68 reasons to watch the 2013-14 season
The NBA season tips off Tuesday night, ending our nation’s 131-day basketball-less nightmare.
In honor of the league’s 68th season, here’s a look at 68 reasons to watch in 2013-14, in case a LeBron James three-peat attempt and a healthy Derrick Rose weren’t enough for you. (A hat tip to veteran NBA writer Steve Aschburner for the inspiration.)
1. The East’s elite is a hotbed for animosity. The NBA isn’t likely to use “Everybody Hates Everybody!” as a marketing tagline, but the bad blood among the Eastern Conference’s top tier is rapidly bubbling over in every possible direction. The Heat and Bulls absolutely hate each other’s guts (gratuitous Filomena Tobias callback). The Nets and Knicks spent so much time jawing back and forth this summer that their “Who runs the city?” exchanges succeeded in boring the entire Internet for the first time in history. The Bulls and Pacers have traded barbs during the preseason, and their heated battle for the Central Division could extend for the next half-decade (or longer) given the young All-Stars in the fold for both teams. The Heat and Nets (ex-Celtics) have plenty of beef, stoked by James’ recent charge of hypocrisy. Then there’s the Heat and Pacers, whose memorable 2013 Eastern Conference finals included a number of moments of mutual disdain.
Those are really just the top-level beefs. The Nets are also looking for revenge after Chicago wounded their pride in the playoffs. The Knicks enter the season needing to prove they won’t be bullied, like they were by the Pacers in the postseason. And the Heat-Knicks rivalry, fairly dormant compared to the 1990s heyday, could pop off at any moment.
And this isn’t just team vs. team. Combined, the East’s projected top-five teams have a full roster’s worth of pot-stirrers, trash-talkers, hard-foulers and headline-makers: James, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, J.R. Smith, Joakim Noah, Carmelo Anthony, Roy Hibbert, Dwyane Wade, Chris “Birdman” Andersen, Jason Terry, Reggie Evans, Raymond Felton, Metta World Peace, Lance Stephenson and David West. That’s 15 guys, and Kenyon Martin didn’t even make the cut for this All-Squawk team. All of those combustible personalities + pent-up hostility + a pressure-packed countdown to a potentially game-changing summer of 2014 = must-see TV.
2. Kevin Durant, left to his own devices. Compared to the East, this year’s West looks downright placid, with one notable exception: Kevin Durant. The three-time scoring champ might just be going through the NBA superstar’s version of puberty, as he’s lashed out against his elders, admitted to getting down on himself and yearned to find his footing as both a champion and an MVP in a world dominated by the Heat and James. As if those internal conflicts weren’t sufficient reason to keep Durant squarely on center stage this season, the Basketball Gods have stripped him of his elite running mate for the opening portion of the season and his proven third wheel. How will he respond to these tests? What statistical barriers will he break in the process? It’s telling that the overwhelming first instinct is to feel sympathy for his opponents, rather than for Durant himself.
3. Jason Kidd, NBA head coach. There’s a world of difference between acting as a coach on the floor and actually holding the floor as a head coach — the particulars of which Kidd will learn this season. He’s clearly a savvy basketball mind, but it should be interesting to see how he takes to the micromanagement that comes with his new post.
4. The makeshift and persistently serviceable Hawks. For five seasons Atlanta has camped out in the thick of the East playoff race — never challenging for the top two spots or slumping into the bottom two seeds. After losing Josh Smith, Devin Harris, Zaza Pachulia and former coach Larry Drew, this season will inevitably be different. But it should ultimately yield more of the same, as a refreshed roster picks up essentially where last year’s Hawks left off.
5. What’s next for Kawhi Leonard and Gordon Hayward. While both have been terrific in restrained roles, San Antonio’s Leonard and Utah’s Hayward take a plunge into the unknown this season by grabbing a more prolific role in their respective offenses.
6. Young big men aiming to scale. Similarly, the league is flush with big men who will step into more playing time this season after posting appetizing numbers in limited minutes. That list includes Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders (27.3 minutes per game in 2012-13), Utah’s Derrick Favors (23.2), Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas (23.9), the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan (24.5), Denver’s JaVale McGee (18.1) and Utah’s Enes Kanter (15.4). It’s not easy to stretch per-minute intrigue into a longer night’s work, but part of the fun this season lies in seeing which developing bigs are up to the task.
7. Andrea Bargnani in New York, for better or worse. Probably worse. Almost definitely worse. One of the league’s most despised players in the country’s largest media market. Preseason stats: 3.3 rebounds per game, 38.1 percent shooting, one bout with pneumonia, one million questions about the Knicks’ lineups. Buckle up, or jump off this hurtling train, whichever you prefer.
8. Metta World Peace in New York, for better of worse. Probably better. If the lateral quickness totally goes, he can always produce Iman Shumpert’s rap records. There’s also the 1 percent chance that World Peace gets a “Say Queensbridge!’ sequel followed by a Larry O’Brien trophy tour through the actual Queensbridge.
9. The most unremarked upon No. 1 pick in recent memory. Anthony Bennett has been given long odds to win Rookie of the Year and is generally a mere footnote in discussions of the Cavaliers’ expected improvement. Rarely do top picks begin their careers so inconspicuously.
10. A never-before-seen legacy check for Kobe Bryant. The Lakers’ All-Star guard told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins that he’s set to enter his “last chapter,” but this isn’t exactly Vito tending the oranges. Surrounded by a roster full of eyesores that could bring out 2005-level grimaces, Bryant also confronts an unprecedented challenge to his body as he seeks to protect his many streaks, which include: 15 straight All-NBA selections, 14 straight All-Star selections, 13 straight seasons averaging at least 24 points, 11 straight seasons finishing among the league’s top-five scorers and eight straight playoff appearances. Bryant’s not going down without the fight of a lifetime, and he approaches with a gullet full of inspiration from media doubters and, possibly, rage born of life playing alongside seriously inferior teammates. (Postscript: It’s a contract year.)
11. Andrei Kirilenko, back in the playoffs. The lionhearted forward hustled his way to injury for the 34-48 Timberwolves last year, a noble attempt to redeem Minnesota’s lost season one loose ball at a time. This season should be different. While we’ll unfortunately never get a chance to see how Kirilenko would have fit on a full-strength Timberwolves team, he’s set to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010. It’s been far too long.
12. Russell Westbrook’s comeback from knee injury. And, more specifically: the look of rage carved into Westbrook’s face the next time he plays against Houston’s Patrick Beverley, the player responsible for the knee-on-knee bump that knocked the Thunder All-Star guard out of the 2013 postseason.
13. Understated returns all around the league, going well beyond the absent superstars: Atlanta’s Lou Williams, Indiana’s Danny Granger, Denver’s Danilo Gallinari and many more. Some will require more patience than others, but fans should be no strangers to waiting at this point.
14. The new-look, oversized Pistons, who are at once exploding with kinetic potential and restrained by their lack of floor spacing.
15. Redemption or ruin for Gerald Wallace? The man they call “Crash” doesn’t pull punches on the court or in his postgame comments. After trading minutes and touches for (missed) shots at playoff success with the Trail Blazers and Nets, he returns to the taxing climate of a rebuilding team. Now 31, Wallace has the opportunity to resuscitate his individual numbers with the Celtics, but will that be enough to keep him satisfied? His long-term, big-dollar contract makes escaping difficult.
16. Keeping pace, or rather: keeping tabs on the potential shift in playing style for the fastest and slowest teams of yesteryear. Dwight Howard’s arrival in Houston could slow the Rockets down a touch, George Karl’s ousting in Denver could cause the Nuggets to pump the brakes, Dave Joerger’s promotion could wake up the Grizzlies and an influx of athleticism could give the Pelicans a jolt. Which of those changes have the substance to become trends?
17. After years, a reprieve from Dwight Howard rumors. They’re done! (For at least
two or three years six months.) The idea of Dwight Howard free of drama isn’t too bad, either.