The NBA regular season is rapidly approaching and with as much star power The Association trots out onto the hardwood each night, it’s hard to find a franchise that doesn’t have a bevy of interesting questions up in the air. While parity might not be the NBA’s strong suit, there’s a great level of individual talent around the league from top to bottom and last year fans saw smart management pay dividends with small market franchises like the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies making deep playoff runs. This winter the Heat is on, again, as LeBron and company look for their third consecutive NBA title, but the return of a prodigal son in the Windy City and the NBA’s newest “big three” are just an appetizer for the interesting twists and turns we’ll undoubtedly see over the next 82 games. For a quick reference, I’ve tallied a top ten list of the NBA’s most pressing issues before opening tip-off as a primer for the continued NBA coverage into next summer on Place To Be Nation. Here are ten things every NBA fan should watch for in the 2013-2014 NBA season!
1. The Derrick Rose Show
Derrick Rose is the sole name sandwiched between LeBron James’s stranglehold on the NBA MVP trophy, Rose won the honor in 2011, the last full season Rose saw action. After a horrendous injury in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, Rose’s status last season was a constant question, especially during the freakish comeback of Adrian Peterson in the NFL. Bucking the trend, Derrick Rose remained firm in planning his comeback on his own terms, despite constant rumors of a return to strengthen the injury riddled Bulls in the 2013 playoffs, Rose sat out the entirety of last season. There’s no doubt Rose has spent the last year doing anything and everything he can to return to his MVP form, but in a game that requires as much speed, agility and quickness as pro basketball, it’s only natural to wonder how effective Rose will be, at least right away. There’s no time for warming up, either. The NBA is pulling no punches on opening night, pitting Rose and the Bulls against the defending champion Heat in a star-studded affair in South Beach. It’s going to take a team with a legitimate superstar to dethrone the Heat. Derrick Rose has proven to be one of the league’s best handful of players at any time, perhaps 1A only behind LeBron James at his peak. The Bulls will need Rose at 110% and playing at that high level into the summer months if it’s time to bring championship hardware back to Chicago.
2. Three’s Company
NBA fans around the world cheered as the newly formed “big three”-video-game-come-to-life Miami Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, seeing a hero turned super villain LeBron James get his medicine after spurning the hometown team. Since then, there’s been little for Heat detractors to cheer about. The Heat have firmly planted themselves in the group of the NBA’s elite teams historically, winning back to back titles and going back and forth between outright dominance and playing cat and mouse with their opponents during the regular season. In between historic winning streaks, the Heat seem to go through the motions, knowing that come playoff time, their opponents only get as close to beating them as King James allows. That’s not a knock on valiant efforts from squads like the Pacers or Bulls who have given their all against the Heat. Both have fought the Heat tooth and nail, only to see their best, not be good enough. Ten years ago, maybe a team like the Pacers at least makes a Finals appearance. Today, however, the road to the Eastern Conference title is more about the Heat losing than anyone else winning. The Heat are as good as the best basketball player in the world wills them to be. Could the quiet undercurrent of next year’s free agency be enough of a distraction to make Miami stumble somewhere along the road?
3. Houston, we don’t have a problem (yet)
Dwight Howard has done a slew of impressive things in the NBA, from smooth, silky dunks and athletic plays that no man of his size should be capable of performing, to pumping new blood into the NBA’s dunk contest and taking the Magic into the NBA Finals. The most impressive thing Dwight Howard has done? In light of all of those wonderful things and the natural marketability of someone like Dwight Howard, he’s gone from Superman to the most loathed player in the NBA. In consecutive stops at Orlando and Los Angeles, Howard was too timid to own his opinions, instead letting literally everyone else speak for him. Between his goofy smiles and dismissing trade rumors, Howard has ruined his reputation with the Magic, a team he brought back to relevancy and any other athlete would be revered by, and the Lakers, possibly the most iconic NBA franchise of all time. The Lakers toyed with the NBA’s new love affair with “big threes” and inked Howard in a blockbuster deal along with Steve Nash, but instead of the Miami Heat, they got the same mangled, crippled mess their last big three had in 2003, with neither Howard, Nash or Kobe meshing at the right time. Or playing at all. There were lots of reasons why last year’s Lakers were doomed from the start, but Howard jumping ship to Houston (who was the favorite before he went to LA) after one failed season was quite the surprise. In Houston, Howard will play alongside one of the NBA’s best up and coming players, James Harden for a one two punch that can go blow for blow with anyone in the NBA. The question won’t be will Harden and Dwight work together, it will boil down to…will Dwight Howard finally accept his role? Howard is easily the best big man in the NBA when playing 100%, but he’s still been in a slight decline over the last couple of seasons. He’s rarely proven to be mentally strong, the polar opposite of a leader and at his peak, perhaps not as dangerous an offensive weapon as James Harden. Will Howard be able to live a full season being the complement and muscle to someone like Harden? We’ve only seen a tough Dwight Howard in spurts when he’s not the focal point of a team, on or off the court. His mere presence could do wonders for Harden or Jeremy Lin, but it could mean Howard isn’t the staple of the offense. If that’s the case, how long will it take before we hear the same rumblings from Howard’s camp we heard in Orlando and Los Angeles?
4. Battle for Los Angeles
For years, the Clippers had to play little brother to the one consistently important sports franchise in LA, the Lakers. The rebirth of one of the NBA’s worst franchises into one of the coolest to watch on TV has been astonishing. After years of poor decisions in the front office, mind numbing management, general lack of talent or interest, the Clippers somehow assembled quite the core the past few years. Drafting Blake Griffin rejuvenated the Clippers, bringing in Chris Paul told fans the franchise was serious about winning. Add in a freak athlete like DeAndre Jordan and there is a lot for Clip fans to be happy about. Last year ‘Lob City’ was one of the best stories out in the West, although the high-flying action fizzled out when they faced more seasoned competition in the playoffs. Taking the next step, the Clippers snagged the biggest prize of the offseason not named Dwight Howard, ex-Celtics coach Doc Rivers. Rivers managed a trio of stars in Boston, brought home a NBA championship and had the Celtics as perennial contenders year in and year out. In many ways, he took a downtrodden Celtics team to the mythical next level, a similar challenge facing the Clippers. The Clippers have arguably the best pure PG in the NBA, two high-powered weapons in Griffin and Jordan and nice additions with JJ Redick and Jared Dudley to fill the gaps. Maybe one of the NBA’s elite coaches in Rivers is exactly what the Clippers need to make a deep run and become the new kings of Los Angeles.
5. Meanwhile, in Boston…
Doc Rivers joining the Clippers was one of the summer’s biggest stories, but it wasn’t the only thing that shook up the Celtics as we’ve gotten to know them. Along with Rivers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce packed their bags, leaving Rajon Rondo as the last man standing in Boston. Brad Stevens, the most sought after coach in all of college basketball, passed on a blue blood opportunity at UCLA and took the challenge of leading one of the NBA’s most historic franchises. It was a gutsy move, it was a shocking move and it’s frankly a move that could go boom or bust for the Celtics. Stevens has done wonders in college, but at age 36, he’s not far removed in age from most of his players. And in the NBA, there’s a much stronger emphasis on management and leadership, not necessarily the X’s and O’s. That’s on top of middling success for big name college basketball coaches in recent history…that’s not all, Stevens takes the job as Celtics coach without a single day of experience at the pro level. Not playing, not coaching, not assisting. The Celtics were one of the most consistent teams in the Eastern Conference and are truly in a rebuilding mode this season. Unfortunately for Stevens, Boston’s recent success might make Celtics fans a little impatient should the team tank towards the bottom of the conference standings. Stevens heading the Celtics will at the least, be an interesting experiment. Should he fail, he’ll likely have a soft cushion waiting for him back in the college ranks
6. Where’s Brooklyn At?
The Boston Celtics weren’t the only team to gamble on a head coach this offseason. The Brooklyn Nets reached out to franchise legend Jason Kidd to coach the Nets, a little more than a week after Kidd retired as an active player. Kidd has always been well-respected for his leadership and game management on the court and has always been one of the smartest point guards in the league (off the court transgressions aside). Still, Kidd is also very young at age 40 and taken the task of heading a team that’s built to win now. Brooklyn is not in a rebuilding mode, they’ve moved enough pieces around to expect a reasonable shot at a conference championship, or more. The Nets had one of the most interesting rosters in the East last year, but struggled to find their identity at times, perhaps due to a lack of strong leadership. Enter Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Pierce and KG bring not only their basketball talents to Brooklyn, but unquestionable leadership skills and experience that few in the league can rival. It’s true that both are towards the end of their careers, but are still more than serviceable players and have more than enough left in the tank to perform at a high level when the pressure is on. Add perennial All-Stars Deron Williams and Joe Johnson and the Nets could have the deepest roster in the East. Brooklyn’s success will depend on Kidd’s ability to manage his pieces and the players buying in and accepting their roles. That’s sometimes easier said than done. If the stars align, though, watch out. There’s enough firepower in BK to make it to the Conference Finals and all bets could be off.
7. Rolling Thunder?
Oklahoma City has built its franchise into the class of the Western Conference, thanks in large part to having the NBA’s best player not named LeBron James. Still, the loss of James Harden to Houston and a serious injury to Russell Westbrook derailed the Thunder’s chances for revenge on Miami last season. It wasn’t a surefire thing that Harden would emerge as one of the best handful of players in the NBA last year, but after losing Westbrook, having another elite player alongside Durant would have been a godsend. The news isn’t much better this year. Westbrook will likely miss six weeks to start the season and will have to get back into the mix when the games and results matter. The Western Conference has been tightly contested for the better part of the last ten years and every game counts, even in November. With a truly healthy Westbrook, the Thunder are likely the most dangerous team in the West, but his importance was magnified last year in his absence. Coming back from a gruesome knee injury is also not ideal for a high intensity player like Westbrook (not that it’s ever ideal). A large portion of his game is predicated on speed and recklessness and for someone who relies on his legs so much, are there any guarantees he will play with the same fire he had before the injury? Worse yet, how many times will Thunder fans collectively gasp when he hits the floor? Russell Westbrook isn’t the best point guard in the NBA and it’s not really close. In fact, he’s often the most frustrating great player in the league. But, he may prove to be the most important point guard to his team this winter.
8. Around the Trading Block
Last season’s trade deadline essentially focused on one man, Josh Smith and scenarios involving Dwight Howard. Of course, big time deals happened once the action finished on the court, but this year, there’s a great chance in season trade rumors are more than just talk. There are potential scenarios that could see names like Kevin Love on the trading block…and it’s not an NBA season without Rajon Rondo trade rumors until midnight of the deadline. Could the Heat be potential sellers? Chris Bosh has been framed as the expendable one of the big three and perhaps there’s a real chance he gets moved along elsewhere. The off-season is where things could get very, very interesting. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Bosh are all free agents. So is Carmelo Anthony. In fact, Anthony has flat-out said he wants to test the waters and enter Free Agency at season’s end. Carmelo is one of the most criticized players in the NBA, but would be extremely valuable in the right situation should he want out of New York. Some other names that are up for free agency at season’s end include Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki. Not all of those names will go elsewhere, but there’s enough star power in the 2014 free agents that even if one or two of those names bolt, there could be some very interesting shifts of power in the NBA next year. It will be interesting to see who among that crop (and let’s forget LeBron for now) of players will be worth the most in the eyes of GMs next summer. I’d bet fans will be surprised at some of the people cut loose.
9. Full Tank
Last season’s draft was underwhelming from a name recognition standpoint, but the results on the court are to be determined. The 2014 draft is “the” draft that NBA execs around the league have been waiting for since last year, or maybe the year before that. Andrew Wiggins would likely be the #1 draft pick today before playing a second of college basketball and he’ll enter the lottery with names like Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Dante Exum, who have been on film in NBA front offices well before they could buy a pack of cigarettes. The NBA draft’s first round is usually a split of two types of players, ones who made a name for themselves in March after the NCAA tourney and ones who had a roster spot in the NBA waiting for them before they finished their senior year of high school. This year is heavy on the latter. It will be interesting to see how a player like Andrew Wiggins fares in college, but his spot in the draft is all but final, even if he goes through the motions this season. We might see some hidden gems from the 2013 class emerge this winter, but next year’s draft will be a crop of “next big things”. There’s a group of teams that are already planning on landing Wiggins and the draft is always more exciting and lottery shenanigans more enticing when there’s significant star power.
10. The best of the rest…
Kobe Bryant is still one of the best players in the NBA. Between the departure of Dwight Howard and the emergence of the Clippers, the Lakers find themselves an afterthought, unfamiliar territory for the Lake Show. Kobe Bryant is taking the anti-Rose approach and doing all he can to return to true Kobe form as fast as possible this season…it goes without saying that if the Lakers want to snag one of the last playoff spots in the West, they need Kobe at 100%. The Pacers also find themselves lost in the shuffle between the Heat and Bulls, despite taking Miami to seven games last year. Maybe that’s just where Indiana wants to be, the pressure on Miami and Chicago could give the Pacers a perfect path back to the conference finals. Detroit took a gamble on bringing in Josh Smith and Will Bynum to reinvent themselves. Josh Smith is a high quality player, but Bynum is a wildcard, to put it mildly. Detroit, Denver, the Knicks, Portland, Philadelphia are among the teams middling around, a lucky bounce here and there from snagging a playoff spot or getting hot. Memphis and Golden State are right at the cusp of becoming dominant teams in the West while San Antonio could finally ride off into the sunset as their group grows yet another year older. Oh, and, welcome to the New Orleans Pelicans.
I often say one of the things I like most about baseball is the 162 game season. It gives each team an eternity to get hot, get cold, go on a run or tank, but there’s always time to turn the ship around. The same can be said for basketball. Over the span of 82 games there will be contenders, pretenders and like every year, a chunk of teams just wading water in the middle. As much as I admire the way the Heat play basketball, it’s in the best interest for the NBA that someone else legitimately challenge them. In that sense the West has been a much more entertaining conference, because there’s a handful of really good teams vying for that top spot. None as good as the Heat, but it makes for more entertaining television than knowing one team will likely run away with the conference by January. Maybe this is the year the big three show their mortality. Maybe it’s the year Kevin Durant takes the next step and truly climbs to LeBron’s level. Regardless, there will be no shortage of drama, excitement and maybe the most insane displays of athleticism in all of professional sports this year in the NBA. Here’s to another great season.