Another NBA calendar year is (almost) in the books, and oh what a year it has been.
There were high-profile injuries, followed by much-anticipated recoveries, in advance of even more injuries. Expensive pitfalls were created (Brooklyn Nets) while new superteams were forged (Houston Rockets).
Back-to-back championships were won, by the Miami Heat and them alone. Dynasties fell, as we watched the San Antonio Spurs squander a championship opportunity for the first time of the Tim Duncan-led era.
Drama in general ensued, and so much more. The unexpected and bold became fact, just like they always do.
Now, as 2013 winds down, it's time we prepare ourselves for more. Time we ready ourselves for the startling to become truth.
Time we brace ourselves to do this all over again.
*All stats used courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.
This might be too sexy, even for those with enough audacity to wear their underwear inside out.
The Eastern Conference is terrible. Horrific. Disgusting. Let's get that out of the way now. Injuries (Chicago Bulls) compounded by grotesque underachievers (New York Knicks and Nets) have left this conference the competitive equivalent of family reunion potato-sack races.
But something tells me it might get better and that there will be five teams with records above .500. That something is naturally ignoring Al Horford's devastating pectoral injury, Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri's open devotion to inevitably tanking and the state of basketball in New York.
It's also sidestepping the current standings. As of Dec. 30, only three teams—Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and Hawks—are above .500. Sans Horford, Atlanta has the potential to fall under .500. So yes, this is bold. Maybe too bold.
Which is sad.
It could happen this season, this summer or early next season—it doesn't matter. Rajon Rondo isn't going to begin 2015 with the Boston Celtics.
Before bellowing profane slurs that suggest you don't kiss your mother, grandmother or pet Cockalier with that mouth, hear me out.
Boston general manager Danny Ainge is too smart to retain Rondo. If the Celtics keep him through 2014-15, they'll be faced with laying a fat contract offer on the table, which I doubt they'll be inclined to do.
You've seen what's happened to Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. They returned from one knee injury only to suffer another. I'm not a doctor—though I did stay at a Holiday Inn once—nor am I implying their careers are over, but isn't it possible we're witnessing the start of an alarming trend?
Rondo isn't as explosive as Westbrook or Rose, but he's equally reliant on lateral quickness. What if he re-aggravates his injury after looking like his old self (Westbrook)? What if he's unable to adjust to life after injury and never fully recovers (Rose)?
Despite toeing the line of playoff contention, Boston is rebuilding. Expect Ainge to capitalize off Rondo's worth before he has time to play the Celtics deeper into no-man's land (the middle), leave in 2015 or devalue himself.
"Never doubt the Spurs."
I've penned that line plenty of times atop my soapbox. But this is me, doubting the Spurs.
Don't get me wrong—they're good. In some ways they're great. They're also struggling against the Western Conference's top teams, combining to go 0-6 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets heading into 2014.
While they're 5-0 against the Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns—the rest of the Western Conference's projected playoff teams—a first-round series against Golden State isn't exactly a great spot to be in. The way things are shaping up, they could also be facing one of the other top-five teams as a No. 4 or 5 seed. Correct, they could forfeit the division to a younger Rockets team. It's possible.
If the playoffs started today, San Antonio would face Phoenix in the first round. That's an easily winnable series. Same goes for a potential dance with Dallas. Essentially, I'm betting the Spurs face one of the previously mentioned five, or a surprise late-season juggernaut like the Denver Nuggets or Minnesota Timberwolves, all six of whom could give them serious problems.
Early exit problems.
Sorry, Derrick Rose.
Rose is afraid Chicago will enter rebuilding mode on the heels of his latest injury, according to the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence, but the Bulls need to look past his fear. They're not going anywhere this season without him and, per ShamSports.com, won't have any cap space to retool their roster around him this summer.
That is unless they tank the next side of the New Year.
Trading Luol Deng for picks and cheaper young talent would be a good place to start. Finding a home for Taj Gibson in favor of an expiring deal would be a great place to continue. And trading Carlos Boozer, or amnestying him this offseason, would be a great place to finish.
Dismantling their current core for flexibility maximizes the value of their first-round draft pick in this year's loaded class while giving them the financial means to be aggressors in free agency, all of which are necessities.
What they need is to tank, something CSN Chicago's Aggrey Sam writes they might consider, as they warm up to the idea of trading Deng.
Chin up, Derrick. It will all be over soon.
All four of those stars, among many others, are able to hit free agency this summer. All four of them, among many others, will (probably) go nowhere.
Aging dignitaries like Paul Pierce (most definitely) or underrated luminaries like Deng (probably) could seek shelter elsewhere. And Rudy Gay could surprise us all, leaving nearly $20 million on the table for a shot at a longer contract. But stars, legitimate stars, in their primes aren't fated for a jersey change.
Will the Heat's Big Three disband when they're either one title away from winning a fourth straight or still one short of forging a dynasty? Unlikely.
Wade, a career-long Heat member, isn't leaving no matter what. Bosh could long for the days of yore, when he was the No. 1 guy in Toronto. Quickly realizing his alpha-dog status culminated in two playoff berths and no championships through seven years, he'll come to his senses.
LeBron is a legitimate flight risk if he decides to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers (eh) or drum up Kobe Bryant's ring count with the Los Angeles Lakers (hahahaha). But he's more likely to opt in for another year of composed dominance in Miami, where the locker room is relatively carefree and perennial screwups like Michael Beasley become productive components. Hitting the open market in 2015 feels like a greater possibility.
Anthony is the biggest flight risk of them all because, let's face it, the Knicks are awful. If Anthony misses the playoffs for the first time in his career, or endures his ninth first-round exodus in 11 years, he could decide to leave.
Upon realizing one of his only glamorous options include fleeing New York for sunny Los Angeles, where an aging Kobe and little-to-no cap space awaits, he'll decide to stay.
If only because he's trapped and can't.
Kobe stayed. Tim Duncan stayed. What if Dirk Nowitzki doesn't?
Picturing Nowitzki with any other team than the Dallas Mavericks feels sacrilegious, but it's not completely crazy. It's a little crazy, that's for sure. But that's why we're here—to be bold.
Nowitzki previously indicated to ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon he would take a "significant pay cut" next season, in hopes Dallas could use the increased flexibility to land championship building blocks. Even after signing Monta Ellis (who's playing spectacular basketball) and Jose Calderon this past summer, the Mavs, per ShamSports.com, are projected to have ample cap room—more than enough to sign a stud or two and keep Nowitzki.
According to the Star-Telegram's Dwain Price, however, Nowitzki has also made it clear he won't be signing an early extension like Kobe, and will instead hit free agency.
"I don't really want to look forward too much,'' he explained. "I'm not going to extend, obviously, I'm going to play the season out, then we can talk about the summer."
This doesn't mean Nowitzki will leave, but if the Mavs miss the playoffs again, he could. And missing the postseason is a genuine possibility.
Entering Dec. 30, the Mavs have a two-game hold on the Western Conference's final playoff spot. Fringe-postseason teams like the Nuggets and Timberwolves are bringing up the rear, more than capable of knocking Dallas out of playoff contention.
Missing the playoffs combined with an inability to lure free-agent superstars to Dallas will force Nowitzki's hand. He will leave, opting to chase championships elsewhere.
This was supposed to be the year the spendthrift Lakers landed 'Melo. Or LeBron. Or both.
Kobe's extension has nixed that last dream, leaving room for only one. But Kobe's latest injury proves he's not an alien, making it less likely even one of LeBron or Anthony wants to team up with the Mamba.
Aware that this summer's market is overrated once you move past those two, the Lakers will prepare for a third straight mediocre season, maintaining maximum cap flexibility for summer 2015, when any combination of Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Rondo and LeBron, among others, could become available.
Also, Kevin Love. Oh, I dropped his name already? That's only because I really mean it. He makes too much sense as Los Angeles' next star.
Might as well change this prediction to "Lakers Go All In for Kevin Love by Filling Out Their Roster with Odds and Ends on One-Year Deals; Long Live Swaggy P."
Predicting anything about the awful Atlantic Division—other than there will be losing and tanking and crying and jobs lost and celery-based consolation trophies handed out—is bold.
Four months ago, this particular prediction wouldn't have seemed all that bold. Pundits and proponents of bald-headed, poorly shaven rookie head coaches and aging cores were enamored by the Nets, but New York winning the division wasn't out of the question.
Though the Knicks lost Jason Kidd to Brooklyn's dysfunctional sidelines and inexplicably relinquished a first-round pick for Andrea Bargnani, a player Toronto was desperate to move, they still had talent. We thought.
Optimists oblivious to their current 9-21 record would still say they have talent when healthy, and they're not entirely wrong. But that's not why the Knicks, who are tied for the third-worst record in the NBA, will win this forsaken division.
Three teams are actively trying not to win it—Philadelphia 76ers, Raptors and Celtics. One is failing (Raptors) miserably. Ujiri will take care of that, though. While Rondo's return will make the Celtics better, I'm already betting Ainge will take care of that, too. And at this point, there's no hope for the Sixers, which is just how they wanted it.
After them, there's Brooklyn, home to an expensive disaster. Brook Lopez is likely done for the season, and while Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett talk a big game, they're demonstrating levels of interest that rival Andrew Bynum's (seriously). Then there's Deron Williams, who's fragile and great, but mostly fragile.
Before the season is out, GM Billy King will blow it up. ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported, and Bleacher Report's Howard Beck confirmed, the Rockets contacted Brooklyn about dealing Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik for Williams, noting nothing came out of talks.
That exact trade may not go down (though it should), but something drastic will. Even if it doesn't, stick a fork in the Nets. They're done.
By default, and out of stubborn refusals to blow up their own roster, the Knicks, who are currently five games behind the division-leading Raptors, will take the Atlantic.
Andrew Wiggins is no longer a lock to go No. 1 this summer, so much so, I hesitated to designate this prediction bold enough.
It's not that Wiggins seems destined for failure. He's still young and athletic, with the potential to become a two-way point forward provided his passing and engagement improve. But his passive, under-the-radar performance this season has been cause for pause.
As Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman wrote:
Andrew Wiggins' draft stock has seen better days. Try six weeks ago.
His seemingly bulletproof stock has taken a hit since the start of the season. There are a lot more open seats on Wiggins' bandwagon than in October.
For the most part, you can blame that on his stiff competition. While Wiggins still offers No. 1 overall upside, he's not the only one in this field with a franchise-player ceiling.
Think of this as less of an insult to Wiggins and more a compliment to this summer's incredibly deep draft pool. Players like Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Joel Embiid, among others, continue to shine, each making his own case to be selected first overall.
Others are playing so well, "Riggin' for Wiggins" may cease be a thing. At any time, we could be looking at tankers who are "Playing sorry for Jabari." Or "Digging themselves a bottomless hole for Joel." Or "Losing in front of us for Julius."
I'll stop now.
Other bases for my belief include Harrison Barnes' potential, David Lee's gaudy, albeit frequently empty, stat lines and Mark Jackson's uncanny ability to rally his troops before rock bottom enters sight.
That's right: Jackson. Prior to Christmas, others were calling for his head. I still believe in the spiritually charged, hyperbole-prone head coach.
I still believe in the team that sent an early season message to everyone, the same one that is currently working on a five-game winning streak and ranked seventh in the West heading into Dec. 30 and will be 2-7 against top-five conference teams entering 2014.
Think about this: Golden State's defense ranks fourth in efficiency. Meanwhile, its offense ranks 14th. Effectively, it's the Dubs' three-point chucking offense that's the biggest concern.
And when you're the Warriors, and your greatest area of need comes on offense (mostly off the bench), you're in good shape. Grand shape.
What now feels like a foregone conclusion will never come to fruition in 2014.
We watched the Heat and Indiana Pacers navigate seven grueling, highly entertaining games in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. More than a quarter-way through the 2013-14 season, a rematch feels inevitable.
The Eastern Conference has the competitive appeal of a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots tournament right now. Only one other team aside from Indy and Miami is above .500 (Atlanta), while the other 12 teams have proved inconsistent, if not incapable.
But I'm going out on a limb here: One of Miami or Indy won't make the Eastern Conference Finals.
I'm not going to say which, allowing both fanbases the pleasure of tearing me a new one. I'm just going to say that a third team, against all odds, will take down one of them in the first or second rounds. It's going to happen.
Could be something as serious as a season-ending injury to the rested-and-relaxed Wade, or regression to the Pacers' previously inept, now respectable, offense that does either franchise in.
Whatever it is, it's going to happen.
Join me in predicting this before it does, in the Realm of the Gallant, where we eat nothing save for bold-flavored Doritos and make daring exits like these look routine.