The 2012-2013 NBA season is fast approaching and, naturally, people are speculating about which team will walk away with the Larry O'Brien Trophy. As much as I would love my beloved New York Knicks to be the last team standing, I know just as much as the next NBA fan that basketball is a funny game and that there are zero guarantees, even if the Knicks go out and win 72 games. As great as their and any other team's chances may seem this coming season, nothing can be set in stone until the NBA Finals are over and one of the two teams left is celebrating.
For the upcoming campaign, there is still a lot of excitement surrounding the Oklahoma City Thunder, who roared into the NBA Finals last year and were defeated by the red-hot Miami Heat in five games. The team is more than capable of getting that far again in 2013, but will the team's core be tired from playing in the Olympics and not getting as long a rest as some other players/teams? Most likely not, but it's still a legitimate concern for team management to have.
In fact, each team's front office should be concerned about their title hopes going into next season, and here's why.
The Atlanta Hawks made something of a controversial move this offseason when they traded star scorer and three-point threat Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets for a package of players that included Anthony Morrow and DeShawn Stevenson. On the same day, they dealt forward Marvin Williams to the Utah Jazz for point man Devin Harris. In a sense, Atlanta is now without a reliable scorer who can equal the 20-plus points per game Johnson was capable of posting.
That isn't to say that Harris is a bad scorer. In fact, he's probably one of the better scoring point guards in the NBA. Yet, he is coming off of one of the worst seasons of his career and there is the looming possibility that he won't bounce back.
Taking that into consideration, the only real scoring threat that the Hawks have on the team is power forward Josh Smith (pictured), who is a fine scorer but even more dangerous on defense, which is where the team needs him the most. It's not that Smith isn't capable of carrying the offense but if he's the only one shouldering the load, Atlanta is going to have a lot of trouble contending.
Though the Celtics went toe-to-toe with the Miami Heat in last year's Eastern Conference Finals, their age caught up with them as the younger team ultimately won out. As a result, one would think that GM Danny Ainge would go out and add some younger pieces so that the team could still contend in 2013.
Ainge did indeed add a younger piece in shooting guard Courtney Lee, as the up-and-coming shooter will have a breakout year in taking Ray Allen's place at the 2. Yet, Ainge also did a good job of keeping his team old not only in signing the soon-to-be 35 years old Jason Terry to a three-year contract, but also re-signing the aging and oft-injured Kevin Garnett to a three-year deal of his own worth $34 million.
Seeing as how Garnett hasn't played a full season since 2004-2005 and his teammate Paul Pierce is slowly handing the role of team leader over to Rajon Rondo, don't be surprised if Boston once again falls short this year as the transition from old to young slowly starts.
The Nets make their long-anticipated Brooklyn debut soon and based on their starting five alone, it should be a great season for the team. From point guard Deron Williams to small forward and pest Gerald Wallace, this is a team with the potential to go places.
Yet, like any team with a Big Three or "Core Four," as team management has been calling its group of stars, it's going to take time for them to learn how to play together. Just as we saw in LeBron James' first year in Miami, the presence of multiple stars in one lineup can sometimes sink a team in crunch time.
That isn't to say that the Nets will be god awful next season. If everyone stays healthy, they'll definitely make the playoffs with a decent seeding. In terms of winning a championship, however, that's still a couple of years away.
The Charlotte Bobcats had the worst season in NBA history last year, finishing 7-59 and on a 23-game losing streak. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like next season will be any better. GM Rich Cho went out and got some nice new additions in point man Ramon Sessions and shooter Ben Gordon, but neither really has what it takes to lead the team out of the forest.
That said, it looks as though new coach Mike Dunlap may rely heavily on rookie forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who comes with a lot of question marks despite being drafted second overall this year. The former Kentucky Wildcat appeared in one NBA Summer League game and scored 18 points while pulling down eight rebounds, but that isn't enough to project his NBA potential. If he lives up to the hype, then the Bobcats will look slightly better than last year. If he busts, then they'll be even further away from getting back to the playoffs.
No matter how you look at it, this team is just too young to make a lot of noise next season.
Rose is the glue that holds the Bulls together and when he injured his knee in last year's playoffs, Chicago's title hopes died instantly. To add insult to injury, Rose is going to miss the start of this season and according to team owner Jerry Reinsdorf, the former No. 1 pick won't rush his recovery.
Fortunately for the Bulls, they still have a deep enough team that they'll be able to contend next year. Luol Deng and Joakim Noah will provide some tough defense, and maybe even Carlos Boozer will finally stop being a disappointment.
However, there is still a giant hole at the point. Nothing against Kirk Hinrich, but he's little more than a shooter and not the dangerous distributor that Rose is. The same can be said for rookie Marquis Teague, who is nowhere near ready to run an offense.
Seeing as how Rose could very well miss the whole season, chances are that the Bulls won't be so tough to beat both during the regular season and playoffs, assuming that he doesn't come back.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are slowly going to work their way back into contention thanks to the talented Kyrie Irving, but this season isn't going to be the one where the city wins its first NBA championship ring. Sure, the former Duke Blue Devil is talented, but what support does he have besides the defense-first Anderson Varejao?
In terms of how well Irving's supporting cast does next season, it appears that owner Dan Gilbert is putting a lot of faith into rookies Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller. Both players are quite talented in their own right, but it's still their first NBA season. There's no guarantee that they'll even start.
Even if Waiters and Zeller do well in their rookie campaigns, they'll probably just be scratching the surface of their NBA potential. The Cavs will improve, but they're still just too young to be serious contenders. Save for Irving, Varejao and the two rookies, there really aren't many reliable contributors.
The Mavericks really felt the loss of Tyson Chandler last season, finishing the season as the No. 7 seed in the tough Western Conference before getting swept out of the playoffs by the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team has a more reliable center this year in Chris Kaman, but being oft-injured makes his potential production completely unpredictable. More importantly, now that team leader Jason Kidd has gone and left a hole at point guard, the shoot-first Darren Collison may not help with his offense-first approach.
More importantly, star player Dirk Nowitzki is starting to get old. At 34, he is coming off a season in which he posted his lowest scoring total since 2004, just 21.6 points per game.
Given how so many Western Conference teams improved this season and the Mavericks remained fairly quiet, don't expect to see another championship celebration in Big D in 2013.
Seven-footer Javale McGee might have the most untapped potential out of any big man in the league and because he refuses to mature as a player, his Denver Nuggets will once again be on the outside looking in once the final buzzer sounds at the NBA Finals. As good as McGee can be when he tries, he simply does not do that enough. More often than not, he is in his own little world on both sides of the floor and seems more concerned with his own numbers than being a respectable team player.
Seeing as how defense wins championships and McGee is never fully focused, the Nuggets simply won't win a championship this year unless he gets his head in the game. If not, Kenneth Faried is way too small to play center and Kosta Koufos is just plain bad.
The Pistons are committed to a bright future, and their drafting Andre Drummond in 2012 shows it. Defense has been the team's bugaboo for a long time and now that the 6'10" shot blocker is there to play center and maybe some power forward, the Pistons are about to get a lot tougher in that department.
Yet, Drummond is a rookie and save for him and Greg Monroe, Detroit doesn't really have anyone who can play consistent interior defense. Seeing as how both men cannot be expected to play all 48 minutes night after night, the Pistons are still a few pieces away from completing their rebuilding phase.
GM Joe Dumars needs to add a few more defensive pieces as well as a top scorer before he can call his team a contender again and while Drummond was a great step forward, there are still many steps to be taken.
Golden State has had the same problem for a few years now: their starting lineup has been good enough, but they have had no bench to give the starters a rest. That seems to be the case this year as the team has a starting five with a boatload of potential, but not much in terms of bench depth. The best option in the second unit is Richard Jefferson, who is good for shooting three-pointers and not much else.
That isn't to say that teams without benches are a lock to do poorly. Just look at how the Miami Heat did their first year with LeBron James. Yet, while full of potential, the Warriors just don't have that dominant edge yet. As a result, their play will suffer once coach Mark Jackson decides to rest a starter.
Houston underwent something of a roster overhaul this summer in trading point guard Kyle Lowry to the Toronto Raptors and then using the amnesty clause on power forward Luis Scola. GM Daryl Morey then used his three-first round picks to draft shooter Jeremy Lamb and power forwards Royce White and Terrence Jones.
Finally, he made a move that can be called one major roll of the dice in signing last year's breakout sensation Jeremy Lin to a three-year contract worth $25.3 million. That's a lot of money for someone who played in just 35 games last year.
All draft and financial decisions aside, however, Houston probably won't win a title next year for one reason: There is no definitive leader on the team. There is not one player on the roster over the age of 29 and unless Lin lives up to the hype and earns his pay, it's going to be a long, long time until Houston blasts off to Planet Championship again.
Indiana was the surprise team of 2012, beating out more experienced teams like the Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics to finish third in the Eastern Conference. They made it as far as the Conference Semifinals, where they lost to the Miami Heat in six games.
The team is still very much the same entering the new season, albeit with a couple of new faces. Gerald Green was brought in via free agency and point man Darren Collison was traded to the Dallas Mavericks. The new man sharing the point guard duties with sharpshooter George Hill will be D.J. Augustin, formerly of the Charlotte Bobcats.
Herein lies the Pacers' greatest concern entering next season. It isn't that they overachieved last year or that last season was shortened by a lockout, but rather the fact that Hill and Augustin are just too similar. Team stars Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert need a reliable point guard getting them the ball and while Augustin has an average passing game, he is too much like his teammate Hill in that he prefers to do his best work from behind the three-point line. For his career, Augustin has shot an outstanding 37 percent from long range.
Unless he can willingly make the transition from being a passing shooter to a pass-first floor general, then Pacers fans could find themselves disappointed throughout the season.
The Clippers defied all expectations last season when they acquired all-star point guard Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets and instantly became an overnight sensation known as "Lob City." By unleashing some thunderous dunks on the opposition, the Clippers went from being perennial losers to the No. 5 seed in the highly competitive Western Conference, drawing a matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs. It took seven games, but LA won before being swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the second round.
While the team has continued to make moves this offseason, specifically in acquiring Lamar Odom and signing Jamal Crawford, fans shouldn't get too excited about the 2012-2013 season. Yes, the Clippers looked great, but it's a new season, particularly one that ends with Chris Paul entering free agency.
Call me crazy, but that could easily be a distraction all season long and take away from the team's potential success. Throw in the fact that opposing teams could very well have figured out the Clippers' lob-heavy offense by now, and a repeat of last season is all but guaranteed.
If there's one team that has won the NBA offseason, it's the Lakers. Not only did they make future Hall-of-Famer Steve Nash the team's first true point guard since Nick Van Exel, they also managed to acquire all-star center Dwight Howard in a four-team trade that also included the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets. Instantly, the team improved its chances of winning a championship.
However, Lakers fans shouldn't count their chickens before they hatch. First off, let's not forget that Howard is only under contract for this season and has yet to play a game for the team. For all we know, he could hate being a Laker and become a clubhouse cancer.
On a similar note, this is a man who basically kicked and screamed his way out of Orlando. In LA, he may have one hell of a wake up call when he realizes that it's Kobe Bryant's team and that he's just a member of the supporting cast. If the three-time Defensive Player of the Year can't accept that, it could become a nightmare situation for all parties: the fans, the players and especially the front office that traded for Howard.
One of the key reasons for the Grizzlies' success the past couple of years was the presence of sharpshooter O.J. Mayo. In four seasons in Memphis, the former USC Trojan averaged 15.2 points per game and shot a very good 37.5 percent from downtown.
However, Mayo entered free agency this summer and opted to sign with the Dallas Mavericks rather than remain in Memphis. The team still has key players in Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol to carry them back to the playoffs, but the lack of a solid shooter who can consistently be a force off the bench as a sixth man or just a three-point guy will hurt them in the end.
Unless some of the youngsters like second-year man Josh Selby or even newcomer Tony Wroten can pick up the slack in that area, Memphis is going to need more than just heart and consistency to keep on improving.
If there's one Eastern Conference team that has a great shot at winning a championship, it's the Heat. Not only is their championship core intact, but GM Pat Riley also brought in all-time leading three-point shooter Ray Allen aboard to be the sixth man. Thus, at least on paper, Miami is THE team to beat in the NBA.
Yet, the hardest thing to do in professional sports besides win a championship is to win it again the following season. Since Michael Jordan's second retirement in 1998, only one team has been able to accomplish this feat: the Los Angeles Lakers, who were NBA champions from 2000-2002 and again from 2009-2010.
Seeing as how teams in both conferences have loaded up on talent this summer, the odds of Miami being dethroned have grown. Should LeBron & Company not be the hottest team entering the 2013 NBA Finals, a repeat definitely isn't going to happen.
The Bucks are coached by Scott Skiles, a coach whose system calls for hard-nosed defense. That being said, it's ironic how his two best players are two of the most prolific offensive stars in the NBA, Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. While these two will do a fine job of carrying the scoring load in Milwaukee this season, their efforts will mean nothing unless the defense can provide consistency and toughness for the entirety of the season.
Unfortunately for Milwaukee, their frontcourt doesn't have enough consistency to make an impact in an Eastern Conference that's slowly starting to become much more competitive. Ersan Ilyasova can hold his own in the paint and while Samuel Dalembert can hold his own when it comes to blocking shots, he still moves a bit slowly under the basket. That just leaves rookie John Henson, who may not even be able to make an impact in the NBA, for all we know.
Thus, while dangerous on offense, Milwaukee could have a very hard time stopping the opposition.
Before Ricky Rubio (pictured) tore his ACL last season, the Minnesota Timberwolves appeared to be ready to make a playoff push. Once the Spanish sensation went down, the team appeared lost.
Now that his return is imminent, the new-look T-Wolves look ready to make a statement, with Kevin Love ready to have an MVP season on top of that. However, while the team will certainly make a lot of noise this season, they aren't quite ready to win a title yet. As much potential as they have, they are still very young and only have two players over the age of 30.
With so many more experienced teams to compete against in a tough conference, Minnesota will almost certainly find itself on the outside looking in.
Last season was a tough one for the New Orleans Hornets. Not only did they lose franchise star Chris Paul, but the main piece of the trade that sent him to the Clippers, guard Eric Gordon, appeared in just nine games due to injury. As a result, the team finished with the worst record in the Western Conference.
The Hornets look better going into 2012-2013, as Gordon is healthy and GM Dell Demps was able to acquire forward and reigning Most Improved Player Ryan Anderson from the Orlando Magic. More importantly, the team had a phenomenal draft in selecting Anthony Davis with the first overall pick and Austin Rivers with the 10th overall selection.
Though the team has a lot of potential, they won't even contend for the playoffs next year. Both Rivers and Davis have a lot to learn about playing in the NBA and while both could make serious statements next year, they won't be the ones leading the team to victory.
Knicks fans are bubbling with anticipation as the new season draws closer, for GM Glen Grunwald has brought in some key pieces to improve the team's defense, specifically Marcus Camby and Ronnie Brewer. Yet, while New York may look talented on paper, it will mean nothing if the players aren't getting along with one another, specifically Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire.
Don't get me wrong. The Knicks are definitely going to make a statement next year, but not without Anthony willing to share the spotlight. Keep in mind, he was rumored to be the reason that Mike D'Antoni resigned as head coach midway through last season, and it would be a crying shame if his refusal to let other players score led current coach Mike Woodson to resignation as well.
Hopefully, the new iso-system will produce some tough defense and consistency on offense, particularly to the point where the Knicks are able to take home an Atlantic Division crown.
The Thunder have improved vastly over the past few years, and everyone was happy when they made it to the NBA Finals last season. When they won Game 1 of the series, it looked as though they had a legitimate shot at defeating the dangerous LeBron James-led Miami Heat. Unfortunately, following that victory, the Heat went on to win four straight games and take home the Larry O'Brien trophy.
Fortunately for OKC, their team for 2012-2013 is basically the same as last year's squad. If there's any team that has a good shot at making it back to the Finals, it's them. However, their desire to win a championship shouldn't go to their head, otherwise careless mistakes will be made and such a trip will not happen.
That said, Kevin Durant needs to unite his troops and keep them focused for the full 82 game season if he is to win a ring.
The Orlando Magic have already prepared themselves to hit rock bottom in a few ways: They traded Dwight Howard in a four-team deal that netted them just Aaron Afflalo (pictured) and Al Harrington (plus draft picks), and they are prepared to start their season with Gustavo Ayon as the starting center with rookie head coach Jacque Vaughn manning the sidelines.
This is rebuilding mode in the most obvious way and in Orlando's case, this is going to be a season that shall be aptly titled, "The Quest for the No. 1 Pick."
For a short time last year, it looked as though the Sixers were going to be a top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, due to their over-commitment to team play and lack of a star who could take over in crunch time, they fell to the No. 8 seed and though they made it to the second round of the playoffs (thanks to Derrick Rose blowing out his knee), their season was still one of semi-failure.
Things are going to be even tougher for the Sixers this year, as Andre Iguodala was sent to the Denver Nuggets as part of the Dwight Howard trade and first-round pick Moe Harkless was sent to Orlando. The only real star on the team now is Andrew Bynum, who is injury prone and has attitude issues.
On top of that, the Sixers just don't have the consistency in the mid-range scoring department to fully contend. Evan Turner has potential but doesn't make shots on a consistent basis, and Spencer Hawes' game outside the paint is nonexistent.
Needless to say, coach Doug Collins is going to have his hands full this year.
Poor Alvin Gentry. He coaches a team that relies on fast-paced offense, and is placing that system in the hands of someone who wasn't a starter until the latter part of last year, Goran Dragic. To add insult to injury, Phoenix's defense is average at best, with Marcin Gortat and the newly acquired Luis Scola being the only consistent options in that department.
Yes, the team just barely missed out on the playoffs last season, but this is going to be the team's first season without Steve Nash since 2003-2004. That said, it's going to be a long, hot year in the desert for Phoenix fans.
Portland had a huge need at center this summer, and thus they used the 11th overall pick to select 7'1" Meyers Leonard out of Illinois. While talented and with a lot of heart, Leonard isn't exactly what one would call a top athlete.
Should he fail, chances are that either LaMarcus Aldridge or J.J. Hickson will be asked to do most of the work in the middle. Both are good in their own right, but cannot exactly be called defensive beasts. Given how much of a disappointment last season was for Portland, any lack of consistency on defense is going to be viewed as unacceptable by both team management and new coach Terry Stotts.
That said, GM Neil Olshey had better hope that Leonard lives up to the hype, otherwise he won't win any new friends among the team's fan base.
Like so many professional sports teams, the Sacramento Kings are a team with so much potential but cursed by one thing: youth. Out of all of the team's key contributors, both current and future, only two are over the age of 30. Those two players are John Salmons and Francisco Garcia, both of whom are little more than three-point threats.
Yet, what hurts the Kings even more is the lack of a true team leader. Jimmer Fredette was expected to fill that role last season, but he struggled at the point and has yet to prove that he is more than a shooter.
That being said, this is going to be another year without playoffs for Sacramento, not to mention the team's potential final season in the city. At this point, all the players can do is play their hardest and hope for the best.
The Spurs were the top team in the Western Conference last season, but age caught up with them as they were outclassed by the Thunder in the Conference Finals. The team will certainly do well again this year, but will ultimately struggle down the stretch for the same reason: They're just too old.
Team leader Tim Duncan is 36 and Manu Ginobili is 35, and both aren't getting any younger. Seeing as how the younger players don't get nearly as many minutes as they should, don't expect another banner being raised in San Antonio unless coach Gregg Popovich chooses to play the rookies.
The Raptors are another one of the NBA's youngest teams, and their roster has also undergone some great changes the past few years. This season, the latest change will be the arrival of 2011 first-round pick Jonas Valanciunas from Lithuania, as his size is expected to provide some tough defense in the middle.
However, in the event that Valanciunas is a bust, Toronto doesn't have much of a Plan B. Andrea Bargnani (pictured) has looked better on defense as of late, but he is still a scorer first and prefers to work on the wing. For someone 7'0", 256 pounds, that's just unacceptable.
On top of that, the team's only player over 30 is the 30-year-old Jose Calderon, who wants to be traded now that Kyle Lowry is in the picture. Should he get his wish, the Raptors' youth will only hurt them and kill any chance of getting better in 2012-2013.
The Utah Jazz have made their fair share of moves this offseason, the biggest being trading point guard Devin Harris to the Atlanta Hawks for an overall disappointment in Marvin Williams. Yet, the team still has some consistency in the frontcourt in Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, both of whom are absolute beasts at their positions.
However, as we saw with the New York Knicks before Linsanity last season, teams tend to struggle without a true point guard getting the stars the ball. The Jazz are due to be victims of this soon, as Mo Williams appears set to be Tyrone Corbin's starting point guard when the season begins.
Williams is a very talented player, but not exactly the man most coaches would want to run an offense. He has a point guard's size at 6'1", 195 pounds, but tends to be a scorer first. For his career, he has averaged 13.8 points and just 4.9 assists while shooting 39 percent from long range.
Seeing as how Utah is going to need a solid distributor if they are to get back to the postseason, having Williams run the point won't really be much of a help towards achieving that goal.
Last season, the Wizards were young, immature and a complete mess. Thus, GM Ernie Grunfeld got to work this summer and sent the awful contract of Rashard Lewis to the New Orleans Hornets for two fine leaders: Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. Both players are great locker room presences and on a team full of youngsters, they will finally bring some order to the tumultuous locker room.
That being said, there's a very good chance that the Wizards could be a surprise team this season. John Wall will learn a lot from both Ariza, Okafor and even Nene as the team looks to get back into the postseason for the first time since the Gilbert Arenas years. Combined with some hot shooting from rookie Bradley Beal, this team could go places in 2013.
Yet, like all teams, the young Wizards are going to have to adjust to playing with Okafor and Ariza, both of whom are free agents next summer. Should Wall and his young teammates respond well to the veterans and both Ariza and Okafor stay, DC could become a hot basketball town once again. Unfortunately, it won't be this year.