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Sunday, June 16
The Indiana Daily Student

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Competition lurks for Lakers

With the NBA season now underway, the annual question is again being asked: "Will anyone stop Shaq and the Lakers?" For three years now, the answer, of course, has been no. This year, however, there are some teams that can challenge the league's latest dynasty, and depending on the world's most famous big toe, the end (or at least delay) of an era could be on the horizon.\nDethroning the Champion\nBy now, we all know about the Lakers. Here are the teams that could give them trouble.\nSacramento Kings\nObviously, the Kings are the best of the rest. If it weren't for the dreadful no-call on Kobe Bryant at the end of game 6 of the Western Conference Finals last year, they would have gotten over the hump. This year, expect a more experienced, smarter team to take the floor, this time with more anger and a sense of "now it's our turn."\nNew Jersey Nets\nThis team is better than last year. First, they acquired big man Dikembe Mutombo from Philly to help underneath, which is the only area where they suffered during last year's run to the Finals. Second, Jason Kidd is in his contract year, which should push him beyond his personal accomplishments from last season. Expect a confident, well-balanced team to remain a dominant force.\nDallas Mavericks\nWith an increased emphasis on defense (only Golden State allowed more points per game last season) and a greater sense of team chemistry, Don Nelson's squad can finally belong in the league's top tier. The Mavs are full of young talent, and have the desire to advance. The only obstacle a year ago (other than their poor defense) was their inexperience. After last year's run, they now have that, and are poised to make even more noise on the court than owner Mark Cuban does off it; although we'll see about that.\nNew Orleans Hornets\nDon't forget this team because they left Charlotte. In fact, playing in front of more than 10,000 fans for home games may encourage the team to play even better. They got off to a slow start last season, but finished strong. Baron Davis is as good as it gets at the point, and like Dallas, the past two seasons' postseason losses will only help them at this point. Their success, however, may be curtailed by the status of center Elden Campbell, who will start the season on the injured list as he recovers from knee surgery.\nBest of the Rest\nThe last couple of seasons have seen many teams move up the standings at rapid paces. This has created a plethora of quality teams that can also contend late into May.\nIn the East, Detroit is coming off of a terrific season, but the loss of Jerry Stackhouse is huge. Will Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups be able to keep the Pistons at the top of the central? Probably not. Look for contention from Indiana and Milwaukee -- both teams that were disappointed with their finishes last year given their talent, and both teams that are too good to overlook now.\nWashington is a team that is on the verge of breaking through, depending on Stackhouse's ability to distribute the ball to his more than capable teammates.\nIn the West, don't expect much to change. San Antonio and Minnesota will be strong, and the Clippers will finally make the playoffs. There is a lot of hope in Houston, but Yao Ming's impact is still in the future, and the Rockets will not take off for another year or two.\nDisappointment Lurks…\nSorry Orlando, but Grant Hill, healthy or not, will not solve your height problem, and you should have learned not to bring in washed up big men after the Patrick Ewing experiment failed. Shawn Kemp will clog up the lane for Tracy McGrady, but do nothing to stop opponents. Look for the Magic to, at best, make a third straight first round exit.\nIt's put up or shut up time in Toronto, and although they may exceed last year's seven seed, the Raptors should be much better than that. On paper, there is no reason why Vince Carter and Antonio Davis shouldn't be in the Conference Finals, but they have stalled and watched others pass them on the way up. Don't expect them to regain their status of 2001, when they were a game away from the Conference Finals.\nAll this said, the best part of the last two NBA seasons have been their unpredictability. Hopefully that will continue, as the standings could shift in favor of anyone.

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