SB Nation

Mike Prada | October 24, 2013

2013-14 NBA Preview

Eastern
Conference

East Champion Miami Heat

Let’s be honest: the Eastern Conference hasn’t been all that good in recent years. Sure, the Miami Heat have been dominant, but a consistent lack of high-quality teams has made the East much weaker than the West. But while the West is still awesome, the East has made up a bit of ground. Derrick Rose’s return, plus the wizardry of Tom Thibodeau, should have the Bulls back in the NBA’s elite. The Nets and their bags of cash now have Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in the fold, and we know they badly want to end LeBron’s reign. Then, there’s the Indiana Pacers, who made it a point to improve their bench after taking the Heat to seven games in last year’s East Finals. Don’t forget, there should be an improved lower half of the playoff picture, with up-and-coming teams like the Pistons, Wizards and Cavaliers challenging for playoff spots. Oh, and who can forget the never-ending drama that is the Knicks? There are fun times ahead for the East in 2013-14.


* Predictions based on the average ranking of over 40 SB Nation bloggers and contributors.

Atlanta
Hawks

Still struggling to make an upper-echelon team in the shadow of the Rasheed Wallace Era, the Hawks declined to keep Josh Smith, their starting power forward of the past nine years, instead signing Paul Millsap to pair with Al Horford. The Hawks also return Lou Williams after he sat much of last season with an ACL injury. I’m mostly interested in whether Andre 3000 joins the team in continuing to do everything but make a solo album, but the new Hawks should be an interesting, versatile team regardless. — Ben Swanson

2012-2013 Record 44-38, sixth in Eastern Conference.
Head Coach Mike Budenholzer: Hired away from the Spurs this summer, Budenholzer comes from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree, which is always a good sign. Having learned from one of the all-time greats, Budenholzer brings a solid pedigree to Atlanta and should be able to coax a pretty good team out of this roster.
Additions Paul Millsap, Dennis Schroeder, Elton Brand, DeMarre Carroll, Gustavo Ayon, Pero Antic, Royal Ivey.
Subtractions Josh Smith, Josh Smith’s shot selection, Devin Harris, DeShawn Stevenson, Zaza Pachulia, Ivan Johnson, Anthony Tolliver, Dahntay Jones, Johan Petro. Team Blog Peachtree Hoops
Key Players
Al Horford

The de facto franchise player for Atlanta entering the season, Horford may be somewhat underrated, but doesn't quite qualify as a superstar. One of the steadiest two-way big men in the league, Horford should be able to lead Atlanta to a postseason appearance in 2013-14, but the Hawks will need to pair him with another star-quality player to make any serious postseason noise.

Jeff Teague

The Hawks and Teague didn't exactly have the smoothest offseason, but he's back on a four-year contract as the team's long-term point guard. The Hawks ultimately matched an $8-million-a-year offer sheet from the Bucks, which is good value for an above-average point guard. But it's clear the team wants more at the position.

Paul Millsap

After watching Josh Smith land $56 million from the Pistons, the Hawks managed an impressive turnaround by signing Millsap to a two-year, $19 million deal. Even if you think the undersized power forward is overrated to some degree, that relatively small commitment gives Atlanta a very good player at a reasonable price.

The Lead

With a roster that looks good but hardly great, the new-look Hawks look an awful lot like the teams we've known for years. But maybe this time will be different, as Danny Ferry has assembled a group around Al Hordford and Jeff Teague that may be better than the sum of its parts.

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Person of Interest

The Atlanta Hawks are a franchise in transition, but with change comes opportunity. It's a sentiment that may extend to point guard Jeff Teague more than any other player on the team. Teague faced an uncertain future this summer after Atlanta drafted another point guard in the first round before letting him languish in free agency, but this season should be his best chance yet to shine for the Hawks. The early returns for Teague have been promising. Now he'll get the chance to solidify himself as the present and future leader of the Hawks in the backcourt.

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Film Room All Star

Al Horford has spent his entire career in Atlanta watching Josh Smith and Joe Johnson run the show. Now, he's the face of the franchise, and rightfully so. His offensive game is masterful, and watching him face up against defenders is proof that he's one of the most refined players in the NBA. Come see the beast of the East.

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The Key Question

Is Jeff Teague the answer at point guard?

Teague has had an up and down career with the Hawks, but is coming off his best year statistically and is armed with the security of a brand new contract. However, he is not without competition. The Hawks need Teague to set the tone early with his aggressiveness and need to see some defensive improvement, where often times it looked like effort was the biggest issue. With Josh Smith gone, Teague has to establish himself as a leader. If he can't, then the team may be looking towards rookie Dennis Schröder before Teague's contract is up.

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Best Case

People finally notice how great Al Horford and Paul Millsap are, Playoff Teague is a regular season meme and rookie point guard Dennis Schroeder becomes an Internet folk hero.

Worst Case

All that happens and still no one cares.

Get your Hawks on at
Peachtree Hoops

Boston
Celtics

Wait, what? Where did all the Celtics go? Why is a teenager called "Brad Stevens" in Doc Rivers's seat? Why, when Rajon Rondo returns, will he meet a motley gaggle of intriguing youngsters and a few crusty veterans, almost none of whom he'll recognize? This is just how things are now, eh? Well, the Celtics project to be mediocre in this transition year, but Danny Ainge may have another speedy rebuild ahead. The first rebuilding question is whether Rondo ought to lead the pack of puppies or get traded for more puppies. — Seth Rosenthal

2012-2013 Record 41-40, seventh in Eastern Conference.
Head Coach Brad Stevens. The first NBA gig for the former Butler coach is no walk in the park. He joins Boston needing to earn the respect from a strong personality in Rondo, but he'll also need to develop the many young players on the Celtics' roster. How Stevens keeps his team's attention will make or break his season.
Additions Kris Humphries, Kelly Olynyk, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, Gerald Wallace
Subtractions Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry, Chris Wilcox, Fab Melo. Team Blog Celtics Blog
Key Players
Rajon Rondo

When Rondo does come back from a partially torn ACL, he'll be without many established scorers on the roster. Last season's NBA assist leader will now be tasked with creating his own scoring opportunities, something he hasn't needed to do in his seven-year career.

Jeff Green

The Celtics have always liked Green, and during a season where injuries led to opportunity, the 27-year-old forward finally came out of his shell. In the 2013 playoffs, Green averaged 20.3 points per game. He will be counted on to play a lot of minutes at both forward slots and to keep up his scoring pace.

Avery Bradley

The defensive hound will begin the season as a starting point guard, but he could slide to the shooting guard spot when Rondo returns from his ACL injury. That would give Boston a very small backcourt, but Bradley's defensive abilities could make up for his size.

The Lead

Everything is new for the Celtics, including their 36-year-old coach Brad Stevens, who has never worked in the NBA before this season. Stevens seems to have the right approach to break the cycle of failure that has plagued college coaches in the past. Armed with an analytical mind and a calm sideline demeanor, Stevens seems to be more Dr. Jack Ramsey than John Calipari. Can he and Rajon Rondo form a partnership to bring the Celtics back from the brink?

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Person of Interest

Avery Bradley has spent his first three seasons establishing himself as one of the NBA's premier defensive guards, a wiry ball of energy capable of hounding the opposition for 94 feet. As Bradley enters a contract year, he now faces a new challenge: becoming a capable two-way player for a Celtics team that desperately needs scoring with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett now in Brooklyn. Bradley has long boasted the pedigree of someone who could be so much more than a role player. This season, he'll be given every chance to prove it.

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Film Room All Star

It used to be that you could defend Rajon Rondo by essentially not defending him. Sag off in the paint, and Rondo couldn’t make you pay. But that’s no longer the case, in part because of his improved jumper, but mostly because he’ll take the space you give him and leave you in the dust with vicious hesitation moves. We break down Rondo’s footwork and how he’s able to be effective when the defense doesn’t respect him.

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The Key Question

Does Rajon Rondo HAVE to be traded?

In a word, no. I reject the notion that the only way this can go is a full tear-down job. I will admit that it is an option the Celtics must consider, especially if things don't go according to plan in other areas. I just don't agree that it is the only option.

I'd want the farm and a few cows and chickens to boot in any trade for Rondo. Rondo is a legit star in his prime that has many productive years ahead of him. He's a smart guy and he should know that he's got his best opportunity to maximize his career here in Boston. He has a wonderful opportunity to develop a team alongside Brad Stevens that utilizes his unique skillset in ways he never has been able to do before.

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Best Case

Rajon Rondo returns from his ACL injury with a vengeance, providing on-court direction for this exceptionally random roster and inflating everyone’s trade value, from Kris Humphries to Jared Sullinger.

Worst Case

Rondo’s too good and the Celtics inadvertently challenge for one of the last playoff spots in the East. Or, Rondo’s return happens much too late to salvage anything of value and the Celtics are dreadfully mediocre, but not quite bad enough to land a good draft pick.

Get your Celtics on at
Celtics Blog

Charlotte
Bobcats

After the Bobcats spent much of the previous season starting Bismack Biyombo and Byron Mullens in the frontcourt, they realized they were starting Bismack Biyombo and Byron Mullens in the frontcourt. As a result, Rich Cho decided to sign Al Jefferson in free agency and draft Cody Zeller to give the team a new starting frontcourt. Though they may be softer than Ben Gibbard’s voice, improving their frontcourt may be enough to get them out of the NBA’s cellar. — Ben Swanson

2012-2013 Record 21-61, 14th in Eastern Conference.
Head Coach Steve Clifford. Clifford takes over for Mike Dunlap after spending last season as an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers. Clifford is known as a defensive coach, and he'll be tasked with turning around a Bobcats defense that has ranked last in the NBA in defensive rating the past two seasons. That will be no easy task with Al Jefferson manning the middle, but at least some improvement should be expected.
Additions Al Jefferson, Cody Zeller, Anthony Tolliver, hopefully Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s jump shot.
Subtractions Byron Mullens’ shot selection, Tyrus Thomas, Reggie Williams, DeSagana Diop. Team Blog Rufus on Fire
Key Players
Al Jefferson

Jefferson has always been a productive player, and things were no different in his last season with the Utah Jazz. But while the offensive production is solid, there's a huge problem when it comes to Jefferson: defense. The Jazz were a whopping 9.2 points per 100 possessions worse with Jefferson on the court last season, according to NBA.com, and per Synergy Sports Technology, he was ranked 279th in points per play allowed.

Kemba Walker

Walker enjoyed a solid second season in the league, averaging 17.7 points and 5.7 assists to lead the Bobcats in both categories. Walker did battle some inconsistency, as evident by his 42.3 percent field goal percentage and 32.2 percent mark from long range, but if he continues to improve upon his efficiency, he could possibly establish himself as a top-10 player at that position.

Gerald Henderson

It took a while for Henderson and the Bobcats to reach an agreement on a new contract, but the two sides finally came to terms on a three-year deal worth $18 million. It's a very fair deal for Henderson, who had the best season of his career in 2012-13.

The Lead

Al Jefferson never met a shot he didn't like, and that's exactly why the woeful Bobcats went out and signed him in the offseason. Big Al isn't likely to lead Charlotte to the playoffs anytime soon, but the Cats have a more modest goal: competitiveness. How else will they know if their young talent is worth developing?

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Person of Interest

As a rookie last season, No. 2 overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had a rough introduction to the NBA. Without much help around him in Charlotte, Kidd-Gilchrist’s lack of a jumper was exposed by NBA defenses. The Bobcats brought in Mark Price to help fix his mechanics, but the additions of Al Jefferson and Cody Zeller up front should allow Kidd-Gilchrist to play a secondary role in the offense and focus on the things that made him special at Kentucky.

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Film Room All Star

As a small combo guard in a league that keeps getting longer, Kemba Walker faced an uphill battle to be as good a scorer as he was at UConn. But while the rest of his game still needs to develop, he’s quickly established himself as a player who can put the ball in the basket. How does he do it? We break down the mechanics of his deadliest weapon: the pull-up jump shot.

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The Key Question

Are the Bobcats trying to abandon the rebuilding process too soon?

On the eve of the most anticipated draft class since Sports Illustrated put LeBron James shirtless in a cornfield for their magazine, people are fairly wondering if they've made the move away from tanking too soon.

Tanking is painful and the lottery and the draft is a crapshoot, but getting a great draft pick in what should be a loaded class might be worth it in the long-term process. On the other hand, the Bobcats need to be able to attract decent free agents, and you don't do that starting Byron Mullens for 41 games.

Still, the Bobcats did not completely take out all their rebuilding-through-the-draft eggs from the basket. They could have three first-round picks in 2014, depending on themselves, the Pistons and the Trail Blazers' performance. They have plenty of assets to make moves that can add to the team's long-term value through the draft, even after spending the big bucks on Al Jefferson.

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Best Case

With Al Jefferson averaging 20 and 10, the Bobcats begin to resemble a functioning basketball team. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s range extends to 10 feet, Cody Zeller wins Rookie of the Year and the Cats finally get lucky in the lottery.

Worst Case

Frustrated by his team’s lack of progress, Michael Jordan replaces Rich Cho with one of his golfing buddies and challenges the entire team to games of one-on-one and knockout.

Get your Bobcats on at
Rufus on Fire

Chicago
Bulls

So, #TheReturn. It's here, a mere 17 months later. That's the last time Derrick Rose played in an NBA game that mattered. After a year of vague timetables and hot media injury takes, the Bulls' star is back, ready to lead a team that needs him more than ever. The Bulls have championship aspirations, but with their small forward in a contract year, their power forward an Amnesty candidate, their center perpetually struggling with nagging injuries and their coach and GM involved in a power struggle, this may be their last, best chance. Not a bad time to get D-Rose back. — Mike Prada

2012-2013 Record 45-37, fifth in Eastern Conference.
Head Coach Tom Thibodeau. Since coming to Chicago in the summer of 2010, Thibodeau has transformed the Bulls into a defensive juggernaut. However, Thibodeau has come under some fire for overworking his players, especially Luol Deng and Joakim Noah last season.
Additions Mike Dunleavy, Tony Snell, Erik Murphy, Derrick Rose's healthy ACL.
Subtractions Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Rip Hamilton, Daequan Cook, Vladimir Radmanovic. Team Blog Blog a Bull
Key Players
Derrick Rose

Rose returning to his MVP form, or at least close to it, is essential to the Bulls' championship dreams. There's reason for some healthy skepticism regarding Rose's return, but the star point guard is extremely confident in both himself and his team.

Luol Deng

Deng has made the All-Star team two years in a row despite posting the two lowest field goal percentages of his career. The Bulls are hoping the return of Rose will help Deng's shooting. On the defensive end, Deng and Jimmy Butler combine to form arguably the league's best wing duo, an ideal thing to have against Miami.

Joakim Noah

Noah has blossomed into one of the best centers in the league, and he'll once again be counted on to anchor Tom Thibodeau's defense. When healthy last season, Noah was a dominant defensive force, and he had a great shot at the Defensive Player of the Year Award before plantar fasciitis sidelined him toward the end of the year.

The Lead

Derrick Rose is back. Finally. Can the Bulls put last season's disaster behind them in time to take advantage of the talent on hand? It's up to Rose to bring the Bulls back to prominence, and if he can, the pieces are in place to make a strong push toward a championship.

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Person of Interest

Derrick Rose is back for the Chicago Bulls, but much of his supporting cast looks similar to the team that lost to the Miami Heat in five games in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals. The one notable exception is Jimmy Butler, the former No. 30 overall pick who broke out as an iron man contributor on the wing in the second half of last season. Butler is already a killer defender and his offensive game is evolving quickly. Is this the player the Bulls were missing to get out of the East?

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Film Room All Star

Tom Thibodeau's famous strong-side zone defense has stood the test of recent time. It helped lead the Celtics to a title, and it's made the Bulls one of the league's stingiest opponents. But for the system to work, it needs a Kevin Garnett-like anchor to be its hub. Watch and observe how Joakim Noah has developed into Thibodeau's anchor, using his length, quickness and defensive intelligence to shut off other teams' plays before they even begin.

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The Key Question

Can they stay healthy?

To make that best shot happen, the team has to be healthy in the playoffs. Injury questions surround both Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Deng has forgone correctable surgery on his wrist sprain and was nicked up in other places last season. Carlos Boozer's actually been durable the past two seasons but has a well-known history of missing games. There are frontcourt depth issues (Nazr Mohammed being the only backup center) only exacerbated by Tom Thibodeau’s style of play. In the wake of past injury issues, they've pledged up and down the organization to better manage the season as the marathon it is, and hopefully that will pay dividends in the spring.

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Best Case

Derrick Rose hears MVP chants all year and Joakim Noah and Luol Deng each play reasonable minutes, making the Bulls the team no one wants to face in the postseason. Jimmy Butler gets even better, Marquis Teague cracks the rotation and no one can hear Carlos Boozer’s screams above the din.

Worst Case

Last season. Let’s never mention it again.

Get your Bulls on at
Blog a Bull

Cleveland
Cavaliers

Cleveland spent the past three years tanking like crazy rebuilding and finally have a nice young core to develop. Kyrie Irving is the cornerstone, but Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett all have promise. Mike Brown replaces Byron Scott as coach with the intention of bringing this thing called "defense" back to the Cavs. Anderson Varejao is back from a scary season-ending blood clot and looks to pick up where he left off, Andrew Bynum will provide some hilarious hair styles at least and Jarrett Jack adds a veteran presence. If they stay healthy, they could be pretty dangerous come April, but that's a big if. — Conrad Kaczmarek

2012-2013 Record 24-58, 13th in Eastern Conference.
Head Coach Mike Brown. The 2012-13 season wasn't exactly a great one for Brown, but he's rebounded nicely by returning to Cleveland. With an up-and-coming roster learning from the defensive-minded Brown, a guy with NBA Finals experience as a head coach, the fit makes sense for both sides right now.
Additions Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack, Anthony Bennett, Earl Clark, Carrick Felix, Mike Brown, 2014 cap space for LeBron.
Subtractions Byron Scott, Wayne Ellington, Marreese Speights, Shaun Livingston, Luke Walton, Daniel Gibson, Donald Sloan, Omri Casspi. Team Blog Fear the Sword
Key Players
Kyrie Irving

Irving is the future of the franchise and its unquestioned leader during the transition under Mike Brown. The 2012 Rookie of the Year and 2013 All-Star has a high ceiling and has already established himself as a star player. With more talent around him, Irving should see even more improvement in his third year.

Andrew Bynum

The last time Bynum played NBA basketball, he was an All-Star with the Los Angeles Lakers. Unfortunately, that was back in 2012, and he spent the 2012-13 season with thePhiladelphia 76ers garnering more attention for his hair than anything since he didn't suit up for a single game. The 76ers had to abandon their plans to build around the 25-year-old, and now it's Cleveland's turn to roll the dice, except this time the stakes aren't as high.

Dion Waiters

After an up-and-down rookie campaign, Waiters is firmly planted as the starting two-guard for the Cavs and should take big leaps forward as the second half of a dynamic young backcourt. He will continue to benefit from the attention his superior teammate draws and should get plenty of open looks from the perimeter in an attempt to improve his three-point shooting.

The Lead

After three years of shedding salaries and building through the draft, it's finally time to start winning again in Cleveland. Will general manager Chris Grant's free-agent addition additions provide the necessary support for Kyrie Irving and company, or will we all look back at draft-day decisions and wonder what might have been?

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Person of Interest

The No. 4 pick in the 2011 draft made a drastic change in the offseason, becoming the first player in NBA history to change his shooting hand. While Tristan Thompson had a breakout season last year, an inability to shoot from the perimeter put a ceiling on how good he could be. With more teams playing with four shooters, a power forward like Thompson has to be able to stretch the floor. If changing hands doesn’t work, he may not be a long-term fit in Cleveland.

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Film Room All Star

Big men and health issues seemingly go hand-in-hand in the NBA and Anderson Varejao is no exception. The Cavaliers held on to Varejao, the last holdover from the LeBron James era, and he's proven to be one of the most active frontcourt players around the rim. Whether it's protecting it, rebounding around it or finishing in it, Varejao is a key piece in everything the Cavs need to accomplish in the restricted area. If only he could stay on the court.

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The Key Question

Who is going to be Kyrie Irving’s right-hand man?

Kyrie Irving is a stud. Now, they need somebody to step up and be his sidekick. If by some medical miracle Andrew Bynum stays healthy, that'd be an adequate second option after Irving. But more likely, it will be one of Anthony Bennett or Dion Waiters blossoming into a borderline All-Star. Both have the offensive talent to do so, but will need to score efficiently, develop great chemistry with Irving and most importantly, play solid defense. Neither Waiters nor Bennett needs to become a star this season, but there need to be some serious signs that stardom is on the way.

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Best Case

Andrew Bynum plays 50 games, Anderson Varejao stays healthy for 75 and the defense improves to league average, allowing Kyrie Irving to lead the league in awesome. Jarrett Jack tutors Dion Waiters in the art of the nononoYES! last-second shot and Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett complement each other nicely.

Worst Case

Jack and Waiters take turns dribbling aimlessly, while injuries force Thompson and/or Bennett to have to fill in at center, leading a bewildered Irving to issue ultimatums in Comic Sans.

Get your Cavs on at
Fear the Sword

Detroit
Pistons

Detroit’s offseason was highlighted by the acquisitions of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, and so it's pretty clear that their goal is to … uh, do something. Maybe they're trying to put together an awesome all-lefty lineup. Maybe they're trying to make sure that they have NO shooting ability by throwing Smith and Jennings out there with Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Or, maybe they're just putting together a whole bunch of talented players and trying to work out how those pieces fit together as they go along. Will Detroit be good? We have no idea. Are they a hell of a lot more intriguing than last year? You bet. — Conrad Kaczmarek

2012-2013 Record 29-53, 11th in Eastern Conference.
Head Coach Maurice Cheeks. The silver lining in Detroit's hire of Cheeks over some other more appealing candidates was his history of developing young players. Cheeks has coached good teams before — he had 99 wins in his first two seasons as the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers — and he's spent the last four seasons as an assistant for Scott Brooks on the Oklahoma City Thunder bench, which surely counts for something.
Additions Josh Smith, Josh Smith’s shot selection, Brandon Jennings, Brandon Jennings’ shot selection, Chauncey B-B-B-Billups, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Luigi Datome, Josh Harrellson, Maurice Cheeks, COACH RASHEED WALLACE.
Subtractions Jose Calderon, Brandon Knight, Jason Maxiell, Khris Middleton, Kim English, Corey Maggette, Lawrence Frank. Team Blog Detroit Bad Boys
Key Players
Greg Monroe

Monroe’s game may clash with the emergence of Andre Drummond, who also lacks a floor game. But while Drummond represents more potential as an elite big man, Monroe is already a solid player in the league who seems to be showing continued improvement in other areas. With another anchor in the paint, Monroe's passing skills should come in handy, too.

Josh Smith

Smith seems to be an interesting fit for the Pistons. He's a strong defender who also adds much-needed offense to a team that will need it from every source it can scrounge. He is not afraid to shoot, but his shot selection seems to clash with his skill set, causing inefficiency.

Andre Drummond

Drummond had a spectacular rookie season considering the limited amount of time he played. His stats equaled out to a 36-minute rate of 13.8 points and 13.2 rebounds, which is very good. Although the skills he showed as a rookie may not be sustainable, he certainly showed signs that he could become an elite player.

The Lead

The league's most dramatic overhaul will either be a smashing success or an epic disaster. There seems to be very little middle ground, as Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings look to rehabilitate their careers and the proud Pistons franchise.

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Person of Interest

NBA teams are usually willing to fall over themselves for a shot at a player like Andre Drummond, a rare package of extreme size, power and athleticism who at times seems like he can dominate a game on a whim. Drummond proved his draft-day doubters wrong in his rookie year, but his limited playing time makes projecting his hyper-efficient numbers across starter's minutes a complex task. Is this the next great NBA big man, or will Drummond's shortcomings away from the rim (and at the foul line) limit his impact?

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Film Room All Star

People love to bag on Josh Smith for his terrible shot selection and occasional lack of focus, but there are so many positives that he brings to the table that we take for granted. After all, there’s a reason he was one of the most sought-after free agents this summer. In this breakdown, we specifically look at Smith’s man-to-man defense. Watch how he is able to shut down all sorts of players, from hulking post-up beasts to speedy perimeter scorers.

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The Key Question

What will be the starting backcourt?

It's a question that seems to be asked of the beat writers every day on Twitter, in mailbags and probably when they're at the Farmer's Market. Ideally, rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will force Maurice Cheeks' hand, but it would not surprise me to see Chauncey Billups start alongside Brandon Jennings to begin the season. Starting Billups with Jennings will allow KCP to ease into a bigger role as he acclimates to the NBA game while also not putting too much pressure on him before he even gets his feet wet. Meanwhile, Billups and Jennings can alternate playing floor general, Jennings learning from the veteran firsthand in sort of the modern day combo guard role that GM Joe Dumars seems to love.

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Best Case

Josh Smith finds his true calling as a large three, Greg Monroe gets a jump shot and Brandon Jennings leads the league in assists by throwing a gazillion alley-oops to Andre Drummond. You heard it here first: Kentavious-Caldwell Pope for Rookie of the Year.

Worst Case

The Pistons lead the league in long twos, somebody writes "Trade Me" on their sneakers and Coach Sheed leads the league in ejections. Wait, that last part would be kind of awesome.

Get your Pistons on at
Detroit Bad Boys

Indiana
Pacers

Last year’s Game 7 loss to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals was a rough one for Indy, but they're getting the band back together. David West and Roy Hibbert are still there to hold down the paint, Paul George signed a big extension and looks to take another huge step towards superstardom, Lance Stephenson and George Hill make for a solid backcourt and Luis Scola will give their bench a much-needed boost. One potential wild card: Danny Granger might be healthy. Can Frank Vogel insert Granger into the rotation without messing up the dynamic that got the Pacers oh-so-close to the NBA Finals? — Conrad Kaczmarek

2012-2013 Record 49-32, third in Eastern Conference.
Head Coach Frank Vogel. The Pacers have enjoyed quite a bit of success since Vogel took over as interim coach in 2011. Indiana's calling card under Vogel has been its defense, as it had the best defensive rating in the NBA last season and also posted strong defensive numbers in 2011-12.
Additions Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, Solomon Hill, Donald Sloan, A Healthy Danny Granger.
Subtractions Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, Sam Young, Jeff Ayers. Team Blog Indy Cornrows
Key Players
Paul George

George showed glimpses of his immense talent in his first two years in the league, but he was able to shine last season with Granger out of the lineup. George stepped his game up even further in the postseason, and now that he's Indiana's "Designated Player," he'll be expected to step it up another notch. George is already a great two-way player, but he could vault himself into superstardom if he can improve his offensive efficiency.

Roy Hibbert

Hibbert got off to a disastrous start offensively last season, shooting under 38 percent in November and 41 percent in December. But Hibbert improved as the year went on, and by the last few months of the year, the big man was a force on both ends of the floor. And oh yeah, the big dude got even bigger this offseason.

David West

West has been an integral part of the Pacers' frontcourt the past two years, and the team rewarded him with a new three-year contract this offseason worth over $36 million. It may be a bit risky to give a three-year deal to a 33-year-old who has recently suffered a major knee injury, but West showed no signs of decline last season.

The Lead

It took years of patience, but the Pacers are a serious contender again thanks to smart drafting and savvy roster management. Their blueprint is not as flashy as some, but it provides a realistic focus for small-market hopefuls. With everything in place, Paul George and Roy Hibbert look to take the next step on an unlikely journey to an NBA crown

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Person of Interest

After missing almost all of last season with a knee injury, Danny Granger returns to a dramatically different Indiana team. With the emergence of Paul George and Lance Stephenson on the wings, Granger will have the smallest role in the offense since his second season in the NBA. Nevertheless, his length and shooting ability could be a huge bonus for the Pacers, especially when they go small. In what could be his last season in Indiana, Granger has a chance to put them over the top in a stacked Eastern Conference.

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Film Room All Star

Paul George and Roy Hibbert may be the Pacers’ marquee players, but without a traditional, ball-dominant point guard, the Pacers need someone to grease wheels and keep their offensive parts together. Increasingly, David West has taken on that role. Still one of the league’s most creative scorers, West has learned a new trick: passing. His newfound ability to pick out cutters and make decisions on the move has allowed Indiana’s offense to survive.

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The Key Question

How will Frank Vogel manage the playing rotation?

Options. The Pacers resemble a Rubik's Cube with all of the playing combinations they can trot out on the court. Frank Vogel preaches positivity and no doubt considers all of those options a good problem to have for a coach. But it also opens up Vogel for some legitimate criticism depending on how he handles the rotation.

In prior seasons, Vogel has been working with a developing core of talent and a less-than-effective bench which he was able to coerce into exceeding expectations against what often appeared like more talented opponents. That talent gap is shrinking despite still lacking a top-10 superstar, but there is more than enough talent for the Pacers to remain in the mix atop the Eastern Conference from the start of the season. Unlike last year, the bench actually needs to deliver, but if they do that will set up Vogel to pull the right strings at the right time to turn this into a special year. If he can't, the excuses of the past will no longer carry any weight.

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Best Case

Hibbert wins Defensive Player of the Year, Danny Granger takes top Sixth Man honors and Paul George enters the superstar conversation for real. Fortified by a stronger bench, the Pacers shock the world and face the Thunder in the Finals, forcing weary scribes to figure out how to fly from Indianapolis to Oklahoma City in fewer than two layovers.

Worst Case

The bench reinforcements don’t mesh and the starters play too many minutes, leading to injuries and fatigue. Another slow start costs them playoff positioning, and the Bulls end their season in seven brutal playoff games.

Get your Pacers on at
Indy Cornrows

Miami
Heat

Last year, the Heat followed up on a championship title by bringing in one of the best three-point shooters of all time in Ray Allen and wildly-athletic big man Chris Andersen, who may be more tattoo ink than flesh and blood at this point. This year, they added Greg Oden and Michael Beasley after winning the title. Normally, it’s pretty difficult to make an already incredibly fun team more interesting to watch, but Pat Riley just did it. If they can just get by the Charlotte Bobcats, a three-peat all but has their name inscribed on the trophy. — Ben Swanson

2012-2013 Record 66-16, first in Eastern Conference.
Head Coach Erik Spoelstra. LeBron gets all the credit, but Spoelstra has also improved the Heat the last three seasons. Arguably, he has his best roster yet around the Big Three, though a lot depends on the health of Greg Oden and Dwyane Wade and the potential for Michael Beasley to stay out of trouble and in tune with the Heat's plan on the court.
Additions Greg Oden, Michael Beasley, Roger Mason Jr.
Subtractions Mike Miller, Juwan Howard. Team Blog Hot Hot Hoops
Key Players
Lebron James

The King is in his prime, and he's shown no sign of slowing down. James will, as usual, do everything from guarding the opponent's dangerous point guard to playing as a point forward. He's a three-point shooter, facilitator and everything in between. James averaged 37.9 minutes per game, which somehow seems reasonable considering how much he stuffs the box score and how many roles he fills for Miami.

Dwyane Wade

Wade will play off James as an aging second option, but one who is still good for 20 points per game. The Heat's starting shooting guard will remain as that, but there could be a growing push to limit his minutes, opening opportunities for some bench players. Miami needs Wade healthy for the postseason, and doling out some of his playing time to others could be an option, though one that may irk Wade himself.

Chris Bosh

Miami's starting center should continue spacing the floor to create driving lanes for James and Wade. Bosh may have had trouble against bigger teams like the Indiana Pacers last season, but there's still little reason to think he won't continue to play as an undersized big man. Then again, he could see more time at his natural power forward position. Chris Andersen made a big difference defensively last season, and the potential for Greg Oden to stay healthy could give Miami more options.

The Lead

LeBron James has conquered the world, but can he keep his crown for another season amid a backdrop of long-term uncertainty? He'll have help from a familiar supporting cast, but as James joins the ranks of immortals, it's fair to ask how much longer he can keep the Heat on top.

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Person of Interest

Dwyane Wade got a glimpse of his basketball mortality in last season’s NBA Finals. Struggling with a knee injury and unable to punish the Spurs from the perimeter, he was a shadow of himself, with the worst +/- on the Heat roster. While he should be healthier after taking the summer off, at the age of 32, Wade needs to start making adjustments to his game if he wants to remain an elite player.

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Film Room All Star

The Miami Heat know their defensive identity. They are committed to trapping and disrupting ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll, an area they were ranked first in the NBA on defense. It takes discipline and decisiveness to play such a high-risk style of play. How does Miami get away with it? The weight of the scheme is on Chris Bosh's shoulders.

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The Key Question

Can Dwyane Wade stay healthy?

Dwyane Wade’s fellow teammates reported that he looked fresh and ready during training camp. But Wade chose to sit out some of the preseason games, so that may or may not be an indication that he will seek to be on a maintenance plan for the regular season. He also admitted to the media that he may never be 100 percent again, while also expressing regret over knee surgery he had while at Marquette. We may never know just how much explosiveness Wade has lost, but if he can stay reasonably healthy, then the Heat can be unstoppable with LeBron James carrying the heaviest work load and Chris Bosh able to step up and be more than just a third option on offense.

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Best Case

LeBron wins another MVP, Dwyane Wade needs fewer than three halftime injections for his knees and Chris Bosh finally gets some respect. Shane Battier and Ray Allen take turns making clutch 3s en route to a three-peat. No one opts out.

Worst Case

Injuries finally catch up to Miami and LeBron takes the next flight out to wherever.

Get your Heat on at
Hot Hot Hoops

Milwaukee
Bucks

Oh, Bucks. With seemingly every team in the Eastern Conference committing to either making a serious playoff push or tanking shamelessly, the Bucks did neither. Milwaukee's entire backcourt from last season is gone, but the Bucks should still be interesting, albeit thoroughly mediocre. They might be trying to set an NBA record for combined wingspan with Ekpe Udoh, John Henson, LARRY SANDERS! and Giannis Antetokounmpo. And yes, I just wanted to prove that I could spell Antetokounmpo. AntetokounmpoAntetokounmpoAntetokounmpo. — Conrad Kaczmarek

2012-2013 Record 38-44, eighth in Eastern Conference.
Head Coach Larry Drew. Drew's first season in Milwaukee doesn't have a lot of definitives. What is does have is a roster that could be desperately trying to make the Eastern Conference playoffs, and a lot of it is pending on the development of some youngsters. The Bucks have the fixings to be decent defensively and with enough shooting to stay competitive, but Drew will need to build an identity that can win without much firepower.
Additions (deep breath) O.J. Mayo, Brandon Knight, Caron Butler, Gary Neal, Luke Ridnour, Zaza Pachulia, Carlos Delfino, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Miroslav Raduljica, Larry Drew
Subtractions Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, J.J. Redick, Mike Dunleavy, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Marquis Daniels, Samuel Dalembert, Gustavo Ayon, Drew Gooden, Jim Boylan. Team Blog Brew Hoop
Key Players
Larry Sanders

Not only did Sanders sign a contract extension this summer, but the mass exodus of the Bucks' best perimeter players firmly made him the face of a very different-looking franchise. Sanders should again be one of the NBA's best interior defenders on a team that will need to rely on defense if it hopes to make the playoffs. He will also be a solid pick-and-roll man. If he can give anything more than that, it'll be icing on the cake.

O.J. Mayo

The shooting guard proved that he could be an 18-point-per-game scorer prior to the All-Star break last season when he was with the Dallas Mavericks. Now, he'll have to carry a load for an entire season. Mayo will act as go-to scorer as well as playmaker, but he'll need to be able to score off the ball with young point guard Brandon Knight being capable of dominating it.

Ersan Ilyasova

The Turkish forward quietly shot 44 percent from three-point range last season and gives Milwaukee the spacing for big men like Sanders or Zaza Pachulia to operate in the post. Or, he opens up the floor for Knight and Mayo to drive to the hoop. Ilyasova is a good enough rebounder to play as a slightly-undersized power forward.

The Lead

‘Tis better to tank than to try to win games? That's what most people will tell you, but the Bucks are going for it anyway. Their ceiling may be limited, but with a handful of veteran additions and a decent core of young talent, maybe the Bucks know something we don't. ‘Tis better to compete than to wait for ping pong balls.

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Person of Interest

Milwaukee, a rebuilding team in a small market, needs to hit on draft picks like second-year big man John Henson. The UNC product didn’t play much as a rookie, but he flashed glimpses of the talent that made him the No. 14 pick in 2012. Even though he may not be a great fit with Larry Sanders, the Bucks will have to find minutes for Henson, a 6’11 player with the length of a center, the foot speed of a guard and the game of a combo forward.

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Film Room All Star

Armed by a legion of analysts and a landmark paper that measured his impact, Larry Sanders emerged as one of the league’s best interior defenders last season. Not only is he one of the league’s best shot-blockers, but he also plays a huge role in altering what would be easy layups otherwise. How does he do it? We take a closer look at the way Sanders uses his titanic arms to distract defenders at the basket.

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The Key Question

Could finishing .500 and landing the eighth seed (again!) actually be a good thing?

As you may have noticed, the Bucks are no strangers to the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference. In fact, they've been around that area so long that they may even be paying property tax on it. For a team that has opted to stay competitive rather than deconstruct into a bottom-five team heading into a loaded upcoming draft, the middle ground would seem like the worst possible place for the Bucks to end up come April. But could it actually be an encouraging sign for the Bucks this time around?

Though finishing close to or at .500 may produce the same opinions and jokes that the Bucks are now all too familiar with, not all 41-41 seasons are created equal. If this year's collective can achieve that record, one could even say it was a good thing in the big picture.

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Best Case

The Bucks win 38 games and face the Heat in the first round of the playoffs.

Worst Case

The Bucks win 38 games and face the Heat in the first round of the playoffs.

Get your Bucks on at
Brew Hoop

Brooklyn
Nets

OK, we get it: the Nets want to be VERY good RIGHT now. With a big offseason-- one of the biggest-- that brought in most of the Celtics' core (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry) and a ton of bench help (Andrei Kirilenko in particular), they certainly will be. Brooklyn looks as stacked as anyone in the league, albeit old and not exactly sturdy. Is rookie Coach Jason Kidd (still weird) prepared to orchestrate his rotation's effectiveness, chemistry and health? To navigate through the whims of age and infirmity? This team can grow into something excellent, but it won't happen automatically. — Seth Rosenthal

2012-2013 Record 49-33, fourth in East.
Head Coach Jason Kidd. Seeing as Kidd has never coached, it's difficult to assess how effective he'll be in year one. It is known, though, that these Nets will look philosophically different than last year's team. At his introductory news conference in June, Kidd said he'd move away from the stodgy half-court offense and move closer to an up-tempo style. If nothing else, the Nets should be more fun to watch.
Additions Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko, Jason Terry, Shaun Livingston, Alan Anderson, Mason Plumlee, Jason Kidd.
Subtractions Gerald Wallace, C.J. Watson, Keith Bogans, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Jerry Stackhouse, P.J. Carlesimo. Team Blog Nets Daily
Key Players
Deron Williams

Williams struggled during the first half of last season with ankle inflammation, and the injury problems kept his season from taking off until he returned to form after a week off during the All-Star weekend. Williams, 29, is still a top point guard when healthy and in shape, and a return to a faster-paced style will play to his strength as a player who excels in an open court.

Brook Lopez

Lopez had a career year last year, but is likely the player who will have to adjust most to the new regime. Lopez is used to a more deliberate half-court pace that aims toward the post, and the Nets have talked about wanting to push the pace. But Kidd will be sure to make adjustments to account for Lopez's emergence as one of the league's top big men.

Paul Pierce

Pierce and Kevin Garnett are no strangers of playing with a point guard who likes to run. That's not to say Williams and Rajon Rondo are similar players, but both are used to moving up and down the court. Pierce plays a lot like Joe Johnson, so their chemistry will be worth watching.

The Lead

It's not every day that you can acquire a pair of Hall of Famers on a team with championship aspirations, so why is everyone so down on the Nets? Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce may not be the KG and Truth of old, but they still have plenty of game. Together with Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, the Nets big gamble may ultimately pay off.

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Person of Interest

The additions of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will draw all the headlines in Brooklyn, but it's the progress of returning center Brook Lopez that will go a long way towards determining how viable the Nets are moving forward. Lopez broke out last season as one of the league's top low-post threats while also turning himself into a adequate defender. Better teammates should lead to maximized floor spacing in Brooklyn this season, which means Lopez will have every opportunity to shine again in the middle.

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Film Room All Star

Kevin Garnett may not possess the athleticism and agility he did when he was manning the paint for the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he's still a savvy defender with one of the largest wingspans the NBA has seen. His use of angles and footwork to push defenders where he wants them is still top-notch, even if he is getting older.

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The Key Question

How long of an adjustment period will this team need?

With a brand new coach -- a rookie coach, at that -- and such a high turnover from last year's roster, the Nets are likely going to need a period to adjust to playing alongside each other and letting Kidd get his feet wet. But the question remains; how long will that adjustment period take?

It would not surprise me to see them run into some rough waters over the first two months of the season. Yes, two months. I'm not saying they'll got 10-20 over that span, but If they went 17-13 to start the season, would it really surprise you? It wouldn't surprise me.

I do think they'll find their stride after about 30 games into the season and work their way into a Top 3 seed in the East, which would be ideal. We probably will see the team have some early struggles -- as Miami with their 'Big 3' early on in 2010 starting 9-8 and the Lakers did all of last year -- but they'll right it.

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Best Case

Kevin Garnett stays in one piece, Paul Pierce slides into a role as the best supporting player in the league and Deron Williams Instagrams a rousing rendition of Kumbaya while reading comic books with Brook Lopez. Artisanal donuts and fair trade coffee for everyone!

Worst Case

Things fall apart. And by things, we mean limbs, tendons and ligaments, forcing Jason Kidd to rip off his suit and play the point again. The Prokhorov eventually trades everyone to CSKA Moscow.

Get your Nets on at
Nets Daily

New York
Knicks

A very weird, very good 2012-2013 team may have gotten weirder somehow, adding Metta World Peace and allowing the Raptors to spit Andrea Bargnani directly into their mouths. But did they get any better? Glen Grunwald got canned for his efforts, but his efforts included shedding little in the way of talent (Jason Kidd, Chris Copeland, Steve Novak...that's it) and re-signing incumbent free agents while adding Bargnani, World Peace, Beno Udrih and a younger, readier deep-bench than last year's stable of grouchy uncles. A team that finally won a playoff series last season may have geared up for more. — Seth Rosenthal

2012-2013 Record 54-28, second in Eastern Conference.
Head Coach Mike Woodson. Woodson is coming off his most successful season as an NBA head coach. He found new ways to use Carmelo Anthony and had a team underrated on defense, at least in terms of who is on the roster and how many injuries hit. The will be challenged with finding out how to use a stretch big man in Andrea Bargnani and how to incorporate Metta World Peace.
Additions Andrea Bargnani, Metta World Peace, Beno Udrih, Tim Hardaway Jr., Cole Aldrich
Subtractions Jason Kidd, Steve Novak, Chris Copeland, James White, Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby. Team Blog Posting and Toasting
Key Players
Carmelo Anthony

Anthony is coming off the best season of his 10-year career. Now, it's a matter of whether he can keep it up. The Knicks look like last year's team in that it's likely they will continue with their small lineups that spread the floor with Anthony at power forward.

Tyson Chandler

New York's ability to go small certainly is made possible by Chandler's interior defense. The center's health was an issue last year, but even when he was playing through a sore neck, he held down a defense that wasn't too shabby considering the other four players on the floor. The only questions about Chandler revolve around his health and the depth behind him.

J.R Smith

The reigning Sixth Man of the Year will begin the season on the mend from a knee surgery in mid July, and he'll also miss five games after being suspended for a drug violation. With his return set at mid-October at the earliest, it's still a wonder if the explosive bench scorer will be able to recapture the magic of last year's regular season with little time to prepare for this one.

The Lead

After a breakthrough season that ended prematurely, the Knicks acquired a failed former first overall pick who may or may not play nicely with Carmelo Anthony. Same old Knicks? Maybe, but that may also not be a bad thing, because they are still a team to be taken seriously.

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Person of Interest

The Raptors’ willingness to part with forward Andrea Bargnani this offseason wasn't exactly a secret, but the Knicks still paid a future first-round pick to acquire the former No. 1 overall selection in the 2006 draft. Bargnani has struggled shooting the ball the last two years in Toronto, but the Knicks believe a change of scenery and an improved supporting cast could get Bargnani back to the player who signed a $50 million contract as one the league's top outside shooting big men not so long ago.

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Film Room All Star

How did a team with so many brand-name stars only hum when an anonymous 36-year-old rookie was on the floor? Pablo Prigioni has many weaknesses and has too much international mileage to play heavy minutes, but the Knicks needed all the subtle things he brought to the table last season. We take a look at the many ways Prigioni helps the Knicks win.

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The Key Question

Will Mike Woodson stay weird?

Mike Woodson built a system last season that, for a famously stodgy coach, was remarkably unusual and produced some historic weirdness. It started, perhaps out sheer circumstance, with two-point guard lineups that featured extra shooting around Carmelo Anthony and only one true "big man" in Tyson Chandler. Woodson directed groups like those to shoot more threes than any NBA team has ever. And even though the Knicks played mediocre defense, they were able to outpace teams by hoarding possessions through a massively beneficial turnover differential and sound defensive rebounding.

Will he lean harder on what made the Knicks extreme and unusual (and ultimately pretty successful), or will he aim for a more balanced, traditional approach? Or does the best course lie somewhere in between? Play small, or play regular-sized and merely behave small? Or just normalize things completely?

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Best Case

Carmelo Anthony pledges his allegiance, Andrea Bargnani becomes an unlikely folk hero and J.R. Smith gets more backpage headlines than Page Six references.

Worst Case

Tyson Chandler gets hurt, rendering all of this null and void and prompting Melo to plot his escape. As the season slips away, James Dolan replaces Mike Woodson with Steve Alford, but all we know it’s a different Hoosier who’s really calling the shots.

Get your Knicks on at
Posting and Toasting

Orlando
Magic

Jameer Nelson. Victor Oladipo. Andrew Zimmern. Arron Afflalo. Glen Davis. Nikola Vucevic. Tobias Harris. Jason Maxiell. Apolo Ohno. Doron Lamb. That guy with the hair from Arcade Fire. E`Twaun Moore. Anton Chekhov. Maurice Harkless. I’m pretty sure that’s the entire Magic roster. The team is kind of a mess of decent young talent at every position, but we’ve still yet to see if any of them can push the Magic to the next level. — Ben Swanson

2012-2013 Record 20-62, 15th in Eastern Conference.
Head Coach Jacque Vaughn. Vaughn continues his rebuilding project, where development of young players will be key. His job will include pushing Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris after their success last season. Additionally, Vaughn must keep veteran's like Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo comfortable all while making sure Oladipo gets enough playing time to gain experience.
Additions Victor Oladipo, Jason Maxiell, Romero Osby.
Subtractions Beno Udrih, Al Harrington, DeQuan Jones. Team Blog Orlando Pinstriped Post
Key Players
Nikola Vucevic

In his second NBA season, Vucevic broke out to average a double-double. The 7'1, 240-pound center is only 22 years old and his upside will be tested during the 2013-14 season. Vucevic can already stretch defenses out to midrange, but improvement defensively will be the next step for his game.

Tobias Harris

Harris could be the starting small forward, but he's up to 240 pounds this season and is likely to play more power forward with Glen Davis still battling injury. After being traded from the Milwaukee Bucks last season, Harris averaged 17.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.4 blocks per game. If he bumps his three-point shooting percentage to around 35 percent -- it was 31 percent last season -- he could make himself even more valuable

Victor Oladipo

From the onset of the year, Oladipo will assuredly find himself playing a lot. Whether it's at shooting guard or point guard, the No. 2 overall pick from this summer's draft will be leaned upon and should split minutes with veterans Arron Afflalo and Jameer Nelson.

The Lead

Progress is measured incrementally in Orlando, where GM Rob Hennigan has patiently built a young core of talent while resisting the urge to sell off his veterans for pennies on the dollar. The Magic are in no hurry, which seems to suit Hennigan just fine. Will his patience be rewarded?

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Person of Interest

Tobias Harris always seemed to get a raw deal since exiting high school as one of the best players in the country in 2010. After toiling away on bench in Milwaukee for a season and a half, Harris finally got a chance to show what he could do following a midseason trade to the Magic. Now Harris looks like the ideal versatile forward for the modern game and great asset for the rebuilding Magic. Oh, and he's still just 21 years old

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Film Room All Star

Nikola Vucevic was one of the players the Magic landed when trading Dwight Howard. He stands seven feet tall. His standing wingspan? Over nine feet. The measurements are impressive, but the way he uses it makes him one of the leagues best at cleaning the glass. Come get to know the Magic's new center, the one-man rebounding army.

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The Key Question

Is Victor Oladipo really a point guard?

The Magic took the unusual step of playing Oladipo, a natural shooting guard, exclusively at point guard in the Orlando Pro Summer League, and it's become clear that the team plans to use him at that spot extensively in the regular season as well. Though Oladipo doesn't have natural playmaking instincts or a tight handle, Hennigan, coach Jacque Vaughn, and other important members of the organization believe his athleticism and quick first step will serve the team well in a lead-guard capacity.

Positions are more fluid now than they were even five years ago, and the Magic have seen players similar to Oladipo's size and approximate skill-set -- players like Eric Bledsoe and Russell Westbrook, to name but two--excel at the NBA level. Neither is a so-called natural point guard, but both use their athleticism, handle, and size to get defenses off balance. That is the direction in which the Magic see the league moving.

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Best Case

Victor Oladipo becomes a League Pass guilty pleasure, Tobias Harris is as good as he thinks he is and the Magic make incremental progress.

Worst Case

Big Baby Davis leads the team in minutes and shot attempts, while Rob Hennigan continues to work on that buyout for Hedo Turkoglu.

Get your Magic on at
Orlando Pinstriped Post

Philadephia
76ers

The Sixers may set some all-time lows this season, if not for worst record, then at least for fewest players the average NBA fan can name off the top of their head. This team is a crater, and it is newcomer Sam Hinkie's job to build something atop that crater. He's only begun to build the foundation -- drafting the injured and therefore tank-friendly Nerlens Noel to go with his good friend Michael Carter-Williams-- and still has to figure out which incumbent Sixers make better building blocks than trade exiles. The Sixers are gonna suck a whole lot, but not by accident. — Seth Rosenthal

2012-2013 Record 34-48, ninth in Eastern Conference.
Head Coach Brett Brown. Brown left the smooth-sailing San Antonio Spurs organization to become head coach of the 76ers. He knows the upcoming season will be a painful one, but will look to build a foundation with the Sixers' young talent and new front office personnel. Brown is best known as a player development coach and will have his hands full with this new batch of Sixers.
Additions Sam Hinkie, ping-pong combinations, Nerlens Noel, Michael Carter-Williams, James Anderson, Tony Wroten, Darius Morris, Royce White, Brett Brown
Subtractions Many wins, Jrue Holiday, Dorell Wright, Nick Young, Damien Wilkins, Royal Ivey, Doug Collins. Team Blog Liberty Ballers
Key Players
Thaddeus Young

Young is the longest-tenured Sixer on the roster, as he enters his seventh year with the franchise. After back-to-back years of serving as the team's sixth man off the bench, he returned to a full-time starting position and averaged the highest minutes per game in his career. He's not a floor-spacing forward, but is great working in the paint and finding holes in the defense.

Evan Turner

Turner is in the final year of his rookie contract, and he's going to shoulder much of the offensive responsibility for Philadelphia. Turner has been a disappointment with the Sixers, struggling to find a consistent role and posting less than impressive offensive numbers. Still, Turner has a lot of talent, and he has the chance to blossom playing in a role more akin to what he did at Ohio State.

Nerlens Noel

Noel is the Sixers' mulligan for landing a franchise center after a failed season with Andrew Bynum. Noel is still recovering from tearing his ACL while playing for Kentucky, but hopes to return to the court by Christmas. Expectations will be high for Noel, who was widely projected as the first overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft before concerns about his knee and game caused him to slide to No. 6.

The Lead

The 76ers roster is a total disaster ... and that's how new general manager Sam Hinkie likes it. Hinkie blew up the team, which missed the playoffs in the shallow East last season, with impressive speed and a remarkable lack of bashfulness. He hopes it will pay off with a really bad record and the adjoining really high pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Will the conceded season pay off?

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Person of Interest

Evan Turner is a relic for a 76ers franchise ready to embrace a full-on rebuild, but a clean slate might be just what the wing needs heading into a contract year in his fourth season. Turner has been a bit of a disappointment as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft, and this may be his last chance to redeem himself in Philadelphia. Will added responsibility salvage Turner's career, or will he go down as a great college player who could never fully figure it out in the NBA?

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Film Room All Star

When Thaddeus Young scores, most announcers credit the passer because it looks like they’ve made a great look to a wide-open player. But it happens so often that it can’t just be the passer that made the great play. In this breakdown, we look at how Young slithers around the baseline, constantly moving to make himself available near the hoop for his point guards. It helps that he has nice touch, too.

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The Key Question

What moves are left to be made?

Among Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner, and Spencer Hawes, you've got three role players of varying efficiency that could help themselves get the hell out of Tankadelphia with a strong start to the season. With Jrue Holiday gone, there will be counting stats up for grabs and somebody is going to Ricky Davis this situation.

I'd also expect the Sixers to take on some salary before the deadline, maybe moving Kwame Brown in the process to make the contracts match (WAIT BUT KWAME'S OUR FRIEND!) and scooping another pick in the process.

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Best Case

Rookies Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel play 2,000-plus minutes, James Anderson leads team in scoring and Tim Olbrecht becomes a double-double machine, leading the Sixers to 12-70 record and many, many ping-pong balls.

Worst Case

It's so bad they challenge the 72-73 Sixers for worst record ever and the crowds rival an Ivy league doubleheader at the Palestra.

Get your Sixers on at
Liberty Ballers

Toronto
Raptors

Masai Ujiri controls the Raptors now, so the days of reckless, aimless spending should give way to a more methodical team-building blueprint. His team is now free of Andrea Bargnani -- whose well-compensated presence had guaranteed that fans would feel somewhat farty about the Raptors -- and flush with youthful, prancing guard-forwards. The solid Kyle Lowry and immensely-promising Jonas Valanciunas bookend the core, and most everyone in between is 6'8"-ish, young, and liable to jump over things. Whether that group can be molded into something functional remains to be seen, but the Raptors will at least be fun as is. — Seth Rosenthal

2012-2013 Record 34-48, 10th in Eastern Conference.
Head Coach Dwane Casey. A revamped front office has given Casey the go-ahead to continue building a winning culture in Toronto. It hasn't been easy so far, but the Raptors didn't have young talents like DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas or an established name player in Gay until recently. Casey has a deeper roster and budding talent that could bring the Raptors back to relevancy.
Additions Grand Overlord Masai Ujiri, Tyler Hansbrough, Steve Novak, D.J. Augustin, Dwight Buycks.
Subtractions Bryan Colangelo, Andrea Bargnani, Alan Anderson, John Lucas III, Mickael Pietrus, Linas Kleiza, Sebastian Telfair. Team Blog Raptors HQ
Key Players
Rudy Gay

No matter where Gay falls on the scale of above-average player to borderline All-Star, he's the face of the Raptors franchise. Gay is still the go-to scoring threat and, with DeMar DeRozan, he gives Toronto a decent enough one-two punch. If there's anything to be hopeful about, it'll be Gay finding a way to lead a relatively young team that must build a cohesion that's been missing for quite some time.

Kyle Lowry

The tank of a point guard won't be looking over his shoulder this year. Since veteran Jose Calderon was traded in the middle of last season, it's Lowry's Toronto team to lead. He and DeRozan finished last year on a tear as the Raptors won seven of their final nine games of the year.

Jonas Valanciunas

The development of the Lithuanian center showed promise in the NBA Summer League and even in his limited role with EuroBasket's runner-up team. Valanciunas proved to be a defensive force and displayed a new physicality about him, one that's surprising for a 21-year-old. A significant step forward for the young, 6'11 big man could catapult the Raptors forward in their quest for relevancy.

The Lead

No one knows what to expect from Masai Ujiri, who took over the Raptors after winning the Executive of the Year award in Denver. Will he strip the mediocre club bare, or try to build around a few pieces Toronto has in place and make a go of it with this roster? Having already ended the Andrea Bargnani era with a salary dump, all eyes are on what's next for Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan and coach Dwane Casey as Ujiri begins to leave his mark.

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Person of Interest

Jonas Valanciunas is just 21-years old, but the center already finds himself caught in the middle of two countries dying for a new basketball star. The Lithuanian center showed plenty of promise as a rookie for the Toronto Raptors last season, and only added to the burgeoning optimism surrounding him with an encouraging offseason on the court and in the gym. Is Valanciunas already set to capitalize on the star potential scouts have seen in him since he was a teenager playing professionally in Europe, or is it best to slow down the hype train?

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Film Room All Star

For all the advancements in analytics, we still don’t have a great way to measure one of the game’s most fundamental tenets: setting screens. No offense works without them; no player these days really wants to known as being great at them. Amir Johnson, though, is an exception. The Raptors’ forward is offensively limited, but his ability to act as a brick wall makes all of his teammates better. Isn’t that the point of basketball?

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The Key Question

What will Masai Ujiri do with this roster?

There were some that expected moves right away, but when you look at the roster as it is currently comprised, its difficult to see what exactly the movable pieces are. At this point, Jonas Valanciunas would seem to be the player with the most value on the team -- a fact that makes him as close to untouchable as possible. On the flip side, both Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan are certain to have some value, yet not as much as they should given the price tags that are attached to them. Kyle Lowry is coming off of another injury-plagued season in which he failed to live up to expectations and is on the final year of his contract.

In short: Ujiri doesn't have a great deal to work with, and thus his approach of wait and see looks to be the correct one. Exactly how long will he wait?

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Best Case

Rudy Gay’s clutch vision knocks the nerd glasses off true shooting percentage, and math is defeated once and for all. Jonas Valanciunas challenges for an All-Star spot, leading the Raptors to an unlikely -- yet entirely plausible -- berth in the playoffs.

Worst Case

Math wins, the Raps tread water and Masai Ujiri has to conjure another magic spell on some unsuspecting GM. This isn’t all that bad, actually. The Raptors are sort of playing with house money until Ujiri plots his next move. It’s all upside from here.

Get your Raptors on at
Raptors HQ

Washington
Wizards

With four top-10 picks in the past four years, the Wizards are poised to finally deliver on their potential. With the addition of Otto Porter as a two-way wing that can deliver on defense and plug some holes on offense, Wizards fans have one major question lingering: "Is this finally the year? Is this finally the year Jan Vesely’s free throw percentage drops below the Nationals’ team batting average?" Only time will tell for that. With any luck for the rest of the team, the injured Emeka Okafor will be back soon and the team will make a run for the playoffs. — Ben Swanson

2012-2013 Record 29-53, 12th in Eastern Conference.
Head Coach Randy Wittman. For the first time in a long time, a Wizards head coach gained traction and has seemingly put together a plan of attack that has built promise in D.C. With John Wall signed for the long term, Wittman must toy with the pieces around him to find more success. The development of Wall's leadership, Bradley Beal's role and Otto Porter's untapped talent could put the Wizards in the playoff conversation.
Additions Otto Porter, Eric Maynor, Al Harrington, Glen Rice Jr.
Subtractions A.J. Price, Jason Collins. Team Blog Bullets Forever
Key Players
John Wall

After signing a max contract extension, there's not any business to distract Wall for the upcoming year. The point guard's value became clear last season as the Wizards struggled at the beginning of the season while Wall recovered from a knee injury. The 23-year-old franchise cornerstone will lead Washington with his passing and scoring abilities that are especially dangerous in transition.

Bradley Beal

A stress injury ended Beal's rookie season and kept him off the court for a good deal of the offseason. It hasn't lowered expectations for the shooting guard who averaged 13.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game in 2012-13. Beal started all but 10 of the 56 games he played in last year and should be heavily relied upon as a the team's second-best scorer behind Wall.

Nene

The Brazilian big man battled injuries last season but with Emeka Okafor out to start the year, his health will be even more important for a team without much low-post scoring. At 31 years old, Nene was still relatively productive last season, when he averaged 12.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Even more important will be Nene's defense, where he'll be expected to help protect the rim for a team that cracked the top 10 in defensive efficiency last season.

The Lead

For years, the Wizards have been promising a return to the playoffs, only to be undone by injuries and outsized expectations. Their health is still a major concern, but with John Wall hitting his stride, their optimistic outlook may finally be justified.

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Person of Interest

Bradley Beal improved in every month of his rookie season with the Washington Wizards before missing 20 of the team's final 24 games with a leg injury. The guard showed enough poise and promise as a 19-year-old to reinforce the belief that he can be the second star next to John Wall that the Wizards desperately lack. Can Beal and Wall combine to push the Wizards into the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, or too much being expected too soon of the second-year shooting guard?

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Film Room All Star

Nene makes a lot of money, puts up pedestrian per-game stats and is dealing with lingering injuries, but he still makes the Wizards a significantly better team. How does he do it? By excelling in many areas -- passing, help defense, boxing out, setting screens -- that do not show up on the stat sheet.

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The Key Question

So … what if they don’t make the playoffs?

Oh. Oh jeez. If they don't make the playoffs, then there are a lot of things in play.

If the Wizards are in the playoff hunt all season and they narrowly miss making the postseason, it will feel like a failure in some ways, but it'll probably be more of a tinker-and-come-back-fighting experience. If they narrowly miss the playoffs and are still under .500 by a handful or more games, then it'll probably be a stay-the-course and make some bigger free agency moves kind of summer. If it's clear prior to the trade deadline that this team is dead in the water, then I imagine a big mid-season trade will happen.

I would also imagine that it could spell the end for both Randy Wittman and Ernie Grunfeld, but that's just speculation. A lackluster season and another playoff absence under the same tenure with some core players that the team has recently spent a pretty penny to keep around? That wouldn't be as good.

Oh, and the fanbase will implode into its own existential flow of tears. You can bet on that.

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Best Case

Emeka Okafor returns sooner rather than later, forming a potent 1-2 punch with a revitalized Nene on the interior. Bradley Beal takes off and John Wall makes his first All-Star team. Can you say, playoffs?

Worst Case

Okafor is out longer than the government shutdown and an injured Nene is replaced by Jan Vesely in the starting lineup. Beal and Wall regress, allowing Kevin Seraphin to lead the team in scoring.

Get your Wizards on at
Bullets Forever

Western
Conference

West Champion Oklahoma City Thunder

The NBA’s Western Conference is bound to be straight cannibalism. The Spurs are on old wobbly legs … but they're the Spurs. The Grizzlies have a familiar look … but a new coach wandering the sidelines. Maybe Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook can push an Oklahoma City team with a diluted roster around them … James Harden turned into Jeremy Lamb, after all! Doc Rivers’ hoarse voice and his bulldog defensive mentality has rejected the Lob City moniker … but is that enough to push the Clippers over the top? And hey, Golden State and Houston aren't too shabby either with their shiny new free-agent acquisitions. The top and middle of the Western Conference is deep and confusing. Yeah, it'll be cannibalistic.


* Predictions based on the average ranking of over 40 SB Nation bloggers and contributors.

Dallas
Mavericks

The Mavericks willingly burned down a championship core to swing big in free agency. They whiffed, and now all they're left with is Monta Ellis’ errant shots, the inviting feel of Jose Calderon's isolation defense and a few Tyson Chandler bobblehead dolls. Dirk Nowitzki has stayed in place through it all, and the crafty German is worth the price of attention even as his career heads for its conclusion. This team doesn't have enough to give Dirk one final run at a championship, but at least they're not starting Mike James at the point anymore. Baby steps. — Ricky O'Donnell

2012-2013 Record 41-41, 10th in Western Conference.
Head Coach Rick Carlisle. The Mavs are attempting to recreate the magic of the 2011 title with a similar supporting cast around an aging Dirk Nowitzki, and Carlisle is leading the charge. Dallas signed a solid group of new offensive weapons in Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon, but the key will be helping the Mavs play better defense with a more athletic frontcourt this season.
Additions Monta Ellis Have It All, Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Devin Harris, DeJuan Blair, Wayne Ellington, Gal Mekel, Shane Larkin, Ricky Ledo.
Subtractions O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Elton Brand, Chris Kaman, Mike James, Rodridgue Beaubois, Dominique Jones, Anthony Morrow, Jared Cunningham. Team Blog Mavs Moneyball
Key Players
Dirk Nowitzki

A combination of injury problems and the lack of a strong supporting cast wore on Nowitzki last season, but in 2013-14 he enters the year without a health problem and with troops that can help him hold down the fort. The German forward will likely benefit from part of the scoring load now being on Monta Ellis' shoulders.

Monta Ellis

The premier free agent signing by the Mavs this summer finds himself on a team where the playoffs are a perennial destination -- really, an expectation. He has the chance to prove to critics that he won't be a ball-dominating guard with a quick trigger, which is the reputation he's developed. Calderon, Devin Harris and company will help Ellis free himself off the ball, and playing with a bevy of three-point shooters should only help open the driving lanes.

Jose Calderon

Rick Carlisle's offense was at its best in the 2011 NBA Finals with a true floor general like Jason Kidd setting up the offense. Calderon could give Dallas something similar following a season where the team was desperate enough to sign aging guard Mike James in the middle of the year. He'll also give the Mavs a deadly outside shooting threat at the point.

The Lead

Ever since the Mavericks won their title in 2011, Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson have had plans to give Dirk Nowitzki another run. Instead, Dallas has been totally mediocre, with every big push coming up short. (In most cases, well short.) Does Dirk's body have the patience to wait out the next run, or will he instead want to ensure himself one or two more deep playoff runs by asking for a trade? Because, you know, Monta Ellis is now his co-star.

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Person of Interest

Coming off a disastrous stint in Milwaukee, Monta Ellis is trying to turn his career around in Dallas. An explosive scorer whose questionable decision-making has made him a punching bag around the NBA, Ellis got a wake-up call this summer when he languished on the free agent market for almost a month. The Mavericks are hoping that Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle will rub off on him, making him a more efficient player as he moves into his late 20s.

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Film Room All Star

Shawn Marion was once widely known as one of the most respected defenders in the NBA, but as the league has moved on to a new batch of superstars and role players, he has become an afterthought. But he's the anchor of the Mavericks' defense, covering pick-and-rolls and rotating like a big man while still having the defensive chops to be assigned to the best player on the other team on a nightly basis. Enter The Matrix and see for yourself.

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The Key Question

How will new general manager Gersson Rosas shape the roster?

It's not only the players that are the new faces in town. Rosas replaces Donnie Nelson, who was the de-facto GM since 2005. Nelson remains the president of basketball operations.

Rosas worked closely with Houston Rockets' GM Daryl Morey in construction a roster founded on the principles of sabermetrics. This hiring reaffirms the Mavericks' analytical approach to the game. Dallas has long been a team that has relied heavily on free agency rather than developing young talent. Houston, on the other hand, has found a steady median. It’ll be interesting to see how Rosas evaluates the Mavericks roster, not just this season, but for many seasons to come.

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Best Case

Blog posts hail the underappreciated contributions of Monta Ellis. Dirk Nowitzki enjoys a vintage Dirk! season and Mark Cuban trolls everyone at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference with a paper entitled, "Nah, nah, told you."

Worst Case

See: Bucks, Milwaukee.

Get your Mavs on at
Mavs Moneyball

Denver
Nuggets

The Nuggets sort of replaced Andre Iguodala with Randy Foye, so it doesn't seem like we should be raving about their offseason. On the plus side, Nate Robinson arrived, and there is no situation on Earth that isn't more entertaining with Nate Robinson. Congratulations are in order for Brian Shaw, finally an NBA head coach. He wants Denver to dial down the pace and play "smashmouth basketball," which doesn't bode well for those of us who want to see JaVale McGee going coast-to-coast multiple times per game. Can Shaw mine gold from his cadre of young wings? — James Herbert

2012-2013 Record 57-25, third in Western Conference .
Head Coach Brian Shaw. After learning the triangle offense in Los Angeles under the Zen Master, Phil Jackson, and then finding himself on a younger, defensive-oriented staff in Indiana, Shaw takes over a talented roster. His biggest challenge could be determining how to shuffle his rotation where development is as important as winning.
Additions Randy Foye, J.J. Hickson, Nate Robinson, Darrell Arthur, Brian Shaw, Tim Connelly.
Subtractions Andre Iguodala, Corey Brewer, Kosta Koufos, George Karl, Masai Ujiri. Team Blog Denver Stiffs
Key Players
Ty Lawson

Lawson enters the season as the Nuggets' most important player following Andre Iguodala's departure to Golden State. The undersized point guard doesn't get enough credit because, well, he's undersized. Nonetheless, the offense will undoubtedly begin and end with Lawson -- even if Shaw brings in parts of a triangle offense that doesn't necessarily need a ball-dominating point guard.

Danilo Gallinari

The good news for the Nuggets is that Gallinari's ACL tear was revealed to be less severe than originally reported. It occurred on April 4, though, and it's unknown when the Italian will be able to return. When he does, Gallinari will be expected to carry the brunt of the scoring load after finishing last season by averaging 16.2 points.

Kenneth Faried

The double-double machine fits well into Denver's plans if the Nuggets continue to push the pace and score in transition. Faried's an excellent rebounder and could be pushed as a starter if Shaw is seeking a different look. Faried is undersized, but he more than makes up for it with his activity.

The Lead

The Nuggets were one of the very best teams in the league during the regular season in 2012-13. But things fell apart in the first round, Andre Igudoala and Masi Ujiri left and George Karl got fired. The team is still loaded with talent, but is starting fresh with Brian Shaw's new system. Is being pretty good, but no longer top-flight going to work out for Denver? Can this squad build into a contender in quick order again?

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Person of Interest

With so much turnover on and off the court in Denver, the Nuggets need JaVale McGee to play up to his $11 million salary. While McGee was one of the most productive reserves in the NBA last year, he never fully earned George Karl’s trust. Talent has never been the issue for the mercurial center, who has the length, athleticism and finishing ability to be an excellent two-way center. However, at the age of 25 and headed into his sixth season, potential is no longer enough.

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Film Room All Star

We love lobs. There's something stirring about a pass sailing through the air, finding its intended target and being stuffed through its destination. Andre Miller might not be lightning fast or even slightly speedy, but the man has a gift when it comes to passing. He can toss a precise full-court pass and squeeze a zippy assist between defenders, but the reason he's such a joy is his mastery of throwing those lob passes.

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The Key Question

Why is JaVale McGee taking on such an increased load?

Under George Karl, McGee only started five of his 99 games in a Nuggets uniform during the regular season. Karl often would voice his concern that McGee was not joining Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos working on their games before and after practice and before games. But McGee was brought to Denver by Masai Ujiri and Josh Kroenke for a reason. Only Kroenke remains, as does the plan for McGee.

Sink or swim, McGee's fate will be realized this season. McGee has been staying late after practice ends to work on his free throw shooting (and more), and the way he speaks about his new coach, often using the word "positive" in association with Brian Shaw, shows a new focus. Yes, McGee will be entering his sixth NBA season, but the 25-year-old is taking steps in the right direction.

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Best Case

Danilo Gallinari gets his mojo back, JaVale McGee averages a triple-double in points, blocks and rebounds and Prof. Andre Miller, Ph.D. keeps schooling these young pups all the way to 50 wins and a fun, yet ultimately futile playoff appearance.

Worst Case

Thirty-five wins and sympathy votes for George Karl as Coach of the Year.

Get your Nuggets on at
Denver Stiffs

Golden State
Warriors

Golden State might lead the league in WHEEEEEEEEEEE, but now we find out whether Mark Jackson's squad can contend. Stephen Curry is a historically great shooter, and he's joined by fellow trigger-happy youngster Klay Thompson to make for cascades of treys. Now, we throw in Andre Iguodala, who turned down more money with his old team, the Nuggets, to come to Golden State. Iguodala's the rare defensive-minded star who fits better as the fourth-leading scorer on his team, and as such, he might be the perfect piece to turn this team from fun-and-gun to a deeper playoff run. — Rodger Sherman

2012-2013 Record 47-35, sixth in Western Conference.
Head Coach Mark Jackson. Jackson enters his third season as the Warriors' head coach with expectations higher than ever. A first-year struggle turned into results last season, when the Warriors went to the Western Conference semifinals. The roster's core is intact and the tools are there for Jackson to lead Golden State to another successful year.
Additions Andre Iguodala, Marreese Speights, Toney Douglas, Jermaine O’Neal, Nemanja Nedovic.
Subtractions Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry, Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins, Brandon Rush, Mike Malone. Team Blog Golden State of Mind
Key Players
Stephen Curry

One of the most galvanizing point guards in a league full of talented ones, Curry stands out because he can do it all. Curry is a volume shooter, and a deadly one at that. He hit 45 percent of his threes in the regular season last year, and also averaged 6.9 assists. Now, he has more help.

Andre Iguodala

The Warriors' big offseason pickup not only gives them the lockdown defender they didn't have last year, but a perimeter playmaker who will take some of the pressure off point guard Stephen Curry. Though Iguodala isn't a pure scorer, his presence does effectively move either small forward Harrison Barnes or Klay Thompson to the bench, where their production will replace the sparkplug that was Jarrett Jack.

David Lee

Recovering from a major hip injury might or might not limit Lee off the bat, but nonetheless he's a key part of Golden State's offense. He gives the Warriors the spacing to allow Bogut to run the offense in the paint, is a fine rebounder and an efficient scorer. Maybe he leaves something to be desired defensively, but he has a good enough support system around him to hide those deficiencies.

The Lead

For the first time in his career, Stephen Curry had a lot of help in 2012-13. The Warriors ended up in the second round of the playoffs. What will it take to get a Curry-led team even further? Is adding Andre Iguodala and relying on healthy Andrew Bogut and David Lee going to be enough to get Golden State to the next level, that of true title contender?

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Person of Interest

It wasn't so long ago that Harrison Barnes was touted as basketball's next big thing before spending two productive, if underwhelming seasons at North Carolina. While no one would confuse Barnes for the second coming of Kobe Bryant anymore, his rookie year in Golden State proved he's going to be a quality player in the NBA for a long time. Barnes took off when he slid to power forward in the playoffs, and now may be the key to a versatile and potentially deadly lineup for the new-look Warriors.

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Film Room All Star

Andre Iguodala has been on three teams in as many years, but it appears he’s found a long-term home in the Bay Area. The up-tempo Warriors now have one of the NBA's best defenders to support the sharpshooting duo of Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry. But Iguodala's role as a secondary playmaker will prove to be just as important. Here's a look at how Iguodala will open the floor for the Splash Brothers when he's handling the ball.

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The Key Question

Are the new additions going to ruin team chemistry, or worse yet, the balance of the minutes?

This question is twofold in that it copes with how Andre Iguodala fits in and whether Harrison Barnes can thrive in what appears to be his new sixth-man role. Some think Barnes’ struggles in last year’s regular season will exacerbate itself with his limited stature as ball-handler and the lack of minutes will hinder his growth. Others believe that his main minutes at the potential stretch forward spot and facing second-team players daily will only help him realize his potential. Both are correct, to an extent.

As for the chemistry itself, it’s hard to see this team worrying too much about specific minutes or stats. Barnes was asked whether he minded starting off the bench and he answered how you think the perfect teammate would.

There’s obviously caveats, but that’s all conjecture. Considering how Jackson dealt with the swirling question marks on Andrew Bogut’s ankle and in his first real NBA season out-coaching George Karl in a postseason series, the Warriors should be fine.

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Best Case

Andrew Bogut stays healthy, Andre Iguodala is appreciated, Oracle hums with energy every night and Stephen Curry’s ankles are never mentioned again. KlayBarnes averages 30 a night and Kent Bazemore becomes a household name.

Worst Case

Bogut and Curry get hurt, Iggy tries to carry the load playing all five positions at once and Don Nelson is lured out of retirement.

Get your Warriors on at
Golden State of Mind

Houston
Rockets

You were always aware Daryl Morey was smarter than you; it just didn't seem like it when his best player was Aaron Brooks for a season or two. But the days of being stuck in the middle are over in Houston. With Dwight Howard and James Harden, this team has become an agile beast. Mocking Howard is an annual ritual for NBA fans, but he was still possibly the best center in the game while playing hurt all of last year. Houston now has an offensive star and a defensive one. If the it all fits, this club could be scary. — Ricky O’Donnell

2012-2013 Record 45-37, eighth in Western Conference.
Head Coach Kevin McHale. Despite a 118-124 record in his three-plus years of coaching, McHale commands respect from people around the league. A longtime executive with the Minnesota Timberwolves before moving to the sideline permanently in 2009, he's a shrewd basketball mind and a willing teacher. That winning percentage should improve with a more talented roster this season.
Additions Dwight Howard, Ronnie Brewer, Marcus Camby, Omri Casspi, Robert Covington, Reggie Williams.
Subtractions Carlos Delfino, Thomas Robinson, James Anderson. Team Blog The Dream Shake
Key Players
James Harden

Acquiring Harden before the 2012-13 season proved to be a master stroke by Daryl Morey. While the 24-year-old may be a poor defender at the moment, he's one of the game's special offensive players, an expertly aggressive scorer who pressures defenses and racks up points. He could take things to another level by progressing as a two-way player.

Dwight Howard

Say what you'd like about the occasionally immature big man, but Howard can be as dominant as anyone in the game. Even last season, when Howard played through back problems on a highly dysfunctional Lakers team, the center was as good as anyone at his position. We forget what it's like when things are going right sometimes, but Howard's arrival in Houston could potentially change the outlook of the Western Conference.

Chandler Parsons

Also known as one of the sport's biggest bargains with a 2013-14 salary of under $1 million, Parsons brings a wide variety of skills to the table. Starting 76 games last season for Houston, he averaged 15.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, all while shooting a highly efficient 49 percent from the floor.

The Lead

Dwight Howard's reputation has been battered over the past two years, in no small part because of his own indecision about his career. But don't forget that part of the reason we knew about every machination is because he's an incredible force when healthy. Now that he's in Houston, he needs to remind us all why he's such a big deal.

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Person of Interest

Two years after "Linsanity," Jeremy Lin has become just another piece of the puzzle in Houston. But while Dwight Howard is getting all of the headlines, the fit between Lin and James Harden in the backcourt is one of the big storylines for the Rockets this season. Lin, an inconsistent shooter and defensive player, will need to improve in both areas in order to keep his starting spot, especially with Patrick Beverley hot on his heels.

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Film Room All Star

Sure, Dwight Howard is the shiny new center in Houston, but the Rockets already had one of the best defensive big men in the league in Omer Asik. Having both players may create a logjam at the center position and in the paint, but the Rockets have done well to not trade Asik for less than his worth. Watching the way he defends from under the rim to beyond the arc is a reminder of how valuable he can be to a team.

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The Key Question

What is going to happen with Omer Asik?

Perhaps the second biggest story surrounding the Rockets this summer has to do with their incumbent starter, Omer Asik. Just minutes after Dwight Howard announced he would be joining the Rockets, ESPN had already posted an article detailing his unhappiness in Houston and his desire to be traded.

The Rockets have pledged loyalty to Asik and detailed the number of ways that they plan to use him this year. Coach Kevin McHale has discussed playing Asik and Howard together for stretches, reiterating over and over that they won't trade him. But it all seems to be more posturing than anything. Maintaining spacing with both Howard and Asik on the floor is going to be nearly impossible, and on a team that relies heavily on penetration from guards, having at least one big that can stretch the floor is nearly essential. It seems like Asik will be used mostly as a luxury this year, and potentially trade bait if the right deal comes along.

But the Rockets are obviously in no hurry to change a thing right now.

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Best Case

James Harden is healthy and Dwight Howard gets back to being a really good basketball player as the networks begin readying their soft-focus Dwight redemption stories. Omer Asik and Donatas Motiejunas make yoga videos called OmDoMo that go viral.

Worst Case

Dwight’s back acts up and Harden’s knee starts hurting from all that old-man basketball, leading Daryl Morey to petition the league to allow him to carry 22 players, 19 of whom are on non-guaranteed contracts.

Get your Rockets on at
The Dream Shake

Los Angeles
Clippers

As you can tell from Blake Griffin and Chris Paul appearing in every commercial on your TV, this is the golden age of the Los Angeles Clippers. The team shattered its franchise record for wins with 56 last year, but then had to watch those commercials playing throughout May and June after getting knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. Exit Vinny Del Negro, whose coaching ability has been compared unfavorably with rocks, and bring in Doc Rivers, one of the game's most respected minds. Maybe now this team can back up hype with postseason play. — Rodger Sherman

2012-2013 Record 56-26, fourth in Western Conference
Head Coach Doc Rivers. With the Celtics on the verge of a rebuild, Rivers saw the writing on the wall and let it be known he wanted out. Not getting Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to join in may be somewhat of a disappointment, but Rivers is a clear upgrade over the departed Vinny Del Negro. He brings championship experience to the Clippers and, with so much talent in place, expectations for a title will come along with that.
Additions Doc Rivers, J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Antawn Jamison, Byron Mullens, Lou Amundson.
Subtractions Vinny Del Negro, Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler, Lamar Odom, Chauncey Billups, Ronny Turiaf, Grant Hill. Team Blog Clips Nation
Key Players
Chris Paul

Last year, Paul showed why he's still regarded as the best point guard in the NBA. He nearly averaged a double-double and he posted the third-best PER in the league. Injuries are always a concern with Paul and he did miss 12 games last year, but if he stays healthy, the Clippers should be a legitimate title contender.

Blake Griffin

Griffin has been the subject of some debate over the past few years, as his per-game numbers have dipped each of the past two years. While much of this can be attributed to fewer minutes and less scoring responsibility, he still gets criticized for not showing much statistical improvement. In any case, Griffin is extremely important to the Clippers.

Deandre Jordan

Jordan had the best statistical season of his career last year, but his offensive game remains severely limited, his free-throw shooting is atrocious and his defense is nothing to write home about. Throw in the fact that he has been largely useless in the postseason, and you don't really have a guy worthy of his $11-million-a-year price tag. The physical tools are there, and at just 25 years old, he can still improve.

The Lead

Chris Paul has been the league's best pure pass-first point guard for years. But he's never had a long run in the playoffs, making the second round just twice. With a well-respected new coach, a deep bench and an opportunity to press the Clippers forward, everything is set up for him. It's time to capitalize and build his legend.

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Person of Interest

The Clippers have aspirations of winning an NBA championship under new coach Doc Rivers, but they won't get there without a giant step forward from center DeAndre Jordan. Jordan is among the league's biggest and most athletic players, but he's never been able to turn into the two-way interior force title-worthy teams demand. Can Rivers flip a switch for the 25-year-old center, or is Jordan destined to be another player high on talent with only middling production?

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Film Room All Star

J.J. Redick should flourish with the Clippers as a spot-up target for Chris Paul. That much is obvious. But it’s his off-ball movement that can dramatically help an offense that was often stagnant last season. Redick is fantastic at curling around screens, drawing the defense in and finding the open teammate. We take a look at how he opens the floor and sets the table for his teammates.

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The Key Question

What can Doc Rivers get from DeAndre Jordan?

It's pretty clear that Rivers has taken on Jordan as his special project. His strategy seems to be to build up DJ's confidence. Telling Jordan that he has DPOY potential demonstrates to Jordan the type of confidence the coach has in his ability, but it could also backfire by setting expectations unrealistically high and putting too much pressure on a not-notoriously-mature 25-year-old. Still, it's a welcome contrast to the Del Negro era, in which the head coach seemed hell-bent on destroying Jordan's confidence at every opportunity -- successfully so in most cases.

Can Rivers bring out the best in Jordan? So far, he's been effusive in describing his young center's potential and he's said in no uncertain terms that he wants and expects Jordan to play a bigger role, to play more minutes and to be in the game in the fourth quarter, free throws be damned. As Pepper Brooks once said, "It's a bold strategy Cotton; let's see if it pays off for him."

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Best Case

DeAndre Jordan earns fourth-quarter minutes, Blake Griffin gets some MVP love and Chris Paul finally gets a long playoff run. Doc Rivers wins Coach of the Year, turning Los Angeles into Clipper Town.

Worst Case

CP3 visits a German doctor, Blake loses one too many staredowns and Doc contemplates trading Jordan for Big Baby. Everyone remembers that Donald Sterling still owns the team.

Get your Clippers on at
Clips Nation

Los Angeles
Lakers

It might be tough for Lakers fans to understand, but sometimes sports teams play seasons where they're not expected to contend for a championship. With Kobe Bryant recovering from an Achilles injury and no guarantee he'll be Kobe when he does return, the Lakers have to bank on the guys who were on the court when the team was swept in last year's playoffs -- except, you know, Dwight Howard. The Dwightmare ended up with Howard in Houston, and the Lakers were caught without a backup plan or much talent. What does Jack Nicholson look like in Clippers gear? — Rodger Sherman

2012-2013 Record 45-37, seventh in Western Conference
Head Coach Mike D'Antoni: D'Antoni took a lot of flak for the Lakers' failed 2012-13 campaign, but this year he has less drama and more pieces that fit with Howard now in Houston. Obviously, it won't be easy. The Lakers only signed bargain free agents this summer and will have to deal with age and injury questions regarding Nash, Bryant and Gasol. Nonetheless, the coaching staff and the team are his for the first full year, and now it's time for him to prove he can raise expectations in Los Angeles.
Additions Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Farmar, Elias Harris, Marcus Landry, Ryan Kelly, Shawne Williams, Xavier Henry.
Subtractions Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Darius Morris, Andrew Goudelock, Chris Duhon. Team Blog Silver Screen and Roll
Key Players
Kobe Bryant

There's no telling when Bryant will return from a torn Achilles suffered on April 12, but when he's ready to return, it could be hard for Mike D'Antoni to stop his star guard from starting. Bryant will be a top-flight scorer if he's healthy, but it's hard to guess how long his recovery will keep him sidelined, and if his return to the court -- after taking the entire summer off -- will be as seamless as the Lakers would hope.

Pau Gasol

Gasol was battered by knee injuries last season, but underwent procedures in May to battle tendinitis. The 33-year-old is coming off a down year, but the second year in D'Antoni's offense might give Gasol better results. Dwight Howard won't be clogging up the middle, and though Gasol will need to play alongside Chris Kaman, there's more offensive versatility between the two to make success possible.

Steve Nash

How much of a load can the 39-year-old point guard carry? Nash will quickly answer that on a team that may not have Bryant dominating the ball to start the year. Nash and Gasol will likely need to develop their chemistry on pick-and-rolls, and Nash's perimeter teammates will need to get open for a team that will rely upon ball movement, with or without Bryant.

The Lead

Adding Steve Nash and Dwight Howard was supposed to make the 2012-13 Lakers fun. So much for that. But now that Howard has skipped town and Kobe Bryant's injury has resulted in low expectations for the club, Nash and Pau Gasol might actually get to play some pretty basketball under Mike D'Antoni. WIll that be enough for the Lakers faithful?

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Person of Interest

Dwight Howard’s departure opens up an opportunity for Pau Gasol, who will move back to his more natural position as a center. In his prime, Pau had the versatility to play both interior positions, but as he moves deeper into his 30s, his declining foot-speed and shaky jumper mean he’s much more effective closer to the basket. Without much depth up front behind him, the Lakers need Pau to return to All-Star form if they’re going to be a playoff contender.

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Film Room All Star

The Lakers lost their defensive anchor when Dwight Howard took his talents to Houston. That gives Jordan Hill an opportunity to carve out a role as the team’s best defender and rebounder in a frontcourt rotation featuring two offensive-centric big men in Chris Kaman and Pau Gasol. Mike D'Antoni should shovel minutes at Hill as long as he can stay healthy this time around. Here's why.

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The Key Question

On what criteria can we judge Mike D’Antoni?

The Lakers front office has left themselves in a precarious position. They have a coach who was given a terrible hand to deal with in being hired mid-season, in the midst of one of the worst injury-plagued seasons in franchise history, and placed on a team with way too much ego and nowhere near enough chemistry. All that said, it's tough to argue the coach did very well. Now, the front office has essentially built their team in such a way as to say "This year really doesn't matter very much," so the coach cannot be held accountable if the team piles up the losses.

But Coach Mike D'Antoni must be judged. He cannot simply be given a pass, because the Lakers' No. 1 priority in the upcoming nine months is to ensure they have the coach they want to lead them into the future come July 1, 2014. D'Antoni has a lengthy list of both pros and cons at this point, and the Lakers must figure out a way to determine which list carries more weight without reacting too harshly if the Lakers suffer through another regular season in which the wins and losses don't approach the franchise's normal status quo.

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Best Case

Opening night, a hush falls over Staples Center as a helicopter descends on center court. Out of the darkness steps Kobe Bryant, who drops 71 on the Clippers. Two nights later, Pau Gasol goes for 30 and 15 and tweets "Everything is great!" over and over again. Steve Nash turns Robert Sacre into an unlikely All-Star.

Worst Case

After one too many contested jumpers, Kobe turns Nick Young to stone with a death stare from the bench while wearing street clothes. Nash breaks down. Pau becomes a nihilist.

Get your Lakers on at
Silver Screen and Roll

Memphis
Grizzlies

Few teams seem to mesh with local tradition as well as the Grizzlies do in Memphis. If cameras caught Zach Randolph eating barbeque on the sidelines this season after dropping 20 and 10 on the Jazz, would you really be surprised? The Grizzlies are endearing for a number of reasons -- Marc Gasol's plodding defensive elegance, the fact that Tony Allen is Tony Allen -- but another trip to the conference finals might be hard to replicate. Endearing characters can only get you so far when very few of them can shoot outside of 15 feet. — Ricky O’Donnell

2012-2013 Record 56-26, fifth in Western Conference.
Head Coach Dave Joerger. Hired by the Grizzlies as an assistant coach in 2007, he quickly had a major influence with the team. By 2011, he was promoted to lead assistant under Hollins with a focus on defense. The team's steady progress on that end since 2007 is stunning: from 28th to 21st to 19th to nine to seventh to second. Having his voice lead the team after letting Lionel Hollins go makes a good deal of sense.
Additions Dave Joerger (sort of), Kosta Koufos, Mike Miller, Nick Cathales, Jamaal Franklin.
Subtractions Lionel Hollins, Darrell Arthur, Austin Daye, Tony Wroten, Keyon Dooling. Team Blog Grizzly Bear Blues
Key Players
Zach Randolph

Age and injury have slowed Randolph down, but his work ethic and physicality make him a highly effective player in his early 30s. The days of averaging 20 points a game are surely over, but Randolph's deft touch and plethora of post moves around the rim make him an effective scorer as his athleticism wanes.

Marc Gasol

The reigning Defensive Player of the Year may still be underrated on the national scale considering his stunning two-way impact. A physical behemoth at 7'1 and 265 pounds, Gasol's understanding of how to use his size and strength to gain positioning and alter opponents' actions makes him a devastating presence on both sides of the court. You may not immediately see a star, but his impact can be seen pretty quickly when watching Memphis play.

Mike Conley

Long considered a solid player, Conley took his game to another level during the 2012-13 season. We saw the point guard thrive in the regular season while taking on a larger offensive role following Rudy Gay's departure. One of the best defensive point guards in the league and an increasingly effective player on the other end, it wouldn't be surprising if Conley received an All-Star nod at some point in his career.

The Lead

Zach Randolph laughed in Father Time's face in the playoffs, leading the Grizzlies further than they have ever gotten. But as Lionel Hollins made way for Dave Joerger and the team's new ownership and front office continue to try to make the team's success sustainable, is Z-Bo's time in Memphis running out? Can he convince the powers that be to keep him around?

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Person of Interest

Tony Allen is a dying breed. As the NBA game has placed an added emphasis on spacing and shooting in recent years, Allen is the rare guard who can dramatically impact a contest defensively while not providing much in the way of scoring. Don't tell the Grizzlies about Allen's shortcomings, though. He's the heart and soul of a veteran club that pushed all the way to the conference finals in the West last season. The four-year contract he signed this offseason is a sure sign Memphis needs Allen as much as Allen needs the city.

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Film Room All Star

"Overlooked" is the way many analysts describe Mike Conley. "Overlooked" is also how Conley likes it. Using deceptive footwork, vicious dribbling skills, a ton of patience and an improved jump shot, Conley sneaks by defenders to get to the rim when they least expect it. Watch how the Grizzlies’ shifty point guard finds a way to sneak through tiny cracks in the opponent’s defense.

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The Key Question

What can we expect from Dave Joerger?

Dave Joerger has assembled a dynamic staff that is continuing to emphasize a lot of the values that Lionel Hollins forged in Memphis, both on and off the court. However, the Grizzlies no longer rely on the spiritual, guiding force of Hollins; they have a mature team that is capable of using advanced techniques that take advantage of the multitalented tools on the Grizzlies' roster. Joerger, a basketball junkie, will embrace the progressive approach of Jason Levien and John Hollinger to maximize the opportunities the Grizzlies have on offense and defense.

Much of Joerger's success will depend upon his team's ability to execute under a much faster pace. The Grizzlies have already earned a living with a ferocious defense that needs very little adjustment this offseason, and the team believes a lot of their previous offensive pitfalls can be repaired by getting into their sets faster and precisely rotating the ball to the best available shots. Joerger and the Grizzlies' front office can provide the blueprint, but can the roster execute the plan?

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Best Case

More ugly wins, steady progress from Mike Conley, fantastic Z-Bo gifs and random acts of Tony Allen. Plus, a whole lot more Ed Davis and even some Jon Leuer for the per-minute geeks.

Worst Case

Ugly losses, sad Z-Bo gifs, too much Tony Allen and regression meets mean in a slow descent on the axis of life.

Get your Grizzlies on at
Grizzly Bear Blues

Minnesota
Timberwolves

Timberwolves fans should hope that 2012-2013's endless onslaught of injuries was karmic retribution doled out to David Kahn for words uttered about Darko Milicic on television and the Jonny Flynn triangle experiment. All the disturbingly skinny Kevin Love has been saying lately is, "Last year is last year" and I'd like to see you argue with that. Assuming relative health, the Flip Saunders regime should be in for rosier times with numerous human beings capable of making three-pointers wearing Wolves uniforms this season. We're just not sure if they can stop anybody. — James Herbert

2012-2013 Record 31-51, 12th in Western Conference.
Head Coach Rick Adelman. One of the great basketball minds of our time, Adelman continues to work towards building a winner in Minnesota despite middling results thus far. He hasn't led a team to the postseason since the 2008-09 Rockets, but that comes after reaching the playoffs 16 times in his first 18 coaching seasons.
Additions Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, Ronny Turiaf, A.J. Price.
Subtractions Andrei Kirilenko, Luke Ridnour, Greg Stiemsma, Brandon Roy, Mickael Gelabale. Team Blog Canis Hoopus
Key Players
Kevin Love

Love is arguably the best power forward in the league when healthy. However, health issues derailed his 2012-13 season, and a historically shaky relationship with management leaves a cloudy future in Minnesota. Flip Saunders has gone out of his way to reach out to Love and the Timberwolves' star seems happy for now, but we'll see what happens if the Timberwolves struggle.

Ricky Rubio

No, he still hasn't developed a jump shot, but Rubio's defense and extraordinary court vision make him an impact player regardless. Should even a few more of those perimeter shots start falling with consistency, he'll quickly become one of the most unique players of our generation and a devastating two-way force.

Nikola Pekovic

After waiting practically the entire offseason, the Timberwolves and Pekovic finally agreed to a five-year, $60 million deal after every other impact free agent had signed. That ended the uncertainty concerning the center's future in Minnesota, but questions remain about whether the big man can anchor a strong enough defense to make the team relevant.

The Lead

It's time. Kevin Love finally has the supporting cast and coach to make a playoff run. He's healthy, the starting lineup actually looks solid and there's some decent bench options. If Love and the Timberwolves can't make the playoffs now, the combo may never get another chance. This is the season that could define the Kevin Love era in Minneapolis.

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Person of Interest

There are times when Ricky Rubio seems like a basketball gift from a higher power, a point guard who plays the game with infectious levels of joy, style and spontaneity. Rubio spent last season recovering from an ACL injury, but was rounding into form by the end of the campaign. Now, the Timberwolves are hoping Rubio can combine some of that signature flair with added substance. It's an exercise that may start and end with the point guard's ability to developing a more reliable jumper.

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Film Room All Star

In an era of athletes, wingspan and small-ball, Nikola Pekovic stands out as one of the league’s throwbacks. A 290-pound hulking center, Pekovic has earned himself a $60 million contract despite barely being able to jump over a phone book. How does he score so effectively? We take a closer look at all the work he does in the post before he catches the ball.

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The Key Question

How much has bad drafting hurt the Timberwolves this decade?

The Wolves have struggled to draft effectively since, well, pick a date. What gets the attention is the high-profile, top-10 mistakes. And those have hurt, especially recently.

But the hidden issue has been their inability to get help from outside the lottery. They got Nikola Pekovic as the first pick in the 2nd round of 2008, but he was an unusual situation in that the whole league knew he was a late-lottery talent, but he was going to require more than late-lottery money to come to the NBA. Other than Pek, though, it's slim pickings.

This the hidden problem, and it has led to very thin rosters over the years, as draft pick after draft pick has failed. It also leads to another problem, which is the Wolves absolutely pay full-freight for everything. They have a payroll of around $68M this season, and are locked in to a similar amount next year, because their drafting has left them very little choice.

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Best Case

Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love finally get a full healthy season together, Derrick Williams finds a position and someone makes a jump shot. Nikola Pekovic eats a yak before a game and goes out and gets 22 and 14.

Worst Case

Rick Adelman can’t take it anymore and the Kevin Love Exit Watch begins in earnest.

Get your
Timberwolves on at
Canis Hoopus

New Orleans
Pelicans

New Orleans decided to rebrand as the Pelicans not to honor a campy-sounding ABA homage, but because the mascot displayed the proper qualities of "fierceness." Pelicans are actually terrifying things, capable of swooping down and feasting on the meek in the same way Anthony Davis rejects your feeble two-point attempt with a weak-side block. The mascot isn't all that's new about basketball in New Orleans this year. Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans are here to add the youthful backcourt scoring punch that's been missing. If Eric Gordon stays happy and healthy, the Pelicans could be a sleeper. — Ricky O’Donnell

2012-2013 Record 27-55, 14th in Western Conference.
Head Coach Monty Williams. Williams is known as a defensive-minded coach, and he has a good roster to tighten up opposing offenses with Davis and Holiday leading the ranks. Because of the flexibility of the team's players, Williams will have plenty of configurations to use. With so many young players figuring out their roles and adjusting to the league, that level of flexibility should play into Williams' favor.
Additions Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Anthony Morrow, Greg Stiemsma, Jeff Withey.
Subtractions Greivis Vasquez, Robin Lopez, Roger Mason, Xavier Henry, Lou Amundson. Team Blog The Bird Writes
Key Players
Anthony Davis

Davis made his name known in his one season at Kentucky mostly because of his defensive ability. What he showed in the last half of his lone college season that went largely under-reported was his skills as an offensive player. Davis missed 18 games as a rookie, but he still averaged 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds. The best part of his game, his defense, still didn't quite catch up to the league. He was, after all, a 19-year-old rookie. He'll catch up.

Jrue Holiday

The Philadelphia 76ers needed something — or, as it were, a few somethings — to rebuild around, and the Pelicans' almost-there roster was a good fit. Holiday had a breakout season a year ago when he made his first All-Star game in his age-22 season, his fourth in the league. He may not score at the same rate in New Orleans, but the assist opportunities may increase with Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson to feed. Perhaps the biggest strength of Holiday's game is his defense.

Eric Gordon

Gordon didn't make his season debut last year until late December while he recovered from a knee injury. Gordon finished his 42-game season averaging 17 points per game on a career-low 40.2 shooting percentage. Gordon has only played in at least 60 games twice in his five seasons so far, and he had offseason ankle surgery but should be ready by the time the season begins. When he's healthy, Gordon is a tremendous scoring asset.

The Lead

No team rebuilt its backcourt quite like the Pelicans, who added Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans to Eric Gordon. If the crew is healthy, that's a beautiful little trio, depending on how Monty Williams uses it. Is it good enough to get New Orleans into the playoffs with Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson?

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Person of Interest

Anthony Davis' rapid rise from a high school afterthought to the most prized collegiate big man in the country is something close to an overnight success story. No one is sleeping on the Pelicans' star-in-the-making now. New Orleans has surrounded Davis with a group of talented guards, but the team's ultimate success is still tied to when and if Davis is able to lock down the paint defensively. Can the 20-year-old take another big leap forward for the Pelicans in his second season?

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Film Room All Star

Ryan Anderson is the definition of a floor-spacing power forward, and every defender in the NBA knows that. Yet he still made the second-most three-point shots last season, flashing open over and over again. It's not because he's standing around waiting on the perimeter. Instead, the Pelicans crafted ways to create open shots for Anderson. Here's how they do it.

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The Key Question

Will Monty Williams’ new defensive system work?

New Orleans was exceptional on defense during Williams' rookie season, hovering in the top 5 defensive teams through February of that season before injuries dropped them closer to 10. That was done primarily on the basis of strong wing defense (Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza) funneling players to a very positionally aware center (Emeka Okafor).

When Mike Malone left the team for Golden State, the defense fell apart, but his departure corresponded with a major roster overhaul. And thus we were left with the very hazy gray area of the last couple years. Was New Orleans terrible at defense entirely because of the roster, or was there an important coaching element to it?

2013-2014 is the year we learn the answer to that question.

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Best Case

Anthony Davis becomes a two-way force running sweet, sweet pick-and-rolls with Jrue Holiday, and Eric Gordon plays more than 60 games. Led by Sixth Man of the Year Tyreke Evans, the Pelicans make the playoffs, allowing visiting national writers to gorge on shrimp po’boys and Abita.

Worst Case

After failing to make the playoffs, New Orleans finishes sixth in the lottery and no one can come up with an acceptable abbreviation for Pelicans.

Get your Pelicans on at
The Bird Writes

Oklahoma City
Thunder

These first 4-6 weeks could be a bit bumpy. As Russell Westbrook recuperates from right knee surgery, the Thunder will rely on what amounts to last year's playoff roster with Jeremy Lamb playing the role of Kevin Martin. The possible silver lining is that the point guard's absence may be beneficial for Lamb, Reggie Jackson and Serge Ibaka's growing offensive games in the long run. Unless Kevin Durant plans on averaging 40 points per game this season, Oklahoma City will need to find supplemental scoring to chase a championship. Hmm, actually, maybe Durant plans on averaging 40. — James Herbert

2012-2013 Record 60-22, first in Western Conference.
Head Coach Scott Brooks. Brooks boasts an impressive record in Oklahoma City, but there are questions about whether he's the right coach to lead the Thunder to the promised land. While the Thunder have been extremely successful under Brooks, much of that credit can certainly be placed on the immense talent of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. Brooks has been soundly criticized at times for unimaginative late-game sets and his insistence on playing Kendrick Perkins too much.
Additions Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, Ryan Gomes.
Subtractions Kevin Martin, DeAndre Liggins, Ronnie Brewer Team Blog Welcome To Loud City
Key Players
Kevin Durant

The second-best player in the league behind LeBron James, Durant's development over the past few seasons has been incredible. No longer the wiry athlete who struggled to impress in pre-draft workouts, Durant's a beast physically and the most well-rounded offensive player in the league. With the consistent improvement to all parts of his game, Durant inches closer to being the world's greatest, but he'll need to take another leap to get past James.

Russell Westbrook

In a league full of brilliant athletes, Westbrook still manages to stand out as a supremely gifted human. His speed, agility, strength and balance are almost unmatched throughout the league, putting him in that rare company with guys like LeBron, Blake Griffin and a healthy Derrick Rose. Health is a question, though. Westbrook's return from a torn meniscus will be pushed back further than expected due to a second knee surgery.

Serge Ibaka

The league's leading shot blocker over the past three seasons, Ibaka's emergence as a legitimate offensive option could be the difference for OKC. He's not quite as brilliant defensively as his reputation would suggest, but he's plenty good, and the offensive development makes him an effective two-way player. However, he struggled badly in the playoffs once Westbrook went down.

The Lead

After a disappointing playoff exit in 2013, the pressure for another NBA Finals trip is squarely on the deciders: Sam Presti, who traded James Harden and wasn't able to add help in free agency, and Scott Brooks, who continues to feature Kendrick Perkins and watched his team fall completely apart when Russell Westbrook went down. The duo needs to figure out how to get Kevin Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka to the promised land, or time won't be kind.

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Person of Interest

Jeremy Lamb isn't much more than an answer to a trivia question right now. The guard was a critical piece to the James Harden trade for Oklahoma City, but spent his rookie year only showcasing his talent in the D-League. With Kevin Martin departed to Minnesota, Lamb survives as the player who could salvage part of the maligned trade for the Thunder. With Kevin Durant and (eventually) Russell Westbrook diverting plenty of attention, Lamb will be free to make defenses pay with open jumpers.

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Film Room All Star

Serge Ibaka is a highlight reel on defense. His wingspan is massive, his leaping ability impressive. He has led the league in blocks for three straight seasons, which is an incredible feat in and of itself, but it's his improved defensive instincts that are making him one of the NBA's best defenders. His thunderous blocks may make the highlight, but it's his increasingly intelligent rotations that create them.

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The Key Question

Could Westbrook’s injury be a blessing in disguise?

The narrative with Westbrook's injury has been the wins it'll set the Thunder back in the early going and how they’ll fare (or generally, what we'll endure) with Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb thrown into heavy playing time. It's not difficult to agree with either of these statements. There is a steep drop-off from Westbrook to Jackson and Lamb, and it will lead to a few more losses.

That said, this might actually be a good thing. By struggling through a lack of Westbrook early, the front office can learn a couple things about this team and decide if they want to tinker with it by making a trade or signing a free agent.

The cost of losing a few extra games early isn't one that will probably mean much to the Thunder. I'm comfortable with the odds of the Thunder even as a fourth/fifth seed rather than as a first/second seed.

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Best Case

Dear NBA Gods, all we want is a healthy Russell Westbrook, and maybe better late-game strategy. Oh, and some Jeremy Lamb too. While we’re at it, making Serge Ibaka a legit third option would be swell. But really, thanks for Kevin Durant. We shouldn’t be greedy here.

Worst Case

No Russ, too much Kendrick Perkins and trolly troll columns based on the premise that if Kevin Durant was really that good, he’d find a way to get it done like a true superstar.

Get your Thunder on at
Welcome to Loud City

Phoenix
Suns

The players of the Steve Nash/Amar'e Stoudemire era have long since moved on, and this offseason, the Suns realized they should too. They ditched players and payroll and brought in an influx of youngsters like Eric Bledsoe and rookie Alex Len. They have a new coach, Jeff Hornacek, ready to begin his head coaching career with the team where he began his playing career. They have a new GM, 33-year-old hotshot Ryan McDonough. There might not be a marked increase from a team that won 25 games last year, but now isn't that important for the Suns. — Rodger Sherman

2012-2013 Record 25-57, 15th in Western Conference.
Head Coach Jeff Hornacek. After three years as an assistant with the Utah Jazz, Hornacek landed the Suns' head coaching gig this summer. Despite the relative inexperience, he's considered an up-and-coming coach around the league. We'll see if he can quickly improve an abysmal offense that finished 29th in offensive efficiency last season.
Additions Eric Bledsoe, Alex Len, Archie Goodwin, Gerald Green, Slava Kravtsov, Miles Plumlee, Ish Smith, Jeff Hornacek, a healthy Channing Frye.
Subtractions Jared Dudley, Luis Scola, Michael Beasley, Jermaine O’Neal, Wesley Johnson, Hamed Haddadi, Lindsey Hunter. Team Blog Bright Side of the Sun
Key Players
Goran Dragic

Coming off a nice showing with Slovenia at EuroBasket 2013, Dragic should be the Suns' best player this season. A great ball-handler who can penetrate through defenses, find open shooters and finish at the basket, the 27-year-old would be that much more dangerous if he ever improved his perimeter shot.

Eric Bledsoe

More of a combo guard than a more traditional point, Bledsoe should still get starter minutes after being traded to Phoenix over the summer. Physically, the 6'1 guard provides everything you could want besides height, bringing speed, strength and creativity to the table. The great defense and solid offensive skills should make him a dangerous player for years to come, but he's never scored more than 8.5 points per game.

Marcin Gortat

It's unclear what the team's long-term plan is for Gortat after drafting Alex Len with the fifth overall pick, but he's still in Phoenix and will be one of the team's key players. A good finisher in the post who rebounds well and set a career high with 1.6 blocks per game in 2012-13, he'll likely be an attractive trade chip during the season should the Suns decide to entertain offers.

The Lead

It's clear that the Suns are building for the future -- quite possibly the deep future. But the team's best player, point guard Goran Dragic, is coming into his prime and might not be around when the Suns again compete for playoff seeds. How does that color Dragic's role on a team with a couple of young guard prospects and sights on a very high draft pick?

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Person of Interest

Last season, Eric Bledsoe played only 20 minutes a game as Chris Paul’s backup, but in that time, the 22-year-old looked like one of the most promising young point guards in the NBA. Now in Phoenix, Bledsoe will get his first chance to be a featured player. He’ll be sharing playmaking duties in the backcourt with Goran Dragic, which should allow him to freelance on both ends of the floor and unleash the athleticism that earned him the "Mini-LeBron" nickname.

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Film Room All Star

The Suns obviously missed Steve Nash last year, but there was another player whose loss was felt significantly. Channing Frye, one of the league’s premier shooting big men, sat out last year with an enlarged heart. He’s back now, and that should provide more spacing for Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. We break down how the absence of Frye’s shooting prevented the Suns from running one of their pet plays.

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The Key Question

What is this roster going to look like next year?

I don't think even Ryan McDonough has any clue what the answer is. The Suns currently have 18 players on the roster, and I don't even know which ones will still be in Phoenix in a month.

The rookies’ spots are locked down unless some Harden-esque blockbuster trade happens. But I wouldn't rule out anything with the DragonBlade backcourt. Do the Suns see it as a long-term starting backcourt? What happens if Bledsoe fails to live up to expectations? What if Dragic blows up? At least one of these two will be included in the core along with the rookies. I'm just not sure which one.

Marcin Gortat is going to get traded. It's just a matter of how long it takes and what the Suns get in return.

The Suns started over this year, and everyone is playing for their job this season. Hopefully the competition breeds improvement and success, and McDonough and Hornacek can see enough this season to have a good idea of what they have on their hands and what they need to do moving forward.

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Best Case

The Eric Bledsoe Chaos Machine is engaged for 36 minutes a night, which keeps the home fans entertained long enough for Ryan McDonough to find reinforcements in the draft and trade just about everyone else.

Worst Case

A bad lottery pick.

Get your Suns on at
Bright Side of the Sun

Portland
Trailblazers

Look who got themselves a bench. Even with the gloomy news about rookie C.J. McCollum's broken foot, the Blazers won't have to run their starters into the ground in order to be competitive this year. In affordably acquiring Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson, Portland's offseason was downright startling in its shrewdness. As well as revamping the reserve unit, LaMarcus Aldridge got the 7 feet of defense and rebounding he desired in the form of Robin Lopez. Their new starting center and his cat, named Prince Edward Zephyr, should find plenty of fun in the Rose City. — James Herbert

2012-2013 Record 33-49, 11th in Western Conference.
Head Coach Terry Stotts. The modest additions to the roster seem to fit right in to Stotts' style. A lot of the Blazers' season will hinge on player development: Damian Lillard's continued improvement, C.J. McCollum's first shot in the NBA, Thomas Robinson's third fresh start in a calendar year's time, etc. With a barren bench last season, Stotts was handcuffed in what he could do. This may be the most young talent he's coached in his career.
Additions Robin Lopez, Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright, C.J. McCollum, Earl Watson, Allen Crabbe.
Subtractions J.J. Hickson, Eric Maynor, Luke Babbitt, Sasha Pavlovic, Ronnie Price, Jared Jeffries, Nolan Smith. Team Blog Blazer’s Edge
Key Players
Lamarcus Aldridge

Trade rumors have dogged Aldridge all summer, but the Blazers have no interest in moving their star yet. Still, Aldridge wants to play for a championship, and although the Blazers seem to have improved drastically over their 33-win team last year, they could still miss the playoffs. But for now, Aldridge is a Blazer, and he's still the star of this team despite Lillard's emergence.

Damian Lillard

Lillard had an unforgettable rookie season, leading the league in minutes and averaging 19 points and 6.5 assists per game on the way to unanimously winning the Rookie of the Year award. The idea is that a better team around him would allow him a bit more rest and to be more effective in the minutes he plays. Bringing in Mo Williams and drafting C.J. McCollum should help with that.

Nicolas Batum

Batum spent his first full season as a starter last year, and his 13.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per 36 minutes were right at about his career averages. Over the summer, Batum was a key player for France in its championship in the FIBA EuroBasket tournament. He excelled in the championship game over Lithuania, though he was a bit inconsistent in the tournament on the whole.

The Lead

Since Brandon Roy fell apart, LaMarcus Aldridge has lacked much of a support structure on the court. Things improved last season, as rookie Damian Lillard lit up the league and Nicolas Batum had a strong start-to-finish season. But the bench was awful, and the center position was dicey. Adding Robin Lopez and a legit reserve corps has given Aldridge all he needs to make his case as the West's best power forward and a playoff force.

Read More
Person of Interest

Damian Lillard made the transition from the Big Sky to the NBA seem easier than ever thought possible on his march to running away with the Rookie of the Year award last season. Lillard's offensive game is so complete that it already appears close to fully formed, but the point guard has plenty of ground to make up on the defensive end. Afters years of bad luck with injuries, Lillard seems set to become the type of star Trail Blazers fans both need and deserve.

Read More
Film Room All Star

The good spot-up shooters in the NBA knock down their open looks at a high percentage. The great spot-up shooters know how to subtly move along the arc within the flow of an offense to get even more open looks. Watching Wesley Matthews slide around the perimeter while LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard kick out to him is a crash course in what spot-up shooting is all about.

Read More
The Key Question

Is it enough?

In the short term, this question applies to the playoffs. Will the summer changes be enough to propel the Blazers to a low seed over the likes of Minnesota, the Lakers and the rest of the murky middle of the Western Conference?

In the long run, the Blazers are playing to an audience of one. LaMarcus Aldridge's contract expires in 2015. He's the best, most reliable player on this team. The Blazers have two years to convince him that his future lies in Portland and not with a team better positioned for contention. The only way to make that argument is to become a team better positioned for contention. If the Blazers don't excel this year, the Aldridge rumor mill will be red hot and rolling next summer. This season's performance will determine whether they're on top of that situation or getting ground underneath it.

Read More
Best Case

The league’s most underrated offseason makeover transforms the bench from a weakness to a strength and LaMarcus Aldridge finds his happy place as the Blazers make the playoffs.

Worst Case

Injuries, trade rumors and the inevitable Blazer’s Edge expose.

Get your Blazers on at
Blazer's Edge

Sacramento
Kings

Good news! Sacramento has a basketball team! Bad news! It isn't much good. The franchise is in good hands now that threats of a move to Seattle are dead and the dreaded Maloofs no longer own the team, but hoops success will take work. After finishing third-to-last in the West last year, the Kings let Tyreke Evans leave so they could move forward with DeMarcus Cousins as the clear featured player. Ben McLemore was a steal in the draft, but he's probably not as good as Tyreke Evans yet, so his addition probably doesn't change this team's status as cellar-dwellers. — Rodger Sherman

2012-2013 Record 28-54, 13th in Western Conference.
Head Coach Mike Malone. Malone landed his first head coaching gig, following new owner Vivek Ranadive from Golden State, where he was the lead assistant, to Sacramento. Malone had served as an assistant in the NBA since 2001 and was named the best assistant coach in the NBA in 2012. Malone's focus will be to improve the Kings' defense (29th in defensive rating, 30th in points allowed per game), and he will have plenty of work to do.
Additions Greivis Vasquez, Carl Landry, Ben McLemore, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Ray McCallum, Mike Malone.
Subtractions Tyreke Evans, Toney Douglas, James Johnson, Cole Aldrich, Keith Smart. Team Blog Sactown Royalty
Key Players
Demarcus Cousins

Cousins serves as the Kings' franchise centerpiece as they move forward. Cousins has improved his offensive efficiency each year and is one of the best centers in the league offensively, but he must improve defensively to become an anchor and leader for the Kings. He just signed a four-year maximum extension to stay with the club.

Greivis Vasquez

The Kings traded for the pass-first point guard, and he is expected to get the starting nod this season. This means that Cousins will play with a point guard who looks to facilitate more than score for the first time in his career. Vasquez put up 13.9 points and nine assists per game last season, both career highs, and finished second in Most Improved Player voting. If things don't go well for Vasquez, though, Isaiah Thomas could make a run at the starting spot.

Isaiah Thomas

The 5'9 lead guard may lose his starting role as point guard to Greivis Vasquez, but his ability to score as a change of pace makes him an important part of the Kings' bench unit. Depending on how Vasquez fits in the starting lineup and how Thomas performs off the bench, he should still see at least 20 minutes per game and will be a helpful scoring presence with the reserves.

The Lead

The mere existence of the Sacramento Kings is victory in itself. The city and its famously passionate fans are enamored with the new owner, the new GM, the new coach, the born-again NBA franchise. But the roster is still uneven, the league's second-longest active playoff drought isn't ending anytime soon and the losses do wear on fans. How long will Vivek Ranadivé's honeymoon in Sacramento last?

Read More
Person of Interest

Despite finishing second in the Most Improved Player voting, Greivis Vasquez was not part of the long-term plan in New Orleans, who shipped him to Sacramento in the offseason. If he doesn’t stick with the Kings, his third team in four seasons in the NBA, he could be headed for a journeyman’s career. The good news is that he might be a perfect in Sacramento, a team that needs a pass-first point guard who can control the tempo of the game and get the ball to DeMarcus Cousins.

Read More
Film Room All Star

The Sacramento Kings were an excellent offensive team after the All-Star break and it's no coincidence that's around the time they acquired Patrick Patterson in a midseason trade. The team was slammed for "giving up" on 2012 first-round pick Thomas Robinson, but Patterson proved to be an NBA-ready power forward who helped the offense click with his ability to space the floor. We break down why that was so valuable for the Kings.

Read More
The Key Question

The Kings gave DeMarcus Cousins $62 million?! Is Vivek Ranadive crazy?!

"Every hero is just a touch deranged. We're down with it." More seriously, it's a bit of a dice roll. If Cousins plays up to his potential over the next few seasons, the deal will have been worth it. If he doesn't, the capital outlay is both an opportunity lost and a dicey opening salvo for the Vivek era. But it will be fixable either way: any contract can be traded in the NBA, and the league is never short of hope, even for the most dilapidated franchises.

Read More
Best Case

There’s still a team in Sacramento and there’s no Maloofs in sight. Seriously, everything else is gravy. For this year anyway. It would be kind of great if DeMarcus Cousins began living up to his potential.

Worst Case

DMC and Mike Malone clash to the point where the big man pines for the days of Paul Westphal. Who cares? There’s still a team! But yeah, big year for Cousins.

Get your Kings on at
Sactown Royalty

San Antonio
Spurs

The Spurs came within a defensive rebound of winning their fifth championship last season, an utterly demoralizing event in and of itself even before you factor in that it was likely the best chance for this old man-heavy roster to grab another title before Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili slide into retirement. Count out the Spurs at your own peril, though, because those in the know have been saying this team is cooked since about 2009. All the principal components return and Kawhi Leonard has another season of experience. Just don't expect this to be the year he finally smiles. — Ricky O’Donnell

2012-2013 Record 58-24, second in Western Conference.
Head Coach Gregg Popovich. Popovich has been one of the most active proponents of resting his stars during the regular season, and that will be just as important this season. He's preached about Kawhi Leonard's growth into a star, and bringing the young forward along will be the biggest step forward in keeping the Spurs train moving forward as Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili age.
Additions Marco Belinelli, Jeff Ayers.
Subtractions Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair, two assistant coaches. Team Blog Pounding the Rock
Key Players
Tim Duncan

Duncan turned back the clock last year, averaging 17.8 points and 9.9 rebounds and posting the sixth-best PER in the NBA. Duncan was brilliant on the defensive end of the floor, finishing tied with Dwight Howard for the best defensive RAPM (regularized adjusted plus-minus) mark in the league. It would be fair to expect Duncan to regress somewhat back to his numbers from the prior few years, because at some point, he's simply going to run out of steam. But it also wouldn't be a surprise if Duncan put forth a season similar to last.

Tony Parker

Parker enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career last year, posting averages of 20.3 points and 7.6 assists while shooting 52.2 percent from the field. Parker did deal with some injury issues during the regular season and in the playoffs, but his play never really suffered until the NBA Finals, where he shot a combined 9-of-35 in the final two games of the series. Parker is healthy now after leading France to a EuroBasket title, and he'll again be expected to lead a Spurs offense that was seventh in the NBA in offensive rating.

Kawhi Leonard

Leonard dealt with some health issues last season, but when he was on the floor, he showed why he's one of the most promising young players in the NBA. After a solid regular season, Leonard stepped his game up even further in the playoffs, averaging a double-double in the NBA Finals. Toss in some excellent perimeter defense, and Leonard is on the verge of being a star. It's scary to think of how good he can become if he stays on his current path.

The Lead

Just like that, it appears the Spurs have their next big three in place, starring Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter. The combo might not be as starry as Duncan-Ginobili-Parker, but based on last season, it can keep San Antonio in contention for years to come.

Read More
Person of Interest

Don't speak to Kawhi Leonard. Don't even look at him. The Spurs forward broke out in the NBA Finals last season by standing toe-to-toe with LeBron James, but the now-22-year-old would rather have his play do the talking. Leonard's dour demeanor is part of what makes him a perfect fit in San Antonio. Well, that and the ruthlessness of individual defense and the maximized efficiency of his offense. It's the perfect marriage of player and team in more ways than one.

Read More
Film Room All Star

The Spurs inked Tiago Splitter to a four-year, $36 million deal, and that's a great value signing. He's their most mobile frontcourt player on defense, which is value enough for a team that was one game away from capturing a title, but he's also more refined offensively than his meager 10.3 points per game indicate. He's an elite pick-and-roll finisher and has made himself a prime target for Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Here's how.

Read More
The Key Question

Will Kawhi Leonard take the next step in his development?

This is the year Leonard could become a two-way force unlike any the Spurs have enjoyed at small forward in the Tim Duncan era. Even the usually-conservative Gregg Popovich seems committed to expanding Leonard's offensive role this upcoming season. The question is: What exactly will that look like?

Leonard has not had the ball in his hands much in his young career, and when he has, he's had a hard time creating efficient looks, often settling for mid-range jumpers. The Spurs could ostensibly attempt to get him involved on some simple pick-and-roll actions, could try using him in the post or as a screener.

San Antonio has relied almost exclusively on the Big Three to create on offense for so long that any deviation from that seems hard to fathom. But if Leonard can make a successful transition into an offensive force, that could vault the Spurs right to the top of the heap of contenders.

Read More
Best Case

Everything that happened last season, plus a healthier Manu Ginobili and a full season of Kawhi Leonard playing 33 minutes a night. With a 48-12 record, Pop racks up $22 million in fines by listing starters as DNP-Make Me.

Worst Case

Starters are listed as DNP-No Really He’s Hurt as Pop is forced to go with Nando De Colo, Aron Baynes and Boris Diaw.

Get your Spurs on at
Pounding the Rock

Utah
Jazz

Let the Derrick Favors-Enes Kanter era begin! Buckle up for the Burke-Burks backcourt! It's a new day in Utah, with Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson's steady supply of predictable competence replaced by glorious uncertainty. The bad news: there will likely be a lot of losses. The good news: losing can be liberating. There are precisely zero expectations for the Jazz. The team is in transition, with a rookie running the offense and a collection of players who possess much more potential than proven productivity. Time to see what they can do. — James Herbert

2012-2013 Record 43-39, ninth in Western Conference.
Head Coach Ty Corbin. With such a young roster, there are a lot of expectations for the Jazz this season, and there's already a bit of pressure behind Corbin from his last two seasons. Corbin will need to stay in his players' ears to keep their confidence high. His biggest task will be ushering Trey Burke along the way, keeping the point guard's head straight through what could be a brutal season.
Additions Trey Burke, Brandon Rush, John Lucas III, Richard Jefferson, Ian Clark, Rudy Gobert, Andris Biedrins.
Subtractions Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams, Randy Foye, Jamaal Tinsley, DeMarre Carroll, Earl Watson. Team Blog SLC Dunk
Key Players
Derrick Favors

With Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson out of his way, Favors finally can settle in with heavier minutes and at one position. He's as big as many centers, but athletic enough to handle power forward. Expect Favors to average something close to a double-double and around two blocks per game.

Enes Kanter

Kanter was beginning to gain confidence last season before a shoulder injury derailed his progress. The starting center position is his in 2013-14. The true low-post scorer will team with Favors in a frontcourt that should already have quite a bit of chemistry.

Gordon Hayward

Hayward has been one of Utah's promising young players who should finally break into a full-time starting role. He'll probably see time at both shooting guard and small forward, but no matter where he's playing, Hayward will be asked to do a lot. Last season, he averaged 14.1 points, 3.0 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game and started 27 of 72 games.

The Lead

The logjam has been broken up. The Jazz let Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap leave in free agency, opening up the starting lineup for Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. Now we find out if their impressive reserve play holds up in the spotlight. Utah exceeding a level of being not totally disastrous, given the team's backcourt depth (or lack thereof), depends largely on how Favors and Kanter do this season.

Read More
Person of Interest

After spending his first two seasons in the NBA behind Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, Enes Kanter is finally getting his chance in Utah. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Kanter has all the tools to be an excellent NBA big man, but he just hasn’t had the opportunity to put them in use. Going forward, the Jazz are hoping that Kanter and Derrick Favors can become the backbone of a half-court oriented team like the Pacers or Grizzlies.

Read More
Film Room All Star

The training wheels were removed from Utah's young roster when they lost their top two scorers in Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Where will those field goals filter down and where can the Jazz’s young crew find effective ways to score? A good place to start is with Gordon Hayward, who is really good at moving without the ball.

Read More
The Key Question

What is the biggest obstacle?

The last few seasons, it appeared that the team did not have a unified direction. You would be hard-pressed to find a team out there in 'win now mode' that did so many non-winning things. You’d also be hard-pressed to find a team interested in developing youth that went out of their way to keep lottery picks on the bench, watching games instead of playing in them. They tried to do two different things, and failed at both. And they did that three seasons in a row.

Many Jazz fans are putting their eggs in the Dennis Lindsey basket right now. We hope for a unified sense or purpose and unified direction for the team this year.

But it can all be derailed easily if one party puts their individuals goals ahead of the needs of the franchise. Tyrone Corbin's contract runs out at the end of the year, and he may feel like winning now will help his resume more than following directions to play rookies more now. Previously, Corbin would side with the veterans and play them the minutes, but this season is about Corbin falling into a long-term relationship with the youth. If that marriage doesn't last, then this team could end up repeating the mistakes of previous seasons.

Read More
Best Case

Derrick Favors finally breaks out. Enes Kanter finally breaks out. Alec Burks finally breaks out. Gordon Hayward finally breaks out.

Worst Case

The young core isn’t as good as hoped, leading to way too much Andris Biedrins in a desperate race to the bottom.

Get your Jazz on at
SLC Dunk

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About the Author

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I am the NBA editor for SBNation.com, and phrases like "ice the pick and roll" tumble way too easily out of my mouth. I'm also the founder of SB Nation's Wizards blog Bullets Forever, where I root for a team that hasn't won over 45 games in 33 years.

I started following basketball when I was 10 and saw Gheorghe Muresan attempt to back down Luc Longley in the post. It was love at first sight.

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