As the 2014-15 season begins, the landscape in the NBA changed dramatically since the San Antonio Spurs hoisted the championship trophy by dominating the Miami Heat.
The Spurs remain every bit the favorite they were in June, but the Heat could fall back to the pack, looking up at … LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Here are 10 things to watch as the 2014-15 NBA season begins:
10. Will Steve Ballmer — supplanting Portland’s Paul Allen as the richest owner in the NBA — make a difference with the Los Angeles Clippers? It will most likely be addition by subtraction with the exit of the disgraced Donald Sterling. Coach Doc Rivers and his complement of strong talent can forget about controversy and concentrate fully on getting to the Promised Land.
9. How will Russell Westbrook handle being the big cheese (for a month, at least) in Oklahoma City? The NBA’s best two-way point guard is also given to letting his emotions get the best of him at times. Coach Scotty Brooks wants Westbrook to continue to let the game come to him and not worry about making up the points the Thunder will miss in Kevin Durant’s absence. Durant, more subdued by just as lethal, went on a record scoring binge with Westbrook sidelined with knee issues last season and said he talked to the All-Star sidekick about not changing during this solo act.
8. Take a careful look at the San Antonio Spurs this season. It could wind up being the last hurrah for one of the great dynasties in NBA history. If they make it back-to-back titles by bagging another in June, coach Gregg Popovich and superstars Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili could ride off into the sunset.
7. Portland has had the worst bench in the league over the past two seasons. With the addition of veterans Chris Kaman and Steve Blake, the Trail Blazers might be ready to make a jump into the conference finals for the first time since 2000. Then again, that’s what most thought last season. With LaMarcus Aldridge now a star with name value and Damian Lillard at or near the elite class of NBA guards, it could be this team’s time to shine.
6. Kobe, Kobe, Kobe. Injuries and age might drag him down, at least that’s what Bryant’s greatest critics are signaling. The irrepressible Mr. Bryant has disdain for those who don’t think the Los Angeles Lakers will rebound and make the playoffs this season. If Kobe and the Lakers pull it off, it will be up there with those 1914 Boston Braves as the biggest pro sports miracle in a century.
5. Heat is off. The Heat’s empire has ended after only four seasons, but four consecutive Finals appearances and two championships are still awfully impressive. Luol Deng replaces LeBron James, but Deng battled an Achilles injury last season and never looked like the same player in Cleveland he had been during an All-Star tenure with the Chicago Bulls. Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade continues to fight the same knee problems that plagued him all of last season. It took so many trade assets to build their Big Three that the Heat didn’t have the means to continually supplement them with young talent. As a result, they looked old and tired by the end of the Finals. They still don’t look any younger. Still a playoff team in the anemic East, but the Heat no longer are a feared predator.
4. Uncertainty in Atlanta. The sale of the Hawks is expected to close either late this year or early 2015, but the fallout from their volatile offseason is ongoing. Several prominent figures have already shown interest in purchasing controlling share of the Hawks from owner Bruce Levenson, who agreed to sell controlling interest of the team after disclosing his racially insensitive e-mail from 2012. General manager Danny Ferry, meanwhile, still has not returned from his self-imposed indefinite leave of absence, leaving coach Mike Budenholzer to run the personnel side. The Hawks only have four years left on their lease with Philips Arena, but city leaders have made it clear they want to keep the team in town long term. Lost in all this is the fact the Hawks were one of the best teams in the East last season before injuries decimated the roster.
3. New faces in new places. There are five new coaches in the Eastern Conference, but none is more fascinating than David Blatt, who coached more than 20 years overseas before heading to the NBA. He chose the Cavs head job over an assistant’s role at Golden State, then stood back in amazement when LeBron James chose to return. Now he’s in one of the league’s most high-profile positions running a high-powered offense with elite scoring talent — Cavs reserve Mike Miller called Blatt’s offensive schemes “near genius” early in training camp. Other new coaching faces include Stan Van Gundy, who has complete control of the Pistons operations, and Derek Fisher, who is following Jason Kidd’s path from a player’s uniform directly to a head coach position. Fisher will run Phil Jackson’s triangle in New York, but aside from Carmelo Anthony, he doesn’t have much with which to work.
2. First aid. Injuries are part of every NBA season, but they seem to be striking earlier than usual. Indiana’s Paul George will miss the season with that gruesome leg injury he suffered during a World Cup scrimmage, Washington’s Bradley Beal fractured his wrist and could be out until early December and Rookie of the Year runner-up Victor Oladipo is expected to miss the first month of the season with a facial fracture for the Magic. Then of course is Kevin Durant’s fractured foot, which will keep the reigning MVP out for another month.
1. Driving the tank. Now that lottery reform has been voted down (for now), the bottom dwellers can continue stockpiling draft picks and losses. The Sixers and Celtics have been eagerly absorbing unwanted contracts for months in exchange for future draft picks. It has left the league’s other owners aggravated two of the largest markets have no interest in winning (undrafted and unknown Henry Sims is the Sixers’ most viable, healthy center) as both teams take their time building through the draft. The net result: Boston has five first-round picks in the next two drafts, while the Sixers have a pair of first-round picks and five second-round picks in next summer’s draft.