Monday September 27th, 2010

Here are a dozen questions that must be asked but can't be answered -- not quite yet. The answers will begin to emerge as training camps open throughout the NBA on Monday. Over the ensuing four weeks of the preseason, every team will begin to recognize its strengths and weaknesses while developing a plan for the marathon season to come. These are among the crucial issues that must be resolved, one way or another.

Should Denver trade its franchise star to New Jersey or another team in the East, then the West will lose another playoff contender as the Nuggets plummet into the lottery. But don't assume that Anthony's new team will necessarily soar into the playoffs, especially if a lot of talent is expended in the trade to acquire him.

Anthony wants to move to a more attractive franchise in time to sign a lucrative three-year extension before the current collective bargaining agreement expires in June. You're hearing a lot of talk about how ugly it will be in Denver if Anthony isn't traded, but the real ugliness will appear after he is dealt, because from that day forward the Nuggets will turn into the West's version of the Cavaliers, with no hope whatsoever for this season as fans recognize the onset of a long-term and uncertain program of rebuilding from scratch. Once he is moved, look for them to dump as many salaries as possible as they turn into the same kind of threadbare team that drafted him seven years ago.

There is little doubt they will thrive together, but it isn't going to happen simply on its own. Will Wade emerge as the team's primary scorer and James as the leading playmaker? Their dynamic strength is that they'll each do a lot of passing and scoring, but someone is going to emerge as the leading scorer of this team. It's going to be fascinating to see how the roles work themselves out over the course of the season. Don't expect a lot of answers over the opening week while the Heat are sequestered at an Air Force base in the Florida panhandle; the answers will arrive once they're on the court together in full public view.

They're in no hurry to rush back center Andrew Bynum, who will be crucial to a successful Finals defense against the Heat, Celtics or Magic. The plan with Bynum is to make sure his surgically repaired knee is strong before he returns in late November or December; this strategy will also limit his regular-season minutes in hopes of leaving him fresher (and healthier, they hope) for the playoffs.

Lamar Odom is coming off a long season (a third straight run to the Finals) and summer (as co-captain of the USA gold medalists at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey), so they'll need to be careful about giving him too much work. Then there is the mileage on Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher as they launch their 15th seasons. How will the Lakers pace themselves over the first half of the year while winning at a high level? This will be an interesting conundrum for coach Phil Jackson.

The goal is to reduce the minutes of the veteran Big Three while maintaining a high seed throughout the long regular season. That means coach Doc Rivers must create meaningful niches from a group that includes Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal, Glen Davis, Delonte West, Nate Robinson, Von Wafer and Marquis Daniels -- with Daniels playing a crucial role as a low-maintenance defender and playmaker who can play a variety of positions and roles.

If he is able to remain pain-free and build up his minutes per game over the course of the season, then the Rockets could grow into a dangerous playoff team. Any setbacks in Yao's comeback from reconstructive foot surgery will be met with dread. Given his long and painful history of injuries, every day of the preseason will be a big day for Yao.

Oden is Portland's version of Yao: His health will make a huge difference either way for the Blazers. His progress throughout camp will be watched closely.

Griffin is the Clippers' version of Oden. The No. 1 pick of the 2009 draft missed all of last season with a knee injury. He stands as the newest hope of transforming the Clippers by establishing an example of hard work and team-first play.

The new 76ers coach has little choice: He has to find some way to turn the expensive Brand into a productive member of Philadelphia's frontcourt. The answer may lie in converting Brand into a center, now that Samuel Dalembert has been traded to Sacramento.

Eastern rivals expect Chicago to be impressive defensively under Thibodeau, the coordinator of the Celtics' defense before he was hired to run the Bulls. He has a lot of players who can run -- led by point guard Derrick Rose -- but will Thibodeau seek to control execution at both ends by slowing the pace?

Steve Nash's leadership ensures that the Suns will be dangerous in transition, but how much will they miss the finishing of Amar'e Stoudemire? They were thin up front before Stoudemire departed to the Knicks as a free agent. This limited roster presents Nash with the greatest challenge of his vision and leadership, and no one should be anticipating a return by Phoenix to the postseason final four.

He has backed away from demanding a trade, and the Hornets have made moves to complement Paul with Trevor Ariza, Jannero Pargo and Willie Green. But they aren't nearly as promising as the team that threatened the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs three years ago. Will rookie coach Monty Williams be able to form a partnership with his best player?

Arenas will improve his reputation if he's seen as aiding Wall for the good of the franchise. That means Arenas will accept playing off the ball and yielding the primary role of quarterback to his rookie teammate. It would be a graceful change of pace for Arenas, who has played 47 games over the last three years.

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