After a tumultuous off-season for one of its leading teams, the new National Basketball Association regular season is getting underway this week with the tip off Tuesday night. The season begins against the background of Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant's legal case, the emergence of high school sensation LeBron James, and changes in the coaching ranks.
The Los Angeles Lakers open the NBA's regular season with Kobe Bryant's legal troubles and a war of words between Bryant and star center Shaquille O'Neal in the headlines.
Bryant is charged with raping a 19-year-old hotel worker in July and will have to stand trial. His off-the-court trouble and injuries have left Bryant several kilograms lighter than last season. He played in only one pre-season game.
Bryant has also been in a war of words with star center Shaquille O'Neal. Bryant criticized Shaq for showing up out of shape. O'Neal has said that Bryant should opt out of his contract next year if he does not like the way the team is playing. The dispute has gotten so heated that Lakers Coach Phil Jackson is hinting that changes could be made if things do not settle.
"We're going to provide an environment for them to work together. And it's up to these guys," he said. "And I am not specifically pointing any individuals out to play together or else we will have to make changes as a whole organization." The Lakers have also brought in veteran stars Karl Malone and Gary Payton to add firepower to their lineup. Payton says he and Malone are attempting to stabilize the atmosphere so the whole team can win.
"Everybody discusses everything. We all discuss everything. That's what me and Karl are here for. We discussed everything and we squashed everything," he said.
Kobe Bryant has hinted that he might leave the Los Angeles Lakers after this season when his contract expires. That's assuming that his legal troubles have cleared. Bryant has a court appearance in Colorado on the sexual assault charges on November 10.
Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cavaliers are hoping that top draft pick, 18-year-old phenomenon LeBron James, will help them get to the post-season. James was a standout star at Saint Vincent's-Saint Mary's High school in Ohio, and was the 2003 High School Player of the Year.
James averaged more than 30 points, almost 10 rebounds, five assists and nearly three steals per game in his senior season. He also led the team to the number one ranking, its fourth straight state tournament and third state championship.
The reigning NBA champion San Antonio Spurs look to repeat without long-time team leader David Robinson. The man known as "the Admiral" retired after last season, and the Spurs have signed free agent Slovene center Rasho Nesterovic to replace him. San Antonio also signed Robert Horry from the Lakers.
The Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat start the season with new coaches. Pat Riley quit as coach just days before the season began and Stan Van Gundy took his place. Van Gundy says his goal is similar to Riley's, winning.
"Philosophically there will not be any changes. I believe in everything we do here and we still want to be a team that is, number-one, hard working. We want to be defensive oriented. Obviously we always have been, I think that's what it takes to win. And we want to be a very unselfish team," he said.
The Philadelphia 76ers promoted assistant coach Randy Ayers after head coach Larry Brown resigned to take over the Detroit Pistons. And unlike Brown, Ayers seems to get along well with star guard Allen Iverson. Philadelphia also acquired forward Glenn Robinson from Atlanta. But Robinson has to serve a three-game suspension after being found guilty of domestic battery. The Detroit Pistons knocked the Sixers out of the playoffs last season. This season, the Pistons have added Darko Milicic, another high-school standout who is from Serbia-Montenegro.
In the West, the Sacramento Kings have broken up the lineup that took them to the playoffs last year. Sacramento traded away Scott Pollard and Turkish standout Hedo Turkoglu. Jim Jackson was not re-signed and Keon Clark was sent to Utah. That leaves star forward Chris Webber without the close-knit group that took the Kings to the Western Conference semifinals last year.
The Eastern Conference could see some surprising teams, including Milwaukee, Toronto, and even the Memphis Grizzlies, as candidates to challenge for the conference title. But no Eastern Conference team has won the NBA title since Michael Jordan's last season with Chicago in 1998. If the L.A. Lakers can put off-the-court troubles and interior bickering aside, it could be difficult for any Eastern Conference team to beat them.