It’s all about getting back to the NBA Finals for this team. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade seek to lead the Heat to their fourth straight Finals appearance, something the duos of Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen and Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant failed to do. James, Wade and Chris Bosh can all terminate their contracts and opt out after the season, so if the team fails to succeed on its mission, the three may hit the free agent market again, just like in the summer of 2010. The spotlight is already on LeBron, as he recently told ESPN.com that he would love to spend the rest of his career in Miami but he’s unsure of what tomorrow will bring. Translation: “I’m opting out regardless”. Stay tuned, everybody.
Two words: The Return. Derrick Rose finally returns, facing criticism from the city of Chicago for missing all of last season due to a torn ACL. Recently, he told CSN Chicago he feels he is 100 percent, so it will be compelling to see how he starts the season and if he still has that explosiveness which helped him capture the 2011 MVP Award. Simply put, the Bulls will go as far as Rose takes them.
Gone are the days of Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in Boston. Rivers has been replaced by Brad Stevens, fresh out of the college ranks, where he led Butler to two national championship appearances. Point guard Rajon Rondo, widely considered one of the best in the league, will be faced with the task of leading the Celtics in a rebuilding season. Rondo is not the most pleasant individual to be around when losing, as reports surfaced last season he attempted to fight Rivers in the locker room. Needless to say, the Stevens-Rondo relationship will be placed under a microscope this season.
This is the team that pushed the Miami Heat to a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals. They have a young star in Paul George and an intimidating frontcourt in David West and Roy Hibbert. Not only did they improve in the offseason, they now have a legit shot to win the conference this time around. The bench had been a weakness last year but it is now a strength with the signings of Luis Scola, Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson. Danny Granger, an All-Star in 2009, also returns to the starting lineup from a knee injury that caused him to miss 77 games last season. How Granger performs alongside George will be something to watch for and if George’s development is slowed by Granger’s shots, the veteran could be traded.
The battle for New York continues in its second season, as the Nets fight their division and city rival New York Knicks for the Atlantic Division crown. This time around, the Nets are equipped with championship pedigree with the additions of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov is shelling out a payroll near $101 million for the season. They may boast the best staring five in basketball with Garnett, Pierce, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams. If they can stay healthy for the playoffs, the Nets will be a tough out for any team.
New York Knicks
Carmelo Anthony will not have to play a stretch 4 as often, as the Knicks went out and traded for Andrea Bargnani. Bargnani is a legit 7-footer, but as a former No. 1 overall draft pick, he has not turned out to be the player most thought he would be and that’s putting it lightly. The Knicks also signed Metta World Peace to bring some defensive intensity to the perimeter and he can provide that nastiness the team is missing. What will the team do after finishing as the second seed in the Eastern Conference last season? Anthony’s impending free agency will loom over the franchise all season long and depending on how much success the Knicks have, he may bolt town and head for Hollywood.
The franchise begins its first season under new coach Brett Brown, who signed on last month. It will be interesting to see how quickly first-round picks Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel adjust to the NBA game. Believe it or not, Kwame Brown is one of the oldest players on the roster. Evan Turner is the team’s best player, coming off a season averaging 13.3 points, a career high.
The new regime in Toronto begins under general manager Masai Ujiri, who joined the franchise in May. The Raptors have young talent like DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. Kyle Lowry is the leader of the team, but the development of DeRozan and Valanciunas will be the two most important things to watch during the season. DeRozan is a freak athlete and Valanciunas reportedly added on some serious size this offseason.
The Cavs added Anthony Bennett, a combo forward, with the top pick in the draft while signing Andrew Bynum and Earl Clark to surround rising star point guard Kyrie Irving with talent. Bynum’s health is obviously the big if here, as he has missed 102 games the past two seasons. His best season as a pro was two years ago when he averaged 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, where some experts began to call him the best center in the league. A lineup with Irving, Dion Waiters, Clark, Tristan Thompson and a healthy Bynum is a playoff team on paper.
The Pistons had one of the better offseasons in the league, signing forward Josh Smith from Atlanta and trading for point guard Brandon Jennings of Milwaukee. Smith played more power forward in Atlanta, but here, he will primarily be a small forward, giving the Pistons what should be a dominant frontcourt with him, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. This is another team that when you look at on paper is a playoff team. Expect them to start out slow, especially with all the new players, but down the stretch they should finish as one of the top six teams in the conference.
O.J. Mayo signed as a free agent and will undoubtedly be one of the few bright spots for the franchise. Brandon Knight should take over as the team’s starting point guard after being traded from Detroit. Veteran forward Caron Butler will most likely battle for the starting spot with Carlos Delfino. Larry Sanders remains one of the top defensive big men in the game. Can he make a run for Defensive Player of the Year?
Atlanta had hopes of signing either Andrew Bynum or Al Jefferson as free agents, which would have allowed Al Horford to move back to his natural power forward position. They whiffed on both and instead signed Paul Millsap, an underrated move for sure. The team signed Elton Brand to back up Millsap, but the lack of an experienced, proven center may hurt the team, especially when Horford gets into foul trouble.
Michael Jordan was finally able to sign a valuable free agent. Al Jefferson will give the team a much needed paint presence who can consistently score with his back to the basket. Cody Zeller was drafted with the fourth overall pick as well and he is one of the most athletic big men in the league already. Gerald Henderson was re-signed to play in the backcourt with Kemba Walker, who averaged a much improved 17.7 points compared to his rookie season at 12.1. Even with the additions, the Bobcats are not exactly knocking on anyone’s door to make the playoffs.
How quickly can Victor Oladipo transition into an NBA point guard? General manager Rob Hennigan envisions Oladipo as a Russell Westbrook-type of player, who made the switch after being drafted out of UCLA. Will Nikola Vucevic finish in the top five in rebounding again, further cementing himself as Dwight Howard’s replacement? Does Maurice Harkless finish on an All-Defensive team? In his second year as coach, what kind of adjustments does Jacque Vaughn make to better this team and put them in position to win more ball games? There are many questions to be answered in Orlando, but this season is mainly about locking up a top three pick in next year’s draft, which is the equivalent to more losing.
Is this team finally playoff bound? John Wall was re-signed to a five-year, $80 million contract extension to be the face of the franchise and this is the first year he will start to feel the pressure of what its like to make that type of money. The Wizards paid him that money to lead them back into the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season.