HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — We can see the starting blocks now.
Training camp is around the corner.
The official start is still a few weeks away, but if you pop your head into the practice facility of just about any team today you’re guaranteed to see NBA players getting a head start on the 2010-11 season.
They realize what’s at stake. They know how important the first steps of a marathon can be for anyone with playoff or even loftier expectations.
Summer school is over folks — and don’t you wish the folks grading your papers in college were the same folks handing out these summer report cards around here (not a single F was delivered, not one)?
The pressure is on all around the league, on players, coaches and front office types that understand the time to make a move up the league’s food chain is now. Kobe Bryant and the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers were the only ones that could go into the summer with any feeling of satisfaction, knowing full well that the good vibrations could last for only so long.
It’s time to the make the donuts again, or close to it, and that means there are questions we need answered.
Five burning questions to start HT’s training camp countdown:
1. Can the Orlando Magic spoil the parade plans in Miami and Boston?
Magic fans have been pounding the HT inbox this summer arguing that their team is being left out of the conversation of title contenders this season. And they’re probably right. Most of the insiders we’ve spoken with this summer don’t hold the Magic in the same regard they did this time a year ago, when they were the reigning Eastern Conference champions and still smarting from that ’09 Finals defeat to the Lakers.
They still have the nucleus of a team that won 59 games, finished second to Cleveland in the East and had the second best overall record in the entire league. Dwight Howard is a year older and better, as is Jameer Nelson, and there aren’t any chemistry concerns for Stan Van Gundy, who won’t have to refer to the periodic table the way Doc Rivers and Erik Spoelstra will in Boston and Miami, respectively.
Yet, no one seems to be particularly high on the Magic after a relatively uneventful summer — Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon signed and J.J. Redick stayed while Matt Barnes, Adonal Foyle and Anthony Johnson departed.
An underdog tag could be exactly what the Magic need to motivate them this season. And of all the teams in the East that could play spoiler to a potential Heat-Celtics battle for the top spot, no one seems better equipped to do so than Orlando.
2. Is Yao Ming ready to revive the Rockets?
The nail-biting going on in Houston this summer and heading into training camp has been and is all about Yao Ming. No one is sure he’s going to be the same. There is a hope that he’ll be back to his All-Star form after yet another injury-riddled season destroyed any plans the Rockets had of contending in the Western Conference.
You can argue the most valuable player in the league all day long, but few players are as indispensable as Yao, who has played all 82 regular season games just once in his career. The Rockets entire season hinges on Yao’s health.
Rockets beat writer Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle breaks it down:
More than ever, Yao remains the key. The Rockets have plenty of good players. He can be great. In the past, he had Tracy McGrady around to share that load. There was a time the Rockets help those hopes for Steve Francis. Now, they have a deep roster with a fine mix of youth and experience. But for the Rockets to be a post-season factor, Yao will have to be special. He will have to be a force again, able to dominate or change defenses.
Asked if he could do that still, he laughed and said to ask again after the preseason, knowing he probably won’t know then either.
“I want to be,” he said. “That, I can tell you. I want to be.”
This is the burden that comes with being Yao Ming.
“Those (questions) followed me since I came to the NBA,” Yao said. “Sometimes it’s quiet because I played well. Sometimes it’s loud because I’m hurt or not playing well. I believe that will follow every player that is in the couple main guys in this league. That’s part of our life.
“The only thing, time will tell you which way it is.”
3. Is there life after LeBron in Cleveland?
The sheer confidence and optimism of the folks in Cleveland is inspiring. Between Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Chris Grant, new coach Byron Scott should have all the positive reinforcement he needs to kick off training camp. But the heart and soul of that franchise the past seven years has taken his talents to South Beach. And it doesn’t matter how many times I hear Gilbert or Grant say that they’ve “moved on” or that they’ll “do things the right way” now that James is gone …
“We weren’t as focused on the long-term (before James left),” Gilbert told the News-Herald’s Bob Finnan. “We’ll build the right way. It’s absolutely refreshing and challenging and we’re all looking forward to building the Cleveland Cavaliers into a premier team. We didn’t achieve the ultimate goal (with James). It can’t be a one-person show. We have to have a team approach and a team effort to make it happen.”
All that sounds good, but it doesn’t erase the sobering fact that James is gone, leaving a gaping hole in the entire operation that simply cannot be replaced by hopes and dreams.
As interesting as training camp is going to be in Miami, it should be even more intriguing in Cleveland, where Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao and the rest of the Cavaliers will attempt to pick up the pieces from the summer.
4. Is this the year the Clippers get it together?
After speaking to Baron Davis on the Hang Time Podcast this summer, we examined the Los Angeles Clippers roster and determined that this is the year that they finally get it right and make a playoff move in the Western Conference.
We know, you think we’ve gone mad. It’s a natural reaction any time the words “Clippers” and “playoffs” are used in the same sentence. But we wouldn’t have brought it up if we didn’t believe strongly in our theory. Much like our infatuation with the Hang Time Grizzlies last season, the Clippers strike us as a team on the rise.
So what if the Grizzlies missed out on the playoffs last year (small fact that sort of torpedoes our research, but just roll with it, please). They made a push. And that’s what we think the Clippers will do this season with veteran anchors Davis and Chris Kaman, joined by rising young talents like Eric Gordon (a stud for the U.S. National team in Turkey), the forgotten rookie Blake Griffin, the underrated DeAndre Jordan and rookie swingman Al-Farouq Aminu and solid role players like Rasual Butler and Randy Foye.
Davis didn’t want to make any bold predictions about the Clippers’ playoff prospects this season when we spoke to him on the podcast. So we don’t want to heap to many crazy expectations on them here. But if Vinny Del Negro can manage things properly, this is a team poised to at least make some noise in the West this season.
5. Is Milwaukee’s best going to be good enough?
You better believe it.
We’ve been warning people for months now to Fear the Deer. And the Bucks just keep piling up the reasons for us to believe that’s more than just a catchy playoff slogan.
Combine their finish last season (regular season and the playoffs) and a fantastic summer, per my main man and NBA.com’s own Steve Aschburner, and the only teams in the Eastern Conference that project ahead of them are the Heat, Celtics and Magic and perhaps the Bulls (whose offseason looks good on paper but we have to see it all in action before giving it the HT seal of approval).
The Bucks are the team that’s going to surprise a lot of people this season with their ability to play inside and out, now that they’ll have Andrew Bogut back with better pieces around him inside.
Bucks coach Scott Skiles knows exactly what he’s working with in Brandon Jennings now, his stellar rookie season in the books and a summer of work in the team’s offseason program boosting the outlook for an even better sophomore season. Adding a veteran like Keyon Dooling to back him up keeps the Luke Ridnour safety net in place, but we’re not sure it’s nearly as critical this time around.
Jennings proved in the playoffs that he was more than ready for the step up in competition that comes with the postseason and the increased intensity.
And now the Bucks have an improved supporting cast to assist Jennings, John Salmons and Bogut, the unquestioned leader of this team for the firs time since he entered the league.
Uncertainty in Cleveland, Indiana and Detroit has opened the door in the Central Division.
All the Bucks have to do is run through it.