All this week, ESPN.com will be looking ahead a few years in an attempt to see what the NBA will look like in the year 2010.
Mon., 9/18: Which current cellar dweller could turn into a champ?
Tues., 9/19: Which current elite team could find itself in the lottery?
Wed., 9/20: Who will supplant Dirk as the NBA's best international player?
Thurs., 9/21: Which player will rise from mediocrity a la Boris Diaw?
Fri., 9/22: A time line on the rise of the NBA's next young superstars.
We asked some of the top NBA writers from around the country to weigh in with their thoughts.
Here's today's roundup:
Q: Which one the Top 10 teams (Pistons, Spurs, Mavs, Suns, Heat, Cavs, Nets, Grizzlies, Clippers, Lakers) could wind up near the top of the lottery in the next couple of years?
Chris Sheridan, ESPN Insider: Again, another question that assumes a drastic change in fortune, not just into the lottery, a la the recent Wolves, but all the way to the top of the lottery. Whew.
The only way I could see that happening to any of these teams is through a devastating early-season injury to a superstar with a fragile supporting cast. The Lakers with Kobe Bryant and the Cavs with LeBron James obviously fit that bill, same for the Heat and Dwyane Wade a year or two from now when Shaq's decline will be even more pronounced than it was in the Finals. But if healthy, all 10 of those teams should be in the playoffs for at least the next couple of years.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA and international basketball for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
John Denton, Florida Today: New Jersey had to sweat out the summer of 2003 when star point guard Jason Kidd toyed with the idea of leaving via free agency for the San Antonio Spurs. The franchise will likely have to go through a similar scenario next summer when Vince Carter can opt out of his contract and become a free agent.
And the circumstances seem to be aligned for Carter to bolt. A native of Daytona Beach, Fla., and a resident of Orlando's ritzy Isleworth community in the offseason, Carter might want to get closer to home when he becomes a free agent. And it just so happens that the Magic will have the cap space (approximately $13 million) and opening (no proven shooting guard) to offer Carter next July. And playing alongside rising youngsters Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson might make the option even more appealing.
In the meantime, Nets fans are probably still trying to figure out what happened last spring after New Jersey jumped ahead of Miami in the second round of the playoffs. The Nets lost the next four games, offering little resistance against the hard-charging Heat.
Help is on the way in the form of 7-foot-2 center Mile Ilic, a 2005 draft pick the Nets have resisted trading despite several overtures. And playing in the NBA's weakest division should help the Nets coast into the playoffs again.
But the franchise's future seems to rest with Carter. And the guess here is that he's gone next summer.
John Denton covers the Orlando Magic for Florida Today.
Marc J. Spears, The Denver Post: Expect the Miami Heat to go from NBA kings to lottery in a couple years. NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Dwyane Wade will be a free agent in 2010. By then, superstar center Shaquille O'Neal will be retired, as will several other key Heat players in Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton and possibly Antoine Walker. Pat Riley will be retired for a couple seasons by the time Wade's contract is up. So with all the key teammates gone, his franchise in rebuilding mode and a championship ring in hand, it will be time and also fair for Wade to be selfish in 2010 and go sign a contract with one of the NBA's premier teams.
For what Wade has given to the franchise thus far and will give by 2010, it wouldn't be fair to ask the perennial All-Star to stick around during a rebuilding period. Moreover, since the Heat have been an NBA power in recent years, they haven't been adding big-time draft picks to complement Wade. What the Heat should do is figure out a way to get Wade to convince LeBron James to come to Miami once he becomes a free agent in 2010, too. Hey, South Beach is a lot warmer than Cleveland.
Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA for The Denver Post, is a contributor to ESPN.com.
David Thorpe, Pro Training Center: I know that we are all supposed to hail Bron Bron. That he is "next" -- the guy who can carry his team to great heights. I know that he has already been anointed by the vast majority of experts to be the true superstar of the next decade, and I know that it is not a question of if he will win a ring, but how many. But here's what else I know; unless he gets some serious help in the next two years, the Cavs have as much of a chance to get a lottery pick as they do a berth in the Finals.
I don't doubt LeBron's talent and drive to win. In fact, I place his 2005-06 season among the all-time best we have ever seen from any player. He averaged more points than any two of his teammates combined, and had 2.4 more assists per game than the starting point guard. On the other end of the floor, he led the Cavs in steals per game and defensive rebounds!
Asking him to keep performing the miraculous is a recipe for failure (read: lottery). Consider that the Cavs added no one who can be considered a lock to contribute, they lost super-sub Flip Murray to the Pistons in free agency, their incumbent super-sub Anderson Varejao has a mysterious leg fatigue problem, Drew Gooden just signed a new contract (not often a good omen for increased production), and it is easy to see how the Cavs can fall back to the pack in the improved East. And don't overlook the loss of Murray. The Cavs were 18-6 in the final 24 regular-season games with him, 32-26 before.
The Cavs are just one ankle twist away from a certain lottery slot.
Brian Windhorst, Akron Beacon Journal: The most fragile of the top teams in the NBA seems to be the Suns, largely because their frantic style of play appears to rely heavily on the talents of Steve Nash, who is 32 and is already battling some back issues. Also, no one is sure at the moment what Amare Stoudemire's future holds, though most seem to believe he'll never fully return to his previous form.
Phoenix has sold off three first-round draft picks over the last three years and instead stocked the bench with cheap but aging players. Given how top-heavy the Suns' payroll is, especially if they eventually sign Boris Diaw to the type of extension he wants, they'll miss those young contributors who aren't making huge dollars and have the upside to step in.
The Suns have shown the ability to identify players who fit their system, but that was when Bryan Colangelo was running the team. Mike D'Antoni is one of the best coaches in the league, but no one is sure how he'll perform as the general manager. Already some are questioning his first major acquisition, signing somewhat erratic Marcus Banks to a five-year deal.
Brian Windhorst covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon Journal.
Ian Whittell, The (London) Times: Simple answer: the Memphis Grizzlies -- but through no fault of their own.
Not only do the Grizz play in the West, which is a huge disadvantage in any of these discussions, but the injury suffered by Pau Gasol in the World Championship in Japan this month is going to decimate a team that was hardly a Western power to begin with.
The Grizzlies may not have been a one-man band last season, but any time your second-best player, by a wide margin, is Mike Miller, you're not far from that status. Who is going to come up with the 20.9 points, 8.9 boards and 4.6 assists Gasol was good for last season? Rudy Gay? Without Pau for as many as four months after foot surgery, Memphis could be heading for the lottery as early as next year.
For a more controversial response, looking ahead a couple of years, how about the Los Angeles Lakers? As much as we love Kobe here in the UK, even we non-savvy Brits know one guy can't do it all on his own in any team sport.
With the hopes of adding a big-name free agent looking distant, and Bryant coming off knee surgery this season, the Lakers are going to have to hope there is no fall-off in Kobe's output, or that they get extremely lucky with a trade. Otherwise, they may slip in the competitive West.
Ian Whittell covers the NBA for The (London) Times and BSkyB.