Will fans forgive owners and players for the lockout that forced cancellation of the summer league, full training camps and exhibition schedules, and resulted in a 66-game season?
Of course, people love this game. For the most part, they even tolerate teams that can't distinguish between a pass and a pick-and-roll and wouldn't know Pete Carril from Pete Carroll. Plus, that Dallas-Miami championship series was exceptional crazy competitive and compelling with a humble hero (Dirk Nowitzki), a humbled superstar (LeBron James) and a surprising finish. Come on. Tell the truth. Who honestly believed the Mavericks would prevail as 2010-11 NBA champions?
What is the X-Factor this season?
Injuries. Exhaustion is a player here, too. The compressed 66-game schedule will force the always angst-ridden coaches to squeeze in a couple of off-days to reduce the toll on their veteran players. At the same time, consistent practice leads to sustained conditioning, especially for the reserves, and provides crucial time for teaching rookies. Count on it. A marquee player (or players) will go down, and everyone will start musing in earnest about labor pains.
Who is the league's best coach?
This one's easy. With Phil Jackson off meditating somewhere, at least for a season, Gregg Popovich inherits the role of go-to coach. Pop prefers Maine to Montana, fine wine to meditation, and his tolerance level is less than zero for eccentric players. Remember, he dumped Dennis Rodman. Can't wait to hear his thoughts on Metta World Peace. But he and Jackson share similar basketball philosophies about ball movement and an aversion to one-on-one play, and they insist that young players even their stars earn their minutes.
Which coach is perched on the hottest seat?
Vinny Del Negro of the Los Angeles Clippers. While the thought of Jackson returning as L.A. Clippers coach to torment his former Lakers bosses is tantalizing, there is no chance that the winningest coach in NBA history would work for Donald Sterling. Not going to happen, folks. But keep an eye on Larry Brown, who is still itching to coach. Plus, there is this: (1.) His wife is from L.A. (2.) He not only once worked for The Donald, he says he would work for The Donald again. (3.) The Donald still loovvvvessss Larry Brown. See where we're going with this? If the Clips falter, don't be surprised by an encore.
Who will be Rookie of the Year?
Derrick Williams, Timberwolves.
Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers
Jimmer Fredette, Kings.
Tristan Thompson, Cavaliers
Klay Thompson, Warriors
Who wins the title this season?
The Miami Heat. This is an unconventional roster, still lacking a prototypical point guard. But Udonis Haslem's return solidifies the front line, and as the Mavs demonstrated only a few months ago, there are different ways to win championships. Dallas won with one superstar (Nowitzki), a future Hall of Famer who is 38 years old (Jason Kidd), a defensive anchor (Tyson Chandler) and a bunch of guys whose achievements will soon be overlooked by everyone outside Dallas, their immediate families and the most obsessive NBA fans who actually believe that team play trumps individualism. Besides, LeBron has to win a ring one of these years.
Which lottery team makes the biggest leap?
The Clippers. Chris Paul was the coup of the summer (or winter), and his pairing with Blake Griffin ensures a nightly presence on those ESPN highlights. Think lob, lob, lob, dunk, dunk, dunk. Re-signing DeAndre Jordan was essential, albeit at a scary, steep price. And this isn't a finished product; they lose a lot with Eric Gordon's departure. But Paul and Griffin will reintroduce the Clips to the playoffs and keep pressure on the Lakers to pursue Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and all other future marquee free agents.
Which team was the biggest offseason winner?
The New Orleans Hornets. Maybe the Hornets would have made the playoffs this season had David Stern not nixed the CP3 deal that would have sent aging complementary stars Kevin Martin (28), Luis Scola (31) and Lamar Odom (32) to New Orleans. Maybe. But then what? Mediocrity leads to more mediocrity. The eventual swap was a serious upgrade from a future perspective, with Gordon and Minnesota's unprotected 2012 first-round draft pick included in the haul.
Which team was the biggest loser?
The Houston Rockets. Kevin McHale left the broadcast booth for this? Yao Ming's retirement because of chronic foot problems was only the beginning of general manager Daryl Morey's offseason misery. Martin and Scola, though very professional guys, have to be unsettled by recent events. Pau Gasol remained with the Lakers. Nene re-signed with the Nuggets. No, not a happy few months in Houston.
Who has the toughest job in the league?
That would be Commissioner David Stern. It's a good thing he can start collecting his salary again (an estimated $10 million annually), because his workplace has become increasingly hostile. While many of the small market owners are pleased with the new collective bargaining agreement and the increased revenue sharing, Jerry Buss and Les Alexander are steamed about the Chris Paul trade mess, the Kings' arena situation is ongoing, and the compressed schedule has everyone grumbling. But, hey, at least all these people have jobs, right?