The NBA never takes a break. Each season is really just a never-ending cycle that flows through the calendar year.
First it's training camp, then preseason, regular season, the playoffs, a championship, the draft and then a jumbled mess of offseason headlines, free-agency signings and personnel moves that carry on the pattern until training camp begins all over again.
Over the long summer, when actual games aren't being played, unsettled speculation and hyperbolic expectations create one of the most fascinating times of the year. People love to talk about players even when they aren't actually playing.
Here are 10 players expected to lead offseason NBA dialogue, ranked from least to most significant with regard to the 2013-14 season.
In his last 20 games, J.R. Smith is averaging 23.2 points while shooting 46.4 percent from the floor and 38.3 percent on three-pointers.
The inconsistent nature of Smith's basketball IQ has long been what's held him back, but the style of basketball he's been playing over such a prolonged stretch of time has really made decision-makers around the league do a double take.
As an unrestricted free agent this summer, the timing could not be any better. Smith is putting his head down and getting to the basket, and more and more he's taking high percentage/efficient shots. According to NBA.com/Stats, on the season, 16.7 percent of Smith's points have come at the free-throw line and 25.6 percent have come in the paint.
But since his offensive strategy radically shifted and drives to the basket became a priority, Smith's percentage of points at the free-throw line and in the paint have spiked to 21.3 percent and 35.8 percent, respectively, over his last 20 games.
He's always wanted to be a starter in this league, and unless the New York Knicks are willing to seriously increase his annual salary (a stretch, given the expensive cap holds found up and down their roster), there's a good chance he signs elsewhere.
LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul are indisputably the three best basketball players in the world. Saying who's fourth is up for debate, but Tim Duncan (who will turn 37 on April 25) is in the conversation, which is both fascinating and otherworldly.
Now in his 15th season, Duncan is still one of the most dominant two-way players in basketball. When he's on the court, San Antonio is 11-points-per-100-possessions better than its opponent, according to NBA.com/Stats.
He's fifth in PER, forcing himself into relevant discussions because he always turns the Spurs into a championship contender.
It may be a boring issue for casual fans, but NBA diehards should bring up Duncan's decline whenever the NBA is discussed. We may never see anything like it ever again.
The Toronto Raptors traded for Rudy Gay for two reasons: 1) They haven't had a marquee, All-Star caliber wing presence since 2004 (Vince Carter's last year with the team), and 2) the team's general manager, Bryan Colangelo, appears to be on a "playoffs or else" type of leash.
Is Gay good enough to get them there? Invariably judged by the $37.2 million he's owed over the next two years, he's never made an All-Star team or established himself as a standout defensive stalwart.
But since joining the Raptors, Gay's per-game numbers have been a little better than they were earlier in the season when he was with the Memphis Grizzlies, per Basketball-Reference.com. He has tantalizingly brilliant athleticism, but as the undisputed first option on a team for the first time in his career, will the 26-year-old drag Toronto to the playoffs next season?
Outside of Derrick Rose and Kevin Love, Andrew Bynum was far and away the most disappointing player in the NBA this season.
But he's only 25 years old, and when healthy, he has the size and talent to dramatically turn around even the worst franchise's fortune. But because health is such a serious concern, the contract Bynum receives will be cause for wonder.
Will the Phoenix Suns break the bank, entrusting their famously successful training staff to cure Bynum's ails? Will the Houston Rockets pair him with James Harden to create the type of one-two tandem that could take that team to the next level? How about the Cleveland Cavaliers? Or the Portland Trail Blazers, who are reportedly targeting rim protection over everything else this summer?
The options are numerous, and where he lands has the potential to tilt the NBA's landscape.
When Kyrie Irving ascended into the NBA's point guard elite, former No. 1 overall pick John Wall was left in the rear-view mirror.
Because of various pains, both growing and physical, Wall wasn't able to develop at the pace a few of his peers—like Irving—did. And it's had people wondering if he's even worth a maximum contract.
This season, the Wizards are 2.6-points-per-100-possessions better than their opponent with Wall on the court, and when he's not playing, they're nearly six points worse, according to NBA.com/Stats. That type of change is obviously dramatic.
In his last 20 games, Wall has averaged 23.8 points on 47.9 percent shooting (and an incredibly 41.7 percent from behind the three-point line), 8.0 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals. He's taking eight free throws per game, getting to the basket at will and playing the part of franchise superstar to a tee.
Is this John Wall a mirage, or will next season be what we all expected to see two years ago?
Kevin Garnett is one of the 20 best basketball players to ever put on a pair of sneakers. A shooting forward who's seamlessly adapted his offensive game throughout a 17-year, first-ballot Hall of Fame career, he's above average in almost every area of the game.
On the defensive end, his name should be uttered in the same breath as all-time greats like Bill Russell, and he leads all active players in both rebounds and win shares.
The positive overall impact he's had for both the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Boston Celtics is unquantifiable. And this might be the last we see him play—a truly unique, dying breed of a competitor. The league will be worse off once Kevin Garnett is gone.
LeBron James is currently painting one of the finest individual seasons in NBA history. He led his team on a 27-game winning streak that will probably never be matched (unless it's the Miami Heat next season), and his PER will go down as one of the five highest in league history.
Still, there's always room to improve. And that's terrifying. Miraculously, James has only won one scoring title, and he's never been named Defensive Player of the Year.
If James can maintain his efficiency, lead the league in scoring and receive the highest recognition for defensive play, he'll be more petrifying than he already is. It seems impossible, but knowing James, it's probably well within his reach.
Even as front offices around the league grow more and more judicious, Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez and Eric Gordon all received max contracts last season.
This isn't to say they're all bad deals (Gordon aside), but at the time of their signings, they were all squinted at. Josh Smith is better than those players, but his max contract includes a sizable increase in guaranteed money over Hibbert, Lopez and Gordon.
Unless he's involved in a sign-and-trade—in which his contract would hit five years and an extra year of eight-figure salary—the most Smith could receive from another team would be a four-year, $74 million contract.
Will he get it? Is he worth it?
Derrick Rose's health means so many things. When he's 100 percent, the Chicago Bulls are an undeniable title contender, boasting three All-Star quality players, a defensive philosophy that's as effective as any and a slew of role players who fully understand how they fit.
(One silver lining for Chicago in Rose's absence has been the play of Jimmy Butler, a second-year two-way phenom who will be the team's starting shooting guard next season.)
But Rose's return creates a couple key questions: Can he still play at an "MVP" level? Will his athleticism be compromised? The answers will be relevant to which team comes out of the Eastern Conference next season.
When healthy, these two are the best at their respective positions. And they're certainly good enough to alter the long-term course for whichever teams they choose to spend their prime years with.
Both are locks to receive maximum contracts‚ Chris Paul with the Los Angeles Clippers and Dwight Howard with the Los Angeles Lakers. Those two teams can offer one more year—and the extra money that year brings—than everyone else, giving them an obvious advantage.
But nothing is certain once a player hits unrestricted free agency. If the Clippers lose in the first round with an aging team this season, will Paul look elsewhere to compete for a championship this summer?
If the Lakers don't even make the playoffs, will Howard choose a more fruitful situation (like the Houston Rockets or Dallas Mavericks)?
These moves have potential to shape the 2013-14 season more than anything else, and everyone will be talking about them until the ink is dried on two new contracts.