Most NBA teams won't contend this season. Some have all but punted on a playoff spot before even tipping their first games. But not every team must prosper to warrant our enthusiasm. At each point in the NBA life cycle -- from tanking to rebuilding to competing to contending -- is something to appreciate.
Somewhere within every single franchise's 2014-2015 outlook is a reason to pay attention -- to watch their games, to hear what they have to say or just to sit back and wait for something strange to happen. Some teams have sublime superstars, anchors returning from injury or promising young talent. Others teams hold interest on the sidelines -- new coaches, fancy system, or intriguing bench players. Some teams are pleasantly familiar, others pleasantly mysterious. Some teams are just going to make us laugh all year long.
Indeed, there are innumerable reasons to like every team in the NBA this season. We picked 30 -- one for each -- and did our best to look past the obvious.
Al Horford's triumphant return
Before Al Horford was lost to another pectoral injury, he was putting up the best numbers of his career. The Hawks have for several years emitted the vibe of a scrappy mid-major without a true star, but that's only because Horford has fallen out of two of the last three seasons.
Horford's a real anchor that was averaging just shy of a double-double before his 2013-14 season prematurely ended. Moreover, he's quietly a fascinating player to watch -- a powerful finisher, shot-blocker and mid-range scorer, but also a surprisingly deft handler on the move. The dude's Dwight Howard-sized, but can beat you with a dribble and lead a fast break.
Horford's a star in his prime. Please keep your chest parts intact this season, Alfred.
The dawn of the Marcus Smart era
With Rajon Rondo out for at least the first couple weeks of the season, No. 6 overall pick Marcus Smart is going to give being a true point guard a shot. The tall, sturdy rookie left no doubt at Oklahoma State that he can score, and an extended preseason look told you Smart's ready to defend NBA guards. He and Avery Bradley are going to devour skittish backcourts.
Can he run the Celtics, though? There isn't tremendous pressure to perform amid a still-rebuilding roster, but if he flourishes as a creator to start the season, the question changes from "can Smart fill Rondo's shoes?" to "should he keep them?" It feels like Rondo's been in trade rumors forever, but a 20-year-old flashing the skills necessary to lead Boston's next generation may be incentive enough to finally pull the trigger.
Brooklyn's unique international connection
Folks paid a lot of attention to Mikhail Prokhorov's Nets signing Andrei Kirilenko on the cheap last season, and now Sergey Karasev's around to augment the Russian presence.
But the Nets quietly have the lovely, fascinating Herzegovinian city of Mostar covered as well. Versatile Croatian forward Bojan Bogdanovic joins muscly Bosniak sharpshooter Mirza Teletovic in the Brooklyn frontcourt this season, and they'll surely see the court together in some floor-spreading lineups. Rarely do you see such a strong pipeline form between a small, far-off city and an NBA franchise, but between those two recent additions and old New Jersey friend Zoran Planinic, the Nets flag is planted firmly in Mostar.
The Hornets are BACK
The Hornets are the Hornets again! "Bobcats" was an uninspired nickname, and the general branding, colors and whatnot never stood out enough to stick. (Except for you, Rufus. Miss u boo.)
"Hornets" is better because it has deeper roots in Charlotte. It's better because of the nostalgia, the Starter jackets and the Muggsy Bogues throwbacks. It's better because they are again THE turquoise team in the NBA. It's better because the name suits the supremely pesky trio of Kemba Walker, Lance Stephenson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. It's better because the world needs a honeycomb floor. It's better because it continues to flummox sportswriters.
The new name and colors alone are going to earn Charlotte an extra couple of wins this season, and that's only half a joke.
Joakim Noah's everlasting energy
Joakim Noah has averaged more minutes per game than any center in each of the last two seasons and already has a substantial history of foot and leg injuries. That normally serves as a warning sign of a player about to slow down, but anyone who has watched Noah power the Bulls through two seasons without Derrick Rose knows knows better than to doubt Chicago's vibrant, infectious big man.
Noah gets better every year. In the 2013 playoffs, he single-handedly lifted the Bulls to the second round by finishing with 24 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks in Game 7 on the road against the Brooklyn Nets. When Rose again suffered a season-ending knee injury the next year, Chicago changed its offensive philosophy on the fly and put the onus of playmaking on Noah; all he did was become the first center to lead his team in assists since David Robinson did it in 1994. Oh, he also won Defensive Player of the Year.
Rose is back, but it's impossible to say if he'll still be the same athletic supernova he was before two serious injuries. Regardless, there's no denying the Bulls' physical and emotional leader is now their veteran center.
Kevin Love outlet passes! To LeBron!
LeBron James already has four MVP trophies and two championship rings. Is it time to give him Executive of the Year too?
It sure seems like LeBron lined up the trade that sent Kevin Love to Cleveland. On the surface, it makes the Cavs instant favorites in the East and a legitimate contender for the NBA title. More importantly, it means we get to watch Love zip outlet passes to LeBron and Kyrie Irving all year long. How is anyone supposed to defend this with LeBron on the receiving end?
If LeBron is already the almighty and benevolent ruler of the NBA, Love's Jedi-like passing ability may be the only thing that can make him even better. It's a scary thought for the rest of the NBA.
The one-legged fadeaway
LeBron James called it the second-most unstoppable shot in NBA history. Kevin Durant spent his MVP season adding it to his arsenal. Carmelo Anthony is trying it out now too. As Dirk Nowitzki enters his 17th season, there's no better time to appreciate this 7-foot German outlier and his signature one-footed fadeaway.
The last few seasons have been a bummer for Dirk superfans. Mark Cuban broke up the 2011 champs to swing big in free agency, but he missed three years in a row and hurt Dirk's national relevance in the process. That shouldn't be the case anymore after Cuban finally came through this summer by adding Chandler Parsons and Tyson Chandler. It's good news for the NBA if only because it means more high-leverage situations for Dirk and his winding, falling fadeaway.
Dirk is 36 now, so you have to treasure him while you can. There will never be anyone quite like him again.
Kenneth Faried: Franchise player
Kenneth Faried had one hell of a summer. The man won a gold medal with Team USA's 2014 FIBA World Cup squad, hitting the Shmoney Dance on the medal stand in glorious fashion. One month later, the Nuggets gave him $50 million reasons to stay in Colorado. Faried is winning at the game in life.
And that banner summer cemented Faried's status as the new leader in the Nuggets' clubhouse. It was Faried who kept making plays for Coach K's Team USA squad time and time again. It's Faried who returns as the only major Nuggets to make it through the previous season healthy.
If Faried carries over his summer success while continuing to provide jaw-dropping athleticism, maybe the Rocky Mountains will join us in the playoffs this year.
Andre Drummond's evolving superpowers
The NBA is stacked with the biggest and most and athletic human begins in the world, but none are as big or athletic as Andre Drummond. The laws of gravity should prevent a 6'11, 280-pound man from rising for a under-the-leg dunk with such ease, but Drummond has figured out how to defy physics. As he enters his third season, there isn’t a player in the league with as much as potential.
Drummond finished second in the the league in both field goal percentage and rebounds per game last season as a 20-year-old. He's showing signs of a low post game this season, which should have the entire NBA reeling in panic. Stan Van Gundy once coaxed out Dwight Howard's immense potential. Now, the league must worry about him doing the same thing for Drummond.
The ceiling of Drummond's game reaches the clouds. That's fitting, because getting up that high has never been an issue for him.
Everybody loves Draymond
Let's rewind to a key moment in Draymond Green's senior year at Michigan State. His top-seeded Spartans were in a tougher than expected game against tiny Long Island University, and Green had struggled in the first half. But in the second half, the player known as "The Dancing Bear" showed he had enough. A long jumper, a drive to the basket, a mean post-up and hook shot for two, a deft pass to a cutter for an and-one. Just like that, the threat was over. From flirting with the opposing team's cheerleaders before the game and smiling with his head coach afterwards, Green's all-around brilliance made him easily likable.
Few believed those qualities would come out at the next level, but we're heading into year three of Green showing Warriors fans why he's the type of player everyone wants on their team. This season will be full of intrigue, as the Warriors' Swiss Army Knife enters the final year of his contract. Will Golden State pay big bucks for someone good at a bunch of things, but not great at anything?
The better question: can they afford not to?
It's fun to laugh at James Harden
In its short time, Vine has staked its place in capturing life's essential trivialities. (Most notably: dancing animals).
Vine is great for sports as well, particularly when it comes to James Harden's consistently mindless defense. If a picture tells 1,000 words, a six-second video of Harden losing his man or getting burned by a backdoor cutter tells a million.
This is the perfect realization of Sports On the Internet: mean, shortsighted and slightly distorting of the truth, yet unquestionably funny. James Harden is one of the best scorers in the league, but that doesn't really matter for our purposes here. He is our galloping llama listening to DMX, our bouncing lamb, our baby girl getting crossed over. No one who ever loved you told you life was fair.
David West, professional badass
Amid the on-court sulking and scandalous internet rumors that plagued the Pacers, it was easy to miss David West taking care of business of usual. West's business: acting as one of the league's old school tough guys. This is a player with an X tattooed on his shoulder, and he isn't afraid to drive it into the opposition.
West doesn't fly up the court or unleash three-pointers like the modern breed of power forwards. The 34-year-old enforcer leaves his imprint on the game through difficult finishes in the paint and a jump shot that's reliable from mid-range.
No team saw their fortune change as much as the Pacers since the start of 2014, but none of that will change West's job description. He'll keep punching the clock.
Blake Griffin gets angry
We were intrigued by Blake Griffin working on his jump shot. We nodded when Griffin talked about becoming a better leader. But we stopped what we were doing and paid attention when he finally retaliated after Trevor Booker gave one of the many hard fouls opponents have inflicted throughout Griffin's career. It just got real.
We've always demurred on naming the NBA's best power forward, but the title should have always belonged to Griffin. He's the most talented player at that position and he's proven to be totally unstoppable at times.
But the retaliation showed a new edge, and we like it. When Matt Barnes complained about having to fight other player's battles, he was referring to Griffin's reluctance to getting into fracases himself. But it appears this year will be different.
If Griffin's no longer a pushover, what's the Clippers' Achilles' heel? Does it exist?
Let's all laugh at the Lakers
If you're only entertained by winning, this Lakers team isn't for you. But if comedic entertainment is more your thing, then the boys wearing Forum Blue and Gold will make your day. Consider:
Kobe Bryant will do everything in his power to prove he's not an old man. This means desperate attempts for for 40-point nights, even if he must put up 40 shots in the process. It means mean epic cussing sessions between him, Carlos Boozer and Nick Young.
If the game is close, will Young steal the last shot from Kobe?
Your favorite team's point guard is going to love going against Steve Nash and Jeremy Lin.
Maybe someone in Los Angeles will convince Boozer to create an artificial hairline again.
The Julius Randle Era. (This could actually be fun for good reasons.)
The Lakers may be the worst team in the West, but they'll be a hilarious disaster in the process.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Z-Bo and Marc, bash brothers
When the Grizzlies are rolling, The Grindhouse feels more like '90s WWF Pay-Per-View than a basketball game. The personalities are huge, the music is blaring and the paying customers in the stands feel every punch thrown by either side.
That makes Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph the city's hometown tag-team champions. They're a pair of outsized, basketball-playing wooly mammoths: light on foot speed, but heavy on brute force and deft skill. As the NBA gets leaner, smaller and faster, the age of the two-post offense is becoming a relic. But while floor-stretching bigs who can shoot three-pointers might be the wave of the future, Memphis has enjoyed plenty of success with good old-fashioned physicality.
Mario Chalmers' revenge
Every member of the Heat must feel like he has an extra something to prove in this first post-LeBron year. The most vengeful among them, one hopes, is Mario Chalmers. It's easy to forget Chalmers was the hero on a college championship team, because he's gone from there to second-rounder to pincushion for so much of Miami's growing-pain frustration the last few years.
There's a decent chance Chalmers will still be the Heatsman everyone screams at. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are still around and there's still a winning roster in place with all the requisite intensity that needs a release.
It would be a joy, then, if Chalmers could scream back. Any of the following would satisfy: 1. Chalmers has a breakout season. 2. Chalmers snaps and freaks out at his teammates. or 3. Chalmers drops 50 on the Cavaliers. He seems prideful enough to produce any or all of the above.
Jabari and Giannis take Milwaukee
Milwaukee is known for its fine variety of meats and cheeses. It has not been known for its professional basketball for a long time. Yet if Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo are as talented as the cultish curators of basketball ephemera lead you to believe, that’ll change in the near future.
OK, so team success is still a few years away for the Bucks, but rookie Parker and sophomore Antetokounmpo should make Milwaukee one of the most entertaining teams in the league. New coach Jason Kidd is experimenting with playing Antetokounmpo at point guard, an unprecedented shift for player who grew to 6'11 last season. Parker was viewed as the most pro-ready player in a loaded draft, a prodigious talent capable of scoring from all three levels.
Both players will be teenagers at the start of the season, a daunting challenge in a league full of the most athletically imposing adults alive. At first, the gains will be relatively small -- Giannis pushing the ball in transition with arms that look like a genetic mutation, Jabari pivoting around a defender to hit a spinning jump shot. But there isn't a more promising duo of young teammates in the league.
Andrew Wiggins, living up to the hype
It's going to be a long rookie season for Andrew Wiggins. He must play on a team without much talent, assimilate to life as a rookie and play a position the league's greatest players just happen to play. We've seen too many rookies play for terrible teams and never figure out a way to get over the hump. It'd be a shame if Wiggins was next.
We understand what you're thinking. 'If Wiggins is good enough, he should be able to rise above his situation.' And some players definitely can overcome.
But Wiggins faces more pressure than most top picks because he has an entire country to impress. Drake's co-sign, the influx of young talent and the Raptors' rise has been notable, but Canada needs Wiggins to be a superstar to rise to another stratosphere. There's just too much on the line.
No pressure, kid.
Meet your new king: Anthony Davis
When everyone agrees something is going to happen, it's usually a safe bet to go the other way. But when it comes to the general consensus that Anthony Davis is about to detonate the NBA, do you really want to be the only person that doesn't embrace the NBA's future overlord?
Davis is legitimately too talented to fail. He announced himself as a future star at Kentucky, turning the Wildcats into the best college team in recent memory. He's spent his first two years in New Orleans proving he's way more skilled offensively than some originally suspected. Now he's ready to take off and become one of the very best players in the league.
The first playoff appearance of his career is no certainty because the Western Conference is so tough. But when it comes to appreciating the league's greatest young talent, wins and losses aren't important. Davis will grow on both ends of the floor and is a lock to do a few things you've never seen before.
If you're really that good, no one can stop you even if everyone sees you coming.
The Triangle is back!
Phil Jackson would tell you recent attempts at installing the Triangle offense have failed because they were impure or incomplete. Well, now he's building a Triangle team from the top down. These Knicks will be a fascinating test case for the system, and there's no excuse if things don't work out in the long run.
For now, they'll probably be mediocre, but they're bound to have their moments. If not "fun" in the usual run-and-gun sense, the Knicks will still provide highlights by way of momentary Triangular excellence -- Carmelo Anthony getting creative, big men passing from up high, young wings cutting backdoor for huge dunks and so forth. And they're bound to commit a lot of hilarious turnovers.
Blaming Scott Brooks is easy
This is what happens when you put a collection of young stars on one team. A head coach doesn't get credit for Kevin Durant making 30-foot three-pointers or Russell Westbrook dunking on people with no regard for human life. But when those young studs play like crap, we don't know why. Thus, we always blame Scott Brooks.
It's to the point where we've turned the Blame Brooks game into a spot. Maybe it's because he looks like he blends in better at an accounting firm than an NBA arena. Maybe it's because he was the consummate backup's backup point guard when he played. Maybe it's because it's just fun to blame the man whose job is to harness such great talent.
But when in doubt, blame Scott Brooks, even if he's a better coach than his reputation suggests.
Elfrid Payton, mystery man
The Magic added some scaffolding this summer, signing veterans to support their incredibly young core. One hopes they'll let the kids spin together, though, and that starts with Elfrid Payton. Hardly anyone knows what to make of the 20-year-old with a coral formation for hair and three strong years at Louisiana-Lafayette on his resume.
Payton's got the makings of a steal hound, a potential triple-double threat and a ball-handler with both the elusiveness and the vertical leap to humiliate defenders. Can he run a whole NBA team? The Magic have the time to find out, and they've got Luke Ridnour around as training wheels.
Anonymous Sixers trying to prove us wrong
Watching Nerlens Noel in an NBA uniform will be fun. Michael Carter-Williams' growth should be fun when he gets healthy. Joel Embiid will be fun on the court if he gets to play and equally fun off it if he doesn't.
You know what else is fun? A dozen guys whose names the average person -- hell, the average NBA fan -- doesn't know trying to shove it in the face of folks who say they're nobody placeholders on a team that isn't going anywhere this season.
It's a fair appraisal, but our collective giggling at their outlook sure gives them plenty of motivation to prove us wrong. There just might be some real NBA talent amid that mass of fungible contracts. And even if there isn't, there are enough pissed-off, fringe-dwelling youngsters that the Sixers are going to steal a few wins. Maybe like once a month, but they will. Nobody loses all 82 ... right?
The Suns were last year's League Pass champions and have an even weirder, speedier roster than before, so watching them isn't a tough sell. But if you're not convinced, there's always the possibility of the Dragics and Morrii switching uniforms before the game without telling anybody. How long would it take for anyone to notice? A quarter? An entire game? A week? How do we know both Goran and Zoran and Marcus and Markieff haven't already done this multiple times?
Give credit to the Suns for taking family business to the next level. Let's just hope Gerald Green has a brother named Harold that's eligible for the 2015 NBA Draft.
When LaMarcus Aldridge gets hot
LaMarcus Aldridge was cooking anyone who stepped in his way during last yea'rs playoffs. It didn't matter if the Houston Rockets put Dwight Howard, Omer Asik, Terrence Jones, Otis Thorpe or Carl Herrera on him. For a brief moment, we had to entertain the thought of Aldridge as the best power forward in the game. Those step-back jumpers, that post game, all those rebounds ... it was the Aldridge dream actualized.
Will we see that Aldridge again? Sure, the San Antonio Spurs solved him and disposed of Portland in the second round, but the Spurs won't be playing the Blazers all 82 times. Aldridge is stepping into the prime of his powers on a Blazers team that's built around them. If he can carry over his elite playoff performance to this season, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin may have to relinquish their "best PF in the NBA" claims.
The nomad that's found a home
After two years of bouncing around, Rudy Gay may finally have found a home in Sacramento. He can forget about all the scrutiny he's dealt with in years past and function in the shadow of DeMarcus Cousins growing into the legend we all know as Boogie. Being in basketball Siberia means Gay can ply his craft in peace.
And consider that Gay's only 28 years old. Maybe he'll always be the player he is today, and that's totally fine. But even now, he shows flashes of something better. Sometimes, it takes a while for players to figure it out.
Manu Ginobili turning back the clock
Manu Ginobili is not from Europe. His native Argentina, in fact, is not particularly close. Still, that never stopped the veteran Spurs guard from becoming the unofficial godfather of the Eurostep. In his prime, the move was one of many Manu deployed to slice through defenses. It was reckless abandon meeting ruthless effectiveness.
Years later, Ginobili doesn't have the same foot speed or lateral quickness he once possessed, but he's still capable of similar moments of wonder every once in while. Take Game 5 of the NBA Finals, when Ginobili's hammer dunk served as the final warning sign that Miami’s season would soon be over.
At age 37, Ginobili can't do this every night, but that makes his random outbursts of frisson all the more enjoyable.
Toronto's Brazilian mysteries
The most the average basketball fan knows of Lucas Nogueira is that his draft rights have already toured two countries and a hat can't come close to containing his hair. If you asked even the diehardest of diehards who Bruno Caboclo was four months ago, they'd probably guess a cologne manufacturer.
Toronto -- already an underrated bastion of bouncy youngsters -- is now host to two spindly Brazilian newbies whose career projections are anyone's guess. Nogueira at least has a couple years of Spanish League play behind him; Caboclo was perhaps the least known first-round pick of the online mock draft era.
All most of us know about these two is they boast a combined 15 feet of wingspan and they'll probably need some heavy winter coats. The Raptors were already fun. Now they're fun with an edge of mystery.
Trey Burke and Dante Exum
The world out of Salt Lake City is that Trey Burke and Dante Exum are battling it out to see who will be the point guard of the future. Burke is the incumbent and showed flashes of stardom as a rookie point guard. You easily fall in love with his fearlessness and willingness to take any shot at any time.
But fearlessness can't overcome being under six feet tall, something that Exum doesn't have anything to worry about. Exum's 6'5" frame and superior athletic ability makes him an intriguing prospect, but the Australian export must deal with a major step up in his competition. It's too bad that only one of them can play point guard ...
... unless new coach Quin Snyder actually starts them both.
Marcin Gortat has no filter
Do you recall when you realized Marcin Gortat was super weird and super fun? It probably wasn't until he joined Washington, because it feels like he really came out of his shell as a Wizard.
Washington's newly-inked franchise center is a gamer and unabashed porn enthusiast who's half-joked about running for president of Poland, driven around in a tank, and screamed quotes from 300 to pump himself up before games, just to list a few of the zany Gortat items from the last year or so.
And he's, ya know, quite a good center on both ends of the floor. As likely to stuff you at the rim as he is to sneak into your huddle.