Burning questions in the East
The leaves are turning, the "rogue, isolated criminal" finally is behind bars and the NBA's wise and valuable rookie orientation session ended with a rousing fanfare of hotel smoke alarms. That can only mean one thing: Training camps are set to open and the 2008-09 season -- otherwise known as LeBron James' penultimate in Cleveland -- is around the corner.
Actually, that's two things. And this is a third: a look at the issues facing each of the 15 Eastern Conference teams. (For an analysis of the West, click here.)
Key question: Who picks up the slack left by James Posey's departure?
Winning an NBA championship never is easy, but defending one often can be even harder. With the emphasis on defend. The Celtics' 2007-08 season was storybook, floating along on big, bold plot lines such as the (Not The New) Big Three lovefest, Rajon Rondo's fast-tracked, caterpillar-to-butterfly trajectory and Doc Rivers' finally getting some coaching props. But Posey was Boston's Bruce Bowen, a versatile and willing defender who also could sting opponents with timely three-point shots. And now he's with New Orleans seeking a third ring with a third team. Holding the other guys down was the foundation of the Celtics' success, and Posey was the guy who poured the concrete.
New Jersey Nets
Key question: What is Vince Carter's ETD, that is, estimated time of departure?
Jason Kidd is gone and now Richard Jefferson is, too. Funny, how the guy everyone sized up as the likeliest to go from the Nets' Big Three still receives his mail and work calls in Jersey. Much of that is not by design, of course -- Carter's crossing lines (skills vs. age) and his $61 million contract extension limit his tradeability. But he is surrounded by youth and promise again, beginning a season with few expectations -- just like he did back in Toronto when he was 24, rather than shouldering the franchise weight at 31. Trading Carter for whatever president Rod Thorn can get would be preferable in a dreary season to watching Vince mentor.
New York Knicks
Key question: Will Stephon Marbury soon be Sharpie-ing an "R.I.P. Starbury'' onto the uppers of his discount sneakers?
Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni, the Knicks' new president and coach, respectively, will get time for extended honeymoons in New York -- their contracts virtually assure it -- but the relationship between Marbury and the Knicks is overdue for divorce. Now 31, Marbury's career has fast-forwarded through potential, excitement, controversy and crash, neglecting to pack winning in there somewhere. He grabbed more headlines off and away from the court last season than on it, and averaged 13.9 points and 4.7 assists in just 24 appearances.
Let's face it, this "Coney Island's Finest'' stand has gone belly-up, and the Knicks would cut or buy out Marbury if they knew he wouldn't immediately sign with and help one of their rivals (in, oh, Miami?). Have no fear: We can't guarantee anything about the former, but it is exceedingly safe to predict that the latter will not happen. Lately, the guy can't help even himself.
Key question: Can the Sixers do, with Elton Brand, what Boston did with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen?
That is, can Brand come over from the deep and difficult West and energize one of the East's flagship franchises? As a player, Brand is just what Philadelphia (and a lot of teams) needs, an ink-him-in, 20-and-10 power forward with genuine leadership abilities. As a citizen and franchise face, he's beyond reproach. Assuming his repaired Achilles tendon is even stronger than its eight-game trial late last season, Brand's remaining challenge is to knit Andre Iguodala, Andre Miller and the rest of the Sixers together, and the sooner the better.
One lingering concern: Can Kareem Rush provide enough outside shooting to keep defenses from sagging down low on Brand and others? A Pat Garrity or Wally Szczerbiak type would fit perfectly on this squad.
Key question: How much does Jermaine O'Neal have left in his tank -- and how sound are his other assorted parts?
O'Neal has always talked a better game than he has played, which generally has been a testament to him as an interview subject, because he was a pretty terrific player through his first NBA decade, mostly with Indiana. But O'Neal is 30 now and he missed 40 games last year with a bum left knee (and a combined 44 the two previous seasons), so when he talks about his fresh start and fine health and excitement in joining the Raptors, it all sounds pleasantly ... hollow. Which it will remain until the six-time All-Star proves he can adapt to playing alongside Chris Bosh, stay healthy and find a dozen other ways to make sure he doesn't go missing north of the border.
Key question: Is Josh Smith going to blame the Hawks, somehow, some way, for guaranteeing him $58 million?
Seems ludicrous, like getting ticked off at the guy who tells you that you won Powerball because he phones during dinner. This, remember, is the NBA, where feelings can get hurt or grudges held over the most minor or innocent things, and perceived slights can be just as damaging as full-frontal assaults.
It's true that Smith had to set his market value from the outside, finally attracting an offer sheet from Memphis that the Hawks opted to match. It's also true that Atlanta's last proactive offer to the talented 6-9 forward was for about $13 million less. It's true, too, that Smith wound up getting nearly $15 million less than fellow restricted free agents Emeka Okafor or Luol Deng. And finally, it's true that Atlanta let one of Smith's running mates, Josh Childress, sign to play in Greece, setting back whatever plans the Hawks had. Any or all of those gripes are available if Smith, still 22 going on 15 sometimes, chooses to grab for them. Leave it to the Hawks to turn even this positive into something negative.
Key question: Did Larry Brown really know what he was signing on for?
There's no waking up of echoes or appealing to the Charlotte franchise's proud tradition, because that doesn't exist. The Bobcats keep digging their sub-.500 hole deeper each year -- from 92 games below through three seasons to 110 now, after a 32-50 finish -- and still can't sniff a postseason berth from where they're stuck. There's been a little too much sis-boom-bah to their personnel decisions, stocking up on swell college players (Okafor, Adam Morrison, Sean May, Jared Dudley) with potentially lower pro ceilings.
Now they're playing the Tar Heel connection again, with figurehead boss Michael Jordan wooing Brown, 68, to teach the kids how to, natch, play the right way. Keep in mind, though, that Brown's lessons were met with a Blackboard Jungle response in New York, a stain on both those players' and this coach's records that goes beyond his legendary roving job eye.
Key question: Is Erik Spoelstra another Slick Pat in the making?
Spoelstra's gelled hair and tender years make the Pat Riley comparisons unavoidable. To most casual observers, Riley's decision to suddenly step down again and tab the 37-year-old assistant as his surrogate has Stan Van Gundy Excellent Adventure written all over it. Might Riley, embarrassed into retreat by a 15-67 disaster, return to the bench again if Dwyane Wade comes back (and stays) healthy, Shawn Marion benefits from a full Heat training camp and No. 2 pick Michael Beasley is as good as billed? Probably not, but he'll be lurking in the executive suite all the same. Spoelstra will try to differentiate himself by running more, capitalizing on Marion's and Wade's athletic ability and sparing at least the latter from some physically punishing half-court play.