The stuff of Legends

FRANK ZICARELLI

, Last Updated: 4:42 AM ET

"One for the thumb" doesn't quite have the same panache compared to some of the NBA's most recent slogans, but it does carry meaning as the regular season tips off.

From "I love this game" to "Where amazing happens", the league has unveiled a new theme to usher in a new era of hoops, or at least when the league has seen fit to jump-start a new promotional campaign.

The thumb metaphor is in reference to four players who are in the rarest of positions to win their fifth championship.

Derek Fisher will certainly be remembered as one of the most complete complementary players in the game's history, a true pro who has always come through in the clutch.

Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan are sure-fire hall of famers, transcendent ballers who have defined their generation and undoubtedly will be mentioned as among the game's very best at their respective positions.

The Lakers of Kobe and Fisher, Shaq's Cavs and Duncan's Spurs are among the favourites to capture the Larry O'Brien Trophy as one of the most competitive and deepest fields in recent NBA memory begin their journey.

The reigning champion Lakers added Ron Artest, while swingman Lamar Odom added a wife in Khloe Kardashian.

Duncan's Spurs added Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess, while LeBron James added O'Neal in Cleveland and ex-Raptors swingmen Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon.

The Celtics, who beat the Lakers in the NBA final two season's ago, have added Rasheed Wallace and are hoping Kevin Garnett's knee stays healthy.

The Orlando Magic added Vince Carter, but lost Hedo Turkoglu to a roster that advanced to the NBA final last season.

If all goes according to script and assuming no major injury hits one of the teams, it's highly likely that one of the Lakers, Spurs, Cavs, Celtics and Magic will win it all.

The second tier of contenders includes Denver, a team that advanced to last year's Western Conference final, a youthful Portland team that added the veteran poise of point guard Andre Miller and a Utah team that surprisingly welcomed back Carlos Boozer, who threatened to exercise his right to opt out of his deal.

Dallas looms as one of those sleeper teams capable of making a lot of noise, but so much will depend on keeping Jason Kidd healthy and having players step up when opponents force the ball out of Dirk Nowitzki's hands.

With so many competitive teams and intrigue that awaits, the on-court play should muzzle all the talk of next summer's expected free-agent frenzy.

There will, naturally, be rumours, and some may even be credible, but virtually all of next year's free-agent class, including James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, has said it will not negotiate an extension.

During a recent conference call with reporters, TNT analyst and former Pacers great Reggie Miller waded in on next summer's free-agent class, which is obviously topped by James.

"I don't even think LeBron knows what he is going to do,'' Miller said. " I think LeBron is focused on this year. They added Shaq (O'Neal) and wing players in Parker and Moon.

"LeBron is just focused on winning a championship this year and he'll worry about free agency next June. It's hard to get into another man's head and wonder if he's going to take off for free agency. I want LeBron to stay in Cleveland. I think it's better for the league to have superstars in smaller markets.

"You don't always have to be in L.A. or New York to get all of the endorsements. Peyton Manning is the face of the NFL and he's in Indianapolis."

Miller is right.

The league's CBA means players stand to make $30 million US more by sticking with their teams.

At the end of the day, though, a player wants to win a title, or at least be in a situation that is building toward a championship.

Amare Stoudemire, another high-profile player who can opt out next summer, knows his championship window in Phoenix has closed.

A subject of countless rumours that first surfaced in the weeks leading up to last season's trade deadline, Stoudemire looms as one of the most likely to be moved.

Stephen Jackson wants out of Golden State.

Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, whose estimated worth is in the $10-billion neighborhood, wants to buy the Nets and is well on his way to receiving the necessary league approval.

Allen Iverson wants to prove to everyone that he can still dominate, joining a Memphis team as a free agent following a very humbling and regrettable time in Detroit.

Overall, there are no clouds hanging over the NBA, which threatened to compromise its product had an agreement with its long-standing officials not been negotiated.

Even the spectre of next summer's free-agent bonanza should not overshadow a very compelling season.

And chances are pretty good that at least one player will be fitted with his fifth championship ring.

FRANK.ZICARELLI@SUNMEDIA.CA


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