How do you know ...
… the Big Three won't degrade into the big, fat and complacent?
Yes, winning banner 17 after a 22-year drought could cast an our-work-here-is-done lull over the Garden. But in a town where Bill Russell won 11 rings, one barely gets you a footnote in the media guide. Celtics immortality demands more. Besides, Coach Rivers can count on Rondo and high-flying adds Darius Miles and Bill Walker to energize KG and his pals should they begin to rest on their laurels. Face it, friends: The NBA's green initiative isn't going away.
… Chauncey Billups is still the best point guard in town?
At the risk of overhyping a second-year small-college pro, you don't. This summer, Rodney Stuckey capped a nice playoff run by hanging tough in Team USA scrimmages, and Detroit fielded offers for its 32-year-old Mr. Big Shot. Coach Curry will use a three-guard rotation—and at times a three-guard lineup—to get both guys PT. Billups, meanwhile, has slimmed down, bent on erasing two subpar springs. If Stuckey does push his elder, everyone—except foes—wins.
… Mo Williams is the Robin whom Batman has long been waiting for?
Most of LeBron's fizzled second fiddles had issues: Szczerbiak was old, Larry Hughes had no J, Ricky Davis was loco. But Mo is 25 and has hash-mark range and the sense to know whose castle this is. No, he's not a true point; but LBJ's vision means he won't need to be. Williams' jumper opens lanes for The King and his drive-and-kick skills will make games target practice for the Cavaliers' many other shooters. Holy bucket brigade, Batman!
… the Magic can challenge with a backcourt full of backups?
No team has made the Finals this decade without a threat at one guard spot. And Nelson and Pietrus are not go-to guys, though each has had flashes. Jameer rallied from a so-so regular season with 16 ppg in two playoff rounds. Pietrus' length and hops have always intrigued; now he gets the PT to let loose. If neither guy jumps up, the first-rate bigs must dominate, which they'll do 50-plus times this season. The regular season, that is.
… Elton Brand has some all-star left in him?
Ask the docs: Brand's injury wasn't the sort that detours careers. Besides, the dude is only 29. He'll stay younger longer now that he doesn't toil in the land of TD, Amaré and the rest. Elton and Andre give Philly what it thought it had with C-Webb and A.I.: an inside-outside 40-ppg duo. Throw in a PG who can keep both happy and a dose of frenetic youth (Young, Lou Williams) and these Sixers mirror Brand's '06 Clips. Recall how he played then?
… Jermaine O'Neal has anything left to give?
O'Neal averaged 31 DNPs in each of the previous four seasons and a subpar 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per when he was on the floor last season. But with Bosh a nightly lock for 20 and 10, the Raps don't need JO to dominate like he once did. And as long as foes focus on Bosh, the six-time All-Star could find that points come more easily than they did in Indy. Healthy, even a diminished O'Neal makes Toronto matter. Long-shot contenders even.
… a team with no point guard or center can compete?
Conventional wisdom defines the post and the floor general as the most important jobs on the court. The CW most assuredly does not define Haslem and Banks as worthy of those hallowed spots. But does the CW remember that MJ and Scottie won rings with nondescript points and pivots? D-Wade, The Matrix and "Beastley" aren't on their level, but there are three of them. And didn't the Celtics do all right with a similar setup?
… that playoff series with the Celtics didn't go to their heads?
Yes, it had to swell their domes to come so close against the soon-to-be champs. But Bibby and Johnson, vets of deep postseason runs, know the difference between winning three of seven and four of seven. They'll mentor budding (and maturing) stars Smith and Horford on what it takes to finish. And before you dis Bibby's leadership, know this: He's in a contract year. Raising this team would sure spice up a résumé.
… Derrick Rose will do what so many Chicago lottery picks did not?
Relax. Rose is for real. He's more athletic than Jay Williams was, fits the plan better than Tyson Chandler did and loves the game more than Eddy Curry ever will. Still, everyone needs to be patient. A backcourt bottleneck (Ben Gordon, Hinrich, Hughes, Thabo Sefolosha) leaves little room for Rose to bloom. That's okay; the only one-and-done PG who shone out of the blocks was Stephon Marbury. How has that worked out?
… Agent Zero hasn't forever become Patient Zero?
Even the most loyal "Hibachi'' fans have to be worried. Gilbert Arenas entered last season with a clean bill of health and still managed just 13 subpar (by his standards) outings. Now it's déjà vu, and an unhappy comparison has reared its head. Remember Penny Hardaway? Same age (26), same issue (left knee). Butler and Jamison did a great job of carrying the team, but in an improved East, they'll carry it only so far. No Gil means no chance.
…this won't be one of the worst defensive teams in history?
It's true that Redd, Villanueva and Ridnour couldn't lock down a prep school squad, but Coach Skiles won't tolerate sorry D. In his three full seasons in Chicago, the Bulls were first or second in opponents' FG%. Heck, he got the Suns into the top three once. So the Bucks will protect the rim well enough. Problem is, the more capable the D gets, the more the focus will shift to the offense, and only Redd and RJ can with-stand those stares.
… this team will ever equal the sum of its parts?
Wallace? One of the game's top athletes. J-Rich? A consistent 20-point scorer. Okafor? One of the league's best offensive rebounders. Felton? No star, but far from a stiff. May? Lottery pick. Brown? Hall of Fame coach. Pretty sweet on paper, but they don't play on paper. In fact, some of these guys rarely play anywhere, as their bulging medical files attest. And while the coach was once prized for getting the most of his men, that was long ago.
… Mike D'Antoni can run (or win) without Steve Nash?
NYC's latest sideline savior is a Knickish 39–89 without his alter ego. Worse, just months ago his new crew looked like the least likely fit for his up-tempo style. Funny—now they seem made for it. D'Antoni is giddy with the knowledge that the Knicks are more skilled than anyone suspects. In particular, if the preseason is an indication (sometimes it is—really), Lee is set to pop. Success is relative; if the new guy has New York in the hunt, he may be Coach of the Year.
… these guys will ever be able to win back hoops-loving Hoosiers?
Prez Larry Bird continues to purge the problems, and that alone makes his team more loveable. It won't, however, find W's, and those are what lure fans. Dunleavy and Granger had career years, but neither pumps up a dire lack of star power. Besides the Blazers, this is the only team with no rotation player who ever got 20 ppg. Luckily, O'Brien's fast-and-free style is just what's needed to lift stats and spirits—of anyone who will bother to watch.
… Vince Carter has the patience to wait out the rebuilding?
So far, VC is acting every bit the statesman, organizing weeklong, players-only summer workouts. (Even he was stunned that every Net—save for Yi's Olympic run—showed.) Now 31, he's not the restless prodigy he was in Toronto. Besides, J-Kidd's dismal time in Dallas and Richard Jefferson's exile to Milwaukee have shown him how fortunate he is. But losing can bring out the worst in anyone; Jersey will lose lots, and VC's worst is ugly.