LeBron James loves his new teammates and Ron Artest is playing nice with his old ones.

Speaking of homecomings, it’ll be awhile before either Phil Jackson or Larry Brown can start enjoying theirs.

The first month of the NBA season has offered plenty more for fans, like a duel between Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson for the scoring lead, and a first-place team in Los Angeles – just not the one anyone is used to seeing.

The duds may be a little more dapper, too. But one thing looks all too familiar: Everyone is still chasing the Spurs and Pistons.

Detroit brought in Flip Saunders to sit on its bench, the Spurs added Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel for scoring off theirs. So far the moves are paying off, and an NBA Finals rematch seems possible – even if the defending champs aren’t ready to look that far ahead.

“We have to play 82 and hopefully win another 16,” the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili said. “There’s a long way to go. We want to worry about playing better and getting better.”

Some unfamiliar teams are among the ones looking ready to stand in their way.

Cleveland made changes designed to get James into the postseason for the first time in his three-year career. Larry Hughes, Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall have fit in nicely, James has been superb while winning Eastern Conference player of the month, and the Cavs have stayed near the top of a Central Division that could be the NBA’s most competitive.

Clippers best in LA

So are the Clippers, who surged to the top of the Pacific Division – that other team in Los Angeles has been at the bottom – after adding guards Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley to play with forward Elton Brand.

The Pistons are just as happy with the move they made in hiring Saunders to replace Brown. Already one of the league’s best defensive teams, Saunders has turned the Pistons into a pretty good offensive club as well. The players quickly embraced him, no doubt helped by their 8-0 start.

“Flip is one of those guys that doesn’t get too excited about teams making runs, or us coming down and not getting a basket in two or three times down the court,” Ben Wallace said. “It’s so rare in this league for a coach to be that calm.”

The Spurs aren’t quite as pleased, but look nearly as good. San Antonio players don’t think their defense has been up to its usual high standard, but now more than ever seem to have enough offense to overcome an occasional lapse.

“I think the record talks about us better than we are actually playing,” Ginobili said. “We don’t think we’re playing that great yet, but it’s good to not play good and be winning. That’s a good thing because we know we have a long way to go and improve, and we’re still winning.”

Below expectations

Some teams aren’t – at least as much as they expected to – and they’re not happy about it.

With Tracy McGrady hurt most of the month, Houston fell to the bottom of the Western Conference. The Rockets lost the first eight games they played without their leading scorer.

“Right now we’re the junior varsity game on everybody’s schedule,” Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said late last month.

The Miami Heat haven’t been as bad, but haven’t been sharp enough for Van Gundy’s brother, Stan, after losing Shaquille O’Neal to an injured ankle.

Phoenix will be without Amare Stoudemire until late in the season after knee surgery, and the absence of some stars has allowed other players to earn attention.

Camby early MVP

Chris Webber, off to a strong start playing with Iverson in Philadelphia, took notice of two early season player of the week winners.

“Definitely Marcus Camby,” Webber said. “A lot of people said he only did that during contract years, but for him to continue to do it, I’m really happy for him to be putting up 20 rebounds, those type of nights. Young Gerald Wallace from Charlotte, he’s fulfilling his potential, playing really good.”

Camby has been leading the league in rebounding and near the top in blocked shots, helping the Denver Nuggets overcome their own key injury, the loss of top frontcourt reserve Nene on opening night.

Other teams gained. The Pacers got back the services of a better-behaved Artest after he returned from his suspension from last season’s brawl, and the Hornets picked up thousands of fans upon moving to Oklahoma City after being forced out of New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina. They have been led by Chris Paul, who has been the best of an unspectacular rookie class.

Plenty of early intrigue comes from the Northwest Division.

The SuperSonics, last season’s surprising division champions, lost coach Nate McMillan during the offseason and haven’t been as good – or happy – under Bob Weiss while tumbling into last place. Vladimir Radmanovic, who flourished as a sixth man under McMillan, has been particularly unhappy.

“I think you’ve got a few guys in there that are not real happy with their roles. It is just a different team,” Hornets coach Byron Scott said of the Sonics.

Kevin Garnett hasn’t been entirely pleased, either.

The Timberwolves star caused a stir – and even some trade speculation – by criticizing general manager Kevin McHale’s handling of the team last season, when McHale fired Saunders and took over as coach before Minnesota missed the postseason. Garnett isn’t sure if things will be much better this season.

“Are we a playoff team? I don’t know. It’s only November,” Garnett said. “Talk to me in March.”

It might take that long to figure out if Brown or Jackson will be there.

Brown’s return to New York and Jackson’s to the Lakers caused plenty of news, but so far not too many wins. Neither came back to a deep roster – Jackson’s triangle offense now seems to mean Bryant shoots from the right, left and middle – and spent much of the month at or near the bottom in their divisions.

“The first part of the season we’ve been relying on me too much,” Bryant said. “It’s a learning experience. We’re in the process of learning a new system.”

But, as Brown pointed out, there is plenty of basketball still to be played.

“This is a marathon,” he said. “It’s not a sprint.”


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