Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, chats with center Shaquille O'Neal (34) during a timeout in the final seconds of the fourth quarter quarter against the Miami Heat in Miami, in this Feb. 10, 2004 photo. The NBA is entering unfamiliar territory in its first season following the breakup of the Lakers, unquestionably the NBA's marquee team for the past half-decade.
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal agree on one thing: The NBA's new marquee team is ... drum roll, please ...
''It'd have to be Detroit, wouldn't it?'' Bryant said.
''I don't know. I'd probably have to say the Pistons,'' offered O'Neal.
OK, so it's a less-than-convincing argument made by the two superstars, but can anyone blame them?
The NBA enters unfamiliar territory in its first season following the breakup of the Los Angeles Lakers, unquestionably the league's marquee team for the past half-decade. Play starts Tuesday night with the Lakers hosting Denver, defending champion Detroit hosting Houston, and Sacramento at Dallas.
With O'Neal now in Miami, coach Phil Jackson in semiretirement, and Bryant the only one of the threesome still remaining with the Lakers, there's a void where there used to be a vortex.
Sure, the Pistons are the reigning champs. But they're not the ones headlining the league's Dec. 25 doubleheader the annual time when commissioner David Stern tries to hook the casual fan into declaring ''I Love This Game.''
No, the big attraction that day is the first meeting between the former teammates known to many simply as Shaq and Kobe, who were split up over the summer when the Lakers dealt O'Neal to Miami for three starters and a No. 1 draft pick.
Not since 1975, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was sent from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Lakers, has a dominating center in the prime of his career been traded.
That assumes, however, that the 32-year-old O'Neal is still at the top of his game.
''Well, any team without Shaq is not as good. I don't care who's left,'' offered San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, whose team is considered by many to be the favorite in the West. ''If (Tim) Duncan wasn't on our team, we wouldn't be as good. If (Kevin) Garnett wasn't on Minnesota, they wouldn't be as good.
''But at the same time it doesn't mean they (Lakers) are a bad team. They're going to be a competitive team, and Kobe's going to want to put them on his shoulders and do some things. And he's such a great player, he's going to have a good amount of success with that.''
Bryant remains in the stronger of the two conferences, but there's no question the East is vastly improved both by the addition of O'Neal, and by the success shown by Larry Brown's team last spring when the Pistons upset the Lakers and became the first team in 25 years to win a title without a true superstar on its roster.
Detroit returns almost the same exact lineup, tinkering only to strengthen its bench with the additions of Antonio McDyess, Derrick Coleman and Carlos Delfino. The last was on Argentina's Olympic championship team.
The Pistons won over many casual fans last June by picking apart the Lakers behind the efficient playmaking of Chauncey Billups, the mid-range shooting of Richard Hamilton and the beneath-the-boards energy of Ben Wallace.
The old winning formula surrounding one or two superstars with role players no longer sits unchallenged as the best way for NBA teams to build.
But that doesn't mean the old recipe is dead. What happened to the Pistons, in some minds, might be more indicative of a fluke than a fundamental shift.
''They were a really true team and they played with great balance, they played unselfishly, they had depth and they happened to be in the right place at the right time and maybe catch the Lakers when they were at a point where they were a little off,'' said Indiana coach Rick Carlisle, whose team lost to Brown's in the Eastern Conference finals.
''That's no knock on Detroit, but being opportunistic is one of the things that is really important in this league.''
The Heat were certainly opportunistic when they seized upon the availability of O'Neal it first came up in a talk between Lakers owner Jerry Buss and Heat president Pat Riley about Riley's interest in rejoining the Lakers as coach and acquired him for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant.
Also opportunistic were the Houston Rockets, who sent Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato to Orlando for reigning scoring champ Tracy McGrady.
The Spurs found a way to plug their biggest hole, signing outside shooting specialist Brent Barry as a free agent. Dallas, meanwhile, made wholesale changes by allowing Steve Nash to leave for Phoenix, acquiring Jerry Stackhouse, Jason Terry and Erick Dampier and parting ways with Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker.
''I would say that it's a big jumble and we don't know who is going to come out of it on top,'' Mavericks coach Don Nelson said.
There's been talk that the balance of power has shifted from West to East because of the Pistons' success and O'Neal's move, but the Western Conference still has more teams able to compete for a championship.
Denver, coming off a dramatic turnaround that gave the Nuggets their first playoff appearance since 1995, added Kenyon Martin without having to trade a player. Utah revamped its frontcourt by signing free agents Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur, and Phoenix overhauled its backcourt by bringing in Nash and Quentin Richardson.
''I would say this year only 15 teams in the Western Conference think they're making the playoffs, which is all of them. And only 10 of those 15 think they're going to get home-court advantage,'' Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy said.
''Two teams that think they're going to get home-court advantage aren't even going to make the playoffs. So it's a difficult assignment.''
The Van Gundy brothers now have the two most powerful centers in the league at their disposal: Jeff enters his second season with Yao Ming, and Stan takes over from Jackson as O'Neal's coach.
Doc Rivers has taken over in Boston, while ex-Celtics coach Jim O'Brien has moved down the road to Philadelphia.
The New Jersey Nets, winners of two of the last three Eastern Conference titles, have been decimated by the trades of Martin and Kerry Kittles and an injury to Jason Kidd that will sideline him for the early part of the season.
The expansion Charlotte Bobcats joined the league as its 30th franchise, debuting in the new Southeast Division as part of the league's realignment from four divisions to six.
The winners of each division the East now has the Atlantic, Central and Southeast; the West has the Pacific, Southwest and Northwest will be seeded first through third in the postseason, and the five teams in each conference with the best remaining records will fill out the playoff fields.
''I think the best team is in the East, and that's Detroit,'' Rivers said. ''I think the West still is more talented than the East, but the East is catching up.''
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