Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Don't look now, but the NBA regular season begins one week from Tuesday.
Yes, in seven nights the season kicks off in earnest with the vaunted Orlando Magic/Indiana Pacers tilt. Set your DVRs and check your local listings.
Being this close to the start of a new season brings anticipation, excitement, maybe the sweats. While it's not exactly trying to sleep as a kid on Christmas Eve, the advent of the 2013-14 campaign provides plenty for the NBA fan to gush over and keep an eye on for the next seven months.
Here's a sampling of the big stories headed to an NBA arena near you:
THE REVOLVING DOOR
Sixteen teams make the playoffs every season. So it should come as a downright shock to everyone to learn that seven of last season's 16 postseason squads canned their head coaches.
Two teams - the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers - fired guys who led their men to franchise-best win totals last season. We should've known something was amiss when the Eastern Conference's Coach of the Month for October/November (Avery Johnson) was fired on Dec. 27.
George Karl not only won a Nuggets' record 57 wins, but he won NBA Coach of the Year. That was not enough for him to keep his job. He can go cry in his beer with Vinny Del Negro, Lionel Hollins, Larry Drew, Jim Boylan, P.J. Carlesimo and Doc Rivers, although maybe put Doc and Vinny on different sides of the bar. Those seven men took their teams to the postseason last season and were shown the door when they were eliminated.
Owners sign the checks. They can do what they want, but how could any coach feel any sense of job security, other than Gregg Popovich?
General managers and owners are on mandates to win now. This season may be a little different as teams seem to have adopted a slower philosophy to team- building.
There are several skippers already allegedly on the hot seat before we start this season. That previously mentioned group may have to get a bigger table for Utah's Ty Corbin, Washington's Randy Wittman and Toronto's Dwane Casey.
ALL IN FOR BROOKLYN
After a first-round exit in last season's playoffs, Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov demanded improvement.
They landed Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, two of the most playoff-tested active athletes in the world (they played in more playoff games between the two of them than the entire nine-man rotation Carlesimo used in the Nets' first-round loss to the Chicago Bulls). GM Billy King bolstered the bench with Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko.
And it will only cost Prokhorov $80 million in luxury taxes alone.
That's an incredibly steep price to pay, but it's a check you write if you want an NBA title. Sure, you could build a championship contender through shrewdness and cunning, but why do that when you're filthy rich.
The biggest wild-card facing the Nets' chances is hiring the completely inexperienced Jason Kidd as head coach. Just because you're a Hall of Fame point guard that doesn't mean you'll be a great head coach. Kidd will have an interesting test ahead of him trying to mix all of these egos, juggle playing time, resting Pierce and Garnett, and ... well learning how to be a head coach at the highest level.
Dwight Howard signed with the Houston Rockets in the offseason and instantly made them into championship contenders (I disagree). After a few contentious seasons with he Orlando Magic and only one contentious season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Howard got to hand-pick his own team.
Will it bring happiness?
That's the big question. If you call making obscene money and choosing your new home happiness, then Howard and the Rockets should be fine. We haven't seen a happy Howard for some time, but the production remained despite the sorrow of being a world-famous athlete who could probably buy Spain.
If head coach Kevin McHale can integrate Howard into the offense and keep James Harden content, Houston is scary good on offense.
ALL OUT FOR PHILADELPHIA
Anyone who knows a thing about basketball knows the Philadelphia 76ers are going to be dreadful this season. They're not hiding that, but more on that later.
The team's rotation, under first-time NBA head coach Brett Brown, will be rookie Michael Carter-Williams, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, James Anderson, Spencer Hawes. Tony Wroten, Daniel Orton, Royce White, Darius Morris and Rodney Williams.
At least, thank the Lord, Nerlens Noel, who inexplicably fell to sixth in the draft and was acquired in a trade, will be back from his ACL tear.
Not exactly. Brown said on Monday to expect Noel to miss the whole season. So, there are almost no positives for the Sixers this season.
Is the all-time, single-season loss record of 73 in play for Philly? Yes.
Ten wins should be easy for every NBA team, but this roster is so bad, how could you guarantee it? It's in play, but the Sixers should get 10-15 wins. Maybe some of these guys you've never heard develop with playing time.
At least the 76ers have a plan.
Which leads us to ...
It's an ugly word and not the correct one, but it's the one you hear most frequently about teams trying to be as bad as possible to have as good a shot at the No. 1 pick in the 2014 Draft.
It's worth the agony when the cheese at the end of the maze is Andrew Wiggins.
He's already the consensus No. 1 pick in June. While Wiggins may not be a once-in-a-lifetime prospect, he's not far off that moniker. Every bad team in the league has at least one employee monitoring Kansas Jayhawks games this season.
But Wiggins isn't the only young man with a bright future ahead of him. There are six, maybe eight future All-Stars in the upcoming draft.
And let's give Philly a break. The Sixers are not the only team who appear to be gearing up for the draft and just going through the formality of playing the regular season.
The Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns are all openly rebuilding.
STERN'S SWAN SONG
David Stern will retire as Commissioner of the NBA on Feb. 1, 2014. His legacy is overwhelmingly solid other than the Tim Donaghy affair, some labor disputes and far-fetched conspiracy theories about rigging the draft lottery.
Stern's farewell will probably be low-keyed and Adam Silver's transition to the big chair has been ongoing for years.
Just be prepared around the All-Star break for several pieces on Stern's tenure.
Everyone with a pulpit voiced his or her dissatisfaction with Derrick Rose's decision to skip all of last season to rehab his torn ACL.
It was valid.
Most players don't voluntarily sit out, but Rose had his reasons.
The Bulls fell to the Miami Heat in the second round of the playoffs, but Rose has sworn vengeance on all that crosses his path. That's an extreme characterization. He's not Gladiator, but Rose did say he improved his vertical leap five inches (not buying) and his explosiveness is better than pre-injury (will buy).
A lot is expected of both Rose and the Bulls this season. The Bulls have everything you'd look for in a title contender - superstar, two or three All- Star-caliber guys, depth, defense, great coaching. Rose's health is paramount to this plan coming to fruition.
John Schuhmann's annual poll of all 30 GMs on NBA.com yielded many things that caught these eyes, but the one that really put these dwindling peepers on notice was: "Who is the toughest player in the NBA?"
Sure, he won the honor last year and only took home 31 percent of the vote this October, but Bryant finished first.
He'll have to show that toughness this season. Bryant is coming off a torn Achilles and a second trip to Germany, not for a sports car, or the bratwurst, but for a blood spinning procedure to help his knees.
Bryant is 35 and has a lot tread on his tires (he's played the equivalent of 2 1/2 extra regular seasons based on his playoff career). One thing is for sure, Bryant does not want to go out as a wounded star, nor does he want to go out limping into the seventh seed in the playoffs.
With Howard gone and Bryant not too upset over it - "I don't really give a (bleep)" - Kobe has a chance to make the Los Angeles Lakers relevant again. He tried to hand the baton to Howard as the flagship of the Lakers, but Howard wanted nothing to do with it.
Bryant and Pau Gasol are the focal points of the team one more time. Can they dominate like they used to? Probably not, but Bryant is on a mission to prove people wrong this season and that Bryant is going to be scary. Plus, he's a free agent at the end of the season.
This just adds up to a potentially remarkable Kobe Bryant season.
The last team to win three straight NBA titles was the Lakers squad of 2000-02. The Miami Heat are in position to do that this season and are the preseason favorites according to the league's GMs, Las Vegas, me, my dog and almost everyone with a pulse beating for the NBA.
The Heat didn't need much in the way of improvement. They lost Mike Miller, who caught fire in all of two games for them last season, and replaced him with Greg Oden and Michael Beasley. Those gentlemen were high picks whose careers fizzled due to bad knees and worse judgement, respectively.
You don't have to be Dr. Naismith to figure out the Heat are really good because they have the best player in the solar system in LeBron James and two top 20 guys in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Actually, it's mostly all because of James.
Which leads us to ...
THE FREE AGENT MARKET OF 2014
James can opt out of his deal with the Heat and hit the open market. He most likely will opt out and most likely won't announce where he signs on ESPN in front of a bunch of kids.
James, Carmelo Anthony and Bryant are the really big names who will be available in the summer of '14. Wade, Bosh, Luol Deng and Pau Gasol are a few more.
For some of those players, impending free agency is already a huge story. James doesn't want to talk about it, Melo is openly talking about it and Bryant is just assumed to be returning to the Lakers.
As soon as one of them has some sort of slump, or the team struggles a bit, questions will be something like this: "Is your future distracting you?"
The future of these men, which is all probably limited to about five teams, might be the biggest story line of this season.
Sadly, we'll all have to wait until June to get answers.