As free agency slows down and the summer league wraps up, we look forward to 2009-2010.
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.
4. I think it's really interesting that the Mavs are going for it all this summer instead of waiting for "THE" summer of 2010. Do you think this is a smart move to get players they want now instead of waiting to get a big star and potentially missing out?-- Frank, Durham, N.C.
I like the now-rather-than-later approach. Each season is a long and expensive undertaking, and why not make the most of it now? There are going to be an awful lot of teams with cap space next summer bidding on a few expensive players.
A franchise like Oklahoma City is wise to be patient in building around Kevin Durant, who won't peak for several more years. But the Mavericks need to win now, and their fans -- as well as those in Detroit -- should appreciate the efforts to add talent as fast as possible, as opposed to waiting for a 2010 cavalry that may never arrive.
3. What's the latest with the Hornets? Are they still looking to move Tyson Chandler, or do you think they'll go into the season with the same core?-- R. Martin, Chicago
They claim they're willing to pay the luxury tax next season, but their rivals don't believe a word of it. The Hornets may need to trim close to $10 million in payroll to avoid paying the tax. One likelihood is to hope that offseason toe and ankle surgeries will allow Tyson Chandler to return to his '07-08 form and enable them to dump his $12.3 million salary in a midseason trade.
2. Do you think some teams are or will be reluctant to pursue Carlos Boozer because of how he spurned the Cavs the last time he was a free agent?-- Andy G., New York
No, that incident won't affect any team's feelings about Boozer. The bigger worry is that he is a 27-year old who has missed 134 games since he signed the big contract with Utah in '04. What kind of return will his next employer receive for extending Boozer?
1. Is there any truth to the potential selling of the Warriors? If so, would a new regime significantly change the landscape of Warriors basketball?-- Kevin, San Jose
As you know, Kevin, there have been rumors for years of a possible sale. The Warriors' record during Chris Cohan's 14 full seasons as majority owner (38.1 percent winning percentage) is the strongest indication that the franchise needs new leadership. I believe he is looking to sell the team, but I also believe it will be a difficult transaction for a buyer to complete.
3. The Clippers. How does such a talented a team lose 63 games? It has everything to do with the injuries and suspensions that sidelined Clippers players for a total of 247 games. At the very least, they need to break this streak of bad luck by getting off to a good start with Blake Griffin. Nothing is more important than keeping their No. 1 pick healthy and preparing him for his rookie season.
2. NBA stars in their 30s. Many contenders will be relying on stars who are on the wrong side of 30 -- the Lakers' Bryant, Cleveland's Shaq, Orlando's Carter, San Antonio's Duncan and Manu Ginobili, and Boston's quartet of Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Wallace. Coming off a postseason that was decimated by injuries to Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Ginobili, among others, these players need to find a way to pace themselves through the long season. All will be needed to be on solid footing come October so they can pace themselves through the season.
1. The Trail Blazers. Actually, this is how the Blazers should spend the rest of this offseason: idling. Now that Utah has matched their four-year, $32 million offer sheet to restricted free agent Paul Millsap, the Blazers ought to stop recruiting and wait until next season. They will go into the midseason trading deadline with tons of cap space and newly weakened franchises to exploit. More players will surely be available and the Blazers will have the payroll room as well as the young assets necessary to pull off a blockbuster. I believe they'll look back on this summer and be grateful that Turkoglu turned them down.
2. The Suns. They've retained coach Alvin Gentry and Grant Hill, and they'd like to keep Steve Nash. Amar'e Stoudemire is entering the final year of his contract and could be traded, but if they hold on to him throughout the season, the Suns could still be formidable with Jason Richardson in the backcourt and Leandro Barbosa coming off the bench. They could be quite good -- or bad -- over the next season.
1. The Spurs. They reloaded by acquiring Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess and Euroleague standout Marcus Haislip. Ian Mahinmi, a 22-year-old big man, will have a full training camp and they'll still have the contributions of Michael Finley, Roger Mason, Matt Bonner and George Hill to go with Tony Parker. But all of it will mean nothing if Ginobili and Duncan aren't healthy. And we won't know that until they've gone through the long regular season. So be patient when assessing the Spurs.
1. The NBA recession has its benefits. It has helped the good teams grow better -- which is crucial to the league's success.
The NFL and MLB thrive in times of parity, when you never know which team is going to win the title. But that dynamic doesn't apply to the NBA, where the same few franchises and players dominate the championships. The expansion of recent decades has weakened rosters of NBA contenders, but that strength has been restored over the last year by the movement of talent from the have-not teams to the haves. The league has long-term financial problems that must be addressed, but for the time being the best teams will thrive -- and that's not such a bad thing at all.