Waiting for the tipoff

RYAN WOLSTAT -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:01 AM ET

Much has changed in the National Basketball Association since June, when the San Antonio Spurs wrapped up their fourth championship in nine seasons by sweeping the overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers.

The acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have given the Boston Celtics, with five-time all-star Paul Pierce already in place, one of the most imposing trios in recent league history.

The lowly Portland Trail Blazers lucked into potential superstar Greg Oden, despite having only the sixth-best odds, then found out the big centre would miss the season after undergoing microfracture surgery.

With camps getting underway shortly, here's a look at some of the major story lines and the big question concerning each team.

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Eastern Conference

ATLANTA HAWKS

Camp chatter: Star guard Joe Johnson has recovered from a calf injury that held him to just 57 games last season ... How will coach Mike Woodson find enough minutes for SF/PFs Josh Smith and Marvin Williams, as well as Al Horford, sophomore Shelden Williams, Zaza Pachulia and Lorenzen Wright?

The big question: Have the point guard-starved Hawks finally found the long-term answer in 11th overall selection Acie Law? The Hawks, who passed on star point men Deron Williams and Chris Paul in 2005 in favour of yet another swingman (Marvin Williams), sure hope so.

BOSTON CELTICS

Camp chatter: The Celtics are energized and hungry thanks to the blockbuster trades that brought Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to town ... Two-thirds of the roster was shipped away to acquire them ... The thin Celtics will expect a lot from veteran James Posey, who won a championship with Miami in 2006, as well as gunner Eddie House.

The big question: How long will it take the superstar triumvirate to jell? All three are far more willing to pass the ball than most superstars, but don't expect magic right off the bat. The trio is used to playing with far lesser talent and will have to adapt to not having to carry a team solo.

CHARLOTTE BOBCATS

Camp Chatter: The arrival of star guard Jason Richardson has this 33-win team thinking the playoffs could be in reach ... Sophomore Adam Morrison has a lot to prove after co-owner Michael Jordan chose him third overall in 2006. Morrison was a major disappointment in his rookie year, shooting just 38% from the floor.

The big question: Can these guys stay healthy? Former rookie of the year Emeka Okafor has missed 81 games over the past two years. Gerald Wallace has missed 37. Centre Primoz Brezec sat out 24 last season, while power forward Sean May has managed to play in only 58 games in his first two NBA seasons. Richardson missed 31 games in 2006-07.

CHICAGO BULLS

Camp chatter: Rookie Joakim Noah (shoulder) missed summer league but should be ready to go when camp opens ... Rising star Luol Deng (18.8 points, 7.1 rebounds a year ago) had an outstanding summer, leading Great Britain to a 6-0 record and a promotion to the A division of next year's European Championships.

The big question: Are the Baby Bulls ready to grow up? Their best player, Deng, is only 22. Point guard Kirk Hinrich is 26. Ben Gordon is 24, Noah is 22 and potential standout Tyrus Thomas, is just 21. The young core should be scary good in a few seasons, but big things are expected right away.

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Camp chatter: Management of the surprise NBA finalists risks poisoning the locker room by low-balling restricted free agents Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic who remain unsigned ... Summer rumours had team mulling shipping out Drew Gooden for Sacramento point guard Mike Bibby in order to make room for Varejao in the starting lineup.

The big question: When will LeBron James get his supporting cast? The Cavs need to upgrade LeBron's aging sidekicks, but have tied up far too much money in the oft-injured Larry Hughes (over $38 million US owed over next three seasons), plus the declining Zydrunas Ilgauskas ($32 million/3).

DETROIT PISTONS

Camp chatter: Young big men Amir Johnson, who signed a three-year $12-million deal after tearing up the D-League to the tune of 18.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.1 blocks, and Jason Maxiell will be asked to pick up the slack with the departure of Chris Webber. The starting centre spot is up for grabs.

The big question: Have they had their day? The Pistons have been to the Eastern Conference final each of the past five seasons, winning the 2005 NBA title, but their starting lineup is now the league's oldest, averaging 31 years.

INDIANA PACERS

Camp chatter: Jim O'Brien takes over for taskmaster Rick Carlisle as the Pacers look to rebound from a disastrous 35-47 campaign that saw the team miss the playoffs for the first time in a decade ... Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy and Ike Diogu, acquired from Golden State halfway through last season, get their first training camp with the Pacers.

The big question: Will Jermaine O'Neal be a Pacer at season's end? Ever since Ron Artest's outburst in Detroit almost three years ago turned the Pacers from contenders to pretenders, franchise player O'Neal has waffled between committing to the team and asking to be shipped elsewhere. O'Neal was heavily pursued by the Lakers, Nets and Knicks this off-season.

MIAMI HEAT

Camp chatter: It's a good-news/bad-news situation for the league's most high profile pairing. Shaquille O'Neal has worked himself into excellent shape after posting career lows across the board last season, but Dwyane Wade, who put up mostly career highs, is still recovering from May shoulder surgery and is expected to miss the first month of the season ... The Heat did little to beef up aging and declining supporting cast.

The big question: How many games will the dynamic duo play together? O'Neal and Wade missed 42 and 31 games respectively last season as the defending NBA champions stumbled to a 44-38 record and a first-round exit. Shaq is in shape, but at 36 and well over 300 pounds, it's unlikely he'll suit up for all 82 games.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Camp chatter: Owner and U.S. Senator Herb Kohl had to use all of his political wiles in order to convince sixth overall selection Yi Jianlian to sign with Milwaukee. Yi only ended his lengthy holdout once Kohl guaranteed he would get significant playing time ... The team can only get better under Larry Krystkowiak who took over for overmatched Terry Stotts.

The big question: Can these guys play even passable defence? It's obvious they can score. Michael Redd ranked sixth in the league with a 26.7 scoring average, Mo Williams averaged 17.3, Charlie Villanueva can fill it up in a variety of ways, but only Williams is an average defender out of that trio. Jianlian is also a finesse player who duplicates a lot of what Villanueva provides.

NEW JERSEY NETS

Camp chatter: Dug deep to find the $61.8 million necessary to bring back Vince Carter. Will he play hard or regress like he did soon after signing his first mega-contract with the Raptors? ... Upgraded front court with return of Nenad Kristic (averaged 16.4 ppg and 6.8 rpg before tearing anterior cruciate ligament 26 games into the season), and addition of former all-star Jamaal Magloire and shot-blocking rookie Sean Williams.

The big question: Will Jason Kidd's body hold up for another season? The Nets will go only as far as Kidd takes them. While the team has talent, they likely would be in the lottery without their floor general. Kidd was remarkable in the playoffs, averaging a triple-double (14.6 points, 10.9 assists and rebounds per-game), but is now 34-years-old and playing on a surgically repaired knee.

NEW YORK KNICKS

Camp chatter: Team president and coach Isiah Thomas will have to avoid being distracted by his court case because he has a lot on his plate with this team. Stephon Marbury spent the off-season putting his foot in his mouth about dog fighting among other things, but should have been working on his declining game. Marbury scored only 16.4 points last season, his lowest since his rookie year and put up career- low assist numbers.

The big question: Can Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph co-exist? While teams like the Raptors and Warriors try to emulate Phoenix's frenetic style, Thomas has decided to build a team that does the exact opposite. There's no question Randolph and Curry will do damage on the offensive end, but they are not quick enough to stop athletic big men and may get into foul trouble long before they can assert themselves offensively.

ORLANDO MAGIC

Camp chatter: Well-regarded coach Stan Van Gundy gets another gig in Florida after being shafted by the Heat. Van Gundy will get the most out of a team that has little depth and major holes at shooting guard and up front. Dwight Howard still has a huge upside, but the Magic will need him to play like Kevin Garnett if it is to make the playoffs.

The big question: Can Rashard Lewis possibly live up to his contract? The Magic gave Lewis a staggering six-year contract that pays him an average of $19.6 million, or about twice what he probably deserves. Lewis is certainly not a top-10 player, but yet he'll be paid like one, earning more than the likes of Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowitzki. The Magic also had to part ways with free agents Darko Milicic and Grant Hill.

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

Camp chatter: Bland Sixers go into season for first time in almost a decade without headline-generating Allen Iverson ... Coach Maurice Cheeks and general manager Billy King are in final year of contracts, so pressure is on to win, despite weak roster ... Samuel Dalembert suited up for Canada in Las Vegas with a stress fracture in his left foot but expects to be ready to go when camp opens.

The big question: Are they destined for no man's land again? The Sixers did themselves no favours last season by finishing the season on a 30-29 run after starting 5-18. A team that should have been in contention for potential championship building blocks Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, instead found itself selecting 12th. Sixers once again have too many solid veterans to be truly abysmal.

TORONTO RAPTORS

Camp chatter: Much to the chagrin of reigning coach of the year Sam Mitchell, camp begins in Treviso, Italy, and moves on to Rome where Andrea Bargnani will get a chance to play in front of family and friends ... Bargnani should supplant Rasho Nesterovic in the starting lineup, despite the Slovenian big man's strong play at the recent Eurobasket tournament ... Off-season acquisitions Jason Kapono and Carlos Delfino will battle it out for starting small forward assignment.

The big question: Can they defend the Atlantic? Toronto caught the league off-guard last season, but nobody will be looking past them this season. The Raptors are not used to being the hunted, but will have to get used to it. The Atlantic Division has improved greatly, so the Raptors will have to utilize their superior depth to neutralize the star-powered Celtics and Nets.

WASHINGTON WIZARDS

Camp chatter: Stole USC's Nick Young with the 15th pick of the draft ... Stars Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison will be playing for expensive new contracts ... Centres Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas take fighting for a spot to a new extreme by constantly brawling with each other.

The big question: Can they keep everyone healthy? Arenas and Caron Butler were having career years before suffering season-ending injuries last April. Antawn Jamison also missed 12 games because of injury. Arenas was a legitimate MVP candidate and had earlier led the Wizards to the East's best record just before the all-star break, while Butler made his first all-star appearance.

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Much has changed in the National Basketball Association since June, when the San Antonio Spurs wrapped up their fourth championship in nine seasons by sweeping the overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers.

The acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have given the Boston Celtics, with five-time all-star Paul Pierce already in place, one of the most imposing trios in recent league history.

The lowly Portland Trail Blazers lucked into potential superstar Greg Oden, despite having only the sixth-best odds, then found out the big centre would miss the season after undergoing microfracture surgery.

With camps getting underway shortly, here's a look at some of the major story lines and the big question concerning each team.


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