With what is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing and competitive NBA seasons to date now just a day away, let's take a look at the primary questions (and sub-questions) facing each team.
Without further ado...
Atlanta Hawks: Can Paul Millsap prove an adequate replacement for Josh Smith and can the Hawks continue their run of playoff appearances?
Millsap will never be the dynamic defender that Smith is, but Smith will also never be as efficient or as smart an offensive big man as Millsap. One drawback is that Millsap is too small to play the five, meaning Horford still won't be able to slide to the four where he'd be most effective, but a Millsap/Horford frontcourt will still be devastating on their best nights.
With a seventh straight playoff appearance (Did you realize that the Celtics and Hawks are the only Eastern Conference teams to qualify for the postseason in each of the last six years?) and one of the league's premier frontcourts, perhaps Atlanta can turn its future cap flexibility into a third star.
Boston Celtics: Does a commitment to rebuild mean Rondo's days in Beantown are numbered?
The Celtics' run of six consecutive playoff appearances will surely end this season thanks to a roster that seems more fitting of the D-League than the Association, but Rajon Rondo's return (whenever that may come) from a torn ACL could be enough to add a few unnecessary wins to a team more interested in lottery balls than W's.
At his best, Rondo is an elite point guard on a very reasonable contract (he's owed just under $25 million total over the next two seasons), but he'll be 29 when his current deal expires in 2015 and the C's may not be ready to contend again by then. Boston should be looking to move Rondo this season for young assets and draft picks that will allow a proper, all-in rebuild.
Brooklyn Nets: Are the Nets a legitimate championship contender with a short window or an aging team destined for disappointment?
The Nets are the oldest team in the league this season with a minutes-adjusted age of 31.9, per ESPN's forecast, and boast a rookie head coach who was still playing just six months ago, so there are reasons for concern, particularly with the disappointment of the seemingly foolproof 2012-13 Lakers still fresh in our minds.
But Deron Williams and Brook Lopez are a significant one-two punch on their own and are both still on the right side of 30, so when you compliment them with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko, Joe Johnson, Jason Terry, Reggie Evans and Andray Blatche (who have combined to average more than 86 per cent of games played over the last two seasons), you get an experienced team that can match talent and depth with almost anybody.
The window is tight - perhaps only allowing a one-year opportunity - but it is open.
Charlotte Bobcats: Is Al Jefferson good enough to kill what should have been another Bobcats tank?
The Bobcats have won just 27 percent of their games over the last three seasons, which included a historic 7-59 campaign, and have an underwhelming young core of Kemba Walker, Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeff Taylor and Cody Zeller to show for it, so perhaps the organization thought lottery luck (and competent drafting) just wasn't in the cards for them. In any event, a team that could have used another high pick (especially in a loaded draft class) and cap flexibility instead capped themselves out in the short-term by adding a mid-tier free agent that likely takes them from a 20-25 win team to a 25-30 win team.
Jefferson is still an effective center will eat up fantasy points in his usual spot on the left block, but he would have been better served with a contending team and Charlotte would have been better served diggin' for Wiggins.
Chicago Bulls: Is a healthy Derrick Rose enough for a championship? Is this Luol Deng's final season in Chicago?
Derrick Rose's return is the story of the season as the 2013-14 campaign tips off, and if the youngest MVP in league history is back to being the caliber of player he was pre-injury, the Bulls have the best shot in the East of knocking off the Heat. The theory right now is that Rose is better than he was pre-injury, looking as quick and explosive as ever in the preseason while adding a three-point shot (seemingly the only thing that was missing from his arsenal) to his attack.
As for Deng, one of the most consistent and dependable players in the NBA also acts as the glue for Tom Thibodeau's Bulls, but the 28-year-old will likely be looking for Andre Iguodala money next summer and might find it outside of Chicago. (Sidenote: While Iguodala has an advantage in that he can handle the ball and create, check out how eerily similar a statistical comparison of Iggy and Deng is).
Cleveland Cavaliers: Can a group of injury-prone stars (and one budding superstar) stay on the court long enough to make the Cavs relevant again? And would that be enough to lure LeBron James back?
If Kyrie Irving cements his place as a top-10 player and Andrew Bynum and Anderson Varejao stay healthy, not only will the Cavs be a playoff team, they could be a dark horse to make some noise in the East, and that's not even including the contributions of recent top-five picks like Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett, plus the addition of Jarrett Jack.
Unfortunately, those are some very big 'ifs' for Cleveland, as Irving, Bynum and Varejao have combined to miss a ridiculous 224 games over the last two seasons.
Dallas Mavericks: Can Monta Ellis score efficiently enough to prove a worthy Robin to Dirk Nowitzki's Batman?
You can debate whether Dirk is even still a Batman anymore, but he probably has at least another year or two of prolific one-legged fadeaways and overall elite offense left in him, so if the Mavs can surround him with a couple of additional options and even a somewhat average defense, Dallas should still contend for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Rick Carlisle, Samuel Dalembert and Shawn Marion will figure out the defense, and Jose Calderon and Vince Carter may be solid third and fourth options, respectively, so the X-factor here is Ellis. He hasn't shot 45 percent from the field, 35 percent from three or posted a True Shooting percentage above .530 in three years, and he already thinks he's passing too much, but the Mavs have no choice but to trust in Monta.
Denver Nuggets: Is there enough talent left among the ruins for a playoff spot?
Much has been made about the organization's loss of George Karl (by choice) and Masai Ujiri in addition to Andre Iguodala, but the fact remains that those two losses came off of the court, and on the court this roster boasts Kenneth Faried, Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari (whenever he comes back), Nate Robinson, JaVale McGee, Andre Miller, Wilson Chandler, J.J. Hickson, Randy Foye, Evan Fournier and Darrell Arthur, among others.
In other words, there's still talent in Denver, and when you consider their insane home court advantage (They've won 80.9% of their home games over the last six seasons) and what's expected from Brian Shaw, a playoff berth isn't out of the question.
Detroit Pistons: Will the Smith/Drummond/Monroe/Jennings combo be more of a nightmare to the opposition or themselves? Will Drummond emerge as a superstar?
Look, a frontcourt of Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe has serious defensive potential sure to give opposing team fits, but throw those three into a mix with Brandon Jennings on offense, and you have the potential for a frustrating, space-less unit that should give new coach Mo Cheeks fits.
If Drummond stays on the court and continues along a path to superstardom while the offense even provides average efficiency, the Pistons could be the most improved team in the league. If not, they could also be the most disappointing. Buckle up, Detroit.
Golden State Warriors: Can Stephen Curry shoot the Warriors into the Western Conference's elite and beyond?
Years from now, we will tell our children and our children's children about the legendary marksmanship of one Stephen Curry.
Curry set a record with 272 made three-pointers last season while attempting 600, and if he stays healthy (Other than missing 40 games in 2011-12, Curry has only missed 14 games total in his other three seasons combined), I'm betting he'll break that number this season while upping his career high of 22.9 points per game. If he does that with the same devastating efficiency we're used to, a Warriors team that now includes Andre Iguodala may be ready to challenge for a conference title.
Houston Rockets: Is Dwight Howard 'back,' and what will the Rockets do with Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin?
If Howard is, in fact, back to being the game's most dominant big man, he and James Harden will give this team two top-five players and will have the Rockets competing for a championship, period.
Perhaps the more intriguing questions surround Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, the two players this Rockets rebuild started with last summer. Asik's displeasure with Howard in the fold is well documented and Lin may lose his starting spot to Patrick Beverley, but if Houston can turn Asik and Lin into additional assets via trade to surround Howard, Harden and Chandler Parsons with going forward, a championship core will have no doubt been assembled in Houston.
Indiana Pacers: Will Paul George take the 'next step' and help the Pacers overcome the Heat (and Bulls) in the East?
Many will look at this Pacers' roster, one that has come as close as any other to beating the Heat in the last two years, and say that you can't win an NBA championship without a true superstar.
George, a 23-year-old forward who's already one of the best defensive players on the planet and who supplemented that all-world defense with 17 points per game last season, will look to redefine how we view a superstar (look beyond the offense, people) while leading a Pacers team that some believe is finally ready to best Miami.
Los Angeles Clippers: Can Doc Rivers and additional shooters around Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan get the Clips over the hump?
Last season the Clippers finished fourth in offensive efficiency (107.7 points per 100 possessions) while finishing 16th in three-point percentage and ninth in three-point attempts. Add J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to the mix, who combined for 9.2 three-point attempts per game last season and who each boasts a career three-point percentage of at least 39.0, and you get the feeling a more free shooting (smart shooting) Clippers squad could claim the league's best offense in 2013-14.
Say what you will about Doc Rivers (and there are those who believe he's overrated), but the fact is he's a massive upgrade over Vinny Del Negro and he seems to have gotten DeAndre Jordan to buy into his Defensive Player of the Year potential, so is anyone really going to dispute the fact that Rivers can keep the Clippers in the top-10 in defensive efficiency (they were ninth last season)?
A star-driven team that could possess a No. 1 offense and a top-10 defense? That's called a legitimate championship contender.
Los Angeles Lakers: Will Kobe be Kobe when he returns?
Other than Derrick Rose's return and LeBron James' second decision, there's no more pressing questions in the world of basketball right now than the ones that surround Kobe Bryant.
The Black Mamba likely wouldn't have been able to repeat his 2012-13 season (27.3 PPG, 6.0 APG, 5.6 RPG, 1.4 SPG) at age 35 regardless, but now the question is can he even return as a shadow of the player he once was following a devastating Achilles injury?
While Kobe's return and performance will be a fascinating story, it may not matter in the grand scheme of things. The West is so competitive that even a team led by Bryant and featuring bounce back seasons from Pau Gasol and Steve Nash may not be enough for a playoff spot, let alone anything beyond that.
Memphis Grizzlies: Is there any realistic path to improvement?
The Grizzlies have put together an admirable run of consistency over the last three seasons that has included a 143-87 regular season record (.622 winning percentage) to go along with three playoff series victories, but it's hard not to see last season's trip to the Western Conference Final as the peak.
Marc Gasol may be a top-10 player overall, Zach Randolph is still a force and Mike Conley is one of the most underrated players alive, but remember that the Grizz still needed a Russell Westbrook injury last season (suffered in the first round) to even get past the second round, and they'd need a lot more misfortune to befall the competition this year.
The West houses four teams with legitimate championship aspirations in the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and Rockets, and I'm not even sure Memphis is a better team than Golden State at this point, so I'd say there's more of a chance the Grizzlies are eliminated in the first round than there is they're playing deep into May or June. That's not a knock on the Grizz, who have assembled a marvelous roster over time, but rather a reminder of how goddamn hard it is to even make it out of your conference in a 30-team league, let alone to win a championship.
Miami Heat: Will the Heat complete the three-peat, and will LeBron James stick around long enough to keep the good times rolling?
'The Big Three' incarnation of the Heat are looking to become just the sixth team in NBA history to win at least three championships in a row, and make no mistake, they are once again the odds-on favorite. But the Pacers and Spurs both came breathtakingly close to beating them last season, the Bulls should be ready to contend again with a healthier and potentially better version of Derrick Rose, and the Thunder, Clippers, and Rockets rightfully see themselves as legit title contenders.
Heck, throw in long-shot contenders like the Nets, Grizzlies and Warriors, and there are probably 10 teams (11 if you include the delusional Knicks) that are convinced they can realistically compete for a championship this year. Have we ever been able to say that coming into an NBA season?
Add it all up and the Heat are facing more competition than they ever have, though perhaps the real question we should be asking is will LeBron still be leading the charge a year from now? Unless things go catastrophically out of whack in South Beach this season, my money is on a resounding yes.
Milwaukee Bucks: Will the Bucks somehow play themselves into the middle of the pack again or will they finally initiate a proper rebuild? Will we be able to spell 'Antetokounmpo' by the end of the season?
You could argue there's nothing more depressing in sports than rooting for a perennially woeful team, but I'd counter that at least in that scenario, fans have hope, no matter how misguided it may be, that lottery luck and a transcendent draft talent will revive them. The real most depressing and fruitless thing for a sports fan to endure is endless mediocrity that keeps the fanbase on a treadmill headed to emotional Belize (Breaking Bad reference No. 1 of infinity this season).
Enter the Bucks, who since making a run to the East Final in 2001 have won roughly 45 per cent of their games, finsihing with 40-42 wins four times in 12 seasons and always remaining between 28 and 46 wins. That run of mediocrity has resulted in five playoff trips, five first round exits, a 7-20 playoff record, an unlikely No. 1 draft pick in a weak draft class and nothing better than the No. 6 pick beyond that.
It's hard to build a winner in a small market like that, and while I originally believed the Bucks were finally destined to bottom out in 2014, I now see a roster that includes O.J. Mayo, Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova, Brandon Knight, Caron Butler, John Henson, Gary Neal, Carlos Delfino, Luke Ridnour and the aforementioned Antetokounmpo, and I realize that Milwaukee will once again be forced to support a late lottery team going nowhere rather than a piss poor team going somewhere. Never change, Bucks.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Can anyone on this Godforsaken team stay healthy?
Kevin Love could be, at worst, the second best player on a championship team, if not the best. Ricky Rubio could be a future All-Star. Nikola Pekovic is a beast of a man at center, Kevin Martin is perfectly suited to being a third or fourth option, and the Timberwolves have some solid role players in Chase Budinger and J.J. Barea, to name just a couple. They're also coached by one of the best in the business in Rick Adelman.
That's the makings of a playoff team and one that can do some damage come April and May. The problem? Love has missed 107 games over five seasons, Rubio has missed 50 games over two seasons, Pekovic has missed 56 games over three seasons and Budinger is already out indefinitely with a knee injury.
At some point you just lose faith in a team's ability to stay on the court.
New Orleans Pelicans: Can Anthony Davis emerge as en elite talent and lead an intriguing Pelicans squad to playoff contention?
While Davis' rookie season was disrupted by minor injuries that limited him to just 64 games, The 'Brow turned in an impressive debut campaign that included averages of 13.5 points (on 51.6% shooting), 8.2 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 1.2 steals and 1.0 assists in less than 30 minutes per game to go along with a PER of 21.8...not bad for a 19-year-old.
The Pelicans are as full of question marks as they are of talent (Can Eric Gordon stay healthy? Can Gordon, Tyreke Evans and All-Star Jrue Holiday share the court?), and one of those questions revolves around how much production we can realistically expect from Davis in his age-20 sophomore season. But the young big man has 20-10 potential sooner rather than later, and if he can lead this Pelicans squad to the playoffs while doing it, the 2012 No. 1 overall pick will have already taken his place at the table of the NBA's elite.
New York Knicks: How does an old team that wasn't a true contender in the first place and that can't play defense possibly get better without young assets or cap space?
The short answer is that they don't.
The longer answer? The Knicks won 54 games, the East's No. 2 seed and a playoff series in a season where the Bulls were without Derrick Rose, the team they beat in the first round was without its best player (Celtics/Rondo) and the Eastern Conference in general was still the 'Leastern Conference.'
Now Rose is back and the Knicks would stand no chance against a healthy Bulls team, the Pacers, who beat New York in the playoffs, should be even better, the Nets have likely surpassed them in their own division, the Heat still exist, the Hawks should at least be competitive again and even prior cellar dwellers like the Pistons, Wizards, Cavs and Raptors are thinking playoffs. Add it all up and the Knicks are due for a major regression.
You want more? The chances Carmelo Anthony posts a PER of 24.83 again are slim (his previous career-high was 22.29) and the Knicks are counting on some combination of Andrea Bargnani becoming an average three-point threat for the first time in four years, Tyson Chandler and Metta World Peace reviving a shoddy defense and Amar'e Stoudemire being a factor.
Barring another catastrophic injury to a much better team or an absolutely epic season from 'Melo, I don't see any path to a top-four seed here.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Can Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook carry the Thunder back to The Finals? Will Sam Presti pull the trigger on another blockbuster?
If Westbrook returns on time and Serge Ibaka continues to evolve, Durant and the Thunder have as good a chance as anybody of coming out of the West again.
But if Westbrook being out or their sudden lack of depth costs OKC a game here and there in a conference where just four games separated 1st from 5th last season, and Presti senses another year ending in disappointment, the Thunder could turn some combination of Ibaka and intriguing young assets like Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, Steven Adams (who is a rookie big man to watch out for this season) or Reggie Jackson into another true star.
Orlando Magic: Is this roster surprisingly too good to tank?
Don't get me wrong, the Magic are awful and will likely finish with an awful record to show for such futility, but I actually don't think they're as awful as everyone assumes they'll be.
Think about it. We're talking about a young roster that includes late season standout Tobias Harris, double-double machine Nikola Vucevic, potential Rookie of the Year Victor Oladipo and 2012 first round picks Andrew Nicholson and Moe Harkless to go along with more veteran players like Jameer Nelson, Glen Davis and Arron Afflalo. That's not a playoff rotation by any stretch, but can you really tell me it's as bad as the lineups Philly, Boston, Phoenix, Utah or even an improved Charlotte will throw out there this season?
No, you can't.
Trades and injuries could 'help' push the Magic further down the NBA totem pole as the year progresses (Orlando followed a 12-13 start to last season with a 7-49 stretch to finish), but right now I'm not buying that this roster is prepared to join the coming tank-a-thon of epic proportions.
Philadelphia 76ers: Can the Sixers live up to their billing as one of the worst teams ever?
The short answer is no, as there are simply too many fellow tanking teams this season for the Sixers to match the franchise's 9-73 record from 1973 or the Bobcats' .106 winning percentage from 2012. Not to mention, only 30 teams have ever finished with a winning percentage below .200 (66+ losses) and between Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes, there are still remnants of a mediocre team, not a historically bad one, in Philly.
Having said that, if Brett Brown and the organization play their cards right with lineups and trades, this team should easily compete with the likes of Phoenix, Orlando, Boston and Utah for Tankapalooza supremacy. With two potential lottery picks (Philly owns New Orleans' top-five protected pick) in what is projected to be a transcendent draft, Nerlens Noel already in tow and tons of future cap space, the 76ers have the potential to put together an exciting rebuild.
For now, however, Philly will have to watch a team that has traded Andre Iguodala, Nikola Vucevic and Jrue Holiday over the last two summers without a single game played (Bynum, Noel) to show for it, and an organization that is looking to answer the age-old question of 'how low can you go?'
Phoenix Suns: Can the Suns out-tank the Sixers?
For as much attention as the aforementioned 76ers have been getting in regards to their potential tank for the ages, the Suns refuse to go
down up without a fight, and Friday's trade with Washington may have even given them the edge.
Eric Bledsoe was a nice way to truly lay the groundwork for a rebuild, an expected Goran Dragic trade should net the team more in the way of future assets, they could have as many as four first round picks this year already, and their cap flexibility going forward could rival anyone's. That all means the Suns will rise again in the not too distant future, but right now we're talking about a team whose best players are Bledsoe, Dragic, Channing Frye and an injured Emeka Okafor. Holy hell that's bad.
On that note, here's a trailer for the 2013-14 season...
Portland Trail Blazers: Is an Aldridge/Lillard/Batum core something to build on or are Aldridge's days in PDX numbered?
Aldridge has two years remaining on a contract that will pay him nearly $31 million over those two years and his name will be one of the most hotly discussed in trade rumors unless he commits to Portland long term.
But two years is a long time in the world of professional sports and so much can happen when it comes to injuries, trades and player development that could see the Blazers and their improved bench evolve into a Western Conference playoff factor.
Is it really that much of a stretch to believe a core of Aldridge (28), Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard (23) and Nicolas Batum (24) can form the building blocks of contention that keeps LaMarcus in Portland?
Sacramento Kings: Is Mike Malone the coach to finally coax greatness out of DeMarcus Cousins?
Cousins is on his third head coach in just his fourth season, and he has to shoulder some of the blame for Paul Westphal and Keith Smart being fired. With coach No. 3 on the sidelines and an undeserved max contract in Cousins' pocket, Malone has no choice but to hope the 23-year-old has finally got his act together.
If he has, Cousins' potential as a 20-10 threat (albeit with little to no defense) will finally be met and Malone will be hailed as a hoops whisperer. If he hasn't, either coach No. 4 will be in Cousins' ear before you know it or the Kings may break the record for the fastest turnaround between signing a player to a max contract and trading him.
No pressure, Mike.
San Antonio Spurs: Do they have 'one more run' left in them for the fifth year in a row, and is Kawhi Leonard ready to play a starring role?
As is the case every freaking year, the Spurs will answer the first question above with a 'yes' more direct and stern than even the coldest Gregg Popovich response to a poorly prepared question. Timothy Theodore Duncan will continue to defy age, Tony Parker will continue to go about life as a top-10 player without due recognition and Manu Ginobili will erase the memories of his recent playoff failures as quickly as that bald spot on the back of his head spreads. Yes, this season preview post is supposed to be in the form of mainly posing questions, but you see with the Spurs you don't ask questions, you simply wait for the inevitable answers they provide year after year, without fail.
In all seriousness, though, even if Ginobili continues to regress or Duncan takes a minor step back, Leonard showed flashes of an All-Star in the making during San Antonio's run to The Finals last season, and if that's the Leonard the Spurs get this season, we may not have to ask if they have another championship run in them at this time next year.
Toronto Raptors: What will Masai Ujiri's next move be, and will Rudy Gay last the year in Canada?
Many expected a complete tear down when Ujiri replaced Bryan Colangelo in Toronto, but other than pulling off a miraculous coup for Andrea Bargnani, he really just made some tweaks to the second unit and kept a team together that looks destined for mediocrity in the short term.
Perhaps a young roster with some upside squeaking into the playoffs is palatable for Ujiri's first year on the job as he surveys his new land, but there's no way he left Denver to settle for this roster and perennial water treading. The question now is will Ujiri's next big move take the Raptors from playoff bubble team to season-forfeiting tankers, or playoff bubble team to playoff mainstay?
Either way, Gay and his $17,888,932 contract (plus $19,317,326 player option) have to be involved, right?
Utah Jazz: Will a finally unleashed Favors/Kanter frontcourt live up to the hype?
In Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, the Jazz have a couple of 22-and-under big men and recent No. 3 overall draft picks who have per-36-minute career averages of 14.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.0 blocks, and 14.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.0 blocks, respectively. The problem is that with Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson together in Utah for the last few years, Kanter has yet to average more than 15.4 minutes per game while Favors has yet to average more than 23.2 minutes per game.
With Millsap and Jefferson now out of the picture and the Jazz clearly thinking about next year and beyond at the expense of this year, Favors and Kanter will get all of the minutes they can handle on a bad team.
Washington Wizards: Is John Wall a max level player?
The new contract and a 49-game 2012-13 season that saw him post a PER of 20.91 while averaging 18.5 points, 7.6 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals at the age of 22 scream 'YES, MY GOD YES!' But previously inconsistent and disinterested play, not to mention knee injuries and the fact that a player like Stephen Curry won't make anywhere near max money for the next few years scream 'YOU DIDN'T HAVE TO DO THIS, WASHINGTON!'
With a clean bill of health and a roster that looks ready to contend for a playoff spot for the first time in six years, Wall has an opportunity to prove that the first answer is the correct one. If Wall and the Wizards mess this up though, the hasty decision to lock him up for five years at max money will be met with a Kerrigan-like response in Washington.
All salaries courtesy of ShamSports.com
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, ESPN and HoopData
And with that, the first portion of our 2013-14 NBA season preview is in the books.
Following this plethora of questions and things to ponder, you'll find my predictions for the upcoming season here tomorrow.