The 2010-2011 NBA regular season tips off tonight with more story lines than a Quentin Tarantino flick. Amidst the sepulchral, perhaps chilling, backdrop of an imminent lockout, 30 teams will commence liftoff, and a handful consider themselves worthy of championship contention.
Gale-force winds will follow Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh wherever they may roam. The star-studded Miami Heat's multiple title chase begins in Boston, where the grumpy, grizzled Celtics are determined to mark their territory as the reigning Eastern Conference champs. Bedlam and ear splitting boos await Erik Spoelstra's squad at TD Garden.
Kevin Durant—the well-mannered youngster who landed in Oklahoma City by way of Washington D.C., the University of Texas, and Seattle—is expected to make the jump from the Thunder’s explosive scoring hatchback to an MVP who carries his mates to late May.
Has any squad with one playoff series under its belt—a six-game defeat—been expected to make such a dramatic jump? Durant conquered the rest of the world at the 2010 FIBA World Championships. Now, Durantula, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka, and the rest of the supporting cast must navigate through uncharted waters—and topple several West powers who have been there and won that.
Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic spent the summer engaged in a “bring it on” war of words with the stacked Heat. Even if Howard did not join Stan Van Gundy and GM Otis Smith in ripping Pat Riley’s South Beach bunch, he wore his disdain like one of his famed sweaters. Vince Carter will try to avoid another reputation-destroying disappearing act—if J.J. Redick does not steal his starting spot first. Van Gundy has promised to replace his signature turtlenecks with ties and button-down shirts, per new dress code regulations, and to supplant his defining courtside scowl with more smiles. Good luck with that sunny disposition thing, Stan.
Yao Ming will start in a meaningful game for the first time since May 9, 2009, when he broke his foot against the same L.A. Lakers who will collect championship jewelry tonight before trying to contain his Houston Rockets.
The Rookie of the Year race is shaping up to be one of the best ever. Washington Wizards PG John Wall and Los Angeles Clippers PF Blake Griffin are the obvious frontrunners, but Sacramento Kings C Demarcus Cousins possesses the physical tools and the mean streak to mount a substantial challenge.
The MVP race will feature the same regulars, but deciding who truly rules the NBA landscape will be much harder. Durant, Kobe Bryant, James, and Wade top the list of Maurice Podoloff Trophy contenders, but Dirk Nowitzki and a few others will snake their way into the discussions.
Other storylines to follow: the San Antonio Spurs youth movement; Tim Duncan’s final years; the retooled Chicago Bulls; Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony’s tenuous situations in New Orleans and Denver; the Utah Jazz’s Carlos Boozer-Al Jefferson swap; the L.A. Clippers’ attempt for just the eighth playoff berth in franchise history; Hedo Turkoglu’s rebound from his dog days in Toronto; Steve Nash’s ageless game versus his elderly defense; the undersized Atlanta Hawks; six new coaches; a new Russian-led regime in New Jersey; Amar’e Stoudemire’s New York State of Mind; and the Golden State Warriors’ slow march to a respectable defense.
Yet, no plotline matters as much as the one that begins at 9:30 p.m. Central Time. Handshakes will replace confetti, rings will replace token trophy grabs, and David Stern will congratulate his favorite cash cow for another mission accomplished.
The Lakers fended off the Celtics in an epic Game Seven slugfest on June 17th. Tonight, the organization will remind everyone it is the NBA’s best damn thing around. No one can escape L.A.’s greatness. Not even the classy front office and coaching staff can dodge the understandable hubris.
The Lakers survived three Western Conference playoff runs and emerged victorious in two of the last three Finals. The Heat can daydream about such success, but until they do it, they might as well wish upon a shooting star or trek to Rome to throw 15 coins in the Trevi Fountain. The summer’s real free agency prize was Phil Jackson, who signed up for one last mercenary mission with perhaps the most talented Lakers squad since Riley’s Showtime era.
The 64-year-old Zen master still is not sure this season will be his last. That uncertainty gives every contender an unmistakable counter-mission. Make him retire. Beat him. Stop the man dead in his paved-with-gold tracks.
Ignore the rhetoric. No one with a modicum of basketball knowledge overlooked or disrespected the Lakers this summer. All of ESPN’s experts picked the Lakers to at least reach the NBA Finals. Wade called them “the favorites” in every interview. Did anyone anywhere on this planet write an article about the 2011 crown without mentioning the Lakers? The disrespect card is fraudulent and insulting.
The Lake Show will continue until another franchise seizes the remote and changes the channel. It is time for a different program. Jackson and the Lakers have won enough for now. Can anyone muster the courage to carry out this murderous mission?
Bryant is the game’s finest closer and its best player. Jackson ranks as the sport’s unrivaled championship chaperon. Anyone who doubts Jackson’s cemented place in history is delusional. He could have retired as the all-time greatest after Jerry Buss dismantled the Kobe-Shaq operation. Instead, he continues to run up the score like a desperate title fiend.
There is nothing wrong with a man who loves winning and knows how to do it, but the time has come for someone else to steal the sideline spotlight.
The Bryant-Jackson tandem does not need to dispatch the South Beach super team to prove a point. Pau Gasol does not require another Finals victory against brutish bully Kevin Garnett to merit Springfield enshrinement. No, forget the rhetoric. This season is not about what motivates Jackson and his two-time defending champs. Instead, it concerns the circumstantial fuel L.A.’s chief competitors must produce to yield a necessary power transfer.
Stop Phil Jackson. It should become the rallying cry heard ‘round the NBA.
His teams have never lost a playoff series after winning game one (48-0), and he never bows with home-court advantage and a top seed. He mastered ego management and honed his bizarre but effective player provocation tactics in Chicago. He smoothed a bumpy Hollywood marriage long enough to collect three consecutive titles. Then, he did what late Celtics legend Red Auerbach said he never could and molded a deplorable roster that once featured Smush Parker and Kwame Brown as starters into the core Gasol and Bryant would turn into the league’s annual late June house-guests.
Mitch Kupchak helped Jackson, to be sure, by acquiring the assets to execute the Gasol transaction, but Auerbach’s belittlement still rings hollow. Auerbach never mentioned that he flipped Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley for the draft rights to Bill Russell, or that he used a territorial pick that same year to select Tom Heinsohn, or that he coached in a league with nine teams without free agency, ESPN rumor hounds, or the internet.
Jackson persevered and stuck with his unorthodox methods to build a curriculum vita unlike any other in sports. Tonight, Stern will commemorate this man’s 11th title, and starved basketball fans hungry for regular season action will latch on to his pursuit for a 12th.
The average player is lucky to stay in the league 12 seasons. A few Hall of Famers did not last that long. A collection of the other best coaches in the major sports could not hope to win that many rings combined in two or three lifetimes.
The Lakers are the NBA’s New York Yankees, with the decorated Celtics keeping close company. Both franchises can bathe themselves in jewelry and blanket a city block with their retired jerseys and banners. Just like the Yankees, the Lakers have endured rough years and a lean decade. In the end, like the Medusa, they always find a way to regenerate because history, a reputation, and a jumbo fan base say they must.
The Celtics and Lakers cannot afford to lose because they are the Celtics and Lakers. Never mind the tortured hoops faithful in Minnesota that dream of something more than one lousy conference finals berth, or an owner who does not breathe and piss incompetence.
The Lakers bring ratings and non-basketball supporters to the water cooler. Stern will never root against the association’s purple and gold monstrosity, but maybe he should. He hopes to convince players and union president Billy Hunter that star athletes eat too much of the revenue pie. His phony message: All teams deserve a chance to contend. There is no way he can sell that drivel to anyone if the Lakers and Jackson triumph again.
Yes, they can lose like everyone else after their transcendent stars depart. When the Lakers are good, though, good luck crashing the empire’s continuous party. The Celtics mystique gives them a similar edge when the talent threshold matches what hangs in the rafters.
Derek Fisher said this to NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper, when prompted, about whether anyone could challenge the Lakers out West.
"My most-reactionary, right-off-the-top-of-my-head answer would be no," Fisher said. "But that's just because of how I feel about my team, not because I know what everybody else is going to be capable of doing. But every season, there are a handful of teams, from each conference, that depending on how things unfold, legitimately could come out on top."
Fisher’s five rings and immeasurable postseason toughness qualify him to make such a statement. The time has come for somebody else not in Boston to get ticked off and do something about it.
Tonight’s broadcast crew may toss around the idea that Jackson’s players will want to send him off in proper Hollywood style, with a fourth three-peat, but the best Tinseltown ending involves beating him. If Jackson’s titles haul were a game, he would be up by 150 points on most of his competitors. He has won by a lot. He has won enough.
No, the story of this season starts with Yao and the Houston Rockets, and every other West challenger with the personnel to make history. No task will prove tougher than this one. Kupchak signed steady PG Steve Blake, backup C Theo Ratliff, and defensive pest Matt Barnes. The two-time champions got even better. If Andrew Bynum stays upright for a full season, it just makes the rest of the league's uphill climb even tougher.
What better way to respect Jackson’s winning ways than to find a way to out-adjust, outmaneuver and outclass him in a playoff series? Even after Durant’s summer ascension, Riley’s stroke of free agency genius, and all else, Jackson is the one to stop. What everyone else must do is clear.
He has won by a lot. He was won enough.