The first wave of NBA free agency has died down, but the offseason is still going strong. Many names known throughout the league have changed teams, including Dwight Howard (Los Angeles Lakers to Houston Rockets), Andre Iguodala (Denver Nuggets to Golden State Warriors), and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (Boston Celtics to Brooklyn Nets). Others chose to stay with their teams, like Chris Paul (Los Angeles Clippers), Manu Ginobili (San Antonio Spurs), and David West (Indiana Pacers). That said, this is a far cry from the relative quiet of the 2012 offseason, where the biggest name free agent, Deron Williams, chose to stay with the Nets, and the biggest trade of the season (involving Howard going to the Lakers from the Orlando Magic) turned out to disappoint all the teams involved, except the Magic.
Nevertheless, the 2013-14 season will be enjoyable for fans of far more teams than any in recent memory.
The West has 6 really good teams
I'll leave my colleague Aaronstampler with the job of team rankings (seriously, check out his excellent work) so I'll boil it down: The San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors, and Houston Rockets should all win at least 48-50 games and have a point differential no lower than 3.0. The Spurs have the fewest question marks among these teams (health is the biggest worry), so even setting my homer bias aside, I have them with a great chance of winning the West.
The Thunder still have Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka on the rise, but filling in the role of the recently-departed Kevin Martin (to the Minnesota Timberwolves) will be a challenge. Personally, I'm going against conventional wisdom (which seems to favor traditional 2-guard Jeremy Lamb) and I think Reggie Jackson will be their sixth man heading into the season.
The Clippers revamped their rotation, adding J.J. Redick to replace Chauncey Billups and trading Caron Butler for Jared Dudley. Although they lost a shot of athleticism by including Eric Bledsoe in the trade, they got a serviceable backup in Darren Collison (who played behind Paul as a rookie) and retained Matt Barnes.
The Grizzlies took advantage of teams trying to be cheap, trading Darrell Arthur for Kosta Koufos and bringing back Mike Miller after he was waived by the Miami Heat, although floor spacing is still their biggest concern.
The Warriors added defense, play making, and a rim attacker by signing Iguodala, who should thrive by playing with Golden State's shooters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Losing Jarrett Jack (to Cleveland Cavaliers) and Carl Landry (back to the Sacramento Kings) weakens their bench, but they will certainly have a great top 6.
The Rockets made a splash by landing Howard to play alongside James Harden, and while it remains to be seen which big man will start (will it be defensive non-spacer in Omer Asik, or Terrence Jones for athleticism and shooting?) this team looks to be as dangerous as any in Houston since the Yao Ming/Tracy McGrady Rockets.
The East might actually be more than just Miami
The Eastern Conference has been long been known as the Leastern, and not without reason: the East is top-heavy beyond comprehension, several teams have management that could most accurately be described as incompetent (as evidenced by GM's Bryan Colangelo, Otis Smith, and whoever's James Dolan's current patsy), and the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats were the Worst NBA Team Ever.
Well, it's still top-heavy, but the difference is that there are now four teams that can legitimately be expected to make a run to the Finals. The Nets, as mentioned, traded some role players for Pierce and Garnett, added Andrei Kirilenko with the mini-MLE (a move that had to have infuriated PATFO, given that they were willing to spend money on a sign-and-trade), and rounded out the roster with competent players like Shaun Livingston and Alan Anderson. Managing minutes and touches will be Jason Kidd's biggest job, not Xs and Os.
The Bulls improve just by Derrick Rose returning (assuming he doesn't take another year off) but there's also the continued improvement of Jimmy Butler, and a value signing in Mike Dunleavy to replace Marco Belinelli (who will be suiting up in San Antonio). I personally think Tom Thibodeau is the next Gregg Popovich in Xs and Os mastery -- though he's nicer to the media, and tougher on his players, rest-wise.
The Indiana Pacers decided to keep their starting five intact, and focused on improving their bench, with Tyler Hansbrough, Sam Young, D.J. Augustin being replaced by Luis Scola, Chris Copeland, and C.J. Watson. Danny Granger's return could also help them retain their Central Division crown.
The defending champions will have a tough time repeating
Quick: Name the last time a team made three Finals in a row. The 2008-10 Los Angeles Lakers did it before the 2011-13 Miami Heat, and the Lakers' quest for a second threepeat was stymied by Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks, in a sweep no less. No team has won a threepeat since the 2000-02 Lakers, and they had a dominant all-time great in Shaquille O'Neal, a budding star in Kobe Bryant, and clutch play from various role players, not to mention one of the two guys who can make a case for Greatest Coach Ever in Phil Jackson.
No team has reached four Finals in a row since the Boston Celtics, who were led by some funny-looking white dude named Larry Bird to appearances from 1984 to '87. They only went 2/4 in that span, winning against the Showtime Lakers in 1984 and the Twin Towers Rockets in 1986, while losing against the same Lakers in 1985 and 1987. In other words, should LeBron James and company win in 2014, they'll have done something no team post ABA-NBA merger has been able to do: reach four Finals in a row AND three-peat. With the Eastern Conference having three teams potentially make the leap to elite status, the West becoming a free-for-all, and the Heat choosing to mostly stand pat (Ray Allen opted in, they re-signed Chris Andersen, and amnestied Mike Miller), their path to repeating their 66 win season and championship seems a good deal tougher.
There is also the luck factor involved. While the Heat went a cool 8-1 in the first two rounds, the Indiana Pacers, a team that failed to crack the 50 win mark, took them to the distance, and could very well have advanced had it not been for a play or two. In the Finals against the Spurs, the Heat multiple San Antonio missed free throws as well as repeated offensive rebounds and do-or-die three pointers to take Game 6 in overtime. Any of these events go the other way and the predictably controversial sports media would be filling another summer asking "Should LeBron leave?", "Is Wade done?" and "Was the Big 3 experiment a failure?"
For the cellar dwellers, the race to the bottom has a reward at the end
They say the 2014 draft is gonna be good as 2003. They say Andrew Wiggins might be the next LeBron James. They say Jabari Parker could join Wiggins to be the next Magic/Bird. Personally, I say that we let the 2013-14 college season pan out first (remember when Shabazz was gonna be 1st overall?) Nevertheless, many teams are already set to tank through 2013-14 to focus on maximizing those lottery balls.
There are teams though, that aren't likely to bottom out but should end up in the lottery all the same, because the West is stacked and the East has a few teams which project to play well. The Pelicans, Trail Blazers, and Lakers (who have their own pick for the first time in YEARS) definitely aren't tanking, but their rosters have too many question marks. Although the Jazz, Kings and Suns are definitely rebuilding (Phoenix's choice to deal Scola for the flashy yet questionable Gerald Green speaks volumes) and seem to be the only teams in the West that definitely have an eye on the 2014 Draft. The East is a bit harder to read, but the Philadelphia 76ers are definitely leading the Eastern Tank Battalion, starting by trading recent All-Star Jrue Holiday to the Pelicans for Nerlens Noel, and looking at draft pick Michael Carter-Williams, a player renowned for having an abysmal FG% in Summer League, as Holiday's replacement.
Needless to say, unless you're a fan of a team like the Milwaukee Bucks (who continued their love affair with shoot-first guards by signing Gary Neal), the 2013-14 season should either be fun, interesting, or both.