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Young player on the spot, Amaré concerns and more

Posted: Friday October 5, 2007 11:22AM; Updated: Friday October 5, 2007 1:13PM
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Center Andrew Bynum is under pressure to produce in his third NBA season.
Center Andrew Bynum is under pressure to produce in his third NBA season.
John W. McDonough/SI
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Well, an absolutely horrible offseason is history for the Knicks, and now for the bad news: They have to begin playing basketball. But I'm going to momentarily leave aside the question of whether or not they'll be better than last year --wouldn't you relish the idea of Zach Randolph being your franchise savior? -- and tackle a few easier-to-answer training-camp questions.

Such as:

What young player, currently dog-paddling in deep water, better find his way onto terra firma in a hurry?

One obvious answer is Boston's Rajon Rondo, tasked with quarterbacking the most eagerly anticipated Big Three in the NBA, all of whom are crazy impatient to be called a winner. But even if Rondo is erratic, as he assuredly will be at times, the ultimate fate of the Celtics does not fall upon his shoulders. It will be up to one of the three veterans to steady the ship and, in the case of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, to even take over some of the ball-handling chores.

So I'm going to go with Lakers center Andrew Bynum. Kobe Bryant has already called him out (though the Kobester didn't know the whole world would be listening), and my guess is that the Lakers have all but given up on Kwame Brown, giving the full-time job to Bynum. Not much will be expected from the purple-and-gold, but any seat near Kobe is, by definition, a hot one.

Which team made the best under-the-radar free-agent signing?

The one signing that didn't get enough attention was Desmond Mason, a former Slam Dunk champion, returning to Milwaukee. I'm not suggesting it's a balance-of-power-changer in the East, but swingman Mason is a proven double-figure scorer who had his best pro season in Milwaukee in 2004-05 when he averaged 17.2 points per game. Combine the acquisition with their retention of guards Charlie Bell and Mo Williams, and the Bucks had a promising offseason. Now, if they can only find a way to make Yi Jianlian happy in Suds City ...

Which team will be the NBA's most improved?

The actual question is: What team other than Boston will be the most improved? Because if the Kevin Garnett-Pierce-Allen Celtics don't improve upon 24 wins, Red Auerbach is going to rise from his resting place and torch TD Banknorth Garden with the flaming tip of his cigar.

The most logical answer is Milwaukee for the above reasons, and I do think the Bucks will be better. But I'm going to take a deep breath and go with the Atlanta Hawks, winners of 30 games last year.

I know, I know. There's no deader venue than Philips Arena. There's still an ownership squabble. And the Hawks haven't so much as smelled the postseason since '99. But I see a Joe Johnson ready to be recognized as an elite player. I see several young players -- Josh Childress, Zaza Pachulia, Shelden Williams, Marvin Williams -- ready for improvement. I see two rookies, Al Horford and Acie Law, ready to help.

I see lines of people at Philips and "Let's Go Hawks" banners all over the Peach City.

No, I don't really see that. But I do see a team that can challenge for the playoffs in the East.

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