Eight questions, eight answers
Let's ponder the Rockets, Wolves, new coaches, Blazers, Kings, Rookie of the Year, Mavs and Kobe, shall we?
It's tipoff time.
You have questions.
We have answers.
1. Can Steve and Jeff find common ground?
"He said, 'Yo, you've got to come in here and believe what coach is trying to teach us. If you try to fight it, it's never gonna work,' " Francis recalled. And thus crystallized the task for the post-Rudy Tomjanovich Rockets: trying to forge a bridge between Francis and Jeff Van Gundy. Van Gundy's penchant for disciplined, inside-out basketball -- meaning, get the damn ball to Yao Ming, would you? -- would seem to be anathema to Francis, who got the green light from Rudy for four years -- and naturally remained fiercely loyal to T up to and after Tomjanovich's resignation.
"This man [Tomjanovich] gave me the ball the first day of practice," Francis said. "And when I was going through my Meniere's [the disease that produced vertigo and migraine headaches in Francis during the 2001-02 season], he still stood by me."
Francis allows that the adjustment to Van Gundy's style was tough early in camp. Van Gundy made no secret of the fact that he thought the Rockets weren't in shape. They're now required to do seven miles on a bike three or four times a week after practice. "Go through a couple of 50 Cent and Jay Z CDs on that," Francis jokes. Practice is no longer run at a leisurely pace. And Van Gundy is demanding that Francis -- second in the league in turnovers last season -- take better care of the rock. He's played him some at two guard during the preseason.
"I haven't tried to overburden him," Van Gundy said. "My two things to him were one, he can get the same shots off of less dribbles, and two, the great players play both ends, offense and defense, and practice well. Every great player I know has done that. And if he wants to be a championship-caliber player, which I think he is driven to be, that's what he'll be. And he has been that so far. He's made really dramatic steps forward defensively."
For now, Francis says he's happy to do whatever Van Gundy asks, including being more verbal with his teammates.
"A lot of people want to say 'He's going to take the ball out of Steve's hands,' " Francis says. "Yao can't bring the ball up the basketball court. So at least I've got that job, to bring the ball up. I think things have been working out great for us."
I'm withholding judgment on this one, for now.
2. Have the Timberwolves turned the corner?
If "the corner" means "getting out of the first round," yes. The Wolves should finally play meaningful games in mid-May. It may not last long; Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell aren't kids anymore. But this season, with something big to prove -- and with Kevin Garnett's foot firmly planted in Michael Olowokandi's posterior when needed -- Minnesota should finish ahead of one of the West's Big Four, and finish one of the West's lesser off. The playoff performances of Cassell and Spree over the years was not lost on Flip Saunders when their names came up in trade talks.
"It's easier when you have people who have been in those situations," Saunders said. "No question, that was a big factor. The last few years around here, we've put KG in a situation where he had to make everyone around him better. And it's happened for a lot of guys. They've come here and really blossomed. But after last year, Kevin [McHale] and I sat down, and we decided that now it's time to bring in people who can make KG better."
Minnesota finally has some legit counters to match up with the firepower of teams like Dallas and Sacramento. Saunders says he plans to go small frequently, even after Olowokandi returns from offseason knee surgery, with Troy Hudson and Cassell in the backcourt, with Sprewell and Wally Szczerbiak at forward and Garnett in the middle. The Wolves will zone it up and let Garnett use his long arms and huge mitts to inhale boards. That's a good idea; Hudson, who starred in the playoffs last season, was truly bent out of joint when Minnesota traded for Cassell. And Hudson's got a contract-out after this season. Keep an eye on his minutes.
3. Which former Big Ten coach and first-year NBA head coach will get the most out of his Eastern Conference team: Randy Ayers, Kevin O'Neill or Stan Van Gundy?
Van Gundy (Wisconsin) had been the heir apparent to Pat Riley on South Beach for the last few years before Riley's stunning retirement four days before the start of the season. So in the short term, Miami might play pretty well. But Lamar Odom is ticked off, we hear, that Riles jumped ship on him after promising that he'd personally shepherd the rehab of LO's reputation. But there's no personal hatred of Van Gundy as yet. That's the benefit of being an assistant, one reason Ayers, Larry Brown's longtime top assistant, has Allen Iverson fully in his corner. The support of Iverson, Eric Snow, Aaron McKie and Derrick Coleman, to me, gives Ayers (Ohio State) the nod over Van Gundy and O'Neill (Northwestern).
Ayers hasn't thrown out Brown's playbook, though there are some more pick and rolls and isolations in Philly's sets. He's made subtle changes off the floor. Practices begin a little later than under Brown, mainly to give Ayers some extra time to think about what he wants to tell his team. (It also doesn't hurt on the occasions when a certain superstar stays out a little late.)
But the relationship between coach and player always changes when the coach moves over those 18 inches and becomes the Big Man.
"They understand you're making the final decision, and I think that's where it really changes," Ayers said. "I try to do my homework on decisions that we make. And really, I have a lot of input from my core guys: Iverson and Snow, McKie and Coleman. I talk to them quite a bit about things before making a decision. Especially things that I think, with their experience and being a veteran, they can have good input on."
4. Who will provide on-court guidance for the Blazers now that Scottie Pippen and Arvydas Sabonis are gone?
Would you believe Bonzi Wells? Swear to God, that's what Mo Cheeks says.
"He came into camp committed to understanding what it takes to be a leader," Cheeks said. "He came to camp in shape. His attitude has changed a lot in terms of interacting with the players, understanding what's right and wrong on the floor, and acting on it. In my two years here, that has not been a focus of his."
The Blazers, as usual, have superior talent compared with most of the league. Zach Randolph looks like he's about to break out; he's been so good that Cheeks has moved Rasheed Wallace from power forward to small forward. That gives Portland as talented a group of starting forwards as anyone in the league. But it means fewer minutes for guys like Ruben Patterson -- who the Blazers tried to give away in the offseason. Damon Stoudamire and Jeff McInnis have both played well at the point, but Stoudamire beat out McInnis for the starting spot. (Don't be surprised if Mike Dunleavy makes a pitch to repatriate McInnis with the Clippers -- though there are those in the organization who don't have fond memories of McInnis from his last stint in L.A.)
It will be up to Cheeks, again, to put out the inevitable fires that always seem to come up in the Rose City. He seemed to be onto something at the end of last season, when Portland came roaring back from an 0-3 deficit against the Mavericks in the first round -- and probably would have taken Dallas out in Game 7 if Dale Davis hadn't been injured. He's the best leader the team has. But owner Paul Allen continues to tempt fate by not giving Cheeks a contract extension.
5. Has Sacramento's window closed?
Not all the way. There's still a crack of air coming through. But the Kings don't have much time left to break through. Gone are Hedo Turkoglu -- "my little brother," Chris Webber says -- and team favorite Scot Pollard, both traded as part of the three-team deal that brought Brad Miller to Sacramento. Jim Jackson wasn't re-signed and allowed to go to Houston. Keon Clark was dealt to Utah for a couple of cans of paint. The close bunch of the last few seasons has been broken up -- especially frustrating to Webber, given how good the Kings looked before Webber's knee injury in Game 2 of the Western semis against Dallas.
The rotation now includes newcomers Anthony Peeler and Tony Massenburg, and third-year forward Gerald Wallace. With Webber out until December and Vlade Divac being nursed through the regular season to save him for the playoffs, Rick Adelman will depend more than ever on his core group: Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Bobby Jackson and Peja Stojakovic.
"I count on the guys who've been here," Adelman said. "They have to lead the way. I've told them all that. They have to do more than they've done in the past. Whatever their strengths are to help us win, we're counting on them. With Vlade out, I have four guys out who've played a lot of minutes ... Those guys have to set the tone. Even Vlade and Webb, when they're not playing, they're still our captains. They still have to set the tone, how they talk to these young guys, how they get them motivated. Hopefully, we're going to be a lot better team four months from now than we're going to be right now. I've told those guys, the cavalry's not coming over the mountain. It doesn't matter how many games we've won in the past. We're a different team now."
But the Kings have lost some of their identity. What was the best passing team in the league will have to survive by being scrappy on defense, getting deflections, contesting shots and hitting the glass -- all things that they've struggled to do consistently in the past. The Kings will, however, still compete. After playing terribly through most of the preseason, Sacramento was feisty in beating the Lakers in its preseason finale.
"I think it's still a good team," Stojakovic said. "A lot of people don't count on us this year, looking at other teams in the West. But that's all right for us. We can do our job like outsiders."
6. Who will be Rookie of the Year: Melo or 'Bron?
In the Mile High, Anthony will probably get a few more touches per game than James -- and, let's face it, a lot of people make their decisions on awards based on whose averages are higher. James has drawn raves from opponents throughout the league by his seeming indifference to scoring and major deference to older teammates. (He is already required to get donuts before practice, although it was pointed out to James that he might do better just buying a Dunkin' Donuts franchise.) LeBron seems perfectly happy finding an open teammate for a basket, but he's still capable of getting his when necessary. "He's not gonna be intimidated by anyone," Paul Silas said. "He kind of has that swagger that most of the great ones have, and I'm not putting him in that category yet, but he does have that swagger about him."
But since Cleveland has a little more talent than Denver (and since LeBron still needs to work on his jumper), James' scoring average will probably be lower than Anthony's. The Cavs, though, will win more games.
7. Seriously, how can the Mavs keep all those guys happy?
If Antawn Jamison is serious about coming off the bench, the key is Antoine Walker. Don Nelson will get him on the floor, but a lot of times, that may be at point forward, and with the firepower the Mavs have, there may be games where Walker gets minutes, but doesn't get a lot of touches. He has to be able to roll with that and not squawk.
But since there's not really another center on the roster besides Shawn Bradley, Nellie can find minutes for people going to a three-forward rotation. The Mavericks looked around the West and figured, other than Shaq and Yao, who really has a center that scares you? Good point. So expect to see a lot of Dirk Nowitzki in the hole. That will allow Nellie to get Michael Finley some minutes at small forward as well as shooting guard. Otherwise, Tony Delk might get squeezed, but if that's the biggest predicament Dallas has this season, it should consider itself lucky.
The Mavs had to pull the trigger. They thought every contender in the West had gotten significantly better, and saw the Wolves coming up fast in the rear view mirror. Now, Dallas thinks it can roll with anybody out there. And it probably can. As someone who witnessed the Mavs put up an 80-point first half last season, I know what kind of mental pressure they can put on an opponent when everything's going well. That pressure will only increase with Walker and Jamison in the fold.
8. How well will Kobe play this season? And can the Lakers win without him?
He will play well because he's a great player and he will be playing with great teammates. There were times when the Fab Four of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton were on the court in their two preseason games together that the ball didn't touch the floor. Originally, I thought he would not be able to perform well with the specter of a sexual assault trial and potential life imprisonment hanging over his head. Wouldn't it be better to take some time off? But after spending several days with the Lakers, you realize that Kobe needs to play like he needs to breathe. If he didn't have the game -- not necessarily his teammates, but the game -- to fall back on, there's no telling where he'd be mentally.
"He's got to let his game come to him," Payton said. "Right now, he's so competitive. He wants to go out there and do things. He's got to understand he's got four other guys that's going to help him. Especially with me breaking people down and getting to the basket, he's going to get a lot of open jump shots. And it's going to be easy for him. And even if we rotate the ball, a lot of people are going to be open. It's going to be good. Especially with Shaq getting doubled. We're going to be all right."
I think Payton could be a great bulwark for Kobe this season. Bryant has legitimate respect for Payton. On the floor, Payton will relieve some of the burden off Kobe by bringing the ball up and taking on the opposition's best ballhandlers. Off the floor, I think he could be -- really -- someone for Bryant to confide in, and open up to. We all know that Kobe has been removed from the Lakers that have been here for a while. A fresh face could help.
"For the guys that have been with him for so many years, I think he could tell if we were overcompensating for trying to reach out too much," Derek Fisher said. "The responsibility for most of us that have been with him year after year is to be the same and allow himself to extend himself as he sees fit."
The Lakers could win without him, but it would be tougher. Without him, they don't have much athletic ability on the wings. They really do miss Rick Fox's nastiness on the defensive end. Now, you can say that it's always about Shaq, that as long as the Big Fella is ready to roll, nobody can touch these guys. That's mostly right. But if Shaq gets nicked, it's harder for him to practice, and he needs to stay active to stay lean. Kobe takes pressure off of him, as well.
On-court issues, of course, pale with what is in store for Bryant in the coming months. That is the only verdict that really matters.
David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.