Weekly Countdown: Peek at '09-10
Andrew Bynum's development will be the biggest key for the Lakers next season
Don't dismiss the Magic's Finals run as a fluke; they've had a good offseason
Next season is full of promise because several contenders have gotten even better
As free agency slows down and the summer league wraps up, we look forward to 2009-2010.
5 things to consider for next season
5. Will Andrew Bynum be healthy? The Lakers' center will be 22 next season -- his fifth as a pro -- and his health will be crucial to the defending champs. As big as it was for them to sign Ron Artest to the mid-level exception, and as much as they need to retain free agent Lamar Odom to lead their second unit, Bynum will be the overwhelming variable.
Before he sustained his latest knee injury in January, Bynum assembled a five-game stretch of 26.2 points, 13.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks in 31.8 minutes. That 10-day span was an extreme example of his talent -- it involved only one playoff opponent (the Spurs) -- but it shows his upside. The 7-foot, 285-pound, Bynum combines with power forward Pau Gasol to provide 14 feet of barrier behind the perimeter defense of Artest and Kobe Bryant.
Bynum was unable to avoid foul trouble throughout the playoffs, and he averaged just 19 minutes in the Finals against Dwight Howard. His size around the basket gives the Lakers hope of becoming an elite defensive team, but he desperately needs to break his unfortunate streak of midseason knee injuries that have sidelined him for 79 games over the past two seasons. It will be difficult to score on the Lakers next postseason if Bynum stays on the floor long enough to develop his timing and earn the respect of officials.
4. Will Orlando return to the Finals? The Magic had a successful summer in acquiring Vince Carter and Brandon Bass while retaining backup center Marcin Gortat, who was on his way to Dallas before Orlando matched his five-year, $33-million offer sheet. They reached the Finals without Jameer Nelson, their All-Star leader at point guard, who, if healthy, will provide yet another upgrade over last year's team. And Howard, an All-NBA center, is sure to keep improving.
The mistake will be to view the Magic as likely runners-up to the 2007-08 champion Celtics, who upgraded by signing Rasheed Wallace, as well as the Cavaliers, who improved around LeBron James by trading for Shaquille O'Neal and signing swingman Anthony Parker. Orlando is as strong as any challenger to the Lakers. The Magic ranked No. 3 in field-goal defense and No. 6 in scoring defense last season, and the arrival of Carter -- an unselfish scorer who happens to be an excellent passer -- helps Orlando overcome the loss of Hedo Turkoglu and adds firepower to the core of Howard, Nelson and Rashard Lewis. How is any team going to succeed in guarding all of them?
The Magic play hard at both ends, they make big shots and they're thoroughly prepared under coach Stan Van Gundy. Instead of dismissing their recent postseason performance as a fluke, we may find ourselves looking back on their visit to the Finals as the start of a nice run.
3. What is the Knicks' plan? With the salary cap shrinking and LeBron appearing more and more likely to remain with a championship contender in Cleveland as a free agent next summer, what is the end game for New York? What do the Knicks tell their fans if they fail to recruit an A-list free agent next summer?
Instead of hoping for a Hail Mary signing of LeBron or Dwyane Wade, the Knicks should be making it clear to everyone that they are building a long-term program around the coaching talents of Mike D'Antoni. He is New York's biggest asset by far. Look at what he has done for David Lee (16 points and 11.7 rebounds), Nate Robinson (17.2 points), Al Harrington (20.7) and Wilson Chandler (14.4). All of these players are more valued now than they were before they played for D'Antoni.
The Knicks need to stop trying to recruit veterans like Jason Kidd and Grant Hill (who used New York as leverage to re-sign with Dallas and Phoenix, respectively) and invest instead in young players who can flourish in D'Antoni's system. As the talent on the roster improves, the value of the players will surely rise as they post big numbers -- and eventually the Knicks will be able to trade some of their emerging talent for a ready-made star. In the meantime, they create an exciting environment that may attract free agents to sign with New York.
The Knicks should continue trying to weed out bad contracts while building up cap space next summer, and of course they should make a run at signing LeBron. But fans have the idea that everything in New York depends on signing him -- and that shouldn't be the case, not with a coach as talented as D'Antoni running the program. Danny Ainge showed what can be done by investing for a few seasons in a roster of young talent, and there will always be other free agents and tradable stars (Chris Paul?) available in years to come.
2. How will talks proceed between the owners and the players' union? This promises to be the best season since the 1980s based on the recent team upgrades made around Kobe, LeBron, Howard, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. All of that good will would turn into negative energy if the owners lock out the players in 2011 because they haven't reached agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement. For the health of basketball around the world, both sides need to avoid a public confrontation that would ruin everyone's buzz.
1. Will the East emerge as the stronger conference? From top to bottom the East is superior, with only two teams (the depleted Bucks and Nets) incapable of making the playoffs. At least twice as many teams in the West (including the Kings, Grizzlies, Warriors, Timberwolves and Rockets) appear destined for the lottery.
In terms of contenders, which conference has the better trio? Is Orlando-Cleveland-Boston more formidable than Lakers-San Antonio-Denver? It's going to be a close race, but right now I give the East the edge.
NBA Truth & Rumors