To all you NBA fans out there—diehard, casual and otherwise—I offer you this nugget of wisdom: Take a good, long look at the league in 2013-14. Drink it in. Bask in it. Let it wash over you. Snap a few photos for safe keeping.
Because a year from now, the Association you know and love may be a thing of the past.
No, I'm not suggesting that the NBA is about to go under or that the basketball-ocalypse is approaching. Rather, I'm giving you a heads-up that the league could look very different come fall of 2014.
Out with the Old...
It's been some time since the league underwent a changing of the guard of the magnitude that's in store for the immediate future.
The most certain change will take place off the court. David Stern is set to hand the keys to the commissioner's office to Adam Silver, his longtime deputy, on February 1—30 years to the day since Stern took over for Larry O'Brien.
There's no telling how this momentous shift will affect the way the NBA conducts its business, though the league should be in good hands. Silver has built a strong relationship with the owners and has played a pivotal part in nearly all of the league's recent negotiations, including those with the players' union that ended the 2011 lockout.
He'll be charged with shepherding the NBA through talks over a new television contract in 2016 and possibly a new collective bargaining agreement shortly thereafter, along with whatever other business—from franchise relocation and league expansion to modifying jerseys and playing more games overseas—should arise in between.
Of greater concern to fans, at least in the immediate term, is the twilight into which so many of the league's signature stars from the 1990s and 2000s are entering.
Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Vince Carter will be among the most prominent veterans without contracts next summer. Some, like Kobe and Dirk, don't figure to leave their longtime teams, while others may well decide between switching cities again or calling it a career.
Not that retirement is an option restricted to free agents. Steve Nash, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili all come to mind as surefire Hall of Famers whose age, mileage and fragility may be enough to push basketball aside in favor of less physically taxing activities.
If you haven't seen these guys in action, make sure you do this season. And even if you have, don't let the opportunity to watch these legends in person one last time pass you by.
...In with the New (Digs)?
It's not as though the rest of the NBA's superstars will be waiting around for their predecessors to bow out before they decide on their futures.
James has already made it clear that he won't discuss his potential free agency until next summer. Bosh has been similarly murky about his own prospects. The New York Knicks have only recently revamped their front office in what appears to be a desperate attempt to keep Anthony in town for the foreseeable future.
Z-Bo and Gay would both have to leave money on the table to test the market. Gasol, Deng and Granger may well find their talents underappreciated in their respective situations, unless their bodies are unable to perform to their former standards.
The choices these stars make could shift the balance of power dramatically across the league. A disbanding of the Miami Heat's Big Three, with or without a three-peat in hand, would jeopardize a potential dynasty. Should 'Melo jump ship and join the Los Angeles Lakers, the Purple and Gold might return to the top in short order.
And wherever LeBron goes, a title contender is sure to follow. That's how good and how important he is as the undisputed king of the court.
Fit to Perform
But before the hoopla of free agency begins anew, we'll be treated to nine months of watching a whole 'nother crop of great players get themselves back into shape. And perhaps, redefine how injuries are handled in the future.
All eyes will be on Derrick Rose when the Chicago Bulls pay a visit to the Miami Heat on opening night. The 2010-11 MVP, who tore his ACL during the 2012 playoffs, will have gone a year-and-a-half without playing in a meaningful game by the time tipoff arrives.
Rose's prolonged recovery was a hot topic of debate throughout the 2012-13 season. The Bulls never shut the door on him returning, even when it became clear that he wouldn't. That, in turn, sparked debate over whether he should play if he'd already been cleared by his doctors, especially as his Bulls teammates exhausted themselves throughout the regular season and into the playoffs.
But if Rose returns as good as before, he'll be condoned for taking his time and listening to his body rather than lambasted for being "selfish" and "unwilling" to sacrifice. Teams might also reconsider the wisdom of accelerating the timetables of their injured stars—or allowing the players to do that themselves.
That proved to be problematic for the Minnesota Timberwolves last season.
They let Kevin Love come back before the broken bones in his hand had fully healed and watched as he discarded a protective cast in favor of a more comfortable release.
The result? Love re-injured his hand and missed the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery. Now, the pressure is on him to regain his claim to the title of best power forward in basketball while guiding the T-Wolves to their first playoff berth in a decade.
On the flip side, Kobe's comeback from a ruptured Achilles tendon could set a new precedent for players who succumb to this most catastrophic of basketball injuries.
Bryant has been ahead of schedule at nearly every turn, thanks to his tireless work ethic and dogged pursuit of new and innovative treatment options.
If Bryant returns to the court relatively early (i.e. before the end of 2013) and looks anything like he did prior to the injury, you can bet there will be players, doctors, coaches and others wondering how Kobe did it—and, in some cases, clamoring to find out.
And if he doesn't come back strong, Bryant's next foray into free agency could look to him like the perfect opportunity to bow out of the NBA.
Rajon Rondo's recovery from a torn ACL won't likely carry such stark consequences for his own career, assuming he's able to bounce back before his 28th birthday.
Nonetheless, his future with the Boston Celtics could hang in the balance. He'll be "The Man" in Beantown whenever he returns now that the former Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen has officially been disbanded. He'll have to prove that he's equal to the task of serving as the centerpiece of rebuild, lest the C's consider shipping him off in exchange for more assets.
As if the spate of injuries weren't bad enough already, Russell Westbrook's return to the shelf for another four to six weeks could once again stymie what had been a budding dynasty for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Windows Opening and Closing
All of this talk about player movement and impending comebacks naturally brings the league's overarching balance of power to the fore.
With Westbrook beaten up, the Spurs stars on the decline and the Lakers down in the dumps, the Western Conference's superpowers are due for a major comeuppance in 2013-14.
The Houston Rockets (Dwight Howard), the Golden State Warriors (Andre Iguodala) and the Los Angeles Clippers (Doc Rivers, JJ Redick, Jared Dudley) all made big moves this offseason to propel themselves up the power rankings in the conference.
Don't forget about the Memphis Grizzlies, who flamed out in the most recent Western Conference Finals, or the other young squads (i.e. the Minnesota Timberwolves, the New Orleans Pelicans, the Portland Trail Blazers) hoping to take that all-important first dip into the playoffs to move from "rebuilding" to "improving," all while pushing the Denver Nuggets and the Dallas Mavericks into "No-Man's Land."
Soon enough, these talented upstarts could rise up as the best in the West, leaving little room for the likes of the Lakers and the Spurs as they prepare for futures without their seminal stars.
The East should see its fair share of intriguing competition as well.
The chaos surrounding the New York Knicks should leave the door wide open for a handful of teams to chase after that No. 2 seed behind the Miami Heat. The Chicago Bulls, the Indiana Pacers and the Brooklyn Nets have all reloaded for their respective runs at the two-time defending champs, making Miami's prospects of a three-peat particularly dicey.
The need to do so is particularly pressing for the Nets. They're relying on expensive, aging and injury-prone stars to carry them this season. Should Father Time and the injury bug come to haunt the Barclays Center, the Nets, led by rookie head coach Jason Kidd, could find themselves staring down a bleak future, one devoid of rejuvenating draft picks and precious financial flexibility.
The Bulls could be looking to revamp their operation as well. Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer might be rendered obsolete by Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, respectively, which would leave Chicago with a younger core and some cap space.
Meanwhile, the lesser members of the Central Division (the Detroit Pistons and the Cleveland Cavaliers) will be pushing for long-awaited returns to the postseason, along with the Washington Wizards and the Toronto Raptors.
Starting from the Bottom...
Being that basketball is a zero-sum game, there will inevitably be teams on the other side of the fence.
Not that the losers won't be compensated for their suffering. Those teams left out of the fun come springtime will have carrots of their own to chase after in the form of tantalizing draft picks.
The Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz and Celtics led the way this summer among the teams most determined to snag a prime spot in the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes, otherwise known as the 2014 NBA draft.
They will all join the Orlando Magic, Charlotte Bobcats and Sacramento Kings as teams that've long since freed themselves from expectations as part of full-scale rebuilding projects.
Wiggins probably won't be the only prize, though. The upcoming crop could feature the deepest pool of "blue-chippers" in over a decade, with the likes of Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Dante Exum, Aaron Gordon and Andrew Harrison expected to declare.
That's good news for those teams still on the fence about their playoffs prospects, including the Lakers, Mavs, Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks. Depending on how events unfold through the first few months of the season, we could see a few perennial postseason participants holding their noses and diving deep into "Tank Mode" down the stretch.
Which, for longtime fans of the league, could be unsettling.
Still the One
The teams that wind up in the running for Wiggins will be praying that the next LeBron James lands in their lap, regardless of which incoming prospect takes up that mantle.
For now, though, the actual LeBron James will likely continue to have his run of the place. If he goes, he'll be turning another team into a title contender. And if he stays in Miami, the Heat will be perfectly positioned to chase another championship whether or not they win a third straight this season.
But the team around James in Miami could look markedly different.
Perhaps Bosh, feeling unappreciated as the Heat's third wheel, will look to strike out on his own. Perhaps Wade will reconsider the strength of his fealty to Pat Riley and Micky Arison.
Should the Big Three disband, the Heat may well go down in NBA history as the last "superteam" to dominate the league with three franchise players in their primes. The new collective bargaining agreement has made it more difficult than ever to assemble the sort of top-tier talent Miami roped together in the summer of 2010.
Even if LeBron, Wade and Bosh stick together, the bulk of their superb supporting cast could be on the way out. In fact, outside of the Big Three, only Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony, Chris Andersen and Norris Cole are under contract with the Heat beyond 2013-14.
As such, it's possible that Miami will have to pursue just the second four-peat in NBA history with a crew of role players that's almost entirely new.
That is, assuming the Heat bring home their third straight first. With the way the NBA is changing before our very eyes, there's no telling how secure Miami's shot at immortality will be, much less who would rise up to seize control of the throne.
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