Head-to-head: NBA season preview

By Ashton Chugh

The National Basketball Association’s 2013–14 season is underway. Gauntlet sports writers Ashton Chugh and Suneil Sachdeva have answered the most pressing questions about the next 1230 games.

Will the Miami Heat capture their third consecutive championship? Would this put them on the same level as the last two teams to do so (Kobe Bryant’s Lakers and Michael Jordan’s Bulls)?
Suneil Sachdeva: Miami could fall this season because of Derrick Rose’s return and his potential to lead the Bulls back to championship glory. Yet it seems foolish to bet against them. Since the arrival of Lebron James, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade, Miami has yet to miss the finals — and James continues to get better and better. Already a league MVP, finals MVP and scoring title winner, James still elevated his game, breaking multiple records throughout last season.

If they win their third title in three years, they will earn a seat at the table with the league’s other storied dynasties. While some refuse to accept the Heat’s reign as legitimate due to the unprecedented purchase of their all-star roster — assembled by the deep pockets of owner Micky Arison — a Miami three-peat would cement them as another iconic team.

Ashton Chugh: The Heat are still the favourites to win the title. This would put them in the conversation with Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal’s Lakers, but nowhere near Jordan’s Bulls, who won six championships. Kobe and Shaq were much more dominate than the Heat were in the playoffs during their run, such as when the Lakers went 16–1 in the playoffs to capture their second title. In contrast, the Heat have lost eight times in 18 games over their three appearances in the finals. Also, something to keep in mind is that the Lakers only had two all-stars during their three-peat, whereas the Heat have three.

Who is your pick for MVP?

SS: I can see Derrick Rose stealing the MVP title back from Lebron James. The youngest player to ever receive the award, Rose has been sitting on the sidelines watching James capture back-to-back MVP’s. However, Rose has the talent and drive to dethrone the King.

AC: Kevin Durant will take home the league’s most prestigious individual award. Early on Durant will have a variety of new responsibilities due to Russell Westbrook’s nagging injury. With the loss of Kevin Martin, the Oklahoma City Thunder will need the extra offensive output from Durant. Durant will likely have to take on a facilitator’s role, and because scoring buckets is second nature to the crafty forward, he will still be putting up the wonderful offensive numbers that we are used to seeing.

Who will lead the league in scoring?

SS: With Kobe Bryant coming off an Achilles injury and Lebron James sticking to a more balanced style of play, it’s going to come down to Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony once again. Durant has unmatched skill and vision, but a shift in his role for the Thunder may benefit Anthony for this season’s scoring title. With the loss of James Harden, Durant will be taking on more of a playmaker role. While he could raise his assists while still remaining a top scorer, such a shift probably will take his scoring down just enough to lose out on the race. Anthony will remain the Knick’s centerpiece, with the offence running solely through his hands. Durant will move in the direction of Lebron to become a more well-rounded force, while Anthony will move up to claim his second scoring title in two years.

AC: Carmelo Anthony has the particular circumstances that lead to volumous scoring. Anthony is in the final year of his contract, and as the focal point on a team that loves to put up a ridiculous amount of three-point shots, he has ample motivation to prove his worth to potential suitors next summer. He will take home his second scoring title.

Which addition will have the greatest impact on their team?

SS: The Brooklyn Nets’s blockbuster additions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will make the biggest mark. The Nets not only added two perennial all-stars to their starting five, but also added a new heart and soul.

Pierce and Garnett have long been two of the Boston Celtics’s most essential pieces, and the pair will bring unwavering tenacity and clutch play to Brooklyn. Fans from the New York area are sure to benefit, as Pierce and Garnett have already added to the burgeoning Knicks-Nets rivalry — they were reviled by Knicks fans when they played for Boston. Brooklyn is set to challenge for the Atlantic division crown, and take the Battle of the Burroughs to a new level.

AC: Dwight Howard will make the Houston Rockets a serious threat in the west, providing Howard isn’t the centrepiece of more power struggles like last season with the Los Angeles Lakers. However, when the Brooklyn Nets traded for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry they got a renewed sense of vigour. These hard-nosed players are going to bring their signature grind-house defence to the Nets, and with the direction of star point guard Deron Williams and newly minted coach Jason Kidd, the Brooklyn Nets are going to be a serious contender.

Which player returning from injury will have the greatest impact on their team?

SS: No player’s return will have a more significant impact on their team than Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls. After sitting out the entire 2012–13 season to allow himself time to fully recover from a torn ACL, Rose will be hungry and ready to reclaim his status as one of the league’s top talents. He’ll lead the Bulls back to the top of the Eastern conference in an effort to take down Lebron James and the Miami Heat. Though criticized at the time, Rose’s decision to keep himself off the court until he was not only healthy, but also back to his elite form, was the smartest career move the young point guard has made thus far.

AC: Derrick Rose will have an enormous impact on the Chicago Bulls. Their heart and soul was absent without him. Without Rose, the Bulls are a sub-par team in an Eastern conference that is increasingly competitive. With Rose in their lineup, the Bulls could dethrone the Miami Heat. Rose may be rusty to begin, but come mid-season he will be putting up those amazing plays that we know and love him for.

Which young talent is set for a breakout season?

SS: Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving rises about the rest, although it seems almost unfair to classify Irving as a player yet to break out. After being named NBA Rookie Of The Year in 2012 and making his first all-star appearance last year, Irving can be considered a bonafide star. After missing significant time in his first two seasons due to injury — he played only 51 games in his first year and 59 in his second — Irving will build on the success of his first two years. If he can stay healthy, look for Irving to move closer to being a top-five point guard in the league.

AC: The 2013–14 NBA season is going to be Kyrie Irving’s big breakout in dramatic fashion. Irving has some new running partners in Andrew Bynum and Anthony Bennett, which should spread out the opposing team’s defensive focus. Irving can create his own shot and be an effective playmaker. The Cavaliers are ready to get past their horrendous post–Lebron funk and it is Irving’s job to get it done.

Will Canada’s only NBA team, the Toronto Raptors, make the playoffs this season?

SS: An upgraded roster and a strong finish last season should give the Raptors their best opportunity in years to play past the regular season. Rudy Gay stepped up and posted big offensive numbers, averaging 19.5 points per game last year with Toronto. In his first full season with the Raptors, he will continue this performance with a strong young core, filled out by on-the-cusp star DeMar DeRozan, versatile big-man Jonas Valanciunas, the now-healthy playmaker Kyle Lowry and solid defensive piece Amir Johnson. Toronto’s starting five are talented, and if they can take the next step, they could capture one of the East’s last playoff spots.

AC: Raptors fans should expect a playoff birth this season or the boo-birds will come out in droves. Rudy Gay underwent laser eye surgery over the summer, so his shooting percentage should go up now that he can actually see the basket.

New addition D.J. Augustin will provide a more reliable alternative to Kyle Lowry, and will also bring a defensive presence to the point guard position. Another new addition, Steve Novak, is a quality knock-down three point shooter. With a full summer to gel as a cohesive unit, the Raptors should start out strong and upset a lot of teams.

Who is your dark-horse team?

SS: The Golden State Warriors are ready to take the next step. Putting up a decent season last year with a second place divisional finish and a conference semi-finals appearance, the Warriors are hoping this is the year they can step into the role of a serious contender. Following a breakout season from Stephen Curry, one that included a monster 54-point performance at Madison Square Garden, the Warriors are back on the radar. Their big-ticket offseason pickup, Andre Iguodala, could be the piece that helps them transition into one of the West’s better squads.

AC: The New York Knicks are going to be a team that will defy popular expectations and finish strong. It is unusual to be calling a big-market team like the Knicks a dark-horse team, but all the bad press that they have received over the off-season has many analysts writing them off. Come April, many of those analysts will be dragged out into the streets in a show of I told you so’s by the New York faithful, as the team will have secured home court advantage in the East through the first two rounds. Take that, Brooklyn.

How will Anthony Bennett, the only Canadian first overall draft pick in history, fare in his first season with the Cleveland Cavaliers?

SS: The preseason has not been kind to Bennett. The shoulder surgery that kept him away from the court all offseason has delayed his ability to show Cleveland his true abilities. His preseason offensive numbers haven’t been great, although he looked much better late in the Cavaliers’s second game — putting up a 14-point fourth quarter. He will have to come off the bench until he can regain his game-shape and establish himself as the Cavalier’s best power forward.

AC: Anthony Bennett’s skill set is still quite raw. He has a big body, and in the guard-dominated NBA, players with less skill tend to mature a little slower. Still, if he keeps his head down and works hard, I can see him being a solid sixth man for the Cavaliers, and should average a respectable 12 points and seven rebounds a game.

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