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OUR TAKE THE STARTING FIVE * American-Statesman columnists Kirk Bohls and Cedric Golden mark today's start of the NBA season by weighing in on five NBA topics:

1. Who will be this year's surprise?

Bohls: The Portland Trail Blazers could take off with the addition of veteran point guard Andre Miller and more contributions from a slimmed-down Greg Oden. Brandon Roy is the superstar no one knows yet, and those 54 wins last season will grow to 60 with this athletic team.

Golden: The Chicago Bulls. Derrick Rose's ankle problems will go away. Center Joakim Noah supposedly is in better shape, which should translate to better numbers offensively. The Bulls are deep enough to make it to the Eastern Conference finals.

2. Who's the rookie of the year?

Bohls: The Sacramento Kings' Tyreke Evans can get to the basket with ease. He's been tutored in his shooting by Pete Carril and new coach Paul Westphal, and we're betting the point guard/shooting guard will rob the injured Blake Griffin for top rookie honors.

Golden: Memphis' Hasheem Thabeet. He may be considered a project by some, but he has a skill set that will impact games right away defensively. The 7-foot-3-inch center may average less than double-digit scoring, but is capable of averaging 10 rebounds and two blocks a game.

3. After Kobe and LeBron, who's the NBA's third-best player?

Bohls: Orlando beast Dwight Howard, a defensive stud and rebounding machine. The All-Star center is the best big man in the league and figures to upgrade his offensive game with the addition of Vince Carter.

Golden: What doesn't New Orleans' Chris Paul do? He's the best little man in the game, a triple-double waiting to happen, and unlike fellow point guard superstar Tony Parker, he hasn't benefited from playing with Tim Duncan. Paul has one trait that Parker doesn't possess: he makes his teammates better.

4. What's the key factor for each Texas team?

Bohls: The Spurs will need 20 points a game from new swingman Richard Jefferson. The Mavericks will require a lot of Metamucil with the aging of stars Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion - all are on the plus-side of 30 and need to avoid injury. And without top stars Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest, the Rockets will have to crank up their running game because Houston's halfcourt offense may be non-existent.

Golden: The Spurs need to spread the wealth more - with Richard Jefferson and DeJuan Blair - to keep their big dogs fresh for the playoffs. The Mavericks must stay healthy; this group of 30-somethings was pretty much kept intact by owner Mark Cuban, who has resisted trade offers for Nowitzki over the years. And the Rockets must avoid hitting the skids now that their two best players are gone. Houston could be a prime candidate for the lotto. And don't start with the Tracy McGrady talk. If he's not hurt now, he'll be hurt soon.

5. Which team is the last one standing ?

Bohls: The champion should emerge from the Lakers, Spurs , Celtics or Cavaliers. The Lakers may suffer subtraction by addition with the flammable Artest, while the Celtics went opposite with Rasheed Wallace to take some pressure off KG. The call here is the Spurs over Celtics, in seven.

Golden: It has to be the Lakers, the most talented team in the league with the best player. Add in a defensive stopper like Ron Artest, the re-signing of Lamar Odom and the most underappreciated big man in the game, Pau Gasol, and you get a 10th title for the Zen Master, Phil Jackson.

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Added: October 29, 2009


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