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2014 Bold Predictions: All eyes on LeBron James

The SportsXchange

LeBron James and the Miami Heat are on their way to a three-peat. Is there anything the competition can do about it?

Upstarts Portland and Indiana are darlings of the first two months of the season with the ability to match up with Miami's Big Three. One problem: They must prove it on the grand stage of the NBA playoffs.

As that drama plays out this summer, the impending free agency of James, who can opt out of his contract with the Heat, and Bosh will make July into a must-see cliffhanger.

The Sports Xchange asked all 30 team beat writers to provide a glimpse at what's to come in 2014.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Boston Celtics: Having messed up their tank season by winning the sorry Atlantic Division thanks to the return of guard Rajon Rondo, the Celtics face another year of rebuilding without a lottery pick. Trade rumors continue to swirl around Rondo and the unofficial count of teams interested in him by 2014-15 is 30, but he remains in Boston.

Brooklyn Nets: A team that battled the injury bug finally gets healthy and becomes a force in the weak Eastern Conference. Not only do the Nets earn the No. 3 seed in the East playoffs, but they upset the Indiana Pacers in the conference semifinals and take the Miami Heat to seven games in the conference finals. All this while forward Paul Pierce leads the second unit and forward Kevin Garnett averages fewer than 10 points on the season.

New York Knicks: With their hopes of making the playoffs spiraling downward, the Knicks trade high-scoring forward Carmelo Anthony for a handful of draft picks and younger players. With Anthony, a free agent at the end of the season, the Knicks won just one of four playoff series. The outlook isn't necessarily better without him.

Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers conclude the season playing at their expected level of ineptitude, but rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams captures the Rookie of the Year award. Veteran swingman Evan Turner and/or center Spencer Hawes departs before the trade deadline. Adding free agents, multiple first-round picks and a healthy center Nerlens Noel, the Sixers catapult up the standings in 2014-15.

Toronto Raptors: The December trade with the Sacramento Kings makes the Raptors a better team without forward Rudy Gay. Toronto becomes a more fluid passing team that shares the ball in a pleasing style, and instead of going in the tank as generally expected when the deal was made, they end up as a surprise playoff team in the weak Eastern Conference.

CENTRAL DIVISION

Chicago Bulls: Guard Derrick Rose will play again this season. Consider Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook was back on the court roughly six months after surgery to repair torn lateral meniscus cartilage in his right knee. Rose tore medial meniscus cartilage on the inside of his right knee, which is a less serious injury, in theory. Rose could be back for the playoffs -- if the Bulls make the postseason, which won't happen unless they can find a way to stay healthy.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Four years after ripping out hearts all over Cleveland, forward LeBron James eschews South Beach and Hollywood for a storybook return. Forget Dan Gilbert, this is about his city -- and his legacy -- for a LeBron who returns home far more mature. Oh, and it helps to have a surrounding piece like point guard Kyrie Irving this time around.

Detroit Pistons: Following four years of futility, the Pistons break their playoff drought and take it a step further, defeating the Atlantic Division champion before getting swallowed up by the experienced Indiana Pacers in the conference semifinals. The euphoria comes at a price, as restricted free agent center Greg Monroe gets a huge offer sheet from a big-market club, forcing the Pistons to swallow hard and retain him while killing their financial flexibility for years to come.

Indiana Pacers: The Pacers take the next step after coming up short the past two seasons in their budding rivalry with the Miami Heat. Swingman Paul George emerges as an MVP candidate, center Roy Hibbert becomes the most dominant defensive player in the East, forward David West stays as steady as ever, and electric guard Lance Stephenson comes into his own. Former All-Star forward Danny Granger, back from injury, gives Indiana the depth needed to reach the NBA Finals.

Milwaukee Bucks: Buried deep in the Eastern Conference basement, the Bucks hope to see their young frontcourt of Larry Sanders, John Henson and 19-year-old Greek rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo grow into the core of a contender. However, a rash of injuries destines Milwaukee to a much-needed trip the lottery, with visions of Andrew Wiggins, Marcus Smart and Jabari Parker dancing in general manager John Hammond's head.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

Atlanta Hawks: Despite failing to re-sign homegrown forward Josh Smith and refusing to chase a high-priced free agent last summer, the Hawks make a run deep into the playoffs. First-year coach Mike Budenholzer is able to create the sort of team-first chemistry he learned from his stay as an assistant in San Antonio, and he gets the Hawks into the Eastern Conference finals.

Charlotte Bobcats: The Bobcats make the playoffs for just the second time despite finishing below .500 in the weak Eastern Conference. Then they change their name back to the Hornets and enjoy a groundswell of support from a city that once loved NBA basketball. Last but not least, first-year coach Steve Clifford actually retains his job, unlike owner Michael Jordan's previous one-and-doners Sam Vincent, Paul Silas and Mike Dunlap.

Miami Heat: Three consecutive long postseason runs catch up to the Heat, opening the door for the Indiana Pacers to beat Miami in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. However, the Heat earn a huge win in the offseason when LeBron James decides to remain in Miami. The Heat open their 2014 draft by selecting 6-foot-9 North Carolina forward James Michael McAdoo, the son of Miami assistant coach and former NBA star Bob McAdoo.

Orlando Magic: The Magic don't have the worst record in the league, but they still land the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft for the fourth time in their history, adding potential superstar forward Andrew Wiggins of Kansas to a list of top picks that already includes Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber (traded for Penny Hardaway) and Dwight Howard.

Washington Wizards: The plan comes from the 2013 Golden State Warriors. First, the Wizards reach the postseason for the time since 2008. Then, just as Stephen Curry did the previous year, Washington's dynamic, young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal excites the NBA world during the early rounds of the postseason. Buzz builds. The Warriors' revival led to the acquisition of swingman Andre Iguodala. The Wizards land a notable free agent big man and become a true contender in 2014-15.

SOUTHWEST DIVISION

Dallas Mavericks: The Mavericks thought they solved out their center dilemma last summer with Samuel Dalembert. That hasn't worked out. Look for Dallas to make a play for Marcin Gortat, Spencer Hawes or Omer Asik. Sure, they are not sexy names. Neither was Tyson Chandler a couple of seasons back.

Houston Rockets: A healthy and stable roster enables the Rockets to jell during the second half of this season and sets the stage for a dramatic run to the Western Conference finals. That development galvanizes the city and emboldens Rockets general manager Daryl Morey to make a major offseason acquisition that better positions Houston to claim its third NBA title in 2014-15.

Memphis Grizzlies: New management instigated major change by trading Rudy Gay, then ousting coach Lionel Hollins after a 56-win season and promoting assistant Dave Joerger to head coach. However, with the playoffs fading from the horizon due to multiple injuries, management again goes against local sentiment and deals popular power forward Zach Randolph in a franchise reboot.

New Orleans Hornets: The backcourt-heavy Pelicans look for a dollar-for-dollar trade (average $14.5 million per year) that would send shooting guard Eric Gordon packing and bring in needed help at small forward. Meanwhile, second-year power forward Anthony Davis, a shot-blocking machine who is adding a mid-range jumper to his offensive arsenal, plays in his first All-Star Game, this one in New Orleans in February.

San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs make their 16th consecutive playoff appearance, but it won't be as memorable as No. 15. Last season, they came within seconds of capturing fifth title in the Gregg Popovch-Tim Duncan era. This season, the Spurs tumble from the postseason in the second round. Duncan, point guard Tony Parker and shooting guard Manu Ginobili finally begin to show their age.

NORTHWEST DIVISION

Denver Nuggets: Even with the Nuggets making an 11th consecutive playoff appearance, they wind up with a lottery pick. The Nuggets own New York's pick from the Carmelo Anthony trade three years ago, and a deep draft is projected. On-court success prompts the Nuggets to be sellers at the trade deadline. Denver has 11 players averaging more than 17 minutes a game, and starting small forward Danilo Gallinari (torn left ACL) returns before All-Star weekend.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Days after a first-round loss in Minnesota's first playoff appearance since the spring of 2004, coach Rick Adelman decides to call it a very good career and retires. That opens the door for Flip Saunders, the Wolves' president of basketball operations, to return to the bench nearly a decade after he was relieved of his coaching duties during the 2004-05 season.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Two years removed from trading away guard James Harden, the team captures its first NBA title since moving to Oklahoma City. Forward Kevin Durant wins his fifth scoring title in six years by averaging 37.2 points per game, eclipsing Michael Jordan's single-season high of 37.1 from 1986-87. Realizing he can't lead the team in scoring, guard Russell Westbrook settles on becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double for an entire season.

Portland Trail Blazers: A year after the Blazers went 33-49 and ended on an 0-13 slide, Terry Stotts claims the Coach of the Year Award, forward LaMarcus Aldridge is named Most Valuable Player and the Blazers knock off Indiana to earn the franchise's second NBA championship. Bill Walton, recreating a scene from 37 years earlier, tosses his shirt into the crowd as the buzzer sounds after the Game 7 victory over the Pacers.

Utah Jazz: Despite playing in one of the only states without legalized gambling, the rebuilding Jazz organization strikes it rich in the NBA draft lottery. Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker on the same team? Welcome to Utah. Jazz take Wiggins at No. 1 with their own pick. Fortune really smiles Utah when the Warriors miss the playoffs and their unprotected pick, owed to the Jazz, winds up being Parker at No. 2 overall.

PACIFIC DIVISION

Golden State Warriors: On May 2, the Warriors open the Western Conference semifinals in Los Angeles against the Clippers wearing 1930s-style leather football helmets in a tribute to Southern California native Junior Seau, the former San Diego Chargers star who committed suicide two years earlier after dealing with brain damage. The same franchise that introduced sleeved jerseys to the NBA thus becomes the first to make a big-time, on-the-court statement regarding the life-threatening state of concussions in professional sports.

Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers adapt to coach Doc Rivers' defense schemes and make an impressive run in the postseason. They advance to the Western Conference finals before being eliminated by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Point guard Chris Paul leads the league in assists, and Paul and forward Blake Griffin both finish among the NBA's top 15 in scoring.

Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers find themselves in the lottery, watching those the little balls bounce and hoping they spit out one of the top picks for what is expected to be a loaded draft. And say goodbye to the class act known as Pau Gasol. The Lakers deal the disgruntled forward/center before the trade deadline as the suns set in the West on their playoff hopes.

Phoenix Suns: After winning 25 games last season, the Suns more than double their win total with 54 and return to the Western Conference playoffs following a three-year absence. They lose the opportunity at a high lottery spot in the process, but they happen to own the Lakers' first-round pick as well this summer -- so the Suns get the best of both worlds with Los Angeles enduring a miserable season.

Sacramento Kings: Short of coaxing partial owner Shaquille O'Neal to trade his business suit for a jersey -- and supplying a youth serum -- the Kings continue to ride the similarly large shoulders of center DeMarcus Cousins while working to supply him with help. The evolution of forward Rudy Gay as a King remains an underlying theme, as is the ability of guard Isaiah Thomas to walk the line between distributor and scorer.
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