I love the game of basketball for its subtle artistry and the supreme level of skill necessary to exceed at it, not unlike being a musician, a physician or an astronaut. In no other basketball league in the world is the competition greater, obviously, than in the National Basketball Association. These people are the absolute best of the best, and the webs they weave nightly, from Kyrie Irving’s magisterial through-the-legs assists to Ray Allen’s legendarily perfect follow-through on a jump shot, can drive a fan up the wall with wonder, reducing him or her to an adolescent curiosity in which questions become essentially rhetorical. With the NBA preseason right around the corner, the time has come for everyone with a voice to chime in with predictions and perspectives. We at TwH are no different.
We (I) will break down each division, listing the teams in the order in which I believe they will finish the regular season. There will be plenty of room for dispute, as there always is, and from the start I must concede that this is an imperfect art. There are far too many variables involved in an 82-game season to know everything, but we will do the best we can with what we know now. Sometimes it may only take a gut feeling to push one team over another. Prepare for anything. And so we begin, in the Atlantic Division.
1. The Brooklyn Nets
2012-’13 regular season record: 49-33, 2nd in the Atlantic Division
Key additions: F/C Kevin Garnett, F Paul Pierce, G Jason Terry, F Andrei Kirilenko
Key losses: F Kris Humphries (I guess), F Jerry Stackhouse (He guesses)
2013-’14 Linchpin: C Brook Lopez. Lopez was the team’s leading scorer last season, and now that his offensive burden is lessened by the team’s additions, particularly that of Garnett, he will not turn out the fantasy numbers he was posting. The team will be looking to Lopez to lead its secondary unit off the bench, however, in times when Garnett and/or Reggie Evans get into foul trouble and/or simply need a rest.
Overall: Deron Williams will certainly appreciate the new toys surrounding him in the starting lineup. The additions of proven winners like Garnett and Pierce, who won a championship together in Boston, will open the floor tremendously and allow Williams to put his Olympic creativity on display. Garnett and Reggie Evans will rule the boards, and Evans especially will provide much-needed defensive support in the paint. Jason Terry’s 3-point stroke should stretch defenses noticeably, even if his defense is starting to show signs of wear-and-tear. New head coach Jason Kidd provides a familiar face to Nets fans as well as one of the single best pure basketball minds of the last two decades. His ability to read defenses and familiarity with the league and its current players will be a huge advantage. A solid bench, with Lopez as its movie-star-on-a-television-pilot, should help the Nets add to their win total from last year and win the division handily.
2012-’13 regular season record: 54-28, 1st in the Atlantic Division
Key additions: F Metta World Peace, F Andrea Bargnani, G Tim Hardaway, Jr., G Beno Udrih
Key losses: G/F Jason Kidd(‘s brain), F/C Rasheed Wallace, F Steve Novak, F Chris Copeland
2013-’14 Linchpin: G/F Iman Shumpert. Shumpert was the most exciting Knicks player in Game 6 against the Indiana Pacers; he retained the will to win long after many of his teammates had noticeably turned off in the face of Roy Hibbert’s face. Although there were some questions in the offseason about his thoughts on the team’s transactions, he seems nevertheless committed to the Knicks. His continued offensive development is the single biggest question mark surrounding the Knicks this season. If he can shoot 3s at a rate which would open the floor (the corner 3 is his particularaly favorite target, from which he shot a mightily respectable 43.4% last season), the Knicks offense can start to evolve from the Carmelo Anthony-isolation framework which carried it to its best post-Ewing record and a similar Ewing-esque fate in the playoffs. Assuming he stays healthy, his defense is world-class, and he will be expected to lockdown the LeBron Jameses and Derrick Roses of the world.
Overall: The Knicks put together an unexpectedly spellbinding season last year, living and dying (mostly living, at least until the playoffs) with the 3-pointer. The losses of Jason Kidd (especially his basketball knowledge and regular season, at least, scoring ability) and Steve Novak will take away some of what they were able to do last year, but that might ultimately make for a more well-rounded product on the court. Novak’s defense certainly will not be missed, mostly because it never showed up to the party in the first place. Pablo Prigoni should be able to pick up right where Kidd left off, utilizing some of the knowledge Kidd bestowed upon him to run the floor in two-ball handler situations with Raymond Felton. Chris Copeland’s loss could come up at times this season, particularly if members of the front court (see: Stoudemire, Amar’e) are unable to stay healthy. Knicks fans will lament Copeland’s loss purely for his youth and potential, but hey, at least the Knicks had a first-round draft pick this year. The good news about this season is that, with the additions of World Peace and Bargnani, as well as the re-signing of Kenyon Martin, the Knicks will, at the very least, maintain their title as weirdest team in the league. The name of the New York Knicks’ 2013-’14 preseason #knickstape is uncertainty. Will Tyson Chandler return to his DPOY form of 2011-’12? Will Amar’e Stoudemire be able to contribute on offense at a respectable level, and if so, for how long? How does Mike Woodson reconcile Bargnani’s arrival with Stoudemire, assuming both are able to be in the rotation? Are the other, older members of the roster going to stay healthy? If the answers to these questions fall in the Knicks’ favor, the city that never sleeps may have reason to dream of a Larry O’Brien Trophy come June.
2012-’13 regular season record: 41-40, 3rd in the Atlantic Division
Key additions: G/F MarShon Brooks, F Gerald Wallace, F Kris Humphries
Key losses: F/C Kevin Garnett, F Paul Pierce, G Jason Terry
2013-’14 Linchpin: Who else? Rajon Rondo. Rajon Rondo is, without question, the best passing point guard in the league, having led the way with 11.1 assists per game last season. He is Miles Davis on parquet, thinking a step ahead of his contemporaries and often, much to his ubiquitous chagrin, a step ahead of his own teammates. Several brilliant Rondo passes each game land in the crowd or at the clumsy feet of big men, leaving Rondo to take on a “if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself” mentality. It was this way even when he was a similarly tight-lipped second-year player on a championship team featuring Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen, the original “Big 3” of this millennium. As a result, Rondo is often the only person aside from LeBron James who can go out and get near a triple-double on any given night. His return should jettison the Celtics from wherever they are at that time to a higher existential plane on which only martians and grocery Nazi panda bears can coexist. In the meantime, stay tuned for updates on Rondo‘s merciless Connect Four game.
Overall: It is a tale of two cities between Boston and Brooklyn: one is the most successful team in league history, while the other just switched states at Jay-Z’s behest. One has the likes of future Hall of Fame Boston Celtics Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce at its disposal, while the other is actually the Boston Celtics. Both, however, have elite point guards, though with somewhat diverging skill sets. New head coach Brad Stevens is a fresh face in the NBA, coming off a wildly successful tenure at mid-major powerhouse Butler. His presence breathes life into a Doc Rivers-less Boston, but time will tell if he can bring success or if his tenure recalls horrible memories of Rick Pitino with the Celtics. Rondo’s ACL tear, suffered against the Miami Heat in January, will limit him from the start, leaving ball handling duties in the capable hands of Avery Bradley, who, along with Jeff Green, had a coming out party in the playoff series against the Knicks. Green’s contributions have to be consistent and bountiful early in the season if the Celtics expect to compete for a playoff spot.
2012-’13 regular season record: 34-48, t-4th in the Atlantic Division
Key additions: G D.J. Augustin, F Steve Novak, F/C Tyler Hansbrough
Key losses: F Andrea Bargnani
2013-’14 Linchpin: F Rudy Gay. Gay’s acquisition from the Grizzlies last season sent an immediate spark throughout the Raptors organization, even as it came at the expense of Jose Calderon. He is a game-changer, with dynamic rebounding to accompany his outstanding scoring ability. Look for Gay’s assists numbers (2.8 per game last season) to increase, as he becomes a primary front court ball-handler.
Overall: D.J. Augustin and Tyler Hansbrough are fresh off a superb playoff run in which their Indiana Pacers nearly knocked off the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Augustin will look to bring a winning mentality to Toronto as the point guard, lest he take a step backwards to his Charlotte Bobcats days. The Raptors will definitely miss Bargnani’s ability to create space, but Steve Novak’s 3-point shooting and Tyler Hansbrough’s fearless, if sometimes ineffective, post approach should account for a lot of what the Raptors lost. Kyle Lowry is streaky, but he can contribute big numbers over short periods of time, and his passing abilities will be necessary in order for his team to make an impact in this division. The Raptors could surprise a lot of people this season if they stick to fundamental team basketball.
5. The Philadelphia 76ers
2012-’13 regular season record: 34-48, t-4th in the Atlantic Division
Key additions: C Nerlens Noel, G Michael Carter-Williams, F Royce White, G Tony Wroten
Key losses: G Jrue Holiday, G/F Nick Young, C Andrew Bynum(‘s hair)
2013-’14 Linchpin: G/F Evan Turner. With leading scorer and volatile stick of dynamite Jrue Holiday gone, Turner will be expected to do more with his new share of the ball. He provides a tight, well-rounded game, grabbing rebounds and dishing assists at serviceable clips. That will not suffice this year. If he can increase his points and assists will maintaining his rebounding prowess, he could lead the Sixers into playoff contention. If not, expect to see Turner on the trading block come deadline time.
Overall: Sam Hinkie is already turning heads. He does not expect to have the Sixers tanking this year; it is merely a step forward for him and the team which has fallen under his management as President and general manager. A draft night trade involving the team’s best player set the tone for what will certainly be a rebuilding year in Philadelphia, although there is reason to be excited as a fan. Nerlens Noel has boundless upside, according to everyone who has ever thought about Kentucky basketball even once, and the draft of Michael Carter-Williams, Noel’s old AAU teammate, makes the Sixers one of the epicenters of potential in the NBA. Potential is a conniving mistress, however: just ask the Houston Rockets about Royce White. The man who led his 2011-’12 Iowa State Cyclones in points, assists, rebounds, blocked shots and steals is THE curious case in the NBA. His anxiety and fear of flying drove him off NBA rosters and onto a YMCA league team in Des Moines. He is the singular “if?” of this team. If he gets it together long enough to contribute significant minutes, at home and on the road, he could cause some serious damage with his incredible, multi-faceted skill set. All told, Sixers fans should not expect much this season, but a bright future seems to lie ahead.