— Last year at this time, the biggest questions for the NBA — other than the arrest and accusations regarding gambling referee Tim Donaghy — were whether the old men who were making up the new Boston Celtics could win a championship and whether Kobe Bryant would be traded away from the Los Angeles Lakers after several months of demands, specifically about going to Chicago.
We know now the Celtics weren't too old or too hyped and Bryant finally came to his senses as the two elite franchises met in the NBA Finals. The Celtics earned their 17th title, and the Lakers and Bryant were happy enough together to believe they'll be back. Also, Donaghy just recently headed to prison.
It seems unlikely the Celtics have more than one more run left with the Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen-Paul Pierce group, but credit Celtics general manager Danny Ainge for doing the right thing: Winning now. You can only win the title you are playing for, as the old saying goes, and Ainge produced more than hope and promise. Congratulations to him.
Congratulations to the Lakers, too, for hanging onto not only Bryant, but Andrew Bynum, who despite injuries last season appears to be a big man who can complement Kobe for years to come.
So as the 2008-09 season dawns, the favorites to win a title remain the Celtics and the Lakers. Also Donaghy finally will be released by the end of the season. No reunion is said to be planned as the NBA still awaits a late October release of their investigative report involving the case.
Meanwhile, here are the 10 biggest questions to consider entering this season:
1. Is it time for a major changing of the guard? And forwards as well? Is this the end of an era?
A: We may look back on this season as one of those pivotal end of the eras. Many of the teams that have dominated the last decade appear to be in decline or ready to make way for up-and-coming young teams. The Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks are aging and beginning to fall back. The Celtics and Detroit Pistons in the East may be headed that way as well.
2. So who is going to replace them?
A: The New Orleans Hornets with Chris Paul seem ready now, as well as the Utah Jazz with Deron Williams, though big questions remain about the fate of free agent Carlos Boozer. The Portland Trail Blazers appear to have the best young nucleus, but are probably too young now and continue to hold their breath about physical issues with Brandon Roy. Perhaps the Philadelphia 76ers with the stunning acquisition of All-Star forward Elton Brand.
3. Then who are the teams to watch this season?
A: Probably Portland and Philadelphia. The Blazers compiled a surprising 41-41 record last season despite losing Greg Oden, billed as the next great big man, for the season after knee surgery. He is said to be healthy, perhaps even too muscular from all his work, and will be the No. 1 player to watch this season. Great big men always are because they are so rare. The 76ers were the surprise of last season with that great run down the stretch to make the playoffs, though they ran out of gas late. Signing Brand, if he is fully recovered from his Achilles' injury, gives them a potentially well-rounded starting five with point guard Andre Miller and athletic Andre Iguodala. They could make a jump to the conference's top four.
4. So who are those top four in each conference?
A: Give the Celtics one more run and probably the Pistons as well, though Detroit is in some transition with a new coach and younger players. Somehow the Cavaliers get in because LeBron James is so good. Too bad he still doesn't have the supporting cast. It brings up the big question for the 2009-10 season: Will it be James' last in Cleveland as the Knicks and Nets scheme to secure him in free agency after next season. In the West, it looks like the Lakers, Hornets, Jazz and Houston Rockets.
5. Hey, what about those Rockets? Could they be the surprise?
A: Yes. To themselves as well. That's the adventure and mystery of adding Ron Artest, who before the pressure got to him a few years back was about to lead the Indiana Pacers to the NBA Finals. That was the season before "The Brawl," the Artest-inspired worst-ever thing to happen in the NBA. But with Artest, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming and solid role players like Shane Battier and Luis Scola, the Rockets look loaded. No excuses this time, Tracy. Except did Yao rush back too quickly from surgery to play in the Olympics? Can Artest have his one good season before it all explodes?
6. So who are the other playoff teams and threats to crack the top four?
A: In the East, it's certainly Orlando, which was there last season and made an interesting pickup in Mickael Pietrus to bolster their awful backcourt. Watch out for the Milwaukee Bucks if they adapt to coach Scott Skiles' defense with the acquisition of solid pro Richard Jefferson and Toronto if Jermaine O'Neal has any desire left. Always ifs, ands, or buts. In the West, there's still the Spurs — though Manu Ginobili won't be back from surgery for awhile — the Suns as they have Amare Stoudemire, Steve Nash and perhaps one more decent season from Shaq. Dallas could stay in the mix, though Josh Howard's early meltdown doesn't bode well for a fading, aging cast. And maybe the Los Angeles Clippers, though with the Baron Davis pickup it's too bad they couldn't hold onto Brand. They could've been contenders.
7. Anyone in for a big fall?
A: It doesn't look good for the Golden State Warriors, who lost Davis and Monta Ellis to what sounds from all the denials like a motorcycle injury. Hello! Anyone heard of Jay Williams? Reggie Theus did a nice job with the Sacramento Kings, but it's hard to see them hanging on. And watch out below for Denver, which gave away Marcus Camby to save money and is counting on Nene and Kenyon Martin for big seasons. Good luck. In the East, the Nets are in full rebuilding mode and the Pacers are about to follow.
8. So does that change the balance of power?
A: A bit. After years of Western superiority, the conferences seem even now with the East having won three of the last five titles. Western powers San Antonio, Phoenix and Dallas are sliding while there's nearly a half-dozen teams in the West — Memphis, Oklahoma City, Minnesota and perhaps Sacramento and Golden State — that might not be competitive. In the East, probably only New York and New Jersey seem unlikely to have a shot at the playoffs. How long that post-Isiah honeymoon will last in New York is problematic. It's not like they're that thrilled with Brett Favre anymore with the Jets.
9. So what is going on in New York? No Isiah and still no chance?
A: We'll hear plenty about them because you know the old definition of a dynasty being a family in China ruling for centuries, or a New York team winning three straight games. It's still effectively the same roster, though it will get a boost being coached by Mike D'Antoni, who is very good and cares little for defense, just like the players he has inherited. They'll eventually dump Stephon Marbury and Zach Randolph and everyone will be asked each night to write postcards urging LeBron to come to New York.
10. Any idea on a breakthrough guy or rookie of the year?
A: Oden seems the likely pick. Again. If he gets a chance after his impressive Olympic performance, perhaps Rudy Fernandez as well in Portland. Michael Beasley should put up good numbers in Miami, but already is showing that goofy side that was scaring teams off, particularly the Bulls who went with Derrick Rose. Beasley supposedly was hiding in the closet and escaped initial detection when his Kansas buddies were caught with drugs and women at rookie orientation. Beasley was later fined $50,000 after first refusing to cooperate. You figure Dwyane Wade, also a 2010 free agent, is rolling his eyes already. The Heat have had Shawn Marion on the trading block and without an extension, and you know that won't end well. Also, watch out for Andrew Bogut having a chance for a breakout All-Star year in Milwaukee and Don Nelson perhaps breaking away for the last time if the Warriors struggle.
A: No. I'd say it's more about what will Lamar do and where will Lamar be. The bigger health issue obviously involves Andrew Bynum and his ability to return to the form he was developing before surgery. Have you ever shaken hands with a pro athlete after their career is over? Their fingers, especially football and basketball players, are lumps pointing in all directions. So Kobe won't look perfect in retirement.
That's the least of the Lakers' issues. They lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals because they couldn't control Paul Pierce. They don't have a true small forward and still don't. The wanted to take a shot at Ron Artest, but Sacramento didn't want to trade him down the interstate and wanted Lamar Odom in return. So now the Lakers will try Odom again at small forward, but he'll mostly be effective on offense playing a Scottie Pippen-like ball handling role. The problem is on defense with three big, slow guys in Bynum, Pau Gasol and Odom on the front line. The Lakers could opt for Trevor Ariza, but he never has shot well and then what becomes of Odom? That's still their major issue and remains unresolved.
A: Not only didn't we see it coming, it still doesn't make much sense. What it suggests more than anything is it was an overachieving team (we always said it was greater than the sum of its parts) whose talent was overestimated. There still isn't an All-Star on the roster, so how good could they have been? They showed how far a team can go with a good coach who pushes players without guaranteed contracts trying to make their way in the NBA.
It's something to remember. Clearly, management made some mistakes, most notably with Ben Wallace, but few disagreed at the time of the signing. They also tended to fall in love with their players and were fooled as much as the fans and media that they were better than they were. It's good to know they're no smarter than we are. And then guys choked on the pressure of seeking a contract or having a new one. A team built that way is a delicate balance and when the coach lost confidence in the team as Scott Skiles apparently did and then was fired, individual agenda arose and they no longer were what we were seeing.
So now they have to try to pull themselves up to being playoff contenders once again, which they can do with the break of getting Derrick Rose with the No. 1 pick. If Kevin McHale had a friend with the Bulls maybe he'd have traded the Bulls Kevin Garnett. If Memphis Grizzlies owner Mike Heisley didn't live in Chicago and compete in his mind against the Bulls maybe he'd have donated Gasol to the Bulls instead of the Lakers. The Bulls didn't get lucky, either.
A: Join the NFL? With LeBron James and Ben Wallace, they might have a great tight end and blocking fullback. The Cavs' biggest problem (after figuring out how to re-sign James after next season) is finding a running mate for James. Not only don't the Cavs have a No. 2 to support James, they don't even have a No. 5. The Lakers changed when they got Gasol to go with Kobe Bryant. Michael Jordan was 1-10 in the playoffs until Scottie Pippen came along. The Cavs have tried, like in thinking it could be Larry Hughes, but their personnel decisions have been awful in trying to find support for James. Mo Williams, whom they added, is OK, but he's no point guard and mostly likes to have the ball and shoot. Plus, he gets hurt. He's a fourth or fifth option, which pretty must describes the Cavs roster after James, who is fabulous. It's a shame to see him without any chance to be a serious championship contender.
A: If you mean sit on the bench in street clothes and not practice when he is around, that should be no problem. But if you mean the O'Neal of a few years back, sorry. They're starting over again with Larry Bird and ownership trying to rebuild their image as well as anything at first. This hard-working group of the late 1990's turned into a community embarrassment which, in this economy, is a disaster for the franchise. They started at point guard and are taking a risk with T.J. Ford and his spinal problems, but they had to get rid of O'Neal to begin moving forward. They're taking a shot at some young big guys, which is uncertain. For now they look slow and unathletic, for the most part, and a long way from the playoffs. It seems more about salary cap relief now and spending flexibility for the future. But they have to start somewhere.