Every NBA season is a novel, with multiple subplots and an endless parade of characters converging on June. It's a story guaranteed to bring unexpected drama and comedy, but some of the plot lines are just sitting there, waiting to play out.
Here's the Cliffs Notes version of the dominant themes of the upcoming season:
Time was, the best teams stood pat, refusing to disrupt winning roster formulas. A tweak here, maybe. A nudge there, sure. But why fight the cliches? You know, "don't mess with success," "dance with the girl who brung ya" and all that.
This year, each of the leading title contenders made a seismic shift in its lineup. Some for better, some for worse. But which is which? Here's how the summer's Star Wars battles break down, from best to worst:
The win-now acquisition of Jefferson was the perfect touch. Giving up
If the Lakers falter, the Spurs are waiting out West.
Wallace is a loose cannon and a hothead and all that, but he's also a positive locker room presence and a versatile and veteran on-court contributor. He's perhaps too veteran at 35, but he's still a worthy gamble for an aging team with only a couple of years left of contention.
Shaq has a championship pedigree and he gives the Cavs a low-post presence; we all know that. He also provides a counter to Orlando's
It's also questionable whether Shaq can still be Shaq-like at 37, not to mention 325 pounds or whatever he is these days. His attendance record was impressive last season, when he averaged 17.8 points and 8.4 rebounds over 75 games, but the odds of repeating that are slim. If he turns out to be The Big Invisible, or if his show-biz interests overwhelm his basketball-biz duties, this move will turn out to be an expensive mistake.
The best part of the trade with New Jersey that brought Carter could turn out to be the oh-by-the-way inclusion of
Artest might turn out to be a legitimate offensive weapon and a great defender to pair with
The predominant question is how he'll perform as the pressure mounts in the postseason. History isn't encouraging here, and the Lakers saw the most recent example of it first-hand in the Western Conference semifinals last season, when they defeated Houston in seven games. Artest was outstanding in the first three games of the series, but averaged 9.5 points and hit 28 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 15 percent of his three-pointers, in the final four.
Many outsiders have tried to analyze Artest over the years, but the best insider judgment is that he grew up amid chaos in the projects of Queensbridge, N.Y., grew comfortable with it, and therefore subconsciously seeks it out. If it's not there already, he'll create it.
It could take a Zensational effort on coach
The economy is an issue for every team, but some face serious problems. More than ever, moves are being made for financial rather than basketball reasons. Cutting payroll has become as much of a goal as improving talent.
Memphis' signing of
Milwaukee, meanwhile, traded
An NBA team hasn't moved since Vancouver headed to Memphis in '01, but the market is ripe for another shift. Memphis and Sacramento, which ranked last in attendance last season, seem the prime candidates, but almost anything is possible in the current state of despair.
Next summer's free-agent class brings the greatest potential talent bonanza in league history. Emphasis on potential.
James is the obvious class president, so much so that the free-agent period has been dubbed "the Summer of LeBron." It doesn't quite match the Ming Dynasty for historical impact, or even the Summer of Love, but it's catchy just the same.
The reality probably won't match the hype. Premier players have rarely changed teams, because the rules allow the the original team to offer more money and a longer contract. Shaq moved from Orlando to Los Angeles because, he said, the Magic had made him a lowball offer. He also reportedly was insulted by a local newspaper poll in which most readers said he wasn't worth a $100 million contract. Good-but-not-great players such as Turkoglu and
Still, there's bound to be some action. There are going to be too many players seeking a better opportunity to win, too many teams looking to lower payroll or rebuild and at least a few teams believing they're one star away from winning a title for it to be a quiet summer. Bosh might want to get back to the U.S. The likes of Nowitzki, Stoudemire, Johnson and Boozer could be frustrated enough to seek better championship opportunities.
All of this means the marquee players will be out to impress while some teams will be cleaning the house to create an inviting environment. It could be quite a Romantic Age.
The outcome of the Western Conference finals will largely hinge on the knees of centers
Oden, the top pick in the 2007 draft, sat out his would-be rookie season after undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee. He struggled through typical growing pains in an uneven debut season, but appears poised to justify the Blazers' investment. A dedicated summer conditioning program dropped 13 pounds and added confidence, and it showed in the preseason, when he averaged 13.6 points and 9.3 rebounds in 22 minutes.
A healthy Oden will solidify the Blazers position as the third-best team in the West, and have them in position to step forward if the Lakers or Spurs falter.
The Lakers might have won the championship two seasons ago if Bynum had been able to play. They won it last season when he was present, but mediocre. Imagine what could happen this season if he's synched with his potential.
A veteran of two knee surgeries, Bynum was averaging 20.3 points and 7.7 rebounds heading into the final preseason game. The Lakers would gleefully take that in the real games.
As always, courtside seats for some coaches are warming up before the season even begins, and at least a few of them will get rump-roasted before it's over.
• The same goes for
• The talent level is rising for the Clippers, and expectations are close behind. That means potential trouble for
• Then there's
No. 1 draft pick
The next-best candidates for the honor are Sacramento's
The non-lottery picks most likely to surprise early are Atlanta's
Golden State's season won't matter much in the grand scheme of the NBA season, but it should be an entertaining sideshow. Unless you're a Golden State fan, of course.
Two years ago, they finished off the regular season with a 16-5 flourish and shocked top-seeded Dallas in the first round of the playoffs for their first postseason series victory in 16 years. They were young, deep and spirited, and suddenly and deeply embedded in the hearts of their rejuvenated fan base.
What seemed like the start of an epic romance, however, turned out to be a fun little fling, and now they've gone back to their dreary, dysfunctional ways. That's a shame, because they have enough talent to challenge for a playoff position and stir up more excitement.
Only four players remain from the glory days -- more like minutes, really -- of two seasons ago, but the Warriors are still one of the more fascinating teams in the NBA. The likes of Jackson,