Camp position battles to watch
NBA training camps for the 2008-09 season are about to open. Soon the air will be filled with the sound of basketballs bouncing, sneakers squeaking and coaches barking out commands.
And to hear at least one longtime Eastern Conference executive tell it, the sound of fists whizzing past ears as teammates battling for a precious roster or starting spot let their tempers get the better of them.
"Oh yeah, [fights] happen all the time," said the executive, who wished to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. "It's not really a training camp if you don't have at least one.
"Nobody ever gets hurt, thank God. These are basketball players, after all. But it's actually not a bad thing to have a fight or two. You'd almost be worried about it if there weren't any."
We're not saying the players listed below will be going Brendan Haywood-Etan Thomas on each other in the days ahead. We're just pointing out that there could be some "intense" competition on the court. In some cases, the result could have an impact on the NBA title race.
Here, then, is our list of 10 significant (and entirely friendly, as far as we know) position battles to watch:
1. Rockets small forward
The main candidates: Ron Artest, Shane Battier
The skinny: Don't assume Artest will just step into the starting lineup. Battier is a valuable cog as a long-armed defender and three-point shooter. He also does a lot of other little things that complement Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. Houston coach Rick Adelman might be reluctant to tinker with success, and instead opt to use Artest off the bench as a sparkplug and scorer much the way the Spurs do with Manu Ginobili. (At the end of games, Adelman can always use Artest and Battier on the floor with T-Mac as the principal ball handler). Artest, by the way, has said he would accept a reserve role.
2. Cavaliers shooting guard
The main candidates: Wally Szczerbiak, Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson, Delonte West
The skinny: Now that Mo Williams has been acquired from the Bucks to run the point, the big question is, Who fills this important role alongside LeBron James? Szczerbiak is the incumbent, but the veteran did not provide the consistent three-point threat the Cavs were hoping for when they acquired him before the trade deadline last season. Pavlovic filled the role on Cleveland's run to the 2007 Finals, but he struggled last season after a contract holdout. Gibson and West also could get in the picture, though both are likely to be key reserves at both backcourt spots.
3. Heat point guard
The main candidates: Chris Quinn, Marcus Banks, Mario Chalmers
The skinny: This is basically a mess for Heat president Pat Riley and rookie coach Erik Spoelstra. Quinn did a decent job while starting 25 games a year ago, including the final 13, but he appears more suited as a reserve. Banks, acquired in a midseason trade with Suns, has done nothing in his career to inspire much confidence. Chalmers, the Final Four hero for Kansas, is a rookie second-round pick. Look for Riley to make some move here, either trading for an available veteran such as Indiana's Jamaal Tinsley or taking a chance on Stephon Marbury (if he gets waived by the Knicks).
4. Pistons power forward
The main candidates: Jason Maxiell, Kwame Brown, Amir Johnson
The skinny: New Pistons coach Michael Curry already told reporters that McDyess, who recently turned 34, will return to his old role as the team's first big man off the bench next season. That leaves a starting spot alongside Rasheed Wallace in Detroit's frontcourt. Maxiell's high energy and defensive intensity make him the logical candidate to complement 'Sheed inside, but Curry also could opt for Brown's size and bulk in the middle or the 21-year-old Johnson's athleticism and shot-blocking potential.
5. Trail Blazers point guard
The main candidates: Steve Blake, Jerryd Bayless, Sergio Rodriguez
The skinny: Blazers coach Nate McMillan already has endorsed Blake, who did a good job as Portland's main setup man last season, for the starter's role again. But Bayless was MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League and is viewed as a potential star if he can learn to be a true NBA point guard, while Rodriguez has shown flashes of brilliance. Also, Portland is said to be considering signing former Clipper Shaun Livingston, who has not played since February 2007 because of a knee injury. Further complicating matters is the arrival of Spanish shooting guard Rudy Fernandez, whom McMillan has said will be a part of the rotation this season. If so, Brandon Roy might have to slide over to the point more often. It should be very interesting to see how it shakes out.