Storylines to watch in 2012-13
Dion Waiters and Royce White are among the intriguing rookies in the 2012 class
Raymond Felton and Brandon Jennings are under pressure to perform at the point
The Timberwolves and Warriors are looking to crash the playoff party in the West
Beyond providing a welcome breather, the offseason allows us to step back and survey the NBA landscape. Doing so, in turn, leads us to a few undeniable truths.
Yes, it's true that developments like the Lakers' acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash and the Heat's signing of Ray Allen reflect the very sort of rich-getting-richer storyline that many small-market teams and their fans hoped wouldn't happen under the newest collective bargaining agreement. And, yes, the willingness of teams like the Nets to go deep into the luxury tax so that their debut season in Brooklyn wouldn't be a bust is even further proof that new rules aren't striking fear into some owners' hearts the way commissioner David Stern thought they would.
But even in the face of such continued injustices in today's imperfect NBA, it's equally true that there are far more reasons to look forward to the coming season than there are to look down on it. Let's not forget that the lockout was in full swing last September and the best basketball stateside was an eight-team league full of unemployed players in Las Vegas that, while better than nothing, was hardly riveting hoops. They called it the CTS, and the sparse crowds and glorified-workout games were proof positive that it takes more than some world-class talent and an acronym to do what the NBA does.
Besides, it's not as if there's no hope of the league's warts clearing up eventually. The harsher penalties for overspending kick in after next season, meaning some of these seemingly fearless owners will lose their staring contest with the resident luxury-tax collector at some point. And as for the Lakers, Heat, Nets et al? Say what you will about Super Teams, but questions still remain about each and this deck isn't stacked for anyone.
With regular-season tip-off about five weeks away, here are some storylines worth monitoring. Because we've already touched on the championship contenders and discussed the Lakers from nearly every possible angle, this will be a non-Super Team edition.
The rookies: Of course I'm looking forward to seeing top-three picks Anthony Davis (New Orleans), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Charlotte) and Bradley Beal (Washington), but the real intrigue starts at No. 4: Dion Waiters. The Cavaliers surprisingly selected the high-scoring Syracuse reserve, who just weeks earlier was pegged as a mid-to-late first-round pick by most evaluators. Then he showed up slightly overweight for Las Vegas summer league in July, offering mostly underwhelming performances in three games while not being able to play with new teammate Kyrie Irving. The top pick in the 2011 draft broke his hand at a Cavaliers practice in mid-July but is expected to be ready for training camp.
This marks the second straight year that Cavs general manager Chris Grant and his front-office team have gone unconventional with one of their lottery picks, having taken Texas power forward Tristan Thompson at No. 4 in 2011. They'll need more from Waiters than they got from Thompson in his debut.
Meanwhile, Houston's Royce White, the 16th pick, is another player to watch. The Iowa State product is as compelling as they come on and off the floor, and I'd strongly advise this summertime reading on him from Pablo S. Torre as well as this documentary from Grantland. The style with which the 21-year-old handles his anxiety disorder is impressive, and it will be fun to see him try to tap into his potential as a versatile point forward.
The coaching rookies: I'm on record as being confused by the process that led Charlotte to the out-of-nowhere hiring of former St. John's assistant coach Mike Dunlap in mid-June, but now we'll finally get to see whether the Bobcats made the right move. From owner Michael Jordan down to general manager Rich Cho and president Rod Higgins, they insist this was more about developing players than it was dollars. Dunlap came relatively cheaply, to be sure, but the former Nuggets assistant has drawn early praise for the high-energy, militant style that he showcased at summer league. His hard-line ways might be a good fit for a young team that finished with a record-low .106 winning percentage last season. Kidd-Gilchrist would appear to be a perfect complement for Dunlap, as his all-in attitude and respected leadership as a freshman made him a favorite of John Calipari's at Kentucky.
In Orlando, where the focus of the long-term plan is also on development and steady progress, Jacque Vaughn has the credibility from having played in the NBA. But the 37-year-old was wearing a uniform just three years ago, and two years as an assistant -- even under the great Gregg Popovich in San Antonio -- won't be enough to keep Vaughn from sharing some growing pains with his team in the post-Dwight Howard era. Still, the Spurs saw Vaughn as a wise-beyond-his-years coaching prodigy and the Magic are convinced he'll have them heading in the right direction.
Will everybody love Raymond? It's not Raymond Felton's fault that the Knicks acted as if they were hiding a time machine somewhere deep inside Madison Square Garden. They opted for a reunion with Felton over the return of Jeremy Lin, and that's their prerogative. But the millions of Lin fans who wish the Knicks would have matched Houston's three-year, $25.1 million offer will be all over Felton and New York's front office if the 28-year-old point guard doesn't recapture his form from 2010-11, when he had a strong 54-game run with the Knicks before being sent to Denver in the Carmelo Anthony trade.
The new-look Nuggets: Denver coach George Karl was bullish on his team even before the Nuggets landed Andre Iguodala in the four-team Dwight Howard deal in early August.
"I think we have a team that is going to win games," Karl told me at Las Vegas summer league in July. "Is it a championship contender? If some guys grow up and some guys fall in, I think we can move up a step."
The progress should come quicker with Iguodala on board. Iguodala is a rare team-first, two-way talent and a definite upgrade over the departed Arron Afflalo, who went to Orlando in the deal along with forward Al Harrington. With Iguodala set to bolster a below-average defense and join the likes of Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee, the Nuggets will look to improve on last season's seven-game, first-round loss to the Lakers.