The NBA tipped off Tuesday night as LeBron James and the Heat renewed the Association’s best rivalry against the transformed Celtics. Here are 21 reasons to watch what promises to be an unforgettable season. Because 20 reasons just weren’t enough.
21. The Houston Rockets finally got the “foundational” player they’ve been craving. Within the past year, Houston got its hands on Pau Gasol only to have David Stern veto the Chris Paul trade. Then, the Rockets were unable to work their way into the Dwight Howard trade for either Howard or Andrew Bynum. Getting James Harden finally landed the Rockets a star to build around for the first time since Yao Ming was healthy. The only question; is Harden up to the task?
It’s easier to excel as a team’s third star. The expectations are lighter, there’s less pressure, and the spotlight, for better or worse, is often shining elsewhere. If the Thunder struggled for a long stretch, Russell Westbrook was often the scapegoat. Now Harden is alone. He’s the best player on HIS team. If the Rockets succeed, he’ll be praised. If they fail, he’ll take the brunt of the blame. I like Harden, but I’m not convinced he’s capable of carrying a franchise.
20. How smoothly will Anthony Davis transition to the NBA game? Experts believe Davis will have no problem adjusting. Many even argue he’s the most polished rookie since Tim Duncan. I too expect a great year from Davis because his style and the way he impacts games doesn’t rely on what he accomplishes offensively. Even if Davis struggles offensively, he’ll still block shots, defend, and rebound better than 90% of the forwards in the NBA. I didn’t watch too much college basketball last year, so I’m eager to see how Davis fares against bigger bodies and equally athletic forwards.
19. It’s always fun watching the New York Knicks fail. I know that’s harsh, but it’s hard to root for a franchise that builds a team around Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. Anyone who’s watched the NBA for a reasonable length of time knows neither Anthony nor Stoudemire are the type of players you win titles with – at least not as the foundation piece. Neither plays defense and both are more concerned with offensive production than team success. With the talent between Anthony and Stoudemire, and the leadership and defense of Tyson Chandler, it’s highly unlikely the Knicks will miss the playoffs altogether, as fun as that would be. However, there’s no way they’ll finish higher than 5th in the conference, which means another early exit from the postseason.
18. Al Horford has waited in the shadows (and dealt with injuries) for too many years behind Joe Johnson. Now, the Atlanta Hawks are his team. When healthy, Horford has the talent to be one of the league’s top 25 players. While not awful, the Hawks never achieved much with Joe Johnson. Atlanta finished as the 4th seed and exited in the 2nd round of the playoffs for what seemed like every year of the past decade. Maybe Big Al can take the Hawks to bigger and better places.
17. The last two playoff spots in the West will go to… A fascinating question, really. The Rockets will probably be the favorites to nab one of the playoff spots behind the Thunder, Spurs, Lakers, Nuggets, Clippers, and Grizzlies. With the addition of James Harden and a solid nucleus around him, the Rockets should find themselves in the postseason. The Timberwolves would be the other obvious choice if it weren’t for injuries to their two best players. Kevin Love will start the season sidelined and Ricky Rubio won’t return until later in the winter. By then, there may be too much ground to make up for Minnesota. The Dallas Mavericks will also be missing their superstar (Dirk Nowitzki) for the first month of the season. Even when he returns, the Mavericks roster is as weak as it’s been in nearly a decade; so don’t expect much out of Dallas. That leaves the upstart Utah Jazz and the rebuilding on the fly Portland Trailblazers. I’m not making predications in October, but my guess is the final spot comes down to these two teams. Portland will bounce back after a dismal 2012 campaign behind All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. The Jazz still has a developing frontcourt that could decide the fate of the team’s season. We’ll check back in regularly on the race for eighth in the West.
16. The NBA is currently flush with stars, but that doesn’t stop the next wave from moving in. Kyrie Irving is undoubtedly at the top of the class. The unanimous Rookie of the Year in 2012 will challenge Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo to start for the East in the All Star game. The Cavaliers are still a few years away from competing for the playoffs, but the building block for the franchise is in place. Now, it’s simply time to add the supporting cast. Also included here is Ty Lawson – one of my favorite guards to watch. Lawson is underrated and undersized, but he still finds his way to the rim whenever he wants. He’s turned into Denver’s go-to player. Eric Gordon (only 23 – feels like he’s been around for 10 years) is finally healthy, so it’ll be interesting to see if he lives up to the hype from the past two seasons or if he’s simply an above average shooting guard. Greg Monroe is another to keep an eye on.
15. Can anyone contend with the Celtics and Heat in the East? The obvious answer is no. (Assuming both Miami and Boston stay relatively healthy.) But that’s not fun. Let’s pretend there is a possibility of a dark horse sneaking into the top of the conference. It’s not the Pacers unless Paul George takes a gigantic leap. It’s not the Knicks because Carmelo Anthony would never allow the Knicks to succeed if it means he takes less shots. It’s not the 76ers because Andrew Bynum is already an injury nightmare. It’s not the Bulls unless Derrick Rose makes a miraculous return before Christmas. That leaves the Brooklyn Nets. Yeah, you’re right. Not happening.
14. The Memphis Grizzlies are healthy again. Whether or not they can return to the tough-minded, immovable force they were in 2011 remains to be seen. Zach Randolph is again the wildcard. Though healthy, Randolph is also another year older. Unlike older forwards like Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett, Randolph doesn’t exactly keep himself in pristine condition. An 82 game slate at his age could grind on Randolph and limit his potency in the playoffs, especially if the Grizzlies don’t get a favorable seed and end up against the Lakers in round 1 or 2. With the big additions in Hollywood and the expected hoopla surrounding the Thunder, many have forgotten the Grizzlies are mostly still the same team that nearly knocked the Thunder out of the 2011 playoffs. Memphis wasn’t healthy in 2012. If they can stay healthy in 2013, the Grizzlies will be another force in the West.
13. Pay close attention to what could be Chris Paul’s final season with the Clippers. Bill Simmons of Grantland.com floated the idea that Paul doesn’t like playing with the Clippers. Obviously, as someone who rarely walks out the front door, I can neither confirm or deny those rumors, but I know this: I watched Paul and the Clippers play A LOT last season and based on Paul’s demeanor, I would completely agree with Simmons’ opinion.
The Clippers are mostly a bunch of boneheaded athletes. They’re talented and can jump through the roof but they know little about playing team basketball and what it takes to win in the NBA. Chris Paul is the ultimate student of the game. He knows how the game is to be played and he wants to play it that way. Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Co. want to run up and down the floor throwing down highlight dunks instead of developing a reliable offense that won’t break down in the spring when defenses tighten up. Paul wants to win a title. He knows the talent is there with the Clippers. Unfortunately, the intelligence level isn’t quite up to par. Expect Paul elsewhere next season.
12. Don’t miss Rajon Rondo’s “I’ve official arrived” party. This season will most certainly be it. In the biggest games, there aren’t five players I’d want on the floor more than Rondo. Outside of LeBron James and perhaps a healthy and invested Dwight Howard, no single player influences a game more. Even with a horrendous jumper, Rondo still found ways to score 20, 30 and even 40 points throughout the 2012 playoffs. He rebounds, he defends, and he’s even learning how to lead. With Ray Allen’s poisonous whispers now in Miami, Rondo can run the Boston offense as he sees fit. Expect the Celtics to benefit tremendously.
More importantly, if Rondo has indeed developed a reliable jumper as some are reporting, watch out for Rondo to join the MVP chatter. He won’t win, of course, not with his cold demeanor. He’s too business oriented to glad hand for awards like the MVP. And that’s what I love most about Rondo: He’s not interested in making friends or aquiring fans. Only winning.
11. The Philadelphia 76ers double downed on their young roster by letting Lou Williams walk, amnestying Elton Brand, and trading the long-time face of the organization, Andre Iquodala. Though trading Iquodala – the 76ers best and most reliable player – was a risky decision, it was one the team needed to take. First of all, as solid as Iquodala was, he was still over paid. Secondly, the 76ers were stuck in a mediocre wasteland. Iquodala was never going to lead them to an NBA Finals. He also would never lead them to the top of the NBA lottery. The 76ers were stuck and needed to swing for the fences. So they did.
Enter Andrew Bynum. No, Bynum is not a sure thing like Iquodala. Bynum’s upside, however, is significantly greater. If Bynum can stay healthy (already an issue) and the 76ers find a way to keep him motivated and focused (yet to be accomplished anywhere), then the 76ers would have swapped Iquodala for the league’s 2nd best center and a top 20 player capable of leading a team to the NBA Finals and perhaps even a title with the right supporting cast. Of course, the likelihood of Bynum becoming the NBA’s next great center is slim, probably around 14%, but it was a risk the 76ers needed to take to not only free themselves from Iquodala’s contract, but to move closer to contender or closer to the lottery.
The Bynum trade also symbolized a seismic shift in the trajectory of Evan Turner’s career. The 2010 2nd overall pick is now the team’s go-to wing player. Turner’s development was hampered by Iquodala’s presence. In order for the 76ers to see what they had in Turner, Iquodala had to go. Turner’s rebounding and defense have been praised since his rookie season but his offense has been sharply criticized. This is his chance to prove he’s a budding star and not another bust. Nothing will come easy, though. Turner, along with Bynum, is the face of the franchise. This is their team. They’ll ultimately be responsible for the success or failure of the 2013 season.