Sunday, October 25, 2009

TrueHoop Network 2009-10 Preview:
10 NBA Questions for the 2010s

• More Painted Area 2009-10 Previews:
NBA Season (Orlando FTW) | Basketball Books (20+ books!)
• NBA Decade 2000s Review:
Players (Duncan is MVP) | Teams (Lakers are Team of Decade)

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At the dawn of a new decade, we take a stab at some key questions which could define how the NBA’s story of the 2010s gets written, and what the league might look like over the next decade.

1. Where will LeBron James be?

Let’s not mess around here. There is one question that stands far above all others: What team will LeBron be playing for? Power in the East, and possibly the league overall, hangs in the balance.

Smart money still says it’ll be Cavs or Knicks, with the Nets perhaps back in the mix if an infusion of Russian cash can jump start the proposed move to Brooklyn.

Would LBJ be less likely to leave his home region if he delivered its first pro sports championship since 1964? Or would he be more likely?

For presumed contenders Cleveland and New York, where LeBron signs could determine whether their franchise spends its 2010s springtimes in pursuit of becoming the team of the decade, or the right combo of lottery ping-pong balls in Secaucus.

2. How will Greg Oden/Andrew Bynum develop?

Two enigmatic 21-year-old centers –- Greg Oden and Andrew Bynum -– may end up being the biggest X-factors in determining the balance of power in the West in the 2010s.

Both players have the potential to the own the painted area defensively, yet both also have serious questions about whether they can regain and retain the health of their knees.

If Oden can own the lane on D, Portland could enjoy a long run atop the Western Conference in the middle part of the decade. If not, the 2010s Blazers could resemble their early-‘90s edition -- full of talent, but not quite enough to get all the way over the hump.

Does Bynum have the mindset to bring the defensive effort every night (L.A. was 29-3 in 2008-09 when he blocked two shots or more)? The Lakers figure to be top contenders in both 2010 and 2011, but how long their championship window extends beyond that depends upon the development of Bynum and….

3. How will high-school-to-pros players age?

As the first wave of players who jumped from high school to the NBA enters their 30s, we are entering somewhat uncharted territory. Will an extra workload in their early years come back to shorten their careers on the back end? Or are modern training regimens enough to offset the NBA odometer readings?

The most fascinating player to watch will be Kobe Bryant, as he often is. At age 31, he has already played 948 regular-season games plus another 175 playoff games.

Kobe’s maniacal dedication to conditioning is well-documented and could delay the effects of aging. For a player who has often been accused of aping Michael Jordan’s mannerisms, it’ll be interesting to see if Kobe redefines his game a la MJ, by moving more into the low post in his later years.

If he can stay productive into his mid-30s, then perhaps L.A.’s championship window will extend past the first couple years of the decade.

4. Will Kevin Durant stay in Oklahoma?

In attempts to salve the wound of the Sonics’ departure, Seattleites have tossed plenty of insults in the direction of Oklahoma City, including some variation of this: “Enjoy Kevin Durant while you have him, because there’s no way he’s staying in Oklahoma once he’s a free agent.”

This summer, we started to hear the first musings that KD might consider jumping to his hometown Wizards in 2012. Here’s the only issue with all this speculation: Kevin Durant has given every indication that he is perfectly happy with the Thunder.

Thunder GM Sam Presti seems to be doing a masterful job of rebuilding his roster. Still, retaining Durant is a must for Oklahoma City to have serious championship aspirations. If they keep him, don’t be surprised if we see some titanic Thunder-Blazers matchups in the Western Conference Finals throughout the middle part of the decade. How would the NBA feel about potential TV ratings for such matchups? That’s another question for another list….

5. Is Daryl Morey the vanguard or an aberration?

The use of advanced-statistical analysis in NBA front offices took a quantum leap in the 2000s, but only the Rockets went the full Moneyball route and turned their the GM job over to a stat geek in Daryl Morey. By and large, the ex-jocks still run the show, and the objective-analysis guys are there to complement the efforts.

This kind of set up is likely to remain the conventional wisdom… but if Morey can deliver a title or even conference championship to Houston, then maybe we’ll see a full-scale revolution in how NBA front offices are run instead of just an evolution.

So, while the role of cutting-edge stats is certain to continue to grow in front offices over the next decade, a factor which may contribute to the rate of growth is an age-old sporting concern: player health. Namely, are Yao Ming’s feet are destined for chronic injury like Bill Walton’s, or can his career be repaired as 7-3 Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ has been?

Given his size and shooting touch, Yao figures to be a player who should age well … if he can stabilize his feet. Coupling Yao as a reliable cornerstone with GM Morey’s personnel acumen would likely make the Rockets a player in the West for a good chunk of the 2010s … and allow Morey disciples to occupy GM chairs around the league sooner rather than later.

6. Will Florida decide the East in the early 2010s?

The Sunshine State matchup of Orlando-Miami could be a key intraconference rivalry in the early part of the upcoming decade. The Magic have loaded up -- few teams can match their depth and it’s all anchored by a superstar who turns 24 in December in Dwight Howard, so the window should be open for a few years.

Meanwhile, down in South Florida, the Heat have positioned themselves more quietly, but ESPN Insider John Hollinger says that Miami might be “the biggest winner of them all” based on the projections for a shrinking salary cap in 2010-11.

As Hollinger wrote: “[The Heat] have virtually no money on the books beyond this season and could add one max contract and another fairly expensive star, all while keeping Dwyane Wade.”

There are plenty of question marks in Miami, for sure, but don’t be surprised if the Heat vault back to the top of the conference sooner than you think.

7. Which teams could get game-changing new owners?

If we had written a similar piece ten years ago, and told you that the Dallas Mavericks were about to be one of the premier franchises of the 2000s, you would have laughed us off heartily. They won average of 24.6 games per season in the ‘90s, and were considered a laughingstock as well as one of the least-likely destinations for free agents.

Then, on January 15, 2000, Mark Cuban bought the team and everything changed. Dallas won 54.8 games/season in the 2000s, and came oh-so-close to a title in 2006. The Mavericks are now a first-class franchise that’s a highly attractive landing spot for players around the league. Ownership matters.

What teams have the potential for impactful ownership changes? While the Nets, Clippers, Bulls and Wizards are all intriguing candidates, our focus fell primarily on a franchise which, early signs suggest, may be headed for an all-time season of chaos and dysfunction in 2009-10: the Golden State Warriors.

The Warriors have retained a rabid fan base despite a long period of futility and mismanagement at the hands of owner Chris Cohan. Whispers out of the Bay Area are that Cohan may be open to a sale, and one would think that there are some Cuban-style activist owners in Silicon Valley waiting in the wings. Don’t forget that the Warriors actually have a deep collection of under-25 talent, though if past performance is any indication, Cohan & co. will find a way to jettison these players for little in return. Still: keep your head up, Bay Area. Things can change faster than you think.

As far as teams which could move in the other direction with a potential ownership change? Well, don’t sleep on the Los Angeles Lakers, where 76-year-old Jerry Buss has been one of the shrewdest owners in all of sports in guiding the franchise to nine championships since purchasing the team in 1979. Buss’s children Jeanie and Jimmy have long been groomed to inherit leadership roles, but it remains to be seen if the two can co-exist in the top role, and if they have Dad’s golden touch. Ownership matters.

8. What will the new collective bargaining agreement look like? Will there be more revenue sharing? A hard cap?

The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is set to expire following the 2010-11 season. With talk that the NBA will seek dramatic changes in the wake of the Great Recession, the next CBA could have a substantial impact on what happens on the hardwood.

All of the presumed 2009-10 contenders -- Lakers, Spurs, Magic, Cavs, Celtics -- will be over the luxury tax. As currently structured, the NBA is becoming a league in which teams who can afford big payrolls have an increasingly big advantage.

The NBA’s current revenue-sharing plan is not nearly as extensive as the NFL’s, but David Stern told the Sports Business Journal this summer that he had “begun working … quite assiduously to assure that there is more revenue sharing. I am going to reach agreement with my owners.” There have also been rumblings that the NBA may even push for a hard salary cap and a more punitive luxury-tax structure.

Any developments that level the economic playing field would work in favor in smaller-market teams. It certainly seems like the league will at least move in this direction, which could aid the long-term championship aspirations of teams like Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Utah or Orlando.

9. What franchise moves may occur?

After not experiencing a franchise move from 1985-2001, the NBA oversaw three relocations in the 2000s, including the donnybrook that turned the Seattle SuperSonics into the Oklahoma City Thunder. What franchise moves might we see in the upcoming decade (not including the prospective Nets move to Brooklyn)?

Given the tepid fan interest in Charlotte and Memphis, it’s logical to think that the Bobcats and Grizzlies are the prime candidates to be on the move once the terms of arena leases loosen up in a few years.

Other markets to watch include Sacramento and Milwaukee, which have arena concerns, and New Orleans and Indiana, small markets which may struggle to generate sufficient revenue.

Where might the potential new homes be? With subpar economic conditions possibly extending well into the new decade, cities with viable arenas already in place have a huge advantage, leaving Kansas City, St. Louis, Vancouver, Anaheim and San Jose ahead of otherwise prime contenders like Seattle, Las Vegas and San Diego.

Could we see moves by the Grizzlies back to Vancouver, and the Kings back to Kansas City this decade? Unlikely, but no crazier than suggesting in 1999 that the Sonics would be in Oklahoma within a decade.

10. Who are the new young stars who will emerge?

Who will be the new All-Stars in the later part of the 2010s? For starters, look at the point-guard position, where there’s a crazy amount of potential coming right behind the current class of under-25 point guards like Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose and Monta Ellis.

Ricky Rubio, Russell Westbrook, Jonny Flynn and Brandon Jennings are all under-21 PGs who could be headliners at the 2017 All-Star Game, but incoming Kentucky freshman John Wall (frontrunner to be the no. 1 pick in the 2010 draft) might end up being better than all of them. He has the lightning quickness of Jennings/Flynn, but in a 6-4 frame. None other than Kevin Durant tweeted this summer that “John Wall is the quickest player I've ever seen with the ball.”

Another prospect to watch down the road is New Jersey prep Michael Gilchrist, a 6-7 swingman who is considered by many scouts to be the best player in all of high school hoops as a junior. Who knows, maybe Gilchrist will lead off question 1 in 2019 when NBA fans try to gaze into the crystal ball for the 2020s.

Bonus questions:
11. Will CP3 be the KG of the 2010s?

Chris Paul has already established himself as a player likely to end up in the Hall of Fame as one of the greatest point guards of all time. However, as noted above, it remains to be seen if New Orleans will have the resources to compete going forward.

All told, it looks like the script could end up resembling Kevin Garnett’s experience in Minnesota: CP3 does yeoman work to carry a subpar supporting cast into the playoffs, but just doesn’t have enough help to get New Orleans out of the first round, year after year, until we start forgetting just how good he is. Then, maybe in, say, 2016, things erode to the point where Paul gets traded elsewhere in order to truly compete for his ring.

We’re sorry to write this, New Orleans, really, we’re pulling for you. It’s just hard to see how this turns out well for CP3 in the long-term – enjoy him while you’ve got him.

12. Will the 2012 London Olympics be a game-changer for England/Europe?

David Stern continues to insist that a European Division is on the NBA's radar, though likely to postdate his tenure. It still seems like there are enormous intractable logistical issues around the subjects of travel or start times of potential playoffs/Finals games, among others.

Still, if unlikely European expansion does occur this decade, expect the 2012 London Olympics to be a tipping point. Because England is the most compatible European country to the U.S. in terms of language and culture, mobilizing the London market for NBA basketball is essential. London has a state-of-the-art arena and it’s in a sports-mad nation, but Britain has been largely indifferent to basketball to date.

That said, London has sold out NBA preseason games the last couple years. Maybe a strong Olympic showing for Luol Deng and the home team, plus the entertainment value of LeBron, Kobe, CP3 and friends in town could help push hoops over the top.

13. Who will be NBA commissioner in 2019?

Before we go, we’d be remiss if we didn’t offer one question about The Big Kahuna himself, David Stern. The commissioner is 67 years old and celebrated his 25th year in office in 2009. He said to Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum that “There won’t be a 35th [anniversary],” so it’s logical to assume that one of the most influential commissionerships in the history of American sports will end in the coming decade.

It’s been something of a parlor game in league circles for several years to speculate on who might become the next commish. The only thing clear is that the race should be wide open, much like the NBA should be as a whole in the 2010s.

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• More Painted Area 2009-10 Previews:
NBA Season (Orlando FTW) | Basketball Books (20+ books!)
• NBA Decade 2000s Review:
Players (Duncan is MVP) | Teams (Lakers are Team of Decade)

13 Comments:

At 1:45 AM, Blogger aneebaba said...

Nice artile - As for me, two things interest me the most on this list:

1. That Greg Oden does turn into something special, starting this year, as we have seen some of his potential with his lean frame in the preseason and . . .

2. The potential battles between my Blazers and the Thunder. They have already given us trouble already and it does seem like they are only getting better, so I think there is a healthy respect for them, but for now, we have to take care of the games against them if we are going to challenge to be in the WCF this year at least, and then yes, possibly be facing them at that stage of the playoffs in the near future.

 
At 2:52 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...

Excellent job. With the Knicks pick Utah should be right there in the mid 10's with Portland and OKC.

 
At 12:49 PM, Anonymous Ryan said...

Great post.

Michael Gilchrist is a player. During the past 20 years I've seen most of the superstars of high school basketball. He is the most hardworking elite level kid I've ever seen. So humble and such a competitor for his skill level. When all is said and done might be the best NJ has ever seen.

 
At 12:54 PM, Anonymous cardrunners said...

I think this will be the season that tells us a lot about whether Greg Oden turns into an elite center in the leaguer, or if he is another injury plagued Sam Bowie type of guy.

 
At 6:14 PM, Anonymous Seattle forever said...

Tony Wroten Jr....... He could quite possibly be BETTER than John Wall, if not even with him. He's gonna be a stud.

 
At 5:54 AM, Anonymous Ben said...

Considering many shooting guards lose their legs and games at 32 (most of them), though there are notable exceptions that go to between 33-36 years of age, and then there's Michael Jordan, and Reggie Miller, but considering that fact, you've already gotten as much NBA mileage out of Kobe as you were likely to get if he stayed in college three years and then came out. And considering the way he started this year, I don't see him wearing down too radically in the next couple of years.

 
At 10:20 PM, Anonymous rakeback said...

I think Michael Gilchrist is gonna be the next Lebron. I have seen footage of him and he is destined to be a star.

 
At 9:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Basketball taking off in the U.K? Don't see it in the foreseeable future.

Spain would imho be a better starting point for the NBA's approach to European hoops. And the language is not too foreign to Americans.

 
At 10:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 3:47 PM, Anonymous poker affiliate said...

I think we already have an answer to your question regarding Greg Oden. I think he is quickly turning into Sam Bowie. I hope he makes a full recovery, but he seems injury prone.

 
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