2012-13 NBA Season Storylines To Watch

With the NBA kicking of this week, it’s the perfect time to take a look at all the key storylines fans will be following this season.

Buckle up, because it looks to be one heck of a season.

No Fuel For LeBron’s Haters
LeBron James was cast as a villain for the majority of the past two NBA seasons after his bold and cocky “Decision” to take his talents to South Beach. However, after winning an NBA Championship and putting on one of the more incredible individual performances in recent memory during the playoffs last spring, it appears the stink from two summers ago is finally off LeBron. He is only 27-years-old and it’s clear he still hasn’t reached his peak as a player. Now what can the haters cling to? Lame jokes about his receding hairline? Here’s to hoping to basketball fans have finally moved past his bad decisions two summers ago and they start to enjoy one of the better talents the game of basketball has ever witnessed.

Ray Allen Against The Celtics
Wow, things got nasty between Ray Allen and the Boston Celtics in a hurry. Within weeks of Allen bolting Beantown for South Beach, the haters came out of the woodwork in a hurry. Kevin Garnett claimed to no longer have Ray Allen’s phone number. Doc Rivers lamented to the Boston media how hurt he was by Allen’s decision. And Celtics fans? Look for them to be loud and passionate in booing Allen when he returns to Boston on January 27, 2013.

Allen, who normally doesn’t talk with the media about drama, gave interviews to a couple Miami outlets this month to clear the air and share his side of the story.

Personally, I find it entertaining how much drama a role player who will only get 20-25 minutes per game is generating.

Will There Be Drama In Los Angeles?
On paper, the Los Angeles Lakers should roll to the NBA Finals. However, as the old adage goes, there’s a reason why they play the games. It will be interesting to see how the egos of Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant mesh. Plus, Steve Nash has been winning the battle against Father Time thanks to the amazing work the Phoenix Suns’ training staff has done with his body. It will be interesting to see how the grizzled vet handles the rigors of an 82-game schedule without the safety blanket of the Suns training staff and with Steve Blake being his backup.

How Will Pacers Handle Expectations?
So far, not so good. Real games haven’t even started and already Danny Granger is complaining about his knee. It was looked at by doctors and they assume he can play through some pain, but Granger is complaining about not being able to gut it out. I’m planning on writing a story this week about how the Pacers are dealing with the burden of expectations after talking with the players and Frank Vogul when they are in Toronto on Wednesday. Stay tuned to Sportsnet for that column later this week.

The Brooklyn Nets Will Fail To Meet Expectations
Speaking of failing to meet expectations, look for the Brooklyn Nets to give the New York tabloids plenty of fodder this season as they will struggle to become one of the elite teams in their own division, let alone the Eastern Conference. Sure, the roster looks splashy with names like Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez, but who on that roster is known for playing gritty defence? Look for the Nets to get killed off dribble penetration and for their bigs to get posterized on a regular basis. If this Nets team doesn’t figure out a way to play effective defence their season will be a resounding disappointment.

Are The Spurs Too Old?
Last season one of the more comical moments came when Gregg Popovich gave Tim Duncan the night off and the box score said it was because Duncan was old. While funny, the reality is Duncan has played 1,111 regular season NBA games and 190 playoff games. The treads on the tires has to be running pretty low at this point. Throw in the fact the rest of their core – Tony Parker (958) and Manu Ginobili (803) – have played a combined 1,761 games in the NBA on top of busy summers playing for their national teams. It will be interesting to see what Popovich can do to ensure his veteran team is fresh for a deep run in the playoffs. But, if last season is any indication, it just means the team’s younger players will get extended minutes during the regular season to help with their development.

Is The Jeremy Lin Fairy Tale Over?
Jeremy Lin became an instant internet and global hit within the matter of weeks and the New York Knicks weren’t sure he could sustain that so they let him sign with the Houston Rockets this summer. Through his first six preseason games Lin has averaged 30.2 minutes per game but he is shooting 13-46 (28%) from the field. Yuck. Hopefully it’s just a matter of rust and once the games start to count he is able to elevate his game.

Can Chicago Stay Afloat Until Rose Returns?
Derrick Rose is scheduled to return from offseason knee surgery in February, but it’s likely the Bulls season could be toast by then. The Bulls are using a backcourt rotation of Kirk Hinrich, Marco Bellinelli, Nate Robinson, Jimmy Butler and Rip Hamilton. Yuck. In my humble opinion, that’s the worst backcourt in the NBA, and the team will struggle mightily until Rose returns.

NBA Finals Changed People’s Perceptions

Unlike a few recent NBA Finals match-ups, legacies weren’t going to be cemented depending upon the result of the Heat-Thunder series. Miami’s Big Three will all return next year to defend their title while still in their prime, while young OKC will, ideally, come back tougher, hungrier, more experienced and still just approaching their prime years.

Still, every year, the championship series plays a role in shaping the NBA landscape, either through the crowning of new champions or the re-enforcing of great teams continuing to reign. For the players involved, the Finals write another chapter and continue to develop their over-arching career arc.

Here is what this year’s NBA season meant for some of the key participants in the Finals.

The Main Players

LeBron James
One title doesn’t quite make you a pantheon-level all-time great, regardless of how much you came through for your team. But consider the possible alternative: another Finals loss – to a budding superstar four years his junior, no less – would have been more damaging (and embarassing) than last year’s defeat at the hands of the Mavericks. Now, he not only has his first ring, but has it on his terms as the unquestioned alpha of the Miami Heat. The critics won’t be completely silenced on account of his multi-title promise at the start of his Heat tenure, but that should only serve to keep “the King” motivated.

Dwyane Wade
Wade summarized the meaning of this title nicely to Stuart Scott on the podium last night, pointing out that his ’06 crown came without him learning any real adversity in the league. Now at 30 and having experienced the bitter taste of defeat last season, he probably has a greater appreciation for the accomplishment this time around.

Chris Bosh
Outside of maybe James, no one enjoyed more validation during the playoffs than Bosh. Yes, he won a title as a glorified role player, but he knew that would be the case as soon as he signed on with the Heat. However, his value to the team, which had been questioned at times during his two-year tenure, was made clear through his absence. He somehow became the biggest story of the Eastern Finals with his return from injury up in the air, and then proceeded to help turn his team’s season around from being on the brink against Boston (Miami won six of seven games with Bosh back playing regular minutes).

Kevin Durant
Arriving in a Finals puts everything under a microscope, so we were bound to learn a few things about the unassuming 23-year-old as he made his debut on the league’s biggest stage. Much was positive – he remained a clutch shooter, a savvy play-maker and a surprisingly effective slasher while matching much of LeBron’s contributions (offensively, anyway). We also learned, however, that he isn’t quite there yet. He still needs to get stronger to prevent defenders from locking him up 20 feet from the basket and isn’t quite as defensively sound as his length should dictate. Still, the dude’s 23!

Russell Westbrook
To paraphrase Grantland.com’s Bill Simmons, Westbrook somehow managed to become the most polarizing player in a series that featured the most polarizing player (okay, so Simmons said second-most to Wilt Chamberlain) in NBA history. Yes, it was Westbrook’s explosive play and multi-faceted skill set that helped get the Thunder past the last 13 Western Conference champions and to the show, but can any team afford to have their starting point guard shooting 4-20 in a Finals game? At the same time, one looks at his 43-point Game 4 reveals his value and GM Sam Presti won’t be willing to do anything drastic to alter what is a championship-calibre foundation. His maturation over the coming years will be fascinating to watch.

The Supporting Players

Shane Battier
It can’t be easy gaining almost universal popularity when you’ve won NCAA and NBA titles with, arguably, the most hated team at each level (2001 Duke and 2012 Heat). Credit Battier not only for that, but also for using a stellar playoff performance to ensure that he didn’t win an NBA title on account of simply being along for the ride (sorry, Juwan Howard). Like Bruce Bowen before him, it will be interesting to see how NBA history remembers an all-time great defender and glue guy who was never “the Man” on his team.

Pat Riley
Two years and another title later, Riley still looks like the cat that ate the canary regarding his role in the formation of the Big Three during the summer of 2010. I still can’t shake the feeling that there is an awful lot of knowledge within that well-coiffed head of his.

James Harden / Serge Ibaka / Scott Brooks
While neither Harden nor Ibaka exactly had a playoff performance for the ages, their value to the club was made plainly clear throughout the season. The Thunder will soon have to put a price tag on that value, with both young talents slated for free agency after next season. With both Durant and Westbrook signed to big deals and Harden and Ibaka set to hit paydirt, Presti will have to do some serious roster massaging for any shot at keeping his entire core together while not being cap-strung for years to come. Even more pressing, though, is the status of Brooks, whose contract expires at the end of the month.

Miami’s Role Players Got It Done

Nearly every game of the 2012 NBA Finals has been decided late in the fourth quarter – and things weren’t looking great for the Miami Heat as things got deeper into the final frame of Game 4.

LeBron James was hobbled with leg cramps and, despite a clutch three with under three minutes to play, required two bench stints late.  Dwyane Wade played through, but appeared to be slowed by some lower back soreness. Meanwhile, on the other side of the court, Russell Westbrook was playing like a man possessed, scoring 17 of his 43 points in the fourth.

Enter Mario “Mother—-ing” Chalmers.

Chalmers answered his point guard counterpart with 12 fourth quarter points (25 in total), including his team’s final five to preserve what was just a three-point, one-possession lead. His numbers were certainly boosted by Westbrook’s ill-advised three-shot foul with five seconds remaining on the shot clock (13.8 on the game clock), but the Kansas alum still had to convert his three crucial free throws to send his team to a commanding 3-1 lead.

On Tuesday, Chalmers filled the Shane Battier role. That is, the secondary Heat player to shine during these NBA Finals and, arguably, play as significant role as that of the Big Three. Battier was held to just one made three-pointer in Game 4, snapping a multi-trey streak in the Finals that had seen him make 11 shots from deep (compared to just four misses) over the first three games against the Thunder.

Earlier in the game, it had been little-used guards Norris Cole and James Jones who helped stabilize a listless Heat squad that seemed to be lacking energy. All of their 11 combined points (in addition to 3-5 shooting from long range) came in a first half that was dominated by Oklahoma City. Cole’s driving lay-up shot late in the first quarter stopped the bleeding after what was a 10-0 Thunder run, while his three at the buzzer of the opening quarter provided some life to his team despite a double digit deficit and sparked a 16-0 Miami run (they never trailed by more than five the rest of the way).

Yes, it’s been the play of James, Wade and Chris Bosh that has gotten the Heat to within one victory of an NBA championship, but every title hopeful needs supporting role players to step up when the situation calls for it.

It turns out that the critics who suggested three players couldn’t win a championship were right; good thing that the Heat’s Big Three have had help.

Durant Snatches The Torch From Durant

Game 1 of the NBA Finals didn’t really teach us much. Mostly it reconfirmed everything we’ve known for days, weeks, even years. Kevin Durant can take over any game, having recently developed the “edge.” LeBron James has a tendency to become less than the most talented athlete on the planet during the fourth quarter of Finals games. Dwyane Wade still looks hurt. And Russell Westbrook is the Tasmanian Devil.

By way of what we might have learned from this one game, it was a relatively placid affair—as should probably be the case for singular events.  However, it did signify the passing of the torch.

For first time in the last 14 years, neither Dirk Nowitzki nor Kobe Bryant nor Tim Duncan is representing the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. And, in an apparent alignment of the basketball cosmos, the Thunder rolled past the Nowitzki’s Mavericks, Bryant’s Lakers and Duncan’s Spurs on their way to this year’s championship round.

This means something.

Suddenly, Bryant doesn’t seem so interesting. He is on the cusp of being pressed out of the narrative of NBA champions, resigned to pushing for the all-time scoring crown. Duncan and Nowitzki may have playoff runs left in them, but their chances look increasingly unlikely as the Thunder grow more impressive with every game.

A generation of players and teams, long dominant, is giving way.

“Precocious” has become the word of the month in NBA circles, and for good reason. Durant and Westbrook are each 23, not yet close to their primes. James Harden and Serge Ibaka, each 22, have become stars in their own right. Reggie Jackson was born in the 90’s. The 90’s!

The Heat, led by James (27) and Wade (30), look like fogies by comparison.

We haven’t seen this sort of shift since the late-90’s with Michael Jordan’s (second) retirement, and the quick decline of a decade’s worth of dominant big men in Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing. The turnover of superstars is good for the league, surely, but it’s no less a strange sight.

We are quickly reminded that our heroes age, and we with them.

Fortunately, Durant and Westbrook are no Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury circa 1998. They are no Chris Webber, no Antoine Walker, and there are no “back in my day” complaints to be made of the Thunder. There is only basketball—good basketball—to take in, and a fresh age of superstars to watch grow into a dynasty.

As LeBron James might say, “We are all witnesses.”

Some Bold Predictions For The NBA Finals

Thanks to a great idea from Justin Wells, the HOOPSADDICT.com staff emailed me who they thought the NBA Champions would be, their Playoffs MVP and they picked a “glue guy” for the playoffs.

Chuck Nunn: I’m calling it for Oklahoma City, with Kevin Durant as Finals MVP. Serge Ibaka’s defense and his ability to get out and run the floor will be a key difference maker in the series, so he’s my glue guy for the Thunder.

Chris Deacon: I think Oklahoma City have a real chance at going all the way this season but it’ll go right down to Game 7. They’ve defeated strong opposition on the road to the final series, including the Lakers and the Spurs, and this means they’ve already had to up their game and succeeded. If the Thunder are crowned champions then MVP must go to Kevin Durant, he’s been outstanding in postseason. That means I think James Harden is the glue guy, his win share off the bench is as good as they come.

Hiren Joshi: I have Heat in seven games. OKC looks great but I think Heat finally pull this out. The role players (Battier, Chalmers, Miller, Jones, Haslem etc) all key to the stabilization of the series for the Heat. LeBron James will be named MVP. Fatigue will be the only issue, but he looks like a man on a mission. Glue guy is Shane Battier. Brilliant NBA mind, great leader, fantastic defender. Thabo Sefolosha on the other end for the Thunder. Both have an interesting dynamic, smart defenders, smart players.

Matt Cote: OKC Thunder will become Champions, Russell Westbrook will win MVP and the glue guy is Kendrick Perkins.

Caardel Eeady: The Oklahoma City Thunder have shown all season that they are too deep not to win. These finals will prove that and that is why the Thunder will win this series 4-2. As a team they present a very tough challenge that the Heat can not stop. The Thunder not only score, but play very solid defense to win games. This is their season and that is why they will win. The finals MVP (Most Valuable Player) will be Kevin Durant. His offensive game is just unbelievable right now. He can make any shot at any time, no matter the defensive pressure. This season Durant has proven that he can hit clutch shots and help get his team to the finish line. Chris Bosh is the “glue guy” for the NBA Finals. Without Bosh the Heat are a very weak team who can not win without his scoring. Bosh is very underrated with his defensive abilities, but expect him to be a big factor on that end of the floor.

Robert Kester: I’ve got the Heat over the Thunder in seven games. The Thunder have arrived, but Miami’s new found resolve will carry them in the Finals. LeBron James has put his team on his back this entire postseason and will continue to dominate games in the Finals and take home his first ever Finals MVP. Chris Bosh needs to play big in the Finals. If Bosh can stay healthy he will be the “glue guy” keeping the Heat together when they face adversity against the Thunder.

Heather Newsome: To win the playoffs I say OKC. I don’t think the Heat have it in them to be consistently good, they’ve proven in recent past games that their top stars can’t always make the shots and then they get discouraged easily. Wade in game 7 was 3-8 in the first half. It’s just not good enough for the NBA Finals. MVP for the playoffs should go to either LeBron James for his determination or to Kevin Durant for pulling it out for his team when they’re down and being able to keep everyone involved so its not a one man show. The “Glue-guy” again would be Kevin Durant. He knows how to rally his team when they are down. He’s not a selfish player and helps everyone on the team get their shots off and then takes his own. He’s key to OKC winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy this time around.

Danny Lovi: Before the playoffs started I predicted that the NBA Champions would come out of the West. As tempted as I am to pick Miami over Oklahoma City, I am sticking to my guns and predicting that the Thunder will beat the Heat in six games. Conventional thinking tells us that the best player on the winning team will be the MVP. Therefore, it’s a foregone conclusion that Kevin Durant will be the MVP. I am not going to go against conventional wisdom, although I think the Thunder’s success relies heavily on Russell Westbrook. Durant will get his (even while being smothered by LeBron James or Shane Battier), but the Thunder goes as far as Westbrook goes. I think Westbrook is the most important player even though he probably won’t win MVP. Besides Westbrook, I think the two players who will have the biggest impact are the two guys with championship experience: Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher. Look for Perkins to be aggressive in the post not only on defense, but on offense as well. Fisher continues to live up to his reputation as a clutch playoff performer, and he will be the cool head in the huddle, keeping guys focused when things go astray. When Fisher signed with Oklahoma City, didn’t you picture him hitting a big shot to clinch a Thunder victory? I think the NBA Finals is the perfect stage to see that picture come to fruition.

Zach Salzmann: OKC dismantled a great Spurs team in 4 straight games, and look unbeatable when they limit their turnovers. James has had an unbelievable post-season, but OKC has too many weapons. Thunder in 6. My pick for Finals MVP is Kevin Durant and my glue guy is Serge Ibaka — protecting the lane and knocking down the open jumper.

Will Guillory: I’m going to take the Miami Heat to win the NBA Finals in six games. I simply just think it’s their time and not the Thunder’s. OKC is a great team but Miami is the better defensive team and much more ready for this moment. I believe the MVP trophy will be handed to LeBron James at the end of this series. This has been his year and every time his team has needed him to step up and put them on his back he has done it (i.e. Game 4 against Indiana and Game 6 against Boston). Also, his defense will make life a lot tougher on Kevin Durant than it has been thus far these playoffs. My key glue guy(s) of this series will come down to the matchup between Chris Bosh and James Harden. While these two will not be guarding each other this series, both teams need major contributions from these two players in order to achieve their maximum potential. Bosh’s ability to hit the outside jumper and pull Serge Ibaka/ Kendrick Perkins out of the paint to give James and Dwyane Wade more driving lanes will be the difference.

Jakob Eich: I think the Oklahoma City Thunder will win the championship this year. The Wade/LeBron duo is a little better than Durant/Westbrook, but Miami does not have anyone beyond those two players. The Thunder have Ibaka, Perkins, Fisher, Sefolosha, Cook, and Collison, just a lot of depth. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James will probably not sit for long stretches, but after all you have twelve players on your roster. Chris Bosh is a better offensive player, but Serge Ibaka is a lot better defensively. The rest of the Heat are seriously outplayed by OKC. Especially the option to give Wade and Lebron different looks by putting Sefolosha, Durant, and Harden on him is a huge advantage. Therefore the Thunder will win the championship in six games. If the Thunder should win there is no way around Kevin Durant being named MVP. He is their best player and closer. I don’t expect too many close games but he will undoubtedly put his fingerprint on this series. He has become much better defensively, although I do not believe he will outplay LeBron, he will earn the award. James Harden has been named the X-Factor all throughout the playoffs and he still is. He is the difference maker, a supremely talented player with a great shot and great defense and great attitude. Not many players with his talent have been willing to be a sixth man so … well, willingly. If he keeps on performing at this level he will give the second unit such a big lift that the Heat won’t be able to overcome.

Jerel Marshall: Both of these teams have their fair share of star power, but the Thunder will benefit from a wealth of contributors. Miami has struggled with depth ever since LeBron James and Chris Bosh decided to take their talents to South Beach. Oklahoma City will also enjoy a bit momentum after snapping the most impressive win streak in recent history by beating the San Antonio Spurs four straight times. Kevin Durant is one of the few players who can seamlessly combine playing unselfish while still being a big shot taker and a big shot maker. He very rarely forces things on the offensive end, but if he is feeling it or if the game is on the line he will burn you every time. Dwayne Wade and James will have their hands full chasing around the trio of Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Durant. Sefolosha will be responsible for making sure that Wade has a tough time on the offensive side of things as well. If Sefolosha can continue to pester scorers while knocking down an open shot here and there, the Thunder should have no problem becoming this year’s champs.

Michael Collins: I think the Thunder take it, in six games. Miami showed a lot of potential flaws against a Boston team that was nowhere near as athletic or fast as OKC. Having Bosh back obviously made a difference, but it won’t be enough to get past the Thunder. If the way he finished off the conference finals is any indication, I think Kevin Durant will be the MVP. He has the ability to just put the team on his shoulders and go. The battle between he and LeBron should be epic, however. I think despite losing, Chris Bosh will be the ‘glue guy’ for the Heat, and for the Finals. It will be through his ability to make plays and to keep others focused that Miami will even stretch this series to six games. This would be the one disadvantage I give OKC, as they don’t really have a ‘glue guy” in my eyes. When Durant is having a bad night, he doesn’t know how to keep the team focused and moving forward, and (as witnessed in the first 2 games of the WCF) his team suffers.

Ryan McNeill: Kevin Durant and LeBron James battling each other is going to be a match-up for the ages, but Thabo Sefolosha is one of the better defenders in the NBA and he should be able to contain a hobbled Dwyane Wade. Where this series really starts to swing in OKC’s favour is at the point guard spot because Russell Westbrook should have his way against Mario Chalmers. Chris Bosh, who had a huge impact in the final few games of the Eastern Conference Finals, will have a tough time battling against Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins in this series. The final nail in the coffin of Miami is the fact nobody on Miami’s bench will be able to slow down James Harden. I’ve got OKC winning in six games. My MVP is Durant and my glue guy is Ibaka or Sefolosha. Sorry, I couldn’t choose.

Justin Wells: I’ve got OKC Over Miami in 7. Thunder just have too many mismatches, and Ill take scott Brooks over Erik Sploestra all day long. My MVP is Russell Westbrook because Lebron will be shadowing Kevin Durant most of the series. My “glue” guy is Serge Ibaka. If Ibaka can maintain the lane like he did all season, Anthony/Turiaf/Haslem will hate him.

Kevin Brolan: Give me Thunder winning in 6, Kevin Durant MVP, and Nick Collison for glue guy.

Tom Westerholm: Miami in six. I think LeBron’s defense will affect Durant more than people are expecting, and OKC’s offense has struggled in the half court in the playoffs. My MVP is clearly LeBron James. Let’s be honest, this is a two man race for Finals MVP between James and Durant, and if I’m right about Miami winning, it will be LeBron.  A glue guy? Like someone who keeps the team happy together? Juwan Howard. He gives us all someone on Miami to make fun of instead of the Big 3.  JUWAN IS OLD, GUYS!!!

Lance Rinker: Having covered the Indiana Pacers’ postseason run, I was fortunate enough to witness one of the greatest individual playoff performances in recent memory: LeBron James in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. I watched James compile a stat line of 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists. And I saw a wrecking crew of two, James and Dwayne Wade, virtually outplay an entire team. With Chris Bosh back, the Heat are close to full form and will emerge as the top team in the league. In my mind, James is the greatest player in the world. When he is focused and on a roll, there is little a defense can do to contain him. Whether it be scoring, defending, or finding an open teammate, James does it all. After finally winning an NBA title, James—and the media—will relinquish the monkey from his back. Haslem and Wade are the only players remaining from Miami’s 2006 championship team, and although Haslem isn’t getting the same minutes he did six years ago, he still makes significant on-court contributions. Even with Bosh back in the rotation, Haslem will be depended on to haul down rebounds and provide a scoring option in the frontcourt. Simply put, in the 16 postseason wins thus far, Miami is nearly six points better with Haslem on the court. In their six losses, Haslem has struggled, and the Heat are about five points worse with him on the floor. The ninth-year forward makes a much larger impact than most spectators might think.