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2013-14 NBA Preview

Pete Carges

Put away the sticks, pucks, helmets and cleats for the next few minutes, it’s time to focus on some hoops. It's been almost 5 months since Ray Allen buried a three at the buzzer to put a dagger in the hearts of San Antonio fans and Heat haters across the country, and starting tonight, 29 teams will all be looking to dethrone the back to back champions. What should you keep your eye on this year? Here's my top 5 storylines for the 2013-14 NBA season:
1. Who’s the new Sheriff of the West?
From the Lakers, to the Spurs and even on the Mavericks, the Western Conference has been superior to the East since the turn of the century. With the rise of the Heat and the subsequent decline of the Lakers, it’s east coast hoops which have reigned supreme over the last three years. For the first time in a long time, the team that will represent the west in the finals is completely up in the air. Last years’ representative, the San Antonio Spurs are getting old. Yes, people have been saying that for years, but it’s been a while since that team has made such a deep run in the spring and the extra month of playing time surely has to bog down the vets. Oklahoma City was the clear cut choice going into last year but the health of point guard Russell Westbrook is a concern as well as the inability to find an adequate replacement on the wing to James Harden. The new bully in town is the Houston Rockets of course with the signing of Dwight Howard. But again, Howard has battled injuries his entire career and the Rockets bench is very thin. The Clippers, with new coach Doc Rivers are a trendy pick to come out of the west but their lack of perimeter shooting can cause problems in the long run. 
2. Meet the New Boss
An NBA record 10 coaches will take the sidelines this year for a team that they were not with the previous year. That means a third of the league will be dealing with a new system, new style, and a whole new routine. Many people think an NBA head coach is just a name and a symbol, with the players really doing all the work.  That may have been the case with teams in the past, but the newest crop of coaches feature teachers and motivators, rather than guys in $2000 suits who love to scream at the refs. Places to watch this year are Boston, which brings in 37 year old Brad Stevens, a man who coached Butler to two Final Fours and produced numerous NBA caliber players drawing from a small talent pool. And what about Jason Kidd in Brooklyn? Here’s a guy who hasn’t even been out of the league a full year and not only does he inherit coaching duties for the team where he left his mark, but he also gets the luxury (or possibly the burden, depending on how you look at it) of a starting five featuring  five former all-stars! Of course there is Doc Rivers in Los Angeles as well, the man who brought the Celtics back to glory and who got everything he could out of an aging team, that will now look to revitalize a Clippers team that just can’t seem to take their game to that elite level of competition.  Those are the big names but also keep your eye on Brian Shaw taking over a playoff team in Denver, Mike Brown making his return to the Cavaliers, and Maurice Cheeks back as a head man in the NBA with Detroit.
3. The Injury Bug has Bit the Stars
“Injuries happen; you can’t make excuses, next man up, etc.” These are the clichés used in pro sports for years on end. But last year was proof that especially in the NBA, when your star goes down, you better have a reliable backup or your team is toast. When Derrick Rose hits the floor tonight against Miami, it will have been 18 months since he’s played in a meaningful game. Is he back at 100%? Judging by his preseason play one would assume so, but who knows if his knee will hold up. There were already reports of soreness early in the preseason. Kobe Bryant is already at the 6 month mark of his 6-9 month timetable for recovery of a torn Achilles, but he has said on multiple occasions he doesn’t know when he’ll be back. The Lakers have a decent backup in Steve Blake but they aren’t talented enough to win with a decent backup, the other pieces just aren’t there. If Kobe doesn’t return before Christmas, it could be another long season in Los Angeles.  Russell Westbrook was expected to be back on opening night but he too has experienced a set back and now it’s looking like another 4-6 weeks on the shelf. The Thunder proved last year that they could not survive a 7 game series without him, and they haven’t made any offseason moves that would make one think otherwise.
4. One last run for the Old Timers
After Michael and Pre LeBron, there was a solid 5 year stretch where there was not a clear cut best player in the NBA. There were superstars and players had their runs, but there was never a consensus “unstoppable force that would go down as the greatest in history.” There aren’t many, but a few players still remain from that era and even fewer are on a team with a strong enough cast to do some serious damage in the playoffs. The trio of Duncan, Parker and Ginobli comes to mind immediately, but the Brooklyn Nets may be the best bet at this point. Kevin Garnett was prepared to retire following last season’s playoff loss but seems to have gotten a second wind playing with longtime teammate Paul Pierce as well as Jason Terry in Brooklyn. Sorry Dirk, Kobe, and Nash, you will certainly go down as NBA greats, but you won’t end your career on a high note, at least not if you retire after this year.

5. Seriously though, can anyone beat the Heat?
No. Well maybe. Both Indiana and San Antonio proved that they could be beat last year taking them to the brink of elimination, but in both game sevens, Miami closed and their opponents did not. The Heat certainly looked beatable at times during last year’s playoffs. Dwyane Wade had almost no elevation, missing dunks and layups, and Chris Bosh was terrified of going finishing inside the paint. They lost some depth with the sharpshooting Mike Miller in Memphis, but they gained size in picking up Greg Oden. During Miami’s 27 game winning streak last year they looked like one of the all-time NBA great teams, but when push came to shove (literally) in the playoffs and players like David West, and Joakim Noah started getting physical down low, the struggles came out. Lebron is always going to be a superhuman and singlehandedly win games, but if they can’t establish a low post presence, the size of teams like Chicago and Indiana are going to figure out the blueprint and knock them out.
Championship Prediction:
Chicago over Houston in 6 games. Derrick Rose is back, and this team has complimentary scoring in Deng and now an established shooting guard in Jimmy Butler. They have always played hard nosed, grind it out defense under Tom Thibodeau and their big men can both score and defend. If the Bulls can stay healthy, they will knock out the Heat in the conference finals and discard of Houston in the finals.

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