The crisp fall air means either football or the World Series to most American sports fans, but to NBA players, the changing of the leaves means one thing – the dread of training camp and its two-a-day practices, full-court sprints and defensive slide drills.
The NBA opens up camps this week as 29 teams take aim at the champion San Antonio Spurs. And after an offseason of coaching changes, free-agent signings and blockbuster trades, it's time for each club to get to work in anticipation of opening night just four weeks away.
Here are 10 questions to ponder as your team prepares for the 2005-06 season:
1. Who will earn starting spots in Miami's lineup?
We're pretty sure Shaquille O'Neal will hold off Michael Doleac, and he'll be joined in the Miami Heat's starting five by Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem. But the major summer overhaul to the roster brought with it a plethora of questions.
Can Jason Williams man the point next to Wade, or will Gary Payton have enough in the tank to be in the lineup? Regardless of who starts, can the other one be happy? And what about Antoine Walker? Can he grow comfortable as a sixth man, or does he need to be the starting small forward? And where does that leave James Posey?
Stan Van Gundy has to make some difficult decisions, and he will do so knowing that if they don't work, the rumors of Pat Riley taking over as coach will persist.
2. Can the Suns run, gun and defend?
Last season, the Phoenix Suns revolutionized the NBA game, playing a small lineup that exploded past teams and buried opponents with three-pointers. After it didn't work against the Spurs in the playoffs, the team set out to get tougher defensively.
With the additions of Raja Bell, Brian Grant and Kurt Thomas, there's no question the Suns accomplished that. But in losing Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson, Phoenix is without two prolific three-point shooters who created mismatches all over the floor. The task for Mike D'Antoni is to maintain his team's offensive edge while improving them defensively.
3. Will Kwame sink or swim in L.A.?
The Los Angeles Lakers were quiet most of the summer, with the trade for Kwame Brown being their one significant roster move. The former No. 1 pick has the second chance that he desperately needed, but he must take advantage of it.
With most of the basketball world focused on the Kobe Bryant/Phil Jackson relationship, the real story in L.A. is whether or not Brown can realize his potential. The Lakers desperately need his size and athleticism, and the triangle very well may suit Brown's talents. If he develops, the Lakers are suddenly a much-improved team. That's a big "if," though.
4. Can Indiana corral its talent and take the next step?
With Ron Artest back, the Indiana Pacers are a championship contender. But this team has been emotional and immature the past few years, and with Reggie Miller retired, there is a serious leadership void.
Still, the Pacers showed remarkable resiliency bouncing back from the calamitous brawl in Auburn Hills, and now the slate is wiped clean. Indiana adds guard Sarunas Jasikevicius and forward Danny Granger to an already gifted roster, but the question isn't talent – it's leadership. Jermaine O'Neal has to seize control of the Pacers and lift them to another level.
5. Will Larry Brown take the Knicks to the playoffs?
The East has gotten much stronger the past couple of seasons, but the strength is mostly at the top of the conference. There's no question that if the New York Knicks come together, they can make a push for one of the final playoff spots.
But Brown's job won't be easy. New York has a roster overloaded with shooters and undersized power forwards, most of whom don't particularly care for defense. Brown's first order of business in camp will be to teach his club to defend and compete – things New York didn't do last season. If the Knicks respond to him, they will have a shot at the postseason.
6. Is Bogut the second coming of a young Arvydas Sabonis?
Andrew Bogut wowed scouts with his wonderful passing skills from both the high and low posts in college. He has the size and tools to be a very good center, a position that has all but vanished around the league.
Bogut will be tested by the speed and quickness of the NBA game, but if he adjusts, he could become the centerpiece of the Milwaukee Bucks' offense. And with shooters Michael Redd and Bobby Simmons around him – and point guard T.J. Ford helping to get him the ball – the Bucks could be very entertaining.
7. Can Dallas withstand the loss of Finley?
Michael Finley's numbers have gone down the past few years, and the Dallas Mavericks have young talent waiting in the wings – literally – in Josh Howard and Marquis Daniels. But a year after losing Steve Nash, this team has a major leadership void with Finley gone.
Doug Collins once said that Nash was the head of the snake in Dallas and Finley was the heart and soul. Can a team win without its brain and its heart? Dirk Nowitzki is the last remaining piece of the Big Three, and he has a major burden on his shoulders heading into camp.
8. Has Cleveland given LeBron enough help?
The Cleveland Cavaliers had plenty of money to spend in the offseason, and they weren't shy about shelling it out. In an effort to both help LeBron James on the court and keep him around when it comes time to extend his contract, Cleveland signed Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones and also kept Zydrunas Ilgauskas. On paper, the Cavaliers look like a formidable squad. Mike Brown is a bright, defensive-minded coach, too. If he gets this team to compete on a nightly basis, look out.
9. Can Baron stay healthy in the Bay Area?
They've added big man Ike Diogu to the mix and appear to have a very bright future, but the entire operation revolves around Davis, who has suffered from back and knee injuries during his young career. If he enters camp in great shape and maintains his health all season, Golden State could be the surprise team in the West.
10. Can anyone beat the Spurs?
With three titles in seven years, the San Antonio Spurs have been a picture of consistency during Tim Duncan's tenure. With Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili entering their primes – and all locked up to long-term contracts – we could be looking at a dynasty. That's why players like Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel are flocking to play in the Alamo City.
Twenty-nine teams begin practice this week with the idea of knocking off the defending champs, but in reality, only a handful have a shot. The Spurs are loaded at every position and have never looked stronger. Without question, they're the team to beat.