Sam Smith looks forward to the NBA's 2013-14 season

Last season, it was difficult to make a case for more than Miami, the Thunder, the Lakers and perhaps the Spurs to be title contenders. This season, a case can be made for perhaps eight to 10 teams to make the Finals.

Has Dwight Howard signed yet?

Oh, right, Houston. Please, no more Apollo 13 headlines.

The Rockets should be a contender to get to the NBA Finals, especially if they can turn Omer Asik, now the league’s best backup center, into a point guard or shooting power forward.

In any event, the latest summer or free agency is pretty much over, and, like in 2010, only about one team did very much of great significance.

Consider the top free agents of this summer.

Howard, of course, was the biggest and his move to Houston was significant. It makes the Rockets a contender. The irony, of course, is the Rockets were able to pull it off and be a threat to the Oklahoma City Thunder because the Thunder traded them James Harden. Without Harden being there, Howard certainly would hot have chosen Houston.

Though perhaps the most significant element of the transaction was the beginning of what likely is going to be a long decline for the Lakers. Sure, we’ll hear the Lakers have money and players always want to come there. But this isn’t that Lakers anymore. There’s a splintered family of kids instead of Jerry Buss. There’s Mitch Kupchak instead of Jerry West. There’s a proud and declining Kobe Bryant, who coming off Achilles surgery at 36 next month and desiring to play a few more years will be more detriment to recruitment than appeal.

Would LeBron James in 2014 go to play with Bryant? Or even without him? Doubtful? Carmelo Anthony? So maybe they attract UCLA’s Kevin Love in the summer of 2015. He’s never made the playoffs.

The L.A. team of substance for some time probably is going to the Clippers, who retained the No. 2 free agent, Chris Paul. That was certified once they recruited coach Doc Rivers. They added some shooting with J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley and you figure Rivers can get to Blake Griffin to expand his game. They’ll be a title contender as well.

But consider the potential impact of the other top free agents:

Josh Smith went to Detroit and is questionable to make the playoffs.

Andrew Bynum, if you can call him a top free agent given his health issues, went to Cleveland and again hopes to be in the playoffs.

Andre Iguodala went to Golden State, and giving up Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry to get him seems a wash. Maybe Andrew Bogut stays healthy, but teams have been saying that for a decade. They should be a playoff team, though.

David West resigned with the Pacers, and Nikola Pekovic eventually will with Minnesota. But Al Jefferson went to Charlotte to finish out his career with a good payday and certainty about locking in early vacation plans and teammate Paul Millsap went to Atlanta and whatever their curious rebuilding project may be. They could make the playoffs, but it’s no certainty.

O.J. Mayo went to Milwaukee and Tyreke Evans went to New Orleans.

So among what was generally viewed as the top eight free agents changing teams, only Howard and Iguodala seem assured of being in the playoffs and only Howard potentially competing for a title.

Among some of the other top names, Andrei Kirilenko went to Brooklyn for a fraction of what he could have earned staying in Minnesota, which raises some questions. J.J. Hickson went to a Denver team likely to take a step back. Monta Ellis went to a Dallas team whom no one knows what they are doing, and Kevin Martin took the money and left Oklahoma City for Minnesota.

Many others, like Manu Ginobili, Tiago Splitter. Timofey Mosgov, Tony Allen and Jeff Teague ended up staying with their teams, the latter with a match. Brandon Jennings likely will return to the Bucks as he hasn’t gotten any offers.

So the latest, greatest free agency with all that cap room basically does little to change the balance of power or the top teams. Though we are not likely to see Boston or the Lakers back in serious contention for the next three or four years, at least.

The next step is the 2013-14 season. The schedule is due out this week and it should be one of the more entertaining, intriguing and open ended seasons in recent memory.

Yes, the Miami Heat is going for a third consecutive title. Though in this era that produces more questions of breaking up than a dynasty because LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can all opt out and become free agents. Plus, going for that third straight, especially given health concerns regarding Wade, will be difficult. The Bulls had a tough time in 1992-93 and the Pistons and Lakers broke down trying it in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Which opens the jewelry story for more than a half dozen teams.

Last season, it was difficult to make a case for more than Miami, the Thunder, the Lakers and perhaps the Spurs to be title contenders. This season, a case can be made for perhaps eight to 10 teams to make the Finals. It’s rare in NBA history when that many teams can go into a season with credible beliefs they can win a championship.

So with the combination of so many teams potentially in contention; so many top players potential free agents, also including Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Luol Deng, Dirk Nowitzki, Danny Granger, Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay and Tim Duncan; many top players being mentioned in trade talks, like Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge, and supposedly the top draft classes in the last decade, the coming season takes shape as one of the most entertaining and complex puzzles in recent memory.

Here’s an early look at the races in the Eastern and Western Conference:

Eastern Conference:

  1. Bulls: This would be the tiebreaker under the Keith Bogans rule, that being if you can lead the league in wins with Bogans your starting shooting guard and Derrick Rose healthy how could you not with Jimmy Butler? With Rose’s return — the qualifier, of course, being assuming he is fully healthy — you can make a case for the Bulls having the best starting five in the East with three All-Stars, Butler and Carlos Boozer. The bench has more firepower than in recent years with Kirk Hinrich, Mike Dunleavy and Taj Gibson. And maybe you get something from a rookie. The Bulls have a history of injuries, which, of course, brings everything into question. But you assume going into a season good health for everyone. Perhaps the one hole remains another true big man to get Joakim Noah off the floor more and stand up to the centers of the Pacers and Nets. But Miami has won two straight without even one center. The Bulls led the East in wins each season before Rose was hurt. They could again.
  2. Pacers: They’re going for it, and after a seven-game series with Miami they believe they should. It’s most obvious with the latest move of acquiring the savvy Luis Scola, another good big man, for two first round picks. They also get Danny Granger back to fortify a previously weak bench. Their issue remains at point guard. C.J. Watson is a bench upgrade, but George Hill still doesn’t quite run a team and Paul George will at times. The Central Division winner should win the East in the regular season.
  3. Heat: No one questions them anymore after two consecutive titles and being in the Finals every season they came together. Yes, it worked. So they can play the Popovich model, which they likely will do this season. As long as they show up for the big TV games they probably won’t be fined. The over/under for Dwyane Wade is probably 60 games, and they haven’t done anything significant as yet but amnesty Mike Miller. They’re still messing around with Greg Oden, though since he last played with Bill Russell it hardly seems like he’d make much impact for several months even if he can play. The question will be how much extra it takes on LeBron James, who doesn’t like to miss games. They needed that home seventh game in the playoffs the last two rounds. But they know they can win on the road and basically did whenever they had to. That 27-game regular season winning streak probably took a lot out of them, and you expect them to ease off more this season. They’ll be formidable in the playoffs, of course, but will probably let the Bulls and Pacers fight it out for home court.
  4. Nets: The fourth team in the East you figure has a chance to get to the Finals. Obviously, their big acquisitions were Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. But their depth is impressive with Jason Terry, Andrei Kirilenko, Andray Blatche and underrated Alan Anderson. There are many questions, though, with the rookiest coach ever in Jason Kidd, just months after retiring as a player, and how they’ll use/rest the experienced Garnett and Pierce. There perhaps are more personal issues, like how diva Deron Williams will react to Garnett dismissing his act, whether Joe Johnson can give up the ball and if they’ll play the defense Garnett demands. It suggests a shakedown cruise, but they’ll be a tough playoff out this time.
  5. Cavaliers: This is a big jump, and it all depends on whether Andrew Bynum can play. But we assume good health at this point, and if that’s true Bynum with Kyrie Irving can mean a significant jump. They had a strong pickup in Jarrett Jack and get back rebounding machine Anderson Varejao. And if No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett can produce they have a lot of interesting options.
  6. Wizards: Their horrific start last season obscures competitive play thereafter. Though there are questions about whether John Wall should be a track star instead, he has improved. And he should come with an edge with all the criticism. With shooter Bradley Beal and size inside they should be more competitive than they have been. And with almost half the roster on expiring deals, they could get more inspired play.
  7. Knicks: Well, that window closed. It was with Rose, Granger and Bynum out and the Nets changing coaches within a month and the Hawks going for free agency and the Celtics in decline that the Knicks felt they could be a LeBron sprained ankle away. It didn’t work out in the end. Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and Ron Artest? Really, do they hate Mike Woodson that much? With Amar’e Stoudemire wanting back in the lineup and trying to justify shooter Andrei Bargnani, it’s a team that more could resemble a New York City intersection at rush hour. Yes, a lot of angry voices going nowhere.
  8. Pistons: The big race for the last playoff spot. Figure the Bucks, Hawks, Celtics and Raptors as well. Maybe you figure the Pistons because of what can occur. With the acquisition of Josh Smith, it’s an overloaded front court as you have no shooting to protect Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Smith is probably best at power forward given a lack of shooting range. So maybe once Rajon Rondo shows he’s healthy, the Pistons trade Monroe to Boston. With Howard the biggest off season acquisition, it could be Rondo once the season begins. Boston will be looking for size. Monroe? What about a package with Omer Asik for Rondo as the Rockets are short a high quality point guard? Unless maybe Miami tries to do something with Chris Bosh for Asik. There’s still moves to be made. You also figure they are watching the Jason Kidd experiment in Brooklyn. It wouldn’t be surprising if Chauncey Billups, back with one year guaranteed, is something of a young coach in waiting while Mo Cheeks handles the transition.
  9. Bucks: It hasn’t exactly seemed with a plan, but they could be solid at every position once Brandon Jennings, without a free agency offer since he’s restricted, gets over his pout and returns. He probably signs a qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent after next season. So the Bucks should get his best. They added O.J. Mayo and brought back Carlos Delfino. And if John Henson continues his development to support Larry Sanders they’ll be in that playoff race as well.
  10. Celtics: Their big question is what they do with Rondo, obviously. It’s clear they’re moving on with the trades of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. But if they retain a healthy Rondo along with Jeff Green, Gerald Wallace and some of their young bigs like Kelly Olymyk and Jared Sullinger they have a shot to make the playoffs. Which suggests they’d trade Rondo as this is setting up as a strong draft and there’s no point just missing it when you are not playing for a title. Figure they move Rondo for a big, again perhaps like Monroe or Asik. With a young big man and Olynyk to move forward with they can begin planning to make a move in the next two or three years.
  11. Raptors: They also have a chance to make a move if their front court develops, especially Jonas Valanciunas, who was the star of Summer league, for whatever that means. They really don’t have a true point guard with Kyle Lowry. So Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan probably will take turns shooting them out of the playoffs.
  12. Hawks: They're Dallas East in some sense of breaking up their team and no one much interested in their money. Of course, they never went anywhere before. So it makes more sense. They’ve gotten really small with Al Horford back at center and Paul Millsap at power forward. With Kyle Korver at small forward, that’s not much front line scoring. But it’s supposed to be just the first year of the plan.
  13. Magic: It’s about draft picks down here in the East. They’re stockpiling a number of good, young players and remain in position to stumble into another or eventually trade off their players and picks for a top talent, like the Rockets did. For now with Nikola Vucevic, Arron Afflalo and youngsters like Tobias Harris and Andrew Nicholson to support modest free agent Jason Maxiell they should inch up the competitiveness chart.
  14. Bobcats: The soon to be again Hornets finally added a go to type guy in Al Jefferson. Kemba Walker’s not really a team leading point guard and in his last season perhaps they can offload Ben Gordon. They’re hoping Michael Kidd-Gilchrist develops a shot, but mostly another shot at a top pick in the 2014 draft.
  15. 76ers: Pretty much everyone is in his final season as the rebuilding is just beginning. Plenty of tickets available. For now they’re looking like the basketball version of Stripes as the recruits went through basic training without their drill sergeant. Presumably, they’ll eventually hire a coach, which seems little priority as they don’t plan to win many games. Figure they’ll also listen to offers for free agents Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes. It should be simpler for Royce White as you can travel more by train in the Eastern Conference. He is an unusual talent, and maybe we get to see him in their experimental laboratory.

Western Conference:

  1. Clippers: Yes, the Clippers. No offense to Vinny as they did win 56 games and got the toughest first round series. Some good team had to lose. But Doc Rivers should install more defensive discipline with DeAndre Jordan and Blake Girffin while they pretty much moved on from the aging and injured veterans, like Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill. They added shooting and a strong point guard backup in Darren Collison for the departed Eric Bledsoe: Scoring and defense. They’ll be strong.
  2. Thunder: Obviously, it’s tough to rate them the way they lost Russell Westbrook in the playoffs after winning the most regular season games. But now they’ve lost Kevin Martin as well from that James Harden trade, which may haunt them for decades. They took a step back defensively as well and really are fairly thin beyond their top two and a half. Another season out of the conference finals or finals will get people speculating about Kevin Durant's future for the summer of 2016. Can the Lakers wait that long?
  3. Rockets: It’s become fashionable to make fun of Dwight Howard, though only because he’s behaved like an idiot. But healthy he is a force on defense. And if so he’ll play with a cordial perimeter threat for the first time in his career in Harden (Howard was coming off back surgery with Kobe and being yelled at a lot). Plus, the Rockets have yet to play the Omer Asik card, a double figure rebounder and top defender at a reasonable $8.4 million annual salary. It could net them Rajon Rondo. How about Ryan Anderson from New Orleans, a stretch four to play off Howard? And though you’d hardly want Howard and Asik playing together, it would be awfully tough to score with both on the floor to close games. For both teams.
  4. Spurs: They’re going to tire quickly of those questions about how close they were, and they sure were. Game 6! It will be like the Boston Red Sox from 1986. But nobody is better than Gregg Popovich at getting a team through a season and using his bench. They basically brought everyone back when it seemed they could have taken a dip into free agency by letting go Manu Ginobili and maybe Tiago Splitter. But they value continuity and it generally leads to long playoff runs. Marco Belinelli is another strong addition for the league’s top management team.
  5. Warriors: If Andrew Bogut is healthy... yes, we hear that a lot. But he stands the best chance of being so this season as it's his contract year. The Andre Iguodala move is questionable given they had to let go Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, who were key players off the bench and especially in their three-guard play. The theory with Iguodala appears to be he can play point forward and free Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to play off the ball as neither looks to pass much. They talk now about a shot at the top of the West, and that move should determine it. But if Bogut does give them that inside game they could take a big jump up the Western Conference ladder.
  6. Grizzlies: A good team that can’t seem to break out of the middle of the pack. Like the Nuggets, they had a great season and curiously fired the coach. A veteran assistant takes over with a bunch that can be volatile. They’ve given up a lot of shooting the last few years in clearing out payroll and don’t have much margin for error anymore. With Zach Randolph having two seasons left this could be a turning point for the franchise.
  7. Timberwolves: Before everyone supposedly wants to trade for Kevin Love perhaps he plays in one playoff game. Love remains the least accomplished famous player. But with new management and Ricky Rubio a season removed from surgery, this should be their chance. They added Kevin Martin and Derrick Williams began to come on last season with Love out. Nikola Pekovic will return rounding out a good front line. No team had more injuries, so they’re due for a break.
  8. Trail Blazers: They should be in that playoff race again as well. They added Robin Lopez so LaMarcus Aldridge can stay outside, which he prefers. And rookie C.J. McCollum seems a strong scoring presence with Damian Lillard. Also, Thomas Robinson is better than a guy traded all the time as there were circumstances. The question that will be raised all season is whether they’ll look to move on from the Aldridge era and throw it completely to Lillard with more new faces.
  9. Nuggets: We’ll see how they respond to not only a new coach but a totally new management. They lead the league in skinny big men, playing JaVale McGee, J.J. Hickson, Kenneth Faried and Anthony Randolph. And perhaps they got Nate Robinson to make Ty Lawson feel taller. Their game is running in the light, mountain air, which will test new coach Brian Shaw’s apprenticeship with the triangle offense under Phil Jackson. Plus, Danilo Gallinari doesn’t return from injury until mid season. It could be a rough start and season for a team that was talking title a year ago.
  10. Mavericks: You know they have to be yelling for a new owner in Dallas now. Mark Cuban broke up his 2011 title team and was shut out two years in free agency. So he panicked and gave contracts to Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis in an odd potpourri of talent that screams for Dirk Nowitzki to be traded for rebuilding. Cuban is loyal, which is nice. But he’s also stubborn, which isn’t as helpful and this is a franchise still heading in the wrong direction.
  11. Lakers: Oh, them. And this is if they’re better than we think. Who knows when Kobe Bryant will return from Achilles surgery and how he will be. But with Dwight Howard blowing them off, it’s a franchise that’s lost its allure. Pau Gasol probably will play it out another season with a roster filled with expiring and one-year deals. They’re always a story, and now it will be like the proverbial bad auto accident.
  12. Pelicans: Anthony Davis better toughen up. Because he’s going to have to do a lot of rebounding with Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday firing away. They must be going for uptempo entertainment. So maybe they don’t know defensive oriented Monty Williams is their coach. Of course, off Bourbon Street it’s not always easy to think straight.
  13. Kings: They seem to face the Hobson’s choice, which is unlike the Bulls when they went for Dennis Hopson. Will it be take it or leave it for a new deal for DeMarcus Cousins, who could take it and be unmanageable or not take it and be more unmanageable. They have a year or so to sort out things with the team staying and a new arena being built. They’ve got a bunch of guards after adding Greivis Vasquez, so they probably still have some moves to make. Carl Landry will help; no one is quite sure what Luc Mbah a Moute is there for.
  14. Suns: They’ll still be offloading guys, and we’ll see what they can get for Marcin Gortat and Michael Beasley. They’re sort of in that honeymoon as well with a new coach and general manager, though the wedding party isn’t quite sure this one will work. They’ll be in that race for the top draft picks, which supposedly will change one or two franchises next summer.
  15. Jazz: They did get a couple of draft picks in the end. But everyone kept wondering last season why they were hanging onto Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. And no one still knows why. Anyway, their big kids — and they are pretty promising in Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors — get to play. But the roster is pretty much broken now with mostly expiring deals and a lot of kids who’ll get a lot of playing time and losses. But it’s the way to go.
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