Best-Case, Worst-Case Scenarios for Top 10 NBA Stars Entering 2013-14
Forget about the Draconids and the Orionids. If you're looking for some real shooting stars—and not just collections of ice and dust flittering across the cosmos—then you'd best keep your eye trained not on the night sky, but rather on the NBA.
The league's roll of superstars is as long as it's been in some time, thanks to a tremendous influx of talent over the last decade. That parade of premier players has set up the 2013-14 season to be among the most exciting in recent memory, with no shortage of competitive clubs to keep things interesting.
But even the best of the best in the Association can't escape questions and concerns. The league's elite all expect to compete for (and win) championships, though only a select few can realistically count themselves among legitimate title contenders in any given year.
What's the difference, then, between the best-case and worst-case scenarios for basketball's biggest names? Read on to find out!
Kobe Bryant comes back from his Achilles injury in November or December without a hitch in his game. He has little trouble reintegrating himself into the flow of things for the Los Angeles Lakers and is immediately able to pick up his pursuit of the all-time scoring record.
The Black Mamba's mere presence makes life much easier for Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and the rest of the Lakers, who manage to sneak their way into a crowded playoff picture out West.
Complications in Kobe's recovery delay his return to action until January or February. His comeback proves to be a disappointment to everyone involved. He's clearly limited physically and struggles to adjust to his new corporeal reality. The Lakers collapse into the lottery and Bryant calls it quits, citing his inability to live up to his own expectations.
Russell Westbrook returns from his latest knee surgery during the first half of December. He's no worse for wear; if anything, the injury encourages him to diversify his game and increase the frequency of his ball distribution.
Westbrook challenges for the assist title while still scoring upward of 20 points per game. His partnership with Kevin Durant blossoms even further, thereby helping the Oklahoma City Thunder approach another 60-win season on the way to capturing the franchise's first championship since fleeing Seattle.
Westbrook's knee is slow to heal. He suffers yet another setback, pushing his return date into 2014. The Thunder struggle to keep up in the crowded Western Conference while he's away and take some time to get back on track when Westbrook proves hesitant to attack the way he always has.
OKC falls into the middle of the pack, with the likes of Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson attempting to pick up the slack, and is ousted in the first or second round.
Derrick Rose regains his 2010-11 MVP form—and then some. He's able to attack the rim with even greater ease now that he's added five inches to his vertical leap, and his new-and-improved jump shot forces opposing defenses to choose between playing close (and getting beat off the dribble) or sagging off (and giving up open looks).
The Chicago Bulls defense is as dominant as ever and is now complemented by a top 10 offense, with Rose's passing and penetration greasing the skids. Rose bests LeBron James twice—for his second MVP and for the Eastern Conference crown—on the way to delivering the Bulls to their first title since Michael Jordan left town.
Rose isn't quite the same as he was prior to tearing up his knee. His cavalier approach to driving the lane makes him susceptible to yet another serious injury, and his continued inability to knock down jumpers leaves him no other choice but to put his body in harm's way. As a result, he is forced to miss more time and never quite gets his game back on track.
The Bulls still crack the playoffs in the East but aren't a threat to win the title. They lose in the first or second round as Tom Thibodeau, who winds up on the coaching hot seat, runs his healthy players into the ground.
Dwyane Wade stays healthy, with carefully managed minutes and regular rest throughout the regular season to keep him fresh until the playoffs. He smartly picks and chooses his spots to unleash his old "Flash" self, all the while turning in another campaign of 20-5-5 with better than 50 percent shooting from the floor.
Wade kicks it up another notch in the postseason, thereby propelling the Miami Heat to a three-peat by way of their most dominant playoff run yet.
Wade's knees prove problematic once again, to the point where he looks more like the guy who struggled during much of last year's playoffs than the guy who came on strong in Games 4, 5 and 7 of the 2013 finals. That forces Erik Spoelstra to relegate Wade to a tertiary role behind LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
The burden becomes too much for those two to bear without a helping hand from Wade. The Heat are eaten up by stiff competition in the Eastern Conference, after which Pat Riley reconsiders the construction of this squad over the long haul.
Carmelo Anthony's move back to small forward full-time is a boon to both star and squad. With Andrea Bargnani spreading the floor from three and Iman Shumpert holding down the other wing spot, Anthony cobbles together his most efficient campaign to date. He leads the league in scoring, all the while improving his shot selection and, in turn, his shooting percentages.
'Melo's magnificent play keeps the New York Knicks near the top of the East, from whence they're able to challenge for a spot in the conference finals. For his efforts, he is named the NBA's MVP and opts to stay in the Big Apple for the foreseeable future.
The rest of the Knicks roster crumbles around Anthony, leaving the team with no choice but to implore its superstar swingman to jack up shots, good or bad, to his heart's content. 'Melo's shoulder injury from last season turns out to be a hindrance once again, thereby exacerbating New York's inability to score.
The Knicks hang on long enough to extend their playoff streak to four years but tumble out of contention in the East. Anthony, disappointed in the result, packs his bags and heads west to join the Lakers.
Chris Paul's knee poses no threat to his MVP candidacy. He leads the league in assists while dishing lobs to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and dropping dimes to the Los Angeles Clippers' revamped corps of sharpshooters. CP3 also snags his sixth steals title in seven seasons on the way to earning All-Star, All-Defensive and All-NBA honors.
More importantly, Paul's propulsion of the Clippers to the best record in the West puts him at the top of the MVP list at season's end. With Doc Rivers calling the shots from the sideline, Paul leads L.A. out of the West and into its first-ever NBA Finals appearance.
Paul's chronic knee problems flare up once again, forcing him to miss significant time. The Clippers struggle in CP3's absence. Darren Collison does what he can to cover for Paul, and Blake Griffin shoulders a bigger load, but L.A.'s offense is lost without its leader. The Clippers still crack the playoffs, but an uneven performance from Paul puts the team in peril of a second straight first-round ouster.
At long last, Tony Parker gets his due as a top-tier MVP candidate. A summer spent guiding France to its first-ever EuroBasket title boosts Parker's confidence—and the San Antonio Spurs' championship prospects—to a whole new level. He establishes new career highs in points, assists and field-goal percentage as he carries San Antonio to the best record in the West.
Parker stays healthy throughout the playoffs and winds up with his second finals MVP after the Spurs secure a title in the wake of last season's heartbreak.
Parker's age (he turns 32 in May) and injury history come back to bite him in a big way. His exhaustive (and exhausting) efforts at EuroBasket leave him susceptible to further setbacks to his knee and ankle and sap him of much-needed stamina down the stretch of the season.
The Spurs, unable to stay afloat without their point guard at full capacity, sink toward the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture. Once in, San Antonio struggles against more athletic squads (see: Thunder, Clippers, Golden State Warriors) on the way to an early playoff exit.
Dwight Howard looks and plays like the force of nature he was with the Orlando Magic prior to his back injury. He averages 20-15 (or better) and leads the league in blocks for a Houston Rockets squad that challenges for the top spot in the Western Conference. Howard picks up his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award, his first MVP and his first championship. Not a peep is heard from his doubters and detractors.
Howard's back remains a hindrance for the big man. He still manages to average a double-double but has to sit out some games to account for the pain and discomfort there. The Rockets fail to break into the crowd atop the Western Conference standings, where the Thunder, the Spurs, the Clippers, the Warriors and the Memphis Grizzlies reign supreme.
Houston gets knocked out of the playoffs in the first or second round, and the storm of derision continues to wash over Howard.
The third time's a charm for Kevin Durant, who finally overtakes LeBron James as the NBA's MVP after two prior runner-up finishes. Durant keeps the Thunder humming during Russell Westbrook's recovery, to the point where OKC once again claims the best record in the West.
KD becomes just the third player in NBA history to log multiple 50-40-90 campaigns while reclaiming his crown as basketball's premier scorer. He lifts his game to another level come playoff time and returns to OKC with the Larry O'Brien and Bill Russell Trophies in hand.
The burden of carrying the Thunder without Westbrook's help proves too much for Durant to bear. His efficiency and overall effectiveness decline in Westbrook's absence. KD's situation doesn't improve much, even after Westbrook returns, on account of OKC's lack of a reliable third scorer.
By the time the playoffs roll around, Durant is already worn down. The Thunder fail to crack the Western Conference Finals. The entire Sooner State weeps.
Think 2012-13, but better. LeBron James sweeps his way through awards season, capturing his first Defensive Player of the Year honors, his fifth MVP in six seasons and his third straight championship/finals MVP double.
Along the way, he snags his second scoring title, shoots better than 80 percent from the free-throw line for the first time in his career, and establishes new personal bests in rebounds and assists. His place among the greatest players ever seems all but assured.
Dwyane Wade's decline and Chris Bosh's inability to slide into a bigger role leave LeBron on a glorified version of those Cleveland Cavalier squads of yesteryear. James alone can't keep the Miami Heat from falling behind the Bulls, the Pacers and the Nets in the East.
In turn, LBJ drops out of contention for the NBA's top honors while watching the Heat salt away their shot at a third straight title. Upon returning home from an abbreviated playoff push, James reconsiders his future in Miami and, come July, jumps ship.
Your best-case scenario? Reaching me on Twitter, of course.