Shaquille O'Neal is on a mission, the Suns are on a rampage, the Bulls are back and look who's not.
Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James, stars whose teams fell apart, have no place on the marquee when the NBA playoffs begin Saturday. In their place are the veterans Ray Allen and Reggie Miller, the rising stars Dwyane Wade and Amare Stoudemire. Welcome back Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter.
Anybody else? Tim Duncan, Yao Ming and Dirk Nowitzki are in again. The Lakers and the Knicks are both out for the first time in 29 years.
Oh, and do not forget the Detroit Pistons. The defending champions, better known as "Hosts of the Brawl," had the best record (39-15) since Jan. 1. The Pistons have quietly gained momentum, winning 11 of their last 12 games, and are looking to validate last year's championship.
"Teams think they can beat us," Chauncey Billups, the most valuable player in last year's finals, said yesterday. "I don't know that we intimidate anybody. I don't understand why it is like that, but I'm glad that it is.
"You know, I thought that after winning a championship you're definitely not going to sneak up on anybody. But it seems we're going to have to do that again."
The Pistons thrive under these circumstances, said Joe Dumars, Detroit's president of basketball operations. "Here's the thing," Dumars said earlier this week. "If the accolades and respect had any bearing on whether you won or not, we wouldn't be world champions."
When they overturned O'Neal and Bryant's dysfunctional Lakers, the Pistons proved last season that their success is not contingent on one player's commanding the spotlight. Ben Wallace was the team's only All-Star this season.
Players like Billups and Richard Hamilton have scored clutch points; Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince have improved without fanfare; and the sixth man, Antonio McDyess, who once considered retirement, played 77 games on bad knees. Coach Larry Brown's health issues sidelined him for 17 games (the Pistons went 9-8), and speculation that he would leave after the season has sometimes overshadowed his players.
Already laboring under the weight of championship expectations, the Pistons took awhile to recover from the blight of the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills during a game against Indiana on Nov. 19. They went 8-8 over the next month and had a 12-12 record Dec. 22.
From that point, however, the hangover lifted, and the Pistons had a .724 winning percentage.
"I love where our energy is," Ben Wallace said Friday. "I like the way we've been playing the last couple games. And, you know, I like where we stand at now."
Dumars said, "Knowing what's at stake, knowing what it takes to win, it's almost like they have a business-like approach to what they do."
The Pistons will play host to the Philadelphia 76ers, whom they eliminated two seasons.