Who cares that the basketball you see on your TV screen right now doesn't actually count? The more important point is: The NBA is (almost) back!
No more wondering which fringe free agent is being lured left and right by league-minimum contracts. No more pointless pondering of and pontificating about the wouldas, couldas and shouldas of 2012-13.
Soon enough, there will be new history in the making—by faces familiar and new, by teams steady and restocked—for hoop heads everywhere to enjoy.
In a couple weeks, anyway. Opening night is still a short ways off, with plenty more games featuring scrubs and D-Leaguers yet to be played.
That doesn't mean, though, that we should just sit back, relax and wait for the regular season to start. If anything, now is the perfect time to start preparing for what's shaping up to be the most epic NBA season in years.
To get you started, here's a look at how all 30 teams stack up against one another in the midst of training camp.
The Philadelphia 76ers have "earned" the "right" to start at the bottom, just as Drake supposedly did once upon a time.
Now comes the hard part: getting to the "now we here" portion of the proceedings.
That'll take some time, particularly since the Sixers may still be searching for rock bottom, as far as their roster is concerned. Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young are both relatively young and useful players who should attract value on the trade market. New Philly GM Sam Hinkie could continue his tank-a-rific teardown by shipping those two out of the City of Brotherly Love at some point this season.
Perhaps before Nerlens Noel plays his first minutes as a pro.
In the meantime, keep Brett Brown in your thoughts. The Sixers' rookie head coach is going to need all the support he can get during what's shaping up to be a dismal 2013-14.
The Phoenix Suns didn't exactly go for the full-scale implosion this summer, if only because there wasn't much there to destroy in the first place.
The Suns did well to snag Eric Bledsoe, who may or may not be able to share a backcourt with Goran Dragic in any functional capacity. In any case, Phoenix will find out during what figures to be a season devoted to sorting through what little talent the team has on hand and attempting to acquire more.
The cupboard isn't completely bare for head coach Jeff Hornacek, though new GM Ryan McDonough certainly has his work cut out for him as he attempts to replenish the ranks of a franchise racked by years of miserly mismanagement.
Victor Oladipo is as excited as anyone to be a member of the Orlando Magic, partly because he (apparently) loves the city in which he now lives. As he recently told Hoopsworld's Alex Kennedy:
I love Orlando, it’s a great city. It’s hard not to be in a good mood when you wake up and the sun is always up. It’s unreal, I’ve never been in a place like this before. It’s crazy. I’m truly blessed to be here, fortunate enough to be here. My mother was actually here a few days ago and she loves it here too. That’s always a good thing when your mother loves something because then you know it’s really good.
Either Oladipo is pushing for a part in The Book of Mormon or he really enjoys being in a town best known for its theme parks.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Who wouldn't want to swing by Disney World and/or Universal Studios on an off day?
Let's just hope the local tourist attractions will be enough to satiate the most recent No. 2 pick for a full season or two. Otherwise, 'Dipo could have a tough time coping with all the losing the Magic are due for this season.
It's all well and good that Rajon Rondo is saying all the right things—that he wants to stay with the Boston Celtics, that he wants to be "the man" on this team, that he and Brad Stevens are BFFs.
Realistically, though, the decision won't be up to him. Rather, Rondo's fate will be left to the whims of Danny Ainge, who's done plenty since last season to set the C's on the course of a full-scale rebuild.
Paul Pierce, one of the greatest players in franchise history, is gone. So, too, are Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry. They've since been replaced by the likes of Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks and Keith Bogans (via trade); Kelly Olynyk (via the draft); and Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee (in-house).
In truth, Boston's roster more closely resembles a stack of spare parts than it does an actual team. That's how it's going to be for a while, until the C's stumble upon a future star or two, either on draft day or by way of a blockbuster trade or two, not unlike those that brought the team's most recent Big Three together.
Rondo may well be one of the first to go, assuming he recovers soon enough and well enough from his torn ACL to draw serious interest. If not, his All-Star talents and infamous temper will be tested on a team that'll be in "Tank Mode" for the foreseeable future.
When I think of this year's Utah Jazz, the image of a caterpillar in a cocoon immediately pops into my head.
That may seem strange—and I'll admit, it is—but, metaphorically speaking, it makes sense. The Jazz sport a core of promising young players (Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, rookie Trey Burke) who aren't ready for prime time yet but may be with more seasoning.
Utah's front office will be better able to sort through those players and surround them with other quality parts once the team has shed the cap-clogging cocoon shells of Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins, Brandon Rush and Marvin Williams after this season.
But a true return to contention for the Jazz won't come without plenty of time and patience and the spoils that those two things bring. For Utah, that means a draft pick or two that yield top-tier talents, around whom the aforementioned youngsters can form a superb supporting cast.
Those picks, though, won't come without considerable pain, much of which will wash over the citizens of Salt Lake City this season.
Good news, Charlotte Bobcats fan (yes, the singular there is intentional): Your beloved basketball team has a new head coach, Steve Clifford, who should stick around longer than Mike Dunlap did, and a new "star," Al Jefferson, with the skill and scoring ability to lift the offense out of the NBA's doldrums.
Bad news: The defense probably still stinks, and the rest of the roster resembles a hodgepodge of prospects and players who may or may not be promising anymore.
Oh, and Brendan Haywood's out for three months after undergoing foot surgery, which means 'Cats fans will be seeing plenty of Bismack Biyombo this season.
Anyone else counting down the days till the return of the Hornets?
For the first time in years, there's a sense of optimism surrounding the Sacramento Kings.
Not necessarily for this season, though. New GM Pete D'Alessandro still has a lot of work to do to determine which of the incumbent players from the Maloof regime should stay and which ones need to go. His four-year, $60 million commitment to DeMarcus Cousins signaled the team's intention to make Boogie its centerpiece going forward.
But if Cousins can't keep his head screwed on straight, the Kings may have to consider throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater anyway. If not, the rest of the roster is teeming with enough fantasy sports-style redundancy to make Sacramento one of this season's most likely trade facilitators.
Who knows? Maybe the Kings will spring for a star stuck in a losing situation, like Rudy Gay or Rajon Rondo. Or maybe Sacto's action will be limited to smaller deals or secondary roles in bigger, more complicated transactions.
Whatever the case turns out to be, expect that 2013-14 will be a season in flux for the Kings as they try to find their footing under new management.
New Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri isn't ready to dismantle his team's roster just yet, nor should he be. The Raptors, as currently constructed, have the requisite parts to be an exciting young team that can get up and down the floor in a hurry.
There's Kyle Lowry, the wily waterbug of a point guard. There's Jonas Valanciunas, the European center with an old-school game. There's the trio of athletic wings: Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. And, of course, there's Amir Johnson, who...really, really, REALLY likes Drake.
As far as basketball is concerned, the Raptors could be good, perhaps even good enough to snag the seventh or eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. Chances are, though, that this squad will be bound for the late lottery, and that Ujiri might just as well shop some of Toronto's pieces around the league to see what kind of building blocks he can get in return.
I'm not entirely sure what to make of the Milwaukee Bucks, other than that they'll probably shoot a ton of threes and count on Larry Sanders—with his four-year, $44 million extension—to earn a few more votes for Defensive Player of the Year.
In truth, there's some intriguing potential with this team. We'll finally get to see what O.J. Mayo can do as a team's No. 1 offensive option. We'll see if Brandon Knight has what it takes to be a starting point guard, or if he'll forever be a "Three and D" 'tweener. We'll see the extent to which Caron Butler, Ersan Ilyasova, Carlos Delfino, Gary Neal and Luke Ridnour can spread the floor, and whether defense-first bigs like Sanders, John Henson and Ekpe Udoh can take advantage of that space in the middle.
And if we're lucky, we'll see someone finally settle how to spell Giannis Antetokounmpo.
After all that, the ceiling for this team still reaches no higher than the eighth seed in the East, with a likely landing spot somewhere in the "No Man's Land" that so many teams are trying to avoid nowadays.
But that's a land that the Bucks, likely at owner Herb Kohl's directive, seem to relish.
One two-letter word will come to define the Los Angeles Lakers' 2013-14 season: if.
As in, the Lakers can crack the crowded playoff picture in the West if Kobe Bryant comes back from his Achilles injury in a healthy and high-capacity manner. They'll be competitive in the meantime if Pau Gasol and Steve Nash play more like their old selves, rather than like they're just old.
The optimistic Lakers fan within thinks that this year's team might even be better than last year's...if the new cast of misfits (i.e. Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Shawne Williams, Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, rookie Ryan Kelly) can collectively contribute some much-needed length, youth, athleticism, depth and three-point shooting.
And if the new guys fall flat? If Pau and Nash are toast? If Kobe takes forever to heal his heel and isn't close to the player he used to be when he gets back?
Then prepare for plenty of flashbacks of the 2004-05 season—the last time L.A. missed the playoffs.
Well, maybe. The Detroit Pistons have ample reason for optimism this season. They landed two solid free agents, Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, to join forces with their homegrown duo of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
This team could struggle to create space on offense with the ultra-big Smith-Monroe-Drummond frontcourt, especially if it's counting on Jennings to hoist up shots like he did in Milwaukee. At the very least, head coach Maurice Cheeks will have sharpshooting options at his disposal, between Kyle Singler, Chauncey Billups and rookies Gigi Datome and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Don't be surprised, though, if Monroe winds up on the trading block as Joe Dumars continues his search for a bona fide centerpiece. Otherwise, it could be Dumars who winds up on the chopping block if (or when) the Pistons extend their playoff drought to five straight seasons.
I'd be more bullish on the New Orleans Pelicans' prospects for their "inaugural" season, after a summer of loading up on young talent, if not for a few questions/concerns:
1. The health of Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans remains a major issue. Both are battling ankle problems at the moment and could miss most of training camp together as a result. Evans has missed 55 games due to injury since coming into the league in 2009, while Gordon has sat out 143 (!!!!) over that same span.
(In an unrelated note, is Eric Gordon trying to look like a "rounder" Will Smith, or did that just happen by accident?)
2. Greg Stiemsma is slated to be the starting center. Get used to it, folks.
3. Can the frontcourt pairing of Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson stop anyone defensively?
4. More importantly, is Davis ready, in both mind and body, to be the superstar he was expected to be coming out of Kentucky?
The Pellies should be significantly better than last year's 27-win Hornets team, but asking this group to compete for a playoff spot in the loaded West may be a bit much.
Mike Brown is in for a rude awakening this season.
His .653 career winning percentage is bound to take a hit in his less-than-triumphant return to the Cleveland Cavaliers unless Andrew Bynum, his former pupil with the Lakers, not only plays, but does so at the All-Star level he showed prior to missing the entire 2012-13 season with the Sixers.
A healthy season from Anderson Varejao would certainly help. So, too, would Kyrie Irving finally avoiding the injury bug for more than a few weeks at a time. Those two, along with rookie Anthony Bennett, are back to lacing 'em up for the Cavs in the preseason.
There are other intriguing pieces to watch here, as well. Can Dion Waiters become the "Poor Man's Dwyane Wade" as he was once touted? Will Tristan Thompson be something more than just a big dude with a funky push shot? What impact will Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark have on the bench, and what exactly does Russian rookie Sergey Karasev bring to the table?
Cavs GM Chris Grant has done a decent job of restocking the team with talent. Whether health and youth allow this group to play the sort of disciplined, defense-oriented basketball that the Cavs did during Brown's last go-round will determine whether this organization makes its first post-LeBron playoff appearance in 2014.
It's tough to tell how much the loss of C.J. McCollum will hurt the Portland Trail Blazers this season, if only because McCollum had yet to play a single minute of NBA basketball.
Pretty much everything in Portland looks promising, though. The core of the team is relatively healthy, save for Nicolas Batum's bouts with concussions. Reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard and All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge should be an improved pairing after a solid first season together. The bench figures to be much better as well, with the additions of Dorell Wright, Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson, Mo Williams, Earl Watson and rookie Allen Crabbe.
Then again, it couldn't get much worse after the putrid performance of last year's reserves.
But Aldridge's flirtation with leaving Rip City could tear this team's dreams apart—for this season, at least. The Blazers are far from a sure-fire playoff team, though a return to the postseason isn't at all far-fetched for this group.
That being said, there will be nothing more than so-so hoops in PDX unless/until this team starts playing some honest-to-goodness defense.
It wasn't all that long ago that the Washington Wizards seemed all but assured of making their first postseason appearance since Gilbert Arenas tried to play "Cops and Robbers" in the locker room.
Then Emeka Okafor went down with a herniated disk in his neck, leaving Jan Vesely to fill his spot in the starting lineup and forcing Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker to pick up the slack off the bench. That's not what anyone would call a recipe for success, even less so when considering Nene's career-long vulnerability.
This isn't to say, though, that all hope is lost for the Wizards. A healthy John Wall made all the difference for Washington last season, and he could have an even greater impact on this team's fortunes alongside the perimeter-shooting duo of Bradley Beal and Martell Webster. With or without Wall, the Wizards were a top-10 defensive outfit all season long in 2012-13.
Washington could be a prime candidate to make a "win now" move on the trade market, given the heat on GM Ernie Grunfeld's seat and the desire of owner Ted Leonsis to bring winning basketball back to D.C. Even without one, the Wizards could still find themselves in the thick of the race for the last three playoff berths in the Eastern Conference.
Still, they'd better hope that Okafor can contribute in a meaningful way at some point down the line. Otherwise, this team's frontcourt could prove to be its undoing.
Just when you thought the Minnesota Timberwolves had finally escaped the plague of injury, down goes Chase Budinger.
To be sure, Minny's hopes for the season weren't riding on Air Bud's sustained fitness. First and foremost in the T-Wolves' hearts and minds is the renewal of the beautiful partnership between Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio.
Love missed most of last season after sustaining a hand injury. What little Love did play came without Rubio, who spent the initial portion of the campaign recovering from a torn ACL.
Now, Minny's prized pairing is back, with the newly re-signed Nikola Pekovic in tow. Love and Pek leave the T-Wolves dangerously devoid of rim protection, but if those two can hold their own on the defensive end to some extent, their effectiveness on offense will be well worth the wait, as will the team's decade-long playoff drought.
Even more so if Kevin Martin can spread the floor with his shooting...and if Derrick Williams ever gets the hang of playing on the wing full-time in the NBA.
The Atlanta Hawks just won't go away, won't they?
Last summer, they gave up Joe Johnson, a perennial All-Star, for a bunch of cap filler and slipped from fifth to sixth in the East. This summer, they let Josh Smith leave for nothing, and they still look like a decent playoff team.
Of course, it helps that Al Horford hasn't gone anywhere, and that he's since been joined by Paul Millsap in one of the sneakiest free-agent coups of the offseason.
The Hawks aren't particularly deep, and the institution of a new head coach, Mike Budenholzer, could set them back a bit. But they have the parts to score inside and out, with the penetration of a healthy Lou Williams and Jeff Teague and the outside shooting of Kyle Korver and John Jenkins.
The question is, will that be enough to keep GM Danny Ferry from going one giant step closer to a complete teardown? If he decides to shop Horford, as Grantland's Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose "predict" will be the case, Atlanta could be headed for the lottery in a hurry.
I understand why everyone's so down on the Denver Nuggets.
They lost their coach (George Karl), their GM (Masai Ujiri) and their best player (Andre Iguodala) in one summer. In addition, their best scorer (Danilo Gallinari) is working his way back from an ACL injury, while their most mercurial player (JaVale McGee) has been all but handed a starting gig in the wake of Kosta Koufos' move to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Throw in the ridiculous depth of competition in the Western Conference, and it's easy to envision the Nuggets becoming just the eighth team in the last two decades to win 55 or more games one year and miss the postseason the next.
But color me more optimistic than most on Denver's prospects for the season. Ty Lawson is an All-Star in the making, Wilson Chandler has been waiting to be unleashed, Kenneth Faried should be beastly now that he's healthy again, and the bench—with Nate Robinson, Darrell Arthur and Randy Foye joining Andre Miller and second-year guard Evan Fournier—should still be plenty deep.
Much of the Nuggets' success this season will hinge on McGee's maturation and head coach Brian Shaw's ability to implement a style of play that suits this group. But the talent is there, as is the home-court advantage, for Denver to be a factor in the Western Conference, albeit on the fringes.
You may not be impressed with the summer the Dallas Mavericks had. Heck, you might downright disagree with the team's decision to hand multiyear deals to a pair of defensive sieves in Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis. You could be penciling the Mavs into the draft lottery already.
But consider this: Dallas won 41 games last year, even though Dirk Nowitzki missed 28 games; the rest of the frontcourt rotation consisted of Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, Brandan Wright and 28-year-old rookie Bernard James; and the team's point guard situation was so bad that Mike James (!!!) started 23 times after getting saved from the scrap heap.
If Rick Carlisle can coax a .500 record out of a squad under those circumstances, who's to say he won't do better with a healthy Dirk, a settled backcourt and the long-armed Samuel Dalembert at center?
For the most part, I've come around to the idea of Andrea Bargnani fitting what the New York Knicks are trying to do.
Yes, I still think the Knicks gave up too much to get him, and yes, I'm worried about a guy who couldn't take the heat in Toronto, a devout hockey town, dealing with the inferno of a basketball-crazy city like New York.
But if he's healthy and hitting threes, Bargnani could be a solid "stretch 4" to play alongside Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler.
Even so, it's tough to see the Knicks winding up any better than fifth in the top-heavy Eastern Conference. Amar'e Stoudemire and J.R. Smith have both been under the knife recently, leaving Metta World Peace, Pablo Prigioni and rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. to pick up the slack off the bench.
This group shouldn't have too much trouble scoring points, especially with last season's scoring champion on its side. How high the Knicks climb in the standings—and how far they advance in the playoffs—will rest on Mike Woodson's ability to organize a solid defense with the players at his disposal.
A crucial job, indeed, for the Knicks head coach. Anthony's future in the Big Apple could be riding on it.
If there's anything we've learned about "super teams" in recent years, it's that they usually require time and patience to congeal into champions, assuming they ever get to that point in the first place.
These Houston Rockets don't figure to be an exception to the general rule. The foundation of a title contender is there, between the superstar scoring of James Harden, the dynamic interior player of Dwight Howard, the emergence of Chandler Parsons as a jack-of-all-trades-type "uber role player" and some intriguing depth on Houston's bench.
But this team still has some issues to sort out before it can start contemplating competing with the likes of the Thunder, the Spurs, the Warriors, the Clippers and the Grizzlies for Western Conference supremacy. The point guard and power forward spots remain unsettled, with some decent options at each but no obvious choice to start at either one.
To his credit, GM Daryl Morey isn't content to wait around. As he recently told ESPN's Brian Windhorst:
We're focused about winning now. We know firsthand in Houston -- we had Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady when they were very young, and it looked like that run was going to be a long time. Your chances to be very good in this league are special, and when you have them, you have to focus 100 percent on getting as far as possible.
Morey's quote came in reference to Omer Asik, the defense-and-rebounding dynamo who's been relegated to bench duty by Howard's arrival. If the Rockets can parlay Asik into a valuable piece or two at their weaker positions, they may well find themselves in serious contention by the time spring rolls around.
If not, the waiting game may be the only realistic option for Houston's championship hopes.
I've said it a million times already, and I'll say it again: The Los Angeles Clippers aren't going to compete for a championship unless/until they figure out how to mitigate their weaknesses up front.
That may seem like a peculiar statement at first blush. After all, the Clippers' starting frontcourt consists of an improving perennial All-Star, Blake Griffin, and arguably the most athletic center in the league, DeAndre Jordan.
Beyond those two, though, the Clips are paper-thin—unless someone thinks the skinny Ryan Hollins, the three-point-happy Byron Mullens or the defensively allergic Antawn Jamison qualify as competent solutions to this most vexing of problems.
Having Louis Amundson in camp represents a step in the right direction for L.A. If they're smart, the Clippers will take a good, long look at Jason Collins, a hard-nosed defensive stalwart who just so happens to be an L.A. native and a personal favorite of Doc Rivers.
Either way, unless Griffin and Jordan somehow improve by leaps and bounds on the defensive end and at the free-throw line, the Clippers will have a difficult time playing them together for extended stretches, especially once crunch time rolls around.
The Clips are all but set elsewhere, with Chris Paul running point and Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Willie Green and rookie Reggie Bullock filling the wings. For their sake as well as that of the team's long-suffering fans, L.A. must find a workable solution to its lack of size and strength in the middle or risk getting run over by its beefier competition out West.
Some of the concerns about the health of Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut have subsided, though the Golden State Warriors' prospects for the coming season still lean heavily on the fragile ankles of those two stars.
The Warriors, though, are far from a two-man team this time around. Andre Iguodala's arrival, as an athletic attacker and all-world stopper on the wing, portends another leap up the defensive standings for Mark Jackson's club. With more consistent outside shooting from Klay Thompson and a smooth transition to the bench for Harrison Barnes, Golden State could once again be the team that nobody wants to face in the Western Conference come playoff time.
And that's before factoring in the interior scoring of David Lee, the development of Draymond Green into a quality "glue guy," the additions of Toney Douglas, Marreese Speights, Jermaine O'Neal and rookie Nemanja Nedovic to a strong bench and the eventual return of defensive enforcer Festus Ezeli.
With that said, the Dubs' hopes ultimately boil down to Curry and Bogut. If the former can build off of his brilliant playoff run, the latter can protect the paint and clean up the glass and both can stay healthy, the Warriors should not only win a division title for the first time since 1976, but also compete for a championship, albeit as a dark horse.
There's no time like the present for the Brooklyn Nets.
Their biggest additions of the offseason—Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko—are all well into their 30s, with the former two on the brink of retirement. Joe Johnson is also on the wrong side of 30, while Deron Williams and Brook Lopez simply succumb to injuries as frequently as do their over-the-hill counterparts. The payroll of which they're all a part is due to be the most expensive in NBA history when accounting for the luxury tax.
So it's championship or bust for Brooklyn in 2013-14, right?
Yes and no.
On the one hand, this team needs to win now, before some of its key contributors either call it quits or fall into complete disrepair—and before the flagrant spending of owner Mikhail Prokhorov and GM Billy King catches up to them.
On the other hand, now is probably not the best time for the Nets to have set their sights so high. Jason Kidd hadn't coached a day in his life before Brooklyn brought him on board. Kidd understands how to be a leader, but he still has much to learn about the finer points of coaching (i.e. massaging egos, setting up meetings, running practices, jumbling rotations, etc.) and not much time in which to master it.
Oh, and there's the not-so-small problem of having to battle the Heat, the Bulls and the Pacers for Eastern Conference supremacy.
That's a lot to ask of any contender, especially one that's come together as quickly as the Nets have.
As far as personnel are concerned, the Memphis Grizzlies didn't make any major moves this summer.
Their biggest acquisitions? Kosta Koufos, in a trade with the Nuggets, and Mike Miller, after the sharpshooter was cut by Miami. Koufos should help to solidify the Grizzlies' frontcourt rotation, along with Ed Davis, while Miller brings a much-needed dose of perimeter shooting to a team whose offense was known to bog down without anyone to reliably spread the floor.
This continuity may or may not be a good thing, depending on how you look at it. After all, the Grizzlies are coming off the most successful season in franchise history, during which they won 56 games and advanced to the Western Conference finals.
But Memphis was swept out of the penultimate playoff round by San Antonio, which took advantage of the Grizzlies' all-too-heavy reliance on Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to carry the day. Miller's shooting should help from time to time, but asking a 33-year-old with a checkered injury history to open up an entire offense is anything but realistic.
As it happens, Ed Davis could be the key to this team's future. Grizzlies management would probably prefer to see him step up his game under new head coach Dave Joerger, to the extent that Randolph becomes expendable. Perhaps, then, Memphis would be able to flip Randolph for more help elsewhere.
Even if the Grizzlies stand pat, the team they have on hand should be good enough to compete for a top-four seed in the West.
The Oklahoma City Thunder would be higher in these rankings if not for Russell Westbrook's four- to six-week setback in his rehab from offseason knee surgery.
But don't let Westbrook's situation or OKC's lack of a proven replacement for Kevin Martin fool you. The Thunder will be an elite team in the West this season, assuming Russ is good to go in due time.
Say what you will about OKC's unimaginative offense—and I'll probably say plenty—but this is still a squad that can score and defend at top-five rates. Kevin Durant will once again be a legitimate candidate to not only register a 50-40-90 season, but also to push LeBron James for MVP honors. Serge Ibaka looks to be a steady contributor at power forward once again, and the Thunder's bench should have enough—between Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, Ryan Gomes and Perry Jones III—to make up for the absence of a singular reserve scorer.
This team probably would've won the West this past spring if not for Westbrook's unfortunate knock of knees with Patrick Beverley. They figure to be the favorites once again, but only if/when Russ regains his pre-injury form.
The Indiana Pacers can thank Derrick Rose's comeback for helping them to fly under the radar heading into the season. Between Danny Granger's return and the additions of Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland and rookie Solomon Hill to the bench, the Pacers should be much improved in 2013-14.
This, after coming agonizingly close to upsetting the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals and advancing to just the second NBA Finals in franchise history.
Don't expect another slow start from Indy, either. Unlike last year, Roy Hibbert is healthy and Paul George should have a better grasp of his expanded role from the get-go. Those two should be in the running for All-Star berths in 2014.
The Pacers are far from perfect, but the pieces are in place for this squad to top the 50-win plateau and once again challenge for some prime real estate in the East's upper echelon.
There was no need for the San Antonio Spurs to make any major changes to their roster this summer. They should've won the 2013 NBA title with a group that, thanks to the emergence of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, already has room for internal growth.
Not that there isn't cause for concern when it comes to those who butter San Antonio's bread. Tim Duncan is 37. Tony Parker is coming off ankle and knee injuries, along with a championship run at EuroBasket 2013 that proved draining for the French phenom. Swapping out Gary Neal for Marco Belinelli should give the Spurs some crucial insurance against another season of decline for Manu Ginobili, though asking anyone, much less a newcomer, to fill in for the wily Argentine is a dangerous proposition.
Nevertheless, the Spurs should do what they always do: win 50 or more games, play a quality brand of basketball and get their stars plenty of rest over the course of the season. If the injury bug doesn't bite San Antonio's veterans too hard, this team could find itself on the road to redemption in April, May and June.
It may be a bit presumptuous to think that the Chicago Bulls will be the second-best team in the NBA now that Derrick Rose is back. After all, how could this team simply pick up where it left off in the wake of its superstar point guard's 18-month rehab hiatus?
Well, because Rose is precisely what the Bulls need to return to the league's elite. He's just the sort of dynamic, creative and fearless force that Chicago's offense lacked last season.
Meanwhile, the team around him has (arguably) improved since last he suited up. Rose's return relegates Kirk Hinrich to backup duty on a bench that includes Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy and rookie Tony Snell. The team's desire to part ways with Carlos Boozer, combined with a glut of attractive assets (i.e. a first-round pick from Charlotte, prospects stashed overseas), could net the Bulls another championship piece like, say, LaMarcus Aldridge or Al Horford.
There's every reason to believe that Chicago is a real threat to not only cut short Miami's reign in the East, but also win its first title A.J. (After Jordan). That being said, the Bulls will only go as far as Rose and his reconstructed knee take them.
They've been to three straight NBA Finals and have emerged victorious from the last two. They return pretty much the entirety of a team that won 66 regular-season games and battled its way through one of the more epic postseason runs in recent memory. They still have LeBron James, a four-time MVP, on their side, along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. They could be even better this year, if Greg Oden and Michael Beasley pan out as low-risk, high-reward signings.
The Miami Heat may not run roughshod over the rest of the NBA to the extent that their recent success suggests they should, but I still can't find any real reason right now to think that we won't see this squad round out just the fourth three-peat in NBA history next spring.
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