By Chris Mannix
September 28, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- As they watched Vitali Klitschko pummel Chris Arreola from a pair of ringside seats Saturday night, Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest were all smiles. Lakers fans will undoubtedly be happy if that scene is repeated this time next year.

As he begins his 14th season with the Lakers, Bryant is once again the key piece in L.A.'s championship puzzle. But it's Artest who has the potential to complete that puzzle -- or turn it upside down. On paper, Artest represents a significant upgrade to the departed Trevor Ariza, but Ariza was an ideal role player while Artest has always gravitated towards the spotlight. Can Artest and Bryant (along with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom) find a way to co-exist in Los Angeles?

Here are some other questions teams are facing as they open training camp.


Question: How will the Cavs integrate Shaquille O'Neal into the offense?

You can't pick up an article about the Cavs without reading a quote from LeBronJames about how thrilled he is to finally have a low post presence. But O'Neal's 7-1, 325 pound frame often found its way in the path of Steve Nash in Phoenix -- can coach Mike Brown devise an offense that keeps O'Neal out of James' path? Remember, Brown lost offensive mastermind John Kuester and did not replace him on the bench.


Question: Will Vince Carter be able to fill Hedo Turkoglu's sneakers?

Carter is a better scorer than Turkoglu and is nearly his equal in fourth-quarter production (4.7 points per game for Carter, 5.3 for Turkoglu). He's also one of the best pick-and-roll players in the league. But Carter doesn't have Turkoglu's passing skills or the size to create mismatches at small forward.


Question: Is Kevin Garnett healthy?

All eyes will be on KG's balky knee. The Celtics say Garnett is healthy after missing the last 25 games of the regular season and the entire playoffs with a knee sprain; they will need him to be 100 percent if they plan on making another run at an NBA title.

New Jersey

Question: Is Brook Lopez ready for a bigger role?

To compensate for the loss of Carter, Nets coach Lawrence Frank plans to expand Lopez's role in the offense this season. After averaging 13 points per game as a rookie, Lopez will be given plenty of opportunities to inflate that number. Can he handle it?


Question: How will Eddie Jordan utilize Elton Brand?

As big an issue as the point guard situation is (Lou Williams or ... Lou Williams?), the Sixers' success this season could hinge on Jordan's ability to successfully integrate Brand into the offense. At his best, Brand can be a 20-10 threat and a weapon in the open floor. At his worst, Brand could stagnate the Sixers offense.


Question: Can Kuester earn the players' respect?

We've seen it before -- a rookie coach comes in and is immediately run over in the locker room. But Kuester has a long track record as an assistant and familiarity with Pistons veterans Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton and BenWallace from his days working under Larry Brown. He will get a fair shot.


Question: How small will Brandon Jennings' learning curve be?

The Bucks have myriad issues -- Andrew Bogut's health, Michael Redd's happiness -- but Jennings can mask some of them with a strong rookie campaign. A gifted playmaker, Jennings ability to learn and execute the Milwaukee offense quickly will be a good barometer for the Bucks' success.


Question: Is Jamal Crawford the answer at point guard?

The Hawks thought they were set at point guard -- that was until the Cavaliers used Mike Bibby for a turnstile in the conference semifinals. Crawford isn't much of a defender either but he is an explosive scorer who gives Atlanta another dangerous perimeter threat. But can he be a playmaker?


Question: Which Jermaine O'Neal will show up in camp?

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra recently commented that O'Neal looks "like the guy I remembered with the Pacers, but stronger." He had better. Dwyane Wade had one of his most durable seasons last year; to have another one like it he needs some help offensively and O'Neal is the most likely candidate. When healthy and motivated, O'Neal is an overpowering center with diverse skills. When not, he is little more than a mediocre jump shooter.


Question: Can Luol Deng compensate for the loss of Ben Gordon?

Gordon's explosive scoring and clutch shooting won't be missed as much if Deng returns to form. After missing the last 22 games of the regular season with a stress fracture Deng is healthy and will need to be the 18.8 point/7.1 rebound player he was in '06-'07 for the Bulls to be successful.


Question: Is Tyson Chandler healthy?

Chandler played only 45 games last season while battling an arthritic ankle the required surgery in the offseason. He also had his troublesome left toe operated on. If healthy, Chandler is a strong rebounder who plays the pick-and-roll as well as any big man in the league. If not, Charlotte gave Emeka Okafor away for nothing.


Question: How quickly (if at all) will the Andrea Bargnani-Chris Bosh-Hedo Turkoglu front line gel?

Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo went all in this summer when he locked up Bargnani with a five-year, $50 million deal and Turkoglu with a five-year, $57 million contract. Now all they have to do is play well enough together to convince Bosh to remain in Toronto long term.


Question: How healthy is Mike Dunleavy?

Dunleavy was limited to only 18 games last season with a knee injury, which effectively crippled the Pacers' season. A sprain on his troublesome right knee will keep him out of the season opener. But the Pacers need to get him back in the lineup quickly.

New York

Question: Who is going to help Chris Duhon?

Adding another point guard seemed to be a foregone conclusion after Duhon faded badly down the stretch last season. But the Knicks struck out with Ramon Sessions and Ricky Rubio and now it appears Duhon will once again get the lions share of the minutes. Identifying a quality backup has to be the Knicks top priority.


Question: Can Gilbert Arenas and Flip Saunders get on the same page?

With Arenas out of the lineup for most of last season, the Wizards plummeted to the bottom of the conference standings. Now that he's back healthy, Washington is expected to contend for one of the top-four seeds. Saunders is used to handling superstars (Garnett, Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace); now he must find a way to maximize Arenas' offensive skills.

L.A. Lakers

Question: How will Artest affect the team chemistry?

With Artest on board the Lakers can -- at least on paper -- play big (Bryant-Artest-Odom-Gasol-Bynum) or small (Gasol-Artest-Bryant). It will be incumbent on Phil Jackson to dole out the minutes and shots in a way that keeps all of his high priced stars happy.

San Antonio

Question: Will Richard Jefferson make the Spurs a running team?

The athletic Jefferson adds a new dynamic to a team that is used to having relatively unathletic players at his position. The Spurs aren't used to playing a lot in transition but with Jefferson and Tony Parker in the lineup, they can be dangerous if they pick their spots.


Question: How will the Nuggets replace Dahntay Jones and Linas Kleiza?

The departure of Jones and Kleiza via free agency left Denver with a void in the toughness department. They will try to fill that void with Aaron Afflalo, MalikAllen and Joey Graham. But is that enough?


Question: Who is the starting point guard?

Newly signed Andre Miller is the most logical choice, but don't expect incumbent Steve Blake to give his job up without a fight. That kind of competition could lead to the Blazers having quality depth at the position -- or it could tear the team apart before the season starts.


Question: Is Aaron Brooks up for a bigger role?

Brooks emerged as a rising star after the Rockets traded Rafer Alston at midseason. But it's one thing score when you are playing alongside Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Artest. It's another when your running buddies are DavidAndersen and Ariza.


Question: Where does Shawn Marion fit in?

Marion has been penciled in as the team's starting small forward but that will require Josh Howard to the two-guard, a position he has rarely played in his career. Rick Carlisle will have to be creative in finding minutes for Marion, Howard and '08-'09 Sixth Man award winner Jason Terry.

New Orleans

Question: Emeka Okafor and Chris Paul be as effective as Paul and Chandler?

There is a reason the Hornets were considered a team on the rise after the '07-'08 season. When healthy, Paul and Chandler were a devastating pick-and-roll combination. Okafor isn't as athletic around the rim but he's a more polished offensive player who should be able to ease the offensive burden on Paul and David West. Emphasis on should.


Question: How will the Carlos Boozer issue play out?

It was widely assumed that Boozer would be traded in the offseason after the Jazz committed $32 million to Paul Millsap. He wasn't. That leaves Boozer, Millsap and Mehmet Okur fighting for minutes in the frontcourt. The Jazz could decide to keep Boozer and make another run with this group. Then again, they may not want to let him walk away for nothing after the season.


Question: Is Nash happy?

The Suns have consulted Nash on every personnel move they have made this offseason and handed him a $22 million extension on top of that. But Nash may not be happy finishing his career with a team that isn't expected to contend for anything in the next few years.

Golden State

Question: How will the Stephen Jackson saga play itself out?

Challenging Don Nelson publicly rarely leads to a quiet resolution and that's exactly what Jackson did when he asked for a trade this summer. But with $35 million remaining on his contract, Jackson is as tough to trade as it gets. Will Captain Jack be a distraction or will he be a good soldier for a team desperately in need of leaders?


Question: Who is the starting point guard (Take II)?

Timberwolves GM has made no secret that Jonny Flynn is the future, but Sessions may be the present. Sessions, 23, proved as a part-time starter in Milwaukee last year that he can handle the job. With the learning curve for NBA point guards being a steep one, it could be in the Wolves' best interest to give Sessions the job to start the season.


Question: Can Zach Randolph be the Grizzlies' long-lost post threat?

Memphis hasn't ahd any discernable threat in the low post since Gasol was shipped out of town. On paper Randolph fills that need -- provided he doesn't alienate his coaches and teammates with his ball hogging tendencies first.

Oklahoma City

Question: Who will emerge as the starting shooting guard?

Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Jeff Green are locks to start and Nenad Krstic figures to open the season at center. Smooth rookie JamesHarden will eventually take over at two-guard but the Thunder love ThaboSefolosha's versatility and his experience may give him an edge at the starters job.

L.A. Clippers

Question: Is Blake Griffin ready to handle the load?

The Clippers cleared the path for Griffin when they traded Randolph in the offseason. Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman aren't consistent threats in the low post so expect Griffin's number to be called early and often. Is he ready for that kind of responsibility?


Question: Is Tyreke Evans a point guard?

Few scouts doubt that Evans will become a star -- but at what position? Evans was explosive in the open floor at the NBA's summer league but questions remain whether he has the playmaking skills to be a point guard. The question won't be decided in training camp but Evans will get a shot at earning the spot.

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