With the start of the 2012-13 NBA regular season just a week away, You Only Blog Once is previewing the season with a series of "countdown" posts. Today: Seven Storylines to watch for this season. Tomorrow: Six... something. Thursday: Five... well, you get the picture. It's not that complicated.
It's about that time. The NBA season is almost upon us. In case you'd forgotten, the Heat are the defending champions, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard are now in L.A. and the Thunder are still young, fun and awesome. But here are seven storylines OUTSIDE of Miami, Oklahoma City and the Lakers side of Los Angeles that I'll be keeping an eye on this season.
7. The Crackdown on Flopping
Look, no one likes lying. When you were a kid, your parents probably told you at some point that you should never tell a lie. Then you got a little older and realized that some white lies -- or just omissions of truth -- are required for society to function the way it does. No, that dress doesn't make you look fat. Yes, I sent you that TPS report this morning. No, I didn't just fall down on my own, the offensive player totally ran into me, forcing me to the ground.
It's that last one that seems to be plaguing the game of basketball more and more each year. And while fans are still split on how MUCH of a problem flopping is, everyone can at least acknowledge that THIS should never happen on a basketball court.
So to curb that, the NBA has a new system to punish floppers. First a warning, then an escalating series of fines, then even possible suspensions. Will it work, or will it be like some of the NBA's other officiating initiatives, that start off being enforced then fall by the wayside as the season goes on?
(Also, for those asking why they can't punish the players DURING the game, if the refs could tell the difference between a flop and a legitimate foul, then flopping wouldn't be a problem to start with).
6. Sacramento? Kings...
The NBA went from 1985 to 2001 without seeing a franchise move. Then, in a little over a decade, the Grizzlies, Hornets, Sonics/Thunder and Nets have all relocated, and the trend might not be ending. The Kings' position in Sacramento has been unstable for a few years now. It seemed like the team was on the verge of leaving for Anaheim following the 2010-11 season, but that fell through and they returned to Sacramento following the lockout.
Late last season, it appeared the Kings and Sacramento had a new arena deal in place, but then it all quickly fell apart. There was a brief, ridiculous rumor about Virginia Beach, but that seemed even less viable than a long-term future in California's capital.
The Maloof Brothers are now considered the worst owners in professional sports, but they refuse to sell the team, so relocation is still the most likely option for the future. But where? Seattle? Kansas City? Las Vegas? And when? 2013? 2014? Sometime beyond that? Those questions will linger over the Kings all season.
5. Boston's Bench Mob
If you believe preseason hype, Jeff Green is the second coming of James Worthy, they're already making space for Jared Sullinger in Springfield and Jason Terry will be better this year than Ray Allen ever was.
None of those things are actually true, but the Celtics actually have a really interesting lineup of players beyond their KG-Pierce-Rondo core. I do think some of Boston's offseason additions are being oversold, but that doesn't mean they're bad by any means. And in many cases, they're an improvement over what Boston lost.
Obviously most of the Celtics' success this season will hinge on what they get out of their Big Three, but the supporting cast could be the key to Boston emerging as the biggest threat to Miami in the East.
4. Rose's Return
Derrick Rose is out until... well, no one seems to know exactly. A torn ACL is considered to be a nine-month injury these days, which would put Rose's return sometime in January. But nine months is much more a "bare minimum" than an average, at least as far as basketball is concerned, and it's possible we won't see Rose until after the All-Star Break, if not longer.
So how good will the Bulls be without Rose? Well, they posted an outstanding record in the games he missed last season, but that was with a better supporting cast (additionally, I think there's a big difference in mentality of holding down the fort while your star misses a few games and carrying the team while he's gone for an extended period -- or not returning at all, which was the case in the playoffs last year). And if the team struggles without Rose, will he push to return early, possibly risking further injury?
If things do break right for Chicago, and they hold down the fort until Rose returns, they could be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. Imagine if they somehow snag the five seed, then win in the first round. Do you think Miami wants to see Rose in the second round? Or what if they're, say, seventh? Would Boston really enjoy going up against Chicago led by a healthy Rose as its first playoff challenge?
3. Linsanity in Houston
If anyone tells you they saw Linsanity coming, or that they'd seen anything like it before, they're lying. Plain and simple. And if anyone tells you it's happening again this season in Houston, they're wrong.
The phenomenon that was "Linsanity" was a lightning-in-a-bottle type of event that isn't going to be matched any time soon. But that doesn't mean Jeremy Lin can't still be a good player. But how good will he be? The fact is if he plays even as well as he did in his post-Linsanity "decline" (14.5 PPG, 6.5 APG, 1.7 SPG) then he'll be worth what the Rockets are paying him this season ($5 million). If he can somehow match his Linsanity numbers (23.9 PPG, 9.2 APG, 2.4 SPG), then he'll be a guaranteed All-Star and a serious All-NBA candidate.
More likely, he'll be somewhere in between. The two key stats for Lin will be his shooting percentage (50% during Linsanity, 39% after) and his turnovers (5.2 per 36 during, 4.5 per 36 after). Given that his minutes load will be in the mid to high 30s, a high turnover rate could stunt whatever the Rockets want to do on offense. And a shooting percentage below 40... well, that would a disaster.
Whatever he ends up doing, it's a given the basketball world will be watching.
2. Kyrie's Hot in Cleveland
Not as many people noticed as probably should have, in part because the Cavaliers were still pretty bad last season, but Kyrie Irving was amazing. Cleveland started the year limiting his minutes, as he only topped the 30-minute mark three times in the first 16 games. After that, though, he averaged 32.5 minutes per game (not counting the meaningless last game of the season, when he only played 10 minutes) and posted this stat line:
19.0 PPG, 5.7 APG, 45.3% FG, 39.3% 3-pt FG.
You know how many rookies have done that? Try zero (and yes, I know Kyrie didn't exactly do that either, since that's not his stat line for the full season, but work with me here). Only seven different players have done that over the course of a full season at any point in their careers, none since Mike James in 2005-06. And James is the worst player on the list. The others: Sam Cassell, Steve Francis, Kevin Johnson, Dana Barros and Larry Bird, who did it five times.
I'm not saying Irving is going to be Bird, or the point guard version of Bird, but it's entirely possible that Kyrie Irving will inject himself into the "top five point guards in the league" conversation this season.
There's another aspect to this though, and it's whether Irving can lead the Cavaliers to the playoffs? The Eastern Conference is certainly bad, so a run at the 8 seed isn't out of the question. But the East isn't quite as bad as it was in the mid 2000s, when a below-.500 record was good enough to get you into the playoffs five times in a six-year span. The Cavs would probably have to be at least .500 to sneak in this year, and I'm not sure they're good enough to do that.
So then the flipside is should Cleveland tank to get another high draft pick to put next to Kyrie (along with the No. 4 picks from 2011 and 2012, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters)? In this case "tanking" would probably mean trading away Anderson Varejao and going with a lineup that included two rookies (Waiters and Tyler Zeller) two second-year players (Thompson and Irving) and Alonzo Gee, who has just 130 games of NBA experience. It would be a "trial by fire" type of experiment in Cleveland, but I'm not sure it would be the best thing for Irving's development. The best thing to do would probably be to play it straight, try to win as many games as possible, but also don't make any short-sighted moves for a run at the 8 seed this year (at least not at the cost of the future).
Whatever the Cavs choose to do, they'll be more fun to watch than they were last year, and WAY more fun to watch than they were two years ago.
(Another positive: if the Bobcats start 0-4, they'll break Cleveland's record for the longest losing streak in NBA history, so they've got that going for them.)
1. CP3-mare? CP3-drama? CP3-ya?
Because of the way the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement is structured, it's always going to benefit a star player who's guaranteed max money to go to free agency rather than sign an extension (long-term health concerns aside). It's almost a given that Dwight Howard will re-sign with the Lakers, but I don't think it's quite as given that Chris Paul sticks with the Clippers.
For one, with Dwight's arrival in Los Angeles -- along with Steve Nash -- the Clippers are back to being the clear No. 2 team in their own building. Second, when you factor in the extension for Blake Griffin and the long-term obligations to DeAndre Jordan and Jamal Crawford, a Clippers team with CP3 wouldn't have a ton of cap flexibility. Can that core be a title contending team? Maybe. The key will be if Chris Paul sees it that way.
If Paul doesn't see it that way, then where could he land in 2013? Well, Atlanta has done a masterful job clearing out its cap situation and Utah could have room depending on what it does with its free agents.
Then there's New Orleans. The Hornets have a bunch of non-guaranteed contracts, reasonable cap space, and an interesting young core with Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and rookie Anthony Davis. A second go-round for Chris Paul with the Hornets isn't entirely out of the question.
I still think the likely scenario is that Paul re-ups in Los Angeles after the season, but if the Clippers disappoint, the questions around his pending free agency will certainly swirl.