Posted October 31, 2012

Burning questions for 2012-13 season

Ben Golliver, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Rob Mahoney, Sacramento Kings
LeBron James

Can Heat superstar LeBron James surpass his remarkable 2011-12? (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney

The 2012-13 NBA season tips off on Tuesday night. Here’s 20 burning questions that will define the next eight months of the league.

1. What does LeBron James do for an encore?

LeBron James ditched the “He’s not a winner” criticism with a monster MVP campaign in 2011-12, but he is still shackled with a unique burden of insatiability, one that follows him more than any other player because of his unprecedented physical gifts. His extraordinary play throughout the 2011-12 season and postseason and at the London Olympics raised expectations that much further.

To review, James averaged 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.8 steals while shooting 53.1 percent during the regular season; in the postseason, he put up 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.9 steals and shot 50 percent from the field while playing an absurd 42.7 minutes per game. From a numbers standpoint, James came close to maxing out in his first title run, especially considering the star-studded starting lineup around him. Still, at 27, an age generally considered to be the athletic prime for a player, there’s no reason to expect a reduction of ouput. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra may reduce his regular-season minutes, and some of the scoring duties might be spread out among newcomers Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, but this is still James’ show, and he’s clearly still the premier player in the world.

There’s a solid chance that James repeats his 2012 treble — MVP, Finals win, Finals MVP — in 2013. If he does that, the comparisons to Michael Jordan, which have already begun, will kick into another gear. The second title is clearly the most important of those accolades for James’s legacy, and to help satisfy the never-ending expectations game. No one will fault James if Kevin Durant sneaks in to break up his recent dominance of the MVP award, but should the Thunder, Lakers, Celtics or Spurs prevent James’ second straight ring, his season, no matter how prolific, will be painted as a failure. Not just by outsiders, either. Now that he’s tasted the championship champagne, it’s hard to believe James will be satisfied with anything less.

2. Are the Lakers poised for out-of-the-gate success like the 2008 Celtics, or are they due for gradual adjustment like the 2010 Heat?

The preseason would seem to tilt toward the latter, but there’s ample reason to believe the Lakers will come sprinting out of the gates:

• The Steve Nash-Dwight Howard pick-and-roll — even without much repetition — is poised to be the most brutally effective offensive staple in the league. It should make for a stable source of efficient scoring for both players, and it will stretch the defense in ways that will allow Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to get easy points off of secondary play action.

• While one could hardly expect any other “superteam” to mirror the immediate and daunting defensive success of the 2007-08 Celtics, adding Howard into the middle of an already strong scheme gives these Lakers a strong start. They’ll have the opportunity to work on their rotations and help defense while still locking down opponents. Unlike other hastily assembled contenders, the Lakers have enough roster consistency to draw on last year’s defensive success.

• Nash’s involvement in the offense helps to mitigate the “too-many-stars-for-one-team” trope that’s prevalent as a league narrative. While it’s certainly true that Howard, Bryant and Gasol are all accustomed to certain offensive roles, Nash is the most sophisticated playmaker in the entire league. He’s not simply a great passer with remarkable vision: Nash stands alone in his capacity to orchestrate unique and talented moving parts. This situation will test the full extent of Nash’s creativity and prowess at times, but no point guard is better suited for the task.

• This team simply doesn’t have the same need for concession that Miami did in 2010. Although the Heat narrative grew tiresome, it did hold a bit of truth:  James and Dwyane Wade really did have to give up certain aspects of their games in order to maximize efficiency and avoid redundancy, and it took Miami’s superstars time to find that balance. L.A. will have some overlap with Miami, but on a much smaller scale. Howard, Bryant, Nash and Gasol are all more than capable of playing off of one another right off the bat, if only because they cover broader bases and have such different skill sets.

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis enters the season as a heavy Rookie of the Year favorite. (Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)

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3. Can Anthony Davis live up to his colossal rookie-year expectations?

One might think it impossible given how much is expected of Davis, but the hype around the Hornets’ new centerpiece is deserved. This is the rare case in which the first pick in the draft is actually fairly valued in the public regard; not only is Davis one of the surest talents to come through the college pipeline in some time, but he’s poised to make a profound and immediate impact for a franchise that could use a boost.

Davis won’t be a full-formed All-NBA defender on opening night, but he has the potential to rank among the league leaders in both rebounds and blocked shots while spending his rookie year in a defensive crucible. Every big man will look to overpower Davis in the low post, and every player will attempt to dunk the rookie into YouTube disgrace. But each of those targeted opportunities will only reinforce the rotation patterns and defensive fundamentals that will prove vital to Davis’ eventual reign … even if they also provide bits of momentary embarrassment.

The Hornets and Davis both are playing the long game, but expect some individual victories — statistical achievement, matchup domination, etc. — throughout the upcoming season.

4. Is it a lock that Chris Paul re-signs with the Clippers?

It’s not a done deal, but there are plenty of reasons for Clippers fans to be optimistic about their impending free agent. The best recent situation for comparison is Deron Williams, who elected to remain with the Nets two summers after arriving via trade from Utah. That’s exactly where Paul will find himself in July 2013: two seasons removed into his Los Angeles tenure with a maximum offer from a big market team that can’t be matched by anyone else because of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement’s rules favoring incumbents. Like Williams, Paul might be insistent that the Clippers continue to build toward a championship. Like Williams, he also might explore his options by meeting with other suitors.

But something would have to go drastically wrong this season for Paul not to re-up with the Clips, given the big dollars, big market and his All-Star pairing with Blake Griffin. Paul is so valuable that should the season go south, the Clippers could let him pick his own coach as well as ask for his input in free agency moves. There’s always the “Donald Sterling could find a way to mess this up” factor to consider, but everything else seems to point to a Lob City rerun.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook

How will Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook fare without James Harden? (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

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5. Are the Thunder still title contenders after trading James Harden?

Absolutely, unequivocally yes. Thunder GM Sam Presti, the league’s best decision-maker, made a number of salient points in his post-trade press conference, but the most important one was this: there’s an overemphasis on trying to replicate past events after a major change. The 2013 Thunder won’t be the 2012 Thunder, but how much does that really matter? OKC still has two of the league’s Top 7 players (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook), they still have the league’s premier shot-blocker (Serge Ibaka), they still have depth at all five positions and they still boast a chemistry and focus among the league’s best (the Heat, Spurs and maybe the Celtics come to mind, but that’s about it).

It’s worth pointing out that the Harden loss isn’t equivalent to a season-ending injury. Presti managed to recover a solid player, Kevin Martin, who excels in some of the same ways that Harden did. Martin can stretch the floor, create his own offense and get to the foul line. He’s a clear downgrade overall, doesn’t play much defense and isn’t a natural playmaker, but he definitely plugs the hole. Importantly, he’s not replacing Harden by himself. The Thunder can reasonably expect improvement from all three of their core guys — Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka — and OKC gets back Eric Maynor, a solid reserve guard who can help out on the ball-distribution front. Yes, the Thunder will be different, but they will still look fearsome on most nights.

6. Do the Celtics have one last run left in them?

This has been a fun question to ask for the last two or three seasons, but there’s more reason than ever to expect Boston to continue postponing its demise. With Ray Allen traded, there are now only two legitimately old key players: Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. To be sure, both will require kid gloves from coach Doc Rivers, who knows how to keep his veterans healthy and productive better than anyone (with the possible exception of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich). Otherwise, there’s a veritable youth movement, as Jeff Green (back from heart surgery), Avery Bradley (back from a shoulder surgery) and Courtney Lee (acquired from the Rockets in a summer sign-and-trade) will all add athleticism and skill to the Celtics’ rotation. Franchise point guard Rajon Rondo is now 26, and while he’s prone to emotional outbursts and some unpredictability, he showed during the 2012 East finals against the Miami Heat that he’s one of the few players in the league who can outperform LeBron James, at least on occasion.

The Celtics also benefit from a host of external factors. The East is a weaker conference overall and it’s facing a transitional year. The Bulls, of course, must play a huge chunk of the season without Derrick Rose. The Magic will hit rock bottom without Dwight Howard. The Hawks sidestepped, at best, by moving Joe Johnson. The Knicks didn’t add a true game-changer to their star-driven core. The Pacers maintained rather than progressed. The Nets, totally recast, will need to prove it before they enter the true contender category. By process of elimination, that leaves the Celtics and the Heat as the two most likely teams to emerge from the East again in 2013. Miami might be the clear favorite, but no one has cared less about that in recent years than the confident Celtics. They will, barring a major injury to Garnett or Pierce, be the toughest of outs again this year.

7. How much of a threat do the Nuggets pose to the West’s hierarchy?

Depending on who you ask, Denver is either another good Western Conference team or a squad set to scramble the entire Western Conference playoff picture. Neither outcome is out of the question at this point, but given the weapons at the Nuggets’ disposal, and the number of teams in play to win the West, the odds are good that Denver will add a dash of turmoil to the contending ranks. This is a team potent enough to upset the Thunder, Spurs, or Lakers in a playoff series, and thus throw off the conference’s balance in the process.

By acquiring Andre Iguodala from the Sixers, the Nuggets have addressed their two biggest weaknesses while bolstering their greatest strength. Half-court shot creation may not be an Iguodala forte, but adding another capable passer, scorer and ball-handler gives Denver an alternative option when the offense gets bogged down. Defense was an even greater concern for the Nuggets last season, and Iguodala’s arrival will move Denver’s 20th-ranked defense toward a more manageable mark.

Yet it’s the idea that the transition-savvy Nuggets could somehow get better in the open court that makes this acquisition so alarming for the rest of the league. Iguodala is a perfect fit for the pace and freedom that George Karl’s offense champions, and he will accentuate the best qualities of Denver’s top players. That’s a remarkable development for a team that was lethal on the break last season, and it’s the perfect extension of the Nuggets’ star-less approach.

Vinny Del Negro, Chris Paul

Can Vinny Del Negro (left) convince Chris Paul to stay with the Clippers? (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

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8. Who will be the first coach fired?

Often, this question can be answered by naming whoever happens to be coaching the Wizards or Kings at the time. This year, John Wall’s season-opening knee injury has dampened expectations in the nation’s capital, sparing Randy Wittman some opening month pressure. And the Maloofs’ reluctance to spend even a single dollar more than necessary virtually guarantees that Keith Smart won’t need to look over his shoulder in Sac-town.

A quick survey of the league shows more coaching stability than usual. A long list of teams expected to make the playoffs have seemingly no reason to change direction (Celtics, Bulls, Heat, Nuggets, Thunder, Jazz, Lakers, Mavericks, Spurs, Pacers, Grizzlies). Multiple middle-of-the-road teams have recently committed to their current coach or made roster changes that deserve a full season to play out under the current guy (Knicks, Nets, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, Rockets, Hornets, Raptors, Sixers, Hawks, Warriors). A number of rebuilding teams added first-year guys who are unlikely to get axed quickly (Magic, Blazers, Bobcats).

That leaves four teams: the Clippers (Vinny Del Negro), Bucks (Scott Skiles), Suns (Alvin Gentry) and Pistons (Lawrence Frank). Of the four, Del Negro has by far the most talent and the highest expectations, making him the most vulnerable to a slow start. Skiles, in the final year of his contract, is also on somewhat shaky ground, although it would likely take a truly disastrous start or a locker-room revolt for him not to survive. Gentry, a respected coach, is better suited to coaching a veteran-laden playoff team rather than a post-Steve Nash mismatched roster. That could spell trouble. Frank, too, has no reason to feel particularly comfortable: he has a young, imbalanced roster that is predicted by many to finish in the Central Division cellar, and he’s the franchise’s fourth coach since 2008. This is a tight four-horse race, but we’ll settle on Del Negro, as he battled rumors about his job last season. The Clippers will be under pressure to make Chris Paul happy during his contract year and he’s dealing with a host of new players and a huge distraction (Lamar Odom).

9. How will the Bulls fare without Derrick Rose?

The Bulls have no choice but to slog through most of their regular season without Rose, the pulse of their offense. Chicago managed that void last season with elite defense and a deep bench, but this year’s roster will find its D tested and the quality of its rotation compromised by a series of curious offseason moves. Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Nazr Mohammed and Vladimir Radmanovic are now inescapable components of coach Tom Thibodeau’s game plan and will be obstructions to the kind of regular-season success that Chicago managed last year.

But the Bulls will stay pace for a playoff spot thanks to the generally weak crop of fringe playoff teams in the East. The most likely outcomes of Chicago’s regular season will be a first-round matchup against the Heat, Celtics, or Pacers, all three of which would have a significant edge. Even making the conference semifinals would take some wizardry on the part of Thibodeau, along with Rose’s completely uninhibited return.

Anderson Varejao

Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao could be moved at the deadline. (Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

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10. Which big names could move at the trade deadline?

So many stars have consolidated on so few teams in recent years that it seems like we’ve reached a point where the headlining moves will take a pause until next summer. For once, there’s no obviously disgruntled All-NBA guy looking for greener pastures. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the trade deadline won’t see a well-known player move. There are a few usual suspects. First, Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao. He’s been circled for years as a player who could move from a rebuilding team to a contender, but injuries kept intervening. Moving a healthy Varejao and his remaining money could afford Cleveland tons of cap room next summer to go big-game hunting. Two other names to keep an eye on from terrible franchises: J.J. Redick and Tyreke Evans. Redick, like Varejao, makes no sense on a rebuilding Magic team, especially with Arron Afflalo acquired to play the bulk of the minutes at his position.His expiring contract makes him all the more enticing for opposing teams. In Evans’ case, it’s a matter of Kings ownership being reluctant to give an up-and-down player big dollars following the conclusion of his rookie deal. Surely there will be teams interested in providing Evans the right change of scenery. With a backcourt loaded with young scorers, his external value might outpace his internal value.

Other possibilities? If the Mavericks wind up falling out of the playoff chase early, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban might consider dealing Shawn Marion and the $9 million player option he has in 2013-14. That would leave Dirk Nowitzki as the only big-dollar deal on his books next summer, giving him that many more options in free agency or trades. It’s also possible that the Milwaukee Bucks, in a similar situation, could decide that it makes more sense to move Monta Ellis rather than face contract negotiations with him next summer. It’s unclear what his return value would be, but he doesn’t make much sense in Milwaukee unless they are firmly in the playoff hunt. Could new Hawks GM Danny Ferry shock the world by moving Josh Smith, set to be a free agent in the summer, at the deadline? Maybe, maybe not, but you can’t put anything past him, not after witnessing his aggressiveness this summer. Finally, file this under log jam, but the Utah Jazz have a host of big men — Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter — and the youngsters are showing enough promise that the decks will need to be cleared eventually. Both Jefferson and Millsap are on expiring contracts so perhaps new GM Dennis Lindsey decides its worth cashing in one of them for whatever he can get?

11. Which team most needs the No. 1 pick?

This question annually amounts to: “Which smaller-market just lost its franchise player to a big market?” Last year, things worked out very cleanly, ahem, when the New Orleans Hornets pulled the No. 1 pick, Anthony Davis, months after shipping Chris Paul to the Clippers. This year, the Orlando Magic clearly fit the same bill, having lost a better player than Paul in Dwight Howard while receiving a significantly worse return package (no Eric Gordon as a consolation prize, getting stuck with human booby trap Al Harrington). To add insult to injury, Orlando not only didn’t retain Ryan Anderson, they drastically overpaid for Jameer Nelson, too. While there’s not yet a consensus No. 1 player in this year’s class, the Magic’s season is set to be so atrocious that they will have plenty of time to sort through the top talent and settle on their next marquee player.

The Magic’s only competition here is the Charlotte Bobcats, a team that’s been so bad for so long they haven’t even enjoyed the relative luxury of being forced into trading away a franchise player. Ideally, the basketball gods will favor Orlando this year, saving Charlotte’s good fortune for 2014, when high school phenom Andrew Wiggins will be the clear-cut No. 1 guy.

12. Is there another James Harden-esque contract dispute/trade situation brewing?

Rockets GM Daryl Morey emphasized how unprecedented it is for a 23-year-old All-Star talent to be traded by a true championship contender prior to the expiration of his rookie deal. Will we see a team, like the Thunder, so loaded with talent that they conclude they simply can’t afford it all this season? No, that’s not particularly likely.

Looking at the 2010 draft class, the guys who will be in Harden’s position next summer, none appear to be in huge jeopardy, and many won’t command max money. Top performers like John Wall, Derrick Favors, Greg Monroe and Paul George seem like total locks to get paid. Relative disappointments like Wesley Johnson, Ekpe Udoh and Al-Farouq Aminu — and a long list of others — aren’t exactly going to have people crying in the streets if their current teams go a different direction. (All three of those guys, all taken in the top eight, no longer play for the team that drafted them).

There are two playoff-caliber teams worth keeping an eye on over the next year: the Utah Jazz and the Indiana Pacers. Both are small markets, like Oklahoma City, and both organizations have generally preached fiscal discipline. Both teams also have enough talent to find themselves facing decisions. In the Jazz’s case, they will be looking at extensions for both Favors and Gordon Hayward, two guys who are certainly worth keeping around long-term. The Pacers will be highly motivated to retain George, a potential star, but just got done handing out big checks to Roy Hibbert and George Hill. Both teams should be able to avoid the truly tight spot that the Thunder found themselves in, simply for the fact that neither has the expensive talent base that OKC possesses. Utah will have plenty of cap space to retain its younger guys, if they want it, but that will likely mean parting with at least one of its big-dollar vets: Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap or Mo Williams. Indiana will also be able to afford George, but he could come at the expense of David West, for example, who is set to hit free agency next summer and should be in relatively high demand. The good news for Jazz and Pacers fans is that both organizations have intelligent, forward-thinking front offices that are surely already playing through the various scenarios. The bad news, though, is that something will almost certainly have to give in both places.

Knicks, Nets

Will Deron Williams and the Nets finish with a better record than the Knicks? (Al Bello/Getty Images)

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13. Who reigns supreme in New York: the Knicks or the Nets?

All aboard the bandwagon to Brooklyn. This is less a pick for the Nets than against the Knicks, who have dealt with injuries up and down the roster during the preseason and are so old that they have totally exhausted the world’s supply of “The Knicks are so old …” jokes. The Nets have a host of questions that include their team defense, interior depth and how quickly they can make a new roster gel. Those issues, though, are preferable to the ones plaguing the Knicks, who are totally reliant on Tyson Chandler staying healthy. If he goes down, an above-average defense gets significantly worse and New York’s average offense isn’t likely to pick up the slack. The Carmelo Anthony/Amar’e Stoudemire pairing is still questionable at best and, outside of Anthony, there just aren’t any scoring options capable of providing comfort with their consistency. The Nets should benefit from a boost playing in front of a hyper Barclays Center crowd and have every reason to expect that Deron Williams is primed for a career year in his first season of a lucrative new contract now that he’s surrounded by veteran talent. Neither team is likely to join the East’s elite or fall deep into a lottery-bound pit of despair, but the Nets’ key parts (Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Brook Lopez) fit better than the Knicks’ (Anthony, Stoudemire, Chandler). That should be enough to secure Big Apple dominance.

14. Where do the Kings stand with regard to their future in Sacramento at season’s end?

This is the most disconcerting question of all. When last we left the Kings, they were backing out of an arena deal with the city of Sacramento, scraping along with a salary-floor payroll, accumulating players who don’t make sense together and finding themselves floated in relocation rumors from Virginia Beach to Anaheim. Meanwhile, one recent report indicates that the NBA is hoping to convince the Maloofs to finally sell off the team, with Seattle mentioned as a possible landing spot. On the record, Commissioner David Stern is offering nothing but lip service about the team’s uncertain future, telling everyone involved to hope for the best. Over the last two seasons of complete turmoil, there has been one constant: Kings diehards doing their part to support a rotten product as best they can. Here’s hoping that loyalty pays off.

15. Can Philly make a compelling enough case to lure Andrew Bynum back?

With a capped-out roster that showed no signs of elevating beyond mere playoff contention, the Sixers gambled on a potential superstar. Andrew Bynum could very well be the talent that lifts Philadelphia out of mediocrity, but only after he rehabs an eternally injured knee and then agrees to re-up for the long haul.

Until pen meets paper, the Sixers haven’t really acquired Bynum. What they’ve actually acquired is a single season of Bynum’s services, the right to pay him more money than anyone else and an extended tryout as his team of the future. That’s still a valuable opportunity for a franchise in search of re-definition, but it’s important to frame this season in Philadelphia as the uncertain exercise that it is. Many of the Sixers’ core pieces remain in place, but there are plenty of new supporting parts to be arranged in a way that not only wins games, but ultimately compels Bynum to return.

As the roster stands now, Bynum is looking at Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Lavoy Allen, Jason Richardson, Spencer Hawes, Kwame Brown, Arnett Moultrie and perhaps Dorell Wright as the bulk of the roster beyond this season. Re-signing Bynum and Holiday would nix the potential to add an impact player via free agency, and thus would leave Bynum’s decision hinging on the strength of those players, the allure of being a primary offensive option and a lucrative contract offer. The strength of the roster is undoubtedly the least attractive, though Philly isn’t bad by any means. But is there enough talent here to entice Bynum to pass up the alternatives in free agency?

The wild card in all of this: the dynamic between a notoriously sensitive Bynum and a ceaselessly grating (if also quite effective) Doug Collins. Their relationship has the potential to be a prominent factor in Bynum’s decision, one way or the other.

Jameer Nelson

Guard Jameer Nelson signed a new deal with the Magic this offseason. (Marc Serota/Getty Images)

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16. How bad are the Magic?

When Orlando opted to trade Dwight Howard without getting as much as a complementary star in return, they hinged the impetus of their reboot on the lottery. A few of the acquired pieces (Arron Afflalo, Nikola Vucevic and Moe Harkless, chief among them) may be around for a Magic rebound, but this was a deal made on the basis of getting better by first getting much, much worse.

Orlando will be very bad this season. But with so much riding on the Magic’s immediate failures, will this roster really be bad enough to vault to the top of the lottery odds?

Most of the players that will either start or fill regular minutes for Orlando this season are rotation-worthy in abstract. Afflalo is a great complementary piece with an overlooked offensive game. Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu have been much maligned, but are ultimately useful players independent of their oversized salaries. Al Harrington was one of the best reserves in the league with the Nuggets last season. Glen Davis was at times outstanding while filling in for Dwight Howard, and could be more productive than anticipated. J.J. Redick and Gustavo Ayon are both classically underrated role players, capable of helping a winning team by filling in the gaps. And all of that goes without mentioning the potential of players like Harkless, Vucevic or Andrew Nicholson — each of whom appears solid in their own right.

We know that Orlando will fall well short of the postseason threshold, but there’s a worrisome suspicion that the Magic may be just good enough to cede the basement. That would be an acceptable trade-off for a team that had acquired something heftier in exchange for Howard, but it would cast a heavy blow to a team that seemed to be banking on being horrible.

17. What will become of the Rockets?

The acquisition of James Harden makes the Rockets worth a second look. In one deft move, an ambiguous roster of trade bait and could-be stars has taken on a surer form and a more definite direction. They’re not quite ready for the playoff race, but with an offensive ace (Harden), an elite defensive big man (Asik) and a wild-card playmaker (Lin), Houston finally has a core with upward mobility and some star power. Come next summer, the Rockets will have the cap room necessary to lure another max (or sub-max, if the market allows) free agent to fill out the frontcourt, and ideally, they’ll develop into a contender over the long term through value additions and internal development.

That may seem a long shot with the Thunder and Heat loaded for the foreseeable future, but Harden makes the dream possible. There aren’t many aspects of offensive play in which the newest Rocket doesn’t excel, and its from that versatility that Harden could vault toward superstar status. The command that Harden has over the game at just 23 years old is uncanny, and he has the skill set to put his instincts to effective use. At worst, the Rockets have added a star and a foundational piece. At best, this is Daryl Morey’s dream realized, and the arrival of a primary offensive option capable of moving Houston well on the path to contention.

18. Are the Bobcats finally laying the groundwork for a legitimate rebuild?

Charlotte led the league in misery last season, and may yet wind up with one of the NBA’s worst records once again. But there’s an effort to build up rather than merely bottom out, and an endeavor to form some semblance of an identity behind a new head coach and a promising lottery pick. Mike Dunlap and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist look to be the soul of the new Bobcats, and while that might only lead to a season of rather spirited losing, it gives Charlotte a game plan as they look to pile up young talent.

That said, a lengthy rebuild will be a tall order for a first-time NBA head coach, particularly when the Bobcats’ front office has a somewhat questionable track record. Rich Cho is in the midst of a decidedly imperfect run as Charlotte’s GM, and if he bobbles another top-10 pick into a selection as underwhelming as Kemba Walker, it could burden an already delicate process with undue pressure. Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo and the Bobcats’ other prospects walk a similarly fine line, as their continued development and gravitation toward the team’s new hardworking ideals are essential if Charlotte is to succeed in its slow climb to respectability.

Dirk Nowitzki

Can the Mavericks tread water with Dirk Nowitzki sidelined? (Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)

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19. How can the Mavericks, Timberwolves and Warriors manage their early injury woes?

A question with no easy answer, and no real basis for clean guesswork. Kevin Love, Dirk Nowtizki and Andrew Bogut are among the best in the league at their respective positions, and their absences for three potential playoff clubs could jumble an already complicated postseason picture.

Of the three, the Warriors would seem to be in the toughest spot. We can fully expect Golden State to improve upon its league-average offense of a year ago, as the team has an arsenal of scorers and marksmen. But Bogut remains Mark Jackson’s great hope for a defensive revival, and his impact on that end is absolutely irreplaceable. Few bigs in the league can match the finely tuned defensive work of a healthy Bogut, much less the battered Andris Biedrins or limited David Lee. This particular absence tests a deep Warriors roster at its weakest possible point, and if Bogut’s injury drags on longer than expected, the Warriors may never get their defense on track to contend for the eighth seed.

Dallas and Minnesota are in slightly better positions, and ultimately in a race with one another to return their highly productive stars back to the court. Timing will be everything; if both Nowitzki and Love don’t return on-schedule, either team would need an unexpected breakthrough to wind up in the playoffs.

20. Which team “wins the regular season” by finishing with the most wins?

Predictions here likely come down to your flavor of choice, but the most convincing option is the same team that stormed to a league-best 50 wins a year ago: the Spurs. This is an incredible offensive team with the resources necessary to withstand minor injuries and unexpected drop-offs. Eight different Spurs rotation players posted a PER (player efficiency rating) of 15.0 (the league average) or better last season, and those ranks don’t even include useful assets like Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson and Matt Bonner. In the hands of Gregg Popovich (and within the workings of his offensive system), that depth is invaluable.

Add in roster consistency, developmental opportunities for a handful of younger Spurs and an oddly weak Southwest Division, and everything comes up black and silver. San Antonio’s defensive struggles will make the playoffs something different, but the Spurs are positioned well to repeat as regular-season champs.

5 comments
cgio.lopez
cgio.lopez

The magic finish between 7th and 10th place in the east.  Bad, not horrible.

Jacob4
Jacob4

I'm a casual fan of the NBA due to the fact that there's no parity. Every year its the "same old teams" who are the only ones with a legit shot. But being as my team (the Nuggets) has a fighters chance, I will be paying attention even during football season.

 

Go Nuggets! Small-market-team-fans unite!

Wisconsin Death Trip
Wisconsin Death Trip

Another season of: Traveling, palming the ball, double dribbles, ball hog'n, and the same teams in the "Elite 8" (lol), or in other words......NBA Streetball.

Mani
Mani

No way Westbrook is a top 7 player. It is just lazy to write that. Lebron, Kobe, Durant, Paul, Howard, Wade, Rondo, Rose, and Tony Parker are all clearly better. Which of those guys wouldn't you trade Westbrook for straight up? Westbrook belongs in the Deron Wiliams/Carmelo/Gasol/Nash/Garnett/Bosh/Aldridge/Pierce tier, and I'm not certain he's at the top of that list either. 

trsidn1
trsidn1

basketball? Again? Didn't it just finish?