View Full Version : Mark Stein: Top 10 Training Camps

10-03-2005, 06:09 PM


It's Media Day Monday in the NBA, with two-a-day practices starting Tuesday and the launch of ESPN.com's comprehensive training camp coverage coinciding with it all.

Here is one man's rundown of 10 camp hot spots at the start of the new season.

1. Miami Heat (American Airlines Arena)

Just because I don't like the Heat's mix doesn't mean I refuse to be exposed to it.

To the contrary, it's irresistible.

Maybe these guys will mesh. Maybe they won't. Either way, as ill-advised as some of us might find Pat Riley's roster choices, you have to say it's a fascinating collection of personalities.

How fascinating?

At a time when Dwyane Wade should have the ball in his hands as much as possible, and when Shaquille O'Neal wants more late-game touches than he got in the East finals, Riles is suddenly asking Stan Van Gundy to integrate Antoine Walker and Jason Williams, both of whom need plenty of the ball to be effective.

As though that challenge wasn't sufficient, Van Gundy also will be the first NBA coach who tries to bring Gary Payton off the bench. Did someone say gamble? Payton could be a drain on team togetherness as a reserve, but he could also play so well that Van Gundy asks him to finish games. Which would then put Williams on the bench, draining.

So, yeah.

Once camp commences, there won't be a coach in the NBA busier than Stan The Man On The Hot Seat.

2. San Antonio Spurs (U.S. Virgin Islands)

What in the world has happened to the champs?

Conditioned to doubt its free-agent chances after failed runs at Jason Kidd and Karl Malone, San Antonio stunned itself by convincing two former All-Stars to sign on for a combined first-season cost of just over $3 million.

And now they proceed to perhaps the most exotic camp address in league history.

The Spurs?

That's right. To see from day one how Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel fit in with boring-no-more Team Duncan, you have to be in the Virgin Islands.

(Fortunately for your humble correspondent, I'm on a plane bound for St. Thomas as you're reading this.)

The champs, of course, are headed there not only to bond for their title defense but as a gesture to Tim Duncan, the 7-footer from St. Croix who put the Virgin Islands on the world basketball map. Word is there are 50,000 locals hoping for one of the 1,200 tickets available via lottery for San Antonio's intrasquad scrimmage Friday night, which is the only camp session open to the public ... and already considered "the greatest sporting night in U.S. Virgin Islands history" by UVI athletic director Peter Sauer.

Yup. The Spurs have never been hotter.

3. Los Angeles Lakers (University of Hawaii)


They're not this high on the list because they're back in Hawaii for camp.

Honolulu is indeed a hot and (allegedly) glamorous spot, but it wouldn't matter where the Lakers convene now that Phil Jackson is back to coach Kobe Bryant. After years of sparring punctuated by Phil's tell-all book, we all want to see whether they can just get along. It's an obsession that should explain why Bryant is already on record with a plea to reporters to ask about other things.

"I really don't want to turn this season, every [media] session, into a me-and-Phil conversation," Kobe said last week, knowing that's exactly where every media conversation is headed.

As a bonus, turns out there actually are other topics of interest besides the main drama. Lamar Odom's role in the Zenmeister offense, Lamar Odom's shoulder and Lamar Odom's expected tutoring sessions with new mentor Scottie Pippen all are stories to monitor.

Whether the nine-ring coach can even get this team to the playoffs -- and how he deals with the weakest bench of his career -- is another uncertainty or two that starts to be answered this week.

It's also quite likely that that the big blowup of the Kobe-and-Phil reunion will involve Kwame Brown, specifically Kobe or Phil unloading on the enigmatic big man, who has never taken scoldings well.

In short, after a year off, they're the Lakers again. Which means it's never too early to start paying attention.

That much was proven the last time the Lakers went to Hawaii, in October 2003. That's where Bryant resumed life in the daily spotlight after being charged with sexual assault, and where Karl Malone and Gary Payton began their one-year tours in purple and gold, and where the first signs of Shaquille O'Neal's deteriorating relationship with owner Jerry Buss played out with a couple screams from Shaq during an exhibition game. Nine months later, O'Neal was in Miami.

4. New York Knicks (Charleston, S.C.)

It is not inconceivable that the Knicks will acquire Eddy Curry from Chicago sometime this week.

Even if they don't, Larry Brown's formally undertaking the dreamy task of coercing Stephon Marbury (and Jerome James) to play his way should be sufficiently decent theatre.

It is likewise not inconceivable, if camp fails to meet the new coach's impossibly high standards, that Brown will start nagging boss Isiah Thomas with trade suggestions sometime next week.

5. Detroit Pistons (Auburn Hills, Mich.)

The Pistons being the Pistons, they undoubtedly wish that they weren't on this top-10 list, which allows them to feed off their first dis of the season.

Sorry, fellas. Doesn't matter that the offseason roster moves were decidedly un-hot, amounting to no more than tweaking.

The natural parallel to following every dribble of Larry's New York homecoming is tracking Life Without Larry (and what it means for Darko Milicic) in Detroit.

6. Phoenix Suns (Tucson, Ariz.)

A year ago, you would have paid to get into their practices. The Suns' running game was that refreshing.

A year later, we're heading to Tucson from St. Thomas to get a good scouting report for you.

The early suspicion here, though, is that these Suns won't be slowed as much as their rivals are hoping. Despite losing Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson, they still have two supreme athletes (Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion) flanking Steve Nash ... who, to his disbelief, is still the reigning MVP.

If Amare looks half as good as Phoenix types are saying, and if Nash overcomes concerns about his backups by avoiding serious injury, they shouldn't look too different stylistically.

Except in the playoffs, that is, when the banging supplied by Kurt Thomas and Brian Grant should free up Stoudemire for even more offensive wreckage.

7. Cleveland Cavaliers (Quicken Loans Arena)

What kind leader will LeBron James be at 21?

For that answer, you'll have to wait until his birthday, Dec. 30.

In the interim ...

James, still just 20, has almost three months to click with his new supporting cast, and this week is step one.

It's the first legitimate supporting cast of his career, after new owner Dan Gilbert funded new general manager Danny Ferry to make four key signings for new coach Mike Brown: Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, Damon Jones and a re-signed Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

The result?

When James finally makes his first playoff appearance, he'll be expected to do so as a No. 4 or 5 seed in the East.

Which means the pressure is already tangible.

8. Indiana Pacers (Conseco Fieldhouse)

Can they depend on Ron Artest for a whole season?

Can they depend on Ron Artest for a week of two-a-days?

The Pacers' viability as a championship contender depends on it, in their first season without Reggie Miller since 1986-87.

The amazing part? The masses seem to be betting that Artest will be reliable all the way to June, because Indy -- simply by virtue of reclaiming Artest, drafting Danny Granger and importing fearless foreigner Sarunas Jasikevicius -- is pretty much a consensus title contender wherever you look.

I believe it as much as anyone, as confirmed by Indiana's No. 4 spot in the season's first edition of the ESPN.com NBA Power Rankings.

Still ...

With Ron Artest, some will say it depends on the day.

9. Atlanta Hawks (Philips Arena)

If you believe that any publicity is good publicity -- and you have to if you've been ignored locally and nationally for as long as the Hawks have -- their offseason was a bonanza.

It started when Joe Johnson, in a stunningly rare admission from a marquee free agent, actually decided he wanted to play in Atlanta.

Johnson then convinced the 62-win Suns to engage in sign-and-trade talks with the 13-win Hawks, only to see minority owner Steve Belkin and the other two wings of Atlanta's three-headed ownership monster end up in a Boston court in an unprecedented dispute over the advisability of the trade.

When the deal finally went through, some three weeks after it was agreed to, Belkin was bought out by his co-owners and Johnson had a signing bonus of nearly $14 million as part of a five-year deal worth almost $70 million in total. What it all means now is that a franchise increasingly known for its patches of empty seats at home games has something more to offer as a spectacle beyond Josh Smith's amazing dunk of the night.

Starting Tuesday morning at its first practice, Atlanta's season becomes a mission for Johnson to prove that he merits max dollars ... and that he's worthy of all the public infighting his move to Atlanta caused ... and thus convince a league of skeptics that he was wise to force his way out of championship contention in the desert for the chance to be The Man with a club that needed a scandal this bizarre to get anyone to pay attention.

10. New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets (Southern Nazarene University, Okla.)

I want to see how NBA-ready Chris Paul looks because his wrist injury denied me that opportunity at the Las Vegas summer league.

I'd also like to chat with Arvydas Macijauskas to find out why one of the best shooters in Europe chose to sign with the worst team in the West.

But this isn't the time. Serious hoop talk involving the Hornets has to wait until they can settle into a semblance of normalcy as a displaced franchise in Oklahoma City ... if they can.

The first step is getting acquainted with their new practice home at Southern Nazarene, commencing Monday with what threatens to be a somber media day in the Hornets' first team function since Hurricane Katrina forced them to leave New Orleans, possibly forever.