Amare Stoudemire: He’s going to lead the League in scoring. We haven’t seen a big man this fluid, explosive and adept at putting the ball in the hoop since Hakeem. No one can stop him (although, if I had to choose, I’d pick Tyson Chandler). And he has a mid-range jumper now, too. He’ll turn in the first 30 and 10 season in close to two decades, but it’ll be a more jarring visual experience than watching the ‘89-’90 Karl Malone.
Josh Smith, Andre Iguodala and Luol Deng: All three of these kats gave their respective teams the Heisman during contract negotiations two summers ago. They played last season under heavier scrutiny and burden (plus second-guessing from peers, like Gilbert Arenas), but managed to perform their ways to big-dough contracts. The thing is, of the three, I only dig Josh. Call it early-season rust, big contract-jitters, whatever; but Dre and Luol look booty so far and I think both are headed for careers worth well below their salaries. Neither are Real Franchise Players and they don’t even seem to pass the Face of the Franchise sniff-test. Iguodala and Deng might combine for two or three All-Star appearances for the rest of their careers and I guarantee you that they play suspect, tentative, “I’m not who you thought I was” ball, this season. A long season is ahead, but 11 ppg on 35 percent shooting for Deng and Iguodala’s 11 ppg and four turnovers per game are reason for concern. Meanwhile, I’m already on record asserting that Josh is gonna be the dude that makes The Leap. So far? 14, 11, 3 and 3. Hold your head, folks.
Kevin Love, Michael Beasley and Derrick Rose: By the end of this season, I think we’ll be able to surmise the following, in terms of each rookie’s likely career: Love will be a P.J. Brown-type; Beasley will be a Chris Webber-type; Derrick Rose will invent his own career. Translation: Love will have a long, solid career, capable of playing a vital role for good squads; Beasley will be prolific, sometimes dominant, but never be The Guy for a championship squad; Derrick Rose could challenge Chris Paul for best point guard of his generation or degenerate into a Stephon Marbury.
Danny Granger and Kevin Durant: I feel like Danny Granger might end up being the player we all expected Durant to be: long, nasty J, all types of stuff around the bucket. But Granger can also lock a dude down. I feel like we’ll seem him balling in Phoenix Feb. 15. Durant, on the other hand, might get swallowed up by a cornball franchise and an even cornier city. My No. 1 wish is for Durant to be traded to a respectable and nurturing franchise. Do you realize that the Sonics franchise hasn’t produced a star since the GP-Kemp duo? We’re going on 15 years of wasted talents. I’m paying close attention to Durant. Even if he averages 20-plus, I want to know what kind of 20-plus he averages. I watched him against the Boston and Minnesota, where he did little else besides shoot poorly. The situation seems toxic.
Lamar Odom: I can’t tell if Odom’s Good Soldier routine is an act, a charade, a façade or what. He laughs, jokes and cheerleads on the sidelines, then comes in the game and plays his 6th Man role with efficiency and subtlety. How long is it going to last, though? How long will Odom submit to yielding his spot in the starting line-up (and, actually more important, his spot in the pre-game introductions) to Vladimir Radmonovic, someone Phil Jackson once called a space cadet? Phil is an important variable, given that he’s one of maybe three or four coaches that an Odom-like player would respect enough to comply with this decision. There’s only two ways for this experiment to proceed. Either Odom continues to dim his ego and the Lakers stomp through the league with more depth and accord than any team in recent memory. Or, Lamar starts acting up and he’s traded for a Marion, Kirilenko or Stephen Jackson. Other than Phil’s stature, two things can help keep Odom placated in his role: overall minutes and crunch-time minutes. The true test of a player’s value is if he’s balling at the end of the game, especially close ones. With the Lakers’ depth, this might be a season when Odom averages less than 30 minutes per game (I’m predicting only Kobe and Gasol will routinely log 30-plus minutes) for the first time in his career. But thus far, Phil has gone with an Odom-Gasol-Kobe-Fisher-Player X lineup during crunch-time, which is a testament to Odom’s true place in the team’s hierarchy.
Tony Allen: He’s been balling with, um, a lot of, shall we say, balls. He takes offensive liberties like he’s the main option. It’s pretty alarming to watch. He’s so wild that whenever I see a marginal-but-confident player really going hard, I call it “doing a Tony Allen” or “going Tony Allen.” The silver-lining for the Cs is that, if he harnesses some of his aggression and cuts down on his penchant to take delusional forays to the cup, Allen could make the Cs somewhat forget about Posey’s defection and act as an inurance policy for Boston’s other Allen, the aging Allen. I could see Tony imploding or exploding. Keep your eyes on him.
James Posey: Folks are calling Posey the new Robert Horry. I’m skeptical. Horry didn’t just hit “big shots,” he hit game-winners. And he was a “bell-weather” player for the bulk of his career. Posey had a good run with the 2006 Heat and the 2008 Cs; but the new Horry? If he hits a bunch of clutch shots that propel the Hornets to a championship, then yeah. If he’s just James Posey for the New Orleans Hornets–which is what I suspect–then we need to chill on the Horry comparisons. That’s how much I respect Horry’s career. He’s quite possibly the best “true” role-player of the past 30 years.
Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Steve Nash: This week, Duncan was on a fast break, caught a bounce about four feet from the hoop…and laid it up. I was flabbergasted. He’s 7-feet, with incredibly long arms, yet he didn’t have enough lift to dunk the ball. Let me be the first (or six thousandth) to tell you that Duncan is headed for an up-n-down season, where he plays at an All-Star level less often than he plays at a Lumbering Big Man level. He has the game to remain effective without his mobility, but his days of dominating are over. I’ve already written that Nash is due to have his 2008 Jason Kidd season, so look for him to hit the wall after All-Star break. KG? He’s always had trouble taking over games, perhaps because he was too unselfish, but maybe because he was reticent. Reticence will have nothing to do with it anymore, though. There’s 1,000 games on those scrawny legs. He has no choice but to be a complimentary player.
Rodney Stuckey: The youngster was the real centerpiece in Detroit’s A.I.-Billups trade. There was no way Dumars was going to let Stuckey waste away for the four remaining years on Billups’ contract. So Joe cleared space and time. Was it the right move? We’ll see.
Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Paul Pierce: The MVP race will come down to these four players.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.