The NBA season tips off in just over two weeks as the October 30th opening day inches closer and closer, which means it's time to stop looking at preseason games and sit patiently waiting for the regular season to get here.
It's really an impossible thing to measure and even harder to predict, but it seems like we are in for one of the most exciting NBA seasons of all time when it comes to the 2012-13 season.
Not only is it the full season following the 2011 lockout, but we've also got storylines aplenty to shake out all season long, player homecomings that will either be full of vitriol or tears, and some of the best teams we've seen since the early 2000s Lakers and the '90s Bulls.
Between Miami's pursuit for a repeat, Kobe's search for a sixth ring, Boston and San Antonio trying to stave off old age, Oklahoma City trying to avenge their Finals loss, the Knicks sharing a city with the Nets, injuries altering the landscape of the league, up-and-coming teams, new title contenders and a thrilling rookie class, what we've got is going to be nonstop fun and entertainment.
With that should come a handful of surprises along the way, so let's shake out the most likely surprises and go on from there.
I know, I'm starting out writing about surprises by saying there won't be any, but as far as the major awards go, I wouldn't be shocked to see a lack of surprises.
In fact, LeBron James could potentially have an even better individual season than he did last season.
This will come as a surprise as guys like Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love and a handful of other guys seem ready to challenge LeBron for the MVP Award.
Elsewhere, Dwight Howard should be able to regain his Defensive Player of the Year crown, James Harden will likely win the Sixth Man of the Year Award for the second year in a row and Coach of the Year Award will go to whoever ends up being the most improved team, probably Minnesota's Rick Adelman.
Also, I can't buy into the notion that Damian Lillard will take down Anthony Davis in the Rookie of the Year race. Davis will almost certainly average a double-double, which has pretty much meant a lock for the award in the past 20 years.
If boring results are surprising then this is going to be a season for that in terms of awards, although there may be a few outliers.
With the full confidence of the Chicago Bulls behind him and at least half a season to prove that he's still capable of being the full-time starter for a team as good as the Bulls, this is the season where Kirk Hinrich either puts people into a jubilant fever or a furious rage.
He's not going to be making the biggest impact in terms of pushing the Bulls to stay atop the Eastern Conference, but he's going to help keep them afloat while giving guys who drafted him in their fantasy leagues one of the best value picks.
Hinrich, who is pegged to be the starting point guard for the Bulls, is ESPN's 55th ranked point guard, meaning you can pick him up very late in your draft and potentially end up with a huge steal. Unless he falls flat on his face, which is unlikely, he'll be getting big minutes for Chicago while Rose is out, and even when Rose comes back he should be playing quite a bit with the Bulls not wanting to rush Rose back.
With a few threes a game, a handful of assists and a decent scoring game here and there, Hinrich looks to be the steal of the year if things hold steady.
When Philadelphia traded for Andrew Bynum they did something that both needed to be done and could have been a disaster, depending on the health of Bynum moving into the future.
The Sixers were in a place where they couldn't get much better with Andre Iguodala leading their team, so they went out and flipped him and a few young dudes for Bynum.
What they did there, however, along with using their amnesty provision on Elton Brand, was completely blow up their defense. Iggy and Brand were the cornerstones of Philly's vaunted 2012 defense and now they're left with Bynum, a mediocre interior defender who gets lost at times on a pick-and-roll.
However, with that problem picked at, another should be solved. Philly now has a go-to scorer in the middle, something that plagued them last season.
Don't be surprised to see a complete transformation from this team, both for good and bad.
There's a lot to be said about the Eastern Conference this season, but the most obvious is that the Miami Heat is the best of the 15 teams. Chicago will be without Derrick Rose, so a repeat as the league leader would be nothing short of a miracle.
However, with Oklahoma City continuing on in the Western Conference, San Antonio refusing to age and the Lakers trying to make a splash, their leading the pack is far from guaranteed.
All that said, Miami has the best player in basketball, another scoring threat in Ray Allen and another year together to contribute to their chemistry. They'll lead the NBA in wins during the regular season, although that shouldn't matter too much to them.
What Andre Iguodala did for the Philadelphia 76ers is only something you could see if you actually watched games. There are no legitimate stats for the number of times a guy keeps his man from getting into the lane or how often he makes the pass that leads to the pass, that leads to a bucket.
Iggy has been dropping in production in terms of points per game for a solid five seasons, but he has become increasingly more important to his team over that period of time as well.
Now that he's with a team where his offensive prowess will be utilized to its max, as a transition player cutting to the rim and scoring on the run, rather than with jumpers, Iggy's points could jump in a huge way. That, combined with the fact that everybody already knows him as a great defender could lead to him winning the Most Improved Player Award, something that would have seemed unlikely if he were still with Philadelphia.
For whatever reason people seem to have equated the loss of Joe Johnson to about half as important as the Magic losing Dwight Howard. If anything, trading Johnson was probably a lateral move for the Hawks.
From a front office standpoint it was a total win, getting rid of his $378 billion salary (or something like that) and bringing back low-paid players and expiring contracts.
What Atlanta got back was the core of a 22-44 team, that's true, but taking the best of those players like Jordan Farmar and Anthony Morrow, who are good shooters, and DeShawn Stevenson, who is a good perimeter defender, and combine them with Kyle Korver, another shooter, and Lou Williams, a playmaker who can get hot off the bench, and they should be able to equal the production that they lose from Johnson.
Aside from that, they'll get a full season out of Al Horford and a contract year out of Josh Smith, who should be playing out of his mind in order to get a bigger deal.
There's a lot of talk surrounding some middling teams of the past few years and whether or not they'll be able to make a playoff run this season. Particularly Minnesota and Golden State are the center of those conversations.
As the season goes along we should be able to see that both teams are going to at least contend for a playoff spot, but one should stand out above the other.
Minnesota will be able to snag the stray playoff spot away from Utah, who should regress a bit after a surprisingly good year from them in a lockout season. The other team that people are talking about falling out of the playoffs, Dallas, will probably be afloat enough to make it in.
Take that one to the bank there people, Dallas and Minnesota in, Golden State and Utah out.
We've already gotten into how much I love Kirk Hinrich as a fantasy sleeper, but that has little if anything to do with the Chicago Bulls as a team looking to stay afloat long enough to make the playoffs.
While they definitely aren't the same team as last season, they still have the core of the team that was able to win 18 of 27 games without Derrick Rose on the floor, which was good enough to be the third best team in the East last year.
Does all that mean they're going to be able to continue that crazy clip without Rose? Of course not, but they're probably not going to completely founder like many people are predicting.
What's more likely is they're able to hold a record somewhere around .500 until Rose comes back, which should be at some point during the regular season. When he comes back, they should be able to win enough games to secure a playoff spot.
Like the Western Conference, talk surrounding the teams of the Eastern Conference has been about a power struggle and an eventual change at the bottom of the playoff picture.
Orlando will fall out of the playoffs unless Arron Afflalo turns into LeBron James (which doesn't seem likely), leaving the middling Eastern Conference teams to fight for one free spot.
While a lot of talk has surrounded the revamped Nets, now in Brooklyn, it seems like too much to ask of a team that won half as many games as they lost last season, to come together as a completely new unit and win around 42 games.
Instead somebody like Toronto or Milwaukee will probably be able to squeeze its way in with a record somewhere around .500.
While there will only be one new playoff spot up for grabs this season with only the Magic falling out of contention, there are quite a few rising Eastern Conference teams who should be able to fight for the seventh or eighth seed, whichever it may be.
At the top of the list has to be the Toronto Raptors, the Washington Wizards and the Brooklyn Nets, along with the Milwaukee Bucks.
A bit further down, depending on the development of some rookies and young guys, you have to take a look at Cleveland and Detroit for a minute or two, but they'll probably come out of the gate intriguing only to fall back to the back of the pack.
All that said, get ready for a more interesting race for the final playoff spots in the East next season, with some teams who could do a bit of damage if they get on a roll.
The Golden State Warriors continue to be one of the Western Conference's up-and-comers that people look at with potential for a playoff spot, and while I dismissed them at one point, I suppose I should go into greater depth as to why.
First, there's the obvious reason of the durability of their players. Andrew Bogut continues to be restricted in training camp while Stephen Curry has slowly been phased in. It might be too much to ask that both of them remain healthy all season long.
Beyond that it seems that they are undergoing a significant philosophical change, something that doesn't really lend itself to immediate success. It's likely that this focus on defense, even though it started in principle last season, could lead to a few too many losses early on to recover from.
That being said, I'm a big fan of the long-term possibilities this team has, and am completely behind a 2013-14 playoff run.
The phrase "embarrassment of riches" comes to mind when you think about the Denver Nuggets. What they've got at each position is at least one competent starter and one above-average bench player, some go even deeper than that.
Basically, they're the new version of Steve Nash's old Suns teams with less emphasis on just a few players. It's like they're the inverse of the 2004 Detroit Pistons. They play offense as a cohesive unit, creating a formidable line that will be hard to defend, while playing defense in portions where every little stop can lead to a huge momentum swing for them.
It's going to be nearly impossible to hold this team below 95 points in any given game, let alone in a prolonged series. As a team that took last year's Lakers to the brink with a group of guys who were too young, but now have another year of experience and a new all-star to add to their lineup, the rest of the Western Conference should be afraid.
It seems like the Oklahoma City Thunder are shying away from giving James Harden a maximum deal, and who can blame them, really.
While Harden has been an amazing player for them over the past three seasons, adding that much more salary to a roster that's already on the hook for $62 million this year basically immobilizes them with crazy luxury tax penalties.
The Thunder front office and Harden will probably hammer out details of an extension during the season with the Thunder brass trying to keep the new deal under what a maximum salary extension would be. Somebody will get into Harden's ear and convince him that another team will offer him a max deal in free agency and the two will balk.
In the end, Oklahoma City will probably end up bringing Harden back regardless, waiting to see if another team actually does offer him a max deal and match it with a forced smile on their faces.
While I'm not convinced yet that anyone not named LeBron James will win the MVP this year, there are quite a few players who are going to put in a challenge.
One guy who has always been on the cusp of the MVP conversation but never really in it is Rajon Rondo.
Rondo will be able to lead the league in assists for another season (or at least come close), but his offensive role will probably expand beyond that. Boston needs him to become more of a scoring option, and it seems he has realized that so far in the preseason, scoring 13 points per game in just 26 minutes compared to about 12 per game in 37 minutes last season.
While Rondo won't be challenging Kevin Durant for the scoring title, closer to 17 points per game, a level assist mark, stellar defense and some marquee games would probably lead to at least a bit of chatter going Rondo's way.
There's a bit of a power vacuum when it comes to centers in the Western Conference, and as a league as a whole for that matter. After Dwight Howard out West, all you've got is a handful of question marks.
Marc Gasol has proven to be a nice number two out West, but he's far from having a stranglehold on the title. Otherwise the only two near taking that title are LaMarcus Aldridge, who is playing out of position and Andrew Bogut, who is hurt.
With a better shooting percentage, continued improvement on defense and another step forward in the rebounding category, Cousins can easily challenge Gasol for the number two option at center.
Where is he going to find all the time to make these huge leaps and bonds you may ask? Thomas Robinson will play a huge factor, not only freeing him up a bit down low, but also challenging him to be a better player, lest he get overlooked in Sacramento.
With the Orlando Magic finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference, Dwight Howard distracting the entire league with demands and then retracting them and an injury, everyone pretty much forgot how far ahead the rest of the pack Howard actually is.
It got so bad that Howard missed out on winning another Defensive Player of the Year Award, even though he is still the best defensive player in the NBA. It was easily his worst season since he has become a great player, but it's not like he fell off dramatically.
With Howard anchoring the Lakers down low he's going to see his scoring numbers stay steady, but he'll likely transform the Lakers into a top ten defensive team, garnering not only deserved Defensive Player of the Year talk, but MVP chants as well.
The New York Knicks have become the strangest team in the league, not based on the fact that they've got the most unique lineup, but rather because they continually take one step forward and two steps back.
Guys getting angry and punching fire extinguishers isn't exactly the best way to end a season.
What seems like a likely scenario for the season is Mike Woodson taking some more control of the lineup like he did when he was in Atlanta; when he did things like bump Al Horford up to center and Josh Smith up to power forward while running lineups with Jamal Crawford playing point guard.
There are some crazy things he can do with New York's lineup, like starting Carmelo Anthony at power forward and bringing Amar'e in off the bench. The only question is whether or not the ownership or the multi-million dollar men will be okay with it all happening.
As far as the Eastern Conference is concerned, we could have a moderate shakeup in the All-Star Game lineup. Roy Hibbert, Luol Deng and Andre Iguodala all got their first All-Star selection of their careers, while Andrew Bynum, Marc Gasol, and LaMarcus Aldridge were first-timers in the West.
The Western Conference looks like it's pretty set, swapping Dwight Howard in for Bynum, but there could be a guy like DeMarcus Cousins ready to step up to try and grab a spot.
One spot that should be obvious, however, is the vacant guard spot in the Eastern Conference.
Where Derrick Rose started last season, Rajon Rondo or Deron Williams will probably take his place, but someone still needs to fill in as a third guard. It seems unfathomable that Kyrie Irving gets snubbed again with any kind of season resembling his rookie campaign.
We've touched on Atlanta a bit already, but there's one specific member of the team that I'm most excited to see this season.
Josh Smith has deserved every single angry tweet he's gotten criticizing him for settling for jumpers when he should be driving to the hole. It's lazy, it's not smart and it doesn't make him look like a team player.
Where common sense can fall silent, money can shout, and with Smith entering a contract year I'm guessing a few people in his entourage will sit him down and get his head on straight, at least more than it has been in recent years.
Josh Smith is always at his best when he puts his head down and plays a little bit of a LeBron game. Get to the hoop, put down a dunk or draw a foul and get your team points. I'd put my money on him leaning a lot more toward doing that this season than continuing to put up jumpers.
Utah is stuck between a few places, but neither of them are rocks or hard places, yet. They can turn into them very quickly if they don't make the right moves, but for now there's a lot of leeway in those bookends between best and worst case scenarios.
They've got a grand total of $1.6 million on the books for sure in 2013 with another $15 million in team options and a $7.5 million player option for Marvin Williams. Even if all those are picked up they've still only got around $24 million in contracts for the 2013-14 season.
What they've got to decide this year is how they're going to continue on with this team, whether they have a mini-rebuild and trade away their more expensive players or go more or less all-in with the team they've got.
Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are the best players coming off the books and common sense is that they'll look into trading them if they plan on playing more for the future rather than the present.
If I were to take a guess, I would say that they nab Jefferson for another few seasons and free up the power forward spot for Derrick Favors to take a shot at. What they'll be able to get out of Millsap is still very much up in the air.
The single biggest disappointment of 2012, aside from the Derrick Rose knee injury that derailed Chicago's championship aspirations, was the flop of a dunk contest that we were all forced to accept.
What I'm hoping for, and almost planning on happening, is a new and rejuvenated David Stern to come in and take control to fix the deflating All-Star Weekend. People still watch it, but they do so with a cringe and ultimately a look of disappointment.
The NBA has some of the best athletes they've ever boasted, but the dunk contest, which used to be one of the main attractions to casual fans, has become something of a dull affair, much like it was in the late '90s.
I doubt they do the right thing and do away with the fan vote, but something tells me that there will be a more star-studded lineup after they trotted out four guys that casual fans had only heard of in passing.
Possibly the most bold statement of them all, but it seems like Kobe Bryant is ready to not only share the load of his team, but also get along with the people who are trying to take some of the glory from him, whether intentional or not.
It seems that Kobe realizes how limited his time is and his goal of a sixth, and potentially seventh, ring can only become a reality if he accepts help from other people in any way he can get it.
No feuds will form with Dwight Howard, criticism will remain constructive and I'd even go as far as to say that he won't be calling out his teammates through the media this season unless they really deserve to be called out.
Whether that leads to a title for the Lakers is still very much in question.
Probably my stupidest surprise of them all, but important in terms of bloggers all over the internet.
For the past two years, especially in the past season, JaVale McGee was the flavor of the month guy to write about. Not only did he say silly things and do silly things, but he's good enough to get behind as a completely lovable bonehead.
Where McGee makes his name on a consistent basis is on Twitter, where he has become one of the few "must follow" NBA players.
This season, however, has a stellar crop of Tweeters coming into the NBA, and one of them could very well pass up McGee in terms of Twitter entertainment. The money is on Quincy Acy, but don't sleep on some of the long shots like Kendall Marshall.
Possibly the boldest prediction, but it seems like success was too quick to this Miami team. Sure, the parts separately were without a title for a long time, but as a unit it took them just two tries to win a title.
I wouldn't call it a regression, because I think they'll be the best team in basketball, but the Eastern Conference is full of roadblocks and the top of the Western Conference is stronger.
They could end up meeting a newly rejuvenated Bulls team in the first round featuring a starving Derrick Rose, if they pass that up a matchup with New York, Philadelphia, Indiana or Boston will likely loom in the following two rounds.
Beyond that, a Finals against the newly reformed Lakers or the revenge-minded Thunder could derail their chances on the big stage.
They may very well make it back to the NBA Finals, but their victory or even their presence is no slam dunk.
Los Angeles has had all the hype coming into this season, and for good reason. They've put together a team of all-stars worthy of shock and awe. They're going to be one of the most fun teams to follow all season long.
So a shot at the title is probably coming, right?
Not so fast my friends. I'm not so sure the hastily thrown together Lakers will be able to keep the Western Conference Champion Thunder from repeating in that sense with all the chemistry they've built over the past few seasons.
It's going to be close, but I'm feeling a future that is void of an L.A. presence in the NBA Finals this season.
If you are one of those twitterers, you can follow me @JDorsey33.