NBA Burning Questions

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Remember last June? The Spurs and Nets in the NBA Finals? The worst television ratings in decades? The boring games? The sagging media and fan attention?

For reasons both good (LeBron, the Lakers) and bad (Kobe), indifference is no longer the NBA's problem. The NBA is everywhere right now. Cleveland Cavaliers preseason games are selling out. Fox News and CNN air details of Kobe Bryant's defense case around the clock.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban may have been shouted down for saying Bryant's legal troubles could be good for the NBA, but he wasn't wrong. There are more eyes on the Association now than there were for the championship series.

As the 2003-04 season approaches so much is up in the air, so much still is to be determined. It could be a great season. It could be an awful one – remember Jayson Williams' trial for manslaughter is set to begin in January.

But it promises, if nothing else, to be interesting.

Five burning questions as the NBA season gets set to tip off:

Will Kobe play?
Which is quickly followed by if so, how effectively and for how long?

It appears that the Los Angeles Lakers guard will give it a go despite facing life in prison if convicted of sexual assault in what already is this year's Trial of the Century. The actual trial may not happen until summer of 2004, but Bryant already is feeling the pressure.

He arrived at the Lakers' training camp 15 pounds lighter and wearing a stressed look that we've never seen before. He then spent much of camp in a Colorado courtroom, which didn't help his physical or mental state.

Bryant's game always has been based on supreme confidence – even as a young player he loved taking the last shot – as much as his supreme talent.

He is at his best when he is battling with coaches or teammates, brashly looking to prove something.

That swagger appears gone. What will happen when he faces the fan abuse that's sure to greet him on the road? Or when the full media onslaught that's headed his way hits home? Each and every Laker game will be a media circus, and the pressure on Bryant will only grow.

Perhaps the basketball court will be his sanctuary, the one place where he can control things and get away from lawyers, hearings and what is certainly a tense home life. But we'll see. Bryant doesn't look well. His ability to perform has to be in question.

Even without Bryant, can anyone beat the Lakers?
When Los Angeles announced the free-agent signings of Karl Malone and Gary Payton last summer – pre-Eagle, Colo. – it look like a case of the obscenely rich getting obscenely richer. A lineup of Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant, Malone and Payton seemed unbeatable. L.A. would enter the season as the most prohibitive favorite since the Bulls had it rolling in the Jordan/Pippen days.

Now things aren't so certain.

The signing of Payton, the longtime All-Star guard, suddenly is a huge move. If Bryant is less than 100 percent, or by the season's end not playing at all, then Payton's backcourt skill becomes essential to the Lakers' chances to reclaim the NBA championship. He brings defense and leadership.

O'Neal remains the most dominant player in the NBA. Apparently he is healthy and in shape, two things that eluded him last year. Malone, the former Utah Jazz great, is a Laker for one reason – to win a championship, not make a run at the scoring title.

That still is a ton of talent. If Phil Jackson can get it all to mesh – and there is no reason to believe he won't – and Bryant is not a debilitating distraction, the Lakers should be able to make it four titles in five years.

If our fears about Bryant's mental state are unfounded, then you might as well schedule the victory parade in L.A. right now.

Now that Jason Kidd is settled, can the Nets make the next step?
The will-he-leave-or-will-he-stay storyline last year was basically a whole bunch of nothing. It always was unlikely that Kidd would leave the New Jersey Nets for less money in small-market San Antonio.

There were so few other suitors that Kidd's agent tried to pretend Denver was a possibility, a joke no one in the league believed.

But the drama and debate raged throughout the season and into the Finals, where the Nets fell two games short of a championship. Kidd re-signed soon after the season and here we are again, Jersey with clearly the best team in the East.

But the fractured relationship between Kidd and coach Byron Scott is now out in the open. Assistant coach Eddie Jordan is now in Washington. And no one is certain everyone can coexist.

While there will remain contenders in the East – a maximized Detroit club, a potentially dangerous Celtics squad, a good Hornets team under new coach Tim Floyd – the Nets are clearly the class of the weaker conference.

Kidd is a true winner who turned the entire Nets franchise around. Whether he can go one more step is the question.

What can The Phenomenon accomplish?
LeBron James may not play in front of an empty seat the entire year – a testament to the Cleveland rookie's immense talent and charisma. Good seats for the Cavaliers home opener already are fetching four figures on the scalpers' market.

The NBA will make sure as many Cavs games as possible are on national television. And Nike will make sure James' mug is on during all the others.

James is the greatest touring thrill ride since Michael Jordan hung it up the second time, and the biggest happening to arrive in the league perhaps ever.

But how good can the Cavs be? And how good is LeBron?

Cleveland still has a long way to go. This is a young team full of players who appear more concerned with stats than actual wins (yes you, Darius Miles). And James is a rookie.

But then again, all you had to do was watch any of Cleveland's preseason games and the 18-year-old looked as good as anyone on the court. His shot needs seasoning, but his passing skills are brilliant. His natural ability is such that defenses will have to target him, and Cavs players such as Dajuan Wagner should get plenty of open jumpers.

Don't expect Cleveland in the playoffs this year. But do expect James to become an immediate star in the NBA. In part because of his rep, in part because he is simply that good.

Anyone remember the Rest of the West?
With all this talk about Kobe, the Lakers and LeBron, several excellent teams out West are flying under the radar.

Such as the defending NBA champion Spurs. Or the always-dangerous Mavericks. Or the potentially great Kings. Or the Timberwolves, who one of these years have to be able to win a playoff series.

While the Lakers made the biggest and boldest moves in the offseason, no one else stood pat. The Spurs went out and got Hedo Turkoglu from the Kings to help offset the retirement of David Robinson.

The T'Wolves re-signed Kevin Garnett and picked up Latrell Sprewell in a trade. The Kings got Brad Miller from Indiana.

Conceivably everyone got better with those deals, another indication that no one is ready to lay down and concede anything to the Lakers. Which is why the West remains the best.

And so long as Question 1 remains unanswered, the ultimate question – who will win the championship? – is very much up in the air.

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