Predicting the Biggest Storylines During 2014 NBA Training Camp
Get excited, NBA fans. Training camp is officially on the horizon, which means the 2014-15 regular season is right around the corner.
Entering training camp, the biggest storyline has to involve the Cleveland Cavaliers. This offseason was all about Kevin Love and LeBron James, and as it just so happened, the two ended up on the same roster—or at least it’s reported the two will eventually land on the same roster.
While Love and LeBron dominated headlines all summer, there's plenty more to talk about around the Association. Storylines dominate the league all year, but this is the time when we can sit back and realize the dog days are coming to an end, and real-life basketball is quickly approaching.
Atlanta Hawks + Al Horford = Contention?
The Eastern Conference has its favorites (see: Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls), but the East is presumably up for grabs, as the Miami Heat are no longer the same team they’ve been the past four seasons.
If there were ever a time for the Atlanta Hawks to strike, now is that time. Not only is the East in question, but the re-addition of Al Horford to the Hawks roster will be essential toward competing at a top-tier level.
With Horford on board last season, the Hawks were widely considered the third-best team in the East. If it weren’t for the big man’s season-ending injury, we might be looking at them in a different light at this point in the process.
Although free agency didn’t go as some hoped, it did go as most should have expected with history in mind. This group has had trouble attracting elite talent throughout the years, but entering 2014-15, it has one major addition in Horford who will complement the perimeter presence of players such as Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver nicely.
No Offense, but Indy Can’t Score
We all knew entering the 2014 offseason free agency could result in Lance Stephenson’s departure from the Indiana Pacers. As it turned out, that came to fruition, as the 2-guard signed a deal with the Charlotte Hornets.
What we didn’t foresee is that this group would also be without its best player, Paul George, for the entire 2014-15 campaign.
George’s injury, which occurred during the nationally televised Team USA scrimmage, is expected to sideline him for the entirety of the upcoming season. As a result, according to anybody who watched the Indiana Pacers this past year, offense is going to be extremely difficult to come by for the squad that averaged just 96.7 points per contest in 2013-14.
As B/R' Fred Katz stated following George's injury, "Even when the 56-win Pacers were winning at an 80 percent clip early in the season, they weren't scoring at elite rates." Not only was George the heart and soul of the defense, but he was the leading scorer, averaging 21.7 points per game.
This group desperately needs players such as David West and George Hill to step up offensively. Otherwise what we saw during the second half of 2013-14 will be something of a best-case scenario.
Who Will Surprise out East?
The Eastern Conference surprised us during the 2013-14 season—just not in a good way.
That said, there are a handful of teams out East that should prove to be contenders in a newly shaped conference.
For starters, the Washington Wizards are not only an up-and-coming organization, but they've added championship experience with the signing of Paul Pierce. Then there's the Toronto Raptors, who are another year more mature with Kyle Lowry still on board.
Don't forget about the Charlotte Hornets, either, who just two years ago were the laughing stock of the NBA and now have legitimate talent spread across the roster.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls are considered the favorites (understandably so), but don't count out these groups—and a few more—from playing competitively late into the year. There's no consensus favorite, which means it's anybody's game if a strong start leads to a strong finish.
Who Has the Edge for Rookie of the Year?
Although we could consider the race for any major award a storyline worth following, Rookie of the Year earns the nod as the only one worth tracking in training camp.
Why is this you ask? Because we simply don’t know what to expect out of first-year prospects.
So who has the lead to start the year? Is it Jabari Parker on the last-place Milwaukee Bucks? How about Andrew Wiggins who will soon leave LeBron James’ shadow to become the new franchise player of the Minnesota Timberwolves?
Then there’s Dante Exum, who has professional experience yet has many questions to answer. Can he be a true point guard? Will he start at the 2 alongside Trey Burke? Will he ultimately steal the starting spot away from the former Michigan floor general?
Training camp won’t decide the ROY race, but it will be the first step toward seeing who’s ready to compete. First impressions can mean a lot, especially with so much hype surrounding the 2014 draft class.
New-Look Chicago Bulls
Can the Chicago Bulls win the East? The easy answer to that question is a resounding yes. The Bulls can indeed win the Eastern Conference, but it’s important to note that this group has a new look to it, and change doesn’t always equal immediate success.
With Carlos Boozer gone and Pau Gasol in, the Bulls should see improvement at power forward—not to mention they've also added rookie Spaniard Nikola Mirotic. Doug McDermott, although also an unproven rookie (Creighton), will ideally provide shooting, as he didn’t earn the moniker “McBuckets” just because of his name.
Most importantly, Derrick Rose is back, and if his Team USA performance is any indication, he’s ready to return as one of the best point guards the game has to offer.
Although the Cleveland Cavaliers have also endured change, many consider them the favorites out East with LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving leading the way. But if chemistry means anything at all (see: San Antonio Spurs), Chicago has a chance to prove it’s a cohesive unit every step of the way—training camp included.
How Much Is Left in Kobe Bryant’s Tank?
This is the biggest question surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers in 2014-15. Forget how Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer adjust to Byron Scott’s system; this is about Kobe Bryant’s return and how much he can give entering his 19th season.
At this point, doubting Bryant is far from safe. In his own words, “I’m 100 percent,” as he told Brazilian television (h/t LA Times, Fox Sports West).
Then again, assuming he’s still be the same player he was in 2013 before the injuries kicked in is a gamble as well.
ESPN (Insider) has taken the liberty of surmising the former, leaving the Mamba out of its top 10 when it comes to shooting guards entering 2014-15. If Bryant is truly 100 percent—and more importantly can stay 100 percent—there’s no chance he’s left out of that category by the end of the year.
Even at 35 (almost 36) years old, Bryant has the skill set and winning mentality to make people forget about last season. The question, of course, is: Can he stay healthy, and if he can, can he lead the Lakers to the playoffs in a season most assume is lost from the start?
Miami Living in a Post-LeBron World
How will the Miami Heat handle life without LeBron James?
We’re about to find out.
With new additions such as Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger on board, the hope in South Beach is that new talent will compensate for the loss the team endured this summer. There’s no replacing the best player on the planet, but in an ideal world, the procurement of second and third-tier free agents will at least keep the roster competitive.
In reality, this is not going to be a bad team in 2014-15, but the other theme here will be how Chris Bosh responds as the new No. 1. He’ll have Dwyane Wade by his side, so don’t assume he’s on his own. However, his massive payday this offseason wouldn’t have come without crucial responsibilities.
As a result, we’re about to see someone who was often a third fiddle instantly become a go-to option.
Will the Bench Finally Step Up in Portland?
The Portland Trail Blazers established themselves as legitimate contenders in 2014-15.
All that said, they’re still not considered top-tier when it comes to the league’s best, and that’s in large part because of their production off the bench.
Last season, Portland ranked last, or near last, in numerous categories. Points, rebounds, offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency are a handful of those categories, according to HoopsStats.com, and the bigger concern is limited flexibility kept the team from making drastic changes this past offseason.
The one improving move you can point to is the signing of Chris Kaman. This team lacked a legitimate center off the pine all year, and that problem has been addressed as long as the former Los Angeles Laker can remain healthy.
Then there was the addition of Steve Blake, and while he’ll be something of a defensive upgrade from Mo Williams, it’s unlikely the 34-year-old provides the same kind of offensive production, making internal improvements from players such as C.J. McCollum and Thomas Robinson a must in Rip City's chase for its first title since 1977.
Instant Chemistry in Cleveland?
LeBron James announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in an essay posted by SI’s Lee Jenkins, but while doing so, he admitted bringing a title home wasn’t going to be easy.
“I’m not promising a championship,” he said. “I know how hard that is to deliver.”
The difference between when James wrote that letter and today is that Kevin Love is presumably going to be a part of the chase toward bringing that Larry O'Brien Trophy to Cleveland, as reported by Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. James, Love and Kyrie Irving comprise arguably the league’s most talented Big Three at this point in the process, but James’ sentiment still rings true—winning a title won’t come easily.
Along with the improvingly talented teams at the top of the Eastern Conference, Cleveland must deal with one other concern: chemistry. Remember that Los Angeles Lakers team that was supposed to compete for a title with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash on board? Things aren’t always easy.
The biggest difference between this Cavs team and that Lakers squad is, obviously, age. With James in his prime, Love possibly in the same category and Irving still maturing, health and tired legs shouldn’t be as big of a problem as it was for Los Angeles in 2012-13.
That said, chemistry is never a guarantee, even when youth and health are on your side, so working out the kinks early will be crucial with a championship run as a goal for the Cavaliers.
Back-to-Back Titles on the Horizon in San Antonio
For years now, we’ve been saying the San Antonio Spurs’ championship window is closed. Some have even gone as far as to say it’s completely shut, but regardless of where you’ve stood, one thing is certain.
The Spurs have made us eat our words each and every time.
For that reason, we avoid asking if the championship window is officially closed. Instead, we put a positive spin on the goal at hand: winning back-to-back titles for the first time in franchise history.
At this point, most assume the Spurs will be near the top out West, if not atop the conference when the regular season comes to an end. But if Gregg Popovich gives his stars nights off the way he has in the past (or more frequently), home-court advantage in the later rounds could become more of a question mark opposed to an assumption.
Training camp won’t determine the 2015 champions, but don’t think that will stop people from projecting that far in advance. This is a group with both talent and winning experience, and while age will be a topic for discussion throughout the season, so will hopes of doing something this organization has yet to accomplish in its storied history.
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