With the 2013-14 NBA season beginning Tuesday, we asked SB Nation's feature writers -- Tom Ziller, Paul Flannery, Jonathan Tjarks, Ricky O'Donnell and I -- five key questions about the season. The answers are below:
1. Who do you think is the best challenger to Miami?
ZILLER: I put the Thunder at the top of my list, primarily because of Kevin Durant. Once Russell Westbrook returns, and given some improvement from the still-young Serge Ibaka, I think OKC is a constant threat to Miami. Of course, San Antonio nearly knocked off the Heat a few months ago, and Indiana, Chicago and Brooklyn could take them out before the Finals. But the Thunder are the top threat so long as Durant wears their jersey.
FLANNERY: The answer is the Spurs, but I'm not sure San Antonio can get back to the Finals again this year. So, I'll go with the Bulls, and not just because of Derrick Rose. Chicago matches up reasonably well on the wing and has the kind of physical size that can be a problem for Miami. I also think that it will take a superior game plan, and there aren't many better than Tom Thibodeau.
TJARKS: Oklahoma City has the only player in the NBA with any chance of passing LeBron James in the near future. Durant is 25 and still has room to grow as a post player, passer and defender. He looks like he put on some weight in the offseason, which is a scary thought. Durant and Westbrook can be a younger version of LeBron and Wade. There are teams who give the Heat matchup problems; the Thunder have the potential to beat them at their own game.
O'DONNELL: The Bulls have made a habit out of playing the Heat tough through the years, beating them in seven of 11 regular season games since 2010. Miami has dismantled the Bulls twice in the playoffs in the last three years, each time in five games, but Chicago was playing without Derrick Rose last season. In Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler, the Bulls have the intelligent, high-motor athletes required to matchup with James and Wade. Chicago also has a clear advantage inside. This would be a playoff rematch three years in the making, and this Bulls team looks more complete than the one that lost to Miami in 2011.
PRADA: The Bulls and Pacers certainly match up the best, but I have questions about Chicago's depth and I'm not convinced Indiana's bench is as upgraded as many say. So I'll go with the Nets, a team many are forgetting about in this race. Kevin Garnett still has the ability to transform a team's culture, Paul Pierce still has a lot left and they have a deep bench that will help those two withstand the rigors of the NBA regular season. Also: if the Heat struggled so much to stop Roy Hibbert, just wait until they see Brook Lopez.
2. Who will be the best player traded this season?
ZILLER: I think we'll see some fat contracts get moved around in preparation of 2014 free agency. In terms of the best player, though, Pau Gasol or Zach Randolph might fit the bill. Gasol is an expiring deal who can offer something to a contender right now; if the Lakers are toast by February and it doesn't look like he'll stay in L.A. at a steep discount, the team may want to slice off that luxury tax bill. Z-Bo is trickier because of his contract, but I'm not convinced he's long for Memphis given salary cap issues, his age and the new identity of the team, which is based around Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. (Free Ed Davis!) Another guy on this list whose contract might be too big a hindrance is Arron Afflalo, depending on how he meshes with Victor Oladipo.
FLANNERY: You all want me to say Rajon Rondo, don't you? Well, I'm not going to say it. Do I think Danny Ainge would trade him for what he thinks his fair value? Of course. I just think it's hard to get fair value for a player like him. Is Anderson Varejao a big enough name?
TJARKS: If the Blazers are not in the top eight at the deadline, they will have to think about dealing LaMarcus Aldridge. Look at Utah with Deron Williams: you get a lot more for a star when you move him with 1.5 years left on his contract. Aldridge is a 7-footer who can shoot and defend; he could walk on to any team in the NBA and help them immediately. He'd be the final piece for at least three teams: the Rockets, the Bulls and the Clippers. Portland would get some pretty good offers if they made him available.
O'DONNELL: Kevin Love and Aldridge are the two big names with a chance to move, but both franchises are so tied to those stars that emotion might get in the way. One name that comes to mind is Greg Monroe. Josh Smith already got big money from Detroit, but he's miscast as a small forward. Monroe will be a restricted free agent after this season and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him draw max offers. The Pistons have real deficiencies on the wings, and Monroe could conceivably bring back another good player who fits better within the structure of the team.
PRADA: I believe the murmurs that Kenneth Faried is available. Brian Shaw's new style doesn't tailor to Faried's strengths and the Nuggets have too many other frontcourt players who do similar things. There should be concern about giving Faried a big payday along the lines of Serge Ibaka and Derrick Favors in a couple years, so I expect the Nuggets to try to move him now while his value is still high. I'll venture a wild guess and say the Suns will be the team that acquires him.
3. Give us one team that will either be much better or much worse than people think.
ZILLER: The Timberwolves might be this year's Golden State, barring another rash of injuries. Instead of fighting tooth and nail for the No. 7 or 8 seed, they could jump up into the No. 4/5 range if things go well. Never doubt a Rick Adelman team to do amazing things. I also think Atlanta has a chance to make the second round of the playoffs, but getting a top-4 seed is going to be hard. The Hawks are not so much underrated as ignored.
FLANNERY: I'm not as bullish on Detroit as a lot of people who are much smarter than me, so that's that, for what it's worth. But can you really make a case against a sleeper team? I'll keep it positive and go with the Blazers, who really upgraded the bench and finally have a center to allow LaMarcus Aldridge to play his game. Unfortunately, that means a sixth or seventh seed in the West.
TJARKS: I had two takeaways from watching a Celtics preseason game the other day: This team is really bad on defense and really bad on offense. They have no one who can protect the rim and no one who can create easy shots for others. If Rondo was healthy, they might have been able to squeeze out 30-35 wins. Without him, it could be worse than many people are thinking. Brad Stevens is going to feel Rick Pitino's pain. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are not walking through that door.
O'DONNELL: The Knicks are coming off their best regular season in 18 years, and most of the principle pieces remain in place. The problem is that the rest of East's contenders all got better. It's tough to believe that's the case with New York, whose big offseason addition of Andrea Bargnani was a player the Raptors couldn't wait to trade. J.R. Smith isn't in a contract year anymore and the Knicks are incredibly thin up front behind Tyson Chandler. Carmelo Anthony's free agency won't be a big distraction until losses start piling up. New York is only a couple bad breaks away from that happening.
PRADA: I really want to see Kyrie Irving in the playoffs, but I have some concerns about the Cavaliers. This roster looks good on paper, but I'm not sure they will be able to guard anyone and I am not convinced that an Andrew Bynum/Anderson Varejao frontcourt will stay upright. They still don't have a small forward, lack a lockdown wing defender and have too many bodies that may have to play out of position up front. Jumping from 24 wins to the playoffs seems like a stretch given these deficiencies. On the positive side, I think Detroit's supposed frontcourt logjam will mesh better than many think, and I like Brandon Jennings to rebound, especially if Maurice Cheeks runs a Flex-style system that puts Smith and Monroe in the position to be initiations.
4. Which NBA player not currently seen as a superstar will be by the end of this season?
ZILLER: Call me a homer, but I'm going with DeMarcus Cousins. The new contract, the new organization, the new coach, the new vibe around the team, it's all a recipe to set up Cousins for success. We'll see if he makes it count. Based on the (very) early results, I think he will. His shot selection and defense also look completely reformed in preseason. It's a slim slice of data, but hey ... I said you could call me a homer.
FLANNERY: I'm operating under the assumption that we all agree Stephen Curry is a superstar now, so I'll go with his fellow 2010 draftee, John Wall. To be fair, that's a really big leap for a player who has had the equivalent of one really good half season, but that one half-season was excellent. We've all known that Wall has extraordinary talent, but he also has that special quality that makes you stand up and take notice. If nothing else, I'll have Wizards games set on League Pass lock.
TJARKS: Is James Harden considered a superstar? With Kobe and Wade slowing down, Harden could be the best shooting guard in the NBA this season. He's a 6'5 guard who can run point and get you 25 a night efficiently. The next step is becoming more of a two-way player. Defense is the only thing holding him back from an MVP-type season.
O'DONNELL: The Anthony Davis hype is real. I'm a believer in the power of the Pelicans, and if New Orleans is able to grab one of the bottom playoffs spots in the West, it will have plenty to do with Davis making a leap. He's much more skilled offensively than people realize -- check out the lines he's putting up in the preseason -- and this is the year his defensive potential should manifest itself on the court.
PRADA: I think this is the year that the narrative recovers with Blake Griffin. His reputation has taken a hit in recent years because he's played fewer minutes and has tried to focus on improving his weaknesses instead of just dunking over everyone. With a real coach in tow that will actually use him in different ways, I expect Griffin to have a monster season and remind everyone why he's a superstar.
5. Who will win the 2014 NBA championship and why?
ZILLER: Oklahoma City, because I believe more in Westbrook's recovery and Ibaka's improvement than Wade's health. Miami's 2013 postseason spooked me.
FLANNERY: Is LeBron healthy in June? Miami.
TJARKS: I think Miami is still the best team in the NBA, but this year could be a schedule loss. No one has been to four straight Finals since the '80s, and the East is deeper. The Heat might be the only team who can stop a healthy Westbrook and Durant, so I'll take the Thunder to win it all.
O'DONNELL: It's becoming clear this season will be the Heat vs. "the field," and I'll take a flyer on the field. Miami is incredible, but it didn't improve at all over the offseason and Wade is another year closer to decline. I (objectively!) believe the Bulls are the best team in the field, so they're my pick to win the championship. Chicago shares the ball offensively, has the size and athleticism to matchup with anyone, and will be one of the best passing and shooting teams in the league. Derrick Rose is a true superstar, and after a much-debated year off to rehab his knee, he's ready to remind everyone how good he is.
PRADA: I admit that "the field" is a better bet for my money than the Heat, but I can't figure out which individual member of "the field" has a better shot of winning the title than the Heat. So, I'll take Miami to three-peat after two seven-game series with the Bulls and Nets and a tough Finals against Kevin Durant and the Thunder.
|MVP||Kevin Durant||LeBron James||LeBron James||LeBron James||LeBron James|
|ROY||Victor Oladipo||Victor Oladipo||Cody Zeller||Trey Burke||Victor Oladipo|
|COY||Rick Adelman||Doc Rivers||Kevin McHale||Tom Thibodeau||Jason Kidd|
|DPOY||Roy Hibbert||Roy Hibbert||Dwight Howard||Roy Hibbert||Roy Hibbert|
|6th Man||Harrison Barnes||Andrei Kirilenko||Andrei Kirilenko||Tyreke Evans||Tyreke Evans|
|Finals pick||Thunder over Heat||Heat over Warriors||Thunder over Nets||Bulls over Thunder||Heat over Thunder|