Six NBA Storylines To Watch — East
As warm summer nights become brisk autumn evenings, NBA players from all corners of the country—from New England to the West Coast and Southern Florida to Southern California—begin to trickle in and report for duty.
As NBA fans sit back and ponder what may lie ahead for their respective teams, the anticipation of sneakers squeaking and the unmistakable thud of the leather basketball pounding against the hardwood builds, just like it does every year around this time.
But while that feeling remains the same, year after year, NBA fans are presented with different storylines that make watching the game within the game all the more interesting.
This season is no exception.
In the NBA’s Eastern Conference, here are six storylines that are bound to keep eyes focused on the association.
The Changing of the (Point) Guard
One of the most poorly kept secrets in the NBA is the amount of high-quality point guards that have been enjoying success over the past few years. Immediately, players such as Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose come to mind when one wonders who the top point guard in the league is. Often, leads guards such as Tony Parker go overlooked. Youngsters such as Jrue Holiday, Damian Lillard and Ricky Rubio are in their own category, all together.
In the Eastern Conference this year, the development of four point guards in particular is especially interesting.
John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Brandon Jennings and Jeff Teague will have eyes glued to them for different reasons. How each responds will play a major role in the type of respect they garner when an all-too-difficult conversation regarding the game’s top point guards begins.
Fresh off of signing a four-year maximum extension with the Washington Wizards that will pay him about $80 million, the hope for fans of the Wizards is that this year’s team will make its first return to the postseason since Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison formed a formidable “big three” back in 2008. For Wall, that will be no easy task, especially with Chris Singleton and Emeka Okafor both recently being diagnosed with injuries that will keep them sidelined for the foreseeable future.
Like Wall, Irving hopes to lead a playoff revival, as well. In Cleveland, there is no question that Irving is a superstar in the making. At this point, though, it is unknown as to whether he is more Gilbert Arenas than Chris Paul. Though questions remain regarding the long-term health of Andrew Bynum and Anderson Varejao, there are many who believe that the Cavaliers—with Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Earl Clark, Jarrett Jack and rookie Anthony Bennett—have enough to make a playoff appearance. The only way they get there, though, is if Irving proves that he merits mention in the elite class of young NBA point guards that includes Westbrook and Rose. Eyes will be watching.
As for Jennings, after spending four years as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, he finds himself in Detroit after being signed-and-trade for Brandon Knight. Jennings’ career field goal percentage mark of 39.4 and mediocre assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.37 has him tagged as being an inefficient gunslinger of a point guard. With a very talented team in Detroit that includes a pair of young big men with promise in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, Jennings has a very talented roster around him. That roster also includes the franchise’s other big-name acquisition in Josh Smith. As a point guard, Jennings can turn a corner if he learns under head coach Maurice Cheeks and the re-signed Chauncey Billups.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, things have been completely blown up since the team last won 50 games back in 2010. Along with Al Horford, Teague, who was a rookie at the time, is the only remaining member of that team. Over just the past two years, general manager Danny Ferry has dealt Marvin Williams and Joe Johnson away and allowed mainstays Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia to defect via free agency. With a cast of new teammates that is headlined by Elton Brand and Paul Millsap, Teague will have his work cut out for him if the Hawks are to avoid being a doormat in the NBA’s Southeast Division.
Rajon Rondo’s Future with the Boston Celtics
In Boston, Rondo is the last man standing from the team’s immediate past era in which they were a perennial contender. Now, after trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the progression toward building a future has begun. Though Rondo is just 27 years old, after winning a championship in 2008 and leading the Celtics to an overall record of 314-161 since becoming the full-time starter at point guard, he may not have the patience to endure a long rebuilding process.
At this time, the road diverges for both Rondo and the Celtics organization. Obviously, if general manager Danny Ainge was willing to trade a franchise icon like Pierce, it stands to reason that he would trade Rondo if the right deal came along. Rondo can pout, demand a trade and otherwise be disruptive if he is unhappy.
Or, like a proud Celtic—and like Pierce did once upon a time—he can become a cornerstone for the franchise. Odds are, Rondo’s tenure in Boston is coming to a close. The manner in which he exits, though, and whether or not he can keep the Celtics competitive with a roster that does not possess at least two first ballot Hall-of-Famers remains to be seen.
In his still-ongoing battle for respect as one of the top point guards in the game, his 2013-14 season may have major implications.
Paul George and Indiana’s Rise as Contenders
In the absence of Danny Granger, Paul George became an NBA All-Star last season and led the Indiana Pacers to a very respectable 49-32 record. In the playoffs, though, George and center Roy Hibbert each elevated their games to another level and not only defeated the New York Knicks in the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs, but came within one game of winning the Eastern Conference after pushing the Miami HEAT to seven games.
The Pacers are reminiscent of the Memphis Grizzlies in that their style of play is rough-and-rugged and ground-and-pound. Tough perimeter defense, good rim protection and mauling on the interior are the staples, and history has shown that, if sustainable, those are characteristics of champions.
With George’s expected improvement and the Pacers addressing their need of offensive firepower, the sky is truly the limit. Luis Scola, Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson joining the team coupled with Danny Granger’s eventual return yields the conclusion that scoring should no longer be a problem for this team.
Whether head coach Frank Vogel can mesh the offensive talents of his newly acquired talent with the personality of his up-and-coming team, and whether George can continue to be one of the best two-way players in the entire league remains to be seen. The public will be watching closely to see if the Pacers can take the next step.
New York City’s Battle for Supremacy
The Brooklyn Nets have been in the media this summer more than most other teams in the NBA. The ink on Jason Kidd’s retirement papers had not dried when it was announced that he had accepted an offer to become the team’s head coach, and the Nets followed that earth shattering announcement with arguably the biggest trade of the summer. With Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry joining the club, the Nets also managed to add Andrei Kirilenko and re-sign Andray Blatche.
The New York Knicks, on the other hand, have not made any splashy moves. The acquisitions of Andrea Bargnani, Metta World Peace and Beno Udrih are not widely celebrated, but may ultimately prove productive.
After coming off of a 54-win season and an Atlantic Division crown for the first time since 1994, the Knicks were bested by the Indiana Pacers in the second round of last season’s playoffs, and as Carmelo Anthony continues to be one of the NBA’s most polarizing figures, the Knicks’ pursuit for league-wide respect and an elusive NBA championship continues.
But now, after assembling what is one of the most talented teams in the entire league, the road to the NBA Finals, for the Knicks, will almost certainly include a stop in Brooklyn. Their departure is not guaranteed.
If both teams are fully healthy, the battle in New York City for the Atlantic Division championship will truly be one to watch. The Nets’ star-studded starting lineup will have absolutely no problem playing together, their only concern is health and attrition. The Knicks, though, still need Anthony to raise his game to an even higher-level and also need consistency from the team’s other scorers, mainly reigning Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith.
Between Kidd’s debut as a head coach, the hourglass running out on Garnett and Pierce’s Hall-of-Fame bound careers and the questions surrounding Anthony’s ability to raise his team to the highest level, New York City will be buzzing this season.
Which Derrick Rose Will We See in 2013-14?
Back in July 2010, when the entire world was tuning in to see LeBron James’ decision, Derrick Rose was one of the few in the NBA that refused to grovel at James’ feet. James eventually announced that he was taking his talents to the Miami HEAT, but it was Rose who took his talents to the next level.
Rose admirably led his Chicago Bulls to the Eastern Conference’s first seed, going 62-20. In the process, he became the youngest MVP in league history and cemented himself as one of the game’s giants.
After suffering an ACL tear in the 2012 NBA Playoffs, Rose sat out the entire 2012-13 season and came under fire for what many viewed as an overly conservative approach to his return. Now, after declaring himself to be fit for a return, Rose will re-join coach Tom Thibodeau and a Bulls team that has remained competitive in his absence.
If the Bulls can mesh Rose’s talents with those of Joakim Noah—who became an All-Star last season—and the ultra-impressive Jimmy Butler, the Bulls should not only rightfully regain their place as the top team in the NBA’s Central Division, they would also join the conversation of being championship contenders.
The caveat there, though, is Rose.
If sitting out all of last season has cured Rose of the mental weakness that often results from suffering a life-changing and career altering injury, the Bulls will resemble the team that went 112-36 in the 2010-11 season and the lockout truncated 2011-12 season, combined.
If not, the Eastern Conference’s Central Division will be dominated by the still-toiling Indiana Pacers.
LeBron James’ Potential Ascension to Royalty
Not much needs to be said about James’ reign as the NBA’s king. Before our very eyes, he has ascended to the throne and will attempt to join basketball royalty by leading the Miami HEAT to the NBA’s first three-peat since the Los Angeles Lakers won their third consecutive championship in 2002.
In last season’s NBA Finals, the HEAT came within an eyelash of losing the championship to the San Antonio Spurs. Greg Oden has been signed to attempt to rectify the gaping hole in the middle that both Tim Duncan and Roy Hibbert were able to exploit, but there is no guarantee that he will be effective. And with an all-around tougher conference that will include battles with the Bulls, Pacers, Nets and Knicks, for the HEAT, greatness is no guarantee.
And neither is the rare three-peat.
For James, that prospective accomplishment, more than anything else, is the Eastern Conference’s most intriguing storyline.
As the summer sizzle cools and autumn leaves litter the streets, more than anything else, that is what NBA fans will be tuned in to see once the 2013-14 season kicks off.