Welcome to Little Utopia’s Epic NBA Season Preview Extravaganza! To prepare you for the 2013-2014 season, we’re filling you in on the biggest storylines, giving you analysis on the league’s rising (and falling) teams, and making some predictions that we’ll undoubtedly regret by the end of the season. So, without further ado, let’s get started.
Before we get into our look at the 2013-2014 season, let’s give a quick recap of the 2012-2013 NBA Finals (Sorry Spurs fans):
Without a doubt, the iconic moment from last season (and the only thing you really need to see) was Ray Allen’s clutch shot in the final seconds of Game 6 in the NBA Finals. It’s a shot that will go down in NBA lore not only because it featured the greatest three-point shooter in NBA history, but also because of the historical implications it will forever carry with it. The shot (and, of course, the Game 7 victory) validated the Pat Riley blueprint, strengthened LeBron James’ legacy — without Allen’s shot James goes to 1-3 in his NBA Finals appearances and is probably out of any best-player-ever discussions — and gave this Heat team a chance to become one of the all-time-great teams if they can threepeat this season.
But enough looking back on last season. There’s always plenty of time for discussing historical legacies. Let’s move on to what Little Utopia is looking forward to in the upcoming season. Just so you know, I’ve (with “I’ve” being Charlie) written these sections that appear in Part 1 and Laura will make her own predictions for a special section in Part 2.
If I had to pick one song for this season it’d be this (Whoa! Two videos in one article? Hey, we didn’t call this an epic preview extravaganza for nothing):
The theme of last year’s season was a dispiriting amount of significant injuries to some of the league’s biggest stars. Some missed more time than others, but the injuries to Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo and Kobe Bryant ruined their team’s seasons (OK who are we kidding? The Lakers season was doomed from the beginning). Lesser injuries to Danny Granger, Andrew Bynum, Anderson Varejao and Danilo Gallinari all had a hand in making the regular season and the playoffs a lot less interesting than both could have been.
Let’s hope we don’t see a similar run of injuries plague the NBA this season.
Where’d They Come From?
Speaking of injuries, the Minnesota Timberwolves were probably the NBA’s unluckiest team last year. Kevin Love only played 18 games before being lost for the year and Brandon Roy, Chase Budinger, Malcolm Lee and Josh Howard all went down with knee injuries. Minnesota quickly went from one of the league’s most intriguing teams to one of its most depressing.
Finally back at full strength, this team is again one of the league’s most fascinating. Before his injury, Love was one of the top-15 players in the game and he’ll reclaim his position among the league’s best this season (he also just won the award for “player [that] makes the most of limited natural ability” AKA the white guy award, as voted on by NBA executives. Congrats on the super backhanded compliment award, Kevin! I always knew you had it in you — and by “it” I mean being white, so I guess I mean “on” you). We’ll finally get to see a full season of Love with Rubio, whose games should mesh well together and produce some incredible passing displays. Up front, Love will team with Nikola Pekovic to form one of the most formidable frontcourt duos in the league.
Of course, the T-Wolves also have their weaknesses and question marks. I’m not sure what they’ll get from their shooting guard and small forward positions, even though they overpaid for Kevin Marin and signed Corey Brewer, both of whom will likely start, in attempts to fortify those positions. There is also the looming question of what to do with Love, who can opt out of his contract and become a free agent in the summer of 2015. So far, there’s been no sign that Love will re-sign with Minnesota and he’s almost guaranteed not to re-sign if the T-Wolves can’t produce a consistent contender. When the trade deadline rolls around, you can bet the rumors will begin to swirl around Love and Minnesota would be silly not to listen. Even though the T-Wolves will field some quality offers, I think they’ll hang on to Love, for this year at least, and see where this season goes.
For all of these reasons, Minnesota should have a bounce-back season. Although they’re still not good enough to be considered serious title contenders, this team will make the playoffs as a seventh or eighth seed and give one of the Western Conference heavyweights a fit in the first round. If they can stay healthy, the T-Wolves will be the league’s most pleasant surprise this season.
Soon-To-Be Endlessly Discussed Media Storyline You’re Already Sick Of
From one of the league’s least talked about stories, let’s turn to one of the league’s soon-to-be (if not already) most exhausted stories: Where will LeBron James sign at the end of this season? Even though James has said he won’t talk about his impending free agency this season, that won’t stop every journalist in every city the Heat head to from asking him about it. Prepare yourselves now for media pundits analyzing all the “signs” that they create to keep the media cycle running. Wait, he threw the chalk in Cleveland? What does that mean?! He ate a dirty water hot dog in New York?!? He’s signing with the Knicks!
Even though James’ decision part deux has the ability to shift the power in the league, I strongly suggest that, for your sanity, you ignore all of the noise about James’ free agency. Just enjoy the season. There will be plenty of interesting and pertinent NBA topics to discuss and think about as the year moves forward. You’ll know where James is going soon enough.
We Hate To Break It To You
At the end of the 2011-2012 season, it was obvious to anyone that followed the NBA that the Oklahoma City Thunder were a team on the rise. Even though OKC had just lost to the Heat in the Finals, they had a strong nucleus of young talent with Kevin Durant, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook, which had them poised to be a contender for the next decade.
But things in the NBA have a funny way of changing quickly and the Thunder have learned that the hard way. On the eve of the 2012-2013 season, OKC shipped Harden, Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb. In terms of pure talent, the Thunder were fleeced on this deal, but the team felt forced to make the deal because of salary cap limitations. Essentially, it came down to keeping Ibaka or Harden, and OKC chose Ibaka.
At the time, there was a fierce debate amongst writers (and one that is still going on amongst front office types) as to whether or not the Thunder made the right decision. On one side, some argued that it made more sense to keep the big man, since OKC already had two all-star caliber perimeter players locked up to long-term deals with Durant and Westbrook. The other side of the debate contended that the Thunder would have been wiser in keeping Harden, since the game is becoming more perimeter oriented anyway.
From the beginning of the debate, I sided with the latter camp. Ibaka isn’t a transcendent big and it’s not as difficult to find a player that can replicate a good amount of what he does, whereas it’s much more difficult to find a player like Harden. Case in point: The Atlanta Hawks signed Paul Millsap this offseason for $19 million over two years or about $4.5 million more than Martin was making last season. The Thunder could have made up the difference needed to sign Millsap (or a player like him) by amnestying the largely useless Kendrick Perkins.
So, while the Harden-Ibaka dilemma might still be up for debate, there’s no debating the state of OKC’s roster heading into this year: It’s just not as good as you think. At the top, the Thunder have a transcendent star in Durant, supported by a perennial All-Star in Westbrook and a solid talent in Ibaka. After that, though, there’s not much. For support off the bench, OKC looks like it will depend on Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Nick Collison, Hasheem Thabeet, and zombie Derek Fisher. Yikes! … and also BRAAAAIIIINNNNSSSS!
Adding to the lack of depth issue, Westbrook likely won’t be back from injury until mid-December, forcing Jackson into the starting role and further depleting the bench. To be clear, with Westbrook healthy, the Thunder are still a top-5 team in the West. The problem here is that, unlike in the East, the West is loaded. If the Thunder blow a few games early in the year that they normally wouldn’t because Westbrook is out (and we know they will based on the evidence from last year’s first round series against the Rockets), then that’s enough to push them back to a fifth or sixth seed in the playoffs, an unforgiving spot for a team with NBA Finals aspirations.
Even with a healthy Westbrook for the full season, it’s still hard for me to see this team making it out of the West. No matter how great Westbrook and Durant are, they’ll need their bench to step up throughout the playoffs, and the Thunder simply don’t have one capable of doing that. The bigger problem for the Thunder beyond this year will be how they develop this bench into a respectable unit in order to give Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka some much-needed support.
What once looked like a budding dynasty now appears to be in a more fragile state than any of us could have anticipated just a couple of seasons ago. Although I’m not sure what will become of OKC five years from now, I am certain that they’ll be the league’s most disappointing team this season. Hey, there’s always next year Thunder fans.
For Part 2 (which includes Laura’s predictions), click here!
Previously from Charlie Crespo:
♦ The Value of Banksy’s New York Residency
♦ Viral Video of the Week: The Inner Workings of My Mind
♦ On Being a Die-Hard Fan of a Pathetic Sports Franchise
♦ Viral Video of the Week: BatDad Begins
♦ Thank You For Not Governing!