New Basketball Association

BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:23 AM ET

Gentlemen, start your posses. The NBA is back.

With training camps set to begin tomorrow morning in 30 locales -- including Brock University in St. Catharines, where the Raptors will hold court -- here's a brief look at three changes that have altered the NBA landscape significantly:

1) Shaquille O'Neal joins the Miami Heat.

Shaq never has been shy about singing -- make that rapping -- his own praises. "I'm the Halle Berry of the NBA," Shaq told The Miami Herald. "Everybody wants this, baby."

Well, the Los Angeles Lakers didn't want "this" anymore, when it came down to a choice between O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Heat obviously was more than happy to take on the game's premier centre, and O'Neal's relocation may have a bigger impact on the image of the Eastern Conference than even the Detroit Pistons' championship run last spring.

ICON

Shaq is an icon, part poet and part cartoon character. The East still may be the weaker conference -- you could argue that seven of the 10 best teams remain in the West -- but the East has taken a big step toward being the coolest conference. And which is more important, really?

2) Divisional realignment.

Picture this: After Shaq and his Heat teammates win their 30th game of the season, they storm the court and cut down the nets. Thirty wins pretty much should clinch first place in the newly formed Southeast Division.

"We've worked so hard for this," Shaq will say as he wipes champagne from his eyes. "Kiss my butt, Kobe."

It's a fortuitous coincidence for the Heat that in the same year that it has added Shaq, it also has joined arguably the worst division in the league. Miami, which went a respectable 42-40 last season without Shaq, will have to withstand pop-gun divisional challenges from the Atlanta Hawks (coming off a 28-54 campaign), the Washington Wizards (25-57), the Orlando Magic (21-61) and the Charlotte Bobcats (who didn't even exist last year).

Conversely, Mardi Gras is the only day on which the New Orleans Hornets will be able to celebrate. Not only were the Hornets shifted to the stronger West because of Charlotte's rebirth, but the Hornets have been relegated to the Death Valley Division, otherwise known as the Southwest.

Going up against the San Antonio Spurs (57-25 last season), the Dallas Mavericks (52-30), the Memphis Grizzlies (50-32) and the Houston Rockets (45-37), a last-place finish virtually is pre-ordained for New Orleans, which is far from a horrible team. In fact, the Hornets might be the favourites if they were in the Atlantic Division, which now features the Raptors, the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics, the New York Knicks and the partially dismantled New Jersey Nets.

3) No hockey.

In our usual self-obsessed way, we in Toronto have debated endlessly the question of how the NHL lockout will impact the NBA's fortunes in this city. But if we widen our scope, it's interesting to consider the absence of hockey could impact basketball more noticeably in the United States.

Hockey is king in Toronto and basketball isn't part of the culture in a widespread way. But what of places like Detroit, or Denver, or Boston, or Philadelphia, or Minneapolis?

Those are cities that know and love hockey, but basketball definitely is part of the culture, too. With hockey gone, there really is an opportunity in those cities for the NBA to at least solidify, and possibly greatly increase, its fan base.

In Toronto, whenever hockey comes back, the fans probably will, too. There's far less of a guarantee south of the border, especially in places that house both NHL and NBA teams. The hordes might stick with hoops, depending on how the basketball bounces.

Shaq in Miami. Divisional realignment. No hockey. For better or worse, it's basketball season.

Let the squeaking, squawking and swishing begin.


Videos

Photos