The National Basketball Association's 60th season is opening with more than 100 international players in the league, a pair of revered coaches on the bench, and a new dress code that has made some players unhappy. Several much improved teams will be trying to keep the defending champion San Antonio Spurs from earning their third NBA title in four years.
The Spurs will have to fight off the challenge from at least half a dozen teams with the talent to take the NBA crown if they hope to repeat as champions.
San Antonio outlasted the Detroit Pistons in a dramatic seven-game showdown in June's NBA Finals, but the Pistons return as a serious threat to dethrone the Spurs along with Shaquille O'Neal's Miami Heat, the Indiana Pacers, Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets.
Around 100 players on NBA rosters this season are from outside the United States, and many of them are expected to make a large impact. Spurs star forward Tim Duncan of the U.S. Virgin Islands, French guard Tony Parker and playmaker Manu Ginobili of Argentina are key to San Antonio's championship hopes.
Two-meter-26 centimeter tall Yao Ming of China has become the most dominant center in the Western Conference and is expected to spark the Houston Rockets. Reigning Most Valuable Player Steve Nash of Canada ignites the Phoenix Suns, Germany's Dirk Nowitski powers the Dallas Mavericks and Peja Stojakovic of Serbia and Montenegro leads the Sacramento Kings.
Other young players might also make their mark on the NBA. Former Syracuse phenom Carmello Anthony could make the Denver Nuggets a team to be reckoned with, while 21-year-old former Rookie of the Year LeBron James has vowed to finally get the Cleveland Cavaliers to the post-season.
Some contenders have special motivation in their quest for the NBA championship. Shaquille O'Neal wants to prove he can win it all without the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant and coach Phil Jackson. Ron Artest, whose suspension for most of last season after brawling in the stands with Detroit fans destroyed Indiana's championships hopes, returns to the Pacers looking for redemption. He says he has learned his lesson.
"I reacted too fast. I should have thought about what I was doing at that time. At the same time, like I have always said, I did not feel I should be suspended 73 games," said Artest. "I am never going into the stands again. It is not necessary. That was not necessary! Now, the fans know they cannot do things like that, I know I cannot do things like that."
And while the Milwaukee Bucks may not be a championship contender yet, they should be much improved with college Player of the Year and overall number-one NBA draft pick Andrew Bogut of Australia at center.
Ten teams changed coaches in the off-season, but the two getting the most attention will be Phil Jackson, who rejoins the Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Brown, who has moved from the NBA finalist Pistons to the New York Knicks.
Jackson will be reunited with Kobe Bryant, a player he once dubbed as "uncoachable," on a Lakers squad that won just 34 games last season. Jackson, whose .725 winning percentage is the best in NBA history, says 46 wins during the 82-game season would be a success.
The Knicks won just 33 games last year, but Larry Brown says coaching New York is his "dream job." Taking over struggling franchises is nothing new for Brown. Seven of the eight professional teams Brown coached substantially improved in his first season.
The last time these two high-profile coaches were on the court together was in the 2004 NBA finals, when Brown's blue-collar Pistons topped Jackson's star-studded Lakers. But do not look for either team in the NBA Finals this season.
A controversial new league-mandated dress code will change the way players look off the court. The code requires business casual attire whenever players are engaged in team or league business. Suit coats, sports jackets, slacks and dress shoes will replace throw-back jerseys, baggy jeans and shorts and unlaced shoes or sandals. Gold medallions, flashy jewelry headphones, sunglasses and floppy baseball caps have been outlawed. Some players, like Antwan Jamison of the Washington Wizards, like the new code.
"I love it. I went to [the University of North] Carolina so I am accustomed to wearing a coat and tie every game," he said. "And you know, there is nothing wrong with coming to your job looking professional. So I think it has been kind of blown out of proportion a little bit, but I have no problem with the dress code."
But other players, like the Philadelphia 76ers' star guard Allen Iverson, think the code is an unfair attack on the hip-hop culture. He says taking away players' individual style will make the league "fake." Other players have called the edict "cultural censorship," while some have called the policy racist. The league says players will be warned if their apparel is not up to code. But fines or suspensions could follow if a player refuses to conform.