Before the NBA playoffs begin, a little pop quiz:
Q: What do Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James have in common with Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Phil Jackson?
A: The closest they'll get to this year's postseason is watching on TV.
After a season of chaos and change, the NBA playoffs will begin this weekend without a target team for everyone to take aim at.
Remember not so long ago when this time of year revolved around the Los Angeles Lakers? They're as gone as the two-handed set shot.
Shaquille O'Neal is still around, the massive centerpiece of another top team. But he's wearing red and black these days, playing for the Miami Heat and taking every available opportunity to remind people what fools the Lakers were for trading him away.
Gary Payton is still kicking, too, with the Boston Celtics, one year removed from the failed project of pairing himself with Shaq, Kobe and Malone on a dysfunctional Lakers team that was stunned by Detroit in the championship round.
The Pistons are still here, too, by the way. And yes, there's speculation swirling around coach Larry Brown's future in Detroit. See? Some things never change.
But with the postseason beginning Saturday, and with the casual fan not all that cognizant of the fact that the Phoenix Suns finished with the league's best record, the 2005 playoffs will unfold with several of the NBA's superstars sitting on the sidelines wondering how they missed out on one of the most wide-open chances for a championship in decades.
Yes, decades. Because for the first time since the late 1970s, there is no clear-cut gigantic obstacle needing to be overcome.
Recent playoffs always began with challengers knowing they might face the daunting prospect of facing O'Neal and Bryant , Lakers teammates since 1997 and trying to outwit their coach, Jackson, who accumulated nine titles over 12 years.
Anyone wanting a championship in the years prior to that had to go against Jordan, Larry Bird, or Magic Johnson superstars of their eras who went to the playoffs year after year as heavy favorites.
This season, there's no marquee team and no superstar tandem to be toppled, creating a much greater sense that it's a wide open race for the title.
''It is clear that the Lakers are the team to love or hate, and a playoffs without the Lakers are going to draw lower (ratings) than one with them,'' commissioner David Stern said. ''But aside from that, there are some interesting and exciting teams that are generating coverage, and a lot of young players and player combinations that people are talking about.
''So we anticipate a very lively playoffs with fans very much interested and engaged,'' Stern said.
The playoffs begin Saturday with four first-round games: Philadelphia-Detroit, Houston-Dallas, Indiana-Boston and Sacramento-Seattle.
Sunday's games are New Jersey-Miami, Washington-Chicago, Denver-San Antonio and Memphis-Phoenix, and the first round will continue over 16 days a reduction from the 18-day span from recent years that led to complaints of too much downtime in the opening round.
Among the story lines for the first-round pairings:
The defending champion Pistons going against Philadelphia, with Brown trying to figure out a strategy to stop the league's leading scorer and his old nemesis, Allen Iverson.
Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs, who won titles in 1999 and 2003 and are considered by many the favorites to emerge from the West, facing George Karl's rejuvenated Denver Nuggets, who ended the regular season with 25 victories in their final 29 games.
The Suns facing the defensive-minded Memphis Grizzlies, insistent that their wide-open style of play can succeed in the playoffs a time when the tempo usually slows down, favoring teams that can execute in the halfcourt.
Sacramento vs. Seattle, with two more teams that prefer the wide-open, high-scoring style that came back into vogue this season.
The Chicago Bulls, who made a stunning turnaround after opening the regular season 0-9, back in the postseason for the first time since 1998 against the Washington Wizards, who haven't won a playoff game since 1988.
The Dallas Mavericks, who peaked over the final weeks of the season after replacing coach Don Nelson with Avery Johnson, facing the veteran-laden Houston Rockets and their two young stars, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.
Reggie Miller getting one last shot at the championship that has eluded him for 18 years, his Indiana Pacers opening against the Celtics after overcoming injuries to Jermaine O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley and the suspensions of Stephen Jackson and Ron Artest for fighting with fans in Detroit on Nov. 19.
The brawl was more of a defining moment for the NBA than the league would have liked, and the most intriguing stories over the final two months of the season centered around teams experiencing unexpected declines including Garnett's Minnesota Timberwolves, James' Cleveland Cavaliers and Bryant's Lakers.
Now, the focus is about to shift to the 16 teams that have managed some success, and at least half of them must be considered legitimate contenders to win it all.
''The one thing you know is that you never know,'' said New Jersey Nets coach Lawrence Frank, whose team was the last to qualify for the playoffs but might not be a pushover they do have Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson in their first-round matchup with the Heat. ''Strange things happen in the playoffs.''
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