Thursday September 10th, 2009

September is by far the dullest month on the NBA calendar. It's the time of year when most contracts have been signed, most trades have been made and every team, from the Lakers to the Nets, is expressing optimism about the upcoming season. But when I survey the landscape, I see several teams with serious issues going into training camp. In no particular order, here are my top three:

1. Dallas -- Remember 2003-04, when Don Nelson and Mark Cuban collaborated to assemble a team of skilled players without regard for position or fit? When the Mavericks brought in two longtime starting power forwards in Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker to play in a frontcourt that already had Dirk Nowitzki entrenched at the position? That Dallas team won 52 games, finished third in its division and was wiped out in the first round by Sacramento.

The reason I bring up the '03-04 team is because the '09-10 club feels a lot like it. First, Dallas grossly overpaid for 30-year-old small forward Shawn Marion ($39 million over five years), which could force Josh Howard to shooting guard (a position he has rarely played in his six-year career) and eventually eat into Howard's and Jason Terry's minutes. Considering the Mavs were 33-15 when Howard played 22 minutes or more last season and Terry is the reigning Sixth Man Award winner, that is probably not a good thing. On top of that, Dallas brought in another longtime starter, Drew Gooden, to backup Nowitzki and Marion and (in theory) play a few minutes at center. The Mavs are too talented not to win 50-plus games, but they are nowhere near good enough to compete for the Western Conference title.

2. New York -- I liked the Knicks' offseason. Mike D'Antoni will get more out of Darko Milicic than any other coach, and Jordan Hill will excel in the pick-and-roll offense. But I'm a little confused; who is going to pass them the ball? Chris Duhon? Duhon is a nice player who gave them a Herculean effort last season, but his best role is as a backup. His numbers plummeted from January (14.1 points, 7.1 assists) to March (8.1, 5.4) as the wear and tear from the heavy workload (career-high 36.8 minutes per game) began to set in.

New York did nothing to address the point guard problem, save for getting Toney Douglas (who is more of a combo guard) in the draft and bringing Joe Crawford (more of a scoring guard) to camp. The Knicks didn't want to make a long-term commitment to 23-year-old Ramon Sessions, and they whiffed on Ricky Rubio. It says here that Rubio's first NBA jersey will be a Knicks one -- New York is the only team with the marketing possibilities that could persuade Rubio to come over in 2011 rather than '12 -- but someone has to run the show in the meantime. And right now they have nobody to do it.

3. Miami -- Dwyane Wade led the NBA in scoring last season. I'm sure he would like to do that again. He also led the league in field goal attempts. I'm equally sure he would not want to do that again. It's a big year in Miami. Wade needs some help, and if he doesn't get it, he may choose to take his high-wire act elsewhere next season. That puts a lot of pressure on Jermaine O'Neal (who told me at the end of last season that he would return to All-Star form this year), Michael Beasley and, to a lesser extent, Daequan Cook, Dorell Wright and Mario Chalmers. These guys need to make sure every night isn't the Wade show.

This season will also shine a spotlight on Pat Riley. If the Heat play a .500 November and look sluggish in December, Riley needs to pull the trigger on a blockbuster deal. Maybe that's Carlos Boozer, maybe it's Tracy McGrady, maybe it's Amar'e Stoudemire. But one way or another Riley has to make sure that '09-10 is not another one-and-done playoff season.

On to your questions, most of which came via my Twitter feed.

Is Yao done? -- @zjevne

For the season? Yes. Don't put much stock in reports that Yao could return at some point this year. General manager Daryl Morey told me several weeks ago the same thing that was floating around last week: It's possible Yao could play in '09-10, but it's highly unlikely. Probably the biggest reason is that the banged-up Rockets figure to be out of the playoff race by midseason and it makes no sense for a smart GM like Morey to trot out his 7-5 center with chronic foot problems for a few weeks of garbage time. The earliest you could expect to see him in a Houston uniform is next fall.

Would Steve Nash consider going to a contender as a role player? -- @beeso

I'm not sure there are a lot of teams that would consider trading for Nash as a role player. He's too good right now. Now, would Nash welcome a trade to a contender? I'm sure of it. My understanding is that Nash didn't sign a contract extension this offseason because of his love for the Suns; it was because at 35 and with a history of back problems, it would be foolish to pass up $22 million of guaranteed money. But Nash is a competitor and I don't know how he will be happy playing for a team that will be in a dogfight for the final playoff spot this season.

How many wins for the Bulls? I've got 45. -- @Shmattsmanaya

That sounds about right, though I wouldn't be surprised if the Bulls win fewer than 45. Chicago lost its best clutch player in Ben Gordon, whose 5.5 points in the fourth quarter made him the only Bull in the top 35 in that category. I know they are counting on a healthy Luol Deng to pick up some of the slack, but as skilled as Deng is, he doesn't have Gordon's flair for the dramatic. I also think second-year head coach Vinny Del Negro and the Bulls will miss veteran assistant coach Del Harris, who retired after last season. Someone in the East needs to drop out of the top eight to make room for the Wizards, and Chicago is looking like the prime candidate.

Would it make sense for the Sixers to roll the dice and throw out a starting lineup of Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams, Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and Marreese Speights, just to see how they would do? Then bring Elton Brand and Samuel Dalembert off the bench? I mean, it's not like we're going to be very good this year. We might as well go young, fast and exciting! -- Mike, Philadelphia

That's a pretty active lineup you are talking about, Mike. But I disagree with your main premise: I actually think Philly will be good this year. To help boost their woeful attack (97.4 points per game, 22nd in the league), they hired a brilliant offensive strategist in coach Eddie Jordan. Brand wasn't much of a factor before he got hurt last season, but give Jordan a full training camp to work with him and you are going to see the former All-Star look more like he did three years ago. Factor in the Sixers' depth and versatility, and you have the makings of a strong team.

Of course, the big question will be the point guard. Because Philly doesn't have anyone who can replace Andre Miller, Jordan will have to be creative and take away most of the responsibility from the primary ball handler. Jordan has had success with non-traditional point guards, making Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes one of the NBA's top backcourts in '04-05. And if Williams can improve his shooting stroke, he may not be as big a liability as you think. Just don't count on Holiday contributing anytime soon. He's light years away from being able to play significant minutes.

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