Burning questions in the East (cont.)
Key question: Is Jameer Nelson slipping out of sync with Dwight Howard?
This isn't a question of harmony, although it is based on the growing assumption that, at Orlando's point guard and center spots, Howard is the Paul Simon talent and Nelson is somewhere in the vicinity of Art Garfunkel. As in, not up to the task of leading his cohort and his developing team to the NBA's elite level. Nelson's contract ($30 million) says he's the man, but his play and his liabilities suggest that he would be best suited to a third-guard role. He is a take-charge fellow, but his input seems best coming from the side.
Key question: Are the Wizards better off with or without Gilbert Arenas?
The Wizards most definitely would be better off without Arenas' three knee operations in 18 months, including the one he sprung on everyone just last week that will keep him out into December. Agent Zero is an immense talent and one of the NBA's pure entertainers, on the court and online. But his eccentricities and continued left-knee fragility are messing with the Wizards' minds and plans. There was a reason coach Eddie Jordan ultimately felt that Washington was better off against Cleveland in the playoffs with Arenas not participating; his unreliability hobbled the team the way that bum knee hobbled Arenas.
Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler did the heavy lifting when Arenas played only 13 games last season and they'll do it again in his absence. When he comes back, this key question will give way to a bouquet of them, including: How much will Jamison and Butler defer to Arenas next time? How long will it take them? And how long will they have to, before he's out again?
Key question: How soon will Derrick Rose be ready?
The multifaceted disappointment that was last season means the Bulls face a lot of questions this fall. Rose's learning curve -- how steep, how vast -- trumps them all. Point guards so rarely get drafted No. 1 overall that, when they do, the expectations are enormous. Running the offense, fending off distractions in his hometown of Chicago, directing strategic and emotional traffic on a team with more than a little dysfunction all might fall to Rose as rookie tasks.
Key question: Will these guys run a second play this year, beyond the old reliable "give it to LeBron and stay out of the way'' formation?
It's at once the most predictable and most exciting offensive set in the NBA, the Cavs' default possession of putting the basketball in James' hands and then letting him navigate and create his way to some powerful, uncoiled explosion. Exciting is good for the vast audiences who follow No. 23's exploits, but predictable is not so good for keeping teammates involved and winning games in May and June. So coach Mike Brown is going to need to trust newly acquired point guard Mo Williams and the returning Delonte West enough to keep James off the ball, moving and cutting and running the opponents' so-called defensive specialists ragged. James has long been Cleveland's best passer, but it's time for someone else on his squad to at least challenge in that department, getting him the ball late in the shot clock rather than at its start.
Key question: When is the shakeup coming?
Joe Dumars was one peeved dude at the end of the Pistons' postseason run. He fired coach Flip Saunders and vowed an overhaul of the roster, ostensibly for Detroit's failure once again to advance beyond the conference finals. Well, the nucleus -- Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Antonio McDyess -- is intact. What's that, the Pistons signed Kwame Brown? Right. As we were saying ... Scuttling a roster is easier said (and daydreamed about in malevolent moments) than done in pro sports, and the most notable change has been Michael Curry's hiring as coach. Maybe the Pistons' proud vets have one more run in them. Or maybe they'll be no more coachable than they have been for three years and the veterans will chafe at yielding even more to youngsters such as Rodney Stuckey, Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson.
Key question: Did you buy the name tags? Or was that you? Or you?
Change for its own sake rarely pays off but it does pack a small amount of energy, sometimes mistaken for improvement in a situation that has gone stagnant. The Pacers will look different again this season -- Jermaine O'Neal is gone, Ike Diogu is gone, even longtime franchise guru Donnie Walsh is gone -- and likely will play differently (maybe even some defense) as a result. But nowhere in there is a claim that any of it will be "better.'' T.J. Ford and Jarrett Jack are likely upgrades from Jamaal Tinsley, and Rasho Nesterovic and Roy Hibbert are absolutely, positively tall. The Pacers' real source of talent and hope is on the wings, where Mike Dunleavy and Danny Granger play. But who's the leader of this bunch? Might as well toss the name tags in a hat and pull out one, at this point.
Key question: Can Scott Skiles successfully change the culture?
Intensity is what kept Skiles in the NBA as a player for 10 seasons and has marked his stints in Phoenix and Chicago as a coach. Obviously, Skiles has learned how to deal with multiple player personalities through the years, but he is happiest and most effective when his crews embrace defense, stick to their roles and stay mentally and physically strong. Milwaukee, as a team, didn't excel in those areas last year. The offseason moves by new GM John Hammond -- adding Richard Jefferson and Joe Alexander, among others, while subtracting Bobby Simmons and Yi Jianlian -- were made with those traits in mind.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.