Burning questions in the West
You take Greg Oden, I'll take Andrew Bynum and we'll find out, maybe, whether the Western Conference will provide us with a new millennium version of Russell-Chamberlain over the next 15 years or so. Tall order, right? Fine. Then let's just hope it's not a decade and a half of some regurgitated, pulse-deadening Erick Dampier-Adonal Foyle showdown.
It should be easy to stay optimistic now, when everyone is undefeated and 48 victories again sounds like an impressive total rather than a one-way ticket to the lottery, as it was for Golden State in the mighty West last season. Survival is a central issue for all 15 teams in this conference, though each faces a key question of its own heading into training camp. (For a look at the East, click here.)
Key question: What happens with AI?
Allen Iverson picked a bad summer to be thinking about a renewed contract, heading into the final year of a deal that will pay him more than $20 million in 2008-09. The Nuggets these days have been thinking mostly about saving money; they fire-sold Marcus Camby to the Clippers, did not re-sign Eduardo Najera and unloaded their first-round pick to avoid the guaranteed contract. That had Iverson wondering about his own future, both long- and short-term; with an expiring contract, he might hold more value to the Nuggets as trade bait than as a scoring machine. Shoot, they can exit from the first round without him just as easily as with him. At 33, Iverson still does what he does well, averaging 25.8 points since joining Denver in December 2006. Staying in Denver? That's something else.
Key question: Will Kevin Love take after his dad, Stan, or his uncle Mike?
In other words, can the former UCLA big man become a valuable NBA contributor (Stan Love played in 239 games in four seasons with Baltimore and the Lakers) or is he just another Beach Boy from sunny California? Love has enough want-to and respect for the old school to make Wolves vice president Kevin McHale fall in love with him and his potential. He also just turned 20, which argues for patience in developing and evaluating him.
But the Wolves need help now and Al Jefferson wants a break from the heavy minutes he logged last season at center. Love, at about 6-foot-8 and 250, would be as defensively challenged there for his size as he would be for his speed trying to guard small forwards. How he and Jefferson divvy up the duties will determine how much time they coexist on the court, a central issue for a squad that needs its most talented players to grow together. At least Love's passing ability and shooting range make him versatile offensively.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Key question: Will the Thunder's toughest challenge come on or off the court?
Ripping this franchise away from Seattle after four proud and mostly fun decades caused all sorts of emotional trauma -- in Seattle. But you know how modern athletes and coaches are, millionaire mercenaries happy to love the ones they're with, as long as the fat checks cash. This should be expansion without stretch marks, marrying a team that is more advanced than any inaugural edition to a market that has shed its NBA training wheels. But they shouldn't let any happy honeymoon get in the way of an urgency to improve. Young as this club is, NBA players have finite careers, and building blocks in Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and first-round pick Russell Westbrook need to be full-fledged contributors while guys such as Nick Collison, Damien Wilkins, Chris Wilcox and Desmond Mason still are in their prime, bringing quality and depth to the roster.
Portland Trail Blazers
Key question: How many young studs can the Blazers develop at once?
Ever hear of the Sabre Dance? That's the piece of classical music known best as accompaniment for the wacky plate-spinners on Ed Sullivan's old TV show, where a juggler would race around the stage to keep the china spinning and the audience would be transfixed wondering which wobbler might topple. That was entertainment!
When the Sabre Dance plays at the Rose Garden, it will signify general manager Kevin Pritchard and coach Nate McMillan trying to keep all their players spinning, as in active, progressing and happy. The pecking order resets around a healthy Oden, but LaMarcus Aldridge, Channing Frye, Sergio Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez, Ike Diogu, Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster, rookie Jerryd Bayless and even Brandon Roy still will require varying combinations of minutes and nurturing. The Blazers' motto ought to be: No young player left behind.
Key question: How long, for this group, will this window stay open?
Everyone knows about the waiting -- and waiting -- that has gone on in Detroit, where the Pistons' core group has been together about as long as the dudes on Mount Rushmore. But Utah's main crew -- Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko -- has some duration to it, too, without three straight tips to the conference finals to show for it. Williams is set, the ink on his contract extension still moist. But Okur and Boozer could test unrestricted free agency as soon as next summer, and Kirilenko is the Jazz regular most likely to be shopped, his star dimming below his salary level as he slipped to third- or fourth-option status. There is promise beyond these guys, with the likes of Paul Millsap, C.J. Miles, Ronnie Brewer, Morris Almond and other assorted newcomers and imports. But this group ought to be making a serious run at a title next spring.
Key question: Exactly when did Dennis Rodman crawl inside Josh Howard's skin?
If the Mavericks' small forward shows up to the team's media day in a wedding dress, with a head of colors-not-found-in-nature hair, then we finally will understand the negative-publicity campaign Howard has been running for himself since late April. That's when he talked on a sports radio show about his marijuana use and further angered Dallas management by passing out party invitations after a rough playoff loss. Then there was his YouTube big oops, dissing the Star-Spangled Banner. All that's left is for Howard's number to be found in Tim Donaghy's -- or Eliot Spitzer's -- cell phone records and he'll have out-Rodmaned the NBA's active leader in tabloid antics, Ron Artest. It's a shame, too, because Howard's reputation until recently had been as a solid citizen and family guy, an All-Star complement to Dirk Nowitzki and a player who never had sent a dark cloud across commissioner David Stern's face.
Key question: Do Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady have 82 games in them -- this season, as opposed to, like, ever?
OK, we and the Rockets would settle for 78, the number of appearances McGrady made in his first season with Houston (2004-05) and the most he has played in this decade. He played only 66 times last season, with 62 starts as he eased back into the rotation after various ailments. He also had arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder and his left knee on the same day in May, either pouncing on a two-for-one deal at the orthopedist's office or in need of widespread (if fairly minor) repairs. Yao got through 55 games before shutting down for surgery in March on the stress fracture in his left foot.
The Rockets made some intriguing offseason moves, acquiring Artest and Brent Barry for a real run at West formidability. It won't mean a thing, though, if we see another news conference with T-Mac or Yao in a suit, sitting next to someone with a "Dr.'' in front of his name. When someone wants to know what a team's record is without its superstar, the only good answer is 0-0.