Burning questions in the West (cont.)
Key question: Is O.J. Mayo the next Brandon Roy?
More specifically, will Mayo make Minnesota's McHale look silly, or at least too clever by half, the way Roy did two seasons ago? That time, the Wolves flipped lottery picks with Portland in order to pocket $1 million from the Blazers and save a little more on the scale of guaranteed contracts for first-rounders. They were happy to take guard Randy Foye, but ground a few molars when Roy not only earned Rookie of the Year honors but also proved to be a more adept point guard, in his shooting guard's body, than the compact Foye.
Fast-forward to 2008: Minnesota grabs Mayo with the No. 3 pick, but sends him to Memphis hours later for No. 5 selection Love and veteran shooter Mike Miller. The Wolves had holes to plug, so the two-for-one swap made sense on paper. But if Mayo, scrutinized by scouts since his voice changed, becomes the star his preps and brief USC stints suggest, the Grizzlies will look as smart as the Blazers, with a future that could get as promising.
New Orleans Hornets
Key question: Is this elevator going up?
It has been, with the Hornets' nailing down the division title, winning 56 games and, right through their seven-game playoff loss to gold standard San Antonio, serving notice of their legitimacy last season. Their return to New Orleans was dramatic and propelling, and the stiff price they bid for former Boston defender James Posey (four years, $25 million) is the sort of dice roll that the big boys make. Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler and David West are a trio capable of counting rings together, but fine-tuning 56 victories into 60 or more and having that translate into four best-of-seven triumphs is even harder than going from 18 to 38 to 39 to 56. Lots of teams step back before they (maybe ever) step forward.
San Antonio Spurs
Key question: Do Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have another title run in them?
Short answer: Nope. Longer answer: They should have several more shots at championships, not just one. Their talent, their experience, their chemistry, their personalities and their ages (32, 31 and 26, respectively) argue for two or three more long playoff runs. If, that is, coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford have guessed right in the supporting cast they've built. Rookie George Hill, Roger Mason, Ime Udoka and Ian Mahinmi, among others, bring freshness to the mix, but won't be confused with the playoff savvy and unflappability of vets such as Robert Horry, Michael Finley or Bruce Bowen. Still, a younger bench will shave minutes from the Spurs' Big Three in the regular season, perhaps providing more spring in the spring.
Golden State Warriors
Key question: Why was Monta Ellis riding a moped?
There are grave contractual concerns when an NBA player injures himself in an activity deemed too dangerous and thus specifically prohibited by his employer, such as skydiving, hang-gliding or dating Amy Winehouse. And since Ellis just signed his six-year, $65 million deal this summer, he really got spooked -- the Warriors' guard initially claimed that his torn ankle ligament and high sprain occurred in a pick-up game. Then he acknowledged to the club that it was a non-basketball injury. Finally, Ellis 'fessed up, claiming that he hurt himself in a low-speed moped accident, as if mopeds are known for any other kind. This from a player whose game grew impressively last season and whom the Warriors hope can take another giant step as Baron Davis' replacement at point guard. He likely will miss the first two months.
Los Angeles Clippers
Key queston: Baron Davis, points and victories producer or movie producer?
The first wave of news made complete sense and was pretty exciting: Davis was headed to the Clippers, joining Elton Brand, Chris Kaman, Al Thornton and others not only as a rival to the Lakers' popularity at Staples Center but also as a legit West contender. The second wave of news undercut that entirely: Brand was changing teams, too, heading to Philadelphia for his own fresh start. So much for that terrific tandem, which was even accused of some early price-fixing before Brand bolted. And now, with Corey Maggette joining Davis' previous team in Oakland, the Clippers' roster is more spotty, with newcomers such as Jason Williams, Ricky Davis and the 34-year-old Camby, always one step ahead of the injury gods. The move is great for Davis' lifestyle -- he's a budding movie mogul and L.A. native -- but the Lakers remain the class of their shared building while the Clippers remain somewhere near the back of the West's class.
Los Angeles Lakers
Key question: How ready to help is Bynum?
Portland isn't the only team getting its man-child center back after a season lost on the injury shelf. The young center, who won't turn 21 until the end of October, suffered a dislocated kneecap and bone bruise in January that wiped out his season -- and might have made a difference in the NBA Finals against Boston's Kevin Garnett or Kendrick Perkins. He had arthroscopic surgery, diligently did his rehab, lately has been participating in drills at the Lakers' practice gym and contends he is fully recovered. That could give the Lakers an amazing lift, especially with Pau Gasol alongside him now.
Bynum was averaging 10.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks while hitting 63.6 percent of his shots when he went down, his progress visible by the day. Imagine yourself waking up one day in a 7-foot, 285-pound body, then learning you get to play an NBA game that night; that's the joy and abandon that Bynum was showing as his game blossomed.
Key question: Is the running and the gunning and the funning over?
Looks like it, at least for the first two. With Shaquille O'Neal around from the start of camp this season, there always will be a ready supply of quips and antics, part of the big man's appeal and clout in a locker room. But the seven-second, high-octane attack that made Phoenix the most entertaining team in the league is no more. Coach Mike D'Antoni is in New York, trigger man Steve Nash is 34, open-court threat Shawn Marion is in Miami, Terry Porter is the more traditional new coach and Shaq will be rumbling to set up in the low post when Amaré Stoudemire doesn't beat him to the spot.
That's not the Suns basketball we came to love in the regular season and doubt in the postseason. Phoenix GM Steve Kerr would settle for a reversal of that, but it's just as likely, given the roster's age and hodge-podgery, that it could mean doubting from start to another premature finish.
Key question: How can a team find an identity when there's no D in its ID?
With Artest last year, the Kings gave up an average of 104.8 points. So trading the high-maintenance but defensive-driven small forward isn't likely to bring that fever down. Kevin Martin's approach, successful for him at least, is to outscore his competition, and Martin is Sacramento's most important player now. Beno Udrih at point guard, Brad Miller in the middle -- those guys aren't lockdown defender types, either, and the Kings ranked 24th in rebounding to boot. Mikki Moore tries at that end of the floor and Francisco Garcia always was projected as a long-armed, Doug Christie sort. But Reggie Theus still might be singing some Motown blues in Sac-town (Stops! In the name of God / before you break my heart).
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.