Sunday, October 6, 2013

2013-14, The Most Compelling NBA Season Ever?

I will admit, I often criticize people for over-hyping things way too often. People nowadays tend to make over-the-top statements about a subject, forgetting things that happened in the past & only focusing on what they've seen most recently. I don't think however that I'm overstating things by saying that this coming NBA season may be the most compelling ever. Think about it,  when was the last time you had this many big story lines going into the season? For instance, when was the last time you had 3 players who could vie for best in the league at their position, all returning from injury? I'm talking of course about Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook & Rajon Rondo.

I'll start with the Westbrook since the Thunder start the NBA pre-season off with a game in Turkey versus Fenerbahce Ulker. Westbrook will be out for another 4-6 weeks after having a 2nd surgery on his meniscus recently to reduce swelling in the knee. If you're OKC, the preseason will be huge as they will get a chance to see what the team will look like for at least the first couple of weeks of the season, without Westbrook. While its possible he'll only miss the first 2 weeks, with the West as stacked as it is, a few losses early on can be the difference between being the top seed or the 4th or even 5th seed come playoff time.

It has to be somewhat troubling that Westbrook had the second surgery & if there's a chance he's out even longer than expected, don't be surprised if they look to make a trade for a veteran scoring option. Ironically enough, I can't help but think that if Rondo weren't coming back from an injury himself, the Thunder would possibly make a run at him. That would be a very scary lineup with Kevin Durant, Westbrook & Rondo together.

For Rondo, his timetable hasn't even been laid out yet because they still don't know when he'll be ready to go full throttle but the hope is he's be back before the All-Star break. For the Celtics there will be plenty of time to see what they have minus Rondo in order to make the decision to keep him or not. I still subscribe to the belief though that they will trade him at some point if for no other reason than the Paul Pierce trade exception that they have.

Rondo is arguably a max contract player making less than the max so in a league where trading money is as important as trading talent, the amount of money in that trade exception when added with Rondo's contract makes it possible for the Celtics to get fair value for him. For Celtics fans, the dilemma may be, do you trade Rondo in hopes of landing no lower than the 3rd pick in the draft or do you play it out & try to make a run to the playoffs. The draft this year was a step in the right direction though as I believe Kelly Olynyk will show enough to make them worth watching.

The next big deal coming into the season, & would probably be far & away the biggest story any other year, is the return of former league MVP Derrick Rose. Stories were abound last year that he looked healthy enough to return towards the end of the season & he faced, in my opinion, unwarranted criticism from some in the media & even from Bulls fans. Some even foolishly suggested that they should trade him. gotta love 'em sometimes.

The interesting aspect of Rose's return is some of the things that have been going on behind the scenes with the Bulls. There was the firing of one of Mike Thibodeau's trusted assistants by the GM as well as the contract situation of Luol Deng. The Bulls under Jerry Krause were known to be somewhat contentious when it came to those matters but somehow it seems that that attitude from their management team has returned with Gar Forman. Rose returning to the court can be an elixir to some of that behind-the-scenes drama but it will be interesting to see how Thibodeau manages players' minutes this year.

Rose's health is of course the key to whatever success they have this year, but the health of Joakim Noah is also a big deal. As great a coach as Thibs is, one of the criticisms of him has been how hard he pushes the team over the course of the season. They will need to lean on the growth of players like Jimmy Butler & Taj Gibson as well as vets like Carlos Boozer & even a Mike Dunleavy Jr in order to keep Rose, Noah & Deng healthy come playoff time. You can also expect to see guys like Marquise Teague & even rookie Tony Snell to get some looks during the year as Thibs have never been shy about using young players.

Now in any other season, those stories would be more than enough for a compelling season but there is plenty more to look forward to this year. The list is extremely long. You have Dwight Howard going to Houston to play with one of the best young players in the league in James Harden. You have the Nets with the huge trade they made for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce & Jason Terry. And as if that wasn't enough, they also will be incorporating a rookie head coach in none other than the recently retired Jason Kidd. The Golden State Warriors let the NBA know last year in the playoffs that they will be a force to be reckoned with given the play of Steph Curry & they also added one of the best on the ball defenders in the league in Andre Iguodala. They'll finally have a healthy Andrew Bogut & David Lee will be back at full strength to go with young studs Klay Thompson & Harrison Barnes.

The Nets off-season alone would dominate the story lines almost any other year with the trade for Garnett & Pierce, the addition of Andrei Kirilenko & the hiring of Kidd. Kidd will miss the first 2 games of the regular season because of a suspension stemming from a DUI arrest prior to last season. For some reason though, in my opinion not many people are talking about Kidd's lack of coaching experience heading into the season, but to me that is a huge story on its own.

How Kidd manages the veteran egos in the locker room will play a huge part in the team's success this year & already we may have gotten a glimpse of things with his discussion he had with Garnett about sitting him on the 2nd night of back-to-backs. Garnett was quoted as saying "it didn't go too well" & that he doesn't "want to be told anything". Now Garnett has never been accused of being anything less than a team player but that could be a bad sign of how things could turn if the team struggles, especially early on. How will guys react if they're not winning like they expect to & certain guys are not getting the usual amount of touches they feel they need?

Again, all of that is more than enough to build intrigue for the season, but there's still plenty more! You also had Doc Rivers, widely considered one of, if not the best coaches in the league going across the country to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clips have added a couple of the best three point shooters in the league in JJ Redick & Jared Dudley while also bringing in Darren Collison to backup Chris Paul.

The Knicks made some interesting moves by bringing in Andrea Bargnani & Metta World Peace while keeping most of the rest of the roster in tact. That should help them early in the season but the fact that reigning Sixth Man of the Year JR Smith is both returning from late off-season surgery & will also have to sit out the first 5 games due to a drug suspension could slow their progress.

While it seemed they were done making headlines, just days before the start of training camp, Knicks owner James Dolan decided to essentially fire GM Glen Grunwald & bring back Steve Mills who was an executive with the team during the worst 10 year stretch in the franchise's history. The move caused many Knicks fans to worry that it was a pre-cursor to Isiah Thomas returning as well. Fortunately for all of those fans, Mills quickly put that idea to rest by emphatically stating that Thomas would not be brought back. The collective sigh from Knicks fans could be heard all over the tri-state area.

For me, the team I am most curious to see is the Cleveland Cavaliers. On paper, injuries aside, they will put a team on the floor that should compete for one of the bottom three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. They of course still have one of the best young PGs in the game in Kyrie Irving & they brought in Andrew Bynum, who before last season was easily the 2nd best center in the NBA. If he can somehow stay healthy, he may turn out to be the best off-season acquisition in the league.

They also once again somehow landed the top pick in the draft & surprised many, (not myself though as I stated in my NBA Draft Preview) & selected Anthony Bennet out of UNLV. Unfortunately for Cavs fans, much like his new teammates, Bennett is coming back from injury as well so he'll fit right in at the start of camp spending plenty of time in the trainer's room.

A unique side story there also is the fact that Tristan Thompson is doing something that I don't believe has ever been done in the NBA if not all of the three big sports, as he's switched his shooting hand in the off-season. He'll be going from being a left-handed to right-handed shooter. So far, according to reports, he has improved both his free throw shooting & his 10-15' jump shot. All of this, plus the hope of some fans that LeBron James' possible free agency brings him back to Cleveland. I personally think that has almost no shot at happening but only time will tell.

The top of the East bares watching with the Miami Heat & Indiana Pacers. The emergence of Paul George as a superstar & the physical decline of Dwyane Wade will be something to keep your eyes on. While Wade of course has the legacy, now with 3 titles on his resume, George showed the NBA world in the Eastern Conference Finals last year that along with James Harden, he is one of the best SGs in the league. Wade's competitive nature suggests however, that unless he is completely broken down, which I don't believe he is, he will remain in the conversation for at least the next couple of years.

The Pacers organization meanwhile, has made it clear that they are planning on ending the Heat's run this year by adding to their bench by adding guys like Luis Scola, Chris Copeland & CJ Watson with Danny Granger also returning from injury. It remains to be seen whether or not they will keep Granger, but without him, they still managed to push the Heat to seven games last year & they figure to be even better this year.

Back out West, even the Los Angeles Lakers appear to be an interesting story. With their roster, it looks likely that they will be on the outside looking in come playoff time. With Kobe Bryant returning from a torn Achilles tendon, the loss of Dwight Howard & the health of both Pau Gasol & Steve Nash, it may be a long year in LA.

In addition to all of that you have some real Hollywood drama behind the scenes with the hiring of Mike D'Antoni seemingly still a hot topic within the organization. Chief officer in charge of Business Operations Jeannie Buss, wrote a book suggesting a rift between her & her brother Jim Buss. If the Lakers & Celtics don't make the playoffs this year it would mean that the NBA's 2 winningest organizations will be lottery teams with the Lakers future looking bleak. Howard's departure was a cold dose of reality for many in Lakerland as they are not used to players walking away from the team in free agency.

The San Antonio Spurs meanwhile very quietly added a couple of pieces that will keep them in the conversation as a contender after having the title within their grasp only to have it snatched from them by Ray Allen & poor foul shooting down the stretch in the Finals. The play of Manu Ginobili had many wondering if he would retire as some have suggested that he was the biggest factor in them losing to Miami. What seems to be forgotten by many though is the fact that Tony Parker was injured for most of the series & was missing his explosiveness off the dribble.

All of these factors plus even a few more is why I truly believe this will be the most compelling NBA season ever. Will Kevin Durant reclaim his throne as the leading scorer in the league given the health of Russell Westbrook or will Carmelo Anthony defend the title now that the Knicks have added some pieces that will give him even more space to operate.

Will the rebuilding of the Celtics mean that Rondo becomes a piece that changes some contender's fortunes & will the Detroit Pistons return to the playoffs after adding Josh Smith & Brandon Jennings to a roster that already includes Greg Monroe & the very large & athletic Andre Drummond? Will the now New Orleans Pelicans make a run at the playoffs with their extremely young but talented roster? Will Dallas have a drop off so dramatic that it could spell the departure of Dirk Nowitzki? Will the Portland Trailblazers finally stay healthy enough to make a serious run at the playoffs this year?

In Philadelphia & Orlando you can expect both teams to be in competition for worst in the league with Phoenix not far behind. Even Charlotte Bobcats fans have reason to be excited about the upcoming season with the addition of Al Jefferson to a young roster. The Minnesota Timberwolves will finally have Ricky Rubio & a slimmed down Kevin Love at the start of the season & very quietly in Memphis, will the Grizzlies move Zach Randolph before the trade deadline with his impending free agency around the corner?

So as the leaves turn colors & fall approaches every fan of the NBA will have some kind of story to keep a close eye on. LeBron James will have his hands full this year if he hopes to win his 3rd title in a row to further solidify his place in NBA history but one thing is for certain, by the end of the season, whoever is crowned champion they will most certainly have earned the right to be called the 2013-14 NBA Champions.