Sizing up the NBA, from the best story lines to the best players to the power rankings
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By Tom Enlund
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
A CHANGE IN PLAN
In an effort to keep players' legs fresher, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers is going to do away with shoot-arounds on the road. Instead of going to the arena on the morning of the game, Rivers plans on just having the team go through a walk-through in the ballroom at the team hotel and then having a quick refresher course at the arena before the game. It's something the Celtics experimented successfully with last season. Rivers is also going to push back the starting time for practice a bit, to noon. The New York Knicks will also no longer have a shoot-around on game days at home, opting instead for a walk-through late in the afternoon at the arena.
SHAQ AND LEBRON
One of the great subplots in the league will be how well Shaquille O'Neal fits in with LeBron James and his other new Cavalier teammates. "He's coming along well," said coach Mike Brown of O'Neal. "We're trying to put him in different spots on the floor, sometimes in pick and roll, sometimes on the block, sometimes on the elbow. We want to move him around so people can't hone in on where he is all the time." Said James: "Having Shaq here just makes everything easier for me. I don't have to carry the whole load — from on the floor to dealing with the media to in the locker room."
MOVING ON UP
There is some big talk coming out of Denver. "I believe this team can win a championship," said coach George Karl, who has led the Nuggets to five straight playoff berths since taking over in 2005. The Nuggets were never closer to a championship than they were last season when they advanced to the Western finals and lost in six games to the Lakers. Denver did not make many off-season player moves but......."I think other teams made moves after looking at where we were," said forward Kenyon Martin.
HAVE A SEAT
The league has issued an edict that forbids players from standing for excessive periods of time while on the bench and blocking the view of fans seated behind them. Referees can whistle violators for technical fouls. Some, like Bucks coach Scott Skiles, don't think the new ruling is any big deal but some don't like it. "It will be especially tough for me," said Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant. "I get excited. Don't blame us for being excited for our teammates. At the same time, I understand where fans are coming from and where the league is coming from."
The addition of No..1 overall draft choice Blake Griffin — who has already been called a "monster" by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — has been a reason for optimism in Clipper-land although his broken left knee cap has brought back some bad injury memories from the past. Can you say Danny Manning? Griffin has been the centerpiece of the Clippers' promotional campaign but coach Mike Dunleavy is trying to downplay the notion that he is a savior. "We're very fortunate to have Blake," said Dunleavy. "I like his attitude, his mind-set, but I would not put that kind of pressure on him." Griffin could be out for up to six weeks with the knee injury that he suffered in the final preseason game.
FIVE MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS
KOBE BRYANT, L.A. Lakers
Bryant needs 1,373 points to pass Jerry West and become the greatest scorer in Lakers history. West finished his career with 25,192 points. If Bryant averages 26.8 points, as he did last season, it would take him 52 games to pass West. The Lakers, though, think that considering the quality of the players around Bryant, he could possibly score less and pass for more assists this season. There is also a possibility that his minutes in the regular season may decrease to keep him fresher for the players. "If you're talking about who is the best player in the league, I don't think there's a question that it's Kobe," said Lakers assistant coach Jim Clemons. "Those people that want to argue for other players, they aren't looking at basketball skills. No matter how you shake it, it still boils down to Kobe being the best player in the league."
LEBRON JAMES, Cleveland
At the tender age of 24, he has won an Olympic gold medal, an NBA most valuable player award, and two all-star game MVPs. An NBA title is about all that has eluded him and he can only hope that the addition of Shaquille O'Neal will be the final piece to his championship puzzle. O'Neal has said that, on paper, this Cleveland team is the deepest that he has been on and it all starts with James. "He's a team player and a great guy in the locker room," said O'Neal.
DWYANE WADE, Miami
He insists that this season is not about the possibility of him opting out and becoming a free agent after this season. Instead, he says, it's about improving on last season's 43-39 record and first-round playoff loss to Atlanta. Wade spent the off-season toning his body with Chicago-based trainer Tim Grover and says he is fully capable of leading the league in scoring once again if that is what the team needs. Wade has not ruled out the possibility of a contract extension and team president Pat Riley is leaving open the possibility of adding pieces around Wade to help convince him to stay. For the time being, though, Wade is ready to get the season under way. "I'm here," said Wade. "This is my team."
BRANDON ROY, Portland
Keep an eye on Portland. It has built a team that has all the elements to make a playoff run into June and Roy is the leading man. Any doubt about that came during the preseason when coach Nate McMillan gathered his players at mid-court to address them at the end of the practice. But McMillan had gotten only a couple words out of his mouth when he was interrupted by Roy, who ripped into his teammates for their poor attitude and lackadaisical performance during the workout. "If Brandon says something, it goes," said center Greg Oden. "It has to. It's his team. We are all following him."
DWIGHT HOWARD, Orlando
Last season, Howard led the Magic to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1995. Along the way, he won the league's defensive player of the year award, led the league in blocked shots and was the league's leading rebounder for the second straight season. He set a league record by receiving more than 3 million all-star votes. What's next for Superman? "I know people are going to judge me based on winning a championship," he said. "But I think it's more about the team. I've done a lot here but one thing I want for our city is respect. Orlando is not just Disney World and Mickey Mouse, but it's a basketball team."
FIVE BEST TEAMS
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
They think the formula for contending for another championship is pretty simple: Just stay healthy. That's what they did last season as Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom missed a total of only six games. Andrew Bynum, though, missed 32 games and was not a factor in the playoff drive. "I think our biggest concern, as with most teams in the NBA that have a chance to contend, is staying healthy," said general manager Mitch Kupchak. "Our coach knows how to handle the throttle for players in a 110-game season. I'm not that concerned with complacency or this team getting cocky. We have pretty good leadership."
They are talking as if team chemistry is going to be one of the team's strong points this season. "I feel like it's meshing right now," said Paul Pierce late in the preseason. "It's all about the guys being willing to drop their egos, buy into Doc's system offensively and defensively, working into our chemistry and people not having any agendas. With some teams it happens and some teams it doesn't." The addition of Rasheed Wallace makes one of the league's premier defensive teams even better. But, can Kevin Garnett's knee hold up?
They went 8-0 through the preseason but coach Stan Van Gundy prefers to look at other numbers. Like the team's 43.3 percent defensive field-goal percentage last season, the third-lowest in the league. During the preseason, Orlando allowed teams to shoot 40.6 percent but preseason statistics are not always a good indicator of where things really stand. "It's not the results because these games don't mean anything," Van Gundy said. "But what you want is to get better and I thought we progressed well." The loss of Hedo Turkoglu was big and Vince Carter must now mesh with Dwight Howard.
After finishing with a league-best 66-16 record last season before losing toOrlando in the Eastern Conference final, the Cavaliers bolstered their roster by adding Shaquille O'Neal, Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker. "The pieces we added, we really feel good about," said Cavaliers coach Mike Brown. "We felt we were really good last year. To add the length and athleticism that we did in Shaq and Jamario and Anthony Parker, we feel really good about. Our basketball IQ has really gone up." The Cavaliers face a rugged early schedule as they open with four games in five nights and in the first five weeks, will play on consecutive nights seven times.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Their once-heralded defense has dropped off in recent seasons. Last season, the Spurs finished ninth in the league in defensive field-goal percentage, their lowest ranking in 12 full seasons under coach Gregg Popovich. To bolster the defense, the Spurs added Antonio McDyess and Theo Ratliff in the off-season and plan to increase the minutes of guard George Hill. San Antonio, though, will be looking for a Bruce Bowen-type defender on their roster and the closest they seem to have are Keith Bogans and Richard Jefferson, who both played for the Bucks last season. Since Jefferson does not have to be the primary scoring option, the Spurs hope that he will be able go guard the other team's best perimeter scorer. We'll see how that works out.
FIVE WORST TEAMS
NEW JERSEY NETS
First Jason Kidd departed and now Vince Carter is gone, which means that leadership duties on the team fall on the shoulders of former Wauwatosa East and University of Wisconsin star Devin Harris. It's a role that Harris accepted long before it was officially bestowed upon him. "It's by default," he said. "More of a role that I'm destined to have. I wasn't much of a vocal leader last year. Vince took a lot of that. I tried to lead by example. Now I have to do both those things." Even so, says Harris, he tries not to get on many of the new players that were brought in because they are so young. No one is quite sure what sort of captain Harris will be although coach Lawrence Frank has issued a vote of confidence. "Devin's a very, very bright guy," said Frank. "He gets it. He knows what he needs to do. For us to be the type of team we want to be, we need everyone to commit on the defensive end. As the best player, it starts with him."
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Talk about your drama in the preseason. Team captain Stephen Jackson gets fined $25,000 for saying he wants to be traded. He receives a two-game suspension and a $139,000 fine after he blows his cool in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers, putting a bit of a chill in his relationship with coach Don Nelson. Jackson relinquishes his role as team captain. But now Jackson says that's all behind him. "I'm a natural leader," he said. Nelson says the "old Jack" is back and that everything has worked itself out. We'll see.
In Memphis, they're calling it the "new math." Let's see, we've got four offensively minded players — O.J. Mayo, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Allen Iverson — all on the same team with only one basketball. How's this going to work out for the Grizzlies? No worries, says Randolph. "When people say things like that — that we can't play together — it's just motivation to prove them wrong," he said. "We can share the ball. We've proven we can in preseason. Guys are willing to make sacrifices because guys want to win." Coach Lionel Hollins said players had to fill their roles and share the ball. "That's been a challenge of every coach since the beginning of time," he said.
They'll have to find a way to win games early without forward Kevin Love, who will be out until sometime in December with a fractured left hand. Love and center Al Jefferson had been a formidable front-court duo during the preseason before Love was injured. "It hurts to know he's going to be out," said Jefferson. "When he's out there, it makes my job easier. It's going to hurt not having my son out there."
During the preseason, coach Paul Westphal preached the value of progress and the importance of steady improvement. He thinks his team is doing well so far. The Kings were the worst defensive team in the league last season, allowing 48.1 percent shooting and 41.0 percent shooting from three-point range, but in the preseason the Kings' opponents shot 43.0 percent and 36.2 percent. Guard Tyreke Evans led NBA rookies in preseason scoring (15.1 points) and minutes (31.6) but had 33 assists compared to 28 turnovers.
FIVE COACHES TO WATCH
FLIP SAUNDERS, Washington
Saunders, who was a candidate for the Bucks' vacant coaching job during the 2005 off-season, has landed in Washington after a one-year absence from the league. He had plenty of success in Minnesota and Detroit while coaching players such as Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace. Saunders could be the perfect fit for a Wizards team that suddenly looks like a contender with the return of guard Gilbert Arenas and the additions of Randy Foye and Mike Miller.
PHIL JACKSON, L.A. Lakers
The Zen Master won a 10th NBA championship last season, a mind-boggling achievement. Longtime assistant Kurt Rambis moved on to Minnesota to lead the Timberwolves, but veterans Frank Hamblen and Jim Clemons remain on the Lakers staff. Jackson's ability to handle personalities has been honed over the years with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, among others.
GREGG POPOVICH, San Antonio
He can be stern and gruff, but Popovich has led the Spurs to four NBA titles in his 13 seasons in San Antonio. His teams are disciplined and play strong defense. Popovich is determined to strengthen the Spurs' defense, which allowed 93.3 points per game last season, their highest total since 1997. Still, that number ranked second in the league.
EDDIE JORDAN, Philadelphia
It will be interesting to see what Jordan can do in Philadelphia, after he was fired by the Washington Wizards. It was hardly Jordan's fault in Washington, where Gilbert Arenas was injured for nearly two full seasons and other problems led to a nosedive last season. Jordan will try to mesh the talents of Elton Brand with the 76ers' athletic talent, including Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young.
DOC RIVERS, Boston
The former Marquette star won an NBA championship in 2008 with the Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Now Garnett has returned from an injury-plagued 2008-'09 season, and the Celtics have added power forward Rasheed Wallace. It will be Rivers' job to keep the temperamental Wallace on task, and to keep grooming talented point guard Rajon Rondo. The Celtics could be back with a vengeance this season if all goes right.
NEW FACES, NEW PLACES
SHAQUILLE O'NEAL, Cleveland: Shaq said he came to Cleveland to "win a ring for the King," referring to Cavaliers star LeBron James. The combination of O'Neal and James will be heavily scrutinized throughout the season, and the pressure will be great for the Cavaliers to improve on last year's playoff performance. Does the 37-year-old O'Neal have enough left to help end Cleveland's championship drought?
RICHARD JEFFERSON, San Antonio: After a one-year stopover with the Bucks, Jefferson was shipped to a San Antonio team desperate to gain ground on the world champion Los Angeles Lakers. Jefferson started all 82 games with Milwaukee last season and was a steadying force throughout, particularly when injuries struck starters Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut. Jefferson should give the Spurs a needed offensive weapon to go along with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and ManuGinobili.
VINCE CARTER, Orlando: The last of the Big Three to leave New Jersey, Carter takes the place of Hedo Turkoglu, who signed a free-agent deal with Toronto. Carter is a more prolific scorer than Turkoglu, but the question remains: Will the former North Carolina star fit as cohesively with the Magic and star center Dwight Howard? Much is expected in Orlando, which reached the NBA Finals last season before falling to the Lakers.
BEN GORDON, Detroit: Bucks coach Scott Skiles still has immense respect for Gordon, who often played a starring role for him when Skiles was coach of the Chicago Bulls. Gordon's arrival in Detroit shifts the scoring balance to the backcourt, which also features Rip Hamilton, Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum. Gordon will play the super-sub role he perfected in Chicago and should get big minutes.
RON ARTEST, Los Angeles Lakers: How will Ron Artest mesh with the defending champions and his former rival, Kobe Bryant? Artest brings a defensive toughness the Lakers could use and may give Bryant even greater freedom to operate within coach Phil Jackson's triangle offense. Artest carved the Lakers' 'L' into an interesting hairstyle for the team's season-opener against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Team Last yr.
1. Los Angeles Lakers 65-17 The overwhelming favorite
2. Boston Celtics 62-20 Better than 2008?
3. Orlando Magic 59-23 Undefeated in preseason
4. Cleveland Cavaliers 66-16 LeBron&Shaq show
5. San Antonio Spurs 54-28 Big 3 get reinforcements
6. Portland Trail Blazers 54-28 Ready to make a move
7. Denver Nuggets 54-28 Mile High expectations
8. Atlanta Hawks 47-35 Athletic front line
9. Utah Jazz 48-34 Sloan always wins
10. Washington Wizards 19-63 Big victory in Big D
11. Dallas Mavericks 50-32 Stumbles in opener
12. New Orleans Hornets 49-33 Pressure on Byron
13. Phoenix Suns 46-36 Full speed ahead, again
14. Miami Heat 43-39 Beasley ready to step up?
15. Los Angeles Clippers 19-63 Eyeing the playoffs
16. Houston Rockets 53-29 Ariza a first option?
17. Chicago Bulls 41-41 Looks like Rose's team
18. Toronto Raptors 33-49 Lots of new faces
19. Philadelphia 76ers 41-41 Brand back, Miller gone
20. Oklahoma City Thunder 23-59 Nice young nucleus
21. Detroit Pistons 39-43 Charlie V. to the rescue
22. Milwaukee Bucks 34-48 Cellar-dwellers no more?
23. Charlotte Bobcats 35-47 Finished strong last season
24. Indiana Pacers 36-46 Granger needs some help
25. New York Knicks 32-50 Countdown to 2010
26. New Jersey Nets 34-48 Devin takes the reins
27. Golden State Warriors 29-53 Chemistry issues abound
28. Memphis Grizzlies 24-58 Practice? Practice?
29. Minnesota T'wolves 24-58 No Love early on
30. Sacramento Kings 17-65 Not much royalty here
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