It’s Week 3 of the NFL, the Bruins are less than two weeks from opening the regular season, and the Red Sox are scouting their first-round playoff opponent. Overshadowed for the first time here in seven years are the Celtics, who are a week from opening training camp in Newport R.I.
The NBA is back, seemingly about three weeks after LeBron James and the Miami Heat won their second consecutive championship. This will be a fascinating season with a bunch of story lines. The Celtics, and how they respond after the dismantling of the Big Three, are one of those intriguing themes.
For those basketball fanatics who are already putting together their fantasy teams, watching the FIBA world championships and NBA TV to prepare for the season, here are the top 10 story lines to watch as training camps kick off:
1. James’s future — This will be Groundhog Day for the four-time MVP as his future will be the topic of conversation each time he is questioned by visiting media. James has an opt-out clause in his contract after this season and has refused to say whether he will become a free agent next summer. If he decides to opt out as expected, the Cavaliers and Lakers have enough salary-cap space to pique his interest, and he will also consider the health of the Heat franchise. With an aging Dwyane Wade and declining Chris Bosh, is Miami the place for LBJ as he continues his prime years? We’ll find out next summer.
2. Dwight Howard in Houston — The biggest signing of the summer was Howard, who became the first major free agent to actually depart Los Angeles because he wanted to. The Rockets nabbed Howard and now there are title expectations hovering over the franchise, which hasn’t been to the Finals in 18 years. Howard won’t have any more excuses if things don’t work out. The Rockets have a solid point guard in Jeremy Lin, an emerging swingman in Chandler Parsons, and a bona fide scoring-title candidate in James Harden. Howard has apparently recovered from back surgery and shoulder issues, and is ready to reclaim his crown as the league’s dominant defensive force.
3 Brooklyn’s in the house — The Nets have finally put together the most interesting team in the New York market, acquiring Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in the offseason to join Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez for one of the more talented starting fives in the league. Pierce has said he is willing to sacrifice shots under new coach Jason Kidd, and Garnett may sit out the second game of back-to-back sets to rest for the postseason. How will Kidd fare just months after finishing his playing career? Will Johnson and Pierce be able to co-exist? And who will come off the bench for Brooklyn?
4. It’s golden in Golden State — Yes, the Golden State Warriors are a favorite in the Western Conference after acquiring Andre Iguodala in the offseason. With Stephen Curry, Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, and now Iguodala, Golden State is no longer a dark horse. Curry will have to stay healthy and take the next step to stardom in order for the Warriors to compete with the Spurs and Thunder, but they are brimming with talent and potential.
5. Kobe Bryant — Bryant has said he promises to come back from a torn right Achilles’ tendon in record time, and the Lakers need him back after putting together a patchwork lineup because they did not want to commit to any long-term contracts and ruin their chances at signing James next summer. How will Kobe fare when he returns? Will the Lakers allow him to walk after the final season of his contract? Will they even try to win this season or position themselves for a high draft pick in 2014?
6. All roses in Chicago — Derrick Rose is expected to be ready for training camp, isn’t he? He missed all of last season with a torn left anterior cruciate ligament and hasn’t been seen on the court in a Chicago uniform in 16 months. With Rose, the Bulls are a serious threat to the Heat. Will Rose be game-ready by the regular season? Will he favor the knee or play with the same reckless abandon that made him one of the league’s top point guards?
7. Last run in San Antonio — The Spurs choked in Game 6 of the Finals or we would be talking about the franchise’s fifth NBA championship, but now they prepare to make perhaps one more run at it with Tim Duncan, a re-signed Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker. Does San Antonio have enough to make another push or will it succumb to the likes of the Thunder and Clippers.
8. Speaking of the Clippers — Did you hear? They have a new coach. Doc Rivers wanted another chance at a title run and left the Celtics (what exactly happened, only Rivers and Danny Ainge know), and now is leading a team with title expectations. Can Rivers get Blake Griffin to become a better defender and rebounder? Will Doc and Chris Paul have a cohesive relationship? And how will DeAndre Jordan react to almost being a Celtic about six times in a week? The Clippers are loaded with talent but chemistry and coaching have been an issue in recent years.
9. Is OKC back? — The Thunder, without Russell Westbrook, were humiliated in the playoffs by the Memphis Grizzlies, so their championship hopes were put on hold for another season. Kevin Durant is now the best player in the league without a ring, and that tag is beginning to bother him. With Westbrook healthy, Reggie Jackson having gained confidence in the playoffs, and the rest of the cast back, is Oklahoma City a favorite in the West? And can the Thunder find that third scorer that was absent last season when they dealt Harden to Houston?
10. Uncertainty in Boston — This is going to be a bizarre season for the Celtics. They are attempting to position themselves for a premium draft pick in 2014 but still have enough talent to make a postseason run. Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries are on the roster, and Rajon Rondo is coming back in several weeks, so the tanking rumors are just that. The Celtics are hardly the worst team in the Eastern Conference. How will new coach Brad Stevens adapt to the NBA? And how will Rondo respond to being counted on as a leader? There may not be as many wins but there will be plenty of intrigue at TD Garden.
Early injuries slow Wizards
The Wizards are entering a pivotal season. They have stockpiled enough ex-lottery picks to make a playoff run in a changing Eastern Conference. John Wall will be given the opportunity to prove he is among the top point guards in the NBA. Bradley Beal will look to continue the promise he displayed during a strong rookie season. Otto Porter will be given every opportunity to contribute as a rookie.
Meanwhile, general manager Ernie Grunfeld added Al Harrington, drafted Glen Rice Jr., and re-signed Martell Webster for bench strength. With that roster, a playoff run is possible. Yet in Washington, there always seem to be setbacks, and the club revealed last week that forward Chris Singleton, whom the organization has been waiting to flourish, will miss six weeks with a fractured foot. And now former UConn star Emeka Okafor will miss an undetermined amount of time with a herniated disk in his neck, robbing the club of a defensive stalwart in the middle.
Okafor’s road has been difficult since he entered the 2004 draft as a candidate for the top overall pick with Dwight Howard. Okafor has been a serviceable NBA center but has never made an All-Star team. Now his opportunity to contribute to the resurrection of the Wizards has been delayed. Okafor said he will not require surgery and will spend the next few weeks rehabbing, but his absence means the Wizards will have to rely on oft-injured Nene and Frenchman Kevin Seraphin for help in the middle.
“The positive part of this is I had no weakness, no radiation, no numbness, or neurological deficits,” Okafor said. “I am not in any serious discomfort — just going through the proper steps to make sure it heals properly.
“I expect people to pick up the slack; I think the last half of [last] season we ended on a very positive note and we started playing well. With the additions this year that strengthened our roster and guys had the summer to mature, I think that everything will be just fine. The talent we have on the team, I don’t see anything less than a playoff team.”
Pierce’s future back in Boston
Paul Pierce said it’s been difficult to say goodbye to Boston after 15 years, and as he approaches his first Nets’ training camp — along with Kevin Garnett — the past few months have allowed him to reflect.
Pierce said he wants to be a fixture in Boston following his playing days, not just showing up for his retirement ceremony and heading to Malibu, Calif., the next morning. Pierce said he wants to establish something substantial in Boston, having grown attached to the city despite growing up in Inglewood, Calif., as a Lakers fan.
“Ultimately, what I would like to do is have a business in Boston,” he said. “Maybe like a sports bar. I would love to do something like that here. None of the former Celtic great players have come and done that. I thought about it, and why hasn’t anyone come and opened up a nice restaurant? You see the Don Shula restaurant, the Michael Jordan restaurant, and Magic [Johnson] got the theaters in LA. Why nobody here? All this history, all these championships and love, why has nobody done that?
“I am going to still have relationships here. I’m always going to come to this city. Every year, when I’m done, I’m going to have a reason to come here.”
Pierce said he holds no grudges toward the Celtics, and again pointed to a future relationship with the organization.
“Who knows? I may be working for Wyc Grousbeck or Danny Ainge,” he said. “A lot of players don’t understand it. I’ve always understood it. And [other players] let their pride and ego get in the way. I’ve made a lot of money here, I’ve built relationships, won a championship here, I thank y’all for everything y’all gave me. How can I be mad for everything they’ve given me. I’m thankful.”
The prospect of reaching the championship pinnacle again with the Nets is intriguing.
“Me and my best friend growing up were talking and he said, ‘Man, what if you win a championship in Brooklyn? Then what?’ ” Pierce said. “It’s another level then. There’s a chance I could move up in the [all-time] ranks if I get another championship. So I am still going. And they’ve given me more tools and I’ve got something to build.”
Pierce said the Celtics should have no trouble attracting major free agents. “The city of Boston has changed so much since I’ve been here,” he said. “There are so many more things to do and the city has grown. I think it would be a great place to play.
“I enjoyed it here. Hopefully, the fact that guys like me and Kevin liked it here is a sign to other players that it’s a good city to play in. I’m excited about playing in Brooklyn, though. There weren’t too many places I wanted to go if I had to leave Boston, but Brooklyn is one of them.”
Ex-UConn swingman and former New Jersey Net Tate George is on trial for wire fraud, the latest former NBA player to endure troubles with the law regarding finances. What’s more, Detroit Pistons forward Charlie Villanueva testified at George’s trial, saying he invested $250,000 in George’s alleged Ponzi scheme. George is one of dozens of former NBA players who have faced issues with the law following their playing careers. One of the main responsibilities of new NBAPA president Chris Paul should be to increase education for players on finances and how to retain their money following their careers . . . Former NBA forward Sean Marks, considered a fast riser in the Spurs’ organization, has been promoted to an assistant coach. Marks, who spent 11 seasons in the NBA, began two years ago as a basketball operations assistant. San Antonio’s staff has been decimated with Brett Brown and Mike Budenholzer having taken head coaching jobs with Philadelphia and Atlanta, respectively. Marks joins ex-Milwaukee interim coach Jim Boylan and former Spurs guard Ime Udoka as Gregg Popovich’s assistants . . . Toronto GM Masai Ujiri used his African connections to bring in intriguing prospect Carlos Morais, the MVP of the FIBA Africa championships with Angola. Morais is considered a potential rotation player for the Raptors . . . The Suns have offered a training camp invitation to former Celtics invite Dionte Christmas, who played with the Phoenix summer league team that reached the finals in Las Vegas. Christmas was a summer league wonder for the Celtics in 2012 but was waived before the regular season . . . Former Celtic Patrick O’Bryant, continuing his quest to stick with an NBA team, will be in camp with the Bobcats. A former lottery pick of the Warriors, O’Bryant was one of the bigger draft busts in recent history and has often been accused of lacking a motor . . . Darius Morris, who was not re-signed by the Lakers after playing just 67 games in two seasons following his leaving Michigan after his sophomore season, is in camp with the 76ers. Meanwhile, ex-BYU forward Brandon Davies, who impressed in summer league play with size and agility, will get a chance to make the Clippers.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.