As the 2013-14 NBA season gets underway on Tuesday, without further delay -- because isn't waiting for Lebron's next big decision torture enough? -- here are the new season's 20 biggest questions.
Q: What team will be hurt most by an injury delay: the Lakers without Kobe Bryant, or the Thunder without Russell Westbrook?
A: The Lakers obviously will struggle, because they'll also see a gimpy Steve Nash initially. Enjoy Steve Blake and Xavier Henry; you'll see them a lot. The longer Kobe stays out -- and this could last until the holidays -- the deeper into the hole the Lakers will go. At some point, you wonder if Kobe might decide it's not worth coming back before the All-Star break. Oklahoma City is built to withstand Westbrook's absence for a reasonable length of time. Reggie Jackson will run the point, and he did so effectively when Westbrook went down in the playoffs, with Derek Fisher giving him a breather. Plus, OKC has this guy named Durant. You might have heard of him.
Q: Will any coaches get fired during the season?
A: There were 13 coaches hired in the off-season, so it's hard to imagine another wave of change coming so quickly. A few coaches will fight for their jobs this season, however. If the Jazz lose games, and their young players develop too slowly, then Ty Corbin might not get an extension. Same for Dwane Casey of the Raptors; Toronto is a ready-made disaster, and new GM Masai Ujiri understandably didn't offer to extend Casey's deal beyond this season, a telltale sign. Mike D'Antoni is probably safe with the Lakers for the season, but his return depends on what players L.A. gets next summer.
Q: Who'll win the Central Division, the Bulls or Pacers?
A: Division championships don't matter much in the NBA, other than minimal effect on playoff seeding. Still, a wrestling match will happen between the Bulls and Pacers, and no other divisional chase will be as interesting. In their preseason survey, NBA general managers called it 51 percent to 48 percent, in favor of the Pacers. Derrick Rose meanwhile called out Indiana, saying the Pacers aren't a rival anymore -- an odd boast, considering Indiana took Miami to seven games just last spring. Pacers coach Frank Vogel called it "talk" and said his team will settle it on the floor. It's on.
Q: Which player can the Warriors least afford to lose with an injury, Andrew Bogut or Steph Curry?
A: It's Curry and not really close. That said, Bogut is awfully important to the Warriors, giving them something Curry doesn't: a functional big body and a low-post threat. That matters, in a conference that features Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan and the Memphis bruise brothers, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. If Bogut holds up physically (he missed 50 games last season), the Warriors have the inside-outside balance to do some damage in the spring, when size matters.
Q: Who looks more in the tank, the Suns or Sixers?
A: This is like LeBron James and Kevin Durant arm-wrestling for the MVP, only the opposite. The Sixers dumped Jrue Holiday for a rookie this summer, while the Suns gave away Marcin Gortat for a draft pick. The Suns now have a possible four first-rounders next June, so from that perspective, they're going all-in. Give them the nod for now, but remember, the Sixers can still dump Thad Young before the deadline and take the lead.
Q: Who'll turn out to be the best off-season addition?
A: The likely candidates are Andre Iguodala with the Warriors, Holiday and Tyreke Evans with the Pelicans, Josh Smith with the Pistons and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce with the Nets. But this is all about Dwight Howard transforming the Rockets into a more serious contender, something he couldn't do last season with the Lakers. From an economical standpoint, how about Andrew Bynum in Cleveland? He didn't cost the Cavs anything in a trade and is a proven double-double guy, if healthy.
Q: What players are likely to be dealt by the deadline?
A: Rajon Rondo is stuck with a rebuilding team in Boston and may not have the stomach for that. The rest of the league wants to see how he returns from his knee injury first, so when Rondo suits up again, which may not happen until December, lots of teams will start taking notes. Jameer Nelson is vulnerable in Orlando as an expiring contract, and if the Raptors can find someone to take either Rudy Gay's contract or DeMar DeRozan's, consider it done. It also wouldn't be a shock if Memphis, always on the lookout to save money, dangles Z-Bo.
Q: What new coach is in the toughest spot?
A: No question, Brian Shaw would rather be a head coach than an assistant. He's been waiting for this opportunity for years. And yet, he's coaching the most snake-bit team in basketball. The Nuggets lost their best player and GM over the summer (in addition to their coach, which is why Shaw has the job) and leading scorer Danilo Gallinari is likely out until spring after knee surgery. The Nuggets are a bit shell-shocked right now, and Shaw must mold this wounded group and keep Denver among the top six or seven in the West. His chances of doing that might depend on JaVale McGee showing improvement. Good luck with that one.
Q: What team will surprise?
A: Look out for the Wizards. The backcourt of Brad Beal and John Wall is young and already cohesive, and Nene seems healthy for once. Gortat will help anchor the front line and is playing for a contract. The East isn't especially deep, so the Wizards could have a winning season and rise as high as the seven seed.
Q: What team will disappoint?
A: The Knicks could collapse in a hurry, if Carmelo Anthony's decision to reject shoulder surgery backfires on him, and if newcomer Andrea Bargnani confirms he's a bust, and if J.R. Smith doesn't match this season with the last. The Knicks have a new general manager, and suddenly, everyone's on the clock, even coach Mike Woodson.
Q: Can Josh Smith be effective at small forward on the Pistons' large front line?
A: Smith is a freak of nature; he brings certain skills, such as passing and running the floor, that you don't see from many players his size. His game is best in transition when he's a mismatch, and he suffers in the half-court, because his low-post game isn't polished. That said, the last thing Detroit wants is Smith hoisting jumpers from deep, which he is prone to do. Just ask the Hawks, who saw him shoot three 3-pointers a game last season, good for 25 percent. That's why he's no longer in Atlanta.
Q: Can Gregg Popovich get away with resting his stars for stretches this season?
A: The Spurs won 58 games with this method last season, but the only way they can duplicate that is if Duncan has another strong season, and Kawhi Leonard assumes a stronger position in the pecking order. Otherwise, the Spurs' chances of getting the best record in the West will be jeopardized by prolonged furloughs.
Q: What lottery pick will struggle initially?
A: Nerlens Noel is excused from this conversation for injury reasons. It'll be a toss-up between Trey Burke of the Jazz and Shabazz Muhammad of the Wolves. Both were shaky in the summer, and Burke is out indefinitely after having his broken right index finger repaired. Point guard is a tough position to figure out right away, and besides, the Jazz are loaded down with youth this season. Muhammad has a shaky dribble and doesn't pass the ball. If his shot isn't working, he brings next to nothing.
Q: What second-year player will make a leap?
A: Austin Rivers had an impressive summer and preseason, and after a rookie year where he was often injured and looked totally lost, there's only one way to go. But his Pelicans teammate could be an All-Star. Anthony Davis has returned a better and more confident player, especially with the ball, so he gets the nod easily. He missed 18 games with injuries and still managed 13 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.75 blocks. Watch out for Drummond in Detroit, because his minutes will increase.
Q: What can we expect from LeBron James?
A: More time spent in the post, for starters. Last season gave him the confidence he lacked in the 2011 Finals, and LeBron has finally learned to use his size against weaker small forwards. Plus, if Michael Beasley can play his way onto the floor for extended minutes, the Heat can use LeBron at power forward, where he could average 10 rebounds.
Q: Will Greg Oden make it through the season?
A: Yes, but only because Miami doesn't need him for the regular season anyway. That's partly why Oden chose the Heat, knowing he can use the season to rehab for the playoffs. Miami will give Chris Andersen and Chris Bosh the majority of the big man minutes and bring Oden along slowly. Given that he hasn't played in four years, he's an easy guy to root for.
Q: Who'll be the MVP?
A: Durant, because he'll carry the team for at least a month while Westbrook heals, and also because he's still becoming a complete player. Mostly, because it's his turn.
Q: Will Derrick Rose play his way back into MVP discussion?
A: Why not? He was MVP in 2011 and had a strong follow-up season before getting hurt. If the Bulls are on track for 60 wins and the East title, you can believe Rose will get plenty of votes, sentimental and otherwise.
Q: Who'll win Rookie of the Year?
A: Victor Oladipo will run away with this award. Too many factors are in his favor. He'll get major minutes and therefore decent numbers right away, and he appears as NBA-ready as anyone taken in the draft. The sleeper pick is Cody Zeller, if he isn't too willing to blend in with the Bobcats rather than stand out.
Q: Who'll be the most improved team and player?
A: Chris Paul's former backup Eric Bledsoe is a strong favorite for the player award because his minutes and importance will rise in Phoenix. The Pistons won 29 games but added Smith and Brandon Jennings and coach Maurice Cheeks, plus it helps to play in the East.