turned a huge negative into a positive," says Marc Ganis, president at Sportscorp, an industry consultant in Chicago. "The NBA handled it as well as they could and, overall, I think the league is on the rebound."

George Karl, among others, can relate. He was analyzing NBA games on ESPN during the first several months of the season. On Jan. 28, Denver hired him in an attempt to revive the Nuggets.

Karl steered the Nuggets to a 32-8 finish, harnessed the talents of Carmelo Anthony, and helped the franchise secure a seventh seed. Denver's reward? A first-round series with Tim Duncan and the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs.

"Denver could be very intriguing," says veteran NBA executive Bernie Bickerstaff, who now serves as coach and general manager of the Charlotte Bobcats. "I don't think anybody looks forward to playing them right now."

But longtime observers demur when asked to make predictions. "It's as competitive as it's been in a long time and a big part of that is parity.... It's parity in a good sense, where [seeds] one through eight in both conferences have a legitimate shot," says Mr. Bickerstaff. "I learned a long time ago. In the NBA, you don't use logic."

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