If you walk away from this year's NBA pre-season campaign with one thing in mind, it'll be that Ben Wallace looks pretty sharp in red. The Chicago Bulls signed Wallace to a $60-million dollar deal in the off-season, bumping the team up to title-contender status. In their recent stop in Alamo City, Big Ben and company routed the Spurs in a 99-67 victory in which the San Antonio starters were limited by Coach Gregg Popovich to only one quarter of play. Wallace finished the game with 3 points, 3 assists, and 10 rebounds - not exactly $60-million-dollar numbers, and the Spurs are now 2-2 in the pre-season with Miami and Dallas coming to town.
It's been five months since the Mavericks dispatched the Spurs in Game Seven of the Western Conference Semi-Finals. The defeat at the hands of Dirk Nowitzki has had a direct impact on the Spurs roster, as Rasho Nesterovic and Nazr Mohammed, two players who were largely ineffective against the Mavs, are no longer with the team. Nesterovic was traded to Toronto for forwards Matt Bonner and Eric Williams and Mohammed will attempt to replace Ben Wallace in Detroit. To fill the void in the middle, the Spurs signed free agents Francisco Elson and Jackie Butler, an immediate upgrade in terms of athleticism.
Elson, who was born in the Netherlands, should fit right in with the international vibe of the Spurs locker room and is expected to compete for the starting center position with Argentinean holdover Fabricio Oberto. Butler, who is only 21, was twice named Mr. Basketball in Mississippi and played on the same McDonald's High School All-America Team as Chris Paul and LeBron James. Butler's best basketball is still ahead of him, and he joins Tony Parker as the only other pair of young legs on the team.
The Mavericks made some minor moves of their own, trading Marquis Daniels and Darrell Armstrong to Indiana for forward Austin Croshere and point guard Anthony Johnson in separate deals. Swingman Adrian Griffin returned to Chicago and was replaced by free agent Greg Buckner. Expect Dallas to again press San Antonio for the top spot in the Southwest Division. The Mavs' Game-Seven victory over the Spurs last season and the addition of former hated Laker Devean George has heated up the I-35 rivalry. When the two teams meet in Dallas for their season opener, expect an atmosphere and contest akin to Round Eight of a heavyweight-title fight. Other division rivals who have stepped up their game include the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, who added Peja Stojakovic, Tyson Chandler, and Bobby Jackson, and the Houston Rockets, who traded for Shane Battier and still have Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady on their roster.
The Spurs will also be challenged by the Pacific Division's Phoenix Suns. The Suns were perhaps the most exciting team in the league last season and should only improve with the return of explosive center Amare Stoudemire. With the Lakers, Clippers, and Kings not making any major additions, the Suns could easily run away with the division. If Stoudemire stays healthy and Steve Nash has another MVP-type season, look for the Suns and Spurs to meet in this season's Western Conference Finals.
Over in the East, the Bulls have become the sexy pick to usurp the Heat's throne. With players like Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton finally capturing their long coveted NBA title, it's hard to imagine the Heat being as motivated as last season, but it will take a lot more than just defense from Ben Wallace to push Chicago past Miami. LeBron James is primed for a monster year in Cleveland, New Jersey possesses the trio of Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, and Richard Jefferson, and the Detroit Pistons are still the Detroit Pistons, making for a balanced playing field with several contenders. Don't be too surprised when the Cavaliers trump the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals for the right to meet the Spurs in the NBA Finals. If the Spurs aren't careful, the battle for Tim Duncan's fourth championship ring could quickly turn into a coronation for King James. Spurs over Cavs in seven.