The quest for a four-peat has begun, and so has the taunting from the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I'm not worried about the Sacramento Queens," Shaquille O'Neal said before last Friday night's preseason fight between teammate Rick Fox and Sacramento's Doug Christie heated up the budding rivalry between the Lakers and the Kings. "Write it down. Take pictures. When we get back, there's going to be trouble."
The 2002-03 NBA season begins Tuesday night with another ring ceremony at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the third straight year the Lakers have added to their jewelry collection.
Now, the swaggering, strutting defending champions will try to do something that no NBA team has done in almost four decades - win a fourth consecutive title.
The other 28 teams - and especially the target of the taunts 400 miles up the road - can only wonder whether there is a way to prevent the mighty Lakers from walking off as winners again next June.
The new season will feature its second Alaska player in the NBA, and the first to attend Juneau-Douglas High School. Carlos Boozer Jr., a 1999 JDHS graduate, is a rookie power forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who open their season Tuesday at Sacramento.
Nobody has found a way to knock the Lakers off in the past three seasons, although the Sacramento Kings came close last spring. After taking a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals, the Kings lost a controversial Game 6 before dropping an overtime decision in Game 7.
The Lakers moved on and swatted away New Jersey in a four-game sweep, getting as much pleasure from taking potshots at the Kings as they did in taking out the overmatched Nets.
O'Neal and Phil Jackson have picked up where they left off, directing their jabs directly to the north when speaking about the upcoming season. O'Neal accused Vlade Divac of purposely fouling out in Game 7, and Jackson wondered aloud how the Kings might be affected by Divac's advancing age (34) and Chris Webber's indictment in a case involving a former Michigan booster.
"The jabs have continued back and forth, but that's just going to bring great anticipation for when we play each other," Kings coach Rick Adelman said.
Sacramento will get its first shot at the Lakers on Christmas Day in a nationally televised matchup. By then, O'Neal should be back from the foot surgery that sidelined him for all of training camp and the preseason.
Besides the Kings, the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks shape up as the strongest candidates to challenge the Lakers in the Western Conference. It may come down to a question of confidence when the playoffs arrive, and one of those team faces the daunting prospect of beating the defending champions not once, but four times.
Another playoff team could be the Houston Rockets, who add 7-foot-5 rookie sensation Yao Ming of China.
They'll all say they're capable of knocking off the Lakers, but will they believe it?
"Talk is real cheap as far as believing goes. You have to beat the team to gain confidence," Mavericks coach Don Nelson said.
Confidence when facing the Lakers has been a problem for many of the better teams in the West.
The Spurs are 1-8 against Los Angeles in the past two postseasons; the Mavericks are only 1-7 against them in the past three seasons (4-41 in the past decade).
The Kings appeared capable and cocky enough to finish the job in last year's playoffs, but their 14-for-30 free throw shooting and their offensive meltdown in overtime of Game 7 doomed them.
"I think with them, the most important thing is you have to believe you can get it done," said Spurs coach Greg Popovich, who jokingly suggested stealing O'Neal's car battery as perhaps the best plan for beating the Lakers.
"With Kobe we'd probably do something similar, I just haven't thought of it yet," Popovich said.
No similar confidence concerns burden teams from the East.
The Nets shocked everybody by winning the No. 1 seed in the conference and a berth in the finals last season. The East remains wide open, with many teams having made major adjustments to their rosters in an effort to become next June's designated underdog.
"Obviously, the West is a stronger conference. I think everybody respects that and knows that," said Nets coach Byron Scott, whose team acquired Dikembe Mutombo from Philadelphia with the clear aim of having a weapon to defend O'Neal should the teams meet again in the finals.
First, of course, they have to get there. And plenty of teams - including Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards - will try to stop them.
The Wizards added Jerry Stackhouse, Larry Hughes and Charles Oakley in an effort to put together a team that can advance through the postseason. The Boston Celtics added Vin Baker, the Philadelphia 76ers acquired Keith Van Horn and Todd MacCulloch, and the Detroit Pistons dealt for Richard Hamilton.
"The Eastern Conference is going to be who can stay healthy and whose team can blend well together," Washington coach Doug Collins said. "It's wide open."
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