You can't plot out the future of the NBA, and I like it that way. You never know what player will pop out of nowhere to become instantly relevant, or which issue will take on disturbing importance out of the blue. But as we enter 2013, we can identify a few storylines that we know are coming down the pike. Here are five to watch, mixed in with all of the surprises we'll be in awe of.
1. BIG DECISIONS IN L.A.
Needless to say, 2013 is going to be a big year for pro basketball in Los Angeles. First off, the Clippers and Lakers are both trying to win a championship. The Lakers have Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, and so while things haven't gone extraordinarily well thus far, no one's counting them out. The Clippers have won 14 straight games. These two teams, in all likelihood, will be around in May and maybe June.
In July -- that's when things get interesting. Chris Paul and Howard are both scheduled to become free agents. If either team flames out early, free agency could get instantly amazing. (They are by far the top-rated free agents in the 2013 class.) Both are likely to stay with their respective current teams. But never underestimate:
1. The Clippers' ability to make things way more difficult than they should be and botch it all up.
2. The power of remarkable indecision that Dwight has shown an affinity for.
All it takes is Donald Sterling to say one disgusting, off-putting, racist thing to CP3 and he's out here signing a deal with the Bobcats. (Carolina pride!) All it takes is one grocery bag filled with Skittles and Starburst and Dwight is putty in another team's arms. As I've said before, never trust a grown man who can be bought by candy. Never.
In the meantime, there are interim decisions at play. Pau Gasol is just hanging out here. So is Vinny Del Negro. The streak has quieted all complaints, but an early postseason flame-out could lead one of those mystical big name coaches to swoop in and close the deal in future seasons. It'll be fun to watch L.A. figure out the future even if CP3 and Howard do what's expected and quietly, quickly re-sign.
2. SUSTAINABILITY IN NEW YORK
For so long, folks have claimed that the NBA is more interesting when the Knicks are good. Well, hot damn. They are kind of right. Instead of every game in Madison Square Garden being an opportunity for visiting players to get their season high, these are real events with real repercussions. We need that to continue, at least for the sake of Knicks fans, who had just an awful decade leading up to the resurgence.
Sustainability for the Knicks requires J.R. Smith to continue to be amazing, Raymond Felton to not suck, Jason Kidd to be the best sage of all-time, Carmelo Anthony to be brilliant at power forward and Amar'e Stoudemire to be integrated seamlessly or jettisoned quickly. Tyson Chandler's health also remains important, and a starry-eyed return for Iman Shumpert would be excellent.
I don't think I'm alone in hoping we get Knicks-Nets in the playoffs, and a Knicks-Heat series with New York looking this good (and having smoked Miami twice already this season) could be amazing. Let's hope the Knicks keep up their end of the bargain.
3. DAVID STERN'S TWILIGHT
David Stern will bid us farewell in February 2014, so this will be our last NBA Draft with him at the helm. Let us pray for unpronounceable names, unruly fans and as many awkwards handshakes and hugs as possible. He has a few business-end issues to deal with (including one noted below) but with Stern it'll always be his reaction to events and news we'll want to watch. He's put himself in the middle of the controversial if entirely mundane issues of flopping and single-game tanking recently, and it's easy to imagine him tackle full-season/multi-month tanking before he steps aside.
There are also the unresolved issues of the NBA's age minimum and the mystical third round of the NBA Draft that remains unresolved. Neither will likely come into play for 2013, but one imagines that without an Olympic tournament to soak up time, the league and its players might address those outstanding negotiations from the 2011 lockout this offseason. Or they could just die on the vine. Who knows?
Above all else, I just want some incredible Stern profiles written this next year. The NBA has no shortage of superlative scribes. Let's get it.
4. IMPATIENCE IN SEATTLE AND SACRAMENTO
In 2012, Seattle got plans to build a new arena finalized. The Emerald City just needs a team.
In 2012, plans to build a new arena in Sacramento were torn up by the Maloofs. Sacramento has a team and just needs an arena.
In 2013, something's going to break here ... and chances are that a third city like Virginia Beach isn't going to be it. It doesn't appear that the Maloofs will be in position to file for relocation by the March 1, 2013, deadline, but the situation as it stands in untenable. Eventually, if they cannot find a home that the NBA consents to -- and this is trickier than you think -- they may have to crawl back to Kevin Johnson's negotiating table or sell the team. The second the team goes up for sale, Seattle's Chris Hansen becomes the top bidder.
The question will be whether Sacramento (or another city) has a buyer lined up to going toe to toe with Seattle. We'll know a lot more a year from now. Hopefully, it'll be resolved either way so we don't have one of 30 NBA teams sitting in a self-designed purgatory.
5. CONTINUED GRAPPLING WITH SOCIAL MEDIA
The NBA has fined players for certain tweets over the past couple years. Telling "Serg Abaka" that he isn't about "this life"? That's a fine. Posting a photo of stripper ass? That's a fine. But things aren't getting easier for the league: it's getting more difficult. A higher percentage of players are connecting to fans through social media, bypassing the league's sanitized access offerings via broadcast TV. Just monitoring the whole thing is a huge enterprise. The NBA has never been known for its consistency in doling out punishments, but there has to be some uniformity here. (Doesn't the NBA's first social media policy -- no tweeting during games -- seem so quaint looking back?)
There's also the issue of the sharers that the NBA doesn't have jurisdiction over. No minor scandal escapes notice these days. Consider the Zach Randolph-Kendrick Perkins off-court confrontation a few weeks back. Only through Twitter did anyone realize anything happened. I don't want to accuse the league of brushing its knuckles-up underbelly under the rug, but ... yeah. We hear about every fight or near-fight now. There are no possible smokescreens when everyone has a camera and a distribution channel. The NBA handles this sector a lot better than other leagues, in my view. But it's going to always be a challenge, especially as we all continue to try to make sense of what the egalitarian access really means.
The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.