How These Contenders Can Dethrone the Spurs
•Ron Artest doesn't do something that draws a suspension or behave in a way that makes Jermaine O'Neal want to strangle him.
•Stephen Jackson and newcomer Sarunas Jasikevicius make the huge last-minute threes in what used to be Miller time.
•Injury-prone 7-footer Jonathan Bender and second-year center David Harrison emerge as forces off the bench.
•Volatile point guard Jason Williams channels Jason Kidd rather than Jason Voorhees (of Friday the 13th).
•Antoine Walker wins the Sixth Man Award after increasing his assists, trimming his turnovers and making more layups than threes.
•Shaquille O'Neal is healthy entering the playoffs, even if that means reducing his minutes during the season and sacrificing home court advantage.
•After escaping Larry Brown's doghouse, imports Darko Milicic and Carlos Delfino regain their confidence, giving Detroit a deeper rotation.
•New coach Flip Saunders heals Carlos Arroyo's psyche, turning him into the league's best backup point guard.
•G.M. Joe Dumars adds a shooter in yet another one of his midseason heists at the trade deadline.
•Amaré Stoudemire recovers completely from left knee surgery by February and can drive the team into the playoffs at full speed.
•The Suns incorporate the defensive intensity of Kurt Thomas, Raja Bell and Brian Grant, giving them a more balanced team in the postseason.
•The emergence of 6'8" playmaker Boris Diaw keeps Steve Nash's minutes under 34 per game during Stoudemire's absence, while Shawn Marion capably handles the extra scoring burden put on him.
Here are five under-the-radar players headed for breakout seasons. For David Sabino's full fantasy rankings by position and Player Value Rankings (PVR), go to si.com/fantasy.
RAJA BELL SG Suns
Steve Nash's top option on the perimeter.
SHAUN LIVINGSTON PG Clippers
Big April points to Jason Kidd-like numbers down the road.
KIRK HINRICH PG Bulls (right)
Improved stroke will mean more points.
RASHAD MCCANTS SG Timberwolves
Opportunities will abound for this gifted rookie scorer.
JOSH SMITH SF Hawks
Lots of talent; look for a big pop in his ppg (9.7 in '04-05) and rpg (6.2).
The last seven MVP awards have gone to big men (Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone and twice to Tim Duncan) or little men (Steve Nash, Allen Iverson). One of these five will become the first MVP on the wing since Michael Jordan in 1998.
KOBE BRYANT, Lakers: Not only will he enjoy a huge year, but questions about his corrosive influence will fade as Lamar Odom thrives alongside him.
TRACY MCGRADY, Rockets: He has the supporting cast to make this his finest all-around season, and he'll garner extra support if Houston becomes the Spurs' top challenger in the West.
DWYANE WADE, Heat: Spectacular much of the time and steady the rest, he'll earn votes if Miami has the league's best record.
LEBRON JAMES, Cavaliers: Cleveland could be the NBA's most improved team, driven by James's multiple talents.
VINCE CARTER, Nets: If he plays all out in spite of minor injuries, his many skeptics will become fans again.
5 Defining Rivalries
NETS VS. KNICKS: New York has more money, media, fans, tradition and celebrities; New Jersey has better players.
BERMUDA TRIANGLE (Pacers vs. Heat vs. Pistons): Three evenly matched contenders in pursuit of the Eastern Conference title; all challengers enter this zone at their own risk.
NATE MCMILLAN VS. THE SONICS: If the Blazers' coach can rally his new troops and consistently knock off his former team, a new Northwest feud will be born.
OKLAHOMA CITY VS. BATON ROUGE: By playing home games in both Oklahoma and Louisiana, the Katrina-displaced Hornets raise two significant questions. 1) Which is the team's rightful headquarters? 2) Does anyone really care?
CLASSIC PINSTRIPE SUIT VS. THROWBACK JERSEY AND 'DO-RAG COMBO: The players are griping far too much about the dress code instituted by commissioner David Stern, bringing the NBA's culture wars to a new low.
All-Dirty Work Team
You won't find a current or future All-Star on this roster, yet a team of these hard-nosed types would challenge for a playoff berth by defending, running the floor and playing unselfish basketball every night.
C Jeff Foster, Pacers
PF Kurt Thomas, Suns
SF Brian Cardinal, Grizzlies
SG Shane Battier, Grizzlies
PG Eric Snow, Cavaliers
C Joel Przybilla, Blazers
PF P.J. Brown, Hornets
PF Reggie Evans, Sonics
SF Ryan Bowen, Rockets
SG Mickael Pietrus, Warriors
PG Earl Boykins, Nuggets
PG Erick Strickland, Bucks
THE SONICS, led by All-Star Ray Allen, will be the league's top-scoring team yet win fewer games than the 52 they did last year.
THANKS TO being stronger, better conditioned and more mature--and to Amaré Stoudemire's injury--Yao Ming will be the league's second-best center, behind Shaquille O'Neal.
NO COACH will be fired before the final month of the season, mainly because the supply of surefire replacements has been exhausted.
HEAT PRESIDENT Pat Riley will coach again--but he won't move to another franchise until after the season as he focuses on delivering a championship to Miami.
LATRELL SPREWELL, although still unsigned through Sunday, will nonetheless be able to feed his family.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (MARION)
LAYNE MURDOCH/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (MCGRADY)
JOHN BIEVER (HINRICH)
JOHN GRESS/REUTERS (O'NEAL AND IVERSON)
Shaq: Do,Iverson: Don't
JOE MURPHY/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (BATTIER)
GREG NELSON (ALLEN)