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Back to business: NBA hoping things get better

Even before referee Tim Donaghy became better known for making bets than calls, the NBA wasn't having a year for its scrapbook.

The new ball. Another brawl. A forgettable postseason in which the most replayed moment was probably a flagrant foul, leading to suspensions that possibly altered the best series the league had going.

"I'll say that good or bad, there were a lot of headlines about the NBA over the past year," said Knicks veteran Malik Rose, a member of the NBA players association executive committee.

Then came the worst. David Stern returned home from the lowest-rated NBA finals ever and got a visit from the FBI informing him that Donaghy was being investigated for wagering on games he officiated and providing inside information to associates to help them win bets.

Throw in accusations that teams tanked for a better chance at getting the No. 1 draft pick — who is injured and won't play this season — the sexual harassment trial ruling that embarrassed Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden, and ... OK, enough about the past.

Here comes the NBA again, with Kevin Garnett now in Boston, Kobe Bryant perhaps headed toward a departure from Los Angeles, Kevin Durant up in Seattle — for this season, at least — and the belief that things will get better.

"Over the years the league has made great strides in everything and they're not going to allow, the commissioner is not going to allow, any one thing to bring it down," Miami coach Pat Riley said. "It might come down for a minute, but he's always found a way to build it back up."

The San Antonio Spurs are the defending champions, sweeping LeBron James and the Cavaliers in a one-sided finals — or "foreshortened" as Stern called them.

The Spurs couldn't repeat after any of their first three titles, and it won't be easy to do so this time. Dallas and Houston will challenge them in the Southwest Division, and the Phoenix Suns added Grant Hill to a team that felt it would have beaten San Antonio in the second round last year without the Game 5 suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the bench after Robert Horry's hard foul on Steve Nash in Game 4.

And in a nice change, the East could be just as competitive. Helped by some of the West's best crossing the Mississippi, the conference that put three .500-or-worse teams in the playoffs last season looks a whole lot better.

"There are going to be six or seven teams in the West that are going to beat each other's brains out," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.

"And the really neat thing for fans of the NBA is that in the East, I think the same thing is true, where in the past you'd say one of those two or three teams is going to be in the finals. But there are probably maybe five, six, seven teams in the East now, any one of which could be in the finals. So it could be a great season."

One of those teams is Boston, which acquired Ray Allen from Seattle and later landed Garnett when the Minnesota Timberwolves finally decided it was time to move the longtime face of the franchise.

The Celtics were heartbroken when they missed out on getting either Greg Oden or Durant after they sometimes seemed to try so hard — or is it, didn't try? — to improve their chances of winning the lottery. They might have something even better to look forward to next spring: the finals coming back to Boston.

"This will be the first year that I'm coming into the season and there are lots of expectations on us," Celtics star Paul Pierce said. "In all of my nine years I don't think we've been expected to do much. So it's going to be a lot of fun. There are going to be ups and downs but I think we'll get through it."

The current East champs did little to upgrade their team following the ugliest offensive performance in finals history, but James showed off an improved jumper while playing for the United States this summer. Cleveland will need him to be every bit as good to fight off Chicago, Detroit and all the other challengers in the East.

Bryant played with James, content to fit in on the loaded U.S. team that won the Olympic qualifying tournament. Now he may be stuck standing out with the Lakers — whether he wants to or not.

Frustrated after consecutive first-round playoff exits, Bryant ripped team management over the summer for not finding him enough help and said he wanted to be traded.

Though Los Angeles would rather not deal the two-time reigning scoring champion, owner Jerry Buss said this month that he had and would continue to listen to offers for Bryant — who could be the next West star to move to the East, since the Lakers would surely prefer to send him out of the conference if they did make a trade.

All-Star weekend is headed to New Orleans, where the Hornets are playing a full schedule this season. It's unlikely they'll get anywhere near the same crowd support back home as they enjoyed while spending most of the last two seasons

in Oklahoma City following Hurricane Katrina.

Nor can anyone be sure that the home fans will show up to support the SuperSonics, whose days in Seattle may be numbered. Though the Sonics' lease at Key Arena runs through 2010, owner Clay Bennett has threatened to move the team following this season if there isn't a plan in place for a new arena.

Just in case, Seattle better enjoy Durant while it can. The former Texas star fell to the Sonics when Portland took Oden with the top pick, then became the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year when Oden had microfracture knee surgery before training camp opened.

But Durant says he's not the savior of basketball in Seattle, and doesn't think about where Year 2 of his career will be.

"That's not in my hands," he said. "I can't do anything about that. I leave that up to management. I just play basketball. I just worry about this team getting better. And I just leave that up to the proper people."

Oden was supposed to share the opening-night spotlight with the champions, as the Trail Blazers visit San Antonio in the first game of the season on Oct. 30. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the rest of the Spurs will pick up their rings, then try to send an early message that they're still the team to beat.

Not everyone needs convincing.

"I think they are definitely the favorites," Hornets coach Byron Scott said. "They are the champions, they've been together for a number of years, so they know how to win, that's obvious. Until somebody can dethrone them this year, going into this season they still, to me, are the favorite team."

The NBA can't fully escape its past just yet, as a couple of reminders from the last year will return to New York. Just days into the season, the Denver Nuggets visit the Knicks for the first time since the brawl that cost Carmelo Anthony 15 games. Soon after, Donaghy is scheduled to be sentenced on two felony charges.

Otherwise, the focus is back to basketball. Maybe the NBA comes back with a good season that culminates with an intriguing storyline. How about Celtics vs. Spurs: the old dynasty vs. the current one?

"The thing about this country, we get hit, we deal with it, we learn from it," Miami's Shaquille O'Neal said. "I'm glad the league is the way it is. I wouldn't want to play in an all-perfect, all-strict, all-everything-done-right league. This is America. It's a crazy world we live in, a crazy time. So do I think the league took a black eye? Maybe a small one, but nothing really big."