SHAFAQNA – 1. Can Derrick Rose lead the Bulls to the NBA Finals?
Derrick Rose is back with the Chicago Bulls, and if his play with Team USA during the summer is an indication, he is as good as ever.
After he missed the 2012-13 season, Rose returned last season and was averaging 15.9 points and 4.3 assists in 10 games before missing the rest of the season with a torn meniscus.
To take pressure off Rose, the Bulls signed former Los Angeles Lakers big man Pau Gasol, who was looking to leave a rebuilding project. The Bulls allowed the fewest points in the league (91.8) last season, but also scored the fewest (93.7). Still, the Rose-less Bulls won 48 games.
With the departure of Carlos Boozer, the additions of Gasol and Doug McDermott and the improvement of Taj Gibson and Tony Snell, Bulls fans should expect a high seed in the Eastern Conference. That is, if Rose stays healthy.
USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt discusses Rose’s return and how the Chicago Bulls stack up in the East.
2. Which will be the best team in Texas?
Every season we ask whether age will catch up to the San Antonio Spurs, and every season they are one of the best teams in the league. The NBA champions, coming off a 62-win regular season, have aging Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, but NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard will be counted on heavily.
The Houston Rockets hope to improve on last year’s fourth-place finish in the Western Conference and first-round playoff loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. They gambled in the offseason, trying to lure Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh to join Dwight Howard and James Harden, but lost. They also lost Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin. They did add Trevor Ariza, a solid defender on the wing.
The Dallas Mavericks finished eighth in the West last season and pushed the Spurs to seven games in the postseason’s first round. They added Parsons, Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton. They also re-signed Dirk Nowitzki, 36, to a team-friendly contract that included a pay cut to help the Mavericks add other players.
USA Today Sports’ Sam Amick previews the Western Conference heading into the new season.
3. Will the Cavaliers win the Eastern Conference?
Can the new Big Three of James, Love and Kyrie Irving come together quickly enough to rise to the top in the East? The Cavaliers will be nothing if not entertaining.
Irving has been the main option for the Cavaliers since he was drafted, and he will be asked to run the offense centered around James. How long will it take for Irving to surrender control, and will such a move hurt his game?
For James, the adjustment will be playing with a ball-dominating guard. James controlled the offense with the Heat, and how he handles not doing that will be key for Cleveland.
Love will go from main offensive weapon with the Minnesota Timberwolves to a lesser role, and shooting guard Dion Waiters can no longer be a shoot-first player.
The Cavaliers are loaded with talent and potential, but they’ll have to figure out a way to make the pieces fit together.
USA Today Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt shares what LeBron James has added to his offensive repertoire and how his leadership is already paying dividends in Cleveland.
4. Can Kevin Durant heal and win his first championship?
Durant has been in the league for seven seasons, with five All-Star appearances and an MVP award, but he hasn’t won a title. The Oklahoma City Thunder reached the Finals in 2012, losing in five games to the Heat.
Of course, that goal got pushed to the side by a Jones fracture in his foot, but he should be back in the Thunder lineup by December or January. Whether he makes a full recovery remains to be seen, but he’s expected to be out there.
Still the lack of offensive balance has constantly thwarted the Thunder’s recent playoff chances, as the team relies heavily on Durant and guard Russell Westbrook for most of its scoring.
The Thunder made a run at Gasol this offseason but lost out to the Bulls. They’re hoping the development of Perry Jones and Steven Adams and the signing of Anthony Morrow will give them help offensively.
The Thunder will again compete for the conference title, but Durant will need help.
USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick explains the ramifications of the Jones fracture in Thunder MVP Kevin Durant’s right foot.
5. Can the East finally rival the West?
Excluding the lockout season, the last time the East had all eight playoff teams finish the regular season with a record better than .500 was 2004-05. That could change this season.
The Cavaliers have loaded up with James and Love, and the Hornets, Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors have been steadily improving and could make a run.
For the Wizards, John Wall and Bradley Beal are turning into a formidable backcourt duo, and Paul Pierce adds veteran leadership and another offensive threat. In Charlotte, Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker will be joined by Stephenson, who, if nothing else, will add excitement to the franchise. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry led a young, scrappy Raptors team to third place in the conference last season and have something to build on.
Al Horford is back for the Atlanta Hawks, a team with a lot of cap space that has a nice young nucleus and a lot of upside. Horford was limited by injury to 29games last season.
The Brooklyn Nets could also be better than expected with the return of Brook Lopez (17 games last season) and the addition of veteran coach Lionel Hollins.
USA Today Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt previews the Eastern Conference heading into the season.
6. Can Carmelo Anthony combine winning with money?
Anthony had two paths to choose from in free agency: re-sign with the New York Knicks for five years, $124 million ($5 million less than a maximum contract) or take less money and sign with a team that was ready to win.
He chose the money — and the hope team President Phil Jackson and first-year coach Derek Fisher can turn around the team’s fortunes.
At 30, Anthony might not have too many title shots left. Some factors are out of his control, including the roster around him, with new teammates in Samuel Dalembert and Jose Calderon.
As constituted, the Knicks are nowhere close to championship contenders. Will Anthony be around to make it happen? It makes you wonder whether championships are Anthony’s first priority.
Eddie Johnson breaks down what the Knicks have to do in order to have a shot at a a title.
7. Can Kobe Bryant shut down the adversity?
Expect the Los Angeles Lakers star to jut his jaw out a bit and play with the same kind of intensity that has defined his career. If he can stay on the court.
Bryant has a clear-cut individual milestone to chase for the first half of the season, as he is 593 points away from passing Michael Jordan for third all-time in NBA history. But that’s not going to be what matters to “The Black Mamba.”
He’s faced all sorts of doubt this offseason, including an ESPN report that suggested he might be the root of the Lakers’ downfall. But that skepticism comes with the thought that he won’t be any good on the court, particularly surrounded by perhaps the worst supporting cast of his career.
Ultimately, Bryant played six games last season because of two leg injuries and, at 36, is a constant injury risk. But he can’t be counted out.
USA Today Sports’ Sam Amick breaks down Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and much more from the Lakers first practice.
8. How far can the Heat go?
Without James, the Heat will become more balanced. Bosh and Dwyane Wade remain, and the signings of Luol Deng, Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts should help keep the Heat competitive. They drafted a scoring point guard in Shabazz Napier, but he’ll be a work in progress.
Miami will be forced to look for different ways to get points. Bosh will have to be more consistent as a scorer and coach Erik Spoelstra will have to be creative with Wade, resting him more and more to keep him ready for the playoffs.
The Heat might not be one of the top two seeds in the East, but they could host a first-round playoff series and have enough experience to hold off the young, up-and-coming teams in the conference.
USA TODAY Sports NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt breaks down Miami’s prospects for the upcoming season.
9. Which of the eight new coaches will have the biggest impact?
The most interesting challenge belongs to the Cavaliers’ David Blatt, who is no longer simply inheriting a 33-win team looking to build its way up. Blatt, who had been coaching in Israel for two decades, now has a roster with James and Love and faces immediate expectations.
Jason Kidd goes from the Nets to the Milwaukee Bucks, a team seemingly further from success than the team he left. Hollins, who had success with the Memphis Grizzlies, replaces him in Brooklyn.
The Detroit Pistons turn to veteran Stan Van Gundy; Byron Scott tries to return glory to the Lakers, a franchise for whom he played; and Flip Saunders takes over as coach, again, of the Timberwolves, a team he rebuilt as general manager.
Fisher in New York, Steve Kerr with the Golden State Warriors and Quin Snyder with the Utah Jazz are NBA head coaches for the first time.
Quin Snyder needed two hands to count all the places he’s called home of late. Snyder is now a rookie head coach in the NBA, accepting the challenge of leading a Utah franchise back to the level of the NBA’s elite. (Oct. 24) AP
10. Which NBA team will have a breakout season?
What team will be this season’s Phoenix Suns, picked to be non-factors last season, turning into a solid playoff contender? It could be the Suns again.
In addition to draft picks T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis, the Suns signed former Sacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas. That should give them depth to go with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe.
How about the New Orleans Pelicans, who have a future superstar in big man Anthony Davis, a roster full of players coming off injury and a new center in Omer Asik?
They have plenty of potential to make the playoffs but face the challenge of playing in a division stacked with contenders.
USA Today Sports’ Sam Amick breaks down which coaches must make an impact with their teams this season. USA TODAY Sports
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