Six teams facing roster questions
Robin Lopez will have to fill in for Shaquille O'Neal despite limited rookie minutes
Bulls counting on John Salmons, Kirk Hinrich to soften blow of losing Ben Gordon
Lakers have few reliable options to step in for aging Derek Fisher at point guard
It starts as a crack. It develops into a chink, grows into a hole, and pretty soon, it's a crater. Basketball season is fast approaching, but so is another of winter's traditions: pothole season.
For some NBA teams, the potholes are already evident -- on their rosters. Thanks to trades, injuries or free-agent losses, several teams have voids to patch and repair, or ignore and endure. Some appear overnight, big enough to swallow a season or a championship drive. Some are tiny, mere fissures that can wait until warmer weather arrives before overhauling. But all will need to be addressed sooner or later.
With training camps less than a week away, here are a half-dozen roster potholes that could become problematic this winter:
Suns center: He's 37, his knees, ankles and hips are wearing out like old shoe leather, and he's about as nimble as an aircraft carrier. But here's something you might not know about Shaquille O'Neal: For all the worries about his potential breakdowns, the Big Aristotle led the Suns in games started last season.
Phoenix's amazing training staff made sure the Suns will miss Shaq's 350-pound presence under the basket, and the hole he leaves after being traded to Cleveland is appropriately jumbo. O'Neal shot 60 percent from the field and averaged 17.8 points, and while he also slowed the Suns' style, there is no guarantee that Steve Nash, Grant Hill and Amar'e Stoudemire are well suited anymore to the dash-and-cash style their fans hope they reprise. Robin Lopez takes over for O'Neal. The 2008 first-round pick showed admirable nimbleness and creativity during his rookie season, but he was on the floor only 10 minutes a game. There is still plenty to learn, in other words. The Suns signed Channing Frye, nearly 100 pounds lighter than O'Neal, to a two-year deal to understudy Lopez, but they may discover that trading O'Neal is almost as big a risk as acquiring him was 18 months ago.
Bulls shooting guard: Letting your leading scorer walk out the door in order to squirrel away cap space for a free-agent plunge a summer away might make sense from a general manager's point of view. But losing a clutch shooter such as Ben Gordon -- to the division rival Pistons, no less -- won't make life any easier for the Bulls, who were hoping to ride the momentum of their thrill-a-minute playoff series with Boston to a 50-win season. Now second-year coach Vinny Del Negro must rebuild his offense without that 20.7-point-per-game scorer, whose 41 percent accuracy from the three-point line helped Chicago hide its lack of a consistent scoring threat in the post.
Del Negro will win some fans in the locker room, particularly Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, when he asks them to assume Gordon's share of the shots, but Chicago's offense just got a lot more vanilla. John Salmons and free-agent pickup Jannero Pargo will bring a more physical defensive presence to the position, which isn't saying much, and the Bulls hope the seven-year veteran Salmons can back up his best year (he averaged 18.3 points with Sacramento and Chicago last season, 11 more than his career mark entering 2008-09). Look for the Bulls to experiment with pairing point guards Rose and Kirk Hinrich whenever matchups allow.
Rockets center: Yao Ming's broken left foot is expected to heal with a year off, so this is one hole that could need only a temporary, one-season patch. But given the lack of oversized, dominating centers in the Western Conference, the Rockets appear willing to gamble on not filling it at all, going instead with a smaller, quicker lineup with forward Luis Scola now at its hub. They lured Aussie big man David Andersen away from Europe, where he's spent the past decade, in hopes he can replicate Scola's leap to the NBA, but that's probably a stretch for a pivotman with a reputation for finesse over power. But it may not matter, not with the Rockets' solid cast of unselfish supporting players -- Shane Battier, Aaron Brooks, Trevor Ariza, Carl Landry -- on hand to help.
The small-ball tactic could surprise, particularly amid the lowered expectations of a season with Yao sidelined and Tracy McGrady recovering from knee surgery. Coach Rick Adelman's biggest worry comes on the defensive end, where Houston, with nobody taller than 6-foot-9 on the floor much of the time, will have trouble repeating its superlative 94.4-point defensive average without the 7-6 shot-blocker to erase mistakes.
Lakers point guard: Derek Fisher has been the perfect point guard for Kobe Bryant's team, willing to relinquish ball-handling responsibilities to his MVP teammate whenever called upon, content to lurk in the corners and nail blood-draining three-pointers on cue. That low-stress role has also allowed Fisher -- perhaps the league's most popular player among his peers -- to last 13 remarkably consistent seasons, far beyond the basketball life span of ordinary point guards. He turned 35 in August, having played all 82 games in six of the past seven seasons; Isiah Thomas was three years retired by his 35th birthday. Fisher's production hit its normal benchmarks in 2008-09, with 9.9 points, 42 percent shooting and 40 percent from beyond the arc. Yet there were increasing rumblings that Fisher's defense, rarely better than pesky even in his prime, had become problematic, and that Bryant may require a more assertive and creative ball-handler if he is to stave off the aging process himself.
Problem is, if Fisher's game is eroding, who takes his place? Shannon Brown, acquired from Charlotte last February after three unimpressive seasons, signed a two-year deal in July that could be an indication that the Lakers like his physical style. Jordan Farmar also will get a chance to regain his form after a season in which his shooting percentage plunged 7 points, to 39 percent. This position isn't a hole -- they are the NBA champions, after all -- but it's beginning to show some cracks.
Cavaliers shooting guard: Even before Delonte West was arrested with two handguns and a shotgun during a traffic stop last week, his role as a starter was in jeopardy after the Cavs signed a potential replacement over the summer in Anthony Parker. West has averaged 11 points since arriving as part of the Ben Wallace trade two seasons ago, but he's also battled bipolar disorder and left the team briefly during training camp last fall. At 6-3, West has trouble guarding some of the bigger shooting guards around the league. The Cavs may have addressed that shortcoming by signing the 6-6 Parker away from Toronto, setting up a training-camp competition for the guard spot alongside All-Star point guard Mo Williams. Parker isn't the pure shooter that West is, but his ability to defend the perimeter may sway coach Mike Brown.
Pistons center: Ben Wallace could help sell some tickets, and given the state of Detroit's economy these days, that's nothing to sneer at. But the days when the undersized center could suck up every defensive rebound in his time zone are long gone. With Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess having departed, Detroit is left with a washed-up Wallace (a surprise free-agent signing after he was released by Phoenix), the well-traveled Chris Wilcox and a mediocre Kwame Brown to man the middle. The Pistons have plenty of firepower everywhere else, making their shortcomings in the middle stick out even more. They have designs on asserting themselves as a contender again, but how will they survive in a conference with the likes of Shaq, Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett roaming the paint?
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