Ron Glover’s @TSFSports 2013-14 NBA Season Preview: The Miami Heat stand ready while challengers bum rush the throne

(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

LeBron James and the Miami Heat will have to go through a hellish Eastern Conference to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals.

The 2013-14 NBA season is sure to go down as one of the greatest in recent memory. Our anticipation for opening night has peaked with the return of Derrick Rose to the Chicago Bulls and the bolstering of the Brooklyn Nets with the additions of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry. For good measure, the Nets hired Jason Kidd as head coach to run things from the bench. Has either team done enough in the off-season to prevent the World Champion Miami Heat from a third consecutive title.

Out West, Dwight Howard has a new home in Houston and the Los Angeles Lakers are waiting for the return of Kobe Bryant. Doc Rivers is looking to take the Clippers to the next level. The Golden State Warriors added defensive stalwart Andre Iguodala to an already talented roster. In Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant will be asked to shoulder the scoring burden until the electric Russell Westbrook returns.

Teams on the come up, impact rookies and old faces in new places. Lace ’em up tight fam, it’s going to be a great season!

NBA Eastern Conference 

Atlantic Division (Predicted order of finish):

Brooklyn Nets – In one fell swoop, the Brooklyn Nets have not only taken over basketball in New York, but garnered the attention of the Miami Heat. Aside from Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry, the team added veterans Andrei Kirilenko, Alan Anderson and Shaun Livingston. Duke rookie Mason Plumlee may not see much time, but will cut his teeth in practice with an all-timer like Garnett. Deron Williams should have one of his better seasons as an assist man. Paul Pierce’s presence will push Joe Johnson through last season’s struggles. Brook Lopez and glass master Reggie Evans provide finesse and grit alongside Garnett in the paint.

New York Knicks – Carmelo Anthony dropped a bomb when he chose to opt out of his deal with the Knicks this summer. Melo’s wonderful season was a carryover from the London Olympics. The Knicks acquired some toughness and finesse bringing in Metta World Peace and former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani. With Tyson Chandler at center, the Knicks are solid defensively in their front court. Raymond Felton has to think pass first just a tad more, but his scoring is just fine. Iman Shumpert didn’t miss a beat in his return from ACL surgery. Can J.R. Smith keep his head on straight? Is there a place on this team for Amar’e Stoudemire?

Toronto Raptors – One of the more athletic teams in the league, the Raptors added some outside shooting by signing streak-shooter Steve Novack from the Knicks. Another valued pickup was D.J. Augustin, a former starter — whom can spell starter Kyle Lowry. Rudy Gay has to take the mantle as leader of this team, and there’s no reason Gay shouldn’t be scoring on the other side of 25 points per night. It’s time for guard DeMar DeRozan to make it happen or he may be moved. Jonas Valanciunas has impressed enough to be penciled in as the starter at center.

Boston Celtics – How can Celtics fans not feel any angst towards Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce after  scolding Ray Allen for bolting to Miami last season and pulling the same stunt a year later. We’ll find out about Rajon Rondo from a player and leadership standpoint as he returns from a torn ACL. Jeff Green should continue his ascent as a scorer as the No. 1 option. New head coach Brad Stevens may have a hidden gem in versatile rookie big man Kelly Olynyk.

Philadelphia 76ers – Philly’s roster has more holes than a pair of fish net stockings, but no one is doing a double take with this team. Outside of Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young, this is a team filled with retreads and players looking to catch a lucky break under the most unfortunate of circumstances. Brett Brown has to build his players from the inside out during this 82-game audition. Philly’s most important player is rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams — who has been the starter since summer league play. The team essentially traded All-Stars Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday for Andrew Bynum and Nerlens Noel. Forget Alan Watkins, this team needs Jesus.

Central Division

Chicago Bulls – The Bulls are whole again and are primed to make a bum rush at the Miami Heat for NBA supremacy. At some point we all became frustrated with Derrick Rose’s rehab, but I’m sure we’ll all be pleased with what we’ll witness from the former MVP this season. Luol Deng is also healthy and so is Joakim Noah — who held things together on and off the court. Carlos Boozer returns for another season for the NBA’s best defensive unit. The progression of Jimmy Butler should be monitored with Rose back in the lineup. Veteran Mike Dunleavy Jr. gives Chicago a big with three-point accuracy.

Indiana Pacers – The grind it out Pacers added more scoring and defense to an already effective roster. Luis Scola, Chris Copeland and Sam Young were added for depth. Paul George is only going to get better while Danny Granger’s rickety wheels have cost him the first three weeks of the season. David West is as good as ever and is the muscle behind a great defensive team. Roy Hibbert is the Pacers defensive anchor — who needs to improve at the offensive end.

Cleveland Cavaliers – I predicted the Cavs would make the playoffs last season, but those hopes were dashed when Anderson Varejao went down with a season-ending injury. All-Star point Kyrie Irving is quickly climbing the list of the NBA’s top lead guards. The Cavs brass will never be confident in shooting guard Dion Waiters until he can show consistency as a scorer. With Bynum and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett, Varejao could make the switch to the four spot — which means last year’s starter Tristan Thompson will come off the bench. The Cavs acquired super-sub Jarrett Jack to back up Irving and possibly play a little of the two when the situation calls for it.

Detroit Pistons – I really hope the basketball gods smile on Maurice Cheeks more than they did when he was head coach in Portland and Philly. Cheeks’ mild-mannered approach was an open door for players to walk over him — eventually costing him his job. His team in Motown is solid with two major free agent acquisitions in Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith. Point guard Chauncey Billups was brought back for locker room leadership and to play out his days with the team he helped win an NBA title with in 2004. Greg Monroe is one of the game’s best passing big men and is capable of averaging 5-6 assists per night. Andre Drummond was a man in the summer league to the point where he got the attention of USA Basketball. The Pistons are overall a young team, but with vets like Billups, Jennings and Smith, there is plenty of big game experience to help them in a playoff push.

Milwaukee Bucks – The Bucks were swept out of the 2013 NBA playoffs by the eventual champion Miami Heat. In the aftermath, management proceeded to trash what was left of a franchise stuck in neutral. Exit shooters Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. The Bucks roster now has a more traditional look with point guards Carlos Delfino, budding star Brandon Knight and veteran Luke Ridnour. O.J. Mayo was brought in at shooting guard. Second year stud John Henson is poised for a breakout season, and the unheralded Ersan Ilyasova is getting better game by game. Zaza Pachulia and Gary Neal are solid vets adding playoff and championship experience. Look out for rook Giannis Anteokounmpo.

Southeast Division:

Miami Heat – The only feat more impressive than the Miami Heat winning their third consecutive world championship is making it to the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive season. A feat which has not been accomplished in over 30 years. LeBron James is in pursuit of his fifth MVP in six seasons. James states he has improved from last season, a mind-boggling thought when considerintg his wire to wire dominance. Wait! This is supposed to be about the Heat. Eric Spoelstra’s crew has acquired depth in Michael Beasley, Roger Mason Jr. and Greg Oden. Ray Allen — who was the hero in Game 6 of the NBA Finals will return for another season. Speculation continues to mount about the possible final run for Chris Bosh, James and Dwyane Wade. Team rebounding remains an issue. Mario Chalmers isn’t the most glamorous of point guards, but he possesses the unselfish nature needed to run this team.

Washington Wizards – Last week’s trade for Phoenix Suns center Marcin Gortat gives the Wizards some grit in the paint. The team is loaded with players who fill up the basket. It all starts and ends with point guard John Wall — whom averaged 18/8/4 last season. Second year shooting guard Bradley Beal came on strong in the second half and should continue to improve. Otto Porter Jr. and Glenn Rice Jr. will compete for playing time with Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin, Chris Singleton and Martell Webster.

Atlanta Hawks – Danny Ferry continues to transform the Hawks. The GM’s latest move was bidding Josh Smith adieu and signing workhorse forward Paul Milsap in the opening days of free agency. Jeff Teague had a career year and cemented himself as the Hawks lead guard. Al Horford returned to play 74 of 82 games posting 17 and 10 per contest. Veteran ambassador Elton Brand was brought in to lead on and off the court. There is no timetable on the return of scorer Lou Williams. Williams tore his ACL on January 18th and has only been limited to shooting drills during training camp. One player to watch is 30-year old rookie Pero Antic from Macedonia.

Orlando Magic –  Guess who were the winners of the four-way trade last summer between the Lakers, Magic, Nuggets and Sixers? You guessed it. The Magic made out like bandits in the end of what was termed a franchise-crippling deal. The Magic are in a good place. Jameer Nelson is the leader of a team with plenty of budding talent. The steal of last season’s trade was seven-footer Nic Vucevic from Philly who averaged 13 points a 11 rebounds. Vucevic posted a career-high 29 rebounds against the Heat last season. The star attraction this season will be rookie Victor Oladipo — who dazzled in the summer leagues and preseason. Oladipo along with Tobias Smith gives Orlando two proven scorers. The re-building continues…

Charlotte Bobcats – The Bobcats had the you gotta be kidding signing of free agency when they somehow snagged Al Jefferson from the Utah Jazz. Jefferson gives Charlotte a formidable force in the middle to go with some decent young scorers. It seems like the guys upstairs are trying to get this thing right. Ben Gordon, Gerald Henderson Ramon Sessions and Kemba Walker will account for much of the Bobcats scoring. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist should solidify himself in the rotation in his second season. It’s possible Jefferson may start at power forward and Bismack Biyombo starts at center. Biyombo is still raw offensively, but his defensive prowess is too much to have him on the bench. Josh McRoberts and rookie Cody Zeller add depth in the post.

NBA Western Conference:

Southwest Division (Predicted order of finish):

Houston Rockets – Regardless of the dramatics in Dwight Howard’s decision to join the Rockets, it looks like a great move for the game’s best defensive player. Howard gives the Rockets their best low post presence since Yao Ming. Howard joins the dynamic James Harden and sniper Chandler Parsons. Omer Asik may be over his case of the sour grapes upon Howard’s arrival. If Asik puts his ego aside, the rewards will be worth the risk. Jeremy Lin struggled last season, but he should be ready to become more of a distributor. Aaron Brooks, Patrick Beverley, the steadily improving Terrence Jones and others give the Rockets great depth.

San Antonio Spurs – Tim Duncan & Co. validated their trip to the NBA Finals with a gallant 7-game performance. Duncan’s missed rebound opened the door for Ray Allen’s late game heroics in Game 6. Tony Parker played his best basketball in his eleventh season averaging 20 points and 8 assists. Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter provide defense, depth and scoring.  The big question for the Spurs is can Manu Ginobili shake off a horrid NBA Finals performance and go all out in what may be his final season.

Memphis Grizzlies – I’m still ticked at the brass of the Memphis Grizzlies for the way Lionel Hollins was handled following their playoff exit. Hollins was let go in favor of assistant Dave Joerger — whom orchestrated the NBA’s second best defensive team. The Grizzlies return intact after re-signing defensive specialist Tony Allen. Mike Conley Jr. gained some much deserved notoriety in the postseason. The meat and the potatoes of this team will be the combo of Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Jerryd Bayless, Ed Davis and Tayshaun Prince were good acquisitions last season. Mike Miller returns to where he cut his teeth as one of the league’s most reliable shooters. Fab Melo gets another shot on a team loaded with bigs.

Dallas Mavericks – Don’t be surprised if the Dallas Mavericks overtake the Grizzlies for third in the division. For the second consecutive season, the Mavs put together a nice off-season with plenty of key acquisitions. This summer owner Mark Cuban spent good money on key positions and should get a nice return on his investment. The Mavs have added the underrated Jose Calderon, Wayne Ellington, Monta Ellis, Samuel Dalembert and Devin Harris to an experienced, but quickly aging roster. Dirk Nowitzki is 100 percent after missing 29 games last season. Vince Carter has added another year or two on his stellar career by becoming a reliable three-point threat. Second-year forward Jae Crowder reminds me of a toned down Kenneth Faried.

New Orleans Pelicans – In a matter of weeks, the New Orleans Pelicans gained a new identity an All-Star caliber point guard and a versatile swing man. Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans give the Pelicans the guards they have lacked since the days of Chris Paul. Anthony Davis came on strong at the end of the season and was rewarded with an All-Rookie first team honor. Davis will move to center, where physical veteran Jason Smith is ready to step in if he struggles. Eric Gordon is dynamite when he is healthy. Ryan Anderson provides needed scoring from deep. There is room on this roster for a young player or two to earn some minutes.

Northwest Division:

Oklahoma City Thunder – Hopes of a late playoff run depend mightily on the right knee of Russell Westbrook. Kevin Durant was herculean in the postseason, but he was eventually outgunned. Until Westbrook returns, Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb will compete for the starting spot at the point. Thabo Sefolosha is penciled in at shooting guard and will be asked to give more offensively. The Thunder are still smarting from the James Harden deal regardless of who says what. Serge Ibaka had his best season putting up 13/7 and a whopping three blocks per contest. Rookie Steven Adams will eventually replace Kendrick Perkins at center. Last year’s first round pick Perry Jones should be ready to expand his role in the rotation.

Portland Trailblazers – The Trailblazers had the playoffs in their sights until a 13-game losing streak late in the season dashed their hopes. Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard was great wire to wire and should improve even more with a driven LaMarcus Aldridge. The much-anticipated back court of Lillard and incoming rookie C.J. McCollum has been put on ice while he heals from an injured left foot. Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez round out the bulk of the scoring. Rookie Allen Crabbe joins a list of versatile reserves. Here’s hoping talented second year forward Thomas Robinson finds a home in Portland after being traded three times last season. Late addition Mo Williams provides a steady hand at the point, and isn’t afraid to take a big shot.

Denver Nuggets – After winning a franchise-record 57 games, the Denver Nuggets had one of the stranger summers in recent memory. It began when NBA Coach of the Year George Karl was fired. The Nuggets brought in longtime assistant Brian Shaw. All-Star forward and Team USA gold medalist Andre Iguodala was allowed to sign with the Golden State Warriors. How will the players react to the losses of Iguodala and Karl? Leading scorer Ty Lawson will share the back court with either Randy Foye or the sharpshooting Evan Fournier — whose role increased in the second half of the season. Scoring forward Danilo Gallinari is slated to return no sooner than December as he recovers from a torn ACL. With Kenneth Faried, new signee J.J. Hickson and JaVale McGee, the Nuggets should be hell on the boards. Hired gun Nate Robinson turned his outstanding postseason play with the Bulls into a nice payday and another proving ground in Denver.

Minnesota Timberwolves – I may regret not placing the T-Wolves in front of the Nuggets in the standings, but for now I see them as the fourth team in the division. Flip Saunders returns to Minnesota for his second stint as head coach. Saunders welcomes back a healthy Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. Love was limited to 18 games last season with a hand injury. Rubio struggled with his shooting as the season went on, but his passing touch is still intact. Kevin Martin was signed away from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Martin will not be asked to be anyone but himself in Minnesota. Center Nikola Pekovic shined in Love’s absence. Pekovic is a throwback to the days when the game was about big men being immovable in the paint. J.J. Barea, Corey Brewer, Chase Budinger, Dante Cunningham and Alexy Sved round out a solid bench. It’s put up of shut up time for former No. 2 overall pick  Derrick Williams.

Utah Jazz – The Jazz bid farewell to Al Jefferson and Paul Milsap before embarking on what the brass hopes is a short rebuilding stage. Forward Derrick Favors was signed to a six-year deal last week. Sniper Gordon Hayward will be asked to take over the bulk of the scoring. Michigan rookie Trey Burke will be sidelined after surgery on his finger. Veteran point man Jamaal Tinsley was brought in to stabilize the back court. Center Enes Kanter’s minutes and production should increase this season.

Pacific Division: 

Los Angeles Clippers – Doc Rivers returns to Los Angeles to coach the team he played for during the 1991-92 season. Rivers has a loaded roster of studs who need a steady hand to guide them. Lob City is no more, and these Clippers will play defense and whoever isn’t capable of holding their own will be dealt. Chris Paul was the top point man last season averaging close to 10 assists per game. Blake Griffin’s knees held up enough to allow him to play 80 of 82 games. The team’s biggest surprise was the play of Jamal Crawford — whose game went to another level. Hard to believe Crawford is entering his 13th season. Rivers is going to get more out of center DeAndre Jordan than Vinny Del Negro or lose his job trying. The Clippers bench features: Darren Collison, Jared Dudley, Byron Mullens and J.J. Redick.

Golden State Warriors – Last season, the Golden State Warriors were a hot dog with plenty of mustard. This season, head coach Mark Jackson has added some onions for good measure. Andre Iguodala, Jermaine O’Neal and Jarrett Jack add some grit to a finesse roster. Steph Curry is the golden child of the NBA, he dazzled the Madison Square Garden crowd with a 54-point effort in a loss to the Knicks and was just as great in the postseason. Second year marksman Klay Thompson played all 82 games and shot 40 percent from beyond the arc. Rookie Harrison Barnes broke through after an injury to David Lee in the Denver Nuggets series and hasn’t looked back. David Lee’s decision to play through a hip injury may cost him some games early in the season. The team resigned center Andrew Bogut to an extension — a high risk for someone who has played only 44 games in the last two seasons.

Sacramento Kings – I’m rolling the dice big-time here just because I believe the Los Angeles Lakers have too many obstacles to overcome. DeMarcus Cousins has the backing of his coach and more importantly, the Kings’ brass. Expect monster numbers and an All-Star appearance for the talented big man. Isaiah Thomas was great at the point last season, but he may have to take a back seat to the underrated Greivis Vasquez. Forward Carl Landry was another quality signing, and will platoon with Patrick Patterson. Scorers Marcus Thornton and John Salmons will fill in at shooting guard. The signing of Luc Mbah a Moute confirms the Kings new commitment to defense. Dynamic rookie Ben McLemore will be an asset from day one.

Los Angeles Lakers – The downfall of the Lakers began with the firing of Mike Brown less than a week into the 2012-13 season. Mike D’Antoni was as much of Kobe Bryant’s pick as Phil Jackson was not Jim Buss’. Dwight Howard would still be in purple and gold if D’Antoni had paid any attention to him as an offensive player. The late season injury to Kobe Bryant only confirmed it was time to move on. The best thing that can happen this season is Pau Gasol winning some fans back by playing some good ball. D’Antoni is already ruling Steve Nash out of the team’s first back to back games. Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar will battle for minutes. Chris Kaman, Wesley Johnson and Nick Young were brought into rebound, find a niche and score. The loss of Metta World Peace is a huge blow to the Lakers perimeter defense. The worst thing that can happen is Kobe Bryant’s huge heart overruling his mind because of what he can’t bear to watch.

Phoenix Suns – The Suns roster has been reduced to a round ball wasteland for hired guns with the purpose of trimming cap space. Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown and Kendall Marshalll were traded to the Wizards for Omeka Okafor and a first round pick. Suns fan favorite Jeff Hornacek is the Suns new coach — replacing Alvin Gentry. It looks like Phoenix is looking to build around point guard Goran Dragic and first round pick Alex Len, a 7-1, 255 lb. center from Maryland. Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler and Gerald Green will carry the bulk of the Suns offensive load.

Division Winners: Nets, Bulls and Heat in the East. Rockets, Thunder and Clippers in the West.

Eastern Conference Champion: Heat over Bulls

Western Conference Champion: Rockets over Thunder

NBA Champion: Heat

NBA MVP: Derrick Rose

NBA Rookie of the Year: Victor Oladipo

NBA Coach of the Year: Mark Jackson

NBA Defensive Player of the Year: Serge Ibaka

Sixth Man of the Year: Jarrett Jack

Scoring Champion: Carmelo Anthony

Rebounding Leader: Nikola Vucevic

Assists Leader: Deron Williams

Comeback Player of the Year: Greg Oden

Most Improved Player: Derrick Favors

All Rookie Team: Michael Carter-Williams (76ers), Victor Oladipo (Magic), Anthony Bennett (Cavaliers), Ben McLemore (Kings), Otto Porter Jr. (Wizards) and Kelly Olynyk (Celtics)

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