What to look forward to this season
I'm looking forward to watching the development of the Portland Trail Blazers. Will Greg Oden be healthy? How well might he and LaMarcus Aldridge play together? Will Rudy Fernandez become his generation's Manu Ginobili? Will Brandon Roy avoid injury? Because Roy, more so than the other young Blazers, is the leader whose creativity and vision can help this young team play old and wise.
I don't expect a championship from Portland this season, if ever. Look how many intriguing young teams have foundered: The early-2000s Sacramento Kings never reached the Finals, the Orlando Magic of Shaq and Penny were broken up, and even the Blazers of the late 1970s collapsed prematurely on the brittle feet of Bill Walton. It's scary to think of all that can go wrong -- a brawl in Detroit, a falling-out between Don Nelson and Chris Webber, the departure of Steve Nash from Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks that enabled each to become MVP at the expense of their shared venture in Dallas.
So enjoy this season of youth and hope in Portland ... and don't forget that the Blazers can create room to augment this group with a max free agent next summer. Is the potential of this franchise too good to be true? For the fans in Portland, that's a worry for more complicated times ahead. If it turns out this group can never live up to its promise, then that's all the more reason to revel in the promise this year.
Maybe it's because I'm a Chicago guy, but I can't wait to see if No. 1 pick Derrick Rose can live up to the hype. If this kid from the South Side can come in and turn around his hometown Bulls, he will be a bigger star than Obama in these parts. From the NBA's standpoint, it would also provide a huge, needed boost to one of its biggest markets -- just when L.A. and Boston are riding high and New York is getting back on its feet.
Some have questioned whether the 20-year-old Rose will be ready to make a big splash right away. As Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro keeps pointing out, the point guard position is the hardest to learn in the NBA. Also, the Bulls don't seem to have the kind of scoring big man who can bring out the best in Rose's skills (especially on the pick-and-roll).
But Rose showed over his last few preseason games why he was the first pick in the draft. He has speed, explosiveness and a 6-3 frame that can play through bumps and help him on the defensive end. Despite his rookie status, he has played in control -- not trying to do too much too soon.
Rose has the potential to be the leader on a talented but rudderless Chicago team and maybe even help it get back to the playoffs. If so, it would reinvigorate the Bulls' national fan base and reward all those folks who have been faithfully packing the United Center since the days of the Jordan era. It also could make the Rookie of the Year race (with Greg Oden, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, et al.) one of the best in recent memory.
Point guard has always been a position for the wily as much as the athletically gifted. John Stockton and Bob Cousy, to name just two, played at an All-Star level deep into their careers mostly through their decision-making abilities, and I have little doubt that, if you gave 49-year-old Magic Johnson the ball right now in a pickup game, he would dominate through his smarts and the force of his will. (Plus, he'd call a lot of fouls -- I've seen him in action.)
That's why, as the 2008-09 season gets underway, I'm looking forward to watching how two of history's best point guards, Phoenix's Steve Nash and Dallas's Jason Kidd, attempt to overcome the march of time in what looms as a generational point-guard battle.
It goes without saying that both are still among the best at their positions. Nash, a two-time MVP (2005 and '06), was second in the league in assists last season with 11.1 per game, while Kidd, traded from New Jersey to Dallas in February, was fourth with 10.1. But more and more the point-guard conversations around the league begin with New Orleans' Chris Paul and Utah's Deron Williams, particularly since Kidd failed to raise the Mavericks last season and Nash is still trying to get accustomed to playing with a stand-still center in Shaquille O'Neal.
My guess is, the old guys will still do pretty well. But they're hearing footsteps.
Two things can happen in Houston this season. One, the addition of Ron Artest will prove to be the missing piece in the Rockets' complicated puzzle, with the veteran forward providing strong defense and helping to balance the offense of a team built for a championship run. Or the high-maintenance Artest, unable to handle sharing the spotlight with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, implodes, sabotaging the Rockets' season and moving the title window ever so closer to being shut.
Bet on the former. Houston took a big risk acquiring Artest in the offseason, but the Rockets have a couple of things working in their favor. Artest, who turns 30 next month, is in a contract year and is probably looking at signing the last significant contract of his career next summer. Teams will be looking not only at what Artest can still do on the court but also at how he comports himself off it.
They also have Rick Adelman, Artest's favorite coach from his Sacramento days and a master at keeping star players involved in the offense. Artest probably won't equal the 16.9 shots per game he put up last season, but he could match his 13.4 career average. That should be enough to keep Artest happy. And keep Houston in the championship mix.
The thing I'm most eager to see this season is how gracefully, and ferociously, the San Antonio Spurs bounce back from their latest year-ending-an-even-number failure to win a championship. The Spurs never have been older or more overlooked in preseason predictions,
Tim Duncan still is the league's best power forward, but at 32, he is getting close to the point David Robinson was at in 1999, when he welcomed a young Duncan next to him to help win the franchise's first title. Getting and keeping Manu Ginobili healthy for games deep into June seems improbable. Ginobili, Bruce Bowen, Michael Finley and a few others need so much ice after games, this club ought to travel in its own Zamboni. Coach Gregg Popovich is going to have to manage minutes and a made-over bench, while hoping that teammates indoctrinate any new guys to the Spurs' way. Oh, and there's no Robert Horry as playoff talisman anymore.
So it's a lot to ask, surviving a Western Conference in which the Lakers and Hornets think they've got next and then winning four more against Boston, Cleveland or some other East champ. One answer: Point guard Tony Parker might have to become this team's most important and dangerous player, way beyond his previous contributions.
We'll avoid any fine-wine analogies pertaining to connoisseur Popovich and just say, it'll be fun to watch old lions roar one more time.
While I can't say I'm exactly
For as much of a strategic nightmare Shaquille O'Neal was, and still is on many nights, 36-year-old centers who don't stay in shape eventually find that they can't jump as high or move as quickly as they once did. That fact not only has decreased Shaq's overall effectiveness but it also has made for a terrible fit on a team built for speed.
GM Steve Kerr may have had his heart in the right place in trying to construct a more traditional playoff team built to play in half-court situations, but the brake that Shaq applies to the offense has stolen the Suns' greatest edge -- their "otherness." Under Mike D'Antoni, Phoenix played a seven-seconds-or-less style with which opponents rarely contended; few teams could handle the Suns' quick shooting and willingness to run at every opportunity. True, the Suns' advantage didn't translate into an NBA Finals berth, but it did produce two appearances in the Western finals, where had it not been for key injuries or suspensions, the Suns might well have advanced.
With D'Antoni's departure, the Suns will continue the metamorphosis into a more ordinary team, a process that began with the Shaq trade in February. The transition won't always be easy to watch.