Now that we've entered September, it's time to finally put NBA free agency in the rear view mirror. As much fun as it was watching LeBron James light a torch to his reputation, we'll put the "take my talents to South Beach" line in our pockets and move on towards next season.
We've got a new team of Super Friends down in Miami looking to dethrone the Lakers from NBA supremacy, a blossoming young team in Oklahoma City led by the youngest scoring champion in NBA history and 27 other NBA teams who will enter the preseason this year dreaming of winning an NBA title.
With all the free agent activity this summer, more uncertainty than ever seems to be floating around the NBA. Beyond the questions about a lockout next season, we've now got teams like the Knicks and the Heat who've redone their starting lineups to the point of being unrecognizable, and teams like the Spurs and the Celtics hoping their aging lineups can hold together for one more championship run.
For the past few weeks, I've been sitting down and pondering 100 questions facing the NBA in the 2010-11 season. From rookies to a 38-year-old Shaquille O'Neal, to 12-win teams to a team challenging the all-time single season wins record, the NBA promises to hit its fans with a captivating storyline on a nightly basis this season.
Without further ado, here are the Top 100 questions for the 2010-11 NBA season, starting with No. 100.
If you haven't hopped on the fantasy basketball bandwagon at this point, you're missing out. It's the perfect combo of the everyday management you get in fantasy baseball with the statistical simplicity of fantasy football, and gives you that much more of a reason to keep up with the NBA on a daily basis.
Personally, in the league I've been in the past two seasons, the team that drafted Dwight Howard ended up winning the championship both years, so…yeah, I'm ready to put all marbles in the D-Ho basket once Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Chris Paul go off the draft board with the first three picks. It's not a huge shock, figuring how rare a consistent shot-blocker is becoming in the NBA; then again, you've gotta resign yourself to punting the FT% category right away after drafting Dwight.
Otherwise, there are two types of players to be targeting in the draft this year: Those who had new life breathed into their NBA careers for whatever reason, such as Kevin Love, Michael Beasley and Darren Collison; or those with a more talented starting lineup than last year, such as Kevin Martin and Brandon Jennings.
The Milwaukee Bucks became one of the surprise teams in the East late last season before Andrew Bogut's catastrophic elbow injury, and they did it without their $18 million man, Michael Redd.
Redd came back too early after tearing his ACL and MCL in his left knee twice in a year, and had to shut himself down for the year after the knee continued bothering him throughout the early parts of the season.
Now, Redd doesn't plan on coming back until February at the earliest, but with the additions of John Salmons and Corey Maggette, the Bucks appear completely intent on moving on from the Redd era. Can Redd come back healthy in February and contribute to the Bucks' likely playoff chances, potentially earning himself one final NBA paycheck in the process?
The Golden State Warriors have long been known as one of the more dysfunctional franchises in the NBA, in large part personified by their lame duck coach, Don Nelson. While the franchise is currently undergoing an owner switch, providing hope in the Bay Area for the first time in years, the Dubs also made a pretty large player-based change this summer.
The Warriors shipped out Kelenna Azibuike, the teeming-with-promise Anthony Randolph and Ronny Turiaf to the Knicks in exchange for David Lee, who was signed-and-traded on a six-year, $80 million deal. Lee, who averaged a 20-10 for the Knicks last season, gives the Dubs their first real low-post threat since Chris Webber and could form one half of a devastating inside-outside combo with Stephen Curry.
Then again, a fair share of NBA fans believe the Warriors may have shelled out too much money for Lee this summer, and that he's only bound to disappoint. Can Lee build upon his 20-10 season and become a cornerstone for the Dubs with Curry, or will he end up being a free agent bust like Elton Brand for the Sixers?
Charles Barkley, never afraid to voice his thoughts, has been extremely vocal with his disagreement over LeBron James' decision this summer. Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson haven't been shy about weighing in with their own thoughts either.
That said, who's next? Can Bill Russell come out of retirement to give an one-hour special about how things were back in the 1960s? Can we get Dennis Rodman to come out and voice his disagreement, even though he's guilty of the exact same move to join elite teammates?
Personally, I'm hoping Patrick Ewing's the next one to come out firing. Ewing can say something about having the loyalty to never be thinking about leaving the Knicks, even if it meant that he never won a ring, and LeBron could come back with the perfect one-word retaliation: "Really?"
The NBA's had no shortage of international talent in recent years—take 2007 league MVP Dirk Nowitzki, 2005/2006 MVP Steve Nash and three-time NBA champions Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, among others.
As Team USA's been forced to learn the hard way over recent years, international interest in the game of basketball has exploded, leading to a more competitive international basketball environment. While we'll have to wait at least one more year for the Spanish phenom, PG Ricky Rubio, the 7-foot Tiago Splitter is finally headed to the Spurs after three years of developing his game abroad.
Roddy Beaubois and Goran Dragic proved last season that there's no telling when an unheralded international player decides to break out—just ask the Spurs about Dragic's Game 3 performance in the Spurs/Suns playoff series last season. Will Splitter be this year's international breakout star, or will another Euro player emerge from obscurity like Dragic did last season?
Thanks to the new collection of Super Friends in Miami, the NBA's due for a ratings boon this season, at least in south Florida. The Celtics-Heat opening night game on October 26 should draw huge numbers, as it'll be A) the first game of the NBA season, and B) a potential preview of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals on opening night!
The Lakers' first matchup against the Celtics on Sunday, January 30, should also end up bringing in a massive number of NBA fans, as most Celtics fans still won't have wiped the salty taste from Game 7 out of their mouth by that point.
But at this point, my money for the highest ratest game comes on Christmas Day at 5 p.m. ET, as the Heat take on the Lakers at Staples Center. The NBA gave its fans the best possible present it could: a potential preview of the NBA Finals, six months early.
There's a surprising contingent of incredibly loyal Timberwolves fans who have been getting progressively more upset at how much bloggers have been piling on their GM David Kahn this summer.
Here's a hint, folks: We're not bashing him because of a personal vendetta; we're bashing him because he picked three straight PGs last year, four straight SFs this year, and his starting power forward recently admitted that he "doesn't know" what Kahn's long-term plan is for the team.
Right now, Kahn's long-term PG (Ricky Rubio) will be spending the season in Europe as the Timberwolves try the vaunted double reclamation project with 2003 No. 2 pick Darko Milicic and 2008 No. 2 pick Michael Beasley. With a young group of Jonny Flynn, Wesley Johnson and Corey Brewer running a butchered version of the triangle offense, Kahn and coach Kurt Rambis will have plenty of quick fixes on their hands this year if they're hoping to succeed.
Long before the rest of the country figured it out, savvy Oklahoma City Thunder fans knew just what kind of college-type chemistry they had on their team between Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook and as of last year, No. 3 pick James Harden. As it turns out, their chemistry extends past the basketball court and into the makeshift music studio.
Early last season, Durant took to his personal blog to explain his side musical venture, the Broingtons. The Broingtons—a group comprised of Harden, Green and Durant, with guest appearances from Westbrook and D.J. White—"try to make videos of whatever songs [they] love listening to."
As you can see on the left, the end result tends to be priceless. The only question left is: Are we getting a cover of Katy Perry's "California Girls" when training camp kicks back up in a few weeks?
At 70 years old, and with the NBA's all-time coaching wins record now solely his, you'd think that Don Nelson would have happily rode off into the sunset of retirement after last season.
Instead, Nelson's hoping to fulfill the final year of his contract (earning $6 million in the process), despite some not-so-encouraging overtures from the new Warriors owners. Luckily for Nelson, the Dubs' front office would have to buy out the $6 million remaining on Nelson's contract; according to AOL FanHouse, they may prefer to let Nelson ride out as coach and spend the whole year searching for a replacement.
Will the Warriors decide that Nelson's buyout is too rich for their blood, and let him coach the whole year? Or will Nellie's wacky ways convince the Dubs' front office to cut all ties with him, no matter what the cost?
Two obvious names pop up when you think of coaches starting the season on the hot seat: Don Nelson of Golden State and Erik Spoelstra of Miami.
Spoelstra just inherited the most talented core group of players in the league, and anything short of a championship for them will be seen as a failure. Nelson may redefine the term lame duck coach, as all that's keeping him from a permanent vacation in Hawaii is the $6 million left on his contract that the Dubs would have to buy out.
Beyond those two, more coaches are sure to join the hot seat as the season goes on; after all, at this point last season, everything was sunshine and lollipops for the Eddie Jordan era in Philadelphia.
Jermaine O'Neal is far removed from the days where he averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds a game, earning nearly $20 million/year for his efforts. In fact, two years ago with Miami, he appeared so lifeless on the court that people actually began mistaking him for a walking corpse.
O'Neal revived his play somewhat last year, although he immediately reverted into walking corpse mode in the playoffs (4.2 points and 5.6 rebounds/game in the Heat's five-game loss to the Celtics).
Before deciding to pick up that other O'Neal, Boston doled out their mid-level exception for Jermaine as a temporary replacement for Kendrick Perkins, who tore the ACL in his right knee during Game 6 of the NBA Finals this past June. Does the 14-year veteran have anything left in his tank for the Celtics?
T-Mac and Allen Iverson were the faces of this question last year, sadly.
The Rockets kept T-Mac benched for the first half of the year before trading him to the Knicks; he played a few solid games for the Knicks, especially early on, but his knee flared up and he fell apart as the season progressed. verson quit the Memphis Grizzlies after three games, and despite a relatively successful second stint with the Philadelphia 76ers, Iverson still can't find a job in the NBA.
For early ideas of who could win this ignominious distinction, think of players returning from intensive surgeries—Yao Ming and Andrew Bogut, in particular—or any of the elder players in the league (aka the Celtics' starting lineup).
As you can see, LeBron James and Chad Ochocinco started a faux Twitter war earlier this week over Ocho and T.O. challenging LBJ and D-Wade to a game of 2-on-2 basketball. James was rightfully incredulous.
While LBJ's Twitter fight with Ochocinco was completely playful and harmless, another NBA star recently "found his account hacked" after firing out a Tweet offering $5,000 in exchange for someone sending video footage of a specific girl being slapped in the face.
We know once the season starts off and expectations for some teams come back to reality, emotions will run raw, and many NBA players aren't shy about venting on their Twitter accounts. Baaad combination.
Carmelo Anthony easily has the early lead on this one. If you haven't been following the controversy surrounding Melo's Twitter account, here's a basic summary: a Tweet appeared on Melo's account that offered $5,000 to anyone who sent video footage of someone named Kat Stacks being slapped in the face, then posted a picture of the money; the Tweets and pictures were since deleted, and Carmelo's now claiming that his Twitter account got hacked.
Assuming Melo's actually innocent here, the field for dumbest Tweet of the season will be wide open, as Gilbert Arenas returns to the field after sweeping last year's awards with his Tweets surrounding his gun controversy. LeBron's "taking mental notes" Tweet from a few weeks back had a chance, but Melo set the bar at a whole new level with his Kat Stacks bounty.
The Knicks spent years systematically destroying their roster for the opportunity to free more cap space for the summer of 2010, so they could take their best shot at landing LeBron James. While they couldn't snag LeBron, they did end up signing Amar'e Stoudemire away from the Suns, Raymond Felton from the Bobcats and sign-and-traded David Lee for Anthony Randolph, Ronny Turiaf and Kelenna Azibuike.
Add in two new draft picks in Andy Rautins and Landry Fields, a new 15th man in Patrick Ewing Jr., and the signing of international 7-footer Timofey Mozgov and the Knicks have guaranteed that they'll be sporting a highly new look this coming season.
If Stoudemire can remain healthy, the Knicks do have some serious scoring options, from STAT to Randolph to long-range marksman Danilo Gallinari and Stoudemire does already have experience in Mike D'Antoni's high-octane offense. That's a big if when you're talking about Amar'e, though.
Michael Jordan's decision to pick Kwame Brown with the No. 1 pick in the 2001 NBA draft ultimately ended up costing him his front office job with the Wizards, as Brown proved to be completely immature and unready to play in a league of professionals.
Ten years later, the Bobcats, owned by Jordan, signed Brown to a one-year, $1.3 million deal towards the end of August, and the reunion's been on ever since.
Brown, now 28 years old, gives the Bobcats a 6'11", 270-pound body down low; considering they shipped starting center Tyson Chandler to Dallas in exchange for the completely non-guaranteed contract of Erick Dampier, the Bobcats may end up needing all the bigs they can get. Depending on what happens with Dampier's contract, Brown may end up having plenty of opportunity down low for Jordan's Bobcats this coming season, despite this being a reunion no one imagined happening.
Nothing against Gerald Wallace, but if he's ever invited back to the All-Star Slam Dunk contest, I'm vetoing the event for the rest of my life. Wallace came up with two of the least inspired dunks in dunk contest history last season, and embodied just how far the dunk contest had fallen since the mid-’80s.
When DeMar DeRozan, a rookie, is throwing down the most electric dunks in your dunk contest, you know something's gone wrong. When you're left to crown 5'9" Nate Robinson as the first three-time slam dunk champion in NBA history, we've simply let the slam dunk contest go too far.
LeBron James created plenty of hype for the 2010 dunk contest by "preliminarily" putting his name into the field (of course, he later withdrew), but that's the only way the dunk contest will be able to regain the relevance it once held. The height of the dunk contest came in the late-1980s with the Michael Jordan-Dominique Wilkins duels, and only a LBJ-Dwight Howard dunk contest could compare in the modern era. (They already did it for McDonalds…)
At one point early in his career, Tracy McGrady was easily one of the most talented players in the NBA. He led the league in scoring back-to-back in the 2003 and 2004 seasons, and averaged 32.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game for the Orlando Magic in the 2002-03 season.
Despite earning the nickname Mr. Glass for his propensity for winding up injured at the most inopportune times, T-Mac demanded a double-team on a nightly basis, lest you wanted Kobe Jr. going off on you for 50 points without thinking twice.
Ever since his microfracture surgery in 2008, T-Mac has been a shade of his former self, only reverting back to form in a few games for the Knicks this past season before falling apart again. In Detroit, the Pistons already find themselves overloaded with wing players, but McGrady sounds convinced that not only will he play; he'll compete for a starting spot.
Last year, the Pistons spent $55 million on shooting guard Ben Gordon, despite having SG Richard Hamilton locked up for four more years and nearly $50 million, and drafted wings Austin Daye and DaJuan Summers. This year, they added Tracy McGrady to the mix and drafted Terrico White in the second round to add to their excess. (They're taking the David Kahn approach with wing players.)
Nine of their 15 roster spots are currently taken up by wing players at the start of the season, and the Pistons appear trapped between their 2004 championship holdovers (Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace), and the eventual rebuilding/going young movement.
At this point, if the Pistons have an injury in the frontcourt—especially at center, where they only have Wallace and Jason Maxiell at their disposal—they'll need reinforcements immediately. If they can find a willing trade partner for Prince, an expiring contract, he's guaranteed to go; otherwise, can the Pistons find a taker for Hamilton or one of their other wings?
The past two Basketball Hall of Fame classes have been chock full of some of the biggest names in the game—from the 2009 class being headlined by Michael Jordan, David Robinson and John Stockton, and 2010 following up with Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone and the Dream Team, we've had no shortage of incredible talent.
In 2011, we'll have freshly eligible newcomers like Reggie Miller who hope to be first-ballot inductees. (Miller's about as much of a lock as possible.)
And there will still plenty of outsiders looking for their way into the Hall in 2011, most notably Dennis Rodman. Despite a rash of erratic behavior, Rodman's rebounding ability and contributions to Michael Jordan's final Bulls teams merit him a place in the Hall, regardless of how many times he dyed his hair or which Baywatch models he ended up marrying.
Every year, someone asks this question, and every year, the Spurs prove that we've asked this question one year too early. Now, with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan at 28, 33 and 34 years old coming into the season, there's more reason than ever to question whether the Spurs' Big Three can make it through a whole season to the playoffs healthy.
The Spurs did make one major addition this season in the form of the 7-foot Brazilian Tiago Splitter, who signed a three-year, $10.5 million deal with San Antonio this summer. Splitter should provide Tim Duncan some much needed relief, as Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair wouldn't be able to shoulder the full load without Duncan.
If George Hill, Blair and Splitter end up being a much needed infusion of youth into San Antonio, those three and the Parker-Duncan-Ginobili trio give the Spurs a heck of a core of six players that could truly compete for a championship. But if the injury bug strikes the Spurs, the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili trio, with Parker's contract expiring after next season, could end up having its last go-around this year.
Tiago Splitter's been seen as a mythical savior for the Spurs ever since San Antonio drafted him late in the first round of the 2007 NBA draft, a 7-footer who can finally spell relief for the immeasurable Tim Duncan.
Last Monday, Splitter's readiness was on full display in the Team USA-Brazil matchup, as Splitter carefully and continually dissected Lamar Odom on the pick-and-roll. In a low-scoring, 70-68 U.S. win, Splitter ended up putting up 13 points and 10 rebounds, demonstrating his proficiency against All-Star-caliber U.S. players.
While the writers of AOL FanHouse don't expect Splitter to ever become an NBA superstar, the truth is, the Spurs don't need him to become one to win a championship. As long as Splitter plays solid defense, doesn't get foul-happy and converts easy offensive possessions, the Spurs have enough other weapons (Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, George Hill, Richard Jefferson) to do their damage largely without Splitter.
One of my personal favorite moments in the NBA Finals came in the Game 7 postgame interview between Doris Burke and Ron Artest (about 50 seconds into the video). Burke tries to interview Artest about how it felt to carry Kobe Bryant through his 6-of-24 nightmare; suddenly, it dawns on Artest that he "did a single called 'Champions'…last…June!!" (Seriously, watch the interview. Classic.)
While Artest mentioned an October drop date for his single, the Lakers' championship and his prominent role in Game 7 understandably pushed up the release by a few months. As you can see on the left, Artest isn't just a defensive genius…he's a musical genius as well.
Now, I'm not saying Artest should take the Shawn Andrews route and start taking his music career more seriously than his sports career. But in the three months of downtime Artest had between the Finals and now, here's hoping he dropped into the studio to lay down a few more unforgettable tracks for next year.
As the Bobcats' season wound down to an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Magic in the first round of the playoffs, rumors started flying about Larry Brown's future in Charlotte being tenuous at best.
Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski wrote, "Charlotte considers the chances of Brown staying as 'minimal at this point,' one league source said. 'They’re proceeding like they’ll be looking for a new coach.'"
Well, Brown could never land the Sixers' presidency, like he was reportedly intent on doing, as the Sixers hired the recently departed Nets president Rod Thorn to round up operations in Philly. Brown's still the coach of the Bobcats as of this writing, but given his heavy flirtations back in April, will anyone be surprised if Brown decides to leave Charlotte in the next nine months?
Last year, OKC coach Scott Brooks won this distinction running away, having transformed his young, 23-win squad into a legitimate Western Conference contender in the course of one season flat. With Kevin Durant at the helm, Brooks' defensively-minded squad caused opponents fits on both ends of the court.
Unfortunately for Phil Jackson, Coach of the Year is an award based on the regular season; otherwise, if Jackson led the Lakers to a three-peat for his final Last Stand, he'd win the COY running away.
Tom Thibodeau could be an interesting sleeper for COY in the preseason, as he's inherited one of the most talented rosters in the Eastern Conference for his coaching debut. If Thibodeau can impart his defensively-minded scheme upon Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, and the Bulls piece together a 55-win season, Thibs could win the COY in his rookie season as coach.
The OKC Thunder ended up being the NBA's surprise darling team last season, improving by 27 wins from the year before, and taking the Lakers to a heart-stopping six-game series in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs this season before a Pau Gasol putback stopped the Thunder in their tracks.
Undeterred by their shortcomings against the Lakers, the Thunder added Morris Peterson, Daequan Cook and Cole Aldrich through trades, giving themselves a few more sharpshooters from the wing and an extra big body down low.
The Thunder have the advantage of having the NBA's scoring champion in their corner, and the Thunder will continue living or dying based on Kevin Durant's play. If the role players around Durant—Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka, most particularly—can continue building upon their young games, the Thunder could end up challenging the Lakers a few rounds later in the playoffs this season.
Even if a team doesn't have an OKC Cinderella-esque transformation, going from 23-wins to playoff squad in a single season, one of the lesser NBA teams is due to finally pick up the pieces and turn themselves around this coming year.
The Nets and Pacers are two Eastern Conference lottery teams that both have the potential to vastly improve their win total from last season, as the Nets bolstered their frontcourt with Derrick Favors and Troy Murphy, and the Pacers traded for Darren Collison this summer to get their first real PG in years. The Bucks and Bulls are two playoff teams from last season that could challenge some of the Eastern contenders, particularly the Hawks, this season.
In the West, the aforementioned Kings have to be the preseason favorite due to the upgrades in their frontcourt, but if the Clippers can stay healthy, they've got the talent to finally make it back to the playoffs this season.
In the 2007-08 season, Hedo Turkoglu set statistical career-highs across the board, averaging 19.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5 assists per game en route to winning the Most Improved Player of the Year award. A year later, his averages tapered off a bit—to the tune of 16.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game—but Turkoglu proved himself as a critical element to the Magic's 2009 NBA Finals berth.
Then, last summer, Toronto handed Turkoglu a five-year, $55 million contract, and he rewarded them with a listless 11.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game—nothing to scoff at, but nothing you're excitedly paying $11 million/year for.
When Turkoglu went on Turkish TV earlier this summer and talked about wanting a trade, Toronto didn't hesitate to oblige, shipping Turkoglu's remaining $44 million over to Phoenix for Leandro Barbosa and change. Turkoglu will have plenty of opportunity in the Amar'e Stoudemire-less Phoenix this year, but which Hedo will show up for the Suns?
The Portland Trail Blazers managed to win 50 games last season despite seeing half of their top 10 players battle injuries at some point during the season. Greg Oden, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, finally appeared injury-free in the early part of the season, flashing the dominant form that merited his lofty draft status…and then he fractured his patella in December and missed the rest of the season.
In three seasons since being selected, out of a possible 246 games, Oden has appeared in 82 of them. The player selected after Oden in the 2007 draft, Kevin Durant, just became the youngest scoring champion in NBA history this past season.
Suffice it to say, Portland wasn't banking on drafting a player who'd play one full season out of three when they spent the No. 1 pick on Oden. If he can get back on the court and stay healthy all season, he could finally become the force that made him the No. 1 pick; otherwise, if injuries intervene yet again, the Blazers may finally decide that Oden's body simply can't handle the rigors of being an NBA starter.
A team's starting five will end up receiving most of the hype each year, but during an NBA championship run, every team needs role players that can step up, contribute and knock down big shots in high-pressure situations. That's where the Sixth Man of the Year comes in.
Jamal Crawford took home the Sixth Man hardware last year, averaging 18 PPG off the bench for the Atlanta Hawks, but if you're going to remember one Sixth Man of the Year from the 2000s, it'll inevitably be the Spurs' Manu Ginobili, who landed the award in 2008.
Crawford and Ginobili likely enter the season as co-favorites for the award, although depending on how Minnesota's bench situation shakes out this season, either Kevin Love or Michael Beasley could end up becoming a surprising competitor for the honor. The same goes for Mike Miller, assuming he's coming off the bench for the suddenly-stacked Miami Heat.
While Tracy McGrady and Shaquille O'Neal were gobbling up veteran's minimum contracts this summer, there's been one notable All-Star who's still remaining on the sidelines as we head into September: Allen Iverson, the 2001 league MVP.
Iverson's reputation of ballhog and team cancer have preceded him this summer in his job search, as no team has even offered Iverson a veteran's minimum at this point. It's not often that you can pick up a future Hall-of-Famer for $1 million/season, but Iverson's become that rare case.
Iverson announced his intention to play this season on Twitter, but it takes two to tango in the NBA. Considering how much of a battle it was for Iverson to find a job last season—and that was before the three-game stint in Memphis—it's proven incredibly difficult for Iverson to find a place back in the NBA this season.
The obvious pick for Rookie of the Year at this point would be John Wall, the No. 1 overall pick of the Washington Wizards, who already started drawing rave reviews after NBA Summer League.
Then again, keep in mind, only two of the past 10 No. 1 picks have actually gone on to win the Rookie of the Year award (LeBron James in 2003; Derrick Rose in 2008)…so Wall isn't the shoe-in that you may think.
Standing in his way will be Blake Griffin, the No. 1 pick from 2009 who gets re-classified as a rookie after missing all of last season with a broken kneecap; DeMarcus Cousins, the No. 5 pick from this season and his former teammate from Kentucky; and Evan Turner, the No. 2 pick of the Philadelphia 76ers, among others. Needless to say, if Wall's dreaming of being the third straight point guard ROY, he's got his work cut out for him.
This one's a lot tougher to project. Plenty of guys have started off their careers looking like the next M.J.—Grant Hill comes to mind, most specifically—before fate intervenes and cuts their greatness short in some capacity.
John Wall may be the preseason favorite for Rookie of the Year, but if he's stuck in the same backcourt as Gilbert Arenas for the next four years, will he be able to make the biggest impact out of any rookie in his class?
If Vegas had odds on this, I'd be throwing money on DeMarcus Cousins, praying he could keep his head on straight for long enough to realize he could dominate in the NBA. Again, given that he doesn't take a turn for the south psychologically, his physical gifts make him one of the ideal young matchups against Dwight Howard.
Before the Chicago Bulls signed Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer as their new free agent long-range specialists, the Bulls signed Orlando's restricted free agent J.J. Redick to a three-year, $19 million offer sheet, which the Magic ultimately decided to match (after plenty of hemming and hawing).
Redick, who's been little more than a spot shooter off the bench in his first four NBA seasons, now finds himself being more than the mid-level exception, and he's still buried on the bench by Vince Carter. Then again, any Magic fan would happily remind you that Redick thoroughly outplayed Carter in the playoffs, and arguably deserves Carter's starting spot. (Imagine V.C. as a 30-minutes-per-game sixth man!)
Then again, offense was never the question with Redick; Stan Van Gundy always had to pull Redick because of his tendency to flop like a wet fish on defense. (After all, Redick did go to Duke). Redick displayed some defensive tenaciousness last season, but he'll have to continue improving defensively if he hopes to wrestle V.C.'s starting spot away from him and live up to his lofty deal.
You've heard of LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh at this point. If you're an NBA fan from a few years back, chances are, you'll remember Mike Miller. But if the Miami Heat go on to win the title, Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers and/or Joel Anthony will have to step up during the championship run at some point.
UD, as his teammates call him, is a 6'9" PF who may play spot minutes at center (especially in the fourth quarter) this season, as he's given the Heat a strong defensive presence down low for the past few years. Joel Anthony's much of the same, an undersized center who will provide much more defensive than offense for Miami.
Chalmers won't be asked to do much of the ball-handling, with James and Wade likely assuming those duties, and thus, he should focus on his spot-up shooting to best help the Heat. Can these three assume the Robert Horry role on the Heat's championship team?
The New Jersey Nets were the not-so-proud owners of this distinction in 2009-10, winning only 12 games all season due to a rash of injuries and an overwhelmingly underachieving group of players.
This season, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors will begin Year 1 of their post-superstar eras, and thus, they'll plummet from the 60- and 40-win teams that they were to the dregs of the lottery. But will they be the worst team in the NBA?
Chances are, Cleveland's got enough talent in Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao and J.J. Hickson to at least piece together a 20- or 25-wins season. The team that loses the most games in 2010-11 will end up being a team like the 09-10 Nets: an already crappy team whose best players get ravaged by injury, leading to a downward spiral of mediocrity all season long.
Last year, out of 82 games, the New Jersey Nets could only muster 12 wins. They had far more talent on their roster than a 12-win team. But they only managed a 12-win season and looked to be threatening the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers for the worst all-time single season record for most of the year.
Blame some of that on injuries—Devin Harris went out in the early part of the year and the Nets never seemed to recover; blame some on having young players like second-year pro Brook Lopez, Courtney Lee Chris Douglas-Roberts and the rookie Terrence Williams hold starting positions at some point during the year.
This year, the injury bug or underachievement bug is sure to strike some unfortunate franchise. Then, there's always the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, who will both enter Year 1 without their former franchise superstars; then again, can they really be considered disappointments when their fans have no expectations for them this coming season?
In the 2009 playoffs against the Lakers, Yao Ming fractured his foot and missed the entire '09-10 season as a result. The Rockets battled their way to a 40-win season, but in the always brutal Western Conference, they finished right on the playoff bubble in ninth place.
This year, Yao returns, and considering the foot fracture was initially thought to be career-threatening, Rockets fans should breathe a huge sigh of relief. At the same token, Yao mentioned at the end of July that he'd retire if the foot injury didn't heal right by the end of next season.
If the Houston Rockets expect to challenge in the Western Conference this year, they'll need a healthy Yao Ming to take on the top West contenders like the Lakers, Mavericks and Thunder. Yao's health will be the No. 1 story for the Rockets all season long.
Peering into the wreckage that LeBron James left behind in Cleveland, you realize that the Cavs aren't that screwed—Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison are both former All-Stars (although, granted, that doesn't mean too much now), and J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao will give the Cavs a welcome presence of youth in the frontcourt.
Still, there's no replacing the defending two-time MVP and Cleveland's era of 60-win seasons are guaranteed to be a thing of the past. It's not as easy to rack up 65 wins when you're trying to substitute a guy who averaged 30 points, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds per night for his team last season.
If Williams can reassert himself as a 20 PPG scorer and the Hickson-Varejao frontcourt can deliver on their high-energy style of play, the Cavs could end up winning somewhere around 30 games this season; anything more would be a shock to anyone that isn't a Cleveland homer.
For seven years, the answer to this question has been as automatic as the answer to "what color is the sky?" Now that LeBron James decided to leave Cleveland for Miami, the Cavaliers will have a massive void to fill for whoever wants to take control of the team.
Mo Williams probably enters the season as the favorite, as he's averaged over 17 points for three of his past four NBA seasons already and new Cavs coach Byron Scott hasn't been shy about how he wants Williams to revert to his Milwaukee style of playing. Antawn Jamison, with a full offseason under his belt, could be another favorite if the Cavs decide to feature him in the offense, as he's labored through 20-point, 9-rebound seasons for crappy teams for years now.
J.J. Hickson, in this writer's opinion, should be the featured player in Cleveland's offense if they're looking towards their long-term future. Hickson established himself as a dominant presence down low while Shaq was out with his thumb injury back in February, and given starter's minutes, Hickson could end up producing at an All-Star caliber.
Monta Ellis made headlines last season by saying that the pairing of himself and rookie Stephen Curry in the backcourt "can't" happen and that "we're not gonna win that way."
Naturally, the Warriors threw Curry into the starting lineup alongside Ellis and the Warriors labored through the entire year. But, to Ellis' sure surprise, Curry continued to progress all season long, and developed into the Warriors' most valuable franchise cornerstone by April.
Now, the Warriors seem to recognize that Ellis was right, and that the Ellis-Curry pairing won't work on a championship team…but that's largely because Ellis clogs up the offense by heavily preferring shooting to passing. The Warriors won't bench Ellis, a surefire 20 PPG scorer, but his future with the team is anything but certain as they look to build around Curry and free agent acquisition David Lee.
Derrick Rose earned the starting spot for the FIBA World Championship Team USA squad this summer, and he's only heading into his third career NBA season. Much like Kevin Durant, the other young face of Team USA, the sky appears to be the limit for Rose at this juncture of his career.
Rose already possesses the open court speed that makes him unguardable on the dribble-drive, and he's reportedly been hard at work at refining his three-point shooting stroke all summer. If Rose develops a reliable three-ball, it'll give him just another way to beat his opponent down defensively.
After being named a reserve for the All-Star Game last year, can Rose translate his Team USA experience into making him an NBA superstar? With Chris Paul and Deron Williams both battling for the starting All-Star spot in the West, Rose's biggest hurdle to the starting spot in the East will be a jumpshot-less Rajon Rondo.
Despite being the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, Blake Griffin will be classified as a rookie this year, as he missed all of last season with a broken kneecap. (The same thing happened with Greg Oden in 2008.)
With the sky-high expectations for John Wall expected to take up most of the preseason rookie headlines, Griffin could be flying in as an under-the-radar favorite to win Rookie of the Year this season. Griffin dominated the Big 12 during his two years at Oklahoma, and due to his injury, the 7-footer now only had an extra year between college and the pros to prepare his body for the physical rigors of the NBA.
On the other hand, there are plenty of hungry mouths to feed on the Clippers offensively, including Chris Kaman (who was one of the more high-usage big men in the NBA last season), PG Baron Davis and Eric Gordon, who's been putting on a long-range shooting exhibition with Team USA this summer. With that many talented teammates, Blake may not be able to come in and immediately assert himself as the 20-10 guy he'll likely become later in his career.
This one likely goes hand-in-hand with Griffin's Rookie of the Year candidacy; namely, if the Clippers make the playoffs and Griffin's largely responsible, he likely wins the ROY in a near-unanimous vote.
It's not like Griffin doesn't have talent around him—with former All-Star Baron Davis at the point, Team USA sharpshooting specialist Eric Gordon as the starting shooting guard, and a suddenly explosive Chris Kaman at center, the Clippers surprisingly have one of the more talented starting fives in the league.
At the same time…we're talking about the Clippers here. This franchise has a 30-year long curse haunting its every move. Can we really expect Griffin, who already missed his first professional season, to break the Clippers' trend and not underachieve?
Until proven otherwise, there's no reason to bet against the Miami Heat's new Big Three as the best pairing of players in the league. In Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, you've got two of the top five players in the NBA and Chris Bosh immediately becomes the best No. 3 option on any team in the league.
Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol may not like those rankings, and for good reason; they're the No. 2 duo in the NBA behind D-Wade/LBJ, evidenced by their back-to-back NBA championships. The original Big Three in Boston proved they had some magic left inside of them last year, although there's no telling whether they can keep the momentum rolling through this year.
For a sleeper pick here, look towards Deron Williams and Al Jefferson, two All-Star caliber players who could add new dimensions to Jerry Sloan's flex offense. While the Williams-Carlos Boozer combo was always potent, Jefferson's two years removed from averaging a 24/10, and could be the type of young, All-Star low-post talent the Jazz need to lock up Williams long-term.
If there's one free agent signing I still consider head-scratching, it’s Denver's decision to sign Al Harrington to a five-year, $34 million deal this summer.
Now, I recognize that Denver will enter the year short on big men, as Kenyon Martin and Chris "Birdman" Anderson will both continue recovering from offseason surgery. Still, given Harrington's propensity for jacking up shots, and the fact he averaged a whopping 1.5 assists per game last season in over 30 minutes of play, I can't fathom adding another chucker to Denver's lineup.
The Nuggets already had Carmelo Anthony, one of the most high-usage players in the league; J.R. Smith, a sixth man who's never seen a shot that he wouldn’t' like to take; and Chauncey Billups, who still decides to try and live up to his "Mr. Big Shot" moniker every once in a while. Maybe Denver's planning for Anthony's departure already; otherwise, the signing makes little offensive sense on the surface.
If the Nuggets' offense doesn't become completely devoid of assists, there's no telling which new combo of players could end up not meshing at all. Amar'e and Felton? Kevin Martin and Yao? Michael Beasley and Kevin Love? The possibilities are endless!
There's always been the question of whether Steve Nash turned Amar'e Stoudemire into the offensive dynamo that he was in Phoenix, and with Amar'e now in New York, we're just a few short months from finding out the answer to that question.
With the 36-year-old Nash left back in Phoenix, though, there's always a flip side to that question about Amar'e: Can the Suns, who appeared in the Western Conference Finals last season, continue to remain relevant without their All-Star big man?
Nash now has point-forward Hedo Turkoglu at his disposal, along with Josh Childress, who's been off playing basketball in Greece these past two seasons. The Suns will rely on their fast break, their athleticism and their perimeter-based attack more than ever, but there's no telling whether they can survive in the West without Amar'e. (B/R writer Matt Petersen thinks we'd be dumb to underrate the Suns.)
The biggest downside for Amar'e Stoudemire deciding to leave Phoenix is that he now won't have All-Star PG Steve Nash feeding him the ball down low on a nightly basis anymore. Ask any Amar'e hater about Nash's importance to Stoudemire's career, and you'd be led to believe that Amar'e would have become a Darko-level bust without Nash.
Luckily for NBA fans, we're about to get a full season's worth of answers to the chicken-and-the-egg question with Nash and Amar'e.
Can Raymond Felton deliver those pinpoint, behind-the-back passes that Nash could toss out on a dime? Can the reunion with Mike D'Antoni spur Stoudemire onto greatness, even without Nash? Or will the Stoudemire experiment in New York turn out to be one massive failure without a Hall of Fame point guard leading the helm?
The Lakers proved last season that as long as you've got Kobe Bryant in your starting five, you can win an NBA championship with the Three Stooges on your bench. Beyond Lamar Odom, who can serve as a versatile point-forward for the Lakers' second unit, the combo of Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown and Adam Morrison stood no chance against the Celtics' Nate Robinson (Donkey) and Glen Davis (Shrek).
Still, for teams battling injuries, there's nothing that helps more than having legitimate depth at each position. The Portland Trail Blazers managed to stay relevant last season despite constant injury trouble because of the depth they had; now, with everyone back healthy, Portland's bench will be one of the best in the league.
When Kendrick Perkins comes back in February, the Celtics could also contend for the best bench in the league honor. Shrek and Donkey will be joined by Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal, two former $100 million big men; Marquis Daniels, who's a year removed from averaging 13.6 points and 31.5 minutes per game for Indiana; and Delonte West, a defensively-minded guard who started his career back with Boston in 2004.
This year, in the summer of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh's free agency, Joe Johnson ended up getting the richest deal of any NBA player by nearly $13 million. (Thank you, Atlanta!)
Johnson made his case for being a true No.1 option during the regular season, averaging 21.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game for the Hawks this year. In the playoffs, in the Hawks' four-game sweep at the hands of the Magic, Johnson's per game averages plummeted to 12.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.8 assists.
That four-game performance earned Johnson the label of being someone who collapses under true pressure and someone who didn't deserve the max contract that Atlanta ended up offering him. Now, with the richest contract in 2010, Johnson has a ton of pressure to live up to his end of the bargain and produce like a true superstar for Atlanta, both in the regular season and in the playoffs.
Raise your hand if you're betting against Kobe Bryant on this one.
LeBron James? Doubtful, thanks to your Super Friends. Dirk Nowitzki? Maybe five years ago. Kevin Durant? You're the only one I'd consider…but who's to say Kobe doesn't bust out one of his patented jaw-jutting, 50-points-scoring games in the first week of the season?
Then again, we could always have a situation like last year, where a rookie like Brandon Jennings comes along and breaks the NBA's record for the youngest player to ever score 50 points (Jennings did so in his seventh NBA game with the Bucks).
In one fell swoop, the Indiana Pacers took a large step back towards respectability, sending Troy Murphy's expiring contract to the Nets in exchange for a real point guard in Darren Collison from the Hornets. (Gotta love four-team, five-player trades.)
The upgrade of Collison over T.J. Ford is similar to the upgrade of Jason Campbell over JaMarcus Russell for the Oakland Raiders; one player can capably run a professional offense, one player runs around like a chicken with his head cut off. Pairing Collison with All-Star Danny Granger gives the Pacers a legitimately dangerous wing attack.
The Pacers will need to fortify their frontcourt with the departure of Murphy, but starting center Roy Hibbert has spent part of the summer working on his low post presence with Bill Walton…so, there's that. If Josh McRoberts and/or Tyler Hansbrough can capably fill the open PF position, the Pacers could end up sneaking into the playoffs as the No. 7 or 8 seed in the East this season.
Given all of the absurd contracts handed out this summer, there's no way every NBA player on a new contract lives up to the value of the new contract he just signed.
Elton Brand has become the name and face of a free agent disappointment after signing a five-year, $80 million contract with Philadelphia in 2008, then dragging the Sixers through two injury-filled, 13-point, 7-rebound seasons. (Not exactly the 20-10 guy they were banking on when they handed him $16 million/year.)
With Amar'e Stoudemire's $20 million/year contract being fully guaranteed and non-insurable, if Stoudemire's injury history flares up again, he's an early favorite for this award. Joe Johnson, he of the richest contract of the summer of 2010, also has a lot to live up to, considering he's earning $13 million more than LeBron James over the same period of time. Who else could crush their team's hopes?
Right as Philadelphia announced their decision to select Evan Turner, college basketball's Player of the Year last season, as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft, the question immediately turned to Turner's fit with Andre Iguodala already in the Sixers' starting lineup.
Iggy played SG for the Sixers last season but, as he's proving with Team USA, he can slide over to SF, so the positional issue isn't a problem. What is a problem: Turner and Iggy are two guards who both work better on-ball and who don't have much of a long-range game.
Unless Jrue Holiday suddenly starts sniping like Steve Nash, a Holiday-Turner-Iguodala starting backcourt will have trouble convincing opponents to guard them tightly; instead, the smart strategy would be to pack the paint, clog up the driving lanes and limit the effectiveness of the Sixers' frontcourt. Time will tell how new Sixers coach Doug Collins solves this dilemma he's got on his hands.
Speaking of John Wall and Gilbert Arenas, let's assume the Wizards don't find someone to eat the four years and $80 million remaining on Arenas' contract in the coming season. (Gee, what a bold assumption!) Can Washington afford to start a Wall-Arenas backcourt?
To Arenas' defense, he's always had the scoring mentality of a shooting guard, averaging nearly 30 PPG in his heyday back in the mid-Aughts. Arenas isn't the most accurate three-point shooter (career 35.7 percent) for a SG, but having two playmaking guards in the same starting lineup only puts more pressure on opposing defenses.
As long as Arenas doesn't go all Hibachi on Wall's confidence by demanding the ball and hazing the rookie, the Wizards have a chance to have Arenas impart knowledge upon Wall. Then again, how will Arenas, the former face of the Wizards franchise, react to having the keys to the team handed over to his 19-year-old successor?
Jamal Crawford caught the scent of trade demands from Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul this summer, and his frustrations over the Atlanta Hawks not offering him a contract extension caused him to want out of Atlanta.
According to ESPN, Crawford wants a three- or four-year extension for somewhere around the $10 million annual salary he's currently contracted to. Considering Crawford just won the Sixth Man of the Year award in his first year off the bench for Atlanta, and that he was able to pour in an average of 18.8 points per night in only 31.1 minutes, the money he's demanding isn't unthinkable.
What's hilarious about the entire situation is that Crawford's using Joe Johnson's contract—again, the largest contract in the summer of LeBron—as justification as to why the Hawks should give him an above-average contract. Gotta love when players expect one bad move to compound into another, right?
Last year, Chris Paul missed eight games in November with an ankle injury, then had a knee injury that required surgery and knocked him out of action for nearly two months. In total, Paul appeared in only 45 games last season—meaning the team was in Darren Collison's more-than-capable hands for 37 games this past year.
This year, the Hornets won't have Collison as a CP3 security blanket, as they shipped him away in exchange for Trevor Ariza.
The Hornets' season completely depends on Paul's health, as they'll have zero shot at the playoffs without Paul running the show on offense. Even with CP3 guiding their team, they'll have an upward battle towards the upper half of the Western Conference, but the first step towards that goal involves keeping CP3 healthy for all 82 games this season.
Second-year players aren't the only one who typically make jumps in terms of their skill level or understanding of the game; a player's third year often dictates whether a player can fit into a team's long-term plans or not.
Kevin Durant emerged as the breakout third-year player of the season last year, truly establishing himself as one of the NBA's best players, regardless of age. Joakim Noah wasn't far behind him, emerging as a legitimate NBA interior defender, and not just because of his gangly hair.
This year, Brook Lopez, Eric Gordon, Russell Westbrook and most notably, Derrick Rose all look poised for a true third-year jump. Gordon's performance with Team USA makes him an interesting sleeper here —if he could shoot that way for Los Angeles, he'd become one of the more feared SGs in the league—but Rose and Westbrook will have Team USA experience to build upon as well.
At this point in the preseason, the Houston Rockets are the clear and obvious favorites in terms of lottery teams from last year who should make the playoffs this year. With Yao Ming returning from the stress fracture that kept him shelved all of last season, there's no reason to think the Rockets won't build upon last year's 40-win season and squeak into the Western Conference playoffs this year.
In the Eastern Conference, the Knicks and the Nets could find themselves suddenly competitive, despite both teams sloughing through most of the season last year. The Knicks gave their roster a complete makeover this summer, headlined by Amar'e Stoudemire, and the Nets' frontcourt of Brook Lopez, Troy Murphy and Derrick Favors should keep them competitive most nights, barring injuries.
While the NBA doesn't have quite the playoff turnover that the NFL features every year (about 50 percent of the NFL's playoff teams typically don't qualify for the postseason the next year), we'll be sure to have a 2010 lottery team having a chance to play their way into June next year.
Since 1986, the NBA has been recognizing the player who ends up improving his game the most each season. With past winners such as Gilbert Arenas, Tracy McGrady and Zach Randolph, you can see that the recent award winners have largely ended up making a name for themselves in the NBA, one way or another.
This past season, in his first full season as a starter, Aaron Brooks ended up becoming the first Rockets player to win the award in franchise history, as he proved himself to be a legitimate NBA point guard. He bumped his season averages to 19.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game this past season, leading the Rockets to a 40-win season despite Yao Ming's absence.
Of all the annual awards, this may be the most difficult to project, as there's no telling how much work each NBA player put into his game over his summer vacation. If Derrick Rose added a reliable three-point shot to his arsenal, however, he could end up meriting consideration when we reach the end of the year.
Carmelo Anthony followed Chris Paul's lead this summer and began initially demanding a trade from the Denver Nuggets behind closed doors…which naturally meant that the trade rumors would immediately be plastered all over the media for weeks.
A few weeks back, ESPN's Ric Bucher reported that it's not a matter of if, but a matter of when Anthony is traded from Denver, at this point. Given that Melo's contract expires at the end of this year, and that Denver can look towards Cleveland or Toronto if they want to see what happens when you don't trade your stars in time, the Nuggets will unquestionably be more receptive to trade offers than the Cavs or Raptors were.
Reports are all over the place as to where Melo may be traded, but one thing's for certain: Carmelo trade rumors will definitely merit being monitored for the next year, as he's the next top-10 NBA superstar likely to switch teams.
Last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder transformed from a 23-win squad in 2008-09 to a 50-win, playoff-qualifying team, led by NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant. The Thunder put the scare of a lifetime into the eventual-champion Lakers before falling in a six-game series in the first round.
This year, once again, some team will emerge from their apparent wreckage and blossom into a legitimate NBA contender for years to come. In the East, an early favorite could be Indiana, who finally found a real point guard in Darren Collison to pair with Team USA participant Danny Granger on the wing.
The West has an obvious choice in the Houston Rockets, as Yao Ming returns from a year-long injury hiatus, but for a deeper sleeper, what about the Sacramento Kings? With Tyreke Evans, last year's Rookie of the Year, paired with the Kings' suddenly beefy frontcourt (Carl Landry, Jason Thompson, Samuel Dalembert and DeMarcus Cousins), the Kings have real potential for a breakout season, even if they don't make the playoff leap in the always-competitive West.
While we've got a whole mess of talented sophomores from the class of 2009 looking to make the second-year leap, a few of them will inevitably fall by the wayside in their second year as their draft colleagues overtake them.
The thought of the top three point guards from the class falling apart—namely, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings and Stephen Curry—is hard to imagine at this point, as all three will only enter this year with a full year of NBA experience and a full NBA offseason under their belts.
Darren Collison could be an early candidate for this award, largely on the basis of how much more responsibility he'll be shouldering in Indiana, coming in as the starting point guard from Day 1. Otherwise, Marcus Thornton of New Orleans will have a tough time maintaining the excessively hot shooting he managed last year, and it'll be worth watching whether first-half-of-the-season Omri Casspi shows up for Sacramento, or if his lesser, second-half-of-the-season self returns for Year 2 instead.
The draft class of 2009 gave the NBA no shortage of All-Star caliber point guards, starting with the trifecta of Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry and Brandon Jennings, who finished 1-2-3 in the Rookie of the Year vote last season.
Beyond the three lottery PGs, this draft class also happened to have a number of quality PGs buried in the late-teens/early-20s of the draft, namely Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, Darren Collison and Eric Maynor. Already, Evans, Curry, Jennings, Holiday and Collison will enter the season with the starting role of their respective teams; that means 1/6 of the NBA's teams will be led by this draft class already.
Evans, the Rookie of the Year, should enter this season as the tentative favorite, but Curry's Team USA experience gives him a unique advantage in the race. Considering the upgrades to Jennings' Bucks team, it'd be foolish to count him out, and with Darren Collison getting a fresh opportunity in Indiana to pair alongside All-Star Danny Granger, he could officially become the surprise of the class this coming season.
Last year's rookie class gave the NBA a slew of talented players (especially at the point guard position) that we'll be hearing from for years to come.
Between Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings, Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison, Eric Maynor and Ty Lawson, the draft class of 2009 was the deepest PG class in recent memory, but the talent didn't stop at the point.
Evans, the Rookie of the Year, starts the year as the early favorite for being the class' best player, having been working on regaining a reliable jump shot this summer. Then again, Curry's Team USA experience could give him a leg up in the race, and given the additions to the Bucks since February (John Salmons, Corey Maggette, Larry Sanders, Drew Gooden), Jennings certainly has more scoring options on offense he can dish the ball to confidently.
After getting over his reluctance of becoming the face of Team USA, Kevin Durant has openly embraced the role as team leader on the court, singlehandedly keeping the U.S. alive against Brazil this past Monday (27 points, 10 rebounds). Durant's emerging ability to become a leader around All-Star-caliber talent certainly won't hurt upon his return to Oklahoma City.
Derrick Rose, Andre Iguodala and Lamar Odom all also figure to translate their starting experience on Team USA into more effective roles on their team next season. With Rose's newfound three-point shooting ability, Iguodala's intensity on defense and Odom's surprisingly strong work in the international post, all three have been demonstrating aspects of their game that typically remain hidden in their NBA play.
That said, we've got 12 guys going for the gold in Turkey right now. Besides Tyson Chandler, who's largely proving that he simply doesn't have the foot speed to stay competitive anymore, we've got a group of NBA players who should only continue to build upon the confidence they gain through their Team USA experience this coming season.
This past year in the playoffs, Deron Williams went on a 10-game crusade that made many the NBA fan (including myself) immediately begin referring to him as the best PG in the NBA, bar none.
Williams tore through the Denver Nuggets averaging 25.8 points and 11.2 assist per game in their six-game first round series, then dished out a 24.3 PPG and 10.2 APG average in their four-game sweep at the hands of the Lakers.
With Al Jefferson as his new Carlos Boozer replacement, can Williams maintain his incredible rate of production from the playoffs? If he starts averaging a 20-10 season, and keeps using his body to get to the rim as efficiently as he's capable of doing, the argument against Williams being the best PG in the NBA will become more and more difficult to muster.
A few weeks after LeBron decided to take his talents to South Beach, rumors started breaking out about Chris Paul catching the superteam fever and wanting out of New Orleans, ASAP. New GM Dell Demps met with Paul and reportedly eased the tensions between the two sides, but Hornets fans can't be feeling great about Paul's long-term future in New Orleans at this point.
Unlike Carmelo Anthony, his brother in trade demands this summer, Paul's contract doesn't expire after this year; New Orleans has him locked up through 2012.
The Hornets traded backup PG Darren Collison (aka Paul's eventual successor had Paul left) and SF James Posey in a four-team, five-player deal in exchange for the Rockets' Trevor Ariza—a move which sends a strong message to CP3, as Sports Illustrated's Paul Forrester believes. What if Paul doesn't see his long-term future with a core of Ariza, David West and Emeka Okafor, though?
When Carlos Boozer decided to sign with the Chicago Bulls this summer, the Utah Jazz suddenly had an overwhelmingly large vacancy at the starting PF position in their lineup, with no relief in sight. Then, David Kahn decided to trade Al Jefferson for pennies on the dollar.
Two future first-round draft picks later, the Jazz had themselves their new low-post presence, one who averaged 23.1 points and 10.9 rebounds per game for the T'Wolves in the 2008-09 season. Now, over a year and a half removed from ACL surgery in his right knee, Jefferson could be due for a huge return to that dominant form this year.
The Jazz figure to have Jefferson, Mehmet Okur (who's recovering from an Achilles tendon tear of his own) and Paul Millsap at their disposal in the frontcourt this season, although Jefferson's versatility and ability to play PF and C will make him the focal point of the Jazz's post game. Can All-Star PG Deron Williams guide Jefferson back to the land of being an unconscionable 20-10 player?
The only reason DeMarcus Cousins slipped to the No. 5 pick in the 2010 draft is because of questions about his attitude and his ability to control his temper.
Cousins was the most efficient player on a per-minute basis in all of college basketball last season for Kentucky, and with his 6'11", 270-pound frame, it's not difficult to figure out why. In a league that's losing traditional low-post centers by the year, Cousins enters the NBA as one of the rare players with the body type to put up a legitimate fight against Dwight Howard.
If he's able to control his emotions and not blow up, Ron Artest-style, Cousins will quickly challenge Andrew Bynum and Yao Ming for the title of being the best center in the West. Then again, that's a pretty big if when it comes to Cousins.
Brook Lopez, the No. 10 pick in the 2008 draft, started making plenty of teams regret their 2008 picks last year, as he took major strides towards becoming one of the better centers in the Eastern Conference.
Lopez started every game last season, averaging 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks in 36.9 minutes per game for the beleaguered Nets. He finished tied for 16th in the NBA for double-doubles with 33, and demonstrated a proficiency at the charity stripe that should make Dwight Howard envious.
The Nets appear ready to consider Lopez their franchise cornerstone at this point, drafting PF Derrick Favors third overall this past season to get Lopez an athletic frontcourt partner for years to come. If Lopez can recover from the bout of mononucleosis that knocked him out of Team USA play this summer, there's a chance he establishes himself as the second best center in the East this year, only behind Howard.
Last year, a shocking number of non-lottery players ended up becoming major impact players for their respective teams, largely due to injury.
Jrue Holiday took advantage of an injury to Lou Williams and Allen Iverson's departure; Darren Collison electrified the NBA while Chris Paul sat out for two months; and Marcus Thornton took advantage of some major post-All-Star minutes to make himself look like the surprise of the draft.
This year, we're sure to have an under-the-radar rookie emerge from the depths to shock the NBA like Collison, Thornton and Holiday did last season. Can Avery Bradley emerge as the next Nate Robinson on the Celtics' bench? Can James Anderson become the next George Hill off the bench for the Spurs? Or will one rook land a surprise starting role like Collison and stun us all?
I hate to speculate here, but I'm going to speculate anyway: Something tells me that the so-called "family reasons" weren't why Rajon Rondo withdrew his name from Team USA consideration at the last minute this summer. Something tells me it really happened because Coach K figured out Rondo didn't have a working, reliable jumper—an absolute must in international play.
We were all treated to Rondo's shooting prowess front and center in the NBA Finals this past June, as Kobe Bryant decided to play about 8 feet off of Rondo when he covered the Celts' PG, deciding to pack the paint and clog Rondo's driving lanes instead. Without any threat of a three-point shot, Rondo couldn't get into his bread-and-butter scoring plays thanks to Kobe, and his effectiveness was largely limited.
With the Big Three only getting older, Rondo needs to keep improving his game if the Celtics plan on returning to the Finals this season. Finding Rondo a jumper should be priority No. 1 for every player, coach, and fan in Boston right now.
This past Thursday, Sports Illustrated writer Ian Thomsen shared data from a New York-based NBA analyst which suggested LeBron James would be the best value free agent this year, as he's playing for only $14.5 million, but would be worth an estimated $31 million, according to the analyst.
Clearly, calling LBJ the biggest free agent discount isn't exactly going out on a limb, especially when he signed a contract for $2 million less annually than he could have received. The way the NBA's maximum salary cap is set up, a player like LBJ can't possibly get fairly compensated, as guys like Rashard Lewis and Joe Johnson are making as much, if not more money than he will for the next six years.
Beyond LBJ and the contractually generous Big Three of the Miami Heat, Tiago Splitter of the San Antonio Spurs will be a darkhorse favorite for best dollar-for-dollar free agent value this coming season. One look at his play during the FIBA World Championships tells you everything you need to know about Splitter.
Ian Thomsen's "best value free agent" piece also had his analyst predicting some of the worst free agent signings of the summer of 2010, and it's hard to argue with most.
Leading off was Richard Jefferson, who the Spurs locked into a four-year, $38.8 million deal this summer after he opted out of the final year of his contract, worth over $15 million. If Jefferson actually acclimates himself to the Spurs offense in Year 2 of his tenure in San Antonio, Thomson's analyst throws out a few other names like Darko Milicic, Amir Johnson (who received a full mid-level deal for five years despite never starting consistently), Kyle Lowry and Chris Duhon.
If Amar'e Stoudemire ends up getting injured again, he'll win this "award" hands down. Otherwise, any one of those five guys named above is a safe bet heading into the season, as all five will have trouble living up to their lofty contracts in their current situations.
Now that Derrick Rose, Brook Lopez and the rest of the draft class of 2008 are entering their third NBA season, they've become eligible for long-term extensions from their respective teams. Kevin Durant, for example, recently took advantage of an extension offer after his third year, locking himself into Oklahoma City until 2016.
We also now have the draft class of 2007, now heading into their fourth year, who will become restricted free agents next season if they're not offered extensions by October 31. The Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls are reportedly working on extensions for Al Horford and Joakim Noah, respectively, but Durant's the only high-profile name to sign a long-term extension thus far.
The potential lockout next season could be throwing a wrench into extension plans, as teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder could prefer letting the market set a price on a player like Jeff Green next summer, when he's an RFA.
Remarkably, despite two season-ending injuries to their frontcourt, knee trouble for star Brandon Roy and a shoulder injury that limited Nicolas Batum to only 37 games last season, the Blazers still managed to stay afloat, win 50 games and sneak into the playoffs as the West's No. 6 seed.
This season, besides Rudy Fernandez, who has reportedly played his last game in Portland (as far as he's concerned), everyone's due to come back healthy. If a battered Blazers team can win 50 games last season, what can a healthy Blazers team, with everybody returning besides Rudy, do this season?
Oden, in particular, will be the key to the Blazers' season—if the 2007 No. 1 pick manages to stay healthy all season for the first time in his career, the Blazers could easily end up challenging the Lakers for Western Conference dominance this season.
While the Heat, Bulls and the Knicks stole headlines in the East this summer with their free agent acquisitions, the Milwaukee Bucks continued to silently build upon a budding core.
The Bucks made their first big move back towards legitimacy last season by acquiring John Salmons at the trade deadline, who immediately started averaging nearly 20 PPG for Milwaukee in a late-season push towards the playoffs. This summer, Milwaukee added Corey Maggette, one of the NBA's most prolific free throw shooters from last year, and Drew Gooden, who should fortify the Bucks' frontcourt with Andrew Bogut still recovering from his horrific elbow injury.
Don't sleep on Milwaukee this year if Bogut can work his way back onto the court. With Salmons, Maggette and Gooden at Brandon Jennings' disposal, there could be legitimate reason for the East to "fear the Deer" this year.
Two months before signing LeBron James and Chris Bosh in the biggest free agent coup since the Lakers signed Shaq in 1996, Pat Riley was already hinting at a possible return to coaching.
Now, with the best Big Three in the league, rumors have started flying about Riley's eventual ousting of Spoelstra, much like what he did to Stan Van Gundy in the Heat's 2005-06 championship season. In July, the New York Daily News reported, "league sources who are familiar with Riley's thinking feel that Spoelstra will be on a short leash."
We're not going to take the Daily News' word as gospel, necessarily, but suffice it to say, Spoelstra will likely be feeling some pressure from above this coming season…especially if the season takes a turn towards the worst at some point.
Last season, while trying to win a ring for the King in Cleveland, the 37-year-old Shaquille O'Neal averaged 12 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 23.4 minutes per game. Translate those averages to a 36 minutes per game average, and Shaq would have put up 18.5 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3 blocked shots per game.
In other words, the Big Shamrock still can make an impact on the court, despite still having not the slightest idea of how to guard a simple pick-and-roll or screen-and-roll.
The real question is, can Shaq swallow his pride enough to understand that the Celtics won't be asking him to be his 25-year-old self? So far, Shaq's said all the right things about understanding his role, but time will tell whether the Big Aristotle can accept a 15-20 minute/game role on a game-to-game basis.
Every year, some young players make the "jump" from NBA role player to NBA star—Joakim Noah and Brook Lopez specifically come to mind from last year.
This year, beyond the electricity of rookie John Wall, we're guaranteed to get a few more young players taking that next step into NBA stardom. Goran Dragic and Roddy Beaubois showed flashes late last season that could make them sleeper breakout picks, Michael Beasley and Kevin Love should have plenty of opportunities in Minnesota without Al Jefferson, and the 2009 point guards will assuredly continue to develop on their already impressive debuts.
Considering all factors, Derrick Rose has to be preseason favorite for breakout player of the year, given his experience with Team USA this summer. Rose repeatedly has discussed developing his three-point shot this summer, and if he's serious (he's shown an ability to knock down international threes in the FIBA games), Rose will become virtually unguardable this season.
While LeBron James may have lost his stranglehold on the league MVP by joining the Miami Heat this summer, Dwight Howard should have no such fears about the Defensive Player of the Year award, which he's won the last two years running.
There's no player currently in the NBA with the unique combination of physical talents and defensive abilities like Howard. As Howard once told Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard, he doesn't just plan on blocking opposing players' shots; he often wants to swat the shots into the seventh row (although he knows he shouldn’t!).
Since the NBA started recording blocks as a category in the 1973-74 season, no player had ever led the league in rebounds and blocks two years running…until Howard came along. If he continues that streak another year, he'll be the runaway favorite for the D-POY award for the third straight year.
Despite missing out on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade this summer, no team outside of the Miami Heat made more notable upgrades to their team through free agency than the Chicago Bulls. In adding Carlos Boozer, the All-Star power forward from Utah, the Bulls obtained a legitimate low-post scoring threat to pair alongside the emerging defensive menace that is Joakim Noah.
Add in Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson as free agent sharpshooters off the bench, and suddenly, the Bulls have no shortage of offensive weapons, led by Derrick Rose at the helm.
If Rose can take the next step towards superstardom, there's no reason to think the Bulls will win less than 50 games; after all, they won 41 last season without any real long-range threat or frontcourt scoring option. If injuries break right (especially with the Heat), there's no reason not to consider the Bulls a legitimate contender for a 55-60 win season and the No. 1 seed in the East.
For four months during last year's regular season, the Boston Celtics found themselves locked into cruise control—they finished the season going 27-27 in their final 54 games, after a 23-5 start to their season. Naturally, the C's somehow converted that regular season mediocrity to their second NBA Finals appearance in three years.
Despite pushing the Lakers to Game 7 last season, we must keep last year in the past when examining this coming season. The Celtics effectively swapped Rasheed Wallace and Tony Allen with Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal and Delonte West, and thus, their team chemistry will be an experiment in-the-making entering training camp.
More importantly, the Celtics' Big Three of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett isn't getting any younger (they're 32, 35 and 34 years old, respectively). Throw in a 31-year-old Jermaine O'Neal and a 38-year-old Shaq, and you've got the starting lineup of the 2020 Seniors' League All-Star team. Can all of those All-Star appearances and miles on the legs combine to form one more championship effort for Boston?
Dwight Howard has won the past two Defensive Player of the Year awards without much competition, as he's one of the increasingly rare centers that an opposing coach actually has to gameplan for.
Howard also found himself in the thick of the MVP competition this year—one Orlando-based writer thought it was a grave injustice Howard wasn't receiving more MVP attention—but ended up finishing in fourth place, and it wasn't because of his offense.
If Howard could improve on his career 59.9 percent free throw shooting, Stan Van Gundy wouldn't have to pull Howard in the end of close games, and he'd become that much more of a dominant player. But if Howard develops an actual jumper—he took a whopping 87 percent of his shots from inside the paint last season, according to 82games.com—he'd be the most unstoppable center since Shaquille O'Neal.
After becoming the youngest scoring champion in NBA history last season, Kevin Durant appears to be on the fast track to NBA superstardom, whether he likes it or not. Despite his greatest efforts not to become the face of Team USA—Coach K even singled him out for being too unselfish—Durant's the only reason the U.S. team has a chance to go for gold in the FIBA World Championships this year.
With LeBron now paired with D-Wade and Bosh, K.D.'s a clear favorite to repeat as scoring champion, and many (including myself) have named him as the preseason favorite for league MVP as well.
If Durant keeps being painted by bloggers/media members as the anti-LeBron, and he continues his humble, team-first approach, there's no telling just how popular Durant can become. Suffice it to say, of all the young superstars in the NBA, he's particularly poised to blow up and rise to the LeBron/D-Wade/Kobe level of popularity.
The East didn't lose LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh this summer. The East gained Amar'e Stoudemire, who left Phoenix for the Knicks and Carlos Boozer, who departed Utah for the Bulls. The East managed to win the first three picks in the 2010 draft, ensuring that John Wall, Evan Turner and Derrick Favor would be playing on the East Coast for the foreseeable future.
If it wasn't for Kevin Durant, the West would really be feeling some superstar pressure. Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant are all on the wrong side of 30, and who knows what Pau Gasol will become after Kobe's eventual retirement?
The West still has plenty of powerful teams at the top—the Lakers, Thunder, Mavericks, Blazers, Spurs and Rockets could all contend for a championship this season with the right breaks—but the era of complete Western dominance of the East is heading for an abrupt end, if it hasn't gone extinct already.
When the Lakers won their back-to-back championship this past June, Kobe Bryant ended up winning his fifth ring, which leaves him tied with Magic Johnson in terms of Lakers greats.
Having not read Bill Simmons' 700-page basketball bible, I couldn't tell you where Kobe ranked on Simmons' pantheon of NBA greats. But Simmons did write a Finals preview for ESPN this year, and suggested that if the Lakers won again, Kobe would contest Tim Duncan for the No. 7 overall spot on the NBA greats list. (I wonder if he still feels that way after Kobe's 6-for-24 in Game 7…)
If Kobe and the Lakers can finish their second three-peat this year, he'll end up tied with Michael Jordan with six total rings. In other words…Kobe's legacy has a lot riding on it this season.
We've already had Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony clamoring for trades behind closed doors this summer—and then there's always the Rudy Fernandez, Shout-Your-Trade-Request-From-the-Rooftops approach.
If there's one thing we can guarantee, it's that these three won't be the only high-profile names demanding trades from their current teams this season.
Last year, Tracy McGrady and the Houston Rockets got into an unforgettable cold war for months over McGrady's playing time and trade demands; Hedo Turkoglu also managed to start demanding a trade one year into his five-year deal with the Rockets. This year, when a high-profile free agent doesn't find himself in a role that he envisioned, another dramatic blowup could very well be on the way.
Kevin Durant made history last season by becoming the youngest player in NBA history to lead the league in scoring. A late-season surge made him the only 30 PPG scorer in the league, as LeBron James, who finished second in scoring, ended the year with a 29.7 PPG average.
Now, with LeBron down in South Beach, Durant's greatest scoring competition just paired himself with the NBA's No. 5 scorer from last season, Dwyane Wade. Throw in the fact that the No. 3 scorer in the league last year, Carmelo Anthony, just got a veritable chucker in Al Harrington as a new teammate this summer, and you realize that three of Durant's four toughest competitors should score less this season.
Then, there's Kobe. Again, you guys can count Kobe out of this if you want to. If he's smart, he'll realize he's got Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and a whole bunch of role players to pour in the points; the Lakers don't need him to drop 30 a night. But if that switch goes off in Kobe's head, and he dedicates himself to winning this year's scoring title, Durant may stand no chance against the Black Mamba.
Last season, Kevin Durant took his first real step towards superstardom by becoming the youngest scoring champion in NBA history at age 21. After a crushing six-game loss to the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, Durant decided not to take too much time off; he simply became the face of Team USA in the FIBA World Championships instead.
By virtue of his 30 PPG average last season, we already know that Durant can score. What you might not realize is that Durant also led the Thunder in rebounding last year, grabbing 7.6 boards per game. Durant dished out 2.8 assists/game last season, but during this summer in FIBA play, Durant's been showing a more advanced ability to create shots for his teammates than ever before.
LeBron James may hold the current throne, but if Durant can continue elevating his play after the Team USA experience, LBJ will have Durant breathing down his neck for the best all-around NBA player title soon enough.
During the Decision, LeBron James stressed Miami's championship potential more than anything when asked why he decided to leave Cleveland for South Beach. ("I feel like we have a great chance of winning and winning for multiple years," James said.)
To his credit, he's right—a team with a core of himself, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh should win multiple titles, barring any major injuries or unforeseen disasters. That simply means the Heat will have targets on their back for the next four to six years, regardless if they actually win championships or not.
LeBron, who has his sights set on going down as one of the greatest players in NBA history, will ultimately have to win multiple titles to achieve his lofty goal, whether it's with the Heat or not. Then again, if the LBJ-Wade-Bosh core can only win one title in five years, that's likely to become a blemish on all three of their career resumes.
LeBron James, two-time defending MVP, would have entered the season as the runaway favorite for a MVP three-peat had he stayed in Cleveland this summer. However, by deciding to join two uber-talented teammates in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, logic stands to say that the opportunities for each individual player will decrease.
That leaves a wide open race for league MVP, starting with last year's scoring champion, Kevin Durant, and the last player to win the award before LBJ, Kobe Bryant.
Currently, Bodog.com has Durant leading the preseason MVP race at 5/2 odds, then Bryant at 3/1 odds, James at 9/2 odds, Dwight Howard with 13/2 odds, and D-Wade in fifth place at 9/1 odds. Deron Williams at 40/1 odds could be a sneaky good play if you're looking to throw down $20 on a long-shot…
While most of us were still clamoring about LeBron lighting a torch to his reputation with the Decision, AOL FanHouse's Matt Moore started openly wondering if LBJ could have opened the door to becoming the first NBA player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double for a whole season. In Moore's opinion, it's entirely possible.
A panel of 93 ESPN panelists weighed in on the LBJ triple-double debate, and a whopping 72 percent of them don't believe that LeBron will average a triple-double in any one of the next six seasons. Then again, considering that no NBA player in 30 years has managed the feat, the fact that 28 percent voted "yes" says plenty on its own.
Moore figures that with D-Wade and Bosh instead of Mo Williams and Shaq, LBJ's assist total is bound to increase, and his rebounding totals will benefit from the Heat lacking a true dominant center like Dwight Howard. While LBJ may not be the MVP favorite heading into the season, if he averages a triple-double all year, he'll end up winning his third straight MVP trophy.
Immediately following The Decision, basketball bloggers and stat geeks alike began firing out their projections for how many games the Miami Heat, equipped with a new Axis of Evil, could win this coming season. Most ended up guessing 60, at a bare minimum…and that was before the Heat added Mike Miller, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, etc.
Then, Jeff Van Gundy, as he's known to do, ignited an explosion of discussion about the topic. JVG boldly proclaimed that the Heat have a "great shot" at breaking the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' single-season best all-time record of 72-10.
Scottie Pippen, a member of that 95-96 Bulls team, didn't take too kindly to JVG's suggestion. But with a Wade-James-Bosh core, the sky appears to be the limit for this Heat team if they develop any sense of chemistry.
Right when the words "I'm going to be taking my talents to South Beach" left LeBron James' mouth on July 8, the immediate question for the Heat became the role of the alpha dog.
In the weeks leading up to The Decision, critics argued against a Dwyane Wade-LeBron James pairing based on the logic that both men were so used to being the main option on their teams that they couldn't possibly co-exist. Granted, their Team USA experience in 2008 appeared to suggest otherwise; and, as it turns out, this grand free agency scheme may have been hatched in Beijing after all.
We'll take a bold guess and say Chris Bosh won't be "The Man" down in Miami this year—he'll happily accept being the best No. 3 option in the league. But what about LeBron and D-Wade?
Will the Heat still belong to Wade, who won a championship in 2006 with them? Or will King James, with his back-to-back league MVP awards, march into Miami and seize control of D-Wade's team?
And we thought Cavs-Lakers was a dream Finals matchup a few years ago. Ha!
When LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh announced their unholy union, thoughts immediately turned to their natural Western Conference foils, the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. If we thought the Lakers versus the Celtics' geriatric Big Three made for great NBA Finals drama, what about Kobe and Co. versus the newest, best Big Three in the league?
Obviously, David Stern and the NBA front office will be dreaming, praying and according to conspiracy theorists, rigging the league so a Heat-Lakers Finals matchup will come to fruition. Until then, all the casual NBA fan can do is sit and hope that the Lakers' newest dynasty has one more run left and that the Heat develop the chemistry it takes to make a championship run.
If David Stern forgets to slip head ref Bennett Salvatore a $100,000 tip before the playoffs start and the league doesn't rig the outcome, a Heat-Lakers NBA finals isn't the sure-thing, preordained matchup that L.A. and Miami fans would make you believe.
Orlando and Boston have represented the East in the Finals for the past three years, and neither will readily back down to the Heat's challenge. Meanwhile, teams like Chicago and Milwaukee added crucial components in free agency this summer, and could end up shocking a team or two in the playoffs with the right matchup and chemistry.
The always strong West finally may start thinning out this year, with Carlos Boozer and Amar'e Stoudemire defecting to the Eastern Conference this summer, but the Lakers still have plenty of contenders to ward off. By trading Erick Dampier to the Charlotte Bobcats for Tyson Chandler, the Dallas Mavericks only got stronger this summer; the Thunder and Trail Blazers promise to put up quite a fight for the Lakers this season as well.
Now that Phil Jackson's come back for one final shot at a three-peat, the pressure falls squarely on the shoulders of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers' leader on and off the court.
There's been much ado about Kobe finally having a few months off from basketball, allowing him to actually get healthy for the coming season after battling ailments all of this past year. The theory goes something like, "Well, if Kobe can win back-to-back titles with a fracture in his finger, what can he do when he's fully healthy?"
It's a good point, although, there's no guarantee Kobe will start (or, more importantly, finish) the season healthy. Regardless, he proved that he doesn't need to be 100 percent to bring home a title for the Lakers; can he and Phil Jackson conjure the championship magic one more time?
Not to be a Debbie Downer here, but if the NBA owners and the NBA players' union doesn't negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement by July 1, 2011, we're going to have an NBA lockout on our hands, ladies and gents. Billy Hunter, president of the NBA players' union, has openly acknowledged that a lockout is a very real possibility at this juncture.
"I'm preparing for a lockout right now and I haven't seen anything to change that notion. Hopefully I'll see something over the next several months," Hunter said, back in July. "As of this moment, it's full speed ahead for me in preparing the players for a worst-case scenario."
The two sides did meet in August, and according to CBSSports.com's Ken Berger, some ground was broken; however, much work remains before the two hammer out a new CBA. Until they do, the prospect of a 2011 NBA lockout will hover around as an all-too-possible worst case scenario to these negotiations.