The NBA season begins next week, and when it does, it will have Derrick Rose but not Kobe Bryant. It will start with David Stern as commissioner, but will end with Adam Silver. Doc Rivers is in Los Angeles and Kevin Garnett & Paul Pierce in Brooklyn, and finally, the Heat will once again bringing the bling on Opening Night.
Basically, plenty of drama is on tap, right from the tip.
The season will orbit around Miami and the Heat's chances of going four-for-four in trips to the NBA Finals since the teaming of the Big Three, and whether they can win a third straight title, last done by the Phil Jackson-Kobe-Shaq Lakers at the turn of the previous decade. Miami is a strange place for basketball history because basketball is only 25 years old in that town, and quite truthfully, it's a dreadful basketball city. If 17,000 fans swear they saw when Ray Allen hit that epic three-pointer in Game 6 of the Finals, about 2,000 will be lying, because that's how many left early.
In a cruel and ironic knife twist to the gut, the traditional basketball teams, on the other hand, will give plenty of folks reasons to beat the traffic home this season. Doomsday is the prediction for the Lakers and Celtics, proud franchises desperately trying to reinvent themselves as quickly as possible as they enter a period of doubt and a talent drain. It's very possible that spring will see both teams on the sidelines, dreaming of better days gone by, and hoping for a return.
The 2013-14 season, then, will hold a measure of intrigue. On that note, we've drawn up a list of 25 NBA people to watch this season, 25 who'll command our attention and curiosity for one reason or another:
25. Tristan Thompson, Cavs. The Cavs used the No. 1 overall pick on Anthony Bennett, and normally he'd be the most curious player on this team. But Thompson is doing what no player in memory has done before: Change shooting hands, in this case from lefty to righty (some Cavs fans say they'd rather he didn't shoot at all). Will that fix his flat mid-range jumper and 58-percent free throw shooting, or keep him an offensive misfit?
24. Joe Dumars, Pistons. This could be a make-or-break year for the Pistons boss, who's on the last year of his contract. Once hot as an executive, Dumars became a victim of poor drafts (Darko!) and coaching hires (Michael Curry?). He spent $80 million on Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings this summer. The last time Dumars opened the wallet this wide was for Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. That was a waste of money that made the Detroit city council jealous. Second-year owner Tom Gores plans to keep a closer watch on the franchise and if Smith and Jennings fail to get the Pistons to the playoffs or draw fans to the Palace, a change in command could be coming soon.
23. Tim Duncan, Spurs. After feeling some slippage in recent years, Duncan was vintage in 2012-13, with his highest scoring and rebounding averages in four years, and nearly pulled off another championship. What does a 37-year-old fundamentalist have left in the bank, er, tank? And will he once again need frequent furloughs to make it through another season and stay fresh for the spring?
22. Dave Joerger, Grizzlies. He replaces a popular coach who led Memphis to a record 56 wins and the conference finals, yet that wasn't enough job security for Lionel Hollins, who clashed with the new front office philosophy. Joerger comes cheaper and is more in tune with statistic-mad Memphis, which evidently believes Joerger will get the same results. Placing the contending Grizzlies in the hands of a rookie was the riskiest coaching change this off-season.
21. Victor Oladipo, Magic. The No. 2 pick in the draft is the No. 1 rookie on radar after a solid summer and preseason. Oladipo will see minutes at both guard spots and the Magic hope he's a player to build around as they remake the franchise in the post-Dwight Howard era. He could be the complete package: Good player, solid citizen, marketable personality.
20. James Harden, Rockets. He averaged 27 points as a solo act last season and proved his point; The guy is a true All-Star and top-5 scorer (and in Kevin Durant's opinion, better than Dwyane Wade). With Dwight Howard around, suddenly Harden must be willing to return to being a co-star, or maybe even the sidekick role he had in OKC if Howard's ego gets too enormous. That seems rather easy for Harden to do, although once a player gets a taste of being The Guy, you never know.
19. Ricky Rubio, Wolves. The Wolves kept him on a minutes ration last season when he returned from knee surgery and it was wise; Why rush him back when the team wasn't going anywhere? The Wolves believe this season holds playoff potential, so Rubio's comeback (and Kevin Love's) will weigh significantly in Minnesota and also give Love a reason to stay in town beyond his final contract year of 2014-15, or not.
18. Brad Stevens, Celtics. He'll either feed the belief that college coaches can't relate to the NBA game or become a bold out of the box choice by GM Danny Ainge. Given the sparse amount of talent he'll work with this season, Baby Faced Brad might feel at Butler again, coaching a mid-major against the bigger boys.
17. Andrew Bynum, Cavs. After being off the court since spring of 2012 and causing the Sixers to take a step backward, Bynum will try to salvage a career built on a pair of bad wheels. Bynum will either help a team that needs size or require more rehab and put his career in serious doubt. Either way, they'll still curse him in Philly.
16. Greg Oden, Heat. He hasn't seen regular NBA action in almost four years, so it's a stretch to believe Oden will get much burn in Miami anytime soon. All they want is for him to be free of swelling and pain in May and June and be ready to irritate Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah in the playoffs, should the Pacers and Bulls stand between the Heat and another Finals trip.
15. Chris Paul, Clippers. For all of his deserved All-Star trips and praise as the best point guard in basketball, Paul hasn't reached the conference finals. The deck is suddenly stacked in his favor, now that the Clippers gave him a max deal and Doc Rivers. If they fall short in the playoffs again, it may be right to wonder if Paul is the leader and franchise player we all thought he was.
14. Russell Westbrook, Thunder. He's looking at a December return from knee injury, and soon after that we'll see if Westbrook still has an unreal burst to the rim. He's a top-10 player, so his value to OKC and the league is steep, and any drop-off in performance would feel like a punch in the stomach.
13. Adam Silver, Deputy commissioner. His signature gets tattooed on the basketballs in four months as he steps into the big chair. A loyal soldier for years, Silver will begin to carve his own identity, and we'll see if he's a David Stern clone or not. Lucky for him, this will be an easy transition; There are no labor issues looming and the new TV deal is a few years away.
12. Rajon Rondo, Celtics. As the last shred of evidence of the Big Three era, Rondo's patience and health will be tested as he returns from knee surgery to a rebuilding team and a rookie coach. Rondo was a handful even when the Celtics were winning, so this will be fun to watch. Does he demand a trade before Christmas? And should the Celtics deal him anyway?
11. Jason Collins, unsigned. Does a social message mean anything if nobody can see or hear it? Collins came out of the closet last spring but can't walk into a locker room or a basketball court unless he gets signed. His age and lack of skills, not his sexuality, are holding him back. Teams can sign players to cheap 10-day contracts in January so we'll see then if he's in demand. If he doesn't play this season, he'll never play again.
10. Carmelo Anthony, Knicks. He will escape his contract this summer to sign a longer deal with the Knicks or test the market. Melo has been the scorer and star the Knicks needed, but hasn't pushed them much closer to a championship. He wouldn't bail on his "dream" team after two years, would he?
9. Jason Kidd, Nets. For 21 years he was a coach on the floor, now he gets to do that from the bench. Ordinarily this would be fine, except the $175 million Brooklyn Nets (that's their payroll plus tax hit this season) have a two-year window to get a title. It's a stressful situation for any coach, even more for someone who never coached anywhere at any level, except with the ball in his hands.
8. Dwyane Wade, Heat. The intrigue over Wade has less to do with him than his body. Wade must show he can deal with chronic knee aches once again to convince LeBron James that it's OK to re-sign next summer. That's a lot of pressure on a player who has peaked and, in the opinion of Kevin Durant, should start to pass the baton to the next generation.
7. David Stern, commissioner. He signs off at the All-Star break and has already ceded control to Silver. The only remaining question is whether Stern gets a honorable send-off for steering the league through a Golden Age of popularity (mainly the 1990s), or a shove out the door for a messy finish as the commish (labor fight, CP3 trade veto). We'll know Oct. 29 when the Heat get their championship rings and he's introduced to the crowd.
6. Kevin Durant, Thunder. Durant is getting a bit feisty and fed up with coming up short. With Westbrook on the mend, expect Durant to go ballistic from the opening tip and prove he's the MVP-in-waiting. He's the most logical player to wrestle that trophy from LeBron James.
5. Doc Rivers, Clippers. Rather than deal with impending doom in Boston, Rivers bailed at the right time and chose the right place to relocate. The Clippers only lacked direction, or so it seemed under the leadership of Vinny Del Negro, in order to go deeper into the playoffs. If Rivers doesn't get the Clippers beyond the second round, and if there are no good excuses (injuries, etc.), the coaching change will look rather embarrassing.
4. Dwight Howard, Rockets. He dumped the old (Lakers) for the new (Rockets) and by every indication, Howard made the right call. The last 18 months stained his reputation, but that's over. What Howard does from here, and if he'll share the ball with someone (Harden) who's better with it, is what counts. Howard will help his cause if he brings a post move or two.
3. Kobe Bryant, Lakers. He's vulnerable, in terms of health and place in the game, for the first time in his career. We're staring at the beginning of the end of an all-time great, since Kobe is carrying a repaired Achilles, has a suspect supporting cast in L.A. and is unsigned beyond this season. A sixth championship never seemed more remote.
2. Derrick Rose, Bulls. He took 17 months to rehab from his knee injury but could win back the hearts of Chicago fans in a matter of days. Based on what we've seen in the preseason, the Rose of 2011 is ready to make Miami sweat. If nothing else, that would clinch the comeback of the year title.
1. LeBron James, Heat. With two straight titles, four trips to the Finals and four MVPs in the bag, LeBron is into legacy-building mode. The talk of LeBron being the best ever is premature; a third straight championship will green-light the debate. And then come summer, we'll revisit another debate, a familiar one: Does he stay with his current team, or go? Make it stop already.