Golden State and Phoenix are more than capable of wowing and entertaining even passing fans of the game. The NBA announced their marquee games on Tuesday, and we found out they’ll do whatever it takes to get the Heat, Lakers, Celtics and Magic against each other in any combination on national TV. The moderators talked about the Miami-Boston Opening Night game for the first 16 minutes and spent at least 30 of the remaining 44 discussing these four teams; the rest was commercials.
I’m surprised the league didn’t just organize a high school-style Christmas tournament with those four teams for December 27 and 28. Put it in the Hoosiers gym – better yet, fly the Hoosiers gym to China and make some real money on it. Hire the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cheerleaders and they’d have quite an event. But I digress. The NBA is sadly promoting only 4 of its 30 teams, with the Thunder getting a few mentions while the guys the league pays to pretend they’re reporters and not just peddlers of David Stern’s agenda discuss who the best player is (which is the NBA letting you know who’s allowed to win the MVP this upcoming year).
So what are some of the best match-ups the league can offer that do not include Miami, LA, Boston, and Orlando? We’ll see more than enough of those four during the season, so what else can a fan who’s actually interested in basketball and not just the NBA’s power structure look forward to in 2010-11?
Any combination of Portland, Denver, Utah, and Oklahoma City
The Northwest Division is the Big East of the NBA, with a plethora of strong teams who all beat up on each other and all of whom are capable of toppling the Lakers on any given night. They all finished over .600 last year, and they’re all in the West’s crowded right-below-LAL tier, hoping to even the playing field of the uber-rich Lakers by making smart draft picks and building sound styles of play that require both physical and mental toughness. Any battle between this quartet is for both the division lead and a chance to stay on LA’s heels, so they’ll come with everything they got, and home court advantage becomes all the more important.
Utah is a heady, versatile bunch that plays tough and with purpose. Denver brings a rough-and-tumble defense anchored by their punishing frontline. Portland’s methodical offense will put you to sleep but win games. And OKC’s young perimeter players can always make things interesting. There’s also no shortage of stars in the division with All-Stars Brandon Roy, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and Deron Williams giving even weekend fans a reason to watch any game between these four rivals.
Golden State Warriors vs. Phoenix Suns
Both teams like to run a lot, and both teams have trouble in the stopping-other-running-teams department. They locked horns four times last year, and no one finished with less than 100 points. They put on a post-Christmas thriller on December 26, with the Warriors pulling out a 132-127 victory at home, but the Suns got them back on their return trip, winning 133-131 on March 22. Amar’e Stoudemire left Phoenix for New York, but that means more open 3-pointers on the run from Jason Richardson, Channing Frye, Grant Hill, and Jared Dudley. Nash is still the reason this offense has been working for a while (remember that Stoudemire is always hurt), plus you’re about to learn that Hakim Warrick is more than capable of lighting up a scoreboard in this type of offense. Golden State has young speedsters Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry keeping things at a crazy pace, and David Lee is one of the best bigs at filling the lane on the fast break. If you have a friend or significant other who won't watch basketball, try to ease them into it with this high-scoring circus event.
Chicago Bulls vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Since the league went to six divisions in 2004, Detroit or Cleveland has won the Central every year, with the Cavaliers taking it by 15- and 25-victory gaps the past two seasons. Well that streak is over. Cleveland lost its favorite son, Detroit fell off the map a few years ago (hey Joe Dumars, you might want to start thinking about the future), and the Pacers…well they basically have the exact same team as last year. The Bulls have been playing .500 ball for five years, but there are no more guaranteed losses to Cleveland, Derrick Rose picked up a little bit of a 3-point shot last season, and Chicago has added three useful former-Jazz to the roster (Carlos Boozer, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver), so they should be sniffing 50 wins this year. New Bulls coach Tom Thibodeua comes from the Celtics, so he has a clue how to make twelve guys play as a team.
The Bucks may have something to say before we put a division banner up in the United Center, however. Second-year coach Scott Skiles has instilled confidence and a defensive mindset into the suddenly something Bucks. They surged into the playoffs last year and nearly toppled the third-seeded Hawks, and that was without Andrew Bogut. The return of Bogut means the return of one of the league’s top defensive centers (2.5 blocks per), John Salmons and Corey Maggette provide offensive versatility from the SF and SG positions, and PG Brandon Jennings smartly became much more of a distributor by the end of his rookie season, abandoning his no-shot-is-a-bad-shot ways that defined the start of his career (woeful 37% FG for the year). Luc Mbah a Moute and rookie Larry Sanders add a lot to the defensive capabilities of the frontcourt, so Bulls-Bucks match-ups for the upcoming season could be some real bang-em-out affairs.
Philadelphia 76ers vs. New Jersey Nets
These Atlantic Division rivals fell off the NBA landscape last year, with the built-for-speed Sixers not adapting to coach Eddie Jordan’s slow-it-down style at all (falling from 41 wins in 08-09 to 27 in 09-10), and the Nets suffering a giant yarn ball mess of key injuries early in the season on their way to a historically bad 12-win year (after going 34-48 in 08-09). Both clubs are looking to turn things around and have actually made a few moves in order to do so.
The Sixers quickly dropped Jordan and picked up Doug Collins as their new coach. Collins has never gotten a team over the hump, but he’s taken plenty of so-so clubs to the hump, which would be quite a start in Philly. There are more than a few usable pieces sitting around for the franchise to actually make a turnaround this year (Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young, Louis Williams, Marreese Speights), plus they drafted does-everything-smoothly SG/SF Evan Turner, who has his head on straight and gets compared to Brandon Roy more than Brandon Roy Jr.
The Nets have also shown a seriousness about turning the ship around, signing 3-point machine Anthony Morrow and drafting PF Derrick Favors and SF Damion James, all three of whom can be meaningful contributors right away next to Brook Lopez and Devin Harris. New back-up PG Jordan Farmar brings speed and a few championship rings, and new owner Mikhail Prokhorov wants a winning team made the right way, which thankfully meant only one bad free agent contract (Travis Outlaw at $35 million over 5 years) but not a debilitating one that involved a desperate chase to sign a big-name.
Sure they’re not the most skilled teams around, but both the Sixers and Nets will bust their butts to get back to respectability, and they even have some players capable of getting them there.