Top storylines of 2009-10 (cont.)
Centers kneed to be healthy
The outcome of the Western Conference finals will largely hinge on the knees of centers Andrew Bynum and Greg Oden.
Oden, the top pick in the 2007 draft, sat out his would-be rookie season after undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee. He struggled through typical growing pains in an uneven debut season, but appears poised to justify the Blazers' investment. A dedicated summer conditioning program dropped 13 pounds and added confidence, and it showed in the preseason, when he averaged 13.6 points and 9.3 rebounds in 22 minutes.
A healthy Oden will solidify the Blazers position as the third-best team in the West, and have them in position to step forward if the Lakers or Spurs falter.
The Lakers might have won the championship two seasons ago if Bynum had been able to play. They won it last season when he was present, but mediocre. Imagine what could happen this season if he's synched with his potential.
A veteran of two knee surgeries, Bynum was averaging 20.3 points and 7.7 rebounds heading into the final preseason game. The Lakers would gleefully take that in the real games.
Coaches in heat
As always, courtside seats for some coaches are warming up before the season even begins, and at least a few of them will get rump-roasted before it's over.
Lawrence Frank has survived 5½ seasons in New Jersey, making him the longest-tenured coach in the Eastern Conference. It probably won't be fair to blame him for all the losses the Nets are going to suffer this season, but his contract will be up when it's over. If the Nets don't want out of this relationship, he might.
Jim O'Brien was going to be heading into the last year of his contract with the Pacers, but was given a one-year extension over the summer. It's likely a cosmetic adjustment to remove his lame-duck tag, and not fully guaranteed, as was the case for his predecessor, Rick Carlisle. O'Brien's teams haven't really underachieved, and he enters this season with four more wins than losses as an NBA coach. But team president Larry Bird has often stated that he believes the life span for most coaches is three years. He self-imposed that limit on himself after he coached the Pacers to the Finals in 2000. O'Brien also has a weird piece of trivia working against him. Although the Pacers haven't fired a coach during the season since Dick Versace was dismissed in 1990-91, their last coach to get a second contract (excluding token one-year extensions) was Bob Leonard, who lasted from 1968 through 1980. The Pacers will have to make the playoffs, and perhaps win a series, for O'Brien to break that habit.
Mike Woodson got Atlanta into the playoffs each of the past two seasons, breaking an eight-year fast, and enters the final year of his contract extension. The Hawks could make the playoffs again but don't have the talent to contend, so this five-year relationship has grown stagnant.
The same goes for Byron Scott in New Orleans. He's entering the final year of his two-extension, and the Hornets may be hard-pressed to match last season's 49-win season. Someone will have to pay, and it won't be Chris Paul.
The talent level is rising for the Clippers, and expectations are close behind. That means potential trouble for Mike Dunleavy, who enters his seventh season with the team. Just one of Dunleavy's Clippers teams has reached the playoffs, and this one has a legitimate shot. If it misses, fan unrest -- already significant -- will intensify. Then again, what are we saying? Dunleavy's the general manager and his contract runs through 2011, so who's going to tell him to leave?
Then there's Don Nelson, who likely will remove himself from the scene of the crimes at Golden State after the season, if not before. Nelson won't have to wait around to be asked to go. He's got an eye on the exit right now.
No. 1 draft pick Blake Griffin is the obvious, and best, pick for Rookie of the Year. The Clippers have plenty of scoring options, but his game is sophisticated enough that he'll always find ways to contribute, as he showed in the preseason.
The next-best candidates for the honor are Sacramento's Tyreke Evans and Minnesota's Jonny Flynn. Both point guards will be unwrapped as starters, and both have the athleticism and demeanor to handle the job. They're primarily playmakers, but they'll have to score to keep their teams from drowning in defeats.
The non-lottery picks most likely to surprise early are Atlanta's Jeff Teague (No. 19) and Chicago's Taj Gibson (26), both of whom will get meaningful minutes off the bench. And if DeJuan Blair's knees hold out, a lot of teams are going to have some explaining to do. He dropped to the seventh pick of the second round because of knee issues dating back to high school, not to mention the fact he's undersized and overweight for a power forward. But guess what? He was leading San Antonio in scoring and rebounding as the preseason drew to a close, and lottery-like in his production and aggression.
Epilogue: As the Warriors turn
Golden State's season won't matter much in the grand scheme of the NBA season, but it should be an entertaining sideshow. Unless you're a Golden State fan, of course.
Two years ago, they finished off the regular season with a 16-5 flourish and shocked top-seeded Dallas in the first round of the playoffs for their first postseason series victory in 16 years. They were young, deep and spirited, and suddenly and deeply embedded in the hearts of their rejuvenated fan base.
What seemed like the start of an epic romance, however, turned out to be a fun little fling, and now they've gone back to their dreary, dysfunctional ways. That's a shame, because they have enough talent to challenge for a playoff position and stir up more excitement.
General manager Chris Mullin is gone, having lost too many front-office skirmishes with team president Robert Rowell. Stephen Jackson very publicly wants to be gone, having become disheartened with the team's inability to build on the success that followed his trade to the Warriors in 2007. He was suspended for two games in the preseason for a sideline outburst in the first exhibition, and no doubt will continue to speak out and act out until he can break out. Don Nelson was threatening to leave even in the wake of the thrills of '07, and likely will find an exit at the end of this season, if not sooner.
Only four players remain from the glory days -- more like minutes, really -- of two seasons ago, but the Warriors are still one of the more fascinating teams in the NBA. The likes of Jackson, Monta Ellis, Andris Biedrins, Kelenna Azubuike, Corey Maggette, Anthony Randolph, Anthony Morrow and rookie Stephen Curry make for a volatile mix that's equally capable of exploding and imploding. Put them under the guidance of Nelson, whose coaching style straddles a fine line between creative genius and bizarro blundering, and you've got can't-miss entertainment.
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