Most intriguing NBA debuts of '14-15
The drama of an offseason packed with twists and transactions has settled. We're two weeks away from opening night and there's no shortage of noteworthy figures hoping to make big splashes with their new teams.
When talking debuts, let's not waste much time on the obvious. The two biggest offseason movements saw Cleveland bring back its King, with a new Love at his side and endless cameras following in their wake. In the returning-from-injury department, we've got a legend on his last legs in Los Angeles and an MVP returning in Chicago, on a team whose contention looks entirely contingent on his health.
This isn't to downplay those storylines, but rather to offer a look at the rest of the league. Here's a breakdown of the most anticipated debuts heading into 2014-15:
We find our dear friend Lance in Charlotte, at the second stop of his NBA career, and it might not be too soon to call this a put-up-or-shut-up year. He departed Indiana to slot in nicely alongside Kemba Walker and to form an all-New York backcourt that will ultimately determine how far this team goes. With Al Jefferson down low and an able supporting cast led by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Hornets have the pieces to move upward and build on last season's feel-good campaign.
But for Stephenson, there's also the mater of reputation, always seemingly in question for a player long-ago dubbed "Born Ready." His strong play during a breakout year certainly helped but after his mildly entertaining, meme-worthy playoff hijinks against LeBron James and the Heat, patience has worn somewhat thin. Still, the fact he remained a coveted free agent says plenty. There's an opportunity for Stephenson to take a big leap here, but as always, it's anyone's guess if it will happen. And if all goes downhill, let's hope he doesn't go blowing in MJ's ear next.
Two long-suffering basketball markets received major shots in the arm this summer, as perhaps the draft's two brightest stars (hang in there, Joel Embiid) make their new homes in the Midwest. The careers of Parker and Wiggins have been tightly intertwined since high school, and the friendly rivals have begun taking the baby steps toward the stardom so many have promised for them.
The odds for rookie success favor Parker, already the go-to-guy in Milwaukee and the man whom his peers voted most likely to win Rookie of the Year. Expect the youthful Bucks to struggle, but make some time to watch as Jabari and Giannis Antetokounmpo develop into what could eventually become one of the NBA's most fun pairings. Though Parker's not the explosive leaper Wiggins is, criticisms about his athleticism have been over-wrought, as long as he keeps his weight down. Parker's been preparing for this his entire life -- expect an adjustment period, expect him to struggle defensively, but more importantly, expect buckets.
Wiggins' situation is less clear, as Love-less Minnesota returns a veteran core and, at least for the moment, postures like they'll be trying to win now. The No. 1 overall pick isn't quite as skilled or as savvy as Parker yet, but his long-term prospects are more attractive. Wiggins should give us his share of highlight dunks this year, but in evaluating his progress early on, look beyond the stat lines - his aggressiveness, skills off the bounce and consistency might be more important indicators for his career path right now. He'll get plenty of chances to polish his craft, particularly if the Wolves struggle early in the season.
One of the more intriguing free agency cases of the summer kept Parsons in Texas and reignited the Mavericks-Rockets rivalry, with Mark Cuban moving decisively to snag the restricted free agent out from under Daryl Morey's grasp. Parsons slides into a much bigger role in Dallas, as the Mavs reshuffle the deck again in their continuous quest to get the finely-aging Dirk Nowitzki another ring. He'll be needed to score and spread the floor while also potentially facilitating a bit – the Jameer Nelson-Raymond Felton-Devin Harris trio has seen better days.
Dirk and Monta Ellis will again shoulder much of the load, but Parsons can certainly increase his own production while adding lineup flexibility to a veteran team. Their first matchup with Houston on Nov. 22 will be must-see TV – though after a preseason slugfest where the teams combined for 109 free throws, it may not be pretty.
The summer coaching sweepstakes saw Kerr spurn former mentor Phil Jackson while Fisher became the Knicks' consolation prize in his place, connecting their fledgling coaching careers right from the start. Both land on teams with the talent to create success right away, but they'll each face stiff tests as they acclimate themselves to uncharted waters.
While Kerr's situation seems ideal -- one of the best marksmen in the league's history paired with two of his own ilk in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson -- the West can be unforgiving, and he'll be attempting to improve on a 51-win season with essentially the same roster. It's no small task, and though Kerr knows his way around a front office (with Phoenix from 2007-2010), he's never coached before. The pieces are all there for Golden State to remain successful. The question will be to what degree.
Fisher will face a more difficult conundrum in New York, even with Jackson's influence and Carmelo Anthony returning. The Knicks are very much in flux as the team angles to attract stars to pair with Anthony in the next couple years. It also remains to be seen if this team can guard anybody at all. And there's always the looming shadow of possible James Dolan meddling -- although Phil is swearing otherwise. But a motivated Anthony gives New York a chance at one of the East's final playoff seeds. Less than a year removed from his playing career, Fisher will have to find a way to put it all together.
Forgot about this guy? Read up. Noel is a legit Rookie of the Year candidate and the runaway frontrunner for Best Hair. He returns fully recovered from knee surgery and finally with the chance to swat shots for another certainly-awful 76ers team. However, Noel could have a lot at stake given Philly's unique situation: with Joel Embiid using this season to recover from his own injuries, Dario Saric coming over in the next few years and the Sixers stockpiling draft picks, the former Kentucky star's place in their future plans is far from set. At the very least he should be an effective rim protector, but what else can he give them? Noel will see every opportunity to make a statement.
The latest episode of "Paul Pierce Tries On New Uniforms" sends The Truth to our nation's capital. Pierce, who turned 37 on Monday, replaces Trevor Ariza in the lineup for the popular dark-horse Wizards, and with Bradley Beal set to miss up to two months with a wrist fracture, the grizzled star could be relied on more than originally expected in the early going. He gives the Wizards a proven shot-maker and late-game scoring option and should help balance the floor around John Wall. And he's already made his presence known, engaging in a preseason scuffle with Joakim Noah and the Bulls. Two years departed from Boston, the cranky old man plays on.
A case could easily be made here for Pau Gasol, Chicago's other new bearded European big, but with the hype surrounding Mirotic the past couple years in Madrid, the element of unknown gives him the nod. It's safe to assume what you'll see from Pau, who should fit seamlessly as an upgrade in Carlos Boozer's role, but the 23-year-old Mirotic, the Bulls' first-round choice in 2011, could be the X-factor for a team very much in contention for a title, at least on paper. It's unclear if both Mirotic and fellow rook Doug McDermott will earn significant minutes under Tom Thibodeau, but preseason returns have been positive. His size, shooting and skill gives Chicago its first real stretch-four of Thibodeau's tenure. With Derrick Rose looking healthy, if not at his most effective yet, a quick acclimation from Mirotic could completely open up the Bulls' offense and take a dangerous team to another level as the season rolls on.