The Top 25 Things to Watch for in Week 1 of the NBA Season
Ladies and gentlemen, opening week is finally here.
Although it hasn't really been all that long since the Miami Heat won the NBA title in June, it seems as if a whole year's worth of drama has taken place over the past five months. The offseason was filled with a constant barrage of storylines, many of which will carry on well into the regular season.
The end of the Dwight Howard saga spawned the beginning of the Andrew Bynum injury watch in Philadelphia. The Nets' move to Brooklyn created an instant rivalry with their neighbors in Manhattan. Ray Allen's decision to take his talents to South Beach will finally come to a head on opening night as the Heat and Celtics square off at AmericanAirlines Arena.
There are more than enough angles to keep fans of every team busy over the next few months, but there are a special few to keep an eye on as the NBA kicks off its 67th season.
How Much Will the Knicks Miss Amar'e Stoudemire?
With power forward Amar'e Stoudemire on the shelf for several weeks with a knee injury, the Knicks will be forced to rearrange their lineup quite a bit in his absence.
The biggest change will come with the proposed move of small forward Carmelo Anthony to the starting 4 spot. While he thrived there for a stretch last season, it doesn't appear that Anthony has the strength (or the willingness) to bang in the low post on an extended basis.
The alternative has the Knicks starting Kurt Thomas at the power forward spot, but head coach Mike Woodson has been a bit reluctant to insert him into the lineup as of yet.
New York is slated to open the season with five games against potential playoff teams, so it'll be interesting to see how the team is able to cope without its injured star.
Paging Andrew Bynum...
The next game that Andrew Bynum plays for the Philadelphia 76ers will be his first: The All-Star center missed the entire preseason after suffering a bone bruise to his knee.
That injury (along with the Orthokine procedure that Bynum underwent last September) has Sixers fans more than a bit concerned about their team's biggest offseason acquisition.
Exactly when he'll play is anyone's guess. Bynum has barely practiced with his new team and is probably at least a week away from being in game shape. With four of the Sixers' first six games away from the Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia may hold its 25-year-old big man out for the first two weeks of the season until its medical staff is absolutely certain that he's ready to go.
How Good Is Atlanta Without Joe Johnson?
The Atlanta Hawks offense has been run through Joe Johnson for the past seven years, but that will change this season now that Johnson calls Brooklyn home.
Josh Smith will now be largely responsible for making most of the highlights in the "Highlight Factory," but a few new teammates will help him out as well.
Atlanta brought in a few scorers this offseason (Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow and Lou Williams) who should help ease the pain of losing Johnson's 19 points per game. Al Horford (now fully recovered from his pectoral injury) appears ready to do his part as well, and the Hawks have more than enough talent to secure a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
While it's unlikely that the Hawks will be good enough to gain home-court advantage in the first round, they could find a way to sneak into the Eastern Conference semifinals if all breaks right.
The arrival of professional basketball in Brooklyn has been eagerly anticipated, and the wait finally ends this week. The Nets may already be the best NBA team in the New York area, and as the team officially christens its rivalry with the Knicks on Thursday, basketball fans across the city's five boroughs will begin to draw the proverbial lines in the sand.
The excessive media attention that Brooklyn will receive this year won't be completely without merit, as Deron Williams and the rest of his teammates could possibly win the Atlantic Division this season.
The Nets' journey starts this week, and if their "Core Four" is better than the Celtics' revamped "Big Three," then the city of New York could be home to two dangerous teams come playoff time.
The Bulls' PG Situation
Chicago's point guard situation was already dire with superstar playmaker Derrick Rose still recovering from his knee injury, but it got a whole lot worse last week after Kirk Hinrich sprained his groin against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Hinrich, Nate Robinson and rookie Marquis Teague are the Bulls' stop-gap options at the lead guard spot for the foreseeable future, with Chicago basically trying to tread water until Rose returns.
Fortunately, the team has a playoff-tested frontcourt that should be able to provide enough scoring (and more than enough defense) to keep head coach Tom Thibodeau happy in the interim.
A playoff spot is by no means guaranteed for the Bulls this year, and the team could even work itself out of the postseason mix entirely if it gets off to a bad start in 2012-13.
Dallas Without Dirk
At some point, the Mavericks will have to learn how to cope in the post-Dirk Nowitzki era, and they'll get plenty of practice at doing just that in November.
Dallas' 34-year-old power forward will miss several weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, forcing the Mavericks' new-look backcourt of Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo to carry the load on offense.
To the Mavs' credit, their frontcourt is loaded with experienced veterans (Elton Brand, Vince Carter and Shawn Marion) who can still be effective when used properly. So while losing your star player a week before the season isn't ideal, Dallas isn't necessarily dead in the water, either.
Damian Lillard's Coming-out Party
It won't take long to determine whether Damian Lillard has what it takes to beat out New Orleans Hornets big man Anthony Davis for the Rookie of the Year award.
In the first seven days of the season, Portland has games against the Lakers, Thunder, Rockets and Mavericks—all of which have a very talented point guard.
Lillard has been impressive during the exhibition slate (16.2 PPG and 5.8 APG) and has all of the tools needed to be an exceptional playmaker at the NBA level. The learning curve for point guards is fairly steep, but if he performs well during his first-week gauntlet, the 6'3" Lillard will quickly set himself apart from the rest of the players in his draft class.
Will DeMarcus Cousins Take the Next Step?
DeMarcus Cousins might be the second-best center in the NBA right now, and he may even have the tools to overtake Dwight Howard for the No. 1 spot.
Of course, the issue with Cousins is his attitude—specifically, whether he can keep it in check. He was sent home during the first week of last season after reportedly demanding a trade, but afterwards, he thrived for the Kings, averaging 18.1 PPG and 10.9 RPG.
With rookie Thomas Robinson now able to take some of the focus away from Cousins on the low blocks, Cousins could be a perennial 20-and-10 player for the next 10 years.
The 2012-13 campaign is the perfect time for Cousins to erase the knucklehead behavior from the past and establish himself as one of the best big men in the Western Conference.
The Denver Nuggets: An 82-Game League Pass Alert
Fasten your seatbelts: The Denver Nuggets are preparing for takeoff.
The Nuggets alone may be worth the cost of an NBA League Pass subscription. Denver led the NBA in scoring last season (104.1 PPG), and now that it has added one of the league's best transition players in Andre Iguodala, it'll evoke the images of Alex English and Fat Lever in the Mile High City.
Iguodala's arrival will help bolster a terrible defense (29th in the league last year), but Denver should be able to outscore just about any team in the NBA. The improved Nuggets will be tested in short order when they take a trip to South Beach to face the Miami Heat during the first weekend of the season.
Is Andre Drummond Ready?
Andre Drummond was so good during the preseason for the Pistons (9.0 PPG and 5.9 RPG in 16.5 MPG) that Detroit head coach Lawrence Frank may not be able to keep him on the bench for too much longer.
"The great thing about Andre, why we have such huge faith in what he's going to be, is he's a phenomenal, phenomenal young man," said Frank in an interview with Brendan Savage of MLive.com. "He's as coachable of a guy as we have."
The 19-year-old big man is playing like a man 10 years his senior. If Drummond would have been this dominant last year at UConn, the New Orleans Hornets might have thought long and hard about taking him with the No. 1 pick.
Whether he can carry his play over to the regular season is still a question, but an early-season road trip for the Pistons will shed some light on how good Drummond truly is.
Dwyane Wade's Health
It's a testament to Dwyane Wade's skill that he could average 22.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG and 4.3 APG during the playoffs last season with a bad knee.
His left knee appears to be in a better place right now, though it will take a few weeks before he can regain his trademark quickness and explosion (if that's even still possible). At 30 years old, Wade will likely play more of a perimeter game—much like Michael Jordan did after he returned to the Chicago Bulls in 1995.
The evolution of Wade will come as the Heat gear up to defend their title, but expect the two-time NBA champion to hit the ground running this season, surgically-repaired knee and all.
Effect of NBA's Rule Changes
Other than taking some of the fun out of the game, the NBA's new rules on pregame rituals aren't likely to have much of an impact this year.
The league's other mandates—including those on flopping, shooters kicking their legs out to draw fouls and the review of flagrant fouls—could impact the outcome of games as early as opening week.
Depending on how strict the referees are on a given night, flopping can be called several times per game. If those in charge adhere to the letter of the law, the NBA's league office could be handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines before Thanksgiving rolls around.
Are Favors and Kanter Ready to Step Up?
Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are talented enough to slide into the Utah Jazz starting lineup today, but Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson won't give up their respective spots that easily.
Barring a trade of either of the two incumbents, Favors and Kanter are going to have to shine each and every time they step on the court if they want to start in 2012-13.
With Millsap and Jefferson both on the last year of their deals, the future for the Jazz's young frontcourt reserves is on the horizon. However, they still have a chance to turn the clock ahead with solid performances in the early going.
Will Andrew Bogut and Steph Curry Finally Play Together?
Golden State acquired Andrew Bogut in a trade back on March 13, but the seven-foot center has still yet to play a game for the Warriors after breaking his left ankle on Jan. 25, nearly two months before he was dealt away by Milwaukee.
Point guard Stephen Curry's right ankle hasn't been much better over the same time period, although he did average 12.2 PPG during the preseason before re-injuring the ankle on October 19.
Both players need to be at 100 percent for the Warriors to make a serious run at a Western Conference playoff spot. Neither one has a stellar injury history, but it does look like both are on track to share the court in the season opener.
Is Oklahoma City Still Built for a Title Run?
We learned that the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook/James Harden trio was talented enough to lead the Thunder to the NBA Finals, but can Kevin Martin now reprise Harden's role as an explosive scorer off of the bench?
Harden wasn't a starter, but he was clearly one of the keys to a young team poised to rule the NBA for the next several years.
Meanwhile, Martin may be just as good as Harden at putting the ball in the basket, but he'll have to build a sense of chemistry and familiarity with Durant and Westbrook fairly quickly if Oklahoma City has thoughts of challenging the Los Angeles Lakers for Western Conference superiority.
Royce White's Travel Plan
Royce White's anxiety disorder led him and the Houston Rockets to create an elaborate travel plan that will allow the rookie forward to drive to as many road games as possible, minimizing the time that he'll have to spend on an airplane.
That plan will be put to the test right out of the gate, as Houston opens the season with road dates in Detroit and Atlanta.
White knows that he'll be forced to fly on occasion, and the unorthodox travel policy is almost certain to have some effect on White's play and/or ability to practice with the team. That said, kudos to the Rockets for finding a middle ground with their first-round draft pick as he acclimates to life in the NBA.
The Jeremy Lin/Omer Asik Experiment
Jeremy Lin shot 28.3 percent from the floor for Houston during the preseason. And while Rockets starting center Omer Asik led the team in rebounds (11.6 RPG), he was also their ninth-leading scorer during the exhibition campaign (7.7 PPG).
The recent acquisition of James Harden will help both players, but it's clear that the Lin/Asik era isn't off to a rousing start in H-Town. Both players will undoubtedly improve once the regular season kicks off, but it'll be clear early on if either of them will be able to live up to the expectations that come with the large contracts they signed this offseason.
The Emergence of Kawhi Leonard
San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard is one of the league's best young talents, and all eyes will be on him early in the season as he takes his game to the next level.
"I think he's going to be a star," wrote San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich on Spurs.com. "And as time goes on, he'll be the face of the Spurs I think."
The Spurs' coaching staff has to be more than a bit concerned, though, with the fact that Leonard's shooting was abysmal this preseason (26.5 percent). The 6'7" small forward shot better than 49 percent from the field last year, but if his offensive game begins to regress, then San Antonio may have to look elsewhere for its future leader.
The Knicks' Time Management
If the players on the Knicks roster were all seven years younger, then the team would undoubtedly be poised for a run at the NBA title.
But as it stands, the team's relative age will not only be its downfall, but it will make head coach Mike Woodson's substitution patterns a very intriguing case study in time management.
The injury to Amar'e Stoudemire is a beast unto itself, but also pay close attention to New York's rotation at the point guard spot early in the season. With 39-year-old Jason Kidd and 35-year-old Pablo Prigioni serving as the primary reserves, the Knicks may lean heavily on 28-year-old Raymond Felton this year.
Will the Lakers Have Much Chemistry Early On?
As we learned with the 2010-11 Miami Heat, superteams aren't necessarily guaranteed a title in their first year together. Sports betting outfit Bovada gave the Lakers the second-best odds of winning the NBA championship, and the team's chemistry will ultimately determine whether Kobe Bryant will hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy for the sixth time.
The Lakers' "Big Four" only played together once during the preseason, so they'll still need to work through some things as a unit over the next few weeks.
Fortunately for them, their early schedule shouldn't be all that taxing (with the exception of an opening-week showdown with the Los Angeles Clippers), so Dwight Howard and Steve Nash should be able to develop a solid rapport with their new teammates before long.
Minnesota Without Love and Rubio
The Timberwolves had visions of a possible playoff berth this season, but their work is cut out for them now that Kevin Love is out six to eight weeks with a broken hand. Minnesota was 2-9 without its star last season and will likely turn to 2011 No. 2 draft pick Derrick Williams to fill the void left by Love's absence.
Electric point guard Ricky Rubio will be out for a stretch as well after injuring his ACL and LCL last March. It would be a borderline miracle for the Timberwolves to maintain a .500 record by the time Rubio and Love return to the lineup, but the play of the team at the start of the season could set a precedent for success down the road.
Is Eric Gordon Happy?
Back in July, Eric Gordon said that he would be "disappointed" if the New Orleans Hornets matched the max offer sheet that he signed with the Phoenix Suns earlier that month.
New Orleans matched, leaving Gordon as one of the unhappiest people in a city that prides itself on its party atmosphere.
Or maybe not.
Gordon has mellowed out a bit over the past few weeks, at least in the media. The opportunity to run with a future star such as Anthony Davis clearly has had some effect on Gordon's mindset, but the play of the 23-year-old shooting guard early in the season will show whether he's truly on board.
"I'm here to help these fans, help this organization win games," said Gordon in a September interview with the Times-Picayune. "I'm happy here, and I'm just looking forward to the season."
Ray Allen vs. the Boston Celtics
It's been nearly four months since Ray Allen decided to walk away from the Boston Celtics, and both sides still can't go more than a week without talking about one another.
All of the bad blood will finally boil over when Allen and his new Miami Heat teammates square off against the Celtics on opening night. Players in both locker rooms have a few scores to settle with their opponent, and the energy that night will only be intensified after the Heat receive their 2012 championship rings.
The NBA's best modern-day rivalry just got better with Allen's defection to South Beach, and the storyline between the two teams will bear watching all year long.
Rondo as Celtics' Leader
The Boston Celtics are now Rajon Rondo's team. It may not seem as such thanks to the continued presence of both Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, but the fate of Doc Rivers' squad rests solely in the hands of his talented young point guard.
Rondo will likely be more vocal in 2012-13, as he'll be relied upon to direct the Celtics' newcomers (Jason Terry and Courtney Lee, among others) and rookies (Jared Sullinger, Fab Melo and Kris Joseph) on the court this season.
The 26-year-old playmaker has shown no signs of backing away from the challenge, and he should continue his ascension on the NBA point guard hierarchy.
Bradley Beal Thrown into the Fire
Bradley Beal, welcome to the NBA.
The 19-year-old shooting guard will be asked to play with the poise of a grizzled veteran, and fortunately for the Wizards, Beal has been fairly consistent during the preseason (with the exception of his zero-point outing against the Spurs last week).
If Beal can hold the fort down until Wall returns, Washington could possibly make a run at the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.