Top storylines heading into playoffs
Cleveland's postseason success could determine LeBron's future
The Lakers slide may be worrisome; Orlando's Vince Carter may be magic
The high-scoring Suns are still haunted by questions on defense
Despite his absence from the last four games of the regular season, LeBron James is, and will remain, the most prominent figure in the league over the next two months. Come July 1, nearly every team in the league will try to lure James. That means that for Cleveland the pressure is on more than ever in this postseason while they know they still have him. But LeBron's impending decision is just one of the stories that will shape the NBA playoffs, which begin Saturday. Here's a look some of the biggest storylines.
1. Will a ring keep the King?
No pressure here, just the fate of the franchise. Many have speculated that a title for the Cavs will relieve James of any obligation he feels to win for his hometown. But on the other hand it's hard to see anyone voluntarily leaving the chance to defend a crown. But what if the Cavs fall short? Will James stay anyway? Despite the tens of millions the team committed to acquire Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison, this current roster does not hold the long-term promise of other potential suitors such as the Nets or Clippers. Cleveland can pay James more than any other team, however, and also has the pieces to contend for a title in the immediate future.
2. Can the Lakers rediscover their mojo?
A road-heavy second-half slate, another injury to Andrew Bynum and a nicked-up Kobe Bryant has sapped much of the buzz surrounding a team that hit the All-Star break at 41-13 then went 16-12 the rest of the way. This is still one of the NBA's most talented rosters, though it hasn't lived up to its capabilities lately. With Phil Jackson growing frustrated and his commitment to the team being questioned, the master motivator may have his work cut out for him.
3. Will Vince Carter get Orlando over the top?
The addition of Carter was designed to add a dynamic scoring element the Magic sorely lacked. So far, the switch from Hedo Turkoglu to Carter has added 1.5 points to Orlando's scoring average. But Carter wasn't brought in to help Orlando get to the playoffs; he came to get the Magic through the playoffs, where he has shot only 41.8 percent in his career (a steep drop from his 44.5 percent mark in the regular season). That may not bode well against a Cavs team that added a few wing defenders specifically to counter the Magic's outside game.
4. Can the Thunder grow up in the playoffs?
They more than doubled their win total from last season. The defense has improved from 27th to sixth in defensive field-goal shooting. And Kevin Durant, who became the youngest player in NBA history to win the scoring title, has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate. But where talent and schemes helped Oklahoma City in the regular season, guile and will power are the commodities of the playoffs. And those aren't qualities easily taught in practice.
5. Do the Celtics have anything left?
It sure doesn't appear so, what with Doc Rivers reportedly mulling a departure, Kevin Garnett visibly a step slower and the Boston bench offering little support. More troubling is a defense that slid from leading the league in opponents' shooting percentage the previous two seasons to ninth this year. Chalk some of that decline up to easing older bones through a long regular season. Still, as old and tired as they may be, the Celtics still churned out 50 wins.
6. Can Denver win without George Karl?
With Karl ruled out of the first round as he recovers from a taxing course of chemotherapy for throat and neck cancer, assistant Adrian Dantley will remain in charge after guiding the Nuggets to a mediocre 11-8 record since taking over coaching duties. Though no one has openly questioned Dantley's moves, a handful of players reportedly have been quietly agitated over playing time, a situation the shorter rotations typical in the playoffs won't relieve. From the end of the bench to the front office, the Nuggets claim Karl's fight is inspiring. Whether they use the possibility of him returning in Round 2 as motivation remains to be seen.
7. Is this Jerry Sloan's year?
Sloan is one of the best coaches still in the game, and he's the best without a title. After completing his 13th season with at least 50 wins, Sloan's path to NBA glory won't be easy after a season-ending loss pushed the Jazz into the bracket with last year's two Western finalists. Of equal concern is the fact that Utah gave up more free-throw attempts than all but two teams, a bad sign when points come at a premium in the playoffs. Still, the Jazz shot 49.1 percent this season, second in the NBA, and averaged 104.5 points per game. Wouldn't it be ironic if a guy who was one of the league's toughest defenders as a player used offense to get a title as a coach?
8. Are the Hawks ready to take the next step?
All the progress Atlanta made last year in winning in the first round was forgotten after the Cavs swept them in Round 2. Acieving more success this spring will be difficult. Being the East's No. 3 seed after winning five more games than last year was undoubtedly a step forward, but the Magic could prove as difficult an opponent as Cleveland was last year. The key to at least making Orlando sweat a six- or seven-game series: the newly efficient Josh Smith.
9. Will the Kidd come through?
It was for moments like these that Mark Cuban mortgaged a key piece of the Mavs future (Devin Harris) for a 37-year-old All-Star who has shot 40.3 percent for his career. After maneuvering the Mavs into the second round season, Jason Kidd has the West's No. 2 seed in position to go longer this spring. A lot will depend on how well Kidd maintains his sharp eye from beyond the arc (42.3 percent); Dallas sported the tightest point differential in the West (2.7).
10. Can the Suns run from their past?
Back to their high-speed tactics of the Mike D'Antoni era, the Suns find themselves in the playoffs again facing the same questions about defensive commitment that haunted their past. Phoenix led the league in scoring at 110.2 points per game while finishing 26th in points allowed (105.6 points per game). Further complicating the Suns' future is the transition they've made from Steve Nash (whose scoring average has dropped more than five points per game after the All-Star break) to Amar'e Stoudemire (whose scoring has improved by 5.4 points per night). The shift to a younger focal point is understandable, but it may prove risky when the pace slows and Stoudemire finds the paint a lot more crowded.
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