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NBA SEASON PREVIEW

It Just Doesn't Suit Them

All but lost amid talk of dress codes, Phil and Kobe is the fact that the games are about to start. That's hardly ideal for a league still in transition.

November 01, 2005|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

The big story of the NBA season was supposed to be Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant, presumably for soap opera fans, since the Lakers aren't expected back in the Finals ... or the playoffs for that matter. Even Laker radio commentator Mychal Thompson, who was still tending his title hopes in March last season, has been heard entertaining doubts.

But Phil and Kobe disappointed everyone by getting along. This came as a bitter pill to editors stuck with thousands in expenses for a week in Hawaii who got, "Jackson and Bryant Say They're Fine."

The remaining tabloids and other sensationalists got lucky when Commissioner David Stern put in his dress code. This prompted an uprising among the players and visions of Allen Iverson being suspended for breaking the three-foot rule, which says his jeans have to be within 36 inches of his waist.

Last week, in Stern's annual conference call, when he usually bubbles over with talk about his young stars, etc., there were six questions about the dress code, two about the collective bargaining agreement, two about testing for heart problems, two about TV, one about cooperation with European leagues and one about where the Hornets will wind up.

All that was left out was ... the season. This is yet another transitional period for the NBA, which was still struggling through the post-Michael Jordan era when it found it was also in the post-Shaq-and-Kobe era.

Now it's a brave new, balanced league. For five seasons after Jordan left the Bulls, the league tilted West. The West won all the titles, and the East got as far as Game 6 only once.

Now, however, it's tilting back, with Shaquille O'Neal in Miami and rising programs in Detroit, Indiana, Cleveland, Chicago, New Jersey and Milwaukee.

The San Antonio Spurs are the best team and get better all the time, but they've never been great. Nor will they do as a marquee team. They're a bunch of nice, low-key guys who play the game the right way, so it's hard to get excited about rooting against them.

Happily for a league in search of an attraction, there's the Miami Heat, with O'Neal, the last remaining giant personality.

At O'Neal's behest, the Heat added eccentrics Jason Williams and Antoine Walker. Now everyone is waiting to see what happens with Coach Stan Van Gundy, who went on the endangered list when team President Pat Riley announced he would help his former assistant more this season.

Riley's concern is also thought to have come at the behest of O'Neal, who likes to choose his own coach, as he chose Jackson for the Lakers.

The Heat slouched through the exhibition season. The players looked like they were waiting for Riley's arrival while Van Gundy, who was still technically in charge, issued dire assessments of their play, such as, "We've hit rock bottom."

Not that they could ever eclipse the zany days of the Lakers, whose coach, Jackson, had a large tolerance for bizarre behavior. Riley hates controversy with a passion, and if he takes over, expect the curtain to slam down on everyone's antics.

On the other hand, anything that isn't about the dress code will come as a relief.

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