Is This the Most Compelling Season in NBA History?

Bryan ToporekFeatured ColumnistSeptember 9, 2013

Is This the Most Compelling Season in NBA History?

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    Do you enjoy watching heroes return to glory? Triumphant last stands? Impending free-for-alls?

    Here's hoping you're an NBA fan, in that case. The 2013-14 season will tout all of that and more.

    For LeBron James and the Miami Heat, this year could mark the beginning of a dynasty or the end of an era. They'll be going for their third straight championship, something that hasn't been done since the early-2000s Los Angeles Lakers.

    If they fall short, however, Miami's Big Three could decide to break up in the 2014 offseason. Anyone ready for "The Decision: Part Two?"

    The Heatles aren't the only potential franchise-changing 2014 free agents out there. Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins (restricted) could also be available, setting the stage for an offseason feeding frenzy.

    Additionally, we'll be treated to a slew of injured stars making their return to the court, including Bryant, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook. Depending on how each player responds to his injury, the landscape of legitimate championship contenders could hang in the balance.

    These storylines are only the tip of the iceberg. Let's take a closer look at the major narratives to keep an eye on during the 2013-14 NBA season.

The Return of Injured Stars

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    The 2013-14 season officially tips off with the Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers at 7 p.m. ET on Oct. 29, but realistically, all eyes will be on South Beach that night.

    That's because the Miami Heat will begin their title defense against the Chicago Bulls, who should be welcoming Derrick Rose back to their starting lineup. After missing the entire 2012-13 season to recover from a torn ACL, this will be Rose's first chance to prove that he's back and better than ever.

    Later that night, NBA fans could be treated to the return of Kobe Bryant during the season's first battle of Los Angeles. Bryant, who tore his Achilles tendon right before the start of the 2013 playoffs, told reporters in China that he's "shattered" the normal timetable for recovery, according to NBA.com.

    Rose and Bryant will steal most of the early-season headlines, but they're not the only high-profile guards set to come back from major injuries. After tearing his meniscus during the 2013 playoffs, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook is on track to be ready by opening night, according to the Daily Thunder's Royce Young.

    The timetable for Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, who tore his ACL in late January, is less clear. At the end of August, new Celtics coach Brad Stevens told the Boston Herald that he hadn't heard a timeline for when Rondo will return.

    One other return to keep an eye on? Golden State Warriors power forward David Lee, whose team thrived in his absence during the 2013 playoffs by spacing the floor with four three-point shooters.

A Wave of New Contenders

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    The landscape of legitimate championship contenders looks far different now than it did heading into the 2013 offseason.

    By spurning the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency, Dwight Howard transformed the Houston Rockets into potential title threats overnight. Once he and James Harden develop chemistry together, Houston should be considerably tougher on both ends of the court.

    The Rockets aren't the only potentially new power to contend within the Western Conference, though. Both the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers appear vastly improved, too.

    Adding Andre Iguodala gives the Warriors a lockdown perimeter defender capable of shutting down the league's elite forwards. Assuming the Dubs' key cogs remain healthy, they have the potential to surprise once again come playoff time.

    The Clippers made the best non-player acquisition of the summer by hiring Doc Rivers as their new head coach. With Rivers and a newly re-signed Chris Paul leading the way, the Clips have their sights firmly set on the 2014 Finals.

    In the Eastern Conference, meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets are the only team who could be a possible addition to the class of truly elite teams. Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov racked up a $87 million luxury tax bill for next season to ensure that his team wouldn't flame out in the first round of the playoffs again.

    The Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder remain the three teams most likely to walk out of the 2013-14 season as champions. But the Warriors, Nets, Rockets and Clippers, among others, hope to complicate that picture.

How Low Can the Lakers Go?

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    My, how the mighty have fallen.

    The Los Angeles Lakers, only three seasons removed from back-to-back championships, could realistically miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2004-05 season.

    Dealing with the loss of Dwight Howard, who left Los Angeles in free agency to join the Houston Rockets, would be challenging enough on its own. Replacing a three-time Defensive Player of the Year is no small task, even if he wasn't the same dominant force in Los Angeles that he was in Orlando.

    Making matters worse will be the uncertainty surrounding Kobe Bryant, whose torn Achilles tendon will loom large over the franchise. Although he claims to be way ahead of the normal timetable for recovery, per the NBA.com report, there's no telling when he'll actually return to the court or how he'll look when he does.

    If Bryant proves to be as miraculous of a healer as Adrian Peterson, the Lakers could realistically challenge for one of the final few playoff spots in the Western Conference.

    If Kobe can't bounce back at full strength until the middle of the season, however, the team could be making a rare appearance at the NBA draft lottery next May.

Riggin' for Wiggins

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    The 2014 NBA draft is shaping up to be one for the ages.

    NBA scouts believe there will be multiple franchise players and upwards of eight future All-Stars available on draft night, according to ESPN's Chad Ford (subscription required). That depth at the top has already begun to spur talk of an all-out tankapalooza, as teams with no hopes of winning the 2014 championship set their sights on the next best thing.

    The Philadelphia 76ers stand out as the most obvious tankers. They traded away All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday during the 2013 draft in exchange for a top-five protected first-round 2014 pick and rookie Nerlens Noel, who's still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in February.

    That leaves rookie Michael Carter-Williams, whose decision-making could be described as "questionable" at best, as the likely starter at point guard. Turnovers, ahoy.

    The Sixers may have the inside track to the league's worst record, but the Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns, Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings, among others, also could wind up free falling by the start of the new year.

    At the moment, Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins is considered the top prize in the 2014 draft. Missing out on Wiggins won't be the end of the world, though, with Julius Randle, Dante Exum, Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon and Andrew Harrison potentially all up for grabs, too.

The Heat Eye a Three-Peat

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    LeBron James and the Miami Heat have a chance in 2013-14 to make good on their "Not one, not two..." promise from 2010.

    The fate of their Big Three quite possibly hangs in the balance.

    James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all possess player options in their contracts, which could allow them to become unrestricted free agents following the 2013-14 season.

    If the Heat fall short in their quest for a third straight championship, it's entirely possible that one or more of the Big Three will take their talents away from South Beach. Wade's balky knees nearly cost them the 2013 championship; what happens if he breaks down even earlier in the 2014 playoffs?

    If Wade can stay healthy and the Big Three successfully three-peat, however, it's virtually unfathomable to imagine them passing up a chance at four straight titles. They may still opt out to sign longer-term, higher-paying contracts, but the prospect of being the first team to four-peat in 40-plus years would be too juicy to ignore.

    The possibility of the Big Three departing Miami leads us right into our next major storyline: the star-studded free-agent class of 2014.

Potential 2014 Free Agents

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    LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh aren't the only three high-profile players with a chance to reach free agency in 2014.

    Like James, Wade and Bosh, Carmelo Anthony also possesses a player option in his contract following the 2013-14 season. In July, ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst reported that the Los Angeles Lakers were already "looking at adding" either Anthony or James in free agency next offseason.

    That may be a pipedream for the Lakers, who have their own major free agents—namely, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol—to worry about. The fact remains, however, that the Lakers have positioned themselves to have upwards of $50 million in available cap space if they cut ties with all of their 2014 free agents.

    Dirk Nowitzki also looms as a potential prize in the star-studded 2014 free-agent class. It's difficult to imagine Nowitzki abandoning Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, but if the Mavs miss the 2014 playoffs, Dirk's frustration could boil over.

    A few potential All-Star big men could be available as restricted free agents, too. Unless Derrick Favors, Greg Monroe or DeMarcus Cousins agree upon a contract extension with their respective teams by Oct. 31, they'll be attainable for the right price next summer.

    If you thought the 2010 free-agent period was insane, just imagine a free-agent class with James, Wade, Bosh, Bryant, Gasol, Nowitzki and Anthony. If all do decide to test their options next summer, it'll be an all-out free-for-all between teams with cap space.

The Last Ride for the 2000s Stars

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    In the grand scheme of NBA history, the early 2000s will likely be remembered as the time spent bridging the gap between Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

    That doesn't mean there weren't a bevy of Hall-of-Fame-caliber players during that era, though.

    During the 2013 offseason, three such stars called it a career: Jason Kidd (the now-coach of the Brooklyn Nets), Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady. For the ones who remain active NBA players, the 2013-14 season could prove to be a last ride of sorts.

    Some of these former megastars, like Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, should be in the thick of the 2014 championship race. Others, like Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter, will face an uphill battle just to help push their teams into the playoffs.

    Whatever happens with these 35-and-over players during the 2013-14 season, Father Time will soon come calling. Enjoy them while you still can.

David Stern's Impending Retirement

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    Last but certainly not least, the impending retirement of NBA commissioner David J. Stern will loom large over the first half of the 2013-14 season.

    Stern will step down on Feb. 1, 2014, exactly 30 years to the day after he took over for Larry O'Brien. He'll be passing control of the league over to his current deputy commissioner, Adam Silver, who will have Shaquille O'Neal-sized shoes to fill.

    Say what you want about Stern's history of controversial moves during his 30-year stint as commissioner, but there's no debating his positive impact on the league. He oversaw the NBA's explosive growth over the past three decades, with a strong emphasis on the global expansion of the game.

    During Stern's tenure, the league added seven franchises and expanded its revenue to 24-times larger than when he took over as commissioner. Likewise, the average player salary jumped from $250,000 in 1984 to roughly $5 million these days, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst.

    "There is no debate that David Stern has earned his spot in the pantheon of sports commissioners," Billy Hunter, then-executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, said in an Oct. 2012 statement. "Deservedly, his name and reputation will always be synonymous with the phenomenal growth and success of the NBA over the last three decades."

    As we inch closer to Feb. 1, 2014, expect to be drowning in a deluge of Stern tributes.

     

Where Does This Season Stand?

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    So, let's return to the question posed in the headline here: Will the 2013-14 NBA season go down as the most compelling of all time?

    Before seeing how everything unfolds, it's too early to definitively claim we're in for the best season in league history. Injuries, trades or other unforeseen calamities could strip some luster away from the bevy of storylines presented here.

    At the moment, though, it appears that we're in for an instant classic of a year. Rarely, if ever, have this many major storylines converged into one single season in such a dramatic fashion.

    Between the megastars returning from serious injuries, the host of legitimate championship contenders, the potential of the 2014 free-agent class, the last ride for the early 2000s stars, an all-out tank fest, a possible three-peat and the retirement of the greatest commissioner in league history, there's something for every NBA fan this year.

    Excited yet? You should be.