Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
NBA training camps are still a few weeks away, but rosters around the league are gradually taking shape. Once David Lee, Allen Iverson and Ramon Sessions have jobs, we'll be ready to go.
The favorites in each conference are easy to spot -- they bear a striking resemblance to the teams that were playing on Memorial Day weekend. But which teams are lurking beneath the surface, ready to assume the role of improbable contender?
If they can avoid the injury bug, and the chemistry works just right, here are three teams that could emerge as success stories come spring:
It's easy to forget just how dominant the Dallas Mavericks were when they took the floor against the eighth-seeded Warriors on a Sunday evening in April 2007. This was the last game of the postseason's opening weekend, a perfunctory item of business for the Mavs en route to a conference finals matchup against the Suns or the Spurs.
Dallas was one year removed from an NBA Finals appearance, and had just piled up 67 wins in the regular season. Only five teams in NBA history had recorded more Ws in a single season. Dirk Nowitzki was the presumptive MVP (and would go on to win the award).
The Mavs' epic collapse in that first-round series against the Warriors has been well-documented, and over the next two seasons, Dallas would descend from its perch into the Western Conference's upper-middle class.
What's interesting about that falloff is how many of the elements of that Mavs team remain intact today -- to say nothing of the quality pieces that have been added since. 67 wins isn't ancient history; we're talking two seasons ago.
Dirk Nowitzki, at 31, is the same age as Kobe Bryant. While Nowitzki is unlikely to reproduce his 2006-07 exploits, he remains one of the league's best players. Jason Terry has been a model of consistency for Dallas and had arguably the most efficient season of his career as the Mavs' super sub in 2008-09. Josh Howard is only 29. When healthy, he's still one of the more flexible swingmen in the game and a lockdown defender. In 2006-07, J.J. Barea logged fewer than 200 minutes, but he's become a spark plug for the Mavs' quality second unit ever since.
With Jason Kidd settling nicely into the role of veteran facilitator (and surprisingly efficient shooter), the franchise doubled down on the bet that its solid core could maximize what's left of Nowitzki's prime. The Mavs landed Shawn Marion.
Like Howard, Marion is versatile, freakish, and mercurial. Defensively, he can stay in front of speedy point guards, bother face-up power forwards, chase spot-up shooters, and clean up on the boards. Offensively, Marion's downward trajectory the past season and a half began the moment he left Phoenix. Coincidence -- or evidence that his talents demand the care of a veteran, pass-first point guard?
When you consider those assets, then throw in sensible additions like Drew Gooden and Kris Humphries to bolster Erick Dampier on the block, defensive stopper Quinton Ross, and a pair of intriguing rookies, and the Mavs appear ... stacked.
There is no shortage of nightmarish scenarios by which Dallas' gamble can implode. Nowitzki, Kidd, Marion, Terry, and Dampier are all on the wrong side of 30. Howard is accustomed to missing about 15 games a year, and being less than 100 percent for long stretches. The Mavs' best offensive lineup (Kidd-Terry-Howard-Marion-Nowitzki) won't give them much interior defense, and the loss of Brandon Bass makes them a less energetic bunch.
But with Kidd at the point, and a roster of flexible guys who can each serve multiple functions on the floor, Dallas has the potential to develop into a grizzled, selfless squad with the kind of mental edge that just might have been the missing ingredient 28 months ago.
How much should we read into Chicago's classic seven-game series against Boston? Was the Bulls' gutsy performance a harbinger of things to come, or was it lightning in a bottle? Did they graduate into a team that knows how to scramble defenses with a legitimate pick-and-roll game, or were they just lucky to encounter a crippled Celtics team ill-suited to deal with their quickness and athleticism?
Those aren't the only imperative questions for Chicago. Even if we conclude that they came of age in April, is it fair to expect them to continue their progress without their top scorer, Ben Gordon, whom they lost to Detroit?
Short answer: Yes.
Although there will be nights when Gordon's fearlessness as a sniper will be missed, the Bulls might be better served long-term by the three-guard rotation of Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, and John Salmons. With Gordon out of the picture, Rose can assert himself both as distributor and scorer. He's a transcendent young point guard, and one that should flourish now that his running mates in the backcourt are a little more pliable.
Both Rose and Hinrich are expert ballhandlers -- and Hinrich is very comfortable off the ball as well. Salmons, along with Hinrich, is capable of defending all three perimeter positions, can score on pin-downs, slash to the rack, and fire from 3-point range (41.7 percent).
There are good reasons sleepers are sleepers, and the caveats for Chicago reside in its frontcourt. Start at small forward, where Luol Deng will be returning from a stress fracture in his right leg. He last played in a game on February 28. When 100 percent, Deng is a rangy, athletic force in transition and in the halfcourt, where his height and handle give him a big advantage over most defenders at the small forward. When Deng is on his game, he's also the correct answer to the question, "Who's going to make up for Ben Gordon's 20.7 points per game?"
There's a reason why any time a marquee big man comes on the market, he's rumored to be headed to Chicago. But desperate as the Bulls are for help on a threat on the block, we saw something interesting down the stretch last season. Rather than resign themselves to their lack of post scoring, the Bulls began to use Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas in pick and roll schemes, where their agility allowed them to beat their defenders to the rim. So long as Thomas resisted launching jump shots, it worked.
Noah doesn't have the jumper to be a high-post center (like backup Brad Miller), but his passing and mobility around the hoop might be enough in Chicago's offense. Thomas, of course, is the wild card. A composite of his finest moments last season would show him as a defensive ace, capable of creating opportunities for himself off the dribble, hitting a face-up jumper, and blocking any shot in medium proximity.
If that highlight reel can become a reality, if Deng can bounce back, and if Rose can continue his co
urse as one of the game's best young playmakers, the Bulls might turn their novelty act from last spring into a long-run production in 2010.
New Orleans Hornets
Here's one you can play by the pool:
Name the best starting power forward/center tandems in the NBA.
You could begin with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. After the Lakers' duo, there's only one other pair of starters who each recorded a player efficiency rating greater than 18:
David West and Emeka Okafor.
After playing in relative obscurity with Charlotte over the past five seasons, Okafor moves to New Orleans, where he'll fill Tyson Chandler's spot at center for the Hornets. Chandler was a sentimental favorite in New Orleans -- both of the fan base in the Crescent City and his teammates. The Chris Paul to Tyson Chandler alley-oop was one of the NBA's signature highlight reel snippets.
Okafor may not be an elite center, but he's a very, very good big man and a more complete player than Chandler. For an extensive look at New Orleans' upgrade, take a look at John Hollinger's must-read comparison of Okafor and Chandler.
One of the most productive frontcourt tandems in the league and arguably the best point guard on the planet: That's a pretty nice place to start a season, don't you think?
Paul, West, and Okafor might not warrant a "Big Three" designation, but we can agree that they qualify as some sort of troika -- particularly in a scheme that's as dependent on the pick-and-roll as the Hornets offense.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, the NBA game demands that its best teams field a couple of guys on the wing who can create and/or defend -- preferably both -- and this is where the Hornets have depth problems.
As a catch-and-shoot artist, Peja Stojakovic is about as good as we've seen over the past decade, but he's coming off his worst season since the Clinton administration and is increasingly having trouble staying healthy. The Hornets signed James Posey a season ago to play the same role in New Orleans that he did in the Celtics' 2008 championship run -- defensive and 3-point specialist. Posey is good for 25 minutes per night in that capacity, but not dynamic enough to play much more. Morris Peterson was once thought to be a solution on the wing, but injury and age have slowed him. Those three guys -- each born in 1977 -- won't get them the 96 minutes per night they need from the off-guard and small forward.
The Hornets don't need All-Stars at the wings, but they must get solid production. Enter enigmatic, third-year forward Julian Wright.
Whereas the Hornets' aforementioned veterans have trouble doing much more offensively than spot up and shoot, Wright -- on his better nights -- can do everything but shoot. Though he was a menace defensively for the Hornets -- the team was about five points stingier with him on the court -- Wright took a step back last season offensively. The gifts are apparent, but there's still a lot of refinement needed, both mechanically and mentally.
The elasticity of the Hornets' win total isn't all on Wright and the health of the vets. If Summer League is any indication (that's a much longer conversation, isn't it?), New Orleans scored with its selection of guards Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton in the draft. And forward Ike Diogu was a savvy pickup on the cheap, as well.
One summer ago, the Hornets were being sized up as contenders after a spirited playoff run. This summer, much of the discussion surrounding the team has included the phrase "luxury tax threshold." While general manager Jeff Bower was attending to the spreadsheet, it's possible he constructed a team poised to surprise next season.