Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Season Previews: Atlanta Hawks

Ball Don't Lie Staff
October 22, 2013

After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.

The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.

Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise

The idea that the Atlanta Hawks could be twice as fun to watch in 2013-14 as they were the previous season while winning just as many games is a sensible one, and it’s the perfect glass half-full approach in the wake of a rather dull if somewhat successful playoff run under former coaches Mike Woodson and Larry Drew. Woodson and Drew’s offenses were drudgery to watch at times, and though the team made the playoffs consistently from 2008 to last spring, it was more or less a joyless affair. Watching Hawks games in person during their first round ouster against Indiana in April left you wondering if the team’s contracts actually expired on April 17 – Larry Drew was barely audible, Josh Smith was disengaged, Al Horford was clearly frustrated.

Horford is still around, as is point guard Jeff Teague, (who signed a restricted free agent contract with the Milwaukee Bucks that Atlanta matched), but the rest of the rotation thankfully bears little resemblance to the one that the Hawks stuck around Joe Johnson back in 2011-12.

Longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer is finally in charge of his own team, hopefully bringing some of San Antonio’s spacing secrets along to a team that could feature a litany of stretched out players moving and shooting in glorious unison. Providing, of course, that Budenholzer can hack it as a head man – as some of the more respected assistants in this league (Mike Brown, John Kuester, Lawrence Frank) have flamed out recently when attempting to steer the team from the top.

Should he get through to his players, Budenholzer will have a sound enough rotation to approximate or eclipse last year’s win total. The backcourt is the question here, as this season will go a long way toward determining whether or not Teague can continue to build on his promise and start to consistently overwhelm opponents, and whether or not the injured Lou Williams can contribute at his typical Lou Williams-level as he returns from an ACL tear. The loss of Josh Smith’s go-to mid range jumpers will help the offense breathe, but big men Horford and signee Paul Millsap will need help from the guards. If Atlanta wants to have a chance in the ever-improving East, Teague especially is going to have to come through with a breakout year.

Of course, old habits die hard, and Teague has spent the entirety of his NBA career working within the semi-successful offensive muck of the Woodson and Drew regimes, so it may take a while for him to start to pounce as needed. When and if he does, though, the spacing on this team will be fabulous. Williams may need until December to be cleared for five-on-five contact in practices, but with Kyle Korver floating around and Millsap and Horford in place, there will be screening, and there will be shooting.

Depth is a concern, even with Elton Brand, DeMarre Carroll, and the (currently out) Gustavo Ayon on board. While rookie guard Dennis Schroder looks like an absolute steal at the 17th pick, he’s still a rookie point guard making a transition between leagues. He’ll need a year.

A year is all Danny Ferry needed, in determining that the Smith and Drew-led Hawks weren’t much to bank on. As it stands, the Hawks should sustain their playoff streak while setting up for a 2014 offseason that will see them well underneath the salary cap even with the rotation (minus Brand) in place. A star-sized NBA free agent could join a playoff team in an enviable city and not have to worry about being surrounded by a litany of players making minimum wage. Ferry’s run isn’t over.

The old guard’s run in Atlanta is. And while these Hawks won’t be putting the fear of a first round fluster in the hearts of some of the East’s bigger names, the team will be entertaining to watch, and with some outlet toward a brighter future that was never going to be in place with Joe Johnson’s various contracts on the books.

For now, that’s enough. Now hurry back, Lou. And listen to your new coach, Hawks.

Projected record: 45-37


Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine

While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.

Tune into the Hawks for … the first draft of a new chapter in Hawks history.

If you squint, you can kind of see it -- the establishment of San Antonio: East. Granted, brand-extending spinoffs might not be especially exciting, but they sure can be viable; remember, “NCIS: Los Angeles” perennially ranks among TV’s highest-rated shows, and “CSI: Miami” and “CSI: New York” ran a combined 19 seasons. (Meanwhile, “Parks and Recreation” gets quietly scuttled. Great job, everyone.)

More than a couple of pieces fit the profile, starting with ex-Spurs player and executive Danny Ferry running Atlanta’s front office and longtime San Antonio assistant Mike Budenholzer taking over coaching duties. Plus, the on-court charge will be led by a smart, skilled big man who impacts the game on both ends in ways that don’t generate highlights, and a hiccup-quick young point guard most comfortable in the pick-and-roll, who does his best work in transition, who can make defenses scramble as a drive-and-kick facilitator and who’s yet to really be cut loose. Sound familiar?

No, Al Horford and Jeff Teague aren’t Tim Duncan and Tony Parker -- remember, we’re squinting -- but as bookends and building blocks, you could do a lot worse in miming San Antonio’s model (Just for laughs, check out the per-minute numbers and statistical profile for Parker and Teague through four pro seasons. The comp might not be as far off as you’d think.) There’s a third component to that Spursian success, though, and Atlanta’s also got a dynamic scoring/playmaking reserve guard capable of injecting instant offense and pairing with the two top guns to do damage.

Again, I’m not drawing a one-to-one comparison to Manu Ginobili, but before Lou Williams tore the ACL in his right knee in January, lineups in which he shared the floor with Horford and Teague scored at a rate that would’ve outpaced the Spurs’ No. 7-ranked unit over the course of a full season. The Hawks outscored opponents by 3.7 points per 100 possessions during those 437 minutes -- that “net rating” comes in just south of the Western Conference finalist Memphis Grizzlies, and was significantly better than Atlanta’s full-season mark. Williams is good, better than many fans might know; getting him healthy and back in the mix will matter.

There’s a similar commitment to the long ball, too. The Hawks finished fifth in the NBA in 3-pointers both made and attempted last season -- San Antonio ranked seventh in both categories -- and posted the league’s seventh-best deep-shooting accuracy, three spots behind the Spurs, even with the since-departed Josh Smith shooting 30 percent on 201 tries. The perimeter barrage will likely continue, with re-upped sniper Kyle Korver and rising sophomore John Jenkins leading the charge in opening things up for Horford inside and cashing in on Teague’s penetration; it may be schematically reconfigured, though, as Atlanta tended toward longer above-the-break 3-point shots (fifth-most attempts in the NBA) more often than the shorter/higher-value corner 3s (ninth) that’s been such a staple of the Spurs’ attack.

There’s a pair of new frontcourt starters picked up from Utah on the cheap, Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll, whose comparatively quiet but consistently positive impact seem straight out of San Antonio central casting. (Regularized adjusted plus-minus pegged Millsap as one of the league’s 10 best players last season, and Carroll shines in the creation and extension of possessions.) There’s even an inexpensive veteran four/five (Elton Brand) in a sort-of late-period Antonio McDyess role, and an infusion of international blood, with reserve centers Pero Antic and Gustavo Ayon spelling Horford and exciting rookie Dennis Schröder backing up Teague. (Hasta luego, Lucas Nogueira. We eagerly await your arrival.)

The analogues aren’t perfect, and this mix won’t replicate the consistent contention San Antonio has enjoyed these past 16 years. In fact, given the Hawks’ shortcomings (notably at small forward) and the depth of talent atop the East, it’s likely that this year’s model produces the same mid-40s win total and No. 5 or 6 seed to which Atlanta has become accustomed. The result will be arrived at differently, though, with Horford and Teague stepping to the fore and a pared-down salary structure affording the Hawks the chance to build something bigger in the future while continuing to compete, if not contend, in the present. We could remember this season as the start of something new, and perhaps very good, in Georgia.

Honorable mentions: Schröder, who set Summer League on fire and whose combination of playmaking prowess and opportunistic defense have some invoking Rajon Rondo comparisons; whether Williams – who is playing four-on-four but whose return date remains unclear – can be the same sort of force he was while placing second in Sixth Man of the Year voting in Philly; how an Atlanta defense that finished among the league’s top 10 in points allowed per possession over the past two seasons adjusts to the loss of Smith.

Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion

NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.

For several years, the Hawk’s frontcourt tandem of Al Horford and Josh Smith posed serious problems for the opposition. They also often appeared to coexist in a yin-and-yang relationship, with Horford serving as the steady performer and Smith playing the mercurial sparkplug. Horford thrived in this relationship by every conceivable metric, but it’s also fair to say that his image benefited from their contrasting styles. Whenever Smith made a poor decision, Horford looked more like a model professional.

Paul Millsap is a very different player than Smith, so it would be wrong to speak of him as a full replacement. However, Millsap does take over Smith’s prior role as Horford’s most high-profile frontcourt partner, to the point where it won’t be terribly surprising to see them spoken of as an imposing tandem. The difference, though, is that Millsap is much closer in temperament to Horford than to Smith. They won’t throw each other’s strengths and weaknesses into sharp relief.

This new relationship isn’t magically going to cast Horford as less than he previously was, because he’s still a great player and worthy All-Star. Yet it’s also possible that playing with Smith caused many observers to avoid the rampant nitpicking and granular comparisons that befall many of the league’s best players. Perhaps, through no fault of his own, Horford is about to get criticized for being the same player he’s always been.

After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.

The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.

Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise

I think we can all agree that this is getting pretty ridiculous.

The Charlotte Bobcats made a splash over the summer in signing the biggest free agent the team has ever paid to have known. The franchise glommed onto former Celtics, Timberwolves, and Jazz center Al Jefferson to a three-year, $41 million deal. This, combined with another middle of the road lottery pick (last draft’s fourth overall pick, let’s be honest, is an eight or a nine in any other draft) along with the usual hoped-for internal development and yet another head coach is being banked on to …

Ah, forget it. It’s the same as it’s always been. Team owner Michael Jordan also hired his brother as Director of Player of Personnel. Because of course he did.

New coach head Steve Clifford comes with a strong pedigree, he’s done fine work on some very good teams as an assistant coach and he appears far more gregarious and communicative than Mike Dunlap, the rookie coach that the Bobcats used as a scapegoat of sorts for cobbling together a 21-win roster that eventually won 21 games. Clifford and associate head coach Patrick Ewing will once again look to work with a raw set of big men (minus Al) that may or may not ever pan out. This is the Bobcat way.

Which is unfortunate, because as a loving recent oral history of the first Hornets season in Charlotte (one that ended with 20 wins but also a parade from excited locals) documents, this should be a basketball-mad town. The issue here is due to a combination of bad lottery luck, questionable draft choices, inconsistent coaching and out and out parsimony the Bobcats will struggle to even hit 30 wins this year. That would mark just one winning season in the first 10 years of the Bobcats franchise.

Jefferson will help. He’s quite self-aware, very talented on that low left block, and signed through his prime. It’s true that the undersized Jefferson, some four and a half years removed from an ACL tear, could have some issues as he enters his 30s, but Al has been scoring over bigger foes for years, and his production should sustain.

The real issue is the rest of the lottery also-rans. Kemba Walker had a fantastic and encouraging second year in the pros last season, but Michael Kidd-Gilchrist looked startlingly raw in his rookie year. He’s still a fascinating player to watch because of his wingspan and instincts, but his offensive skills were severely lacking last year, and nothing but a complete turnaround on that end will leave him as anything somewhat approaching an average offensive player. Gerald Henderson is solid, little else, and signed to an appropriately average salary, and it’s just about time to give up on Bismack Biyombo.

All of this leaves us dubious about Zeller, who was not particularly dominant down the stretch of his final season at Indiana. Were Zeller to trade places with, say, Alex Len as the first draft choice of the analytics-driven new Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough, our take might be cheerier. But because we still have no clue as to who has the final say in Charlotte – between GM Rich Cho, the two Jordans, and President Rod Higgins – we’re left to fall back on history. And outside of Walker, with MKG still coming around, history has not left us with much to get excited over.

All Bobcats fans want is stretches of competence, and not the 14-56 swoon that finished last season, or the record-setting 7-59 turn that the team came through with in 2011-12. There is reason to tune in this year – Jefferson will have his way despite the team’s iffy outside shooting, Kidd-Gilchrist’s drive and unique style could turn into something special, Walker could be a starter or third guard on a very good team, and Zeller could follow through on his promise – but by and large the ceiling is still very, very low. With a rookie coach. And an owner that seems to meddle too much in between fits of parsimony and free spending.

Bobcats basketball, basically. Something that will probably carry over even after they change their name.

Projected record: 25-57


Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine

While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.

Tune into the Bobcats for … the breathless pursuit of a not-bottom-10 offense.

This might not surprise you, but it is true: In nine seasons as a thing, the Bobcats have never fielded anything even approaching a league-average offense. They’ve finished dead last among the NBA’s 30 teams in points scored per 100 possessions once (in the historically awful 2011-12 run to 7-59), 28th three times (their first two seasons and last year) and 27th twice (‘06-’07 and ’08-’09). Charlotte’s best single-season finish came in 2007-08, when the Bobcats posted the NBA’s 23rd-ranked offense and a 30-52 record; Queen City residents have not seen middle-of-the-road scoring since the Hornets headed to Louisiana.

They probably won’t see one until after the Hornets return, either, but the Bobcats could make a move toward vaulting out of the league’s bottom 10 and toward respectability, if nothing else, thanks to the offseason addition of organizing offensive principle Al Jefferson. (Provided, of course, he’s able to come back none the worse for wear from a preseason ankle injury.)

Big Al knows all about bad offenses -- he first got major minutes during the Boston Celtics’ tank-tastic 2006-07 season, which Doc Rivers’ squad finished as the league’s third-worst group, and he played on bottom-10 teams in each of his three years with the Minnesota Timberwolves. But he comes east after serving as the offensive focal point of Utah Jazz teams that finished 14th in the league in scoring efficiency in 2010-11, seventh in ’11-’12 and 12th last year. If Jefferson can prove capable of routinely generating scoring opportunities when single-covered in the post -- his calling card throughout a nine-year NBA career -- then opposing coaches will have to choose between staying home on the perimeter and letting Al go to work or bringing help to the post, which creates chances for kick-outs, ball-swings and more open looks for his teammates.

Successfully working inside out figures to be critical for a Bobcats team that doesn’t have a ton of long-range shooting to spread the floor. Only reserve shooting guard Ben Gordon has been a consistently above-average 3-point shooter in his career. There are chances for improvement, though -- both point man Kemba Walker and re-signed wing Gerald Henderson nudged their accuracy north last year, small forward Jeffery Taylor was only a bit below league-average as a rookie, and reserve guards Ramon Sessions and Jannero Pargo (while inconsistent) have shown flashes of long-range proficiency in the past. Besides, those Utah squads weren’t chock full of snipers either, and they were still able to generate spacing and scoring chances with well-executed sets, timely cuts and sound passing.

New head coach Steve Clifford will have his work cut out for him in replicating that functionality, but installing a left-block centerpiece off of whom Walker, Henderson, second-year workhorse Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and others can cut, dive and operate should help. It could also allow for some high-low combinations with deft-passing power forward Josh McRoberts, and maybe open up space for rookie Cody Zeller to showcase his off-the-bounce athleticism and face-up game on the opposite side of the floor.

A Bobcats offense that hasn’t had a go-to player since 2009-10 Stephen Jackson and has never had a legitimate paint presence now has bot; as a result, Charlotte now has a chance to show some signs of life. (Offensively, at least.) Probably not enough to be middle-of-the-pack and certainly not enough to contend for a postseason berth, but maybe, on good nights, enough to actually be watchable. That, sadly, represents progress.

Honorable mentions: Kemba mixing dudes and pulling up; MKG dunking very loudly; Zeller’s athleticism in transition; that classic Pargo-to-McBob magic.

Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion

NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.

The Bobcats have been so bad of late that it’s somewhat difficult to know exactly what many of their players are good at, or how they may fit into a functional basketball team. That is especially true of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the 2012 draft’s second-overall pick and a player who doesn’t necessarily project as a big-time scorer. On last season’s Bobcats, MKG was perhaps saddled with too many scoring expectations, and he responded with middling stats.

Kidd-Gilchrist’s 2013-14 season could be quite different, if only because the Bobcats have added a decent first option in Al Jefferson and should have something resembling an NBA offense. In this system, MKG can at least hope to build an identity without taking on too much responsibility too soon. Ideally, he projects as a player somewhat like what Andre Iguodala has become in recent years: a third or fourth scoring option who contributes in virtually every possible aspect of the game, defending the opponent’s best perimeter scorer and simply outworking most everyone else. Kidd-Gilchrist has a long way to go to get to that point, but the path now seems clearer than it did in his rookie season.

It’s as yet undetermined if MKG can fill that role well enough to justify his lofty draft position, and it’s possible that a lack of gaudy statistics will cast him as a bust very early in his career. However, that designation seems all too theoretical in the context of his budding career. What Kidd-Gilchrist needs, more than anything, is tangible progress, in whatever form becomes available to him.

After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.

The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.

Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise

The Miami Heat are a walking and talking embodiment of an NBA stereotype. The team was cobbled together by a high profile former coaching star, the team made a point to work in a party-hearty, warm weather climate, and genuinely nothing of any importance will happen to the Miami Heat until the playoffs start in April. And really, because these are the Heat, the playoffs won’t really start until May. You really can take the regular season off with these guys.

Of course, if you do that, you may just miss out on the finest individual season ever put together by an NBA basketball player.

LeBron James turns 29 just before the start of the New Year, and he is in his basketball prime. The reigning MVP has eliminated just about every negative aspect (for James, this should read, “merely above average aspect”) of his game, with only a Jordan-level free throw stroke (James shot 75 percent last season and just under 78 percent in the playoffs) left to work his way toward. That’s it. His spot-up shooting from long range was amongst the league’s best last year. His defense is superb. He’s worked his way around issues recognizing collapsing zone defenses. He trusts himself in the post. It’s over, and he’s won.

This certainly doesn’t sign the Heat up for a guaranteed third consecutive championship, but if the Heat helpers stay reasonably healthy, and James can offer just under 3,000 minutes of work with a 30 or so Player Efficiency Rating, the Heat will likely once again end up with the league’s best record, and home court advantage throughout the playoffs. This means that any NBA preview discussion regarding the Heat is about as useful as predicting how the playoffs are going to go in the third week in April. We’re all waiting the season out to see if the Pacers or Bulls can give the Heat a run in the East, and if the West can knock together a winner that can stay healthy enough to down the champs in June.

You still need to watch, though.

The Heat are thinner than ever. Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade are a year older, Chris Andersen came into camp in iffy shape, and Mario Chalmers won’t be stepping in as the hero any time soon. A proud and cerebral Udonis Haslem is on his last legs, and sadly we don’t know if Greg Oden has a healthy left leg to stand on. Mike Miller is gone. Shane Battier seems to alternate 10-15 bursts and 2-18 swoons from long range, and there’s only so much Erik Spoelstra can do.

Which is why LeBron will have to step up for six regular season months, and also why he’ll probably put together another year for the ages. Assuming he’s working off the same career arc that seemed to take hold when he decided to stop straying and down the Boston Celtics by his lonesome in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals.

From there, the guesswork is all up to the opponents in the East, and whoever comes out of the West. The Chicago Bulls worked without home court advantage in both the 1993 Conference finals and Finals, and the 1998 NBA Finals as they chased down a three-peat. The 1991 Pistons were swept, as were the 1989 and 2011 Los Angeles Lakers, as all three attempted a three-peat. The San Antonio Spurs, team of their era, has yet to win two straight.

That’s all for May, and likely June. For now, with their position atop the East just about assured, and LeBron’s rightful one-time critics silenced, we can actually enjoy the games for once without the thoughts of legacy bugging us along the way.

At least until someone brings up LeBron becoming a free agent again, I suppose …

Projected record: 60-22


Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine

While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.

Tune into the Heat for … I mean, come on.

They employ LeBron James, who is the best basketball player in the world. He is a force of nature who “sets the boundary of human possibility,” a man at the peak of his powers who responded to the biggest challenge of his career with 37, 12 and a W, and an all-time great who now plays, as a friend of mine put it, to limit the conversation to him, Jordan and Russell. He is worth the price of admission and subscription every night, a playmaker for himself and others on a level rarely seen in the history of the sport; if we allow questions about eventual destinations, one-on-one against ghosts and imaginary final shots to obscure that reality, we are blowing it.

They employ Dwyane Wade, who is one of the most talented and ferocious players of the past decade. He is a fighter whose great performances are a bit fewer and farther between than they used to be, but still pack a hell of a punch when they come. He’s worth watching for those, but maybe even more so to trace the coming steps in his evolution as he turns 32, blows past 30,000 career pro minutes and continues to rage against the dying of his knee.

They employ Chris Bosh, who is perhaps the game’s most overlooked and salt-sprinkled linchpin -- the versatile big man whose length, quickness, shooting and passing touch, understanding of offensive spacing and defensive instincts have been nearly as instrumental in Miami’s ability to change gears between big and small mid-stream in games and series without missing a beat. He’s worth watching for that, but also because he does something weird and hilarious, intentionally or otherwise, just about every night.

They employ Ray Allen, maybe the best shooter of all time and a marksman who shows no signs of slowing down as he cruises past age 38 en route to the left corner, where he is the most dangerous man ever. Their trick-or-treat point guard is hilariously self-confident, and sometimes backs it up. Their bench includes “a crazy-ass white boy” who shot 80 percent from the field in the playoffs, two of the most fascinating reclamation projects in recent memory, and one of the steadiest and smartest guys in the game. Even the guys they bring in for camp do fun stuff.

They won 27 straight games last year. No, for real: they didn’t lose for almost two months. You didn’t imagine that.

The Heat are explosive when running the floor and surgical when they want to slow down. They can score on and stop anyone. Beating them requires opponents to play amazing basketball; as a result, we get to watch stuff like the Knicks hitting 18 3s or ‘Melo scoring 50, or the Bulls snapping the streak and pulling a Game 1 stunner, or the Warriors and Paul George introducing themselves to the world, or the entire last two series of the last postseason.

They’re prompting evolution on both sides of the ball; they’re trying to become just the fifth team in pro hoops history to win three straight titles; and they’re doing so under the threat of it all coming apart in a hail of early termination options in nine months’ time. You should tune into the Heat because, on just about every level, they’re the most fascinating entity in professional basketball. But you already knew that.

Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion

NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.

The biggest problem with previewing the Miami Heat is that whatever they do in the regular season is mostly meaningless. No matter where they finish in the East standings, their postseason finish will ultimately judge their season. A two-time defending champion creates new expectations for itself.

Nevertheless, the health of Dwyane Wade should be a subject of conversation throughout this season. In last spring’s playoffs, Wade looked capable of playing up to his usual high standard in only short bursts, taking over games (or at least attempting to impose himself on the action) in spots rather than over the course of 48 minutes. It was a sign, perhaps, that the nine-time All-Star, who turns 32 in January, is entering a new era in his career, one where he’s not so much an All-NBA talent as a really great player every team would love to employ.

Wade, to his credit, seems to understand that he’s not what he used to be, having accepted the ascendance of LeBron James in the Heat’s hierarchy and becoming quite forthcoming regarding his injury history. But talking about these things is very different than allowing one’s self to appear diminished on the court for a protracted period of time. If Erik Spoelstra attempts to limit Wade’s minutes in the hope of saving him for the regular season, it’s possible that the star’s ego will suffer the consequences. At the same time, Wade could be better suited to shine in the games that matter most to Miami. Wade wants to win, but he’s also used to being near the center of attention. It remains to be seen if he can accept that tradeoff over several months.

Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte BobcatsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto Raptors