NBA

The Anatomy of a Perfect 2013-14 NBA Season

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterOctober 28, 2013

The Anatomy of a Perfect 2013-14 NBA Season

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    What would be most important to you if you were dreaming up the ideal NBA season?

    Would it be superstars dominating the game? Surprising contributors rising out of nowhere? What about rookies and sophomores taking on substantial roles, or up-and-comers and Hall of Famers crossing paths on their respective career arcs?

    Where and how do rivalries factor in? How about the spectacle of the All-Star Game, the drama of the trade deadline or the fuss of free agency? The tantalizing talent of an upcoming draft? Maybe something as seemingly simple as parity?

    What if I told you the perfect year of basketball would be comprised of all those things and more? Would Morpheus come after me?

    But really, enough with the questions. To get a better idea of what makes a great NBA season for all involved, we here at Bleacher Report sorted through a panoply of potential factors before narrowing it down to 20. We then sought examples of seasons from league history that best exemplified each of said factors and then laid out how things could play out in 2013-14 for the slate ahead to satisfy the given criteria and make this latest entry into the annals of NBA lore one of the greatest ever.

    Read on to see what we came up with, and be sure to let us know what you think in the comments below!

Old Faces in New Places

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    The blueprint for a brilliant season begins long before the first leather ball touches fingertips at half court. Significant player movement during the summer prior to the campaign sets the stage for intrigue beyond X's and O's and the rest of the usual minutiae. The dynamics of who, what, when, where, why and how have shifted dramatically since free agency first came to be in the NBA, but instances of superstars changing teams have driven narratives and stoked rivalries old and new for decades.

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1968-69: The Philadelphia 76ers trade Wilt Chamberlain to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Big Dipper averages 20.5 points, 4.5 assists and a league-leading 21.1 rebounds while lifting the Lakers to their sixth NBA Finals appearance in eight years.

    1975-76: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forces a trade from the Milwaukee Bucks prior to the season and immediately goes on to claim his fourth MVP trophy in his first year with the Lakers.

    1992-93: Charles Barkley has a historical season. The Round Mound of Rebound wins the MVP and carries the Phoenix Suns to the Finals after angling his way out of Philly.

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    Dwight Howard earns MVP consideration for pushing the Houston Rockets into the upper echelon of the Western Conference, while Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko spark a similar rise for the Brooklyn Nets in the East. The New Orleans Pelicans and the Detroit Pistons make similar leaps into the playoffs, guided by Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans in the Crescent City and Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings in the Motor City.

     

Rivalries Renewed

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    Nothing stokes interest in a sport, basketball included, quite like rivalries. Whether age-old or newly formed, rivalries in the NBA add rich historical context to existing tiffs and help to mark the passage of time whenever the adversarial relationship is renewed. Nowadays, the league makes a point of tipping off its schedule with rivalry games that recap the recent past, set the stage for the season to come and bring boiling feuds to the fore—all of which helps the NBA compete for eyeballs with the NFL and the NHL in the thick of the fall.

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1984-85: The Lakers and the Celtics meet in the Finals for the second consecutive year. LA claims its first championship victory over Boston in nine head-to-head series and, for good measure, clinches the title at the Boston Garden.

    1992-93: Michael Jordan's Bulls rekindle their rivalry with Patrick Ewing's Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals. Chicago overcomes New York's home-court advantage and 2-0 series lead by winning four straight games, including a Game 5 victory sealed by four straight Bulls blocks on the Knicks' Charles Smith.

    2009-10: Boston and LA come to blows in the Finals for the second time in three years. The series rocks back and forth between the two age-old foes, even through Game 7, in which the Celtics salt away a 13-point third-quarter lead. The Lakers avenge their defeat to the C's from 2008, with Kobe Bryant taking home Finals MVP honors despite a poor shooting performance in the deciding contest.

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    The opening game between the Heat and the Bulls not only marks Derrick Rose's return, but also lends new life to a grudge dating back to the 2010-11 season. That same night sees the loaded Clippers attempt to take full control of the Staples Center from the old, beat-up Lakers.

    Two nights later, New York and Chicago get down to business in what figures to be another harbinger of things to come in the Eastern Conference. Shortly thereafter, the Clippers and the Warriors add more fuel to the fire of a newborn feud between two teams accustomed to mediocrity.

    Come Christmas, the Rockets and the Spurs have it out to see who's best in Texas—and better equipped to win the West. 

Rookies and Sophomores Making Names for Themselves

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    The future of the NBA is exciting to think about, but even better to watch unfold before your very eyes.

    Such is the appeal of following rookies and sophomores as they carry their basketball journeys into the professional ranks. Lofty prognostications about superstars, sleepers and busts go out the window once youngsters get down to the business of actualizing their potential. Then and only then can we enjoy tracking the Rookie of the Year race and finding out which of the previous year's contenders dodge the "sophomore slump."

    For fans of hard-luck franchises, first- and second-year players represent hope for a brighter tomorrow. Those who support stronger teams can follow closely those on their side who can keep the good times rolling—and keep an eye out for those across the court who might deliver the comeuppance that every great team faces at one point or another. 

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1979-80: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird jump to the league together shortly after facing off against one another for the NCAA Tournament title. Larry Legend, who had been drafted by the Boston Celtics a year earlier, takes home the individual award, while Magic leads the Los Angeles Lakers to the first of their five titles of the "Showtime" era.

    1984-85: Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan enter the NBA as the first and third picks, respectively, in the 1984 draft—David Stern's first as commissioner. Both propel their previously paltry teams into the playoffs and, together, hog all of the Rookie of the Year votes. Jordan, though, takes the cake, after finishing third in the league in scoring with 28.2 points per game.

    2003-04: A draft deep on future superstars yields a competitive ROY race. Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade both garner significant consideration for leading their squads to playoff-bound turnarounds. The Cleveland Cavaliers miss the postseason, but their apparent improvement, combined with LeBron James' teenage brilliance, results in the first of many accolades for the four-time MVP.  

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14 

    This year's rookie class is short on All-Star-caliber prospects, but that doesn't mean it need disappoint at the outset.

    Anthony Bennett and Otto Porter Jr. complete playoff puzzles for the Cavs and the Washington Wizards, respectively. The same goes for CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe, who combine to add some serious scoring punch to the Portland Trail Blazers bench. Ben McLemore brings a healthy dose of perimeter shooting and athleticism to a re-energized Sacramento Kings franchise. At some point, Nerlens Noel returns to the Philadelphia 76ers to show the world why he'd been projected as the No. 1 pick for so long.

    The sophomores will have a massive part to play as well. Reigning ROY Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis take the next step toward stardom while helping their teams do the same out west. Bradley Beal blossoms into a studly sidekick for John Wall in Washington. The Detroit Pistons unleash Andre Drummond as a starter, while the Golden State Warriors turn Harrison Barnes into an assassin off the bench.

     

Budding NBA Stars Growing Up Before Our Eyes

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    Between the realms of frosh-soph and bona fide superstar lies a nebulous space occupied by players whose careers could swing either way.

    Many of these players, still in their early to mid-20s, have the requisite talent to grow into the next faces of basketball. What we don't know is whether everything else will break right for these relative youngsters.

    Do they have the proper support from their team's coaches and developmental staff? Are their respective organizations operating properly and fostering a culture of winning? Is health of any concern?

    Many of these players will inevitably fall by the wayside, either into more specific roles or out of the NBA entirely. Some, though, will take that next step forward to become the next guardians of the game, even if their teams fall short of the ultimate outcome.

     

    Best of Yesteryear 

    1987-88: Michael Jordan emerges as the single-most destructive two-way force in the NBA. He leads the league in points (35.0), steals (3.2) and minutes (40.4) while playing for a 50-win team in Chicago. For his efforts, Jordan is honored as the NBA's MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, though those awards aren't enough for the Bulls to overcome the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference semis.

    1994-95: The Orlando Magic make a grand entrance onto the stage as title contenders with a massive lift from Shaquille O'Neal. With Penny Hardaway by his side, the Big Diesel bowls his way through the Celtics, the Bulls (in their only postseason series loss with MJ and Phil Jackson on hand) and Pacers on the way to a Finals matchup with the Houston Rockets. Shaq's Magic are summarily spanked by Hakeem Olajuwon and Co. in four.

    2006-07: LeBron James announces himself as the NBA's next great player...at age 22. James drags a mediocre Cleveland Cavaliers squad through the Eastern Conference playoffs, albeit against an admittedly weak field. Still, the quality of the competition (or lack thereof) can't take away from James' 48-point, nine-rebound, seven-assist virtuoso against the Pistons in Game 5 of the Eastern finals—especially after LeBron scores 29 of the final 30 points of the game for Cleveland. The Cavs, though, are subsequently squashed by the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals.

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    Stephen Curry carries his success from the 2013 playoffs into an exciting regular season with the reloaded Warriors. His push to join the 50-40-90 club and simultaneous foray into the scoring title race earn Curry not only his first All-Star and All-NBA nods, but also serious consideration as an MVP candidate.

    The same goes for Kyrie Irving, whose ushering of the Cavs into position for their first post-LeBron playoff appearance propels him even closer to the top of the ladder at his position. Fellow 2013 first-time All-Star Paul George avoids a repeat of last season's slow start to ensure that the Pacers stay hot from start to finish—and that he's taken seriously as a versatile superstar on both ends of the court.

    Former Kentucky teammates John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, both owners of max-level extensions, finally come of age in their respective cities. Wall stays healthy, shoots straight and takes care of the ball while guiding the Washington Wizards to their first postseason spot since Gilbert Arenas brought firearms into the team's locker room. Cousins, meanwhile, keeps his head screwed on straight long enough to assert his All-Star status by way of nightly 20-10s for the partly-Shaq-owned Sacramento Kings.

Superstars Bouncing Back from Injury

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    What truly separates NBA superstars from their peers, aside from sheer talent, is the former's ability to bounce back from adversity.

    The greatest players are all faced with significant obstacles on the way to the top, often from their own bodies. Broken bones, painful bruises, sore tendons and torn ligaments make our heroes seem more human because they can get hurt just like us, and more remarkable, because they're able to overcome/play through setbacks that would cripple mere mortals.

    Watching superstars return to their former glory after major injuries only adds to the drama inherent in the greatest going for the gold.

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1986-87: Michael Jordan misses all but 18 games for the Bulls during the 1985-86 season, his second in the NBA, due to a broken foot. The very next year, Jordan logs the fifth-best scoring season in Association history—and the best of anyone not named Wilt—with 37.1 points per game for Chicago.

    2009-10: Kevin Garnett sits out the final 25 games of the 2008-09 regular season and the entirety of the Celtics' playoff run with a right knee sprain. His playoff numbers in 2010 are relatively modest (15 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists), but his impact can't be understated as Boston makes its second Finals appearance in three years.

    2010-11: A knee injury knocks Chris Paul out of commission for nearly half the season in 2009-10. CP3 returns to the Hornets averaging 15.9 points, 9.8 assists and a league-leading 2.4 steals during what turns out to be his final go-round in New Orleans.

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    The race for the Central Division crown is marked by the return of two stars (Derrick Rose and Danny Granger) to the Heat's stiffest challengers in the East (the Bulls and the Pacers), along with Andrew Bynum giving a boost to Kyrie Irving's Cleveland Cavaliers. Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, both healthy for the first time since the 2011-12 season, help the Minnesota Timberwolves push a recovered Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Northwest Division.

    The Lakers get all of their injured fogies (i.e. Kobe, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash) back on track, albeit while watching Dwight Howard, fully healthy for the first time since his last season in Orlando, dominate for the Rockets. JR Smith and Carmelo Anthony bounce back from banged-up playoff performances to lead the Knicks against the reinvigorated knees of Dwyane Wade and Greg Oden in Miami.

    Even the bluster over lottery ping-pong balls is influenced by injuries. The Celtics emerge as a fun (and surprisingly competitive) outfit with Rajon Rondo and his reconstructed ACL at the fore. The Sixers, meanwhile, slog along until Nerlens Noel makes his debut as the NBA's next defensive dynamo.

An All-Star Weekend for the Ages

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    All-Star Weekend is much more than just a break from the monotony of the regular season. It's also a celebration of the NBA as a whole. Players, coaches, celebrities and other league affiliates—past, present and future—descend on a chosen city every winter for a few days filled with parties, guest appearances and fan-friendly competitions.

    Unfortunately, the All-Star Game and its associated festivities have lost some of their luster in recent years. The Slam Dunk Contest, once the highlight of the weekend, has devolved from a superstar showcase into an infomercial for high-flying benchwarmers. The game itself has grown stale, aside from the final few minutes, when players actually start to care.

    An entertaining All-Star Weekend, though, could go a long way toward making the middle of the season as memorable as the beginning and the end. 

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1988: Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins square off in a dunk contest for the ages. The two high-fliers go head-to-head in the final round, with Jordan earning a perfect 50 for his iconic leap from the free-throw line. His Airness takes his second straight dunk championship—in front of his home fans at Chicago Stadium, no less—before earning All-Star MVP honors for his 40-point performance in support of the East's victory.

    1992: Mere months after shocking the world by revealing his HIV diagnosis and announcing his retirement, Magic Johnson returns to the court for the All-Star Game in Orlando. Johnson, starting at point guard for the West, tallies 25 points and nine assists in his side's 40-point win over the East. Johnson's emotional comeback is capped with the All-Star MVP trophy—the second of his illustrious career.

    2003: MJ takes one last crack at All-Star glory before calling it quits a third time. Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson both offer to give up their starting spots for Jordan, though His Airness doesn't accept such acquiescence until Vince Carter steps aside. Jordan falls short of MVP honors—that goes to Kevin Garnett for his 37-point, nine-rebound, three-assist, five-steal, one-block bonanza—but does manage to pour in 20 points, including two toward the end of the first overtime period that initially appeared to seal the deal for the East.

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    LeBron James stops teasing hoop heads and finally takes his talents to the Slam Dunk Contest. But rather than blow away the field, James winds up in a heated battle with a precocious up-and-comer (Anthony Davis?). LeBron comes away with the win, in part because the judges are in awe of him participating at all. In doing so, he paves the way for other relatively young and athletic superstars to do the same.

    The All-Star Game itself is littered with fan favorites, old and new, many of whom are either first-timers or injury returnees. Anthony Davis puts on a show for the hometown crowd in New Orleans and Derrick Rose brings a much-needed dose of excitement to the proceedings.

    But Kobe Bryant, coming off a debilitating Achilles injury, takes the cake. The Black Mamba, in what may be his final All-Star appearance, uses his deep bag of tricks to score in every which way, to the point where there's no choice but to hand him the MVP.  

Surprising Storylines Take Center Stage

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    Breaks from the slog of the regular season needn't all be penciled into the schedule ahead of time, though. In fact, the most exciting storylines, those that engage diehard and casual NBA fans alike through the heart of the NCAA Tournament and the start of baseball season, are the ones nobody saw coming.

    Whether it's a lengthy winning streak, a star emerging from the shadows, an awe-inspiring comeback or something entirely different, it's plot lines like these that have proven most effective in keeping the NBA not only relevant, but at the forefront of sports well before the playoffs take center stage.

      

    Best of Yesteryear

    1995: Michael Jordan abruptly ends his ill-fated stint as a minor league baseball player to rejoin the struggling Chicago Bulls. Jordan's mid-March comeback captivates the sports world's attention, even as March Madness reaches its own crescendo. In his first game back, Jordan scores 19 points in a loss to the Indiana Pacers, which draws the highest Nielsen rating for a regular-season game in 20 years.

    2012: "Linsanity" takes basketball by storm as Jeremy Lin rises from the waiver wire to rescue the New York Knicks' slavering season. The Knicks rip off seven straight wins, with Lin averaging better than 24 points and nine assists therein. He becomes the NBA's answer to Tim Tebow—a devoutly religious youngster whose actual athletic abilities are the topic of intense debate and scrutiny. In any case, he makes the Knicks culturally relevant again, all the while bolstering the NBA's already-strong connection to East Asian markets.

    2013: After sleepwalking through much of the early season, the Miami Heat string together a historic 27-game winning streak. The run upstages the NCAA Tournament and sets the defending champs head, shoulders, knees and toes above the competition in the Eastern Conference—at least as far as regular-season records are concerned.

       

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    It's tough to tell what, exactly, would have to happen for the 2013-14 season to qualify in this regard. What makes emergent "plot points" like those listed above so exciting is that they so often defy precise prediction.

    That being said, a midseason renaissance from Kobe Bryant would work. So, too, would the emergence of a surprise contender (the Golden State Warriors?) or the birth of another star in an expanded role. Patrick Beverley shining in Jeremy Lin's spot for the Rockets would certainly add a tantalizing tinge of irony to the proceedings. 

    Or better yet, how about a one-game comeback for the 50-year-old Michael Jordan, as Jalen Rose predicts will happen?

Drama at the Trade Deadline

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    Player movement will always pique the interest of NBA fans, regardless of when the trade rumors are swirling. The deadline makes for even more drama than normal due to the time pressures, the needs of "buyers" and "sellers" and the bargaining position from which each side is operating at any given moment.

    Throw a disgruntled superstar or two into the mix, and you've got yourself the perfect recipe for a shocking swap that could shift the landscape of the league now and for years to come.

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1995: After 11-and-a-half strong but ultimately ringless seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, Clyde Drexler forces his way to a championship squad. The Blazers honor The Glide's trade request, sending the future Hall of Famer to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Otis Thorpe just prior to the deadline. Drexler's return to Houston, where he played his college ball, and reunion with Hakeem Olajuwon proves fruitful, as the Rockets rally for their second straight championship. 

    2008: The Los Angeles Lakers' swiping of Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies sets of a panic among Western Conference contenders trying to keep up. In response, the Phoenix Suns send Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to the Miami Heat in exchange for Shaquille O'Neal, and the Dallas Mavericks send a passel of players to the New Jersey Nets for a package highlighted by Jason Kidd. The Suns and the Mavs are both bounced in the first round of the playoffs, only to watch the Lakers advance to the first of three straight NBA Finals.

    2011: After months of nauseating negotiations and protracting pushing, the Denver Nuggets finally (and mercifully) offload Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks as part of a complicated, three-team deal involving the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Nets miss out on 'Melo following weeks of clandestine meetings, but still emerge as winners by swiping Deron Williams from the Utah Jazz in a move that takes the entire league by surprise.

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge become the objects of everyone's affection after reiterating their desires to ditch their respective squads. Whether these All-Stars stay or go, they at least spark some interesting discussions between front offices while sending their incumbent teams into a frenzy over what to do.

    The Lakers and the Raptors enter the fray as sellers as their seasons fall into disrepair. That puts Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay and possibly Steve Nash on the block, along with DeMar DeRozan.

    Meanwhile, teams stuck in basketball's basement continue to dangle quality players and expiring contracts in pursuit of rebuilding assets, from Goran Dragic in Phoenix to Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young in Philadelphia, Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo in Orlando and (dare I say it?) Rajon Rondo in Boston.

A Deep Collection of Contenders Comes to the Fore...

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    A season can still be great for fans of all stripes to follow, even if there's a clear-cut championship favorite. Such cases require that the rest of the field be long on title contenders, legitimate and dark horse alike.

    That doesn't mean that there need be a floor-length list of 60-win superpowers. The rules of the NBA and the natural laws governing the outcome of the regular season dictate that there will be plenty of bumps in the road, especially for top-notch teams caught up in the muddled middle.

    But it's that very spirit of intense and confident competition that can turn a one-horse race into a brilliant basketball free-for-all in pursuit of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1978-79: Parity reigns supreme in the season just prior to the arrival of Magic and Larry. No team wins more than 54 games (the Washington Bullets), and nobody loses more than 56 (the New Orleans Jazz). The playoffs yield four seven-game series, with the Seattle SuperSonics coming out on top.

    1997-98: Competition between conferences is about as balanced as it's ever been, with plenty of championship hopefuls to boot. The two-time defending champion Bulls take the cake with 62 wins, but they are followed by four 50-win teams, including the 58-win Pacers, who push MJ's squad to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. The West, meanwhile, is led by three 60-plus-win teams (the Jazz, the Seattle SuperSonics and the Lakers) and two other 56-win clubs (the Spurs and the Suns).

    2007-08: The Boston Celtics step forward as the clear-cut championship favorites while romping to a 66-win season—easily the most of any team in the league. The rest of the field, though, is comprised of anything but slouches. The East features a 59-win, championship-tested Pistons squad; a 52-win Orlando team, led by Dwight Howard, that would crack the Finals the following year; and LeBron James' 45-win Cavs, who'd won the East the previous spring.

    And that's to say nothing of the Western Conference, where 50 wins becomes the cutoff for playoff hopefuls. That leaves the 48-win Warriors high and dry, a year after their "We Believe" run.

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    The Miami Heat are chased closely in the East by the Derrick Rose-led Bulls, the reloaded Nets and, of course, the Pacers, whose bench should be much improved over the group that pushed the defending champs to seven games this past spring. Out West, the Spurs are rejoined at the top by the Thunder and the Memphis Grizzlies, with the revamped Clippers, Rockets and Warriors coming on strong behind them.

...Just Ahead of an Intriguing Cast of Playoff Hopefuls and Dark Horses

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    Any good playoff race extends well below the best of the best. Dark-horse contenders and veteran teams fighting for their lives add a dose of drama to the proceedings, first in the scrum for the final few playoff spots and then in the preliminary rounds of the postseason.

    These are the teams whose challenges to the "top dogs" mold champions through the fire of playoff competition. These are the teams that, if a few things break their way, could last longer than anyone originally expected. These are the ones that are scrapping to keep pried open their closing windows of contention.

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1988-89: Just three years removed from fielding arguably the greatest team in NBA history, the Celtics find themselves teetering on the brink of irrelevance. Boston sneaks into the playoff as the eighth seed in the East, by way of a 42-40 record, thanks in no small part to the rise of Reggie Lewis. The aging C's are summarily swept out of the first round by the Pistons, who would go on to claim their second straight championship. 

    1999: The sloppiness of the strike-shortened season gives way to wackiness in the playoffs—in the East, anyway. The sixth-seed Sixers strike back against the third-seed Magic before flaming out against the Pacers in the second round. The bigger story, though, comes from New York, where the eighth-seed Knicks knock off the top-seeded Heat, the fourth-seeded Hawks and second-seeded Indiana on the way to a "gentleman's sweep" opposite the Spurs in the Finals.

    2010-11: The Mavericks string together a strong, 57-win season, but they are hardly mentioned among the league's title contenders, with the Spurs and the Lakers owning the West and the "Big Three" Heat rising in the East. San Antonio, though, is ousted in the first round, leaving Dallas to romp over L.A. and OKC before shocking LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Co. in the Finals.

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    The Lakers overcome age, injury and uncertainty to cobble together an entertaining campaign, one that puts them in the mix for a playoff spot. The Mavs make a similar push, now that they've brought in Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon to help Dirk Nowitzki.

    The Knicks see themselves slip a bit from last season's No. 2 finish in the East, but they are nonetheless able to compete with the elites in their conference. The Hawks, too, find a way to hang around, despite losing yet another one of their stars to a summer departure.

    On the other end of the spectrum, the sweet-shooting Warriors set themselves up for a deep playoff run, thanks to healthy seasons from Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut.

Young Teams Give Fans a Glimpse of the Future

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    The fringe of the playoff race is usually the best place to find the next great team in the NBA. Those rebuilding squads hoping to cycle their way into championship contention must first endure the baptism-by-fire that is a playoff matchup against a juggernaut, if not multiple such series, depending on how things play out.

    Win or lose, these young teams are battling for more than just postseason positioning. They're also fighting for the respect of their more seasoned peers, who they'll have to overcome if they're to seize the throne from the predecessors someday.

    Some of these teams emerge from the flames stronger and more determined to win. Others wind up as flashes in the pan, the benefactors of good timing as much as the victims of the poor kind.

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1985-86: Ralph Sampson's miraculous shot to knock the Lakers out of the playoffs becomes the most memorable moment of the 1986 Rockets' playoff run, but it belies how good Houston's "Twin Tower" team already is. The team wins 51 games during the regular season to claim the No. 2 seed in the West and owns a 3-1 series lead over L.A. entering that fateful Game 5. The Rockets run out of gas against the sensational Celtics and see the rest of their luck depart shortly thereafter amid a string of unfortunate turns.

    1997-98: Year two of the Kobe-Shaq experiment in L.A. gives fans a glimpse of the NBA's not-so-distant future. The Lakers win 61 games, good enough for third place in the West, and stomp the Blazers and the Sonics through the first two rounds of the playoffs before getting creamed by the Utah Jazz in the conference finals. Two years later, the Lakers take home the first of three straight Larry O'Brien trophies.

    2011-12: The Oklahoma City Thunder become the darlings of the NBA—outside of the Pacific Northwest, that is. Kevin Durant claims his third straight scoring title, Russell Westbrook joins him at the All-Star Game and James Harden takes home hardware as the league's Sixth Man of the Year. That young trio puts OKC on track for the Finals, where the team's time runs out against a determined Heat squad. Mere months later, the Thunder trade James Harden to the Rockets after an abruptly ended contract dispute.

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    The New Orleans Pelicans, the Detroit Pistons, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Washington Wizards follow in the footsteps of their young forebears to become factors in the playoff push.

    New Orleans' new arrivals (i.e. Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans) give the Pellies a strong supporting cast with which to surround second-year stud Anthony Davis. The Blazers bet big that a solid starting five and a restocked bench will be enough to not only make the playoffs, but also convince LaMarcus Aldridge to stick around for a while.

    The Cavs and the Wizards both bank on top-pick point guards (Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, John Wall in Washington) to help them leave behind tortured histories tied to long-gone superstars. As for the Pistons, their decision to follow Memphis' model of going big in a "small ball" league—with Josh Smith joining Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond up front—pays off with a (modest) return to relevance unseen in the Motor City since the Wallace boys (Rasheed and Ben) last shared the frontcourt.

The Miami Heat Gunning for Historic Greatness

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    Parity is great and all, but in the NBA, super-team superiority is what drives traffic and conversation.

    In the immediate term, the great teams make the season easier to describe and follow, as everything that takes place can be explained in relationship to those atop the leaderboard. In the grander scheme, they allow us to locate a particular point in basketball time with but a handful of familiar names and memorable games.

    Otherwise, it would be all too easy to lose track of what matters most in the sport amid a sea of bouncing balls, bad haircuts and funky jerseys.

    Not that NBA minutiae isn't endlessly entertaining (see: the Internet). Rather, it's the very best teams, not the tiny details in between, that spark the sorts of historical discussions and debates that bring fans of all ages and stripes together—or drive wedges between them, depending on how heated things get.

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1970-71: Five years before Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forces his way back to L.A., he, along with an aging Oscar Robertson, carries the Milwaukee Bucks to their first (and still only) title to cap off one of the most dominant seasons in NBA history. The Bucks win 66 games (34-2 at home), beat their opponents by an average margin of 12.2 points, lead the league in nearly every statistical category known to man and blow away the competition in the playoffs. In an era of basketball defined by mediocrity and change, Milwaukee makes sure that the years immediately following Bill Russell's reign aren't lost entirely to the backlogs of history.

    1985-86: The '86 Celtics establish themselves as a team considered by many (including Grantland's Bill Simmons) to be the greatest to ever play. From MVP (regular season and Finals) Larry Bird and the All-Star tandem of Kevin McHale and Robert Parish to Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson filling out the starting five and Bill Walton earning Sixth Man of the Year honors off bench, this squad is about as complete as any the league has seen. The C's win 67 games, beating their opponents by nearly 10 points per game and losing just once at home all year on the way to the franchise's second championship in three seasons.

    1995-96: The Bulls are better than ever in Michael Jordan's first full season back from baseball. The addition of Dennis Rodman and the development of Steve Kerr and Toni Kukoc into invaluable role players make the job of leading the team that much easier for MJ and Scottie Pippen. Jordan takes back the league's MVP throne as Chicago wins a record 72 games (by an average margin of more than 12 points) on the way to beginning the team's second three-peat of the 1990s.

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    Somehow, someway, Miami submits a season-long performance that trumps the 66-win, 27-game-streak-of-a-campaign LeBron and friends put together in 2012-13. With nearly the entire roster intact, save for the amnestied Mike Miller, the Heat pick up right where they left off—and then some.

    Chris Bosh is emboldened to take on a bigger role. Dwyane Wade's knees are healthy and stay that way, thanks to careful management by the team's coaching staff. The supporting cast shines on both ends of the court, with Greg Oden and (dare I say it?) Michael Beasley making meaningful contributions.

    And, of course, James has himself yet another transcendent season, perhaps even by hitting more than 80 percent of his free throws, as Miami challenges Chicago's record for regular-season wins.

A Spirited "Race to the Bottom" Ahead of the NBA Draft

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    Not every team can aim for historical greatness. Heck, there are plenty that would probably be happy just to take home a winning record, much less rip off 60 or 70 wins.

    Then again, winning now isn't and can't be the main objective for everyone. Some teams willfully "give up" games to "improve" their odds of landing a prime pick in the NBA draft. These "tanking" wars achieve a whole different degree of insanity when the pool of prospects coming into the league is stacked with potential superstars. When the "next great player" is up for grabs, squads will go to silly lengths just to make sure they have as many monogrammed ping pong balls as possible entered into the lottery.

    This may not make for good, sound basketball, though it does draw some much-needed attention to terrible teams that otherwise wouldn't play much of a part in the season-long narrative.

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1996-97: The 15-win Celtics make a concerted effort to stink in pursuit of a senior out of Wake Forest by the name of Tim Duncan, while the 14-win Vancouver Grizzlies, in just their second season of existence, do so by matter of fact. Both teams are blindsided by the 20-win Spurs, for whom the storm cloud of losing David Robinson for most of the season yields the silver lining of the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft and the all-time great on whom it would be used.

    2002-03: A draft class headlined by LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and (gulp!) Darko Milicic sparks a mad dash to the basement, led by the Cavs and the Nuggets. The Heat and the Toronto Raptors prove terrible enough to snag prime picks. The Grizzlies come oh-so-close to stealing the No. 1 pick from Cleveland via the lottery, but landing in the second slot merely guarantees that Memphis gives away a superb pick to the Pistons, thanks to a terrible trade from years ago.

    2006-07: The thought of landing either the next great center (Greg Oden) or the next great swingman (Kevin Durant) turns out to be too tantalizing for a handful of bad teams to pass up. The C's once again go all-in on tanking, only to see their hopes and dreams dashed by ping pong balls. The Blazers and the Sonics snag the top two picks, while Boston parlays its selection and a boatload of its existing assets into Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.  

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    The Sixers, the Jazz and the Suns lead the march to mediocrity after strip-mining their respective rosters of valuable pieces over the summer, in anticipation of a 2014 draft class that could feature as many as eight or nine elite prospects, led by Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle. Those teams are joined by the Magic, the Sacramento Kings and the Charlotte Bobcats, who have a "healthy" head start in this regard.

    As the season scrapes along, squads once hoping to sneak into the playoff picture find themselves increasingly on the outs and, thus, more inclined to join in the tanking. The Lakers and the Raptors seriously consider it, as do the Bucks and the Nuggets. Should Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge remain disgruntled, the Timberwolves and the Trail Blazers both entertain trading their wantaway stars and taking a couple of steps back in pursuit of precocious youngsters.

A Closely Contested Scoring Title...

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    Scoring is the name of the game in basketball. Naturally, then, those who are the best at putting the ball through the hoop are among the most revered to take the court on any given night.

    When scoring takes on a competitive element that transcends the contests at hand, it adds an entirely different element to following the unfolding of a season and its attendant narrative. Players often speak in platitudes about how they'd be fine not scoring so long as the team succeeds, but, truth be told, showing up their peers in an individual way evokes a measure of personal and professional pride during the regular season that's usually reserved for the heat of the playoffs.

    That is, if the scoring race itself is tight enough to draw the attention of those in it.

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1977-78: David Thompson and George Gervin fight for the NBA's scoring title until the bitter end. On the last day of the season, Thompson pours in a career-high 73 points as his Denver Nuggets lose to the Detroit Pistons. But the Iceman, knowing his first NBA scoring crown is on the line, tallies 63 points in the San Antonio Spurs' blowout loss to the New Orleans Jazz to maintain the slimmest of leads over Thompson.

    1993-94: The "Golden Age" of NBA centers gives way to a scintillating scoring race between David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal. The Admiral enters the final game of the season needing four points to pull even with the Big Diesel. Robinson gets those points easily and goes on to score a career-best 71 against the Clippers, while O'Neal falls behind with "just" 32 of his own opposite the Nets. 

    2011-12: Kevin Durant's push for a third straight scoring title comes down to the last day of the season, as any good race should. He enters the evening with a lead over Kobe Bryant of less than a fifth of a point and expands it slightly with 32 points in a loss to the Nuggets. Bryant, rather than make up the 38-point margin against the Sacramento Kings, opts to rest up for the Lakers' playoff push.

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    Kevin Durant is once again in the thick of the scoring race alongside LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, last year's winner. James Harden enters the fray, with Dwight Howard soaking up attention from opposing defenses. Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry both get cracks at it as well, as does Kobe Bryant, who goes on a tear upon returning from a torn Achilles.

...And an Even Tighter Challenge for the MVP

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    The deeper the field of potential MVP candidates, the healthier the NBA is on the whole. It speaks both to the quality of individual talent at the top and the extent to which the league is populated with competitive, championship-caliber teams.

    It's OK for there to be a clear-cut favorite for the award, so long as his peers are poised to push him all the way to the finish line.

      

    Best of Yesteryear

    1975-76: A trio of big men—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob McAdoo and Dave Cowens—take center stage in the push for the MVP. Kareem and McAdoo, who'd traded off trophies the previous two years, post more impressive all-around numbers than does Cowens, who took home the honor in 1972-73. Abdul-Jabbar beats out McAdoo by just 16 ballot points, while Cowen, who finishes 31 points behind Kareem, comes out the rosiest, with yet another Boston Celtics championship.  

    1989-90: Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan go toe-to-toe-to-toe in the tightest MVP race since 1981, when the media took over the voting. Jordan leads the league in scoring for the third year in a row, but he isn't quite given his due behind Johnson and Barkley. Then again, neither is Barkley, whose NBA-best 38 first-place votes aren't enough to keep Magic from taking home his second straight MVP and third in four seasons.

    2001-02: Jason Kidd makes a great case to be the first point guard to win the MVP since Magic in 1990. He finishes second in the league in assists (9.9 per game) and sparks a 26-win improvement for the New Jersey Nets, who make their first-ever NBA Finals appearance that spring. But Kidd's substandard field-goal percentage (.391) leaves the door open for Tim Duncan, who snags his second MVP with a line approaching 26-13-4 with 2.5 blocks.

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    LeBron James encounters his toughest test yet in pursuit of his fifth MVP in six seasons. Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are once again in the mix, as is Chris Paul, whose Clippers make a strong case for title contention.

    Derrick Rose, the last non-LeBron MVP, jumps back into the fray upon his return from a torn ACL. The ankles of Deron Williams and Stephen Curry allow those two superstar point guards to participate in the proceedings. Meanwhile, down in Houston, Dwight Howard and James Harden split votes for the resurgent Rockets.

    Kyrie Irving and Brook Lopez get their first tastes of the race as well before Kobe Bryant breaks into the crowded proceedings once his foot heals up.

The Building/Bolstering of LeBron James' Legacy

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    Quality and quantity are key components for any MVP race, but a pack of competitors in this case is only as good as the person it's chasing.

    The NBA stands out from other leagues in this regard. In no other sport can one superior athlete dominate the proceedings quite to the extent that a transcendent basketball player can. The best of the best use their seasons to silence doubters, squash competitors of all stripes and bolster their own legacies with awards, accolades and championship trophies.

    So while there may be many who contribute excerpts to each chapter in NBA history, the best and most memorable chapters are those written predominantly by one hoopster who soars above the rest.

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1964-65: Bill Russell sets the standard for MVP excellence with his fifth award in eight seasons. Russell paces the NBA in rebounding (24.1 per game), along with a then-career-high 5.1 assists. His Celtics go on to win the seventh of their eight straight championships and their eighth in nine years. 

    1979-80: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar finishes off the 1970s the same way he started them—with an MVP trophy in hand. The Captain captures his record sixth MVP in what turns out to be his last season as a team's "top dog." That distinction is handed down to Magic Johnson after his historic performance in the 1980 NBA Finals, but not before Kareem creams Dr. J, George Gervin and Larry Bird at the ballot box.

    1995-96: Michael Jordan barely misses a beat after baseball. In his first full season back in basketball, Jordan leads the league in scoring, claims his fourth MVP and sparks the Chicago Bulls to the start of their second three-peat of the decade. 

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    LeBron James ups the ante from a brilliant 2012-13 campaign. He leads the league in scoring, improves his already-sterling shooting from the field and hits better than 80 percent of his free throws for the first time in his career.

    As if that weren't enough, James checks in among the top 10 in the NBA in rebounds, assists and steals while firmly establishing himself as the best (and most versatile) defender in the league. For his efforts, James sweeps through awards season, earning MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors, in addition to the usual spate of All-NBA and All-Defensive selections.

    Oh, and he takes home NBA Finals MVP honors after making sure the Miami Heat become just the fourth team in league history to win three championships in a row.

Twilights and Milestones

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    While the superstars, both on the rise and in their respective primes, are busy laying the foundation for their legacies, the elder statesmen spend their time and effort putting the final touches on the elaborate edifices they've built for themselves in the annals of basketball lore.

    For those closer to the end than the beginning, those twilight years are all about numbers. Whether it's their intent or not, the great ones so often find themselves climbing up lists filled with legends and competing with the ghosts of the sport's past.

    Yesterday's generation may not be at the forefront of championship contention anymore. But even the league's AARP applicants can capture headlines from time to time as they approach and surpass significant statistical milestones.

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1971-72: Three years after Bill Russell calls it quits, Wilt Chamberlain overtakes his longtime rival as the NBA's most prolific rebounder. That season also sees Chamberlain's Lakers put together a historic 33-game winning streak on the way to their first championship in L.A. The Big Dipper finishes his career with 23,924 boards—more than 2,000 clear of Russell's total—and a record 11 single-season rebounding titles.

    1983-84: Wilt gets his own comeuppance in the record books from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to whom Chamberlain passed the torch in the early 1970s. In April of 1984, the Captain tallies 22 points against the Utah Jazz in Las Vegas to overtake Wilt's all-time mark. Abdul-Jabbar plays five more seasons after that, retiring with 38,387 points to his name.

    1990-91: Magic Johnson ends Oscar Robertson's reign of more than two decades atop the all-time assist list. Johnson enters an April game against the Dallas Mavericks just nine helpers shy of the Big O's mark...and manages to match it just 14 minutes into the contest. Magic's record is subsequently surpassed by Steve Nash, Mark Jackson, Jason Kidd and current leader John Stockton.

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    Kevin Garnett climbs into the top 10 all time in games played, skips over Wilt into fifth place on the minutes list and grabs enough rebounds to waltz past Walt Bellamy into ninth place on the boards list. Tim Duncan follows closely behind Garnett in all of these categories, just as he has throughout his career.

    Down in Miami, Ray Allen, KG's former teammate, extends his own record for three-pointers made and attempted.

    Once Kobe Bryant returns, the Black Mamba continues his assault on the history books. His latest "victims"? Isiah Thomas (14th in steals), Mookie Blaylock and Sam Cassell (30th and 31st in assists), Moses Malone (fourth in turnovers, second in free throws made, fourth in free throws attempted), Steve Nash and Vince Carter (12th and 13th in three-pointers made), Paul Pierce (fifth in three-pointers attempted), Otis Thorpe and Paul Silas (20th and 21st in games played), Robert Parish (11th in minutes played), Shaquille O'Neal (fifth in field goals made) and Michael Jordan (third in points and field goals attempted).

Exciting Early-Round Playoff Matchups

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    The NBA playoffs are like the holidays for hoopheads, but even the most fervent diehards would have to admit that the league's championship chase can and often does drag on. The first two rounds, in particular, too often feature lopsided matchups that will be forgotten as soon as they're over.

    That unfortunate reality makes spectacular series in the early rounds all the more magnificent and memorable. Such extended tiffs set an exciting tone for the rest of the postseason by giving fans an extra dose of the sort of intense, no-holds-barred basketball that's typically reserved for the conference and NBA Finals.

    No "perfect" season, then, can be without at least one must-see matchup before the league is narrowed down to its own Final Four.

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1985-86: Michael Jordan single-handedly transforms a three-game sweep by the Boston Celtics of his Chicago Bulls into not only an instant classic, but also a crucial marker in NBA history. Jordan follows up his 49-point performance in the series opener with a playoff-record 63 points in Game 2 at the Boston Garden against a C's team that's now widely considered one of the greatest of all time. Even Larry Bird was taken aback by MJ's play, saying afterward, via NBA.com: "I didn't think anyone was capable of doing what Michael has done to us. He is the most exciting, awesome player in the game today. I think it's just God disguised as Michael Jordan." 

    2000-01: The Eastern Conference, at perhaps its lowest point ever, gives rise to a classic second-round matchup between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Toronto Raptors. The series features an unforgettable head-to-head hoedown between Allen Iverson, the league's MVP, and Vince Carter, a budding superstar and slam dunk champion. Air Canada turns in a scintillating line of 30-6-5.6 with 1.9 steals, two blocks and 42.2 percent shooting from three, but he can't quite keep up with AI's 33.7-4.4-6.9 with 3.1 steals and 43.2 three-point shooting. The Sixers win in seven and go on to claim the Eastern Conference crown. 

    2008-09: With Kevin Garnett out on account of a knee injury, the first-round series between the defending champion Celtics and the upstart Bulls becomes one for the ages. Game 3, a 107-86 win for Boston, is the only one of the seven that's decided by more than 10 points. The other six feature a combined seven overtime periods, including two in Game 4 and three in Game 6, both victories for Chicago. The C's, though, go on to win the series at home, despite rookie Derrick Rose's best efforts to the contrary.   

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    The first two rounds of the 2014 postseason pair rivals in some cases and intertwined storylines in others.

    The low-seeded Lakers and the elite Clippers give the city of Los Angeles the Staples Center hallway series it has long deserved. On the other side of the country, the Knicks and the Nets need only cross a bridge to reach one another, though even that can't keep the trash talk from flying through the boroughs.

    Meanwhile, in the Midwest, the Bulls and the Pacers resume their postseason feud for the first time since 2011, with both teams now gunning for the upper echelon in the East. Over in Cleveland, Kyrie Irving and the Cavs are welcome into the fringes of the playoff picture by the Heat, though many pay all-too-close attention to every word that leaves LeBron James' mouth, hoping for any hint that he might leave Miami after the season.

Blood Feuds and Superstar Struggles to Settle the Title

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    If we allow/admit that the NBA is a superstar's league, it follows that said superstars should not only meet on the sport's biggest stages, but also dictate the outcomes thereabouts. 

    That's been the case in nearly every one of the league's unforgettable championship series. To be the best, you must first beat the best.

    It's cliche, but it's true. Four- and five-game series feature vastly uneven matchups more often than not. For a round to earn its own place in history, the games must be closely contested and those deciding the results must be widely known quantities. Any layers of personal feud or team-to-team rivalry that can be grafted onto the proceedings can only help.

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1968-69: The Lakers and the Celtics, already bitter rivals, come to blows in the NBA Finals for the sixth time in eight years. This time, though, L.A. has Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell's arch nemesis on its side. The heavily favored Lakers, with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor on their side, take a 3-2 series lead on the C's before Boston storms back to win the final two. Russell contributes just six points to the Celtics' Game 7 victory, his last in the NBA, but he does plenty to motivate his 'mates after being enraged by the sight of Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke's victory balloons in the rafters.

    1983-84: A decade-and-a-half later, the Lakers and the Celtics renew their rivalry with a fresh cast of characters. Naturally, the series goes the distance, with Boston's Big Three (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish) outduelling L.A.'s (Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy) after McHale's infamous clotheslining of Kurt Rambis in Game 4. The Lakers would get their revenge the very next year, clinching the title at the C's expense for the first time in eight tries—in Beantown, no less.

    2010: More Lakers and Celtics...sensing a pattern yet? The Lakers enter their third NBA Finals in a row in search of retribution against the C's, who'd humiliated L.A. in 2008. Boston bullies its way to a 3-2 series lead after five games, but it can't quite overcome the Lakers' advantage at Staples Center over the last two. The C's lose Kendrick Perkins for Game 7, but they nearly pull off the win anyway, thanks to poor shooting from Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Ron Artest, though, rides to the rescue, scoring 20 points and hitting a key three to seal the Lakers' 16th championship.

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    In the Eastern Conference, LeBron James takes on one of his chief rivals, be it Derrick Rose's Bulls, Carmelo Anthony's Knicks or the Nets, with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, two of LeBron's longtime tormentors, in tow.

    Out West, the Conference Finals bring us a clash of dynamic duos, be it Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook versus their Clippers counterparts (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin) or the OKC duo opposite former Thunder stud James Harden and his new partner in crime, Dwight Howard.

    Or, perhaps the Spurs sneak into the mix, much to the chagrin of those who still, for whatever reason, think San Antonio is boring.

    The NBA Finals then feature any number of intriguing storylines. There's LeBron going against Dwight, another former antagonist, who hopes to follow James' path to redemption. There's James and Wade going back up against KD and Westbrook, as they did in 2012. There's also the possibility that LeBron will have to take on CP3, his close friend, in a battle with L.A.'s "other" team.

    Or, if the Heat can't make it that far to complete the three-peat, there's the possibility of an athletic point guard bonanza between Rose and Westbrook, a battle between former Celtics if the Clips and the Nets advance and an all-out brawl of a series between the Pacers and the Grizzlies—and so on and so forth.

History and Mystery on the Free-Agent Market

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    Sports fans, as a collective, have an insatiable appetite for "what's next," even when "what's now" is right in front of them. In the NBA, that so often translates to feverishly tracking free agency, from which players might be available to which teams could have the cap space to make a major move or two.

    And for good reason. In no other sport does even the average acquisition have as big of an impact on a team's fortunes as it does in the NBA. That's the nature of a game that features only five guys representing a team at any given time and just 15 total spots to be filled on a roster. 

    As such, organizations and fanbases of all stripes take particular interest when the biggest names entertain the thought of changing addresses. One player can make all the difference, be it by bolstering one team's title hopes or clearing the way for another contender to rise up.

     

    Best of Yesteryear

    1988: Tom Chambers becomes the first unrestricted free agent in NBA history. After five years starring for the Seattle SuperSonics, the high-flying forward heads south to join the fledgling Phoenix Suns. Chambers' arrival sparks a 27-win improvement for Phoenix, which vaults from out of the playoff picture entirely into the Western Conference Finals against the eventual-champion Lakers.

    1996: Free agency as an NBA institution finally "arrives." Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley headline a class that also includes Alonzo Mourning, Reggie Miller, Dikembe Mutombo, Allan Houston, Juwan Howard and Kenny Anderson. Shaq signs with the Lakers, Barkley joins forces with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler in Houston and MJ, after flirting with the Knicks, re-signs with the Bulls by way of a one-year pact for a record $35 million.

    2010: The NBA's first bumper crop of post-Jordan superstars hits the market together, albeit with Carmelo Anthony taking notes from afar. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, Amar'e Stoudemire, David Lee and Carlos Boozer all entertain (and eventually accept) mega-money offers. Wade and Johnson are the only headliners who don't switch jerseys. James and Bosh join Wade to form an instant title contender in Miami, Stoudemire kick-starts New York's return to relevance, Lee's shipped to Golden State, Johnson re-ups with Atlanta and Boozer benefits from the Bulls' inability to attract a truly elite talent to play alongside Derrick Rose.

     

    What Perfection Would Look Like in 2013-14

    LeBron, Wade, Bosh and 'Melo all opt out of their deals, as do Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph. Whether or not any of those stars choose to play elsewhere is irrelevant; their mere return to free agency is fodder enough to whip up a summer frenzy.

    Meanwhile, future Hall of Famers like Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce bypass retirement and subsequently conspire with one another to build a flash-in-the-pan title contender somewhere. Luol Deng, Danny Granger and Marcin Gortat all get their money, and a whole host of other players become wildly overpaid, thereby casting a pall over the entire basketball blogosphere. 

     

    What would YOUR perfect NBA season look like? Let me know on Twitter!

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