Every NBA season is a novel, with multiple subplots and an endless parade of characters converging on June. It's a story guaranteed to bring unexpected drama and comedy, but some of the plot lines are just sitting there, waiting to play out.
Here's the Cliffs Notes version of the dominant themes of the upcoming season:
Time was, the best teams stood pat, refusing to disrupt winning roster formulas. A tweak here, maybe. A nudge there, sure. But why fight the cliches? You know, "don't mess with success," "dance with the girl who brung ya" and all that.
This year, each of the leading title contenders made a seismic shift in its lineup. Some for better, some for worse. But which is which? Here's how the summer's Star Wars battles break down, from best to worst:
a. Richard Jefferson to San Antonio. The Spurs needed to do something drastic to remain a contender in the window of opportunity allowed by Tim Duncan's 33-year-old knees. Last season's first-round loss to Dallas exposed all of their issues, and any offseason approach that resembled pat-standing would have resulted in another step backward.
The win-now acquisition of Jefferson was the perfect touch. Giving up Kurt Thomas, Fabricio Oberto and Bruce Bowen, who subsequently retired, was a small price to pay for a small forward who's young enough (29) and good enough (19.8 scoring average over the last six seasons) to personally reverse the slide toward irrelevancy.
Signing Antonio McDyess for the mid-level exception will further buttress the frontcourt and take pressure off Duncan, as will landing DeJuan Blair in the second round of the draft.
If the Lakers falter, the Spurs are waiting out West.
b. Rasheed Wallace to Boston.Kevin Garnett has already saved Wallace the trouble of making a daring proclamation by guaranteeing back-to-back championships for the Celtics. Still, Wallace will have something to say about whether it even comes close to happening.
Wallace is a loose cannon and a hothead and all that, but he's also a positive locker room presence and a versatile and veteran on-court contributor. He's perhaps too veteran at 35, but he's still a worthy gamble for an aging team with only a couple of years left of contention.
c. Shaquille O'Neal to Cleveland. The Cavs couldn't turn down the opportunity to land O'Neal for the meager price of Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic, although they'll pay a big price financially: more than $10 million in luxury-tax fees.
Shaq has a championship pedigree and he gives the Cavs a low-post presence; we all know that. He also provides a counter to Orlando's Dwight Howard, who practically packed the Cavs' bags for them in last season's conference finals. But this isn't a slam-dunk acquisition. The strength of LeBron James' game is penetration, and it's questionable whether O'Neal can get off the tracks quickly enough to avoid the oncoming train.
It's also questionable whether Shaq can still be Shaq-like at 37, not to mention 325 pounds or whatever he is these days. His attendance record was impressive last season, when he averaged 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds over 75 games, but the odds of repeating that are slim. If he turns out to be The Big Invisible, or if his show-biz interests overwhelm his basketball-biz duties, this move will turn out to be an expensive mistake.
d. Vince Carter to Orlando. The Magic had to do something to account for the free-agent loss of Hedo Turkoglu, but was Carter the answer? He tends to dominate more than blend, and he's not in the habit of doing the game's dirty work. At 32, he's become mostly a jump shooter. Odds are he'll send coach Stan Van Gundy's anguish meter into the red zone many times throughout the season.
The best part of the trade with New Jersey that brought Carter could turn out to be the oh-by-the-way inclusion of Ryan Anderson. He might turn out to be the perfect replacement for Turkoglu, as he showed in impressive preseason performances.
e. Ron Artest to Los Angeles. Winning last season's championship wasn't good enough for the Lakers, who felt compelled to make a high-risk trade in their quest for improvement. You have to admire their spirit, but question their judgment. Trevor Ariza seemed a good fit with nothing but upside ahead of him, but they gambled and went after Artest, who's simply the most complicated personality in the league. He's lovable, but often difficult and always unpredictable.
Artest might turn out to be a legitimate offensive weapon and a great defender to pair with Kobe Bryant. He also might turn out to be a major distraction in the locker room and a major thorn in the offense. He's not the defender he was when he won the league's Defensive Player of the Year award in 2004, and he's recast himself offensively as a three-point shooter. That's fine to a point, but he cheats himself and his teammates by not taking greater advantage of his considerable post-up skills.
The predominant question is how he'll perform as the pressure mounts in the postseason. History isn't encouraging here, and the Lakers saw the most recent example of it first-hand in the Western Conference semifinals last season, when they defeated Houston in seven games. Artest was outstanding in the first three games of the series, but averaged 9.5 points and hit 28 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 15 percent of his three-pointers, in the final four.
Many outsiders have tried to analyze Artest over the years, but the best insider judgment is that he grew up amid chaos in the projects of Queensbridge, N.Y., grew comfortable with it, and therefore subconsciously seeks it out. If it's not there already, he'll create it.
It could take a Zensational effort on coach Phil Jackson's part to keep this team together.
The economy is an issue for every team, but some face serious problems. More than ever, moves are being made for financial rather than basketball reasons. Cutting payroll has become as much of a goal as improving talent.
Memphis' signing of Allen Iverson, for example, made sense only as an attempt to boost ticket sales. The Grizzlies ranked second-to-last in attendance last season, and aren't likely to contend for a playoff spot this season, either. So why not fill a few more seats?
Milwaukee, meanwhile, traded Mo Williams to Cleveland and Desmond Mason to Oklahoma City a year ago as part of a three-team deal for the purpose of dumping salary, and traded Richard Jefferson to San Antonio for another $5 million in cap relief. It also let Charlie Villanueva and Ramon Sessions walk as free agents this past summer. It will remain buried in the standings, but not quite as deep in debt.
An NBA team hasn't moved since Vancouver headed to Memphis in '01, but the market is ripe for another shift. Memphis and Sacramento, which ranked last in attendance last season, seem the prime candidates, but almost anything is possible in the current state of despair.
Next summer's free-agent class brings the greatest potential talent bonanza in league history. Emphasis on potential.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Paul Pierce, Tyson Chandler, Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Amar'e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Ray Allen, Tracy McGrady, Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson, Jermaine O'Neal, Carlos Boozer and Manu Ginobili are among the players who will or can become free agents, if they choose to exercise contract options. Some of them are past their prime, some of them are more acquainted with goodness than greatness, but a few of them could single-handedly alter the course of a franchise.
James is the obvious class president, so much so that the free-agent period has been dubbed "the Summer of LeBron." It doesn't quite match the Ming Dynasty for historical impact, or even the Summer of Love, but it's catchy just the same.
The reality probably won't match the hype. Premier players have rarely changed teams, because the rules allow the the original team to offer more money and a longer contract. Shaq moved from Orlando to Los Angeles because, he said, the Magic had made him a lowball offer. He also reportedly was insulted by a local newspaper poll in which most readers said he wasn't worth a $100 million contract. Good-but-not-great players such as Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis also followed the money to new teams. But great players in their prime overwhelmingly stay put.
Still, there's bound to be some action. There are going to be too many players seeking a better opportunity to win, too many teams looking to lower payroll or rebuild and at least a few teams believing they're one star away from winning a title for it to be a quiet summer. Bosh might want to get back to the U.S. The likes of Nowitzki, Stoudemire, Johnson and Boozer could be frustrated enough to seek better championship opportunities.
All of this means the marquee players will be out to impress while some teams will be cleaning the house to create an inviting environment. It could be quite a Romantic Age.
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.
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.
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.