The NBA season isn’t wasting any time getting started, as the two-time defending champion Miami Heat will take on the resurgent Chicago Bulls tonight to kick off the 2013-2014 campaign. The other match-up tonight is a battle for supremacy in Los Angeles, but given that Kobe Bryant is out, the clear marquee game is the one that will feature LeBron James and Co. against a returning Derrick Rose in a rematch of the Eastern Conference Finals from three years ago.
With basketball officially back, here are five questions we have about the upcoming NBA season:
1) Can Miami three-peat? Yes. Of course they can. LeBron James is already telling us that he’s better than ever, which might just scare the rest of the league into submission, given that he’s been better than ever for the last two years already. That James and running mate Dwyane Wade have established a clear order and chemistry over the last two years — with LeBron squarely at the top — should make the Heat even scarier. And Miami has some of the best role players in basketball: Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole supplementing the scoring options, Shane Battier and Chris Andersen on defense, and Ray Allen trolling the perimeter. Miami made two interesting moves in the off-season, signing Michael Beasley and Greg Oden, that could have some impact if they work out. Beasley is a troubled forward who got it wrong his first time in Miami and then again in Minnesota and Phoenix, but on a team that isn’t asking him for much, has leadership, and may be giving him his last real chance, Beasley could turn into some semblance of the talent he actually is. That could only make the Heat even more formidable.
At the same time, though, the East is better than it was last year. Derrick Rose is back in Chicago, Indiana should improve with the return of Danny Granger, and Brooklyn spent big in the off-season in an attempt to knock the Heat off the throne. Getting through the East is going to be as hard as it’s ever been for LeBron and Miami, but if James is indeed better than he’s ever been, it’s hard to imagine the Heat won’t do it anyway.
2) Is this Kobe’s last run in LA? Kobe Bryant is starting the final year of his Lakers contract on the bench thanks to a torn Achilles suffered last April, and it isn’t clear when he’ll return or what he’ll look like when he does. Bryant will be fine when he comes back — he insists on that — even if he may have to adjust his game and won’t be as quick or explosive on either side of the ball right away. The bigger question is where the Lakers will be when he finally gets off the bench. Both coach Mike D’Antoni and forward Pau Gasol will no doubt be happier without Dwight Howard clogging up the middle, but Steve Nash is only getting older and the roster is filled with question marks like Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, and Wesley Johnson. The Lakers, put simply, probably aren’t a contender in the Western Conference this year with or without Kobe.
So what does that mean for his future? Bryant just turned 35 and isn’t the spry superstar he once was, but he’s still one of the best players in the league even with so many miles on his legs. There was speculation last week that LA was going to let him test the free agent market after the season, but team VP Jim Buss told ESPN that there was no way the Lakers would let Bryant walk. “I don’t think we’re done winning championships with him yet,” Buss said, the only question being how exactly the franchise plans to build a team that can make that happen, because this one probably isn’t it.
3) Will Jason Collins find a team? The NBA has a chance to become the first of the four major men’s American sports leagues with an openly gay player if anyone signs Jason Collins, who came out as gay in a Sports Illustrated article last April. Collins’ game isn’t what it used to be, even if what it used to be was only fit for a role player, and he hasn’t found a new team yet after splitting his 2012-2013 season between Boston and Washington. That has to be somewhat disconcerting even for a guy who has remained patient throughout the offseason, but it still seems likely Collins will end up on a roster eventually — even if only temporarily. Collins is a defensive banger in the middle, and there should be teams that will figure out they can use one of those for eight or 10 minutes a night, whether because someone on their roster doesn’t pan out or thanks to an injury.
If he doesn’t find a team and if that barrier remains in place — even if only symbolically, given the response Collins received upon coming out — that will hurt. But I’m still confident that eventually, Collins will suit up again in the NBA, even if only on a 10-day contract that gives him a brief chance to prove he still belongs in this league.
4) Which new team will break through? The last nine NBA champions — 14 of the last 15 — have come from a group of five teams: the Heat, Lakers, Mavericks, Celtics, and Spurs. The Heat and Spurs are again clear favorites to come out of their respective divisions, but with the Lakers and Celtics sure to struggle and the Mavs piecing a patchwork squad around Dirk Nowitzki, will someone new step up and knock them off? In the West, there’s still Oklahoma City and Kevin Durant, though Russell Westbrook will start the year on the bench thanks to the knee he injured during the playoffs. Combine that with no James Harden, who OKC traded to Houston before last season and who may have been gone through free agency anyway, and this Thunder team isn’t nearly as exciting as the one that went to the Finals two years ago. And yet, it is still among the best in the West. Golden State and the other Los Angeles are also vying to fill that come-up role and both are reaching the point where they might be able to do it. The Warriors already had offense — Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes give you no shortage of that — and they went out and added Andre Iguodala to a defense that made major strides last year. Now that the Clippers have Doc Rivers guiding them from the bench, they should be a bona fide contender instead of simply a big-time highlight reel. Houston is the fashionable choice to upset the Western balance, what with adding Dwight Howard to an already-solid lineup, but I’m not yet sold (adding Howard didn’t exactly work out as planned in LA). And then there’s Memphis, the team that has made waves in the playoffs in past years and, at the least, hasn’t gotten any worse.
In the East, there’s Chicago and a healthy Derrick Rose, obviously, and the other most likely contenders to knock the Heat off their perch are Brooklyn and Indiana. The Pacers were quietly good last year, when they nearly beat the Heat in the conference finals, and Danny Granger is returning from injury to a team where Paul George is only getting better. The Nets, meanwhile, went out and spent big in the off-season, adding aging superstars (and title winners) Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to a lineup that already featured Brook Lopez, Deron Williams, and Joe Johnson. Brooklyn is on the old side and figuring out how to make all those guys happy with only one ball will take some work, but if everything breaks right, the Nets could be really good. The Knicks are the wild card in the East, though they’re clearly on the outside looking in at the East’s top four contenders.
5) What will the post-David Stern era look like? NBA commissioner David Stern’s run as the longest-tenured league boss in American sports will come to an end in February, when he steps down and deputy commissioner Adam Silver takes over the reins. There’s already plenty on Silver’s plate — on-going arena situations in Milwaukee and Sacramento and planning for the next television deal after the 2015-2016 season especially — but the biggest issue may be how Silver deals with the National Basketball Players Association, which is going through a power shift of its own. Stern had a notably contentious relationship with union head Billy Hunter, and Stern and NBA ownership’s financial desires led to two lengthy lockouts that hurt the league more than the resulting financial gains helped. The players ousted Hunter last year and now the league’s stars are stepping up on the labor front: LeBron James ultimately decided against a run for president, but another superstar, Chris Paul, won the gig. The PA is still looking for an executive director, but the timing of the entire situation — new leadership on both sides at the same time — gives them a chance to build relationships that help keep the NBA from careening toward more labor strife when the current bargaining agreement ends.
BONUS: What will happen with ongoing arena situations? Now that the Sacramento arena situation appears on track, at least according to Stern, the bigger focus is in Milwaukee, where the Bucks want new digs to replace the Bradley Center. Silver and the NBA are committed to keeping a team in Milwaukee, but with plenty of cities waiting to step up as suitors — Seattle first, then Kansas City, Louisville, and any number of others thereafter — any arena battle between a city and its team has the potential to get as ugly as Sacramento’s was. That’s great news for the NBA, since having cities willing to play arena chicken against each other only makes it easier to extract nicer facilities out of current homes, but it’s terrible news for taxpayers, who will almost certainly end up footing the bill no matter where these teams end up.