Attack of the new guard

Change is the word in the NBA this year.

Save for the play of the Detroit Pistons and the San Antonio Spurs, predictability has gone out the window like last year’s bad fashion. Roster overhauls, coaching changes and the bright spark of youth have the league looking like something out of the mid-’80s.

On any given night, you’re almost guaranteed to get a 40-point affair from a star (Kobe, Iverson, Vince Carter-take your pick), a number of close down-to-the-wire games and a couple of blowouts. On any given night the Pistons and the Spurs deal out punishment like it’s in vogue, while a whole slew of teams that only two years ago weren’t worth their weight in water hold their own and then some.

The Utah Jazz blow ever since Stockton and Malone left town? Not anymore. The Los Angeles Clippers play second fiddle to the crosstown Lakers? Nope, check the stats. Even perennial losers like Golden State, Memphis and Milwaukee are nightly knocking off teams with historic stature like Boston or Philly.

The NBA has come out of its rebuilding phase and is now only a season or two away from reaching another golden era. The result is a daily blend of intrigue and excitement that isn’t too far removed from the times of Magic, Bird and Michael Jordan.

In terms of individual players, there isn’t a “Jordan” anymore and it’s a good thing. Kobe Bryant, thanks to four straight nights of at least 45 points, is leading the league in scoring with 34.1 a game. Underneath him, 22 different players are pulling down at least 20 points a night.

Many of those names and faces are relatively new ones. Gilbert Arenas of the Washington Wizards. Jason Richardson of the Golden State Warriors. Chris Bosh of the Toronto Raptors. And there’s more. And each one is exciting, interesting and quite simply, a joy to watch take it to the hoop.

Thanks to a salary cap, a new collective bargaining agreement and free agency, the NBA in many ways now mirrors the NFL. Parity and change define the league and its teams much more than outdated terms like dynasty and domination. And as the league has become more international (players like the Spurs’ Manu Ginobli and the Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki are annual all-stars), the overall play has improved as well.

A “return to basics” approach has melded with playground wizardry to create a compelling game. Watching old-schoolers like Ben Wallace and Tim Duncan clean it up along with the likes of LeBron James and Dwayne Wade is a sight worth seeing. The NBA hasn’t looked this good since Barkley and ‘Nique went at it.