By Trevor Smith
Dress rehearsals are now complete. No more inter-squad scrimmages, no more international exhibits, no more going through the motions.
The playbill is prepared, the marquees are set, and popcorn is ready – friends, after the most scrutinized off-season in history, the NBA is finally back.
And, despite what some might have you believe, there is a whole world of reasons to be curious and obsessive about the season ahead that have nothing to do with the Miami Heat.
At this point there is very little left to say about the Super Friends. If you care about sports at all, there is a good chance you tuned in Tuesday night to see the Heat’s Opening Night flop. What’s more is that the endless examination of all things Big Three each of us partook in this summer means we already had an opinion about this team months before the ball went up at the TD Garden.
So if we all know the prospect the Heat represent, we needn’t scrutinize them further as one of the season’s biggest story line. If ‘taking your talents to South Beach’ is now a globally recognized idiom, it is clear they are storyline one, two and three for most fans.
That annoying coworker of yours who doesn’t know an And-One from an Offside? He is a Heat fan. You? You know that, coast-to-coast, there is more to the NBA this year. Much more.
You know that the road to the Finals still runs through Los Angeles, and that the only assured detour is the expressway outside Boston. The teams who gave us one of the more memorable NBA Finals of the past 20 years just a few months ago just reloaded and got better.
A scary thought, but Tuesday night already showed us as much.
The Lakers held off Houston thanks to new signee Steve Blake (a perfect fit the Triangle), while the Celtics’ restocked depth already looks like it will pose the greatest threat to Miami next spring.
For the Lakers the story remains the same – it begins and ends with Kobe Bean Bryant. Yes, their bench is stronger than a year ago, and yes, Pau Gasol is showing signs of emerging as a transcendent player (perhaps the best at his position league-wide), but the Lakers’ title hopes will come down to how healthy Bryant is next spring, and how much (if anything) he’s lost with all the NBA mileage on his body. Even the masses that hate the Lakers admit it is more fun to root against them than nearly anyone, so watching Bryant try to tie Michael Jordan with six rings and Phil Jackson go for an incredible fourth three-peat will be darn good television.
In Boston, meanwhile, the runners-up from last season have a chip on their shoulder the size of the MassPike and, early slip-up to Cleveland aside, look poised to make a statement early this season. Whereas last year the Celtics were content to coast into the playoffs from the New Year on, the talk around the team this preseason is that of a group that is hungry for more, not one that is biding their time. While inevitably the focus will remain on their Big Three of Garnett, Allen, and Pierce, it is likely that Rajon Rondo has surpassed them as the team’s most important piece. What’s more, their bolstered front-line includes a cast of former MVPs and All-Stars with the veteran savvy and, more importantly, the size to beat the Orlando and Miamis of the world.
If Lakers-Celtics isn’t compelling enough for you, perhaps you are more curious in the happenings in Phoenix, where the Suns are determined to answer the question “How many small forwards is too many?” by trotting out a team with multiple interchangeable parts in hopes that Steve Nash can make everything fit and repeat last season’s magical playoff run. Few are expecting the Suns to even make the playoffs this year, but one thing you can never accuse a Nash-led team of being is uninteresting. Whether he can again push them to lead the league is scoring for a sixth year in a row, to say nothing of whether he can maintain his person streak of 50-win seasons going, is compelling drama for any fan.
Drama, or perhaps more accurately tragedy, is a trait that has defined the health of the hard-luck Houston Rockets for the last few years, and they enter this season as another team worthy of the hoop fanatics’ attention. Yao Ming’s health has long betrayed his greatness. His return this week after missing all of last year following surgery on his feet is one of the happier developments of this oh-so-young NBA season. If only for his humility and perseverance we should all be rooting for the Rockets’ version of a ‘pitch-count’ (they are strictly limiting him to 24 minutes a game and no more) to work out. If you need extra incentive to watch, it comes via his backup, Brad Miller, who has previously proved he was born to play in a Rick Adelman system.
Those looking intently at the injury reports in Texas will likely be just as keen on the drama in the Pacific Northwest, where the internet’s favourite team, the Blazers, is hoping to avoid a repeat a season that saw them forced to cobble together a lineup that won more games than they should have thanks to sheer resolve and team play. If Portland can remain healthy (admittedly a big ‘if’ for a team featuring Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla) and happy (rumours of locker-room and front office riffs have floated all summer), they are a real threat to beat anyone out West.
The tension in Portland is a foothill compared to the Rockie-sized turmoil a few states over in Colorado. The drama in Denver, where the Carmelo Anthony saga has been front-and-centre all summer, refuses to go away. With no end in sight, the speculation around a trade involving Anthony may derail Denver’s season.
The impact that anxiety has is a storyline that will define the hierarchy of the Western Conference, and it may be just as large a story on the Atlantic seaboard, where Anthony’s most-likely destination, the Knicks, appear to be on the path to a revival. The significance of the Knicks being relevant in the NBA landscape again cannot be undersold: outside of the Lakers and Celtics, this is the marquee franchise in the game. While their restructuring is still a work in progress to be sure, the developments at Madison Square Garden should excite fans everywhere.
While New York is positioning itself to be a young team building to win tomorrow, the Bulls are far more remarkable: a young team built to win now. While they may still be a few years away from planning parade routes down Michigan Avenue, they do have most of the pieces in place to make a serious playoff run: superstar leader (Rose), energy and enthusiasm (Noah), strong rebounding (Boozer), and outside shooting (Korver). Watching whether Rose can take the next step in his development and truly becomes one of the league best five or ten players should thrill fans all year.
Those watching the Bulls progress will also no doubt be tracking the developments in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder have become media darlings and everyone’s chic pick to usurp the Western crown from the Lakers. While it may be a bit much to ask that from Oklahoma’s youngster just yet, there is no denying the appeal they represent. They have the league brightest, most-talked about young star in Kevin Durant, who at 22 is already a pre-season favourite for MVP, and a wingman in the form of fellow 22-year old Russell Westbrook, who is ready for the world to realize just what a special talent he is.
Certainly there is a plethora of storylines to keep fans engaged throughout the season ahead. Sure, the happenings in South Beach will have the world’s interest, but they are far from the only reason to be excited about what could be the most fascinating season of the last decade or two.
The NBA is blessed with so many appealing young stars, so many teams with reasons to be hopeful, and so many compelling narratives that we as fans should count ourselves spoiled.
They beauty of the start of any season is that no one truly know what will happen. It was Einstein who said that the most beautiful thing we can experience in life is the mysterious. So welcome back basketball. Bring on the ‘amazing’.