↓ Can Doc Rivers turn Lob City into a title contender?
It doesn’t matter if Doc Rivers finagled his way or was forced out of Boston. The fact that a title-winning coach left the league’s most storied franchise to join a longtime punch line affirmed the changing perception of the Los Angeles Clippers since they were fortunate to draft Blake Griffin and trade for Chris Paul. Rivers didn’t waste any time making a bold statement, needling his current and former nemesis, the Lakers, by covering up their championship banners when the Clippers play home games in their shared arena. But after owner Donald Sterling opened his wallet for a respected coach, Rivers has to deliver, too. After the greatest regular season in franchise history produced a first-round flop last May, Rivers has to convert the Clippers from flashy, nightly highlight real into a tough-minded, defense-oriented team that will produce in the postseason.
The 2014 NBA draft is already shaping up to be one of the most dynamic in decades. Andrew Wiggins has received most of the hype and attention — and unfair comparisons to LeBron James — but the projected class is full of potential franchise changers in Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart and Dante Exum. Philadelphia got a head start on the rest of the league in the “Who Wants To Draft A Superstar” sweepstakes when the 76ers unloaded an all-star point guard with a favorable contract (Jrue Holiday) for the draft rights of a player who might miss the entire season (Nerlens Noel) and another 2014 draft pick. Boston, which will start the season without all-star Rajon Rondo, lined up next when it dealt Rivers to the Clippers and future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. Phoenix then followed by trading Caron Butler (for players at the end of Milwaukee’s bench), Luis Scola (for a first-round pick and players at the end of Indiana’s bench) and Marcin Gortat (for a Wizards first-round pick and the injured Emeka Okafor’s expiring contract). Orlando and Charlotte should also be in the running to be terrible, with more teams looking to lose abundantly if they sputter at the start of the season.
↓ David Stern’s swan song
The salt-and-pepper hair has practically gone all white and the mustache is no more , but the league that David Stern took over in 1984 has undergone a much more dramatic transition over the past 30 years. Stern will complete a historically successful run when he steps down on Feb. 1 and hands over the NBA to his long-time understudy, Adam Silver. Silver will inherit a much more stable and profitable league thanks to Stern’s vision. Using a titanium fist and a silver tongue, Stern guided the NBA into a multibillion dollar enterprise, expanded the league into Canada and focused on trying to make the sport second-most popular in the world even as it lagged domestically behind football and baseball. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James became individual, international brands because of Stern’s marketing brilliance. His tenure was filled with successes (the 1992 Dream Team; the addition of seven franchises) and some difficult challenges (four lockouts; Tim Donaghy’s betting scandal). But as he makes his final lap around the league, the 71-year-old Stern can take solace that the league still luxuriates under the imposing shadow and legacy of a stout, 5-foot-7 man.
↑Brooklyn going for broke
Mikhail Prokhorov, the Brooklyn Nets’ billionaire owner, is set to obliterate all NBA spending records in pursuit of a championship. After completing a trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and signing Andrei Kirilenko last summer, the Nets will have a payroll that exceeds $102 million — almost $44 million over the salary cap and $30.5 million over the luxury tax threshold. But because of the league’s more punitive tax rules, the Nets penalty will be about $87 million — dwarfing the previous record of $51.9 million, set by Portland in 2003, when teams still paid a dollar-for-dollar penalty. That total is also greater than the payrolls this season of 28 NBA teams, including Miami. Garnett’s $12.4 million salary is actually the cheapest on a starting five — which includes Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Pierce — that would alone would be worth nearly $27 million in luxury tax penalties. According to Forbes, Prokhorov is worth $13 billion and ranks as the 69th-wealthiest person in the world, so money isn’t a concern but the price of his team isn’t any less disconcerting.
Can anybody beat the Heat?
Ever since Miami formed a super team with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the rest of the NBA has been trying to build the appropriate counter. Dallas knocked off the Heat in 2011 but the league locked out its players the following season, making it harder for teams to stockpile talent and Miami hasn’t been stopped. Oklahoma City, which looked like a burgeoning power when it lost to Miami in the 2012 NBA Finals, could no longer afford to keep Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden together. Harden was dealt to Houston, where Dwight Howard has now joined him to form a potential threat. But the Thunder has been set back because of an injury to Westbrook’s right knee that has put more pressure on Durant. San Antonio and the Los Angeles Clippers could also be waiting for Miami if it is able to get out the Eastern Conference for the fourth straight year. Brooklyn, Chicago and Indiana, which pushed Miami to seven games in the conference finals, all made moves to get deeper but the three-headed monster on South Beach continues to invoke fear — and envy.
— Michael Lee