When I look at the upcoming NBA season, I see five legitimate title contenders: The Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs, and Boston Celtics. Beyond them, I see a few teams fighting to join that group, including the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, and Utah Jazz. It’s pointless to start making finals predictions now, as numerous things will change for these teams before we even reach the trade deadline. What we can do, however, is look at what factors could have a big impact on how everything plays out for these teams. There are some obvious ones: the health of Andrew Bynum, Kevin Garnett, and Manu Ginobili; how Vince Carter, Ron Artest, and Shaquille O’Neal fit on their new teams; and the play of Rajon Rondo following the vote of non-confidence from the Celtics’ boss, Danny Ainge. What I’m going to do now, though, is look at five people who may surprisingly turn out to be very important between now and the end of next season.
1) John Kuester: The new coach of the Detroit Pistons will have an impact in more than one city this upcoming season. The man who will usher in a new era of Deeee-troit basketball from the sidelines has left behind a vacancy in Cleveland, where he played a huge role in revamping their once-stagnant offense. It is hard to overstate the overhaul that Cleveland’s offense went through last season – the club jumped from 19th in offensive efficiency to 4th. Yes, the addition of Mo Williams gave the team some much-needed scoring punch, but they would not have become an elite offensive team if they had not advanced past the boring, uninspired isolation plays favoured by coach Mike Brown in previous years. If Cleveland is going to stay at the top of the Eastern Conference standings next season, they are going to have to remain an elite team on the offensive end, even with the loss of their offensive-minded assistant coach. I’m not sure how worried the people of Cleveland are about this, but I’m a neutral observer of the team and I’m scared of the Cavs returning to Brown’s pre-Kuester playbook, simply as an admirer of aesthetically pleasing basketball.
2) Marquis Daniels: Daniels could have an impact on the Celtics’ title chances in two ways – his play and his contract. Let’s first examine his play. In short, the Celtics really need Daniels to come through. I believe James Posey was grossly overpaid by the New Orleans Hornets last summer, but the Celtics still missed him last season. The team did not have a reliable swingman off the bench, as any fan frustrated with Tony Allen can attest. It should be noted that Daniels will not be able to hit three-pointers or play spot minutes at the 4 like Posey did, but he could turn out to be a valuable piece for the Celtics regardless. It is certain that Daniels will make significantly less money than the $6.3 million he made with Indiana last season and he will play less than the 31.5 minutes he averaged there, too. Boston badly needs him to accept this gracefully, buy into the system, and perform consistently off the bench, on both ends of the floor. He is capable of hitting shots and playing tough one-on-one defense and that’s all that they’re asking him to do. Now, onto the financial part of things – the Celtics are capped out and have used their mid-level exception on Rasheed Wallace. Thus, the only resource they currently have available to sign a player like Daniels is the bi-annual exception. If they use this on Daniels, they will be unable to sign any additional players for more than the minimum salary before the season starts. Hence, Boston is trying to work out a Colangelo-esque sign-and-trade deal with Indiana involving some of their spare parts, which would allow them to keep their bi-annual exception. The problem is that Indiana wants no part of Tony Allen and it’s proving difficult for Boston to find a third team that will take him on. This is only a big issue because of Boston’s somewhat shallow team and injury history. This is a team that had Brian Scalabrine, Stephon Marbury, and Eddie House playing significant minutes in last year’s playoffs. They’ve already passed on retaining Leon Powe and they might do the same with Glen Davis, so it’s fair to say they have depth issues. Guys like Joe Smith, C.J. Watson, and Von Wafer might take their bi-annual exception and those guys would be able to step into the rotation and contribute, even if the team luckily avoids serious injuries this time around.
3) Richard Jefferson: The new starting small forward in San Antonio must be all smiles right now, despite his messy divorce. He’s gone from irrelevance in Milwaukee to being a key cog in a championship-worthy machine. I think he could fit quite well with the Spurs, but there is reason to question how it will all work. On offense, he will have to adjust to a new role. Jefferson has been a featured player on the offensive end ever since his second year in the league. On this team, though, he should be the fourth option on offense when he is out there with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan at the start and end of games. How will he cope with this? We know that he should be able to hit the corner three-ball, which is a start. It is questionable, though, how he’ll react to playing mostly off the ball for the first time in years. He will have to change his habits, only going one-on-one when it represents a more efficient chance to score than giving it up to one of the big three (i.e. rarely). NBA players generally aren’t great at changing their habits as they age, but if Jefferson has adjusted come playoff time then the Spurs should be in very good shape at the offensive end, as he still has a lot to give this team if used correctly. On the defensive end, there are more question marks. The Spurs have long been the model of team defense in the NBA, but their perimeter defense was spotty last season, with Roger Mason, Michael Finley, Ime Udoka, and a declining Bruce Bowen unable to contain the best of the best at the wing positions. I’m sure the Spurs are aware of the fact that Jefferson showed some slippage in his defensive game last season with Milwaukee. If they end up facing the likes of Brandon Roy, Kobe Bryant, or Carmelo Anthony in the playoffs, they are going to be banking on him playing defense more reminiscent of his days in New Jersey than what he showed last season. I must stress that I am as impressed with the Spurs’ off-season as the next guy, but it is not a given that Jefferson will vault them into a contention next year. It’s very possible that he could, but, as they say, that’s why the play the games.
4) Greg Oden: Portland’s prized big man has taken more than his fair share of criticism over the past couple of seasons. Sure, he might never be Kevin Durant, but the man has proven himself to be a productive player when not hobbled by injuries. Although he was touted as a defensive beast, he impressed me more last season on the offensive end with his toughness and scoring ability on the inside. He is a beast on the offensive and defensive boards and still has all the potential we all saw in him before entering the league. The key, for Oden, is staying on the court. If he has a relatively injury- and foul-free season, Portland could become a very, very dangerous team in 2009-2010. By far, Oden’s biggest flaw is his propensity to foul. He averaged 6.5 fouls per 36 minutes last season, which is awful. We want to see the guy get more minutes next season, but this will only happen if he learns not to foul. Sure, his rebounding totals might dip a bit if he’s being more careful about sticking to the rule book, but he must make the effort to play smarter, especially on the defensive end. If he can make a leap towards becoming the defensive intimidator we all expected him to be when he came out of college, this will be a huge help to the Blazers’ team defense. The Blazers had the best offense in the league last season, so their only hope of improving this season comes at the defensive end. If Oden puts it together mentally and stays clear of physical ailments, they could make a leap and scare one of the consensus title contenders in the West.
5) Vinny Del Negro: This second-year coach has one of the most talented young teams in the league in Chicago. He has been given a brilliant young point guard in Derrick Rose, proven wing scorers in John Salmons and Luol Deng, and athletic young guys who have shown defensive prowess in Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah. Del Negro took a ton of criticism last season, much of which was probably deserved. In 2009-2010, he must free Rose to become the star we know he can be and he must utilize Deng’s wide array of offensive tools much better than he did before the injury a season ago. If he gets this group to perform as more than the sum of its parts, then they could occupy that coveted 4th seed in the East by season’s end. Once there, with some luck they might be able to scare one of the big three. I’m not saying this is the likeliest of scenarios, with Del Negro at the helm, but you never know. There’s a lot of potential here, and perhaps the best thing Del Negro could do for the group is struggle during their rough early-season schedule so a superior coach can come in and lead this team the right way.