With the media hype surrounding the Miami Heat as they opened up training camp with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the ex-Raptor who physically still embodies Toronto's mascot, it's been easy to forget that there are other teams in the NBA also preparing for their seasons. While Miami remains the hottest story of the offseason and will probably dominate the headlines all season long there are other intriguing stories to be followed as the season nears tip off.
1. Can Kevin Durant get better after propelling Team USA to victory in Turkey at the World Championships?
At 21 years old the NBA is Durant's oyster and he will be looking to continue his own personal climb to the top of the league this year as well as the Thunder's impending emergence as a Western Conference power. That road has become considerably more difficult with the Lakers still the favorites out West and the emergence of Miami's Big Three this summer. There are also remains the prospect of a Greg Oden resurrection lifting the Blazers into contention.
However after winning 50 games for the first time in franchise history last year and competing hard against the Lakers in the first round before bowing out in 6 games expectations for both the Oklahoma City Thunder and Durant will be elevated. Durant is fresh off of a season in which he became the youngest player in the history of the league to win a scoring title averaging 30.1 points per game, set career highs in both rebounds and assists and entering this season has been picked by NBA GM's as the front runner to capture the MVP award.
The question now is how much better can Durant get? The real question behind that being can Durant challenge LeBron's title as the best player in the game? As much as the majority of us all hate LeBron now, he remains the biggest mismatch in the league capable of singlehandedly carrying a team into contention as we will see when the Cavaliers implode this year in his absence.
If Durant can lead the Thunder past the first round this year and push for a Western Conference title this year expect the title of the "next Jordan" to be passed to him. Surely an unfair expectation, but Durant's spoiled us enough with his play that there may be some validity to it. Expectations are big for the Thunder and if they fall short of at least improving on their standing from last year that burden will firmly be placed on Durant's slender shoulders.
2. What the hell is going on with Carmelo Anthony?
After everyone got their panties out of a bunch following "The Decision" (myself included) we started hearing rumors about other superstars wanting to team up and none louder than the ones surrounding Anthony. While there was some intrigue surrounding Chris Paul this summer after his infamous toast at Anthony's wedding reception in New York those rumors subsided after meeting with Hornets brass while those around Anthony continue to linger.
In fact last week it seemed that Anthony was headed for the swamplands of New Jersey until the proposed four-way deal fell through. So as pre-seasons kicks off Melo remains a member of the Nuggets though everyone sees the writing on the wall for that relationship.
The question then becomes where will Melo be playing on opening night? After the deadline? After his contract expires this season? The noise around Anthony's camp have seemingly made it apparent that he would inevitably like to don the Knicks' orange and blue and play under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, teaming up with Amar'e Stoudemire and possibly Chris Paul in 2012.
While this is every Knicks fan's wet dream including yours truly, no deal seems imminent or even likely at this point. The Nuggets are not enamored with Danilo Gallinari, Anthony Randolph, Wilson Chandler or Toney Douglas enough to deal with New York currently. Denver is looking for a haul of draft picks and cheap young talent which limits their options when it comes to dealing.
The problem is that Carmelo holds all the leverage here since he can simply play out his contract and sign elsewhere next summer if he so chooses. At some point Denver's hand will be forced to make a trade and Melo can virtually choose what team he plays for by refusing to sign an extension if he isn't satisfied by the proposed destination.
3. Can the Bulls reclaim the Central Division?
After failing in their bid to pair Derrick Rose with either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade this summer, the Bulls were able to address their needs in shooting and interior scoring with the additions of Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and Carlos Boozer. While they didn't hit the homerun they were looking for Chicago was able to beef up an already promising roster and vaulted themselves into the upper echelon of teams in the East behind Boston, Orlando and Miami.
Boozer recently suffered a hand injury which will keep him out for 8 weeks and require him to miss the first month of the season. The Bulls should still be successful with Tom Thibodeau implementing the defensive scheme that worked wonders with the Celtics the past three seasons. In Boston the defense was built around Kevin Garnett's presence, whereas in Chicago Joakim Noah will likely be the focal point after signing a 5-year, $60 million deal.
The Bulls are the favorites to claim the Central Divison crown with the departure of LeBron James from Cleveland. Their main competition figures to come from an impressive Milwaukee Bucks team who finished as the 5th seed last year.
Milwaukee has flown under the radar, but figures to be an extremely formidable team depending on how quickly Andrew Bogut can hit his stride in recovering from the devastating elbow injury he suffered late last season. Before that though the Bucks were on fire heading into the postseason and many pegged them to upset either the Celtics or the Hawks in first round depending on who they faced. They added some much needed scoring to their bench this summer with the addition of Corey Maggette and Chris Douglas-Roberts. If Brandon Jennings can keep the offense rolling in his second season at the point, the Bucks will challenge the Bulls for the division all season long.
4. Could this be this Lakers team's last title run together?
It well could be as the Lakers return virtually the same roster from last year in their push for a third consecutive championship. They replaced Jordan Farmar with Steve Blake and added Matt Barnes to the fold.
Kobe Bryant, who at times at the end of last season looked spent, will be entering his 15th season in the NBA and turned 32 this summer. It is amazing how consistent Bryant has been during the course of his career, but at some point age and the toll of playing all those regular season and playoff games he's been in will catch up to him.
Last year despite increased minutes from the previous season, Bryant posted virtually the same numbers in points, rebounds, assists and steals while seeing his shooting percentages from the field and beyond the arc dip significantly. Bryant will remain among the game's elite, but certainly looks to be entering the twilight of his career.
With that said changes need to be made after this season to prolong the Lakers' championship window, none more glaring than addressing the point guard spot. Derek Fisher's penchant for hitting clutch shots is being outweighed by how badly he is getting torched at the NBA's deepest position never more evident than in the Lakers' first round series against the Thunder in which Russell Westbrook scored at will.
Additionally the Lakers must also improve their depth in the frontcourt behind their trio of studs in Gasol, Odom and Bynum, who is expected to be sidelined until late November. This is extremely concerning as it will mark the fourth concesutive season in which Bynum will have been sidelined for extensive time due to a knee injury. It's becoming increasingly unlikely that he can be counted on to play a full season and that he may never develop into the franchise center the Lakers believed he would become to help extend their championship window in Kobe's final productive seasons.
This mean they will be forced to play Theo Ratliff for extended minutes and at this point in his career that's something he's just not capable of doing effectively. Derrick Caracter and Devin Ebanks were two solid second round picks that could eventually become solid rotation players, but not in their rookie seasons.
Then there's the impending departure of Phil Jackson at the end of the season after he was convinced and cajoled into coming back for one last hurrah with this team. Who will the next coach of the Lakers be and what does the future hold for this team? If the Lakers hang up another banner at the end of this season there will be many questions to be answered heading into next season for the league's most successful franchise in recent years.
5. Who will win the Battle of New York?
The Knicks have always played big brother to their cross-river rivals, the New Jersey Nets even during this past decade of buffoonery and misfortune in which the Nets made consecutive Final runs and multiple postseason appearances. Despite all this the Nets always languished behind the Knicks in market share, popularity, jersey sales and TV ratings even as the Knicks became a league laughingstock.
However the Nets now have two things going for them that may actually bridge that gap. The first is their move to Brooklyn and construction of a new stadium, the Barclays Center. The second is the purchase of the franchise by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, an avid sports fan who's shown he's more than willing to spend in order to win championships.
Prokhorov has promised a playoff appearance this season and to deliver a title to the team within five years. While those promises took a major blow in free agency where the Nets were only able to sign Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro, Anthony Morrow and Travis Outlaw, they were nearly able to take a major step in that process by dealing for Carmelo Anthony two weeks ago. This would have marked a double blow as the Knicks are also known to be very interested in Melo's services. Unfortunately for the Nets the deal fell through and looks dead for the time being.
Meanwhile the Knicks may have failed in their bid to lure James to the Big Apple this summer, but did manage to lock up Amar'e Stoudemie to a 5-year, $99.7 million deal. They were also able to sign Raymond Felton to a two-year, $15 million deal and traded David Lee to the Warriors for Anthony Randolph, Ronny Turiaf and Kelenna Azubuike. In a surprise move they signed Russian center Timofey Mosgov who impressed at the World Championships in Turkey this summer.
While both coach Mike D'Antoni and general manager Donnie Walsh like the talent and depth present on one of the league's youngest roster they would love to acquire another star to pair with Stoudemire. The goal since Walsh was hired has been to bring back respectability to the franchise and create a winning culture around the team and as the preferred destination of Carmelo the Knicks will be active in attempting to acquire him from Denver to speed that process up.
The Knicks look more likely to be a playoff squad this season, but the balance of power in New York's basketball world will remain up for grabs until either team is able to establish itself as a dominant force in the league. Game on.