Sports

Kobe and (improved) company will reign again

The NBA season tips off today, with Boston and Cleveland squaring off in the premier matchup. The Charlotte Observer's NBA reporter predicts how the season will play out:

BEST ACQUISITION

The candidates are Hedo Turkoglu (Toronto), Richard Jefferson (San Antonio), Rasheed Wallace (Boston), Mike Miller (Washington) and Shaquille O'Neal (Cleveland).

I think Turkoglu is a great addition to the Raptors, for his ability to make plays in the fourth quarter both for himself and others. But the NBA is all about forcing defenses to make hard choices. Shaq isn't close to what he once was, but he still demands a double-team, as does LeBron James. How do you guard the other three Cavs?

TEAMS TO WATCH

In the West, it's the San Antonio Spurs. They're running out of time to win another title, but adding Jefferson and Antonio McDyess could catapult them ahead of the Denver Nuggets as the team most equipped to challenge the Lakers.

In the East, it's the Washington Wizards because this has potential to go dramatically in either direction. Gilbert Arenas is a reality show, but the man can play. So can Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. Miller was a great acquisition. They could implode, but in a way so entertaining Fox should buy the TV rights.

COMEBACK PLAYER

It's too easy to pick Boston's Kevin Garnett (great, previously injured, aging player on a team that contends for a title). It's too subtle to pick Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut (a skilled and savvy true center on a team nobody cares about).

So how about Andrew Bynum? After the injury, he played little more than a bit part in the Lakers' championship run. But he still has huge potential on a team with a lot of options. He could end up being a neat story on a team likely to win it all again.

COACH ON HOTTEST SEAT

You don't want to be Lawrence Frank in New Jersey, and how is that his fault?

When they had established talent (Jason Kidd, Richardson, Vince Carter), this guy was Jeff Van Gundy Lite: the workaholic, cerebral video guy-turned-head coach. Now, with a bunch of kids, he's as stale as second-day bagels.

No city is more obsessed with new than greater New York. That dynamic is amplified by the prospect that a Russian billionaire soon will buy the team in the effort to move the Nets to Brooklyn.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

I'm a contrarian, so I hate picking chalk. I'd love to say Minnesota point guard Jonny Flynn, who was made for this era when hand-checking is outlawed. But who in his right mind wouldn't tab No. 1 pick Blake Griffin?

Even the Clippers can't screw this guy up. Too bad Tim Duncan already has the nickname "The Big Fundamental," because that's Griffin. He grew up a guard then had a dramatic growth spurt. That meant he learned to handle the ball, pass and make decisions in traffic.

He's not just a tall guy with coordination. He's a player with developed skills. And he'll be a difference-maker.

ALL-NBA

G Kobe Bryant, Lakers

G Dwyane Wade, Heat

C Dwight Howard, Magic

F LeBron James, Cavaliers

F Tim Duncan, Spurs

MVP

I wouldn't want to live next to Kobe Bryant. He'd always have the greener lawn, the cleaner car, the better cookout and the perfect 10-year-old's birthday party. But that compulsive competitive zeal is why he's my pick (over James) for MVP.

CHAMPION

See above; Bryant is the alpha male among alpha males. And the Lakers have surrounded him with so many weapons (Gasol, Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest) that I don't see the Cavaliers winning. That will tick off Shaq, which isn't the worst thing.

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