- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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Training camps open this week. Rosters are almost set, with a few, aggrieved free agents still out there waiting for the phone to ring. The 2003-04 NBA season is just around the corner and everyone is waiting to see if the Lakers can go undefeated and if Tim Floyd can win 30 games.
With that in mind, here's a list of 20 questions that fans might well be asking as the always important exhibition season nears. Being the egalitarian sort, each division gets five questions.
1. OK, just who is going to be the point guard in Miami? Pat Riley had arguably the greatest point guard ever when he was in Los Angeles. Now he's serious about entrusting the offense to Dwyane Wade, a rookie non-point guard? Has he been hanging out with Lamar Odom already? Miami made no effort to retain two guys who passed as point guards last year, Anthony Carter and Mike James. Tim Hardaway, as far as we know, isn't available. Then again, maybe Riles looks around the league, sees no real point guards, and decides to go with the kid because he knows his team is going to stink anyway.
2. Really, Jersey, what does Byron Scott have to do for some serious love, er cash? A lot of people insist that it was Eddie Jordan who really ran the Nets the last two years. The Nets' bosses must think so, too. How else do you explain not extending a coach who got you to the NBA Finals two years in a row? Maybe Scott is a figurehead, propped up like all those old Russian leaders at the missile parades. If that's the case, why he is still around, then? We know Jason Kidd wouldn't object to a change. But as long as Scott is still there and as long as the Nets continue to win, he has to be given some credit, doesn't he? And the real bad news: Tim Floyd is unavailable if Scott were to get the gate.
3. Is there really going to be a much better locker room in Washington without Michael Jordan? Um, yeah. Who knows if they'll be any better on the floor, but, in the locker room, there has to be a universal sense of relief without MJ and Doug Collins. New coach Eddie Jordan is a much more valuable Jordan in the sense that he actually shows up for work every day -- and in the city where the team is, no less. And Eddie Jordan will now get his chance to prove that he's worth all the fuss. In the Atlantic, just about anything goes. The Wizards got a nice catch in Gilbert Arenas, who is guaranteeing the playoffs. (Now there's a guy who spent too much time out West.) But a kindler, gentler, Wizards atmosphere has to help all the youngins (Kwame Brown, for one) whose ears were burned repeatedly by the Jordan who now is a Man Without A Team.
4. Will Allen Iverson become a more versatile player, like he was on the Olympic qualifying team? Absolutely. Once Billy King trades for Tim Duncan, Jermaine O'Neal, Vince Carter and Kidd. But, really, Iverson has next to him in Big Dog Robinson a certifiable scoring machine. He has to get Robinson the ball, doesn't he? The last thing Philly needs is for Iverson to keep getting his 25 shots a game and, let's hope, that the new coaching staff and the old Iverson understand that. Robinson carries a lot of baggage -- and neither the Bucks nor the Hawks staged a protest when he was dealt. But he is a guy who can put up 20 points a game, almost effortlessly, and, with the offensively challenged Sixers, that could be huge. But he can't score without the ball and the man who has the ball most of the time can rectify that.
5. Does anyone, anywhere, care about the Knicks anymore? You mean, other than Spike Lee? No. The league would like to have a more basketball-verite assemblage in Manhattan, but, unless Frederic Weis shows up and Antonio McDyess rehabs ahead of schedule, it's going to be another year of "How about them Nets?" The point guard situation is now into Year 12 without any hint of resolution. They haven't had a center since Patrick Ewing was three years from retirement. The frontcourt has 10 guys who are undersized. They've added Keith Van Horn, who really seems like just the right guy for New York. If McDyess somehow makes it back, maybe the Knicks get some bounce. Otherwise, it looks pretty bleak.
1. Is Vince Carter all the way back and what does that mean for the Raptors' chances? Carter appears to be back, but the Raptors still haven't recovered from the losses of Nate Huffman and Eric Montross. But Vince looked a lot like the Vince of Yore in the Olympic qualifier and, for that, Raptors fans have to be mildly excited. If Carter is healthy, Toronto can't be ruled out of a playoff berth in the East, although it's hard to see them finishing among, say, the top seven teams. But with a new coach -- a guy who apparently actually coaches -- the Raptors will go back to that edgy mentality they had with the on-the-verge Butch Carter. This much we know: pencil in Vince for a starting berth on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. He may even nose out Grant Hill in the fan balloting.
2. Are we about to learn if Tim Floyd can actually coach in the NBA? Well, we already know the answer to that -- and it is a definitive no. He failed miserably in Chicago and then somehow landed on his feet in New Orleans, probably because Brian Winters was already taken and Roy Rubin wasn't around. But to all those who might diss Floyd, keep this in mind: Chuck Daly went 9-32 in his first NBA gig with the hapless Cavaliers. (By the way, whatever happened to Chuck?) Floyd already made one smart move, bringing in Alvin Gentry who, you know, has actually won games as an NBA head coach. But Floyd inherits a veteran team that does know how to win, so maybe there'll be a little tradeoff.
3. Is it finally time for the Bulls to become relevant again? Yes. There's an excellent chance of that happening because the Bears really stink this year. As for NBA relevant, it would not be a jaw dropper to see the Bulls contend for a playoff spot. Let's not forget, they opened last season with a road win in Boston -- and then went winless on the road until Easter. But, as Jerry Krause always told us, players lose championships, so it's going to be on the Bulls' pups to produce. It's hard not to be impressed with that lineup -- on paper. Now, if they can get Jalen Rose to share the ball, they might be on to something.
4. Will the Cavaliers make the playoffs? In what league are we talking about here? You may have forgotten, but the Cavaliers earned the right to LeBron James last year -- and they're an ankle injury to No. 23 from being right back there again. They would be odds-on favorites to win any division that values tattoos and hip-hop clothing. But they're simply too young and not talented enough to make a quantum leap from the bottom to the middle. Having said that, it already looks like the Cavs will be watched by a lot of people. But King James is going to see a lot of different defenders than he saw at St. Vincent-St. Mary. The Cavs will be better. But the playoffs is asking too much.
5. Can Larry Bird and Rick Carlisle turn the Pacers around? They'd better. Then again, the Pacers don't need much of a push. They've got a pretty good team that, inexplicably, morphed into a Division III school last spring against the Celtics. Carlisle may be prickly, but he can coach. And Indiana's hapless performance against Boston -- in fact much of its performance in the second half -- begged for some kind of leadership. Indiana has to go into the season as one of the division favorites, along with Detroit, Carlisle's old team. Provided O'Neal still isn't carrying a torch for Isiah Thomas, the Pacers should be strong from top to bottom. But they have to get out of the first round of the playoffs. Otherwise, it's more of the same.
1. Will Jeff Van Gundy get the Rockets to play the way they should have been playing last season? If you mean, will Van Gundy insist that the guards get the ball to Yao Ming, let's hope so. And if you mean, will there be an attention to detail now that might have been missing, you can be sure of that. The Rockets have a pretty good team whose misfortune is being in the wrong conference. In 2000-01, the Rockets won 45 games and didn't even make the playoffs. Yao should be more aware of what he can do and against whom he can do it. But he also has to be the focal point of the offense and not some Shawn Bradley clone who never sees the ball. The Rockets also should be better defensively and, if they stay healthy, might do some damage.
2. Has Minnesota finally got enough to get out of the first round? Well, you have to wonder about that starting pitching. And the losing record to the Yankees. Oh, we mean the Wolves. The answer: maybe. Let's see, they finished No. 4 last year and didn't make it out of the first round. The Wolves appear, on paper, to be a lot better. But they've also got a lot of new guys who tend to want the ball. Then again, that shouldn't be a problem for Kevin Garnett. But if you look at who finished above them, well, the view isn't pretty from the Twin Cities. Yes, the Wolves appear to be improved. But so do the Spurs, Lakers and Mavericks -- and the Kings already were better.
3. Has Utah's long playoff run finally come to an end? Mercifully, yes. In fact, the Jazz's playoff run had come to an end a few years back, but they somehow managed to will their way into the first round before departing graciously. Now, with John Stockton and Karl Malone gone, the Jazz can finally spring for a trip to Secaucus next spring to see what this lottery business is all about. It had to happen. The Jazz discovered this summer how tough a league it is, when the only players of note it signed (Corey Maggette and Jason Terry) were restricted free agents and the only meaningful acquisition was a trade dump by the Kings (Keon Clark.) But the spring skiing is still great.
4. Will Denver average 80 points a game and be any better? How can they not do both? Let me count the ways. Last year's Nuggets were an offensive atrocity -- and their best player left for Orlando. Now, the team turns to Andre Miller who, if nothing else, proved in Cleveland that he could put up good numbers for a bad team. So he's right at home in the Rockies. Jon Barry is with his 156th NBA team. Rookie Carmelo Anthony is going to be longing for those nights in the Carrier Dome before too long, which is as predictable as it is the reality of the NBA. Anyone else on the roster get you excited? Didn't think so. All that money and, other than Miller, Barry, Voshon Lenard and Earl Boykins, who came to Denver in the summertime?
5. Will Dallas ever not score 100 points in a game? It's hard to imagine with the firepower Mark Cuban has amassed in the Big D. Once again, the Mavericks will be among the most entertaining and prolific teams to watch. Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Michael Finley and Antawn Jamison will provide plenty of offense. It's pretty amazing when you think Raef LaFrentz is the fifth option. Newcomer Danny Fortson, if he gets the chance, will show everyone how to rebound -- and he's especially adept on the offensive glass. (And he'll have to do, for there still is a rather gaping hole in the middle.) Scoring won't be a problem for the Mavericks. It wasn't last year, either. They've just gotten more potent, which means the likelihood of a prolonged drought is that much slimmer. It also means that with more baskets means more noise from the league's most obnoxious P.A. announcer.
1. Will the Lakers be able to share the ball and deal with only matters on the (basketball) court? Are you serious? Of course they won't. The Kobe Bryant situation looms as one rather large Damoclean sword over their season -- and we haven't even gotten to what surely will be the unseemly details of the incident. Wait until that stuff comes out. That's why there will be a media swarm at the Lakers' training camp, even though their first exhibition game tips off at 2 a.m. Eastern time. If there ever was a coach made to deal with all the distractions, it is Phil Jackson. But he will be tested -- and you wonder how he'll be able to convince Malone and Gary Payton to play the triangle and surrender the ball. But talent eventually wins out and unless Shaquille O'Neal decides to join the LAPD or is ridiculously out of shape, the Lakers will be favored to win it all -- again.
2. Have the Kings cut off their nose to spite their face? Sacramento had the league's deepest, most talented roster last season. It got them to 59 wins, but, in the end, it didn't matter; Chris Webber's loss couldn't be overcome. So, gone are Clark, Jim Jackson, Scot Pollard, Hedo Turkoglu and the injured Lawrence Funderburke. In their place are Brad Miller, who parlayed half a good season in Indiana into $60-odd million, along with Anthony Peeler, Tony Massenburg and Darius Songaila. That makes them deep on paper, but, until things get under way, we won't know how deep. The Kings' depth has been one of their hallmarks over the past three years. But in the rush to sign Miller, did they sacrifice too much?
3. Will Cliff Robinson's impressive playoff streak -- 14 years running -- come to an end at Golden State? It will be more impressive if it doesn't. The Warriors making the Great Eight in the Western Conference after losing their top two players, one of them without compensation? Don't think so. We know the Golden State ownership doesn't think so. That had to be the reasoning behind the giveaway deal with Dallas. You know, "We're going to stink this year anyway so might as well save some money." Robinson has been a good luck charm everywhere he's been, even if he has been one of the all-time lugheads in the postseason. He made the playoffs with Portland and Phoenix. He then joined a bad Detroit team and the next year it had 50 wins and a division title. That won't happen in Beirut by the Bay.
4. Is this the year for the Clippers? Do I hear an echo? Wasn't last year supposed to be the year? Well, some things have changed. First, there's a new coach with a history. OK, the Clippers can still be a thankless job, but at least Mike Dunleavy has to know what's at stake. He's got most of his good players under long-term deals, even if those deals were negotiated by other teams. But the Clippers have another wave of youngsters coming through, so guys like Quentin Richardson are going to want time and, eventually, dollars. But this season appears to be L.A.'s best chance in a while. Very few guys are playing for contracts. Dunleavy has a long-term deal. If they can just concentrate on basketball, who knows what might happen?
5. Can the Suns be a sleeper? Hey, they did as well against the Spurs in the playoffs as anyone else. They have an undeniable stud-in-progress in Amare Stoudemire. Stephon Marbury seems to have bought into the whole "us" thing. Who knows? You could make a case for the Suns as being No. 3 in the division, especially if Portland implodes or can't keep its guys out of the slammer. The Suns aren't ready to challenge the big boys on a consistent basis, but they look to be moving in the right direction despite a couple of onerous contracts (Tom Gugliotta, Penny Hardaway.) If they get any development out of Joe Johnson -- who has the talent, if not the fire -- they could be an intriguing team in an intriguing division in a brutal conference.
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Can LeBron James lead the Cavs to the playoffs? No. Are the Lakers favored to win it all? Yes.