HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Hit me. Maybe Nets management will take Jason Kidd up on the offer next time, unless Nets players accept it for real.
Heal me. Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook will try to get back, again, from knee injuries as the direction of entire teams hang in the balance.
Help me. A year after a down draft, the potential class for this June, depending who comes out, includes four or five candidates projecting as deserving No. 1 picks — the kind of depth the teams at the top of the Draft lottery love to see.
The calendar turns with the Trail Blazers challenging for the best record in the league, the Suns deep in the playoff conversation and the Nets deep in something else, reminders of how rough the prediction biz can be. It also offers some clear choices for intriguing people who will most impact the NBA in 2014. And some not-so-clear choices.
Twenty-second timeout … OK, here we go.
20. Doc Rivers: The Clippers did not merely want Rivers’ coaching record when they acquired him from the Celtics. They wanted his hammer as someone with a title on his resumé and the respect of a lot of players around the league. They wanted that level of credibility. Forty percent of the way into the season, though, L.A. has yet to play with consistency and in particular has struggled against the weaker Eastern Conference.
19-18. Greg Oden and Andrew Bynum: No one expects much from either injury-prone center any more. But that doesn’t change the reality that both are still centers capable of making an impact. One (Oden) needs his body to hold up and the other needs body and mind to get to a good place. The number of teams that were interested in Oden as a free agent is an indication of how many within the game believe he can tilt a game on defense. If he gives the Heat anything inside this season, especially in the playoffs, it’s a windfall for the team going for a third consecutive title.
17. Dante Exum. While the NBA and NCAA wait for official word on whether he will declare for the draft or play at least one season of college in the United States – the strong indications from Australia are that he goes pro – the timing of Exum moving to North America makes his transition particularly impactful. Countryman Andrew Bogut is healthy, another Aussie, Matthew Dellavedova, is staying at least close to the rotation (and sometimes more) in Cleveland as an undrafted free agent and New Zealander Steven Adams has a very bright future in Oklahoma City. If Exum, with an electric offensive game and a shining personality to match, goes to the NBA, the marketing possibilities for the league in Oceania open way up.
16. Chris Hansen. What’s his next move as head of the bid to return the NBA to Seattle? He came close with the Kings. Now there’s no obvious counter to that setback. Bucks owner Herb Kohl is looking for a partial investor, but Kohl has made it clear he wants a partner who shares his preference for a new arena that will keep the team in Milwaukee, not create the possibility of relocation.
15. Kohl. Because the Bucks are the closest thing to a franchise free agent and he will have hard decisions to make if there is no deal available with a local investor.
14-13. Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski. The United States will still be favored as it heads to the World Cup, formerly known as the world championships. Only this summer the host country is Team USA’s biggest international rival, Spain. The home fans will bring the kind of passion that could push the Spanish team, which is a legitimate threat anyway. The tournament is a bigger deal in a lot of countries outside the United States. That is especially the case this year.
12. Jim Buss. General manager Mitch Kupchak is the point man for the Lakers’ front office, but Buss has the final say and is willing to step out with something other than a rubber stamp for Kupchak’s suggestions. The Lakers are in a bad place. Buss needs to find answers that don’t exist yet as the basketball world watches the fate of a marquee franchise.
11. Roy Hibbert. Yes, Paul George is the star of the Pacers’ climb in the East, mirroring the team’s ascension from second place in the Central Division two seasons ago to serious threat in the conference playoffs in 2012-13 to the best record in the East this campaign. Hibbert, though, is the mountain inside capable of beating Miami once and for all. The Heat have a counter for George. His name is LeBron James. If Hibbert is still enforcing the middle during the playoffs, in a repeat of his 2013 postseason and his start to this season as a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, Indiana could be a May/June favorite against the two-time defending champions.
10. Ryan McDonough. The GM of the Suns is suddenly, unexpectedly in an enviable position. His team is winning, he has the possibility of four first-round picks in the 2014 draft (or two this year and then as many as four in 2015) and he has approximately $20 million in cap space. Phoenix has options for major trades, free-agent moves and upgrades in the draft. That’s a lot of running room for a front office that wants to be aggressive rather than patiently wait for the future to come to them, and for the general manager who has quickly proved himself through player moves and the hiring of a possible Coach of the Year in Hornacek.
9. The 2014 draft class (field entry). Andrew Wiggins will be the first pick in June, unless Jabari Parker is, or unless Joel Embiid is, or unless Julius Randle is, or Marcus Smart, with Exum a longshot for No. 1 but a real possibility for the top five once he hits individual workouts and showcases that first step and point-guard potential at 6-foot-6. There is that much depth and that much star potential. Any of the candidates could have gone No. 1 in 2013 as well
8. Westbrook. Kevin Durant is great on so many levels, but he can’t get the Thunder back to the Finals, let alone to a Bricktown parade, without Westbrook. And that’s just the 2014 impact. The real implications come in the big picture: multiple surgeries on the same knee raise concerns about the rest of Westbrook’s career. This is a precarious time.
7. Mikhail Prokhorov. OK, now what? The Nets owner went all in this season, adding veterans in a win-now mode and a rookie coach (Kidd) about 10 minutes after the future Hall of Famer retired. And everything is blowing up in Prokhorov’s face. No cap room, no 2014 first-round pick, his best player (Brook Lopez) out with an injury, and practically no room to maneuver from the straight jacket Brooklyn put on. If this turns out to be only one miserable season, the Nets will be very, very fortunate.
6. Union Boss TBA. The impact of the eventual hire will be two-fold. The National Basketball Players Association hopes the replacement for Billy Hunter will allow the union to finally put the infighting in the past, and the new executive director will set a tone that signals the group’s direction. Does he view the relationship with league executives across the table as partnership or adversarial? Where does he stand on age limits for incoming pros? Not all topics are up for immediate change, but the NBPA needs to know what direction it wants to go.
5. Rose. Like fellow point guard Westbrook, Rose’s recovery from another knee injury will be a topic of constant scrutiny. Unlike Westbrook, everything in Chicago begins and ends with Rose. If he doesn’t make it back to full health, neither do these Bulls that had aspirations of long playoff runs (plural). The Thunder have Durant. Rose is Chicago’s Durant.
4. David Hill. Speculation that Fox Sports will make a hard push to add the NBA to its new all-sports network could become verrrrry beneficial to bank accounts around the league. Maybe Hill, the chairman and CEO of Fox Sports Media Group, drives the price up for Turner and ABC/ESPN to retain the rights. Maybe Hill closes the deal for Fox. Either way, this will be about the kind of money that makes lucrative player contracts seem understated. The current contracts run through the 2015-16 season, but negotiations on what comes next could be completed in 2014.
3-2. David Stern and Adam Silver. In that order, a development in itself. Stern remains very high on the list because he will be commissioner until Feb. 1 and there’s no telling what will require his ruling in the final full month. Silver is in the starring role for the year, though. He will ascend to one of the most pressure-filled jobs of the sports world with invaluable experience as the top assistant, but with everything to prove in style and execution. No one within the league doubts his credentials or intelligence, and that’s a start. Just a start.
1. James. He directs history more in a couple months than most players in a career. First, there is James with the Heat in the playoffs, the greatest talent in the game trying to lead Miami to a third consecutive championship. Then, there is James in the summer. He can declare himself a free agent and re-sign a longer Heat deal, providing stability there. He can declare himself a free agent and choose a new challenge in a seismic shift for the entire league. Or he can stay in the current deal and head into free agency in July 2015. Simply, no one matches the possibility of altering the NBA more on and off the court in 2014.