Of all the major sports covered here at TheSportsNotebook—the Big Four professional leagues, along with college football and basketball—the NBA is the only one that’s never enjoyed a run as being the one I’d consider a favorite. I’ve always been aware of what was going on in pro basketball, and there were times it had a heightened level of interest, but it’s never been numero uno.
Even the NHL, which I began following later in life, has me hooked enough that I subscribe to the Center Ice package. The NBA has never reached that level.
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That’s been changing for a couple years now and with the free agent decision of LeBron James to return home to Cleveland, I’m as interested in the coming NBA season as I’ve ever been.
As a Boston Celtics fan there were years where my interest was driven by the prospects for my team. But not so this year—with eight first-round picks over the next four years, the C’s will still be in rebuild mode, but I’m completely juiced for the coming season.
There are two reasons, one of which the league has had only rarely and another that it’s been inconsistent on. Those reasons are competitive balance and likable stars.
Let’s start with competitive balance. LeBron’s decision to go home to Cleveland means that any of the following teams have a legitimate chance to win the Eastern Conference…
*Cleveland: If you have the best player in a weakened conference, you’re a contender.
*Chicago: Presumably Derrick Rose is healthy and this team plays lockdown defense.
*Indiana: The talent has been there for 2-3 years. Will the toughness finally be there?
*New York: With Carmelo Anthony re-signed and Phil Jackson making moves, the Knicks could rise swiftly through the East.
*Washington: The Wizards were quietly becoming a well-balanced team last year and they got some postseason experience last year, knocking out Chicago and taking Indiana to six.
*Miami: Hey, let’s not overlook the Heat. What if Dwayne Wade has successful surgery on his knee and can stay reasonably healthy? Chris Bosh has re-signed. Think those two vets won’t be hungry to avenge their Finals humiliation against San Antonio and show what they can do without LeBron.
*Toronto: Why not? They were the 3-seed in the East last year, got some playoff experience in a seven-game loss to Brooklyn and now Miami is without LeBron.
That’s seven teams you can make a legitimate argument for to at least reach the NBA Finals. And we didn’t even mention the successful building that’s going on in Charlotte under the watchful eye of Michael Jordan. What if Charlotte gets in the playoffs for a second straight year and this time has a real chance to advance? A series between them and the Bulls would be fraught with storylines.
None of these teams are going to win an NBA championship—at least you wouldn’t think. But if you just get to the Finals, there’s at least a puncher’s chance at an upset. The Western Conference—the “A League” in the NBA promises excitement at an even higher level.
*San Antonio: Can the Spurs do something they haven’t done before and go back-to-back? Can Tim Duncan and Tony Parker continue to stay healthy and can Kawhi Leonard take the next step to being a season-long star?
*Oklahoma City: In retrospect, it’s pretty clear the Thunder were the second-best team in the NBA last year. The pressure is mounting to deliver and it could be now or never for head coach Scott Brooks.
*LA Clippers: The positive effects of Doc Rivers showed throughout last season and especially when the Donald Sterling mess broke out in the middle of the playoffs. The Clips beat a good Golden State team in the first round and gave OkC all they could handle in the conference semi-finals. There’s a good argument they were already the third-best team in the NBA with not a very big leap to take in order to reach the top.
*Houston: Signing Bosh might have made them favorites, but the Rockets have the talent. Now they have to show it can translate into postseason success.
*Portland: LaMarcus Aldridge showed everyone how good he was last year and this team’s explosive offensive attack would be fun to watch. With some improved depth, there’s no reason the Blazers couldn’t come out of the West.
*Golden State: I’m not sure that I buy them as a title contender now that Mark Jackson is out as coach, but if Steve Kerr is up to the task, the Warriors still have an elite backcourt and a solid frontcourt. Last I checked, that adds up to everything.
I’m not including Dallas on this list, but we should note that the Mavs did win 49 games and took the Spurs to a Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs. Dirk Nowitzki and his team can still knock off anybody, though going three rounds and reaching the Finals seems out of their reach.
That’s 13 teams that I’ve come up with where you can pick any of the group and have a legitimate NBA Finals matchup next June. For a league that’s generally been top-heavy, it’s an extraordinary degree of parity, one I can’t recall seeing since 1994-95, when Jordan was on his baseball sabbatical. The Houston Rockets stepped into the vacuum then. Who steps in now?
And not only is there balance, but there are so many people that it will just be enjoyable to root for. I’d like to see LeBron succeed in his quest to bring a title to Cleveland. Kevin Durant is my favorite of the star players and I’d naturally like to see him get a ring.
Look at the other elite players in the NBA—from Parker and Duncan to Wade and Bosh to James Harden to Steph Curry. They compete hard on the court and are solid citizens off of it. After the early-to-late ‘00s, with Ron Artest brawling and Kobe Bryant on trial, this current batch of stars are a breath of fresh air.
Even the “bad apples” really aren’t bad. Melo has a reputation as a ballhog and Dwight Howard as a diva, but it’s not like either gets in any real trouble. If this is the worst you have, then it looks to me like a group of players that it will be fun to watch.
All of which is why I’m looking forward to the coming NBA season—and hopefully the next several—with more anticipation than I ever have before. This has the real potential to be a Golden Age for the league.