By Ian Thomsen
July 25, 2008

I have the right to predict what may happen next season, even at this early date. And I have the right to change my mind in the months ahead, based on pending events and an unexpected leap in wisdom.

5. Lottery teams that will move into the playoffs. By my count, it's a small number.

b. Indiana Pacers. They won 36 games last season amid Jermaine O'Neal's injuries as coach Jim O'Brien and assistant Dick Harter were installing their new offense and defense, respectively. Team president Larry Bird has already turned O'Neal into T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic and rookie Roy Hibbert, which -- along with the draft-day trade that included Jarrett Jack -- fills big needs at point guard and center. The improved Pacers will enter camp with a perimeter-based team more suited to O'Brien's unusual tastes. Figuring that every Eastern Conference playoff team will be .500 or better next season, based on the improvements made already, I'm giving the restructured Pacers a slight edge over the perennially young Hawks.

a. Portland Trail Blazers. Given the decline of the two teams directly above them in the Western Conference standings -- the Nuggets (who overnighted Marcus Camby to the Clippers) and the Warriors (who essentially subbed out Baron Davis for Corey Maggette, Ronny Turiaf and Marcus Williams) -- the Blazers should avoid the lottery for the first time in six years. To a young team that won a surprising 41 games they're adding Greg Oden along with Spanish rookie swingman Rudy Fernandez and 6-foot-3 combo guard Jerryd Bayless, whose size won't be a problem while playing alongside Brandon Roy. All three newcomers will fill out a rotation that already featured All-Star Roy and emerging star LaMarcus Aldridge. This could be the most fun team to watch next season -- and don't forget, the Blazers will have $15 million or more in cap space next summer regardless of the outcome of Darius Miles' comeback (see below).

4. Developing stories. These issues are all TBD:

d. The Nuggets' demise. How is coach George Karl going to rally Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, Kenyon Martin and Nenê to advance without their best defender in Camby? This is a payroll-heavy roster that has won four games over the last five postseasons. The Camby deal could be the beginning of an extended, excruciating collapse.

c. Ron Artest's future. Ask Artest and he'll be glad to tell you his future. Ask him again 15 minutes later and he'll forecast an entirely different future. Come back around the next day and that future will be something he never happened to mention the first two times. The only thing I can tell you is that he's going to be traded sometime by the February deadline.

b. A big Cavaliers trade. Don't read too much into their strong playoff showing against the Celtics. The Cavs' current roster will struggle to score during the regular season, with several Eastern rivals plotting to move ahead of Cleveland. But the Cavaliers are not going to stand still and let that happen amid speculation of LeBron James' 2010 departure. They'll be looking to package their $30 million in expiring contracts as well as Zydrunas Ilgauskas and/or Anderson Varejao for a point guard and/or shooters and/or a star or two to give James a chance to realize his potential in Cleveland.

a. The Pistons' reinvention. When he can make the trade that makes sense, Joe Dumars will move one or more of his starters to rejuvenate their title hopes. It may not happen until the New Year, when the allure of Rasheed Wallace's expiring $13.7 million salary will be peaking. But let's not be carried away: As things stand today, no rival has done enough to unseat the Pistons as the No. 2 team in the East -- and with new coach Michael Curry's emphasis on setting standards and holding players accountable, the Pistons won't be sliding anytime soon. But they need to change something to renew their postseason confidence.

3. Award winners. I must be crazy trying to predict these things now. But what the hell ...

d. Sixth Man:Nate Robinson. Something tells me he is going to flourish off the bench in Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni's blurring offense.

c. Rookie: Michael Beasley. The Heat need his scoring, and he will be ready to provide it while earning credit for a huge increase in wins. Oden should make a run at this award, though the balance of the Blazers' offense may reduce his numbers.

b. Executive: Kevin Pritchard, Ed Stefanski, John Hammond (in order). Their three rookies could turn the Blazers into next season's darlings, earning recognition for Pritchard. Stefanski recruited Elton Brand to Philadelphia, though he still must re-sign restricted free agents Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams. The changes in the Bucks could be startling, thanks to Hammond's acquisitions of coach Scott Skiles and Richard Jefferson.

(p.s.: The one GM who should be recognized is Jeff Bower, who added James Posey to a team that won 56 games last season. But that improvement won't be felt until the postseason, after the votes have been counted.)

a. MVP: Kobe Bryant. My instinct to recognize LeBron is tempered by his need to win 50 or more games. One big trade by Cleveland could vault James and make this a two-man race.

2. Hungriest contenders. This is a vital category: Which of the elite teams most wants and needs to win the championship? It's one of the hardest qualities to gauge in each conference.

b. The Spurs. This is not to say that the Spurs will necessarily return to the Finals, or that they'll dominate during the regular season as they work in new complementary players. I can, however, imagine that Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Bruce Bowen will spend the season ahead making it clear to everyone else in their organization of their intention to win at least one more title before they're all washed up. They have faith on their side, based on the fact that they've won four times already, convincing teammates that the hardest work will be rewarded.

Let me add the obvious statement here -- that I may be entirely wrong in this prediction. There is another opinion widespread in the league that Duncan is worn down by having averaged 93 games over the last eight extended seasons. In which case, can Kobe and Phil Jackson influence the young Lakers to grow up fast (or will they trade for veteran depth)? Will the young Hornets feel the urgency to win now?

a. The Celtics. No other team in the East appears capable of matching Boston in focus. The Pistons or Cavaliers may yet improve in that area, but -- provided they remain healthy -- the Celtics aren't likely to slip so long as Kevin Garnett is setting the example. Rather than slide back, they may actually improve as a unit in their second season together (this assumes that defensive assistant Tom Thibodeau returns).

1. Conference predictions. How each conference race is shaping up, as of late July:

b. The East. Note that team Nos. 9-13 will be tightly packed.

15. New Jersey14. Charlotte13. Miami12. Chicago11. Atlanta10. New York9. Milwaukee8. Indiana7. Cleveland6. Toronto5. Philadelphia4. Washington3. Orlando2. Detroit1. Boston

a. The West. By the way, in both conferences I'm assuming (perhaps naively, but what else to do at this early stage) full health for all of the key players.

15. Oklahoma City14. Memphis13. Minnesota12. Sacramento11. Golden State10. Denver9. L.A. Clippers8. Portland7. Phoenix6. Houston5. San Antonio4. Dallas3. New Orleans2. Utah1. L.A. Lakers

4. Will we see more NBA players moving overseas to play for teams in Europe? I'm looking forward to the day when LeBron James leaves the NBA to play in Europe. If he wants to be a global icon, that would be one way to do it.-- E.S., Aalborg, Denmark

Another way would be for James to play for the Knicks ... but there will be plenty of time for that talk over the next two years.

I'll tell you what I've learned on this subject. Before signing Hawks sixth man Josh Childress to his unprecedented three-year, $20 million contract, the Greek club Olympiakos first targeted Warriors swingman Kelenna Azubuike. Agent Michael Higgins said Olympiakos approached his client last year, and then returned two weeks ago at the summer league in Las Vegas with an offer to Azubuike of $5 million annually for three years.

"But that was the starting point,'' Higgins said. "We could have got the deal [that Childress received]. ... If I'd said $10 million [annually] for three years, they would have said yes. They wanted him. They said, 'What's it going to take? Give us a number.' ''

But Higgins couldn't persuade his client to go for it. Azubuike is a 24-year-old who had been ignored in the 2005 draft and began his pro career with a couple of seasons in the D-League before earning 122 games the last two years with Golden State. He had worked too hard to reach the NBA, and he didn't want to abandon that goal now.

"You get to the level of money they're talking about,'' Higgins said of Olympiakos, "and it gets pretty tough to look the other way. They're saying, 'Whatever it's going to take.' ... I said to Kelenna, 'Just give me a number, I don't care if it's $10 million or $15 million [per year], just give me something I can take to them and then we'll see.'

"He just said, 'I can't, I can't go.' I tried to tell him about the money and the difference between what he could make here, and if he were to go over there they would give him an out after every year. But he's too young. If he was in the league for maybe three or four more years it might have been different, but he's too young and he's fought too hard to get to where he wanted to be.''

Instead, Azubuike signed a three-year offer sheet with the Clippers worth $9 million. On Thursday, the Warriors matched the offer in order to retain him.

This is why I don't view the Childress signing as the beginning of a trend, much the same as no larger trend was created when Danny Ferry and Brian Shaw temporarily quit the NBA to spend 1989-90 playing in Rome. Few American-based players in the prime of their NBA careers are going to take on the risk of playing abroad.

It's another thing entirely for Europeans playing in the NBA to return overseas for big money, as in the recent cases of Juan Carlos Navarro, Carlos Delfino and Jorge Garbajosa. Those players will feel like they're going home.

For the Americans, however, look at it this way: Remember a decade ago when a lot of people -- led by Charles Oakley -- complained that Americans wouldn't want to play for the Toronto Raptors because it was a foreign franchise? If it has been difficult to persuade Americans to play for an NBA franchise in Canada, it will be even harder for them to move to the Euroleague.

In addition, there are scant few clubs in Europe with the wherewithal to outbid the NBA for players like Azubuike or Childress. Those rich clubs are Olympiakos and Panathinaikos of Greece, CSKA Moscow and a few other teams from Russia, Spain, Italy and Turkey -- each reliant on a rich owner who pays the salary out of his own pocket, because no team in Europe has anything close to the revenues to account for a salary like Childress'.

The United States isn't necessarily the preferred nationality overseas, given the fact that European leagues restrict the number of American players on each team. The advantages of the Euro exchange rate won't overcome the fact that a lot of American players are one-dimensional and lacking the versatility of play mandated by Euroleague basketball.

For all of these reasons, Childress and his agents, Lon Babby and James Tanner, should be recognized for their vision. They walked away from a competitive NBA bid (the Hawks should not be criticized for offering $33 million over five years to a sixth man) while providing Childress with an opportunity to raise his value. Alongside Olympiakos point guard Theodoros Papaloukas, recently named among the 35 greatest players in the 50-year history of the Euroleague, Childress can demonstrate leadership and versatility that may never have been recognized in the NBA.

The harsh alternative is that the team won't win and he'll take the blame. But give him credit for taking on a level of risk that other Americans wouldn't dare assume. And give credit to his agents, who (via Tim Duncan) began the trends of players signing short-term contracts and (via Andre Miller) front-loading their offer sheets. I don't think Childress' move represents another trend, but it's a bold move by a player with the confidence to gamble on himself.

3. You've officially been duped by the NBA's greatest con man, Darius Miles. Everything in your article was like déjà vu. He's been saying the same things to the Portland media since he first signed his contract. He was a changed man after his first child, he was a changed man after he got married, but despite what he said, he was always the same old Miles on the court, off it and in the locker room. This guy doesn't love being an NBA player, he loves the NBA lifestyle. He's fooled the Portland media repeatedly and now it looks like he's fooled you too. I just hope some poor NBA team doesn't buy his act once again.-- Brady, Portland

You sound like someone I know who works for the Trail Blazers. I'll tell you what I told him: Just because I quote an athlete telling me that he's healthy, how does that mean I'm vouching for him? While I understand your frustration, my best suggestion is that you take your complaints to the franchise that gave him the $18 million remaining on his contract. You won't have to travel far.

It stands to reason that you're hoping another team doesn't buy "his act,'' because if Miles turns out to be healthier than you think, then it will cost your Blazers $9 million in cap space. On this count, again, the Blazers can blame no one but themselves.

The one thing I can tell you about Miles is that, so long as he continues to perform well in workouts, he will surely receive a minimal offer from an NBA team to play next year. If he reinjures his knee, his new bosses won't have to pay him; if for some reason they don't like his act, they can afford to waive him. This week Miles began playing full-court basketball in Chicago under the supervision of athletic trainer Tim Grover. We'll see what happens over the next two months.

2. Which team is likely to become the next Celtics and go from a big loser to a big winner?-- J.P., Albany, N.Y.

No one. That's the easy answer. No reigning lottery team is going to win the championship next season, though Portland may get to the Finals in a few years.

The losers most likely to realize the biggest improvement are, in order, the Heat, Bucks, Knicks and Pacers. As a result, the bottom half of the East should be stronger than the same tier in the West next season.

1. Do you see any possible way for the U.S. to lose in the Olympics? If you're looking for an underdog, I say count the Lithuanians. They always rank among the best.-- P. Carter, Austin, Texas

A majority of these catastrophes must take place: The opponent shoots a high percentage from the three-point line and doesn't turn the ball over, while the Americans go cold from the perimeter, suffer foul trouble and lose lone big man Dwight Howard to injury or fouls, thus weakening their defense in the paint. The United States isn't going to win the gold medal without a cold sweat. The last American group of NBA players to go undefeated in a major event without a close game in the final minute was the 1996 Olympic team playing before home crowds in Atlanta.

3. The Knicks. Even if they dump Stephon Marbury and get less than equal value in exchange for Zach Randolph or Eddy Curry, the Knicks may prove to have more talent than their last few seasons suggest. For comparison, the Bucks may have more trouble adapting to Skiles' defense-based system than the Knicks will have in conforming to D'Antoni's full-court offense.

2. The Mavericks.Rick Carlisle is an efficiency expert with a track record of getting the most out of his teams over the regular season. Who's to say that he can't find ways to squeeze 55 or more wins out of a deep roster led by Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and a rejuvenated Josh Howard?

1. The Wizards. For two years they've been clobbered by injuries. All they need is one healthy year out of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler -- now you'll be looking at a team of three All-Stars at their peak in a conference undergoing transition (behind the Celtics, that is).

2. Use its refereeing crisis to explore a new relationship between pro sports and gambling. The business of sports betting and the overall American perspective on gaming have changed enormously since the 1919 Black Sox scandal. The NBA could take a leadership position in raising the question of whether sports gambling should be legalized so that it can be supervised and taxed. Shouldn't we at least be having this discussion? It would only help the NBA to be out front of this issue ... but let's call it a longshot at best that David Stern sees it this way.

1. Take a fresh approach to its game presentations. Remember the long-ago time when throwing T-shirts into the stands and airing video of dancing fans on the scoreboard were swell new ideas? They are neither new nor swell any longer. In fact, they drive my crazy. During timeouts, I twitch and writhe like Chief Dreyfus in the presence of Inspector Clouseau. I am begging the NBA to come up with something swell and new before my nervous breakdown. So innovate already. Please, innovate.

1. Celtics beat Lakers. This time it's a classic seven-game series. The Lakers, having traded before the February deadline for a couple of the veteran tough guys they were lacking last month, are ready to fulfill Kobe's potential. Am I picking the wrong winner? Or does the veteran trio of Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have one more title left in them?

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