The NBA season tips off Tuesday night, ending our nation's 131-day basketball-less nightmare.
In honor of the league's 68th season, here's a look at 68 reasons to watch in 2013-14, in case a LeBron James three-peat attempt and a healthy Derrick Rose weren't enough for you. (A hat tip to veteran NBA writer Steve Aschburner for the inspiration.)
1. The East's elite is a hotbed for animosity. The NBA isn't likely to use "Everybody Hates Everybody!" as a marketing tagline, but the bad blood among the Eastern Conference's top tier is rapidly bubbling over in every possible direction. The Heat and Bulls absolutely hate each other's guts (gratuitous Filomena Tobias callback). The Nets and Knicks spent so much time jawing back and forth this summer that their "Who runs the city?" exchanges succeeded in boring the entire Internet for the first time in history. The Bulls and Pacers have traded barbs during the preseason, and their heated battle for the Central Division could extend for the next half-decade (or longer) given the young All-Stars in the fold for both teams. The Heat and Nets (ex-Celtics) have plenty of beef, stoked by James' recent charge of hypocrisy. Then there's the Heat and Pacers, whose memorable 2013 Eastern Conference finals included a number of moments of mutual disdain.
Those are really just the top-level beefs. The Nets are also looking for revenge after Chicago wounded their pride in the playoffs. The Knicks enter the season needing to prove they won't be bullied, like they were by the Pacers in the postseason. And the Heat-Knicks rivalry, fairly dormant compared to the 1990s heyday, could pop off at any moment.
And this isn't just team vs. team. Combined, the East's projected top-five teams have a full roster's worth of pot-stirrers, trash-talkers, hard-foulers and headline-makers: James, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, J.R. Smith, Joakim Noah, Carmelo Anthony, Roy Hibbert, Dwyane Wade, Chris "Birdman" Andersen, Jason Terry, Reggie Evans, Raymond Felton, Metta World Peace, Lance Stephenson and David West. That's 15 guys, and Kenyon Martin didn't even make the cut for this All-Squawk team. All of those combustible personalities + pent-up hostility + a pressure-packed countdown to a potentially game-changing summer of 2014 = must-see TV.
2. Kevin Durant, left to his own devices. Compared to the East, this year's West looks downright placid, with one notable exception: Kevin Durant. The three-time scoring champ might just be going through the NBA superstar's version of puberty, as he's lashed out against his elders, admitted to getting down on himself and yearned to find his footing as both a champion and an MVP in a world dominated by the Heat and James. As if those internal conflicts weren't sufficient reason to keep Durant squarely on center stage this season, the Basketball Gods have stripped him of his elite running mate for the opening portion of the season and his proven third wheel. How will he respond to these tests? What statistical barriers will he break in the process? It's telling that the overwhelming first instinct is to feel sympathy for his opponents, rather than for Durant himself.
3. Jason Kidd, NBA head coach. There's a world of difference between acting as a coach on the floor and actually holding the floor as a head coach -- the particulars of which Kidd will learn this season. He's clearly a savvy basketball mind, but it should be interesting to see how he takes to the micromanagement that comes with his new post.
4. The makeshift and persistently serviceable Hawks. For five seasons Atlanta has camped out in the thick of the East playoff race -- never challenging for the top two spots or slumping into the bottom two seeds. After losing Josh Smith, Devin Harris, Zaza Pachulia and former coach Larry Drew, this season will inevitably be different. But it should ultimately yield more of the same, as a refreshed roster picks up essentially where last year's Hawks left off.
5. What’s next for Kawhi Leonard and Gordon Hayward. While both have been terrific in restrained roles, San Antonio's Leonard and Utah's Hayward take a plunge into the unknown this season by grabbing a more prolific role in their respective offenses.
6. Young big men aiming to scale. Similarly, the league is flush with big men who will step into more playing time this season after posting appetizing numbers in limited minutes. That list includes Milwaukee's Larry Sanders (27.3 minutes per game in 2012-13), Utah's Derrick Favors (23.2), Toronto's Jonas Valanciunas (23.9), the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan (24.5), Denver's JaVale McGee (18.1) and Utah's Enes Kanter (15.4). It's not easy to stretch per-minute intrigue into a longer night's work, but part of the fun this season lies in seeing which developing bigs are up to the task.
7. Andrea Bargnani in New York, for better or worse. Probably worse. Almost definitely worse. One of the league's most despised players in the country's largest media market. Preseason stats: 3.3 rebounds per game, 38.1 percent shooting, one bout with pneumonia, one million questions about the Knicks' lineups. Buckle up, or jump off this hurtling train, whichever you prefer.
8. Metta World Peace in New York, for better of worse. Probably better. If the lateral quickness totally goes, he can always produce Iman Shumpert's rap records. There's also the 1 percent chance that World Peace gets a "Say Queensbridge!' sequel followed by a Larry O'Brien trophy tour through the actual Queensbridge.
9. The most unremarked upon No. 1 pick in recent memory. Anthony Bennett has been given long odds to win Rookie of the Year and is generally a mere footnote in discussions of the Cavaliers' expected improvement. Rarely do top picks begin their careers so inconspicuously.
10. A never-before-seen legacy check for Kobe Bryant. The Lakers' All-Star guard told Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins that he's set to enter his "last chapter," but this isn't exactly Vito tending the oranges. Surrounded by a roster full of eyesores that could bring out 2005-level grimaces, Bryant also confronts an unprecedented challenge to his body as he seeks to protect his many streaks, which include: 15 straight All-NBA selections, 14 straight All-Star selections, 13 straight seasons averaging at least 24 points, 11 straight seasons finishing among the league's top-five scorers and eight straight playoff appearances. Bryant's not going down without the fight of a lifetime, and he approaches with a gullet full of inspiration from media doubters and, possibly, rage born of life playing alongside seriously inferior teammates. (Postscript: It's a contract year.)
11. Andrei Kirilenko, back in the playoffs. The lionhearted forward hustled his way to injury for the 34-48 Timberwolves last year, a noble attempt to redeem Minnesota's lost season one loose ball at a time. This season should be different. While we'll unfortunately never get a chance to see how Kirilenko would have fit on a full-strength Timberwolves team, he's set to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010. It's been far too long.
12. Russell Westbrook's comeback from knee injury. And, more specifically: the look of rage carved into Westbrook's face the next time he plays against Houston's Patrick Beverley, the player responsible for the knee-on-knee bump that knocked the Thunder All-Star guard out of the 2013 postseason.
13. Understated returns all around the league, going well beyond the absent superstars: Atlanta's Lou Williams, Indiana's Danny Granger, Denver's Danilo Gallinari and many more. Some will require more patience than others, but fans should be no strangers to waiting at this point.
14. The new-look, oversized Pistons, who are at once exploding with kinetic potential and restrained by their lack of floor spacing.
15. Redemption or ruin for Gerald Wallace? The man they call "Crash" doesn't pull punches on the court or in his postgame comments. After trading minutes and touches for (missed) shots at playoff success with the Trail Blazers and Nets, he returns to the taxing climate of a rebuilding team. Now 31, Wallace has the opportunity to resuscitate his individual numbers with the Celtics, but will that be enough to keep him satisfied? His long-term, big-dollar contract makes escaping difficult.
16. Keeping pace, or rather: keeping tabs on the potential shift in playing style for the fastest and slowest teams of yesteryear. Dwight Howard's arrival in Houston could slow the Rockets down a touch, George Karl's ousting in Denver could cause the Nuggets to pump the brakes, Dave Joerger's promotion could wake up the Grizzlies and an influx of athleticism could give the Pelicans a jolt. Which of those changes have the substance to become trends?
17. After years, a reprieve from Dwight Howard rumors. They're done! (For at least
two or three years six months.) The idea of Dwight Howard free of drama isn't too bad, either.
18. Our first, in-depth look at the healthy Wolves. Barring a cruel twist of fate, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer will be on the floor to tip off Minnesota's season. Such fortune was incomprehensible during last year's rash of injuries, which derailed a once-promising roster. With better health -- Chase Budinger excluded, apparently -- comes a refreshed playoff hope.
19. Mike Dunleavy, a consummate role player, on a winning team for the first time. In 11 NBA seasons, Dunleavy has never played out a season for a team that won more than 38 games. Chicago could hit that mark by the All-Star break.
20. A season of lighter offensive burden for Andre Iguodala. For the 29-year-old wing, signing with Golden State meant signing away some creative responsibility. Iguodala won't be needed or asked to be an offensive superstar -- merely to best complement the likes of Stephen Curry, David Lee, Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes. He'll do so by attaching himself to the opponent's top scorer, running the offense for the second unit and playing in the space that shooters like Curry and Thompson tend to clear. It's a situation that allows Iguodala to be the best version of his basketball self, free to make use of his versatile game without much risk of overexposure.
21. Washington's playoff desperation. Last week's trade for Marcin Gortat threw hot-seat resident Randy Wittman a major lifeline, but it also wiped out his last remaining excuse for underperforming. The Wizards' chase for their first postseason trip since 2008 is bound to be frantic. Will Wittman -- and all of his current players -- make it to the finish line in April?
22. The Clippers, breaking through the ceiling of NBA offense. Last season, Chris Paul and Co. ranked fourth in points scored per possession, behind the Heat, Thunder and Knicks. They've added a great shooter in J.J. Redick, a floor-spacing forward in Jared Dudley, a solid reserve guard in Darren Collison, an offense-only reserve in Antawn Jamison and the potential to run an actual NBA offense with the arrival of coach Doc Rivers. Things should be opening up for the Clips.
23. Brad Stevens conjuring a win out of thin air with some late-game magic, allowing Celtics fans to daydream about better days ahead.
24. The prospect of a full season of Andrew Bogut. Golden State went all-in with its current core by signing the Australian center to a lucrative three-year extension. That was a bet made on fond memories and hope rather than tangible, recent results, and now it's time for Bogut to deliver a level of reliability commensurate with his compensation.
25. Stephen Curry stretching the limits of acceptable three-point-shooting volume. It is very possible that Curry is not of this world. How else to explain his baffling combination of high-frequency, self-created three-point attempts and nigh-league-leading three-point percentage?
26. The non-stop madness of a 10-contender season. As of now, the Heat, Spurs, Thunder, Bulls, Grizzlies, Pacers, Nets, Rockets, and Warriors could all reasonably vie for the 2014 title. That field could wax and wane over the next few months, but the sheer volume of potential championship contenders promises to make this season a frenzied scramble for any bit of separation from the pack.
27. The nonstop madness of a 10-contender trade deadline. The only thing that will approach the jockeying in the standings will be those same contenders fine-tuning in February, once the league's wheat has been separated from its chaff. Given the sheer volume of teams with championship aspirations, a second consecutive quiet trade deadline seems unlikely.
28. The defensive education of DeAndre Jordan. Doc Rivers has high hopes for Jordan, stating that he expects the 25-year-old shot blocker to be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. That's a pretty ambitious goal for a player who could hardly manage to contain his zeal in leaping on every pump fake, but it should be fascinating to see how Rivers goes about reining in a player with such raw defensive potential.
29. Anthony Davis on a legitimately talented NBA team. Davis isn't the kind of shot creator who can carry an offense, but he has the potential to catalyze the contributions of others. As interesting as the Pelicans' roster experiment is on a macro level, it should be just as compelling to chart the ways that Davis plays off (and makes the game easier for) Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, among others.
30. Damian Lillard's development. We've seen Portland's Rookie of the Year shoot, score and distribute, but next comes the more nuanced work of running an offense and contributing to a team defense.
31. Charlotte, striving for respectability. The Bobcats don't have a roster yet that suggests lofty ambitions, but this could be the first time since 2010 that Charlotte approximates a decent NBA team.
32. The NBA debut of Luigi Datome, who is quite possibly the shooter Detroit so desperately needs.
33. The pushback against intelligently designed defenses. The best defensive teams understand not only the need to protect the paint but also to deny the three-point line -- an area that yields inherently high-value shots. As a result, the mid-range is ripe for the plundering. Elite defenses practically encourage opponents to take intermediate jumpers, particularly off the dribble. Smart offensive teams, for the most part, have been reluctant to play along -- often to the point of forcing the issue in the paint or beyond the arc. Could the next evolution of NBA offense lie in maximizing the quality of those attempts?
34. The power forward/stretch forward derby in Houston, where Dwight Howard has no clear frontcourt complement.
35. A referendum on the numbers from Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless. Both impressed on a dismal Magic team last season, but with a new year comes the challenge of maintaining that level of productivity under slightly different circumstances.
36. Greg Oden's eventual regular-season return. In just four minutes of play, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft produced the single best story of the preseason. His first regular-season run since he fractured his patella on Dec. 5, 2009, will be cause for an even greater wave of emotion. "Tear-jerking" doesn't do this one justice.
37. Revisiting the James Harden trade through the play of Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams. While the Thunder's return for Harden has already been judged based on the prospective value of the assets OKC acquired, we now get a better, clearer look at what Adams -- who at the time of the deal was a nonspecific first-round pick -- and Lamb have to offer. Both will likely be called on to contribute this season, which could wind up a pleasant surprise for the Thunder -- or a sobering turn.
38. Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, returned to their natural offensive roles. Having Derrick Rose back is wonderful in its own right, and especially comfortable for those players who had to force the action in his absence.
39. Charles Barkley. Always.
40. The captivating weirdness of the Goran Dragic-Eric Bledsoe backcourt. Shared responsibility for an offense can bear fun and fascinating results, and the general imbalance of the Suns' roster should only make the results that much stranger. There will surely be times this season where Phoenix is unwatchable, but look out for those occasions in which Dragic and Bledsoe strike the proper balance.
41. The future of Roy Hibbert. Last season's playoffs were a revelation for the Pacers' mammoth center, who played both more and more effectively than he had before. If he can sustain that level of performance, the best defense in the NBA last season could be even better this time around, to say nothing of what replication would mean for Indiana's playoff chances.
42. A pressure-free Pau Gasol. Things should come more easily this season for Gasol, who is in better health, in better spirits and free to operate from his favorite areas of the floor. He still has plenty of high-level basketball left in him, last season's struggles be damned.
43. The Starters. Basketball's premier podcast gets its largest stage yet.
44. Some teams will still be wearing sleeveless jerseys and rely on their classic colors, in lieu of the ridiculous sleeves, dozens of alternates and -- gasp -- "nickname jerseys." Resistance to the league's stylistic changes may be futile, but tradition can still be celebrated.
45. Contract-year Chris Bosh. Some serious sleeping-giant potential.
46. Adam Silver assumes the throne. There's always the possibility that the league's friendly, mild-mannered deputy commissioner will rip off his mask on Feb. 1 -- the date of David Stern's retirement -- and reveal himself to be a cutthroat, egomaniacal totalitarian eager to make up for decades spent in the shadows. Assuming that doesn't happen, though, the basketball world can rejoice at a new leader who is tech-savvy, stats-obsessed and not afraid to look like he's having fun every once in awhile.
47. The odds-on chance that Rockets GM Daryl Morey takes home "Executive of the Year" honors, which would put a cap on years of precise roster-reshaping and serve as validation for his Sloan Sports Analytics Conference movement, which has had its share of doubters and detractors.
48. Dwyane Wade's handwritten note gets its day(s) in court. Jan. 29. March 4. Circle them now. Those are the dates of the first meetings between Wade and his two offseason foils, Kevin Durant and James Harden, respectively. No one, especially not a three-time champion, goes to the trouble of writing out a "I'll make you respect my place in history" pledge without doing absolutely everything in his power to back it up.
49. Kyrie Irving's handle. True fans never root for injuries, but the Cavaliers' All-Star point guard really, really tests that maxim. Imagine the Jazz sending out a press release that read: "Jamaal Tinsley suffered a mild calf strain while pirouetting and falling to the ground as he attempted to defend a Kyrie Irving crossover dribble. He is listed as day-to-day." An exception could be made in that circumstance, right?
50. Giannis Antetokounmpo's hands. The Point Forward has noted this before, but fingers this long will find a way to wiggle their way into the national discussion before the Bucks' season is complete.
51. Jason Collins finally signs a contract and becomes the first openly gay player to appear in an NBA game. This one needs to happen.
52. The Kevin Garnett/Brook Lopez pairing. Even with all the headlines Brooklyn has drawn, the fit between the Nets' two bigs still somehow managed to not get enough attention. How many teams can feel totally comfortable matching up with this duo?
53. A new team and a fresh start for Brandon Knight. Last year's No. 1 poster-dunk victim didn't change his name, but a trade to Milwaukee and the simple passage of time should go a long way to helping him get to work on his post-punchline identity. He possesses the work ethic, personality and upside to turn the page. If all else fails, New Hampshire will have a new "Mr. Lambert."
54. Surveying the field of mid-lottery/late-first-round picks to see who takes the next step. Some of those stepping up the plate: Kawhi Leonard, Jeremy Lamb, Tobias Harris, Denver's Kenneth Faried, Sacramento's Jimmer Fredette, Utah's Alec Burks, Orlando's Nikola Vucevic, Houston's Donatas Motiejunas, Oklahoma City's Reggie Jackson and Boston's MarShon Brooks. Among those mid-round newcomers who could make a splash: Detroit's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Atlanta's Dennis Schröder.
55. Seeing which minimum-salary guys pan out in a big way. Tracking the league's best budget moves is an esoteric exercise, but quality production from guys who are paid as little as legally possible tends to inspire appreciation for the general managers who signed them. This year's dollar-store crop to keep an eye on: Miami's Chris Andersen and Greg Oden, Brooklyn's Alan Anderson and Shaun Livingston, Dallas' DeJuan Blair and Devin Harris, Houston's Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia, Washington's Al Harrington, Memphis' Mike Miller, the Clippers' Byron Mullens, New Orleans' Anthony Morrow and Brian Roberts, New York's Beno Udrih and the Lakers' Nick Young.
56. All-Star Weekend is set for New Orleans. Think of all the possible Mardi Gras-themed Dunk Contest props. Jeremy Evans is already on his way to the store buying more colors for his painting palette.
57. A trip into the lab with Phoenix and Philadelphia. Both teams are willfully playing out losing seasons, deprived of consequence. They will not make the playoffs. They will not take "the next step." They will not play games of importance. But if nothing the Suns and Sixers do matters, then all that matters is what they do. The absence of expectations allows for the freedom to experiment, all under the watch of two first-time NBA coaches (Jeff Hornacek and Brett Brown) and two first-time general managers (Ryan McDonough and Sam Hinkie). Here's hoping they follow their curiosity.
58. San Antonio ripping off yet another 50-win season, deferring to none.
59. A wide open "Most Improved Player" field highlighted by 2012 draft picks Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal and Harrison Barnes. Strong sophomore leaps from those guys, among others, should quickly shift any lingering perception that last year's class was weak.
61. Magic Johnson's impeccable timing. Choosing this season to step away from ESPN's NBA Countdown was the equivalent of a perfectly orchestrated two-on-one fast break. Everyone, including Johnson, is better off without the Lakers' legend fixed in front of a microphone day in and day out, as L.A. twists and turns through a rocky bridge year. Yes, ESPN now needs to subcontract out the almost daily "Fire Mike D'Antoni!" rants, but that's a minor problem in the grand scheme of things.
62. The first Kings season with competent ownership in ... a long time. Here they stayed. What better way to enjoy a honeymoon period than by watching Ben McLemore pull up for jumpers?
63. Mike D'Antoni's postgame news conferences. Speaking of D'Antoni, no coach in the league does "exasperated" quite like the Lakers' coach, and this could very well be his most exasperating roster yet. Prepare for some intense face contortions.
64. Whatever's next after "Hibbert-like verticality." Seemingly overnight, Roy Hibbert inspired coaches around the league to hold up his rim protection as the model for interior defense. Which defensive stopper -- big or small -- will spawn the next round of technique copycatting?
65. Actual, consistent playing time for Ed Davis. Former Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins never got around to unpacking Davis after the 24-year-old forward was shipped from Toronto to Memphis, for reasons that are beyond us and without much justifiable logic. In his two seasons and change with the Raptors, Davis had established himself as a useful reserve at the least. He scored well enough on limited touches, converting 54.7 percent from the field. He grabbed 10.2 rebounds per 36 minutes, despite having the estimated bulk of a slightly pudgy beanpole. He's shown the tools to be a serviceable defender, too, if given the right tutelage. None of that was enough for Hollins, but it should be for new Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger.
66. Year two of the anti-flopping NBA. Worst case: another round of ridiculous videos shaming the perpetrators! Best case: another step toward a clean, dignified game.
67. How the Warriors navigate the treacherous chop of expectations. A little more than six months ago, some were writing off the Warriors, who were down 1-0 to the Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs. Now? They've been dubbed contenders, "The New Showtime" and the best team to watch on League Pass. Some analysts are even picking them to win the 2014 title. All this despite tons of competition at the top of the West, major new pieces to integrate (Andre Iguodala and a healthy Andrew Bogut) and two key departures (Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry). As magical as the 2013 playoff run was, Golden State's regular season had its share of hiccups. Those ups-and-downs largely went under the national radar, a luxury that these Warriors will no longer enjoy. How will Mark Jackson, Stephen Curry and company handle this new scrutiny?
68. Dwight Howard's return to Staples Center. No matter your stance on Howard's behavior and decision-making, Lakers fans deserve their chance to vent, just like Magic partisans before them. Visit The Point Forward with Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney for more NBA coverage this season.