The defending champion Yulon Dinos will have to fend off a strong challenge from six other clubs in the third season of Taiwan's Super Basketball League that tips off in Taipei this weekend.
With some surprising player moves and the signing of promising rookies, the seven SBL teams have better balanced lineups and more depth for the upcoming 2005-2006 season.
But the Yulon Dinos, who have won the SBL title for two consecutive years, remain the favorites in the eyes of both experts and fans to finish atop the semi-professional basketball league.
Nipping at their heels with a chance to contend are the Dacin Tigers, Eastern Antelopes, Videoland Hunters and Taiwan Beer, while the Bank of Taiwan, ironically one of the teams with the lowest budgets in the league, and YMY (an online shopping site) expected to pull up the rear.
The season opener at the Taipei Physical Education College Gymnasium at 5 p.m. on Saturday will pit the championship finalists, Yulon and Dacin, and will be followed by the Eastern Antelopes and Bank of Taiwan.
New season schedule
"It will be an exciting season for the fans. We have made schedule adjustments for more SBL games, and the teams are closely matched," said Wang Ren-da, head of Taiwan's basketball association, which is responsible for running the SBL.
Wang indicated that this year there will be two games on Friday evening, and three games each on Saturday and Sunday starting at 3 p.m. Best-of-five first round playoff series will start on April 21, followed by the best-of-seven title series beginning on April 29.
The most dramatic development during the off-season was the blockbuster move by Sean Chen, arguably the SBL's top star. He moved from the Yulon Dinos to the Eastern Antelopes, being drawn away by a three-year NT$15 million deal.
The move caused a storm of controversy and backfired, as Chen has been plagued by injuries, and Yulon accused Eastern of acting illegally.
The affair then turned melodramatic. With Chen's knee injury likely to sideline him for the better part of the season, the deal with Eastern seemed to break down. Chen publicly announced in October that he did not sign the contract with Eastern and wanted to return to his old team, but the Antelopes insisted the deal was valid.
In response to the contract dispute that stirred up the market for star players, Yulon, Eastern, and Dacin all boosted their salary budgets. To keep their starting lineup in tow, Yulon spent NT$ 30 million to retain nine of their top players and locked them up with five-year deals.
Other also increased team wages, and went on to sign promising talents from amateur ranks to replace the old and retiring players.
Meanwhile, some teams accused Eastern of upsetting the player salary structure and destroying the league by offering high-priced incentives to entice them away from their previous employers.
The club owners also were in disagreement over a number of issues, particularly over the operation of the SBL, complaining about the unwieldly style of the association and the lack of consultation over financial matters and league rule changes. At one point, two of the teams and other principle associates of Taiwan basketball threatened to walk out and play in another semi-pro circuit.
Men to watch
Without Chen, Yulon will look to 202-cm center Tzeng Wen-ding to take over a leadership role. Tzeng has matured over his two SBL campaigns and blossomed into an all-around power center who can dictate a game's outcome. Tzeng solidified his status by earning MVP honors at the East Asia Games in October.
Last season's finalist, the Dacin Tigers, have vowed to wrestle the title from the Dinos. The key man for Dacin is still 202-cm forward Tien Lei, who has won the SBL MVP award for the past two seasons.
Eastern will rely on the steady performance and experience of two veterans: 180-cm guard Yang Yu-ming and 202-cm center Wu Dai-hao. With a balanced team, the Antelopes are expected to challenge Yulon and Dacin, even without Chen.
For the Videoland Hunters, the burden will be on 193-cm forward Yang Tse-yi to marshall the offense and take up more of the scoring responsibility. He will need help from 198-cm power center Lai Kuo-hong.
Taiwan Beer has three players who transferred from Eastern, but none can steal the limelight away from 192-cm forward Lin "the Beast" Chi-jie, who led the league in scoring last year with a 22.8 average. Lin is a crowd favorite for his showboat style featuring flying slam dunks.
Little has changed for the Bank of Taiwan, as it still depends on 200-cm center Chou Ben-tang to launch their trademark running and fast break game.
The YMY team, taking over from the Sina Lions, will play with the same "quick motion game" of the old Lions.