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A Brand New Team

Wins against Seattle and Portland aren't going to make headlines.

Sure, Seattle is better than their record suggests - especially when Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis are on the court. And Portland is a far, far cry from the historically awful team the league saw a year ago.

But still - at Seattle and versus Portland in two days isn't a gauntlet of even difficult proportions for a talented team. And we all believe that Sacramento is a talented team, at the least. Sacramento should have beaten Seattle and Portland - results less than that would have been disappointing.

But the intrigue of a possibly healthy Brad Miller , a possibly healthy Ron Artest, and a possibly healthy Mike Bibby, combined with two offensive routs and a suddenly one-game-behind-first-place-in-the-division record, and well, you get excited.

Artest and Bibby have played throughout, but haven't been themselves. Artest's defense has suffered a bunch as his back pains have left him less explosive, less in-their-face. Bibby's wrist - then leg - have caused him to become almost strictly a spot-up shooter and a minor playmaker in the midrange area, seldom coming off picks and hitting his shots and seldom getting to the rim.

Those guys getting healthy adds a lot to this team. Bibby can take a heap of pressure off Kevin Martin, who seems due for a couple coldish games. Artest, if things are right, can re-energize a defense that has fallen faster than Michael Richards' appearance fee the past week.

But Miller is the intriguing "new" cog. He wasn't playing well at all before the tendon forced him out, and we all know how he ended last season. (Read: crappily.) As many pundits pointed out all summer, he appears to be on the downside of his career, lacking the athleticism and speed to effectively corral a large number of rebounds and impose fear in enemy bigs.

However, Miller's additives are impossible to forget. He has been the top King in raw plus-minus every season he's been in town. What's that say? The team is always better when he's on the court. That says something about his subs, but also something about his impact on his teammates. The one player who stands to gain the most from Miller's return is Bibby, and we saw a taste of that last night. Bibby is at his best coming off screens and playing the pick-and-pop. No slight to Shareef Abdur-Rahim, but Miller is perfect complement to Bibby in this way. Miller is the best shooting center in the game not named Mehmet Okur (and that's debatable) and passes like no other center, possibly in the history of the game. Bibby without Miller is like Katie Holmes without Tom Cruise - forgettable.

This week's gauntlet of a pissed-off Clippers team, Dallas, and San Antonio might not be the clearest test of the renewed squad's potential. Los Angeles #2 can't lose in ARCO forever (though it seems like it has been forever), Dallas causes too many matchup problems to count, and Miller isn't exactly at his best against San Antonio. It could take versus Orlando, at Phoenix to judge whether this team is marginally better than the November edition, significantly better, or not better at all.

At least there's that chance, that hope that this team will get better. That's the thing with injuries - if your team has major players who get injured frequently, it's like there are multiple opening days throughout the year. There's always hope.