HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — We can talk all we want about what we saw in the preseason, but it doesn’t mean a thing come Tuesday night. The real NBA season starts then, opening night of the 2013-14 campaign, flush with three matchups that we’ve all been waiting to see for months.
We get to see contenders in all three instances. The Pacers host the Magic in their opener at 7 p.m. ET (League Pass) as an appetizer for the Heat hosting the Bulls on banner night at 8 p.m. ET (TNT) and we finish things off with the Clippers and Lakers squaring off at Staples Center at 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT), capping a fine opening night with the LA upstarts trying once again to upset the establishment.
We don’t have to wait until opening night to unveil our five fearless predictions for the 2013-14 season. We can do that right now with all the certainty in the world that our crystal basketball will serve as our guiding force throughout this season.
Call me crazy (and believe me, you will after this) … but this is what these eyes see on the horizon:
1) The Heat’s Three-Peat Dream Will Not Be Realized
No one will dispute the fact that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat have been stellar champions in each of the past two seasons. What they’ve done, what they have overcome to hoist the last two Larry O’Brien trophies has been nothing short of remarkable, given that they’ve played with a giant bulls eye on their chests in each of the past three seasons. But fatigue and the competition catches up to the champs this season. They have worthy adversaries within the conference (Pacers, Bulls, Knicks, Nets) and a stacked crew from the Western Conference (Spurs, Clippers, Thunder, Warriors, Rockets and others) ready to tear each other apart to get a shot at the Heat. The Heat make it back to The Finals for a fourth straight time this season but are bruised and battered from a brutal Eastern Conference playoff road when they get there. Another seven-game conference final, this time against the Bulls, pushes them to the limit. They fail to seal the deal in The Finals, falling to an inspired Golden State Warriors team that shot the Houston Rockets out of the Western Conference finals in six games.
2) The Return Of Rose Is Real
Derrick Rose was right and you were wrong. He did not need to rush back last season from ACL surgery and the Bulls will be better this season because of that decision. That also means Rose reclaims his spot among the top five players in the league and as the top (ahem, sorry Chris Paul) point guard in the game with his triumphant return. Go ahead and wipe your eyes and look at it again. The preseason show Rose put on in limited minutes (24 points, six assists, three rebounds plus 50 percent shooting from the floor and 42 percent from deep) will continue as the regular season goes on. The Bulls showed us last season that they were still be a problem in the East without Rose. Now that he’s back and they are healthy, with the ranks reinforced, Tom Thibodeau‘s team will resume its quest to knock off the Heat and earn a long-awaited trip back to The Finals. That’s a year off, but the conference finals is a stage Rose gets his chance to shine on this year. While Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook and others ponder their returns from significant injury, they’d be wise to pay attention to the way Rose handled his (his critics owe him the kind courtesy of admitting they were wrong) and adjust accordingly.
3) Say Hello To Your New MVP … Kevin Durant
One unintended side effect of Russell Westbrook’s lingering injury issue will be the appreciation gained by voters in the MVP race for just how unbelievably spectacular Kevin Durant has and continues to play during his climb to the top of the superstar food chain. Durant’s two-way game has improved with time and the 2013-14 season will offer him a chance to showcase those skills while Westbrook eases his way back into position as his partner in crime. Durant has sharpened his skills after each season in the league and with every postseason teaching point (you always learn more about yourself when you fail) he has rebounded with yet another quality piece to his growing arsenal of skills. He’ll be a better and more aggressive playmaker and rebounder with Westbrook on the mend. And the three-time scoring champ will continue to be the most dangerous scoring machine in the league with Kobe Bryant finding his way back into the mix in Los Angeles and Carmelo Anthony still the doing his thing in New York. Durant’s much improved all-around game and the load he’ll have to tote for the Thunder this season, however, is what earns him his first MVP trophy.
4) Dwight Howard Is The Best Big Man In Basketball … Again!
We’ve had our fun at his expense the past two seasons, and rightfully so. When you exit the premises in Orlando and Los Angeles, respectively, the way Dwight Howard did, you deserve whatever vitriol fans in those cities and elsewhere dish out. Lost in the madness, though, is the fact that Howard has maintained a reasonably high standard for a player dealing with all of that extracurricular drama, not to mention the back surgery and recovery he endured during the 2012-13 season he spent with the Lakers. With big man tutors in both Rockets great Hakeem Olajuwon and Celtics great and Rockets head coach Kevin McHale, Howard can’t help but improve his skill-set and take back the seat Marc Gasol kept warm for him last season. What sets Howard apart, and always has, is the fact that there is not another traditional big man in the league with his combination of size, athleticism and natural gifts from the basketball Gods. Howard swears Houston is the ideal situation for him to finally put it all together. He needed a fresh start, somewhere he could reintroduce himself to the basketball world without any of the excess baggage he’s accrued over the years following him. The Rockets and their championship-starved fan base offer just that and more.
5) Yes, The Warriors Shock The World And Win It All!
You thought I forgot about that Warriors prediction from No. 1? Sure, it’s a reach for a team whose fortunes depend on the continued good health of several key players (Steph Curry, David Lee, Andrew Bogut, etc.). But an injury to the wrong man can rearrange the short-term and long-term plans of any franchise, just ask the folks in Oklahoma City, Chicago and Los Angeles (Lakers) how that works. What I love about what Mark Jackson and the Warriors have going on right now is their absolute fearlessness in challenging the Western Conference establishment. They don’t care that the Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Rockets all have what appears to be better chances of surviving a cutthroat playoff chase. They have the pieces in place, Andre Iguodala being the most noticeable new face, to challenge conventional wisdom this season. They also play a style that, if sustained, no other team in the West or the league will be able to match in the postseason. Of course, Bogut and Lee have to stay out of the training room as much as possible and Curry has to avoid the recurrence of the foot and ankle injuries that seem to plague him every season. But if ever there was a time to crash the Western Conference party and spice up the championship picture and shock the basketball world, that time is now for the upstart Warriors.