The Biggest Storyline for All 30 NBA Teams Heading into 2013-14 Season

Ben LeibowitzCorrespondent IIISeptember 30, 2013

The Biggest Storyline for All 30 NBA Teams Heading into 2013-14 Season

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

    What is Kobe Bryant’s timetable to return for the Los Angeles Lakers? Will Greg Oden make a successful comeback with the defending champion Miami Heat? Can Derrick Rose come back “quicker,” “stronger” and “more explosive,” as he claims?

    These questions represent a small sample of the biggest storylines surrounding NBA teams as they near the 2013-14 season. Some narratives are more compelling than others, but there are still intriguing subplots facing all 30 rosters.

    Due to a loaded 2014 NBA draft class, even NBA cellar-dwellers like the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns should receive plenty of attention with regard to the long-term outlook.

    So what are the biggest storylines that fans of each team should look out for moving forward?

Atlanta Hawks: Can Jeff Teague Be a Franchise Point Guard?

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    Jeff Teague entered the 2013 offseason as a restricted free agent. He agreed to a four-year, $32 million offer sheet from the Milwaukee Bucks, but the Atlanta Hawks decided to match the deal and keep the 25-year-old point guard.

    The Hawks made a big commitment to Teague. Now, the only question is if he can live up to the contract and become a legitimate franchise point guard in Atlanta.

    For the sake of evaluation, here’s a comparison between Teague and another point guard who was also drafted in 2009:

     

    Player A

    2009-10: 3.2 points, 1.7 assists, 0.9 rebounds, 0.5 steals, 39.6/21.9/83.7 shooting splits.

    2010-11: 5.2 points, 2.0 assists, 1.5 rebounds, 0.6 steals, 43.8/37.5/79.4 shooting splits.

    2011-12: 12.6 points, 4.9 assists, 2.4 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 47.6/34.2/75.7 shooting splits.

    2012-13: 14.6 points, 7.2 assists, 2.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 45.1/35.9/88.1 shooting splits.

     

    Player B

    2009-10: 8.0 points, 3.8 assists, 2.6 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 44.2/39.0/75.6 shooting splits.

    2010-11: 14.0 points, 6.5 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 44.6/36.5/82.3 shooting splits.

    2011-12: 13.5 points, 4.5 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 43.2/38.0/78.3 shooting splits.

    2012-13: 17.7 points, 8.0 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 43.1/36.8/75.2 shooting splits.

     

    Player A is Teague. Player B is Jrue Holiday, who was drafted two picks prior to Teague in the 2009 draft.

    As you can see, Teague had a much slower start to his NBA career, but he’s improved statistically in four straight seasons. Holiday, meanwhile, earned more playing time as a rookie and put up better stats as a result. The key takeaway, however, is the comparison during 2012-13.

    Holiday blossomed into an NBA All-Star with the Philadelphia 76ers despite having a vastly mediocre supporting cast. Teague played well in his fourth season, but didn’t exactly have a breakout year.

    When you factor in that Holiday is two years younger than Teague at 23 years old, it’s not much consolation for Hawks fans.

    The 2013-14 season will be a huge test for Teague. If he can’t prove himself as a true franchise point guard, he’ll be an expensive placeholder until rookie Dennis Schröder is ready for a larger role.

Boston Celtics: When Will Rajon Rondo Return?

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    As far as the Boston Celtics' future is concerned, success starts and ends with All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo.

    Now that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will suit up with the Brooklyn Nets following the blockbuster offseason trade, the Celts need to build a contender with Rondo as the centerpiece.

    But before that can happen, the Celtics need to evaluate where the young star is from a health standpoint following an ACL tear.

    According to Tom Layman of the Boston Herald, new head coach Brad Stevens has said that there is no timeline for Rondo’s return. Additionally, Rondo is reportedly expected to miss the entire preseason and some of the regular season, according to A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN New England

    Boston’s current roster is not going to compete for a championship. Due to that, it makes sense for the organization to wait until Rondo is 100 percent healthy before bringing him back to the court.

    Rondo’s recovery and how well he plays when he finally returns is the biggest storyline in Boston. However, the maturation of Jeff Green and Boston’s plethora of young players—Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, etc.—will be equally important.

Brooklyn Nets: Championship Contenders?

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    USA TODAY Sports

    By adding future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett—as well as veteran bench pieces like Andrei Kirilenko, Jason Terry and Shaun Livingston—the Brooklyn Nets have made enough improvements to look like championship contenders on paper.

    Of course, the paper doesn’t get injured or account for team chemistry, so the Nets still have a long way to go before they’re seriously considered in the Eastern Conference. Especially since the conference features the two-time defending champion Miami Heat as well as the improved Indiana Pacers.

    If the Nets don’t jump out to a fast start, they’ll face more than their fair share of media scrutiny (like what happened with the Los Angeles Lakers last season). So getting off to a good start will be paramount.

    Brooklyn starts the year at Cleveland, home against Miami, at Orlando, home versus Utah, at Washington, home for Indiana and away against Sacramento and Phoenix.

    The Nets should easily be able to come away from that schedule with a 6-2 start. Although they face tough competition like Miami and Indiana, the remaining teams may be bound for the draft lottery.

    The ultimate goal in Brooklyn is to win a championship now that Pierce and KG are on board. Proving that it's capable of competing with juggernauts from the outset will be a huge test for Jason Kidd’s squad.

Charlotte Bobcats: What Impact Will the Youngsters Make?

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    Adding Al Jefferson on a three-year, $40.5 million deal was the Charlotte Bobcats' splashiest free-agent acquisition in quite some time. With that said, the biggest storyline in Charlotte will be the play of its youngsters.

    With rookie center Cody Zeller, sophomores Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeffery Taylor and 21-year-old Bismack Biyombo entering his third professional season, the Bobcats will continue to depend upon the young players to perform.

    Zeller, the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft, performed very well in the Las Vegas Summer League. In four games, the big man out of Indiana averaged 16.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. His average of 3.5 turnovers per game was not a good sign, but the good certainly outweighed the bad, as Zeller was named to the All-NBA Summer League team.

    Joining him was teammate Jeff Taylor, who had a breakout performance in summer league action.

    Taylor, who inexplicably fell to the second round of the 2012 draft, averaged 20.3 points per game on 47.5 percent field-goal shooting and 36.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc. He disappointed in other statistical categories—notching just 2.8 rebounds and one assist per game—but seeing the defensive-minded swingman average more than 20 points per contest is encouraging.

    The Swedish guard/forward has certainly earned increased playing time moving forward.

    Of course, that fails to mention Kidd-Gilchrist and Biyombo. They’re still just a combined 41 years old, so Bobcats fans should expect to see more growing pains as well as small improvements.

Chicago Bulls: Derrick Rose Better Than Before?

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    The long-awaited return of former MVP Derrick Rose is finally here, and if what Rose is saying is true, NBA fans could be treated to an amazing comeback.

    According to an interview with Slam Magazine’s Adam Figman, Rose said, “Right now I’m in training, and I’m getting a lot stronger. I gained 10 pounds of muscle.” He added, “I think I’m a lot quicker, a lot more explosive.”

    If D-Rose is truly “a lot quicker,” “a lot more explosive” and “a lot stronger,” then the rest of the NBA is in trouble.

    Considering that the Chicago Bulls point guard was showing this type of explosiveness before the injury, he will be downright scary if he comes back stronger and more explosive.

    His return is easily the biggest story coming out of Chicago right now. You don’t have to be a Bulls fan to be excited about seeing Rose play for the first time since the 2012 playoffs.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Will Andrew Bynum Ever Be Healthy?

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    If Andrew Bynum can actually find the court in 2013-14, I believe the Cleveland Cavaliers are a playoff team. Unfortunately for Cavs fans, the big man has “no idea what the schedule’s going to be” for his return, according to Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

    With how Bynum’s contract is structured, he’s owed $6 million guaranteed even if he doesn’t play a single minute—like what happened last season for the Philadelphia 76ers. He can earn an additional $6 million through performance incentives, but that’s only if his body stays healthy enough to permit him to play.

    At this point, it doesn’t look promising.

    As of September 23, Bynum “still hasn’t been cleared for contact,” according to Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. This news is just more of the same in a long injury history for the young center.

    Bynum has played just 392 of a possible 640 games since 2005-06. He played all 82 games as a sophomore and 60 of a possible 66 games during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 year. Those were the only two seasons in which the big man played at least 90 percent of his team’s games.

    He has an opportunity to solidify his position as one of the league’s best centers, but only if he stays healthy.

Dallas Mavericks: Plenty of New Additions

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    Photos By: Rob Carr/Getty Images and Rocky Widner/Getty Images
    Photos By: Rob Carr/Getty Images and Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    The Dallas Mavericks never appeared to be a legitimate destination for big-name free agents like Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. Nevertheless, Mark Cuban’s Mavs reloaded with an underrated free-agent haul ripe with fresh faces.

    In addition to Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis and Samuel Dalembert—who are projected to round out the Mavericks’ starting five—Dallas brought in Wayne Ellington, Devin Harris, DeJuan Blair and rookies Shane Larkin and Ricky Ledo.

    The Mavericks aren’t receiving the same hype as the Brooklyn Nets or Houston Rockets for their offseason acquisitions, but they could have done far worse putting a supporting cast around Dirk Nowitzki.

    The seven-foot German is no longer receiving the respect he deserves despite leading Dallas to a championship just two years ago. But he’s still a bona fide NBA alpha dog who is capable of leading a supporting cast to the Promised Land.

    Defense will be an issue for Calderon and Ellis, but their abilities on offense may override their defensive shortcomings.

    I'm in the minority, but I believe the Mavericks will earn a playoff seed in 2014.

Denver Nuggets: Will JaVale McGee Thrive or Fail?

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    By firing 2012-13 Coach of the Year George Karl, the Denver Nuggets front office is putting a ton of faith in the athletic yet inconsistent play of JaVale McGee.

    A disappointing first-round playoff exit had a lot to do with Karl’s dismissal. However, the veteran coach fired back at management by saying, “We won 57 games and are in a great place. Continuity, consistency, togetherness all are so much more valuable than what they have on their priority list of playing JaVale McGee or the young players,” via Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post.

    Karl has a point considering that McGee gained a reputation as a mainstay on TNT’s “Shaqtin’ a Fool” segment.

    Nevertheless, McGee has a chance to reward the front office’s faith in him. He’s sure to receive more than the 18.1 minutes per game he got a season ago now that Kosta Koufos has been traded to the Memphis Grizzlies.

    It may finally be time to realistically expect a breakout year from the 25-year-old center.

Detroit Pistons: Can Josh Smith Jell in the Frontcourt?

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    I’ve harped on it again and again, but the biggest question mark facing the new-look Detroit Pistons is whether or not Josh Smith can fit in with the current frontcourt.

    With Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, the Pistons already have promising talents on the interior. As a result, J-Smoove may struggle to find his niche playing primarily at the small forward spot.

    I say this because Smith is infinitely better when he’s attacking the basket. Last season, he shot 60.4 percent in the paint, 29.9 percent from mid-range and 30.2 percent from beyond the arc, according to Vorped.com.

    Because he’s not capable of spreading the floor with his jump shot, he may prove to be a poor fit around Monroe and Drummond. Those two bigs need players around them who can spread the floor. Smith is one of the least qualified swingmen in that regard.

    From a sheer talent standpoint, with Brandon Jennings, Chauncey Billups, Smith, Monroe and Drummond, Detroit is in contention for one of the final Eastern Conference playoff spots. For that to happen, however, team chemistry is a must.

    Smith needs to convince fans that it can happen.

Golden State Warriors: Will Harrison Barnes Thrive in New Role?

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    By adding Andre Iguodala during the 2013 offseason, the Golden State Warriors appear poised to move Harrison Barnes to the bench for his sophomore season.

    The 21-year-old forward out of North Carolina has no problem with that.

    According to Marcus Thompson of the Contra Costa Times, Barnes said, “I feel confident about this team and where we can go. Regardless if I’m starting or coming off the bench, I think we have a chance to make a serious playoff push.”

    Barnes has shown maturity beyond his years by accepting any role head coach Mark Jackson decides is best. Now that Jarrett Jack (Cleveland Cavaliers) and Carl Landry (Sacramento Kings) are suiting up elsewhere, Barnes will be responsible for leading Golden State’s second unit.

    The question is whether or not Barnes will build upon a stellar 2013 postseason when he averaged 16.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.

    If he continues to play at that level, he’ll be a serious contender for the 2013-14 Sixth Man of the Year award.

Houston Rockets: Who Will Start at Power Forward?

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    Jeremy Lin, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Dwight Howard…No matter how you slice it, the Houston Rockets have a lot of talent in the starting lineup. The power forward spot, however, remains an area of concern.

    Donatas Motiejunas may be seen as the early front-runner for the starting job.

    The seven-foot Lithuanian started 14 games for the Rockets a season ago as a rookie. He didn’t shy away from shooting the three-ball, making 24 of 83 attempts from distance, but that equated to a pedestrian 28.9 percent. If he can improve his shooting stroke from beyond the arc, he’s an intriguing option for Kevin McHale’s offense.

    The other contender for the role is Terrence Jones.

    The former Kentucky Wildcat had a solid showing during the Las Vegas Summer League. He averaged 15.8 points with 42.2/36.4/65.6 shooting splits (field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, free-throw percentage) to go with seven rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.2 blocks per game.

    Jones, however, hurt his image this summer following his arrest for allegedly stomping on a homeless man in Portland, Oregon, according to news outlet KATU. If he can put that incident behind him, he has a legitimate chance of playing a big role for the new-look Rockets.

    The power forward spot in Houston continues to be open for competition.

Indiana Pacers: Can Danny Granger and New Additions Fit In?

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    Despite only having Danny Granger for five forgettable games a season ago, the Indiana Pacers came within one win of reaching the NBA Finals due to a stellar breakout performance from Paul George.

    The 23-year-old blossomed into an All-Star during the 2012-13 season. He led the league in defensive win shares and won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, which were precursors to a five-year max contract extension.

    Due to the impressive play from George, Granger’s absence didn’t hinder Indy’s success. But by getting the former All-Star back, are the Pacers championship-bound?

    Well, Indiana’s two stars seem to think so.

    According to Joel Brigham of Hoopsworld, George said, “With everyone coming back together again, there’s no doubt in mind that we should win a championship.”

    Granger echoed that sentiment by saying, “I think we have all the pieces, we just have to put them all together and go attack it,” per Scott Agness of NBA.com.

    In addition to getting Granger back healthy, the Pacers brought in offseason acquisitions Luis Scola, Chris Copeland, C.J. Watson and first-round pick Solomon Hill. Those guys are certainly capable of solidifying a very solid second unit, which will be huge considering Indiana's bench finished 29th in points per game a season ago, per Hoops Stats.

    If the new pieces fall seamlessly into place, Indiana may finally upset the two-time champion Miami Heat in 2014.

Los Angeles Clippers: What Impact Will Doc Rivers Make?

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    The Los Angeles Clippers are bringing back the same core of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. They’ll also sport a familiar talent level within a tweaked supporting cast. (J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley are the marquee additions.)

    But the biggest change—and biggest storyline—is the acquisition of head coach Doc Rivers, one of the most respected coaches in the NBA. He won Coach of the Year in 2000 with the Orlando Magic and a championship in 2008 with the Boston Celtics. He is, therefore, a huge upgrade from Vinny Del Negro. 

    His coaching acumen should be able to inspire the Clippers, a team that hasn’t won a single playoff game past the second round since CP3 arrived.

    Last year, Bill Simmons of Grantland.com invented a goofy metric for the NFL landscape called “WARM,” an acronym for “Wins Above Raheem Morris,” the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' former head coach.

    As Simmons writes in a recent column, the idea is “to capture those season-to-season bumps teams get just by upgrading their head coach position.”

    A similar joke metric may be formed with regard to Rivers’ coaching bump in Lob City. We could end up calling it Wins Above Vinny Del Negro (WAVDN). The acronym is a work in progress, but you get the idea.

    In theory, Rivers should account for at least one more playoff series win, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe Bryant's Timetable

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    As is the case with the Boston Celtics and Rajon Rondo, the Los Angeles Lakers' success hinges on the return of Kobe Bryant.

    To be clear, the Lakers have a more experienced supporting cast than Boston does, with Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman. With that said, the Lakeshow isn’t going to be very watchable until the Black Mamba comes back.

    Fortunately for Lakers fans, Bryant has been ahead of schedule recovery-wise since July, according to ESPN Los Angeles’ Arash Markazi.

    He wrote, “The Los Angeles Lakers not only expect Kobe Bryant to be back by the start of the regular season but believe he could be back by the preseason,” and added, “The initial timetable for his recovery was six to nine months, and six months would have Bryant back sometime during training camp.”

    The Lakers shouldn’t rush the 35-year-old veteran back into action, but this is Bryant we’re talking about. If he wants to be out on the floor, I can’t imagine he’ll receive much objection.

    The only question remaining at that point will be whether or not the ageless wonder can return to full strength following an Achilles tear. Even for Bryant, that won’t be easy.

Memphis Grizzlies: Will Lack of Major Improvements Hurt Title Chances?

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    Is Dave Joerger the right choice to coach the Memphis Grizzlies?
    Is Dave Joerger the right choice to coach the Memphis Grizzlies?Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    The Houston Rockets added Dwight Howard.

    The Los Angeles Clippers acquired head coach Doc Rivers.

    The Oklahoma City Thunder will have a healthy Russell Westbrook (at least for the playoffs).

    The Golden State Warriors brought in Andre Iguodala.

    Plenty of Western Conference teams improved over the summer. The Memphis Grizzlies, for the most part, decided to stand pat. So will having a familiar group hurt their title chances?

    Memphis decided to cut ties with Lionel Hollins, promoting Dave Joerger to head coach. The Grizz also added Mike Miller, Kosta Koufos and second-round pick Jamaal Franklin, but will that be enough to compete?

    The Grizzlies face a collection of important questions after making pretty negligible changes. Can Miller really make an impact with his recurring back problems? Will Koufos get enough playing time behind Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph? Can Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless improve moving forward?

    Memphis has a solid team, but it hasn’t separated itself as a championship team.

Miami Heat: Can Greg Oden Make a Successful Comeback?

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    Highlights in the embedded video show exactly what Greg Oden was capable of as an NBA talent.

    The former No. 1 overall pick of the Portland Trail Blazers hasn’t played a single NBA minute since the 2009-10 season, but he’s attempting a comeback in 2013-14 with the defending champion Miami Heat.

    Despite winning the title in 2013, the Heat finished dead last in the league in rebounding, grabbing 38.6 boards per contest.

    Chris “Birdman” Andersen added a tremendous dynamic, as Miami went 39-3 during the regular season when he played. However, the Heat are still in need of an interior presence. I think we can all agree that Chris Bosh does not translate well as a center.

    Even if Oden only plays approximately 10-18 minutes per game, he can still make a big impact. During 21 games in 2009-10, the big man ranked eighth in the NBA with a player efficiency rating of 23.14 despite playing only 23.9 minutes per game.

    Oden’s body has betrayed him with injuries again and again, but he’ll be a joy to watch if he can avoid significant setbacks.

Milwaukee Bucks: Will Larry Sanders Improve?

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    All eyes will be on Larry Sanders after he burst onto the NBA scene from out of nowhere a season ago for the Milwaukee Bucks.

    A mishmash of bizarre offseason moves—like signing O.J. Mayo, Carlos Delfino, Gary Neal and Zaza Pachulia, as well as trading for Brandon Knight, Luke Ridnour and Caron Butler—have the Bucks struggling through an identity crisis. It’s almost as if they want to stay competitive but don’t know how to do so.

    Sanders remains the one true constant. He’s the franchise centerpiece moving forward following Milwaukee’s decision to sign him to an extension (perhaps the only smart move it made in 2013).

    He evolved into a shot-blocking specialist and an interior defensive force, but there are still areas in which he can stand to improve.

    For example, Sanders is a poor jump-shooter. He shot just 32.8 percent on 119 mid-range attempts last season, according to Vorped.com. He also frequently gets into foul trouble, which limits his minutes.

    Look for the big man to get better in both areas next season.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Can Kevin Love Lead His Team to the Playoffs?

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    When Kevin Love has stayed healthy for the Minnesota Timberwolves (an infrequent occurrence), he’s received recognition as the best power forward in basketball.

    That praise has occurred in spite of the fact that Love has never led the Timberwolves to a playoff berth, much less an NBA championship.

    He’s indirectly called out his supporting cast by saying in July of last year, according to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports, “My patience is not high. Would yours be, especially when I’m a big proponent of greatness surrounding itself with greatness?”

    Instead of stepping up as a leader to get the best out of his teammates, Love decided to throw them under the bus, along with the front office. Is that a harsh assessment? Perhaps, but Kobe Bryant once led a supporting cast of Smush Parker, Lamar Odom and the trifecta of Kwame Brown/Brian Cook/Chris Mihm to the postseason.

    K-Love’s supporting cast has been far from elite. With that said, if the core of Love, Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic stays healthy, the former UCLA star will be out of excuses.

    This season is a huge test for “the best power forward in basketball.” I look forward to seeing how he responds.

New Orleans Pelicans: What Is Tyreke Evans' Role?

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    While the new-look New Orleans Pelicans made the splashy decision to bring restricted free agent Tyreke Evans over from the Sacramento Kings via sign-and-trade, his role on the roster remains unclear.

    According to a July article by Sean Deveney of Sporting News, the Pelicans initially wooed Evans by saying their intent was to use him off the bench in a Manu Ginobili-type role. In the same article, Deveney wrote, “(Pelicans) coach Monty Williams also held out the possibility that Evans will be the team’s starting small forward.”

    So really we have no idea what his role will be until the regular season starts, and there’s a chance his role could change throughout the year.

    Since winning the 2010 Rookie of the Year award, Evans has regressed statistically in three straight seasons. He’s played point guard, shooting guard and small forward with mixed results at all three positions.

    Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon (if healthy) are the three best players on the roster. If Evans can revert back to the form he showed as a rookie, however, the Pelicans will be a dark-horse playoff contender in the loaded Western Conference.

    That starts with Evans finding a comfortable niche.

New York Knicks: Can Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani Stay Healthy?

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    The last time Amar’e Stoudemire stayed healthy throughout the regular season was in 2010-11. He averaged 25.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.9 blocks per game that year.

    The last time Andrea Bargnani avoided significant injury (in 2009-10), he averaged 17.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.4 blocks per game.

    If both big men can find away to stay healthy in 2013-14, there’s no reason why they can’t make a huge impact offensively for the New York Knicks.

    For their respective size, these two guys are tremendously talented on the offensive end.

    Stoudemire is one of the league’s best when finishing at the rim, and he can knock down mid-range shots with consistency. Bargnani, meanwhile, is a career 36.1 percent shooter from three-point range as a seven-footer.

    Carmelo Anthony did a phenomenal job carrying the Knicks offensively a season ago. He averaged 28.7 points per game en route to his first ever scoring title, but he can’t do it alone.

    If the Stoudemire/Bargnani tandem can take pressure off ‘Melo, it will open up the entire offense for head coach Mike Woodson. New York needs to become a better all-round team, and the two injury-prone veterans are keys to that.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Will Jeremy Lamb Produce?

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    Hindsight is 20/20, and although I believe the decision to trade James Harden was a poor one that (at the very least) happened a year too soon, there’s no reason to beat a dead horse.

    The Oklahoma City Thunder, for better or worse, are moving forward without the bearded one. As a result, 21-year-old guard Jeremy Lamb has to produce.

    The youngster out of UConn has collected the majority of his NBA court time in meaningless garbage-time minutes. He performed well in the NBA D-League, averaging 21 points, 5.3 rebounds, three assists and 1.2 steals per game, but that isn’t the best barometer of success.

    Case in point: The last three winners of the D-League MVP awardAndrew Goudelock, Justin Dentmon and Curtis Stinsondon’t currently hold an NBA roster spot.

    Now that Kevin Martin has left OKC to play with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Lamb will likely be thrown into the proverbial fire.

    The good news? If he averages at least 16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, he’ll have matched Harden’s numbers from his Sixth Man of the Year campaign in 2012.

    The bad news? He’ll essentially have to replace Harden.

    It’s an unenviable task, so we’ll have to see how Lamb responds to the pressure and media scrutiny.

Orlando Magic: Will Victor Oladipo Win ROY?

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    The Orlando Magic finished with a league-worst 20 wins in 2012-13. Since then, they’ve added rookie Victor Oladipo, Jason Maxiell and Ronnie Price while losing Beno Udrih and Al Harrington.

    Of the changes, drafting the Indiana standout was far and away the most meaningful move of the summer.

    The Magic will not be competing for a playoff spot in 2013-14. In fact, they’re much closer to winning the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes by being the league’s worst team (in their case, again).

    Oladipo, however, provides a glimmer of hope. In the eyes of some pundits, he’s seen as the front-runner for the 2013-14 NBA Rookie of the Year award. Chief of whom is ESPN Insider Chad Ford, who wrote the following about the 21-year-old (subscription required):

    Oladipo is the perfect storm of a ROY candidate. He can physically play in the NBA from day one—few athletes have had his combination of strength and athletic ability coming out of college. He also has two skills that should earn him major minutes right away: (1) He plays as hard as anyone in the NBA, and (2) he can immediately be a lockdown defender. With the Magic in full tank mode, the team won't be afraid to throw Oladipo to the wolves right from the start.

    Despite the fact that Orlando already has Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo patrolling the backcourt, Oladipo is sure to get plenty of playing time as a rookie.

    There will be some growing pains, but as Ford points out, Oladipo has the capacity to be a lockdown NBA defender “immediately.”

    His hustle and determination will endear him to Magic fans.

Philadelphia 76ers: Andrew Wiggins in 2014?

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    There’s no sense in sugarcoating it. The Philadelphia 76ers are going to struggle in 2013-14.

    The league’s worst offense from a season ago—finishing last with 93.2 points per game—actually managed to get worse by trading away All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday.

    His projected replacement, rookie Michael Carter-Williams, had a poor summer league showing. He averaged 13.6 points, but shot a woeful 27.1 percent from the field and 15.8 percent from three-point range and turned the ball over 4.8 times per contest.

    If those numbers are any indication of what’s to come, the Sixers may flirt with single-digit wins. Bleacher Report featured columnist Adam Fromal projects Philly to finish 12-70, so it's in the ballpark, especially if an injury occurs.

    In my opinion, the 76ers are the odds-on favorites to land super-prospect Andrew Wiggins in 2014 (if the ping-pong balls respect the odds). The biggest storyline for Philly’s basketball present is its future.

Phoenix Suns: Will Bledsoe/Dragic Backcourt Work?

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    Barry Gossage/Getty Images

    Speaking of bad teams, the Phoenix Suns appear poised to finish dead last in the Western Conference yet again.

    There’s finally a sense of direction in the desert now that Ryan McDonough has taken over as general manager, but the current outlook is still understandably bleak.

    With that said, the Suns actually have an interesting dynamic for fans to keep an eye on: the Goran Dragic/Eric Bledsoe backcourt.

    New head coach Jeff Hornacek said of the backcourt tandem, “(Bledsoe) can play both the one and the two and combining him with Goran (Dragic) should be a pretty fun two guys to push the ball up the court," via Adam Green of Arizona Sports.

    Hornacek added the following with reference to fast-break opportunities:

    When you have Eric out there and you have Goran, you can throw it to either guy. They’re both going to be able to just take the ball and go with it and I think all our guys, when you have two guys like that, it forces everyone else to run because they may never touch the ball if they don’t run.

    I think it gives us a great two-person weapon.

    So while the Suns won’t be anywhere near the talent level they were at from 2005-2010, it appears as if the run-and-gun, quick pace of old could re-surface.

    Phoenix won’t be winning many games, but watching the maturation of Bledsoe beside Dragic will be intriguing.

Portland Trail Blazers: Will Better Bench Lead to Playoff Berth?

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    Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    Aside from the Brooklyn Nets nabbing Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from the Boston Celtics, I strongly believe that the Portland Trail Blazers had the best 2013 offseason.

    The team’s Achilles' heel last season was its second unit.

    The Trail Blazers bench finished last in minutes (13.3) and points (18.5), according to Hoops Stats. Their complete inability to rest the starters—namely Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge—was primarily what led to a 13-game losing streak to end the season. The starters simply ran out of gas.

    By adding Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson, C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Earl Watson and Robin Lopez—who will likely start and keep Meyers Leonard on the bench—Portland’s front office completely overhauled a roster in dire need of it without losing any major pieces.

    People forget that the Trail Blazers were right in the thick of the playoff hunt for much of last season. The Los Angeles Lakers finally turned things around enough to make it as the seventh seed, but Portland did have a chance.

    Will the offseason additions be enough to make Lillard, Aldridge and Co. a playoff team in the Western Conference next season? That’s the biggest storyline for Portland’s 2013-14 campaign.

Sacramento Kings: Can 'Boogie' Embrace Role as Franchise Centerpiece?

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Now that DeMarcus Cousins has signed a four-year, $62 million max extension, which was first reported by Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee, he’s solidified his place as the face of the Sacramento Kings franchise.

    New Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, new general manager Pete D’Alessandro and new head coach Mike Malone have all praised Cousins since their arrivals, per ESPN’s Marc Stein. They were prepared to commit to the big man long-term, and the new extension reflects that.

    So can “Boogie” become a true franchise centerpiece capable of leading a championship-caliber team (or at least a playoff-caliber team)? That’s going to be the million-dollar question. Or, in this case, the $62 million question.

    Cousins is a solid offensive talent, but his 46.5 percent field-goal shooting last season ranked him 55th in the league. As an imposing center who spends most of his time in the post, he shouldn’t be a less efficient shooter than eight NBA guards.

    Additionally, as Grantland.com’s Zach Lowe points out in this column, the former Kentucky star is an abysmal defender who struggles to defend the pick-and-roll (the league’s bread-and-butter play).

    If he can’t adapt enough to become at least a mediocre defender, Cousins may be destined for a career arc similar to Al Jefferson.

    “Big Al” is a respected offensive talent, but he’s even admitted, “It ain’t no secret around the league that I struggle with my defense,” according to another Grantland column by Lowe.

    During his nine NBA seasons, Jefferson has only played in 11 playoff games (four of them starts). He’s played for some bad teams, but often times he’s part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    Most scouts would say that Cousins is a better talent with more athletic ability than Jefferson, but the two players draw a lot of parallels.

    Kings fans need to hope that Boogie’s big payday inspires him to work harder, not the other way around.

San Antonio Spurs: Will Father Time Finally Become a Factor?

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The narrative facing the San Antonio Spurs has been the same for years. Members of the NBA community bust out the broken record that calls them “too old” or “too slow,” and every year they prove those critics wrong.

    So could 2013-14 finally be the year when we see some significant regression?

    Well, we’ve already seen those red flags with regard to three-time champion Manu Ginobili.

    The Argentinian guard has been named an All-NBA Third Team member twice in his career, but his best days are clearly behind him. He averaged 11.8 points last season—the lowest point total since his rookie year—and missed 22 games due to injury.

    In the playoffs, his point-per-game average of 11.5 was accompanied by 39.9 percent shooting from the field and a 30.2 percent clip from three-point range. He scored single digits in 10 of the Spurs' 21 postseason games. That’s simply not what we’re used to seeing from him.

    You know it’s bad when Charles Barkley’s “GINOBILI!” scream gets reduced to a whisper.

    Oddly enough, Ginobili received a two-year, $14 million deal this summer from the Spurs. The only explanation is loyalty. He’s been injury-prone for quite some time and showed evident signs of decline in the playoffs.

    Aside from the former Sixth Man of the Year, though, the Spurs may still be in great shape.

    Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter provide youth, and the tandem of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker showed no signs of slowing down.

    Don’t be surprised if the Spurs shut up the naysayers again. They often do.

Toronto Raptors: Can Jonas Valanciunas Build off Summer League?

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    On the surface, Jonas Valanciunas had a superb performance during the Las Vegas Summer League.

    He averaged 18.8 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 56.1 percent from the field and 87.9 percent from the free-throw line. Those gaudy stats earned the Lithuanian center Summer League MVP honors, but that should be taken with a grain of salt.

    There’s no denying that Valanciunas had some very bright moments during summer league, especially after averaging a pedestrian 8.9 points and six rebounds per game for Toronto as a rookie. However, his stats included some alarming negatives.

    First off, the big man averaged a cringe-worthy five turnovers per game. Considering that he isn’t a ball-dominating point guard, that’s certainly an area of concern. 

    Additionally, Valanciunas averaged 5.8 personal fouls per game. Because players can’t foul out of summer league games, he was permitted to rack up nine fouls in just 29 minutes of action in an 81-70 win against the Sacramento Kings.

    In an actual NBA game, he wouldn’t have recorded anywhere near his 18 points and eight rebounds, because he’d be benched due to foul trouble.

    There was a lot to like about the Summer League MVP, but if he can’t stay out of foul trouble next season, his scoring averages in Vegas may prove to be nothing but a pipe dream.

Utah Jazz: Will Young Players Develop?

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    USA TODAY Sports

    By allowing Al Jefferson (Charlotte Bobcats) and Paul Millsap (Atlanta Hawks) to head toward the East Coast in free agency, the Utah Jazz are finally embracing the future through Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and the other young players.

    Favors and Kanter are 22 and 21 years old, respectively. They’ve been stuck behind Jefferson and Millsap on the depth chart to start their careers, but now they’ll be promoted to starting jobs.

    In addition to the two big men, Gordon Hayward (23), Alec Burks (22) and rookie Trey Burke (20) should all have big roles within the playing rotation.

    As with any young team, the Jazz will have to learn from mistakes and experience growing pains. In this case, however, having a head coach entering the final year of his contract is a precarious situation.

    According to an article by Bill Oram of The Salt Lake Tribune, a contract extension for head coach Tyrone Corbin is “unlikely” and Corbin’s agent Steve Kauffman “said the sides have not begun negotiating an extension.”

    With so many young, impressionable players on the roster, it makes sense for the Jazz to get a head coach that will lead the team into the future. If Corbin isn’t in the organization’s long-term plans, developing a young squad under his short-term tutelage could be counter-productive.

    Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey said that Corbin has “performed really well” under the circumstances, per Oram’s article. But that doesn’t grant him any job security.

    Developing the young talent on the roster is the new goal in Utah. The question is whether or not Corbin will be around long enough to see those players grow.

Washington Wizards: Can John Wall Lead Wiz to Playoffs?

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    USA TODAY Sports

    In a radio interview with Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix on the Dan Patrick Show, John Wall wasted no time when asked where he ranks at the point guard position.

    “I rank myself the best,” he said. “Yeah, I rank myself the best.”

    Of course, when you think about it, that’s the only answer. The fanbase doesn’t want to hear their franchise player singing the praises of opponents.

    Confidence is everything in the NBA, and Wall certainly has no shortage of that.

    Although I believe Wall provided the smartest answer in that interview, he has an opportunity to prove to everyone else that he’s the best point guard in the league (or at least in the top five).

    In order to do that, he’ll not only have to put up respectable stats, but also translate them into team success via a playoff berth. As far as the 2013-14 season is concerned, the goal for the Washington Wizards is to reach the postseason.

    When Wall returned from his knee injury, he led the Wizards to a so-so 24-25 record. Although one game under .500 isn’t a mark to strive for, that would have earned Washington the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference if it were sustained over the course of the 2012-13 regular season.

    The Eastern Conference is incredibly talented, but it’s also top-heavy. Miami, Indiana, Chicago, Brooklyn and New York are all but guaranteed to make it in. Atlanta will have to fight to keep a playoff spot, so seeds No. 6 through No. 8 may be up for grabs.

    Wall can finally start proving himself worthy of a No. 1 overall pick if he continues to build off his short-lived breakout season.

     

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