The most anticipated NBA season in recent memory starts with a bang on Tuesday night as LeBron James and the new look Heat battle the rugged Celtics. Here are 21 reasons to watch what promises to be an unforgettable season. Because 20 reasons just weren’t enough.
21. The Start-Ups. I’m a sucker for young, quality teams. I’m not including the Oklahoma City Thunder here, either, because they’re well passed this stage. I’m referring to teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Clippers, and yes, even the Minnesota Timberwolves. Ok, so the Wolves don’t fit the “quality” prerequisite, but I’m still curious to see how Michael Beasley responds in a new setting. I guess David Kahn and I are the only people who still believe in Beasley’s talent. Being in agreement with David Kahn only means one thing; you’re an idiot. In my defense, a team with Minnesota’s athleticism should be good for a handful of 141-138 shootouts with the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns. That’s fun to watch, right?
20. Yao Ming. Is he healthy? Is he still any good? Will he make it past Christmas? All fair questions. The Rockets appear intent on limiting his playing time to less than 25 minutes per game throughout the entire season. If their plan works, a healthy Ming and arguably the West’s deepest bench could be a force come April. On a similar note, will we ever see a full season of Greg Oden? In fairness to Portland, it’s not like anyone drafted after Oden has been a standout player. Oh, that’s right, the Trail Blazers passed on Kevin Durant. Don’t worry, Portland. That mistake will only haunt you for the next 10-12 years. Then, it will all be over. Seriously though, sometimes I forget Oden is even in the NBA. He’s played in fewer games than Allen Iverson over the past two seasons. Oden is only 47, err 22, so there’s plenty of time for improvement, and most centers take longer to develop anyway. However, when the player the franchise passed on is tearing through the league, the world, and winning hearts, it’s time for Oden to show some promise.
19. Animosity is back. I’ve complained about this for years. The NBA is too touchy-feely. Everyone is friends. Bad-blood rivalries between players are gone, etc, etc… The summer of 2010 changed all that. Just about every team is out to destroy the Miami Heat. The Celtics hate anyone not in green. LeBron James has the names of everyone who bashed him. The whole league is on edge this year. Tensions are high. I can’t wait.
18. The competition for the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference will be intense. Please don’t confuse intense with good basketball, though. In fact, I wouldn’t even call it a playoff race. It’ll be more like a playoff scrum. After the obvious playoff participants (in no particular order – Hawks, Celtics, Heat, Bucks, Bulls, Magic), there’s not a lot left. The Knicks are probably a shoe-in for one of those final spots because the East is that bad. Charlotte made the playoffs last season thanks to tough defense and grinding out wins. Another year of that under Larry Brown probably won’t keep Bobcat players invested for a full season, so they’re out. The Cavaliers…well, we don’t need to relive that, but they’re done too. Also left with no shot are the Raptors, Pistons, and Pacers. That leaves the 76ers, Wizards, and Nets as potential murder victims for CSI Miami’s first round playoff special.
17. My beloved 76ers. I’ll admit, this particular “reason to watch” only applies to me and the other eight remaining 76er fans. Obviously, as painful as it may be, I’m going to watch my team. Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner were supposed to bring excitement and optimism this season. After a dismal preseason, they’ve brought panic and hopelessness instead. Doug Collins is already faking migraines and bouts of vertigo so he can resign two weeks before Christmas without being called a quitter. In fact, I would actually support this. I was devastated when the 76ers chose Collins because he and Kevin Harlan made up my favorite NBA broadcast crew. Having Collins back for the playoffs and the Sixers heading to the lottery with a shot at the #1 pick would be the perfect season. Hold that thought. If we could also somehow trade Elton Brand and Andre Iquodala for any type of asset, THAT would be the perfect season. Ok, I’m done.
16. The Rookies. Every year we watch to see which rookies will bust (Hasheem Thabeet) and which will excel (Tyreke Evans, Steph Curry, Brandon Jennings). John Wall looks like a sure thing. I spent a decade watching Allen Iverson slash through defenders and jump passing lines at a breakneck pace. John Wall plays the same way, maybe even faster. In Utah, I think Gordon Hayward will have more of an impact than expected because Jerry Sloan is a master at extracting the most from rookies (see Wesley Matthews and Paul Millsap). I also expect to bang my head against my desk every time DeMarcus Cousins puts up a 20 and 10 while Evan Turner’s stat line reads; 4 pts, 8 TO.
15. The Chicago Bulls. Perhaps my favorite move of the offseason was Chicago’s addition of Kyle Korver because he perfectly complements the Bulls best player (Derrick Rose). Korver, who connected on over 50% of his 3’s last season, gives Rose an outlet when he slashes to the cup and will make opponents pay for clogging the lane. But Rose and Korver aren’t why I want to watch the Bulls. Joakhim Noah is. Noah is the nastiest player in the league. He won’t beat teams by scoring, but he’ll certainly limit the effectiveness of opposing forwards and centers. A lot of players have come out and said they’re not scared of the Miami Heat. Noah is the only one I truly believe. The guy is fearless. Calling out LeBron James from the bench last season when James was dancing at the foul line in a blowout win against the Bulls said a lot about Noah. He’s not intimidated by James or the Heat, or anyone else for that matter. Noah is the quintessential, “I hate that guy, but if he were on my team, I’d love him” type of player.
14. Oklahoma City Thunder. They’re the trendy pick to challenge the Los Angeles Lakers and even represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. When you have a 22 year-old phenom like Kevin Durant, nothing is impossible. The roster is loaded and the atmosphere breeds teamwork and winning. Amazingly, the Thunder employ only five players 26 years of age or older. While there’s a lot to like about this team, I don’t think they’ll reach the conference finals. Up to this point, the Thunder has lost in the 1st round of the playoffs. That’s the extent of this team’s postseason experience. They’ve never entered a season as a heralded team, either. This season, opponents will bring their best to face the NBA’s darlings. The Thunder won’t be overlooked anymore. Going through an 82 game season with a target on your back is significantly more difficult than flying under the radar as OKC has done the past two seasons. How they’ll respond to the added pressure from fans, media, and opponents will be a fascinating storyline throughout the season.
13. The final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Lakers, Jazz, Mavericks, Spurs, Blazers, Thunder, and Rockets should reach the postseason. If Carmelo Anthony is traded as expected, I don’t expect Denver to be the mix, so that leaves one spot open. Can the gutted Suns compete? (Steve Nash doesn’t think so; “I would probably pick us to be outside of the playoffs.” Yeesh.) Will Memphis or the Clippers make the leap? Does Chris Paul give the Hornets a shot? It may not be pretty, but the race for eighth should be entertaining down the stretch.
12. Where will Carmelo Anthony land? It’s a foregone conclusion that he won’t end the season with Denver. Where he’s traded will alter the NBA landscape. If he teams with Amare Stoudemire in New York, the Knicks become an Eastern Conference contender and a potential NBA title contender when Chris Paul flees New Orleans and joins the Knicks in a couple of years. If he joins the Bulls, Clippers, or Rockets, they too improve dramatically as contenders.
11. The return of Chris Paul. While he had an exceptional year in ’08-’09, I feel like Chris Paul has been irrelevant since his Hornets surrendered a 2-0 lead to the San Antonio Spurs in the 2008 Western Conference Semifinals. Paul finally appears healthy heading into the 2010 season as he looks to reclaim his throne as the NBA’s best point guard. Although Paul’s return will fill some seats, the New Orleans Hornets still won’t reach the postseason.
10. The continued rise of Deron Williams. Williams is one of my top five favorite players and currently holds the “NBA’s Best Point Guard” title. Say what you will about his deficiencies (doesn’t attack the rim enough, his hair, etc…), but Williams is fun to watch. When you see him dart up court on a fast break you just know he’s pulling up and burying a three. I nod and smile every time.
9. Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Ernie Johnson on TNT’s Inside the NBA. I DVR meaningless regular season games just to fast forward to halftime and the postgame show. I love these guys. Enough said.
8. Does Dwight Howard finally become Superman? Lost in all the hoopla surrounding the Heat, Celtics, and Bulls, is the Orlando Magic. While they didn’t match the offseason splashes of their Eastern Conference foes, the Magic kept their team intact minus the defection of Matt Barnes to LA. As priceless as it is, continuity still won’t be enough to knock of the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics. Dwight Howard, on the other hand, is enough – but only if he finally reaches, or even approaches, his offensive potential. Only time will tell if Howard’s practice sessions with Hakeem Olajuwon were the result of the marketing department or Howard’s genuine desire to improve. If it’s the latter, the Heat’s kryptonite resides a few hundred miles north of Miami. Howard, with an effective offensive game, would absolutely terrorize the Heat. Even LeBron James, one of the world’s greatest physical specimens, wouldn’t be able to contain the strength of Howard. Does Howard become Superman, or keep masquerading as Superman? The answer to this question may determine the Eastern Conference.
7. Every player, coach, referee, GM, and owner is essentially in a Contract Year. If you know anything about sports, you know fans benefit the most from contract years. Players try harder, focus more, and raise their game to new heights. No, this doesn’t mean that everyone involved with the NBA is seeking a new contract after the 2010-2011 season. It’s not a financial contract year, just a theoretical one. With the threat of a lockout looming, this could be the last these players, coaches, etc… get to display their talents. We all lose if a lockout occurs, but the threat of one looming makes us all winners in the interim. And if nothing in this paragraph made any sense because I screwed it up, just watch because the NBA might not be around next season. Ok, thanks.
6. A familiar Three-peat. That’s right, Kobe Bryant embarks on his second three-peat. Wait a second; didn’t someone else lead a team to two separate three-peats? Oh that’s right. It was Michael Jordan. If Kobe is to pull it off, it’s likely his sixth championship will be the toughest. The Lakers are still the best team in the league, but the contenders have closed the gap over the offseason. Let’s talk about Kobe though. I’m not a big fan, but he’s amazing. We continually wait for him to lose that edge, that competitive streak that makes him the best assassin in the league and the most feared teammate. Yet, he continues to improve his game despite declining athleticism. Although I continually root against him, I’ve learned to appreciate Kobe in recent years. His talents are only exceeded by his desire for greatness. So, enjoy him while he’s still around.
5. The San Antonio Spurs have one more run. I should disclose that I’m not impartial here. Although I’m a 76ers fan, I have a team on the side. That team has been the Spurs since David Robinson entered the league. With the exception of ESPN’s John Hollinger, Tim Duncan and the Spurs have been ignored as contenders. San Antonio was crippled by the health of Tony Parker last season. Parker passed on International play this past summer and is fully rested for one final run. Also, despite an impressive rookie campaign, DeJuan Blair spent the offseason improving his offense. Furthermore, Tiago Splitter will add some much needed front court depth, and George Hill continues to improve with time. If the Spurs find a shooter on their roster (hello, James Anderson) and get more than a walking corpse from Richard Jefferson, it’s not unreasonable to see them grab the 2 or 3 seed in the West. With their improved front court, and breakout years from their young stars, San Antonio could ride off into the sunset one final time.
4. Revenge is on the minds of the Boston Celtics. Don’t you get the feeling that Kevin Garnett and Co. have been seething since they gave away game seven of the 2009 NBA Finals? I’m expecting a motivated and focused team similar to the 2007 Celtics that went wire to wire. If you’re wondering why the 2010 Celtics were constructed as is, allow me to explain. Remember in the second movie of The Lord of The Rings trilogy, when Aragorn describes Saruman’s army as, “an army bred for a single purpose: to destroy the world of men”? Well this Boston Celtic army was bred for two purposes: destroy the Miami Heat in the paint, and batter the crap out of Pau Gasol and the Los Angeles Lakers. I know they’re unpopular outside of Boston, but I love the gritty way the Celtics play. I can’t wait to see if they can maintain this passion for eight months.
3. Kevin Durant might steal the hypothetical “torch” from LeBron James. He’s the most prolific scorer the league has seen in decades. He can effortlessly score 30. He has all the tools of a superstar and more importantly, the humility and motivation of a D-leaguer. Right now, there is no ceiling. Everything LeBron James did wrong in the offseason, Durant did right. He quietly extended his contract, endlessly praised his teammates (even demanding two unheralded teammates appear on the Sports Illustrated cover with him), and was the unquestioned leader of the U.S. national team that was supposed to be humiliated at the FIBA World Championships. The future of the league is bright, especially with Durant in the driver’s seat.
2. The Miami Heat. Three superstars in the prime of their careers joined forces to win multiple titles. Money was left on the table (albeit small amounts) and egos were checked at the door. How long until those egos impact the team will ultimately determine the success of the Miami Heat. Have two of the NBA’s top three players ever played on the same team after fulfilling identical roles on their previous teams? Not that I can think of. This is why the 2010-2011 NBA season revolves around the Miami Heat.
1. Love him or hate him, LeBron James is the number one reason to watch the NBA this year. To some, everything he does will be a success. To others, everything will be a failure, even if he wins a title. His new Nike commercial (a great commercial by the way) paints him as an unapologetic, ignorant, narcissistic, rebellious, and immature hero. Regardless, anyway you cut it; LeBron is still the most talented player in the NBA. Since the end of last season, he’s become the most controversial and polarizing, too. And that’s why, from October through June, we all will watch.