There are always questions in the NBA, even with 28.6 seconds left in Game 6 of The Finals, as the Spurs will attest. Here are five of the most interesting for the 2013-14:
No. 1: Can the Heat “three-peat” be beat?
It’s certainly trendy these days to pick against the two-time defending champions due to trades, coaching changes or just sheer boredom. After all, isn’t it far more intriguing to figure out how Doc Rivers is going to upgrade Lob City from sideshow to real contenders, how Kevin Durant is going to climb to the top with a mending Russell Westbrook, how Derrick Rose will restore the Bulls, how Gregg Popovich is going to convince the Spurs that they can spend the next eight months chasing down a redo of those last 28.6 seconds? But sometimes it’s just overreaching and over-thinking things. As long as LeBron James is healthy and engaged, and perhaps because he is just entering what should be the prime of his career, the Heat have the single weapon nobody else can touch. Maybe things will change next summer when the Big Three all enter free agency. Then it will be time to take stock of Dwyane Wade’s health and Chris Bosh’s value as a max-contract player. Until that time, they have something to prove, which can be achieved by a fourth straight trip to The Finals and a third championship. There is no indication that the Heat are satisfied or slipping, only more sure of what they’re doing at crunch time. Count on the “three-peat.”
No. 2: Who is the first coach fired?
It’s an unusual season since we can eliminate nearly half (13) of the franchises since they’re already working with first-year coaches. But it would seem that there is a trio on the firing line. The Wizards’ Randy Wittman was a bit of a surprise to survive last season’s 4-28 start and definitely is feeling the heat with the return of a healthy John Wall and the recent trade for solid veteran center Marcin Gortat. Washington’s first month is quite tough and could put Wittman’s neck back in the noose if the Wiz stumble out of the gate. Everybody will be watching the every inhale and exhale of the Lakers every time they step out onto the court or any kind of appearance in public. It would seem hard to evaluate Mike D’Antoni at all until Kobe Bryant returns to the lineup and shows whether he is close to defying the odds at 35 and returning to his old form. But these are the Lakers, the league’s highest-profile franchise. They dumped Mike Brown after five games last season and if the product is horrible early on again, D’Antoni will be under pressure. Especially if Doc Rivers and the new-look Clippers are flying high and doing more than just covering up Lakers banners at Staples Center. But with all of those difficulties in Washington and L.A., the first move could be made in New York. Just a season ago, the Knicks were peddling (and fooling) themselves as true contenders. But after another somewhat early playoff flameout, they are an afterthought in the East. They’re not even the best team in the five boroughs and the tabloid heat applied by the New York media could burn down the Mike Woodson era. Carmelo Anthony has announced that he’ll entertain free agency and we all remember what a ridiculous distraction “Melo-drama I” became in Denver. Woodson will pay the price.
No. 3: Who makes first big trade?
Danny Granger will open the season on the shelf in Indiana, but is likely to finish on another team’s roster by the February trade deadline. At 30, with reduced role and a future price that will be too steep for the small-market Pacers, he’s prime for moving. If the Sixers want to continue their move to do everything except hijack the Andrew Wiggins lottery, they’ll ship out their best player, Thaddeus Young. He’ll be too old to be a factor by the time Philly’s long-term rebuilding project is complete. But when it comes to finding the first square peg that no longer fits, it will probably be Houston’s Omer Asik. A season ago he got his chance as a starter and averaged a double-double for the Rockets. Coach Kevin McHale is determined to try to make a twin towers combination work with Dwight Howard. But it is hard to see this making anyone happy for the long term. The Rockets will have trouble guarding power forwards and the pair of big men will choke off the space James Harden needs to operate in the lane. At this point, Asik is more valuable to the Rockets as a trade chip than as a misfit piece to the puzzle.
No. 4: Who is the Comeback King?
The candidates are everywhere, a slate lead by players who’ve become permanent fixtures in the All-Star Game. Kobe Bryant is at the top of the list because of his status and what he means to the Lakers. He’s tough, determined, unwilling to give in even to age and nature, but it’s hard to see him approaching his former self until at least Christmas (and more likely, the All-Star Game). The Thunder need Russell Westbrook to get back into the lineup and begin launching himself into space again as soon as possible. But it is hard to see any return being more successful and more complete than Derrick Rose‘s. He not only brings his explosiveness back to the lineup, but also the leadership skills and sheer desire that will likely make Chicago once again the top challenger to Indiana in the Central Division and Miami in the East.
No. 5: Who crashes and burns?
The Nets have the most money on the line as owner Mikhail Prokorov is on pace to spend $80 million in luxury-tax payments alone on his star-studded lineup. While Brooklyn will likely be the best team in the New York area and keep the pressure on the crosstown rival Knicks, it is hard to see a geezer-laden lineup that relies so heavily on Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce leapfrogging Indiana and Chicago. In Denver, the Nuggets have to account for the losses of coach George Karl and do-it-all forward Andre Iguodala to follow up a 57-win season. However, the team that could take the biggest tumble is in Memphis. The Grizzlies not only let coach Lionel Hollins, who carved out their rugged identity, walk out the door, but they still can’t find any kind of an outside shooting game to offset Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph‘s play. If Tayshaun Prince doesn’t bump up his offense considerably, even the return of local favorite Mike Miller won’t be enough to let the Grizzlies make a return to the Western Conference finals. In a worst-case scenario, they could miss the playoffs entirely.