— The curious case of the 2009-10 NBA season presents more than a few intriguing plotlines, drama that only now is beginning to build as opening night approaches.
Where this all takes us won't be known until June, but it certainly is not too early to begin the search for answers.
Ten questions before tip-off:
You would think making it to the NBA Finals would be enough to maintain the status quo.
Neither the Lakers nor the Magic were at a point where aging rosters were a concern.
Yet if both make it back to the Finals, it will be with dramatically different looks.
While free agency certainly got in the way, with the Magic losing Hedo Turkoglu to Toronto and the Lakers losing Trevor Ariza to Houston, those departures could have been avoided if management truly felt enduring success was at hand.
Instead, Magic general manager Otis Smith curiously began talking about the things Turkoglu couldn't do, and Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak got caught up in visions of even greater grandeur.
So Ron Artest replaces Ariza in the Lakers lineup and Vince Carter was summoned to step in for Turkoglu.
But are the Lakers and Magic better, or just different?
In adding Artest in free agency, the Lakers gained more than a premier perimeter defender. They also gained a forward who fancies himself as a one-man offense. What happens when Artest breaks away from the triangle, demands the ball in the post, and then calls time out when he doesn't get it?
Yes, coach Phil Jackson tamed Dennis Rodman. And, yes, Jackson also made it work through three championships with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant at each others' throats.
But the Lakers, indeed, did appear poised for enduring success after their dismantling of the Magic in the Finals. Already Mark Cuban is snickering about what the Lakers have done. No player may have more of an impact on the 2010 title race than Artest.
Then there is Carter, who arrived at the cost of sending solid-and-emerging Courtney Lee to New Jersey.
Already, Carter has been chastised by coach Stan Van Gundy about his defensive indifference. And while Carter can do more on his own than any player the Magic utilized last season, he remains secondary in the attack to Dwight Howard.
What made Turkoglu so efficient in Orlando last season was his ability to play as an ensemble talent. It will be interesting to see if Carter can mesh as seamlessly with Howard, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson.
Training camp is supposed to be a time of renewed hope, rededication, fresh starts.
And then there are the Warriors and Jazz training camps.
Stephen Jackson already has asked out from Golden State, and even an NBA fine hasn't diminished the agenda.
Then there is Carlos from Utah, who chimed in on talk radio over the summer in Miami and Chicago about how he might rather play in their cities than Salt Lake.
Trouble is, both stand as focal points for their franchises.
Both situations continue to simmer, with those half-priced Boozer jerseys hardly flying off the shelf in Utah.
The difference is the Warriors are going nowhere; they can afford to deal. The problem there is Jackson's cumbersome contract.
By contrast, the Jazz almost always contends, making its situation a bit dicier, even with Paul Millsap waiting in the wings at power forward.
Jackson and Boozer are here today, but well could be gone tomorrow.
To the credit of the Knicks and Heat, there is no pretense.
The priority is 2010 free agency.
The 2009-10 season is little more than a matter of killing time.
Both teams are loaded with cap space. Yet, there is a difference, a significant difference.
The Heat also has to keep Dwyane Wade content, considering he is at the heart of the team's makeover plans.
The Knicks, by contrast, have a bit of a different agenda when it comes to winning: New York's unprotected 2010 first-round pick belongs to the Jazz. There certainly are better ways to lure a free agent than being the team that just got humiliated in the lottery.
Still, don't expect either to spend a single dollar that goes beyond 2009-10 any time before July 1, even if it means fuzzy future security when it comes to the likes of Wade, David Lee and Nate Robinson.
A year ago, the Nuggets simply sold off Marcus Camby to the Clippers, with an eye on the dollar-for-dollar luxury tax. That move hardly proved calamitous, with Denver advancing to the Western Conference finals.
This summer, the cost containment continued, with Linas Kleiza lost to Greece and Dahntay Jones to the Pacers. Those moves could prove costly in the increasingly competitive West.
Similarly, the Hornets, a team with serious cash-flow issues, stepped away from Tyson Chandler's contract and sold off Rasual Butler to the Clippers, also allowing Ryan Bowen and Melvin Ely to depart. The lifting in New Orleans figures to get even heavier for Chris Paul, even with the addition of big man Emeka Okafor.
Not every team put off its shopping until 2010.
Given the chance to sit on their cash for another season, the Pistons instead chose to invest in Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon. While it has been difficult to debate Joe Dumars to this point, do those two truly constitute an upgrade?
For now, Gordon is penciled in as a reserve behind Richard Hamilton. And Villanueva finds himself at power forward on a team left to choose between Kwame Brown, Chris Wilcox and Ben Wallace at center.
Then there are the Timberwolves, who only return Corey Brewer, Brian Cardinal, Ryan Gomes, Kevin Love and Al Jefferson from last season. The arrivals, beyond first-round pick Jonny Flynn, hardly are awe inspiring, unless you see the promise in Ramon Sessions or something in Sasha Pavlovic.
At this stage, you safely can rule out Dumars and David Kahn for Executive of the Year.
The Celtics keep telling us Kevin Garnett's knee is fine. So then what's up with that noticeable limp during training camp?
Over in Houston, while Tracy McGrady is back on the court, does enough confidence remain to again have McGrady as the focus of the offense?
And perhaps in the ultimate injury issue, will Elton Brand make it through the opening months in Philadelphia, let alone an entire season?
When July, August and September aren't enough to answer injury issues, you have to wonder.
Rasheed Wallace a Celtic? Shaquille O'Neal a Cavalier? Richard Jefferson a Spur?
It used to be that success went hand in hand with stability.
Yet, stability hardly has been associated with Wallace and O'Neal.
Could those two make their teams better? Sure. But their uniqueness will take plenty of adjustment.
Similarly, adding someone like Jefferson figures to be a jolt to the core of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker.
The NBA insists its replacement officials will do just fine, stressing that beyond the 60 it has locked out, it has found the next-best 60 because of its affiliation with the Development League and WNBA.
Of course, that's like saying the D-League offers the best pro basketball in North America outside of the NBA.
No, it will not be pretty. But it also won't endure. If not by the start of the season, expect the regular referees to be back within a month of opening night. Never will Joey Crawford's scowl or Steve Javie's arrogance be as appreciated (but not Dick Bavetta's clownish act).
Allen Iverson and Zach Randolph in Memphis?
Paul Westphal as coach of the Kings?
Don Nelson volunteering to guide the Warriors in future seasons for free?
And here we thought Lamar and Klhoe was as surreal as it was going to get.
Sometimes it's not that difficult to detect impending disaster.
Ah, for that you will have to wait another two weeks, when we return in this space with our 2009-10 predictions.