If your favorite NBA team gets off to a slow start this season, you can expect to hear a familiar refrain from its players, coaches and fans: "It's only November, and there's a long way to go."
That may be true. And certainly no club is going to make or break its season in the span of a few weeks.
But the first month of the season is a time when teams begin to establish identities, carve out rotations and build momentum, essentially laying a foundation for the season ahead. Every team has different issues and agendas depending on its own set of circumstances, but there is one common goal: a good start.
With that in mind, here are seven things to watch as the season gets under way:
1. Can Marbury and Francis play together?
The New York Knicks had a good preseason, but then again, do you know who had good preseasons last year? Neither do I – they don't matter. Still, the backcourt dynamic in New York will go a long way toward revealing whether Isiah Thomas can turn this group into playoff contenders. Since Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis have been teammates, most of the talk has centered on whether they can share the ball. I'm more interested in their play on the defensive end. They're both too small to defend a lot of the twos in this league, so the Knicks will have to improvise. Will they play zone? Will they try to run and create a frenzied tempo that will hide half-court defensive deficiencies? And if Thomas determines that Marbury and Franchise can't play together, who sits?
2. How much will Amare play?
The Phoenix Suns have a very difficult early-season schedule, and they have to figure out how to win games while allowing Amare Stoudemire to regain his form following microfracture knee surgery. He was very inconsistent in the preseason and not yet close to playing like his former All-Star self. For the time being Stoudemire's presence actually could disrupt the league's most high-powered offense. Stoudemire will come off the bench to begin the season, but he always has been a starter. Can he accept a diminished role while continuing his comeback? And more importantly, can the Suns maintain their offensive groove with him on the floor?
3. Will Miami show any interest before March?
The Miami Heat went 2-5 in the preseason – I know, that means nothing – but they looked awfully bored doing it. Pat Riley already is complaining about his team's lack of focus during practice. Jason Williams is injured. Shaquille O'Neal played only a handful of minutes and doesn't appear to be ready for a full load of playing time. And Dwyane Wade played all summer with Team USA, so he will be a bit tired. Still, they're the NBA champs, a title that brings a different level of confidence to a team. Maybe that will be enough to get the Heat through the early days of the long haul ahead. We'll see.
4. How will the point guard situation play out for the Clippers?
Sam Cassell was the heart and soul of the team last season and helped create a winning culture with the Los Angeles Clippers. He has been a starter for most of his career and doesn't like to sit. Shaun Livingston, however, is waiting in the wings as his replacement and appears poised for a breakout year in his third season. Who will start? At this point, it looks like Livingston will get the nod to open the year, if only because Cassell has been injured and isn't ready to go. Once Cassell is healthy, though, coach Mike Dunleavy will have to figure out how the rotation will work. One possibility would be to play them together – Livingston's size will allow him to cover plenty of two guards on defense – but then you begin to dig into the playing time of Cuttino Mobley and Corey Maggette. The possibility for a point guard controversy is there, but at the moment, things appear fine. Cassell is saying all the right things about sharing time, accepting his role and being a mentor to Livingston.
5. Can Carmelo become a leader for the Nuggets?
Carmelo Anthony was the star of the United States at the world championships. He showed a newfound maturity and a commitment to conditioning and defense. The Denver Nuggets had all sorts of chemistry issues last season and imploded during the playoffs. For Denver to get back on the right track and take control of the Northwest Division, Anthony must take the next step in his development by being the leader this team needs. A quick start for the Nuggets is critical to wash away the remnants of last spring's playoff failure. To achieve that, George Karl is leaning heavily on Carmelo.
6. Is Kobe healthy?
The Los Angeles Lakers have high hopes this season – Luke Walton even mentioned the word "championship" recently – but they're going nowhere unless Kobe Bryant is in top form. Kobe didn't play one minute in the preseason following his offseason knee surgery, but he says he'll be fine and ready to go. He had better be. Practically everyone else on the roster has been hurt, too – Chris Mihm and Kwame Brown are several weeks away from playing – and Bryant may have to carry the team through November.
7. Will Mohammed replace Big Ben, or will Detroit go small?
Gregg Popovich thought so little of Nazr Mohammed that he didn't even attempt to re-sign him last summer with the San Antonio Spurs. The Detroit Pistons quickly snared him with their midlevel exception after Wallace left for the Chicago Bulls, but the question is whether Mohammed will fit into Flip Saunders' up-tempo offense. The league is trending toward smaller centers and a faster pace, and Mohammed doesn't fit that mold. There's talk that Detroit will play Rasheed Wallace at the five and Tayshaun Prince at the four. Keep an eye on the Pistons' rotation, and Mohammed in particular. If he's not on the floor much, you might be seeing an entirely new philosophy in Detroit – one that is intent on playing fast.