5. Will Gordon and his teammates learn to deal with his uncertainty better than they did last season? The downfall of the 2007-08 Bulls was one of the more surprising collapses in recent memory. Months after reaching the final eight of the NBA playoffs, the young Bulls stopped defending, lost 49 games and fired coach Scott Skiles in December.
"We can't ignore last year,'' general manager John Paxson said. "There were reasons that it happened.''
Those reasons included the contract uncertainty of Gordon and Luol Deng, who had been unable to negotiate extended deals over the summer, and the persistent preseason rumors that Gordon, Deng and others would be traded to the Lakers for Kobe Bryant.
"That was the first season since I've been here where there was a legitimate, major trade rumor around training camp,'' said the 25-year-old Gordon, who is beginning his fifth year in Chicago. "We would have team meetings, and we would talk about the trade stuff. Coaches would bring guys in to talk about the contract stuff and try to keep them focused. I think it was something that we had never been through before as a team, and especially as a young team it swayed the focus.''
4. How could one or two unfinished contract negotiations damage a franchise? The Bulls were successful because they defended as a team and shared the ball offensively. When Deng and Gordon turned down big-money deals in 2007, it raised suspicion among teammates that they would be looking to increase their stats at the expense of teamwork. Those doubts combined with the Kobe rumors to undo their unity.
"A lot of times when you're in college, or even early in your rookie year, you hear that professional sports is a business,'' Gordon said. "You don't really know what that means until you start to go through it. I've definitely experienced the business side firsthand, so I have a great understanding for it now.''
Gordon suffered decreases in shooting (a 2.1 percent drop to 43.4 percent) and scoring (down 2.8 points to 18.6 ppg) last season, while Deng and other key Bulls realized similar lapses. But Gordon believes those have strengthened him, so that his contract status will inspire rather than distract him this season.
"I pretty much know what to expect,'' he said. "I know what's on the line.''
Rival teams wonder if Gordon will be able to maintain a winning attitude, knowing that this will be his farewell year in Chicago. An advance scout put it best as part of SI's annual preview: "Will [Gordon] care about the Bulls? Let's face it, he wants no part of the Bulls after they wouldn't give him the long-term money he was looking for. He will not be a Bull after this year.''
Paxson notes that Gordon has continued to behave professionally; he came off the bench to score 18 points on 12 shots in the Bulls' opening win Tuesday against Milwaukee. But the GM also knows that his backcourt is crowded with five guards as the emphasis has changed from Gordon to the development of point guard Derrick Rose, the No. 1 pick who could become the All-NBA talent needed by the franchise.
"I think there's uncertainty in our mind, and I think there's uncertainty in Ben's,'' Paxson said. "It's uncomfortable because in this day and age those [contract] things play out so publicly, and you try to guard against it coming out negatively. But no matter what you say, the perception always is -- when something doesn't get done -- that it is pretty negative.
"It's hard for a player to mentally invest himself. But that's the job, and you have to do it.''
3. How could Gordon walk away from $58 million? One part of the business that can't be ignored is the role of money in establishing a team's hierarchy. Say that Gordon accepts less than he believes he is worth. Will that money go to another teammate? Will minutes and touches be awarded according to salary? (Money may not influence coaching decisions in Chicago, but it surely has affected roles on other teams.)
Paxson brings up another point of view that I hear frequently from a number of GMs.
"I think what has happened a lot in the league now is that guys do want to be able to compare contracts to other guys,'' he said. "From what I see, it's pretty simple: Everybody knows what everybody else makes -- players, agents, everyone. And in some ways it becomes a contest, and you don't want to lose that contest.''
I believe the same dynamic exists among owners. When they gather at All-Star weekend or other meetings, they judge each other based on frugality and efficiency and which of them squeezed the most out of payroll investments.
"San Antonio has done it as well as anyone -- they have a pecking order,'' Paxson said. "Every team would love to have a pecking order in terms of players, from your best player all the way down. In the perfect world, the best players are paid the most, and San Antonio has done such a good job with that. But that's hard to emulate in this business right now.''
2. How will Gordon fit in with a roster that is being built for the future? The truth is that he probably won't be the only one to leave after this year, as the Bulls watch closely to decide who best accommodates the style and skills of Rose.
"The biggest thing is our players have to bring Ben in to the fabric of the team,'' Paxson said. "I think we've got a lot of really good guys on our team, and I know the guys who were here last year were embarrassed by what they did. But they have to be the ones to bring him in, and Ben has to buy in, too.''
Gordon's status may create an uncomfortable situation for Deng, who last summer succeeded in negotiating a six-year, $71 million deal with the Bulls. When I spoke with Deng during the preseason, he said he hadn't discussed the contract ramifications with Gordon.
"I didn't because I know more than anyone what Ben is feeling,'' Deng said. "It was that close to being me [in the same contract situation]. I was in the same boat, and when I was in that boat I did listen to everybody. But at the same time, it came down to me and the Bulls and where we were going to meet. That's how it was with Ben and the Bulls, that's where they were, but they never met anywhere. It's hard for me to tell him, 'Do this and do that,' and then tell the Bulls, 'Do this and do that.' So I just stay out of it and let both of them make their decisions.''
Deng understands that Gordon may feel pressure this season.
"All of that talk with the contract stuff is not in the back of my mind [anymore],'' Deng said. "I'm just really focused on trying to avoid what we had last year. I'm going to try to bring something positive and be more of a leader, rather than being on the side and watching it happen like I did last year.''
He hopes the ambition to prove his value will bring out the best in Gordon.
"We've got to wait and see,'' Deng said. "He went through it last year, where to me and to him it was a distraction. So hopefully going into this year he'll be able to cancel it out and just focus on having a great year.''
1. There will be more Ben Gordons in years to come. "In this case with Ben, a couple of things have happened,'' Paxson said. "The market has tightened up. You have more teams now that are losing money as organizations. A lot of teams are over the [luxury] tax line or right at the tax line. Where five years ago mid-level deals were being thrown around, they're not being thrown around anymore. The market has changed, and it's hard for especially young players to understand, but it's definitely happened.''
The financial crisis and looming recession will deepen the impact.
"I don't know how it can't,'' Paxson said. "Tickets and sponsorships and that type of thing were addressed before the U.S. economy slid into what it's slid into the last few weeks. Common sense tells you that next year and maybe beyond is when it's going to affect the [NBA] bottom line. Yes, wealthy people own professional sports teams, but there have been a lot of teams in the NBA that have lost money the last few years. And that's a hard thing to keep doing.''
4. I keep hearing about the Blazers' cap space for next year and how they will be in position to go after a big name. My question is this: Why would they do that? I think one could argue that they have possible future All-Stars at every position. You certainly can't have Greg Oden or LaMarcus Aldridge coming off the bench. Brandon Roy and Rudy Fernandez will spend plenty of time on the court together at the 2 and 3 spots. And Jerryd Bayless is considered their point guard of the future in most people's eyes. Do you think they would use that money on a sixth/seventh man? What big-name free agent would want to go to Portland only to come off the bench for the foreseeable future?-- Jordan Manske Lincoln, Neb.
I see Bayless as more of a microwaving sixth man, though if he turns out to be the point guard of the future, then that's all the better for Portland.
The point here is that the Blazers shouldn't be ready to make long-term decisions on this roster. The key players are so young that management will need this season before deciding which ones can help Portland win a title someday.
Kobe isn't going anywhere, which means that the top potential free agent next summer is likely to be Carlos Boozer. Maybe over the next six months circumstances among Oden and Aldridge will persuade the Blazers to make a run at Boozer. But there is no reason to reach a decision now.
They could also use their cap space to trade for an expensive star from an overburdened team seeking payroll relief by unloading a big salary. There's been a lot of that going around recently, and the trend may grow as the economy worsens. Paul Allen is one of the few owners bold enough to exploit the misery of others.
As promising as their young roster looks today, the Blazers must do everything they can to maximize their cap space. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for them to improve their team. Why should they wait for several young players who may need years to realize their championship potential? Adding a veteran in his peak years could expedite their growth and enable the Blazers to contend ahead of schedule.
3. You don't have Amaré Stoudemire on any of your three preseason All-NBA teams. Did you just forget him, or do you honestly think that after making the second team last season he's going to slip?-- Mandy Chapple, Ogden, Utah
I think the Suns are bound to slip, based on the ages of their key players. If I'm wrong on that count, then I'll probably turn out to be wrong about Stoudemire, too. But Stoudemire was second team as a center last year; this season he'll be listed as a forward (alongside Shaquille O'Neal) where the All-NBA competition is far more severe.
2. You don't need to "defend" your Finals team selections, but you do need to defend the comment that a Celtics-Spurs Finals would feature "three Hall of Fame players per team." Who are these players? Kevin Garnett, of course. Paul Pierce, borderline, but I'll accept that if he has six more years like this past one AND wins another title. Ray Allen? Seriously? With the Spurs, Tim Duncan is a no-brainer. But who else is a Hall of Famer besides their coach, Gregg Popovich? Manu Ginobili? Tony Parker? I know they have a lot of career left, but we have a seriously watered-down Hall of Fame if those two are HOFers in your view. Defend yourself.-- Ryan, Carlsbad, Calif.
I don't know if I would put Tony Parker in the Hall of Fame category just yet. Even Manu Ginobili is still earning his credits, but I think he will eventually join Tim Duncan there.-- Bruno Alatrista of Hartford, Conn.
Parker has already won three NBA championships and an award as NBA Finals MVP. He is 26, and at his current rate he'll finish with close to 20,000 points and more than 6,000 assists. His improvement as a shooter should enable him to be relevant as he ages.
Ginobili has won three NBA championships and led Argentina to an Olympic gold medal. He was a star in Europe for four years before entering the NBA at the late age of 25. I project both as Hall of Famers, absolutely.
I was expecting more people to question whether Pierce and Allen would be worthy. But I imagined that both would receive serious consideration based on their career stats at the time of retirement; the championship puts them over the top.
1. What do you think of Mike D'Antoni benching Stephon Marbury and Eddy Curry on opening night?-- Harvey, Chicago
He may not have a winning season, but D'Antoni has begun to win over the locker room -- and the fans.
The Cavaliers plan on returning to the NBA Finals with 25 year old Williams as their new high-scoring point guard sharing the ball with LeBron James.
3. Why every young point guard should spend a year with Jerry Sloan.
"I love Jerry Sloan. He'll go down as the best coach I ever played for. I learned a whole lot in seven months there [as a Jazz rookie in 2003-04]. As good a coach as he is, he's a much better person. I've even been to his houses in Utah and Chicago. I learned how to play the game in Utah because it's so systematic. It teaches you how to play defense, how to rotate on offense, how to be a point guard -- because they put everything on the point guard to run the show.
"As long as you play hard, as long as you defend, he lets you play. He knew my strength was scoring, and at the same time I needed to make the right play. If somebody is open, get him the ball. Simple basketball.
"Playing point guard for Jerry Sloan gave me a lot of credibility. The next year [after he signed with Milwaukee as a free agent] I started 80 games.''
2. Why he doesn't worry about being a "traditional'' point guard.
"I was LeBron James growing up, let's put it that way. I had to do everything. Scoring was a strength I always had. We didn't have that guy who was a scorer, and I could defer to him. I always had to be the scorer at the point-guard position.
"There are different point guards in this game. You take Baron Davis, Tony Parker, they are guys who can score. At the same time, they can find guys. I always think about Tony Parker having six assists [he has averaged 5.8 over the last four years], same as me [6.2 as a starter the last two years with Milwaukee]; Baron Davis [7.2 assists over his career] is higher. You can't criticize point guards just because they can score really well. It's just part of their game.
"You take a nonscoring point guard and all of a sudden call him a true point guard? That's just their strength. Distributing the ball is their strength, their strength is not scoring. Off the top of my head, for example, Brevin Knight -- if he goes out every night and tries to score 20 points, I don't think that's the strength of his game. His strength is that he defends well and runs offense well. We put a [premium] on a 'true' point guard because he distributes, but it's just a strength he has. He's a distributing point guard who can score every now and then.''
1. Why he looks forward to letting LeBron run the offense.
"In Milwaukee, they needed that distributing-type guard that I'm talking about, because they had a lot of guys who scored on the team. I was trying to be that person, but it was taking away from what I do best. Now [with Cleveland] I can play my game and not be thinking before the game that I've got to distribute and get other guys involved. Here we're just playing basketball. They expect me to play how I play.
"There's talk about me taking pressure off LeBron, but people fail to realize he's taking pressure off me, too. He's another guy who can handle the ball and make decisions. It makes it easy on me to not have to do that every time down the floor. I don't have to control the ball the entire game.''
2. For the Lakers: How often will someone other than Kobe win games for them in the fourth quarter? Because their championship hopes depend on developing one or more stars to help him carry the team.
1. For the Celtics: The champs endured much conflict among their three stars last season, but that friction was ultimately constructive as each fought to establish his talents within the larger needs of the team. Now that they've won their title, will the stars continue to focus on the larger goal? Their rivals hope the friction will turn destructive because -- short of injuries -- the only Eastern team likely to stop Boston this season is the Celtics themselves.
1. Can we all please relax? Oden should be a junior in college. He is 20 years old. So he suffered a sprained foot in his opening game? The bottom line is that he is many years away from leading a team to the championship, regardless of whatever he accomplishes (or doesn't accomplish) this season. Everyone in this young organization -- from the GM to the coach to the core players -- must surmount a steep learning curve over the seasons ahead. Even if Oden becomes a great player, other issues may prevent this team from achieving elite status. I've been looking forward to seeing him play this year as much as anyone, but the attention paid to Oden's latest injury scare has reminded me that he is a long-term project with a lot to learn and overcome. Are we going to hyperventilate every time he stumbles?