NBA free agency has run its course for the summer of 2013 and the NBA’s upper crust is pretty much set. It’s time for all the high rollers to put their chips down for the early 2014 championship contenders. The West is still strong, but the Heat’s uphill road to the title is not going to include a leisure walk in the park. Things are getting tougher. It’s going to be a midnight jog through the Queensbridge projects, and bangers are coming for that championship gold around their waists . Miami’s quest for a three-peat is going to resemble the ’93 Bulls’ obstacle-ridden title run. The Heat better rest up this summer.
1. MIAMI HEAT: Nothing changed here. You have to beat the champs before you can be the champs. We don’t know how Dwyane Wade’s knee will recover after a summer of rest, rehab and Gabrielle Union, but LeBron James’ mind is finally in the right place. The possible signing of Greg Oden doesn’t change the fact that they’re going to get punched in the eye by squads with quality low-post bigs.
2. INDIANA PACERS: You were correct if while reading No. 1 you assumed that we were alluding to Indy. The Pacers took Miami to the brink because of their physical brand of basketball and Roy Hibbert hulking out in the post, but they should be even better equipped to suplex the Heat out of that top spot next season. Paul George will have another year of experience under his belt; a healthy Danny Granger (after spending much of the season sidelined) will be that complementary scorer they missed; and Frank Vogel has learned that benching your big man on the final defensive possessions of close playoff matchups is a sucker move.
3. BROOKLYN NETS: I’ve never climbed a mountain before, but if I were to undertake that Herculean task, I’d enlist the help of an experienced Sherpa. Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson will do the heavy lifting, but champions Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Paul Pierce were brought in to teach heart and help the Nets plant their flag atop the basketball universe. Mikhail Prokhorov’s bank account probably won the offseason. We’ll see how close it gets them to the summit.
4. OKC THUNDER: I think a healthy Thunder squad is still the favorite out West. While the Heat ignited an arms race in the East, OKC has suffered from attrition. Kevin Martin inked a four-year deal with the Timberwolves and saying Serge Ibaka’s low-post scoring could use some refinement would be an understatement. He’s going to have problems with a healthy Dwight Howard, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph or Roy Hibbert in the playoffs.
5. CHICAGO BULLS: I’m not sure if this squad is as talented as the unit that reached the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago. We know the Bulls will be re-integrating a healthy Derrick Rose. So? The East has been sharpening its claws since 2011. Aside from their summer of 2010 Plan D, Carlos Boozer, the Bulls have stood pat while staying consistent thanks to Tom Thibodeau’s coaching, defensive discipline and Joakim Noah’s energy.
6. HOUSTON ROCKETS: I’ve always viewed Dwight Howard as less of The Man on a true championship contending team and more of a Man-Child. Fortunately, James Harden is already The Man. Howard has an important role to play providing balance in the post, rebounding and patrolling the lane. However, Houston is a young squad on the rise and their pieces actually fit. You have to subtract points, though, because turnover machine Jeremy Lin is still their point guard.
7. SAN ANTONIO SPURS: We keep checking their weak pulse, but the Spurs just won’t die. Their ridin’ or dyin’ with their current roster, as well. Pop can seem icy, but he can get attached to players he’s had success with. The predictably unpredictable Manu Ginobili is back for two more seasons, and for some inexplicable reason, they signed on to pay Tiago Splitter $45 million over the next five years. Hopefully, this isn’t the Richard Jefferson extension debacle all over again.
8. L.A. CLIPPERS: What’s the value of a coach? We should find out during Doc Rivers’ first year at the helm of the Clippers. David Stern prevented the Clippers from sneaking Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett into the Staples Center as a side order to the Doc Rivers deal. Aside from the Eric Bledsoe trade, which produced Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick, these are the same Clippers. People will stay askin’ questions about Rivers’ coaching Mensa club membership until he can punch a hole in the West without the Big Three.
9. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: The Warriors should have just bought airtime on QVC, shopping Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson for Dwight Howard. The small-ball revolution is cool, yet they understand their important need for size in the low post. They still haven’t addressed that. Conversely, signing Andre Iguodala brings a defensive stopper to the lineup that won’t take scoring touches away from the Splash Brothers. It’ll be interesting to see how they handle his and Barnes’ minutes.
10. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: When the Memphis Grizzlies made the decision not to retain Lionel Hollins, George Karl was mentioned as a viable candidate to replace him. The current Coach of the Year is unemployed and instead, they promoted unproven assistant coach David Joerger. I applaud teams that resist recycled coaches, but that’s ridiculous. Replacing a defensive-oriented coach, who transformed the Grizzlies from one of the league’s worst defensive units into the NBA’s best after a breakthrough season, is the gutsiest move of this offseason. It won’t pay off, though.