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.
[Rookies' first impressions of pro life]
• 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.
[SI.com Roundtable: Will Bobcats or Magic win more games?]
• 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.
• Brotherly love for Bynum: Here's the part we've all glossed over about the so-called "Dwight Howard trade": It may wind up being more about Andrew Bynum than anyone else. If the former Lakers center manages to click with coach Doug Collins, and if Howard's surgically repaired back happens to hinder him throughout the season, then the Sixers -- who were already on the rise after upsetting Chicago in the first round last season and falling to Boston in seven games in the second round -- could be the ones emerging here.
Even with Iguodala's departure, perimeter scorers will surround Bynum in newcomers Nick Young, Dorell Wright and Jason Richardson. Bynum, a potential 2013 free agent who has already talked up the possibility of staying long term with the Sixers, finally will be featured offensively after so many years playing in the shadows of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, but it's on him to make the most of it.
The growth of guards Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday will be vital and potentially potent, and the combination of Bynum and free-agent signee Kwame Brown down low should help counter the absence of Iguodala on that end. Plenty to see here indeed.
• The "We Believe If ..." Warriors: It's not quite as catchy as the "We Believe" version that had a magical run in 2007, but Golden State's roster overhaul -- which looks promising on paper and has created buzz about a potential playoff berth -- will only have a shot at working this season IF ... new center Andrew Bogut returns to form after fracturing his left ankle in late January and having it surgically repaired in late April ... IF Stephen Curry manages to bring an end to his chronic ankle problems and get his promising career back on track ... IF second-year coach Mark Jackson can convince his group to follow Bogut's lead en route to major defensive improvement ... IF second-year shooting guard Klay Thompson keeps shining like he did after Monta Ellis was traded for Bogut in mid-March. You get the idea.
• Urgency in Milwaukee: The Bucks' Ellis-Brandon Jennings backcourt combo will be a League Pass must as well -- especially considering the backdrop of Jennings' contract situation. The fourth-year point guard let it be known back in February that he had his eye on bigger markets, but he said recently that he was hoping to secure an extension before the Oct. 31 deadline (he'll be a restricted free agent next summer if no deal is reached). Ellis, a potential 2013 free agent himself, has plenty left to prove to his new fans after his late-season struggles.
No one is avoiding the pressure cooker in Milwaukee, where general manager John Hammond and coach Scott Skiles are entering the final years of their deals and owner Herb Kohl is letting them all squirm for now. A 31-35, ninth-place finish in the East wasn't good enough for Kohl last season, but Jennings said they can do better.
"To be honest, I think everybody is" feeling pressure, Jennings told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last month. "We're all on the bubble right now because we need to win.
"There's going to be a lot of pressure on all of us, not just the coaching staff or the GM. We all know this could be it so we need to turn it around right now."
• Derrick Rose's return: The sight of Rose's breaking down in tears at a recent Adidas event after watching a video about his comeback from an ACL tear was -- in addition to marketing gold -- the latest proof that he's as genuine and passionate about the game as they come. So just in case the first few months aren't as enticing as expected, Rose's return is a gem of a subplot to look forward to in the latter half of the season. Rose isn't expected back from ACL surgery until the February All-Star break at the earliest. But the former MVP could single-handedly shake up the playoffs if he regains his form in time.
• The not-so-terrible T'wolves:Ricky Rubio is no Rose, but his return from a torn ACL and LCL will be crucial to Minnesota's chances of ending an eight-year playoff drought. They were in the postseason mix last season at 21-20 before Rubio's injury triggered a 5-20 finish. Rubio, who had surgery in March, recently told the Spanish publication Sport.ES that he could return as soon as December. Kevin Love will have to do the heavy lifting until he's back, but he'll have more help after the additions of Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko and Chase Budinger, among others. Roy will be an interesting story in his own right, the three-time All-Star back after retiring last December because of knee problems.
• The Kings with no castle: The saga in Sacramento will be a topic for another day, but here's the relatively brief update: It's been one relocation rumor after another since the Maloof family that owns the team backed out of a downtown arena deal with the city and arena development company AEG. That's what happens when an NBA team is stuck playing in a 24-year-old arena, which was built on the cheap to begin with.
Business aside, there is some basketball worth watching in Sacramento this season because of the presence of two fascinating young stars: enigmatic center DeMarcus Cousins and (insert position if you know it here) Tyreke Evans. Cousins is the best center in the game not named Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum, and it's entirely possible that the gap between him and them closes significantly this season. And for all the talk of his rough start with the U.S. select team during the summer, there's simply no way that spending substantial time on the court with future Hall of Famers can hurt a young man's game.
As for Evans, the former Rookie of the Year is entering a contract year without clarity on two key fronts: what position he plays and whether this is his team anymore. Cousins has clearly emerged as the organization's centerpiece, but that doesn't mean Evans can't help secure his own future with a much-improved year. The push to make him a point guard ended last season and won't be revived now with Isaiah Thomas, Aaron Brooks and Jimmer Fredette all on board. Speaking of Fredette, the former BYU dynamo who mostly struggled as a rookie is looking like the odd man out at the moment and those rumblings about a possible trade could grow louder in the coming months.