Top 8 NBA Storylines to Watch in 2014

Bryan ToporekFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2014

Top 8 NBA Storylines to Watch in 2014

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    Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James will be two of the NBA's most captivating figures in 2014.
    Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James will be two of the NBA's most captivating figures in 2014.USA TODAY Sports

    With the calendar now flipped to 2014, we could be entering one of the most transformative years in NBA history.

    In February, David Stern, who's been at the helm of the league for the past 30 years, will be stepping down as commissioner. Replacing Stern, who's widely considered to be the best commissioner in all of professional sports, will be no easy task for Adam Silver, his current deputy.

    We also may bear witness to the first three-peat since the early-2000s Los Angeles Lakers, and, conversely, an unparalleled race to the bottom among the league's "tanking" teams. The 2014 NBA draft class, presumably starring Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker, is shaping up to be the most loaded infusion of young talent for the NBA since 2003.

    After looking back on the best and worst of 2013, it's time to look ahead. These eight storylines, ranked in reverse order in terms of lasting impact on the league and surprise potential, will be the ones to watch for in 2014.

     

    Note: All statistics are current through games played on Jan. 1, 2014; all records are current through games played on Jan. 2. 

8. The Eastern Conference's Historical Mediocrity

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    Words can hardly describe how miserable the Eastern Conference has been during the first two months of the 2013-14 season.

    Through New Year's Day, only four East teams—the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors—owned a winning record. Had the postseason begun that day, three of the East's playoff teams would be five games under .500.

    On the one hand, the conference's overwhelming malaise should add intrigue to the postseason race. The 7-24 Milwaukee Bucks somehow sat only six games out of a playoff spot as of Jan. 1.

    However, it'll be difficult to digest multiple sub-.500 East teams qualifying for the playoffs if a 45-win Western Conference squad misses out.

    On Dec. 4, the Portland Trail Blazers jokingly tweeted, "Is it too late to join the Eastern Conference? Asking for a friend." Come April, at least one or two West squads likely won't be joking about the prospect of a last-second conference swap.

7. Who Gets Fired First in New York?

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    Heading into 2014, it's a question of when, not if, the Brooklyn Nets' and New York Knicks' head coaches get fired.

    Both teams entered the 2013-14 season with championship aspirations, but neither team may even make the playoffs. Considering the weakened state of the Eastern Conference, missing the postseason would be an abject failure for either franchise.

    Heading into New Year's Day, the Nets and the Knicks each somehow sat within four games of the No. 8 seed. There's still plenty of time for both teams to turn their fates around, which could be bad news for their respective head coaches.

    A league source told ESPN New York's Ian Begley in December that Knicks coach Mike Woodson is "being evaluated on a game-by-game basis by upper management." After getting blown out by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Christmas Day and then dropping back-to-back games to the Toronto Raptors by double digits, Woodson could be axed any day now.

    Nets coach Jason Kidd shouldn't feel much more secure about his job, as team owner Mikhail Prokhorov isn't paying $80 million in luxury taxes to be 10 games under .500. According to a Dec. 27 report from Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, "patience is running low on the belief [Kidd] can deliver the structure and organization desperately needed."

    If both coaches survive the 2013-14 season, it will qualify as more than a minor miracle. Who gets fired first? That's anyone's guess.

6. The Return of Injured Superstars

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    The year 2013 wasn't kind in terms of injuries to NBA superstars.

    Point guards Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo all missed substantial time after tearing their ACLs or meniscuses (or in Rose's case, both). Meanwhile, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant ruptured his Achilles tendon in April and then went down with a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee in mid-December.

    Big men couldn't dodge the injury bug, either. Marc Gasol sprained his MCL back in November and has yet to return, while Al Horford had season-ending surgery after tearing his right pectoral muscle against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Dec. 26.

    Throughout 2014, all of these aforementioned stars should return to action. Some, like Gasol and Rondo, may only be weeks away, while others, like Rose and Horford, almost certainly won't be back until the start of the 2014-15 season.

    Having this much star power sidelined by injuries puts a damper on the night-by-night excitement of the regular season. Here's to a speedy recovery for all.

5. The Western Conference Playoff Race

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    While the Eastern Conference trudges along in mediocrity, the Western Conference playoff race is already heating up.

    According to ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton's "true talent" projections (subscription required), the eighth seed in the West, on average, will win 45 games in 2013-14. Given that the final two West teams in the last season's playoffs each finished with 45-37 records, that shouldn't come as a huge surprise.

    Barring any further catastrophic injuries, the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers appear bound for the postseason. That leaves four remaining spots for eight teams with potential playoff aspirations.

    Can the Phoenix Suns keep up their anti-tanking crusade? Can the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks stay the course? Or will the Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Denver Nuggets or Memphis Grizzlies make a hard charge toward one of the conference's final playoff spots?

    Teams may back their way into the playoffs in the East, but Western Conference squads won't have that luxury. It's 45 wins or bust for any playoff hopefuls not on the East Coast.

4. Who Wins Pole Position in the "Riggin' for Wiggins" Race?

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    As captivating as the Western Conference playoff race may be, the race to the bottom of the standings could end up having a longer-term impact on the league.

    Heading into the year, a handful of teams appeared intent on losing as many games as possible. The end game: a top-five pick in a potentially loaded 2014 draft class.

    Assuming all of the top freshmen declare—namely Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon and Joel Embiid—the 2014 draft could pack the most star power in over a decade. Throw in sophomore Marcus Smart and international rookie-to-be Dante Exum, and the draft may contain upwards of seven potential franchise players.

    As of New Year's Day, the 7-24 Milwaukee Bucks held pole position in the "Riggin' for Wiggins" race, but more than a half-dozen teams could out-tank Milwaukee down the stretch. One seemingly lopsided trade could swing the balance of power entirely.

    There's typically plenty of skepticism toward teams who willingly bomb their way through a season, but in this particular year, it's much more defensible. The sheer number of legitimate building blocks potentially available in the 2014 draft make this the ideal year to tank.

    Remember, too, that the worst record guarantees absolutely nothing when it comes to the lottery. The 2004 Orlando Magic were the last team that won the lottery after having the league's worst record, making this year's lottery a total crapshoot.

3. The End of the David Stern Era

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    On Feb. 1, 2014, the NBA will have a new commissioner for the first time in 30 years.

    Long-time chief David Stern will be stepping down on the first day of February, ceding control of the league to his current deputy, Adam Silver. Stern's retirement will come exactly 30 years to the day after he took over as commissioner, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst.

    During the Oct. 25, 2012 press conference to announce his retirement date, Stern elucidated why his 30-year anniversary was the right time to step down:

    The league is in, I think, terrific condition... I'd like to think I did an adequate job, but one of the things I did best was provide a successor... I'm not going anyplace for the next 15 months, but this gives us the opportunity to work on a very, very smooth transition.

    Replacing Stern won't be an easy task for Silver. Over the past 30 years, the league's annual revenue from its television contract increased 40-fold, while the average player salary jumped from $250,000 a year to more than $5 million a year, per Windhorst.

    However, it's not as though Silver, who has been the league's deputy commissioner since July 2006, is being thrown into the fire without any preparation. Given Stern's meticulous workings, the transition between him and his now-deputy should be relatively seamless, tempering the surprise potential of this particular storyline.

2. Can the Miami Heat Pull Off the Three-Peat?

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    In 2014, the Miami Heat have the opportunity to match a feat that hasn't been done since the heyday of the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal era.

    Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls popularized the concept of a "three-peat" back in the early- and mid-1990s, and Kobe and Shaq took the torch in the early-2000s. This year, it's potentially Miami's turn to take home three straight NBA championships.

    If not for Ray Allen's three-pointer in the waning seconds of Game 6 in the 2013 NBA Finals, the Heat wouldn't have such an opportunity. The San Antonio Spurs would be coming off their fifth championship since drafting Tim Duncan, while Miami would be facing endless questions about the long-term future of their "Big Three."

    Instead, so long as Dwyane Wade's knees can hold up, the Heat may be stronger than ever. The additions of Michael Beasley and Greg Oden give Miami a few possible playoff wild cards, making the team that much more dangerous come April.

    If Miami pulls off the three-peat in 2014, there's virtually no chance that the team's core breaks up over the summer. If not, however...

1. Who Stays, Who Goes During 2014 Free Agency?

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    Given the star power at the top, the potential free-agent class of 2014 easily ranks as the NBA's biggest story this year.

    LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and Dirk Nowitzki, among others, could all be available to the highest bidder come July 1. James, Wade, Bosh and Anthony each have early-termination options in their contracts, while Nowitzki is currently in the final year of his deal.

    Will all five players leave their current teams? Highly doubtful. If the Miami Heat three-peat, there's no reason to expect the team's "Big Three" to dissolve before the 2014-15 season. Likewise, given Nowitzki's loyalty to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, the Big German appears destined to be a lifetime Mav.

    Anthony, however, very realistically could be bidding adieu to the New York Knicks in July. He turns 30 at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, so if the Knicks can't turn things around quickly, he may depart for greener pastures.

    One of 'Melo's former teammates offered a pretty definitive free-agency prediction to Frank Isola of The New York Daily News:

    I think he's leaving. I've played with Melo for a long time and he knows he can't win here. At this stage, all he wants to do is win. That's why he'll leave.

    Anthony, Nowitzki and Miami's Big Three will headline the 2014 free-agent class, but the talent pool runs far deeper than those five. Los Angeles Lakers big man Pau Gasol and Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng are each set to become unrestricted free agents in July, while Memphis Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph could choose not to exercise his player option.

    The restricted free-agent market should also be booming, with Detroit Pistons big man Greg Monroe, Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, Utah Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward, Indiana Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson and Philadelphia 76ers swingman Evan Turner all available for the right price.

    In short, whatever happens with the free-agent class of 2014 will shape the league for years to come. Throw in the potential for surprises (say, LeBron leaving Miami), and it's clear that the NBA's biggest story of 2014 will officially begin on July 1.