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Another NBA season is upon us, and as always, we have a multitude of questions to ponder. Will Rasheed Wallace get his first technical foul in the pregame layup line on opening night? Will Allen Iverson ever release that rap CD? Has Shawn Kemp pulled himself away from the dinner table yet? And which ninth-grader is projected to go first in the next draft?

But there is one question that's on every hoop fan's mind on the eve of the NBA's 56th season, one question that transcends all the others:

How's he going to do?

Indeed, how is Michael Jordan going to fare in his much-anticipated comeback to the league? Three years after retiring from the Chicago Bulls, four months shy of his 39th birthday, will His Airness be able to recapture his former greatness?

Can he stay healthy, or will he succumb to the withering pace of an 82-game season? Will he turn the Washington Wizards, who lost 63 games last year, into a winner? And if not, will he be able to handle the losing? Will he turn on the coach he hired, Doug Collins? How will he be affected by the new rules that allow zone defenses?

One thing is certain: In the short term, Jordan's comeback will be good for the NBA. He will sell out arenas in every city, as he did in his first two NBA incarnations. He will boost TV ratings. He will divert people's attention from the grim news of the day.

There are skeptics, however, who worry that Jordan's return won't be the best thing for the league in the long run. The NBA has spent three years trying to emerge from Jordan's prodigious shadow. Now that he's back, the league might lose some of the momentum it built during his absence.

Commissioner David Stern said recently that he was not ambivalent about Jordan's comeback, as Jordan himself had suggested. But Stern warned the media not to forget all the young players who had established themselves while he was gone - such rising stars as Iverson, Vince Carter, Ray Allen, Tracy McGrady and Tim Duncan.

Jordan's return will be a national spectacle, but it will be brief, and when he retires for good the NBA will still have problems to address. While attendance has stabilized and playoff TV ratings were up, national TV ratings for the regular season declined by 13 percent last year and have dropped three years in a row.

The league has an image problem. No. 23's comeback won't change that. The public turned away from the sport because many of the players were ill-behaved boors and because the product on the floor had become predictable and plodding.

So the NBA looked in the mirror and decided to give itself a makeover. It made some dramatic rules changes, designed to quicken the pace of the game, increase scoring and eliminate the mind-numbing isolation playsthat had become so common in recent years.

This year, zone defenses will be permitted. There will be a defensive three-second rule to keep hulking big men from camping out in the lane. Teams will now have eight seconds to advance the ball past midcourt, instead of 10.

The NBA portrays itself as the hip sport, the game of actors and entertainers. By changing some of its most basic rules, the league is acknowledging a need to reconnect with old fans and cultivate new ones. It'll be nice to have Jordan around to hold people's attention, but the question, long-term, is whether they can do it without him.

In honor of Jordan's return, here's a list of 23 questions to consider as we await the opening tip of another NBA season:

1. So how will he do?

Jordan will do fine, assuming he stays healthy. He'll average 25 points a game and he'll hold his own defensively and on the boards. He'll find the open man out of the double-teams, as he always has. He'll win, too. The Wizards have talent, though they're woefully thin underneath. With Jordan, they should double their win total to 38.

2. Who's the favorite?

The Lakers, of course. They're shooting for the Bulls' record of 72 wins, though that seems overly ambitious in the very competitive West. Word is, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are getting along famously now. O'Neal is even lobbying for Bryant to be MVP. Let's see what happens if they stumble.

3. How about in the East?

Milwaukee is the front-runner after signing Anthony Mason to a $21 million deal on Thursday.

The Bucks were close a year ago. Adding a versatile, tough player like Mason to go along with Glenn Robinson, Ray Allen and Sam Cassell makes them a legitimate contender to win it all for the eminently quotable George Karl.

4. What about Philly?

Point guard Eric Snow, perhaps the most underrated player in the game, is out until midseason after thumb surgery. Iverson and Aaron McKie are coming off injuries. The Sixers will be good, but they won't jump off to a great start again and it'll cost them homecourt in the playoffs.

5. What happened to our local guys, Clifford Robinson and Christian Laettner?

Robinson is with Detroit. Laettner is playing with Jordan in Washington. Remember when people thought Laettner was the better player? Robinson went over the 15,000-point mark for his NBA career last season. Laettner will go over 10,000 points this season, health permitting.

6. Who are a couple of teams on the rise?

Atlanta should be much-improved with the addition of Shareef Abdur-Rahim. And don't forget center Theo Ratliff, who came over from the Sixers in the Dikembe Mutombo trade. Watch out for the Clippers, who have Elton Brand to go alongside Lamar Odom and Darius Miles, who could break out this year.

7. Teams on the decline?

Seattle has really fallen. It's only a matter of time before Gary Payton goes off on a teammate or a coach. Portland is still a mess and it's not likely a rookie coach (Mo Cheeks) will fix it. Scottie Pippen is about finished. The Blazers will miss Arvydas Sabonis more than they even know. 8. What can we expect from the new rules?

Teams will trap more in the backcourt to force turnovers by opponents rushing to get the ball over midcourt within eight seconds. Big men who like to post up might struggle against zones down low. Over time, the new rules should put more of a premium on passing. But don't expect scoring to go up right away.

9. Will Jordan have to do it all alone?

No one seemed to notice, but Richard Hamilton averaged 25.1 points a game over Washington's final 19 games last year. He'll make teams pay for overplaying Michael.

10. Can the Raptors contend?

Oh, yes. If Hakeem Olajuwon holds up, they'll have a decent chance of reaching the Finals. Carter keeps getting better and should have a fantastic year. Morris Peterson should break out in his second year, too.

11. Some rookies to watch?

I've said all along that Shane Battier will be a fine pro. Nothing he's done for Memphis (formerly Vancouver) in the preseason suggested otherwise. Tony Parker, the backup point guard in San Antonio, could be a surprise. Speedy Claxton, who missed all of last season with an injury, has been marvelous as Iverson's backup in Philadelphia.

12. Are we missing something on Todd MacCulloch?

I don't get it, either. The Nets signed MacCulloch, the Sixers' backup center, to a six-year, $35 million offer sheet. Not surprisingly, the Sixers didn't match. It is moves like this that have made the Nets a running NBA joke for two decades.

13. Speaking of jokes, is Charlotte in trouble?

Owner George Shinn has totally alienated himself from the community, which resoundingly turned down an arena referendum. The Hornets might have their best team ever and still leave if Shinn doesn't get his way. Can you believe Jordan approached Shinn a few years ago, looking to get an ownership stake, and got turned down?

14. Can Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady co-exist in Orlando?

Yes. Hill is a class act and he's committed to making it work. He's even willing to play point forward and get the ball to McGrady - the Magic's best player.

15. Who is the most overrated player in the league?

Probably Jason Williams, who held back Sacramento with his selfish, unstructured play while being held up as some sort of punk basketball icon. He's in Memphis now, playing with Battier. Now there's an odd couple for you.

16. Who are some underrated guys?

Charlotte forward P.J. Brown has been the most underrated player in the game for awhile. All he does is rebound, shut down scoring forwards and win. San Antonio's Bruce Bowen is an exceptional defender. The Spurs got him for one main reason - to guard Kobe Bryant in the playoffs.

17. What were some other significant pickups?

The Lakers added scoring depth by acquiring Mitch Richmond. It's a nice luxury for a defending champion, bringing the 25th-highest scorer in NBA history off the bench. Tim Hardaway will push Dallas to the next level if he can stay healthy.

18. So can anyone challenge the Lakers?

Sure. Sacramento is even better after re-signing Chris Webber and getting Mike Bibby to play the point instead of Williams. The Mavericks are also very talented and getting better. And never count out the Spurs, who have a healthy Duncan this year.

19. Who got the best of the Jason Kidd-Stephon Marbury deal?

The Nets. Kidd is a far superior team player. He might even make MacCulloch look like $35 million.

20. You didn't mention the Knicks as a team in decline.

All right, so we mentioned them. Next question.

21. Who are some players on the rise?

The Clippers' Quentin Richardson. Golden State's Larry Hughes. Charlotte's Baron Davis. Kenyon Martin of the Nets.

22. Tell us something ridiculous.

Rasheed Wallace has actually been named one of Portland's tri-captains.

23. When does MJ come to Toronto?

Jordan visits the Raptors and Vince Carter on Sunday, Dec. 16, and Sunday, March 24. Washington is scheduled for nine Sunday games in all. Welcome back, Mike.


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