Men's Fitness teamed up with ESPN's Linda Cohn to answer the most pressing questions of the 2008-'09 NBA season.
1.) Can Kobe Bryant win a title as the main guy?
Bryant has endured nagging criticism that his three NBA titles had more to do with dominant center Shaquille O'Neal than with his explosiveness at the shooting guard position. Even in 2004, Shaq's last year out West, the Lakers were upset by the Pistons in the NBA Finals and people keep blaming Bryant. "I just feel that I think people want to judge Kobe on a different level than perhaps any other superstar," says Cohn. "We all know the basketball history of Kobe wanting to be Michael, right? So, you know, people are always projective of Michael Jordan and his legacy." And with regards to last season? "His team let him down," explains Cohn. A little more rebounding and defense from Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, and they could have defeated the Celts. But last year was a surprise for LA — they weren't supposed to be that good. This year, with a healthy Andrew Bynum, the Lakers are deeper than ever — they can run at least 10 guys at you, which will pay off come spring — and they seem obsessed with winning it all.
2.) New Orleans was the feel good story this year, and the year before that it was Golden State. Who will be the surprise this year?
Cohn struggled to call Philly a sleeper, since they did make the playoffs and gave Detroit a good fight last year, but even so, they might surpass expectations now that they've added forward Elton Brand. "He's a difference maker," says Cohn. However, the Sixers ran a more up-tempo offense last season (think a poor man's Phoenix Suns), and Brand is typically not so much athletic as he has plodding. "Coaches don't get locked into a particular style," says Cohn. "And they won't, trust me." It would be crucial for the 76ers to be able to go to a half-court offense as they get closer to playoff time, even if it doesn't exactly fit their personnel. Point guard Andre Miller, swing man Andre Iguodala and guard Louis Williams will have to learn to slow down and wait for Brand.
3.) Is Ron Artest enough of a force to get the Rockets over the hump out West?
Artest adds some toughness to a Rockets team that hasn't had it the last few seasons. Think Dennis Rodman. He's got more in common with the former Bulls' sparkplug than their penchant for jerseys in the '90s (Rodman wore 91 in Chicago, Artest wears 96 in Houston). They're both crazy, but that's what fuels their intensity, and like Rodman, Artest can guard any team's best player, rebound and hustle. Unlike Rodman, he can score. "Tracy McGrady can only do so much," says Cohn. "When he doesn't go for 25 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, it's a failure." Factor in a returning Yao Ming, and Houston may finally win a first round player series. If they do, Artest has to get a ton of credit. "I love that addition," says Cohn.
4.) Can Jermaine O'Neal make Toronto a legit contender?
The Raptors are fun to watch. They shipped T.J. Ford out in the O'Neal trade, which made perfect sense for them. Jose Calderon had already played himself into the starting five last season with Ford injured, and they needed another dimension. O'Neal can add that, if he can stay healthy. "He just seems to be hurt a lot the last couple of years," says Cohn. It's a risk, but a calculated risk. With Kevin Garnett and now Elton Brand calling the Eastern Conference home, you've got to have someone who can bang inside. Bosh is a presence, but he stretches defenses by shooting mid-range jumpers. O'Neal will play down low more than Bosh, and they seem to be a fair compliment to each other. You can lump them in with Orlando as on-the-cusp squads.
5.) Will we see more players follow the path of Josh Childress by leaving the NBA for pro ball in Europe?
The former Atlanta Hawk accepted a three-year, $32.5 million deal to play for Olympiakos, a Greek team, this off-season. Atlanta had offered a five-year deal for the same money. "Everyone has a right to live their life where they want to," says Cohn, and she's right. Who wouldn't want to travel to Europe in their mid-20s, making millions of dollars and playing basketball for a living? There's a grind to the NBA — teams play every other day, traveling 2-3 times a week (albeit by coach buses and first-class planes). European pros travel less than that and their quality of life, we're guessing, is better than it might be when playing a back-to-back in Charlotte and Memphis in the middle of February. There's been rumors since Childress accepted the deal that even bigger stars could eventually make the leap, guys like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Cohn explains that if anyone can be attributed to the shift in thinking, it's commissioner David Stern. "He made this happen," she says. "He made the NBA an international sport. You've got to be careful what you wish for. " In a decade, we could be looking at a superstar leaving their NBA team to make $50 million a year overseas.
6.) There are some good young teams out West. Does that mean Dallas and Phoenix are on the decline?
There's a set amount of playoff spots, so when a team moves up in the rankings (like the Hornets last year), a team has to slide down the scale. Shaq is old(er) inside, he clogs up the offense, and even though you still have Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, how much can you expect out of two players? Coach Mike D'Antoni, now with the Knicks, left a void in the desert. They'll have to shift identities to compete, playing more defense and running less, so we could see an identity crisis developing. "I'm not going to be shocked if they underachieve," says Cohn. Same deal with Dallas, who mortgaged their future for future hall-of-famer Jason Kidd last year. Kidd's not what he was earlier in his career, when he was regularly leading the Nets deep into the playoffs, and there's a question of their supporting cast. "I'm not really all that impressed," says Cohn.
7.) With Greg Oden back, Portland could be a scary team. How good can they be?
Cohn isn't sold on the Blazers. Also, she may be clairvoyant, because here's what she had to say just a few weeks before the season tipped off. "Maybe that New York skeptic is coming out, but I'm just afraid he's going to get hurt again." And then, boom, opening night in L.A., Oden steps down on Derek Fisher's foot, and he's out for a few weeks with a sprain. In all fairness, Oden is officially a rookie just getting back in shape, but at no point thus far has he ever projected the dominance of a No. 1 pick. Still though, Cohn's optimistic. "I see the great Blazers fans finally getting a team they can root for and a fun team to watch," she says.
8.) How about the Knicks: Can anyone fix them?
Well, this year has been better, so far. D'Antoni made a controversial decision to give Stephon Marbury the cushiest job in the country, benching him and banishing him from the rotation. He'll collect over $20 million this year for essentially just hanging out. By removing the troubled Marbury from the equation, D'Antoni is allowing the players he wants in his system to flourish. Chris Duhon, Zach Randolph and Wilson Chandler are all playing well, but it remains to be seen how many guys are in the long-term plans of the franchise. "I really think they're clearing space and doing all they can for the next two years to make a run at LeBron James," says Cohn in the understatement of the interview. Any big market team, especially one in the biggest market, will want to sign LeBron after next season. But will the product be good enough until then? "People in New York love their Knicks, and they love their basketball," says Cohn. "It breaks their heart, it breaks my heart as well." If they can get rid of enough bad contracts by then, they may have a shot at signing King James. "The guy's made no secret, he loves New York," adds Cohn.
Linda Cohn's latest book, Cohn Head: A No-Holds-Barred Account of Breaking into the Boys Club, is out now.