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NBA Returns: 10 Things to Anticipate with Season in Sight

Robert KleemanSenior Analyst INovember 26, 2011

NBA Returns: 10 Things to Anticipate with Season in Sight

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    Christmas came early Saturday morning for suffering, disenchanted NBA fans. The labor parties eschewed walking the tightrope over a shark-filled pool in favor of a potential season-saving handshake. The players and owners stopped their nauseating, inexplicable, inexcusable dance with Armageddon and shuffled a few more feet to reach a tentative finish line.

    CBS Sports’ Ken Berger first reported the agreement. Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski and NBA.com’s David Aldridge followed. Those three men, along with a few others, deserve extra recognition for superb lockout coverage. You go wait in a hotel lobby for 15 hours multiple times in a summer. They kept supporters informed and afforded me the information necessary to author insightful (OK, distressed) columns.

    I can now publish frequent pieces on basketball-related topics. No more BRI discourse, open letters to owners and players or hatchet jobs on behalf of the self-absorbed, misguided labor negotiators. Whew.

    Happy holidays, professional hoops fanatics. College basketball now becomes a healthy supplement instead of the lone available hardwood drug. If the board of governors and reformed NBA Players Association’s membership ratifies the proposed collective bargaining agreement (and Wojnarowski Tweeted that both sides are expected to pass this puppy—thank goodness), Derek Fisher will soon wear a Laker uniform instead of a suit.

    Compelling Monday showdowns will supplant the umpteenth showings of Hoosiers and Teen Wolf on the league’s 24-hour channel. Kevin Durant vs. Derrick Rose, anyone?

    I could have penned a 50-item list, but a 10-click presentation seemed like the merciful, considerate and concise thing to do. Who has time to flip through 50 pages worth of material, anyway?

    Here is one writer’s inventory of things to celebrate with a provisional labor accord in place.

10. Free Agency Frenzy

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    David Stern wants the season to tip off Dec. 25. A Christmas Day commencement necessitates maybe the shortest free agency period in sports history. The league will consolidate free agency, training camps and an abbreviated preseason into a picayune window that opens Dec. 9.

    Prepare for bedlam. Prepare for a frenetic bachelor’s market that will make the NFL’s abridged signing period look like a children’s TV program. Get ready for some real fun. Though the 2011 class does not boast any franchise saviors, a number of teams will vie to snatch up a bevy of championship-level, seven-foot bedrocks.

    The Mavericks’ repeat chances hinge on whether Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson can afford to keep defensive anchor Tyson Chandler in Dallas. The Memphis Grizzlies will regress from title-contending, loaded bears to trotting turkeys if Marc Gasol escapes GM Chris Wallace’s grasp. The restricted free agent will command one of the heftiest paydays. It is unlikely that Gasol will become the first restricted player to break the mold, but rival executives will crunch numbers and work every creative contract offer possible to pry him from Memphis.

    Will the Grizzlies roar and take the next step or gobble back to the lottery?

    The much-ballyhooed 2012 free agencies of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard make this upcoming Dec. 9 adventure more delicious. Front offices get less official time—though, obvious backdoor conversations took place during the dispute—to plan roster improvement strategies. Who goes all in now to get the best player available and who waits for next summer, the way so many franchises bowed at the feet of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and others in 2010? Daryl Morey, I’m looking in your direction.

    Jamal Crawford and Kris Humphries lead the pack of questionable single men. Which team will say, “I do” to these undersized, equally valuable and flawed players? Can each find a better destination than Atlanta and New Jersey, respectively?

    More on this delightful mayhem in a later column…

9. Heat vs. Mavericks. Christmas Day. Enough Said.

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    If the NBA’s Christmas main course needed additional spice, the Mavericks’ rescheduled ring ceremony should provide it. Heat coach Erick Spoelstra might have preferred to open the campaign against a bottom-feeder. Instead, he’ll lead James, Wade and Chris Bosh to Texas where they’ll watch Dirk Nowitzki and co. grab hardware and then try to hand the defending champs a Day 1 defeat.

    Will Miami manage any supporting cast upgrades? Will Rick Carlisle enter the American Airlines Center with Chandler starting at center? The title prospects for both conference champions depend on those answers.

    Few things could prove tastier than the fried bird I devoured Thanksgiving afternoon, but this comes close. Yummy.

8. Marv Albert and Metta World Peace

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    Cheap thrill seekers will appreciate this prospective scenario. It figures that TNT will broadcast a few games involving the L.A. Lakers. The esteemed, legendary Albert will perform play-by-play duties for at least one of those jousts.

    If Ron Artest (who changed his legal name to Metta World Peace) survives this season’s round of amnesty clause cuts, he will suit up in that Thursday night affair sporting his new surname on the back of his jersey.

    I think you know where this is going. “World Peace for three…yes!” Awesome.

7. Kevin Harlan’s Dramatic Calls

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    The vivacious broadcaster saves his signature phrases for plays worthy of their usage. When those moments arrive, though, Harlan does not disappoint.

    I can hear it now. Rose drills his fifth three-pointer with a hand flossing his teeth to break a knotted score in the fourth quarter of a Thursday nail-biter. “Derrick Rose…right between the eyes!” Harlan does an impressive job calling pigskin action, but he unleashes his broadcasting best on TNT. Only Albert and Mike Breen deliver better play-by-play reactions in suspenseful contests.

4. New Coaches Steer Teams in Transition

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    How many times can Mark Jackson yell “hand down, man down” in Warriors huddles before he loses his players’ respect? No one knows how Golden State’s rookie sideline chief will handle the pressures of the NBA coaching grind, or if he can take the roster where long-time assistant Keith Smart could not—back to the postseason.

    Jackson boasted no previous coaching experience, but he wowed the Warriors’ revamped brain trust and new owners with his panache and preparedness.

    Many other tacticians will helm teams for the first time or return to the bench after a year or more absence.

    Kevin McHale served two interim stints in Minnesota, but this season marks the first time he will tackle the job on a full-time basis. 

    No one could ask Mike Brown to fill Phil Jackson’s enormous shoes, but he must keep them on while stewarding Kobe Bryant’s final years as a Laker. Brown guided the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA Finals and multiple playoff berths. Can he seal the deal with the 16-time champs?

    Lawrence Frank and Paul Silas do not have many resume wins to show for their dedication and resourcefulness. They face daunting rebuilding jobs in Detroit and Charlotte. Yet, they approach the idea of reconstruction with enviable shrugs. They live for this kind of work. 

    A few new hires had all of seven days to meet incoming rookies after the June draft. Others, like Frank, accepted positions during the lockout and have not been able to utter one word to the players whose respect they must command. Ouch.

    Those who question the importance and role of NBA coaches should hush up for good when this shortened season concludes. The structure a competent coach provides remains as vital as ever.

5. Which Players Slacked During Lockout?

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    The most intriguing query may yield the most damning answers. The 149-day dispute offered the unemployed athletes a chance to pursue other passions or rest after a grueling 82-game drudgery.

    It also afforded those not at the bargaining table (or close to it) an opportunity to become couch potatoes. With team-sponsored workouts prohibited and practice facilities locked, the judicious, determined players congregated for impromptu fitness sessions.

    A handful began seasons with overseas outfits weeks ago. What about the rest of NBA’s 450-player population? Staying in shape without the aid of a coaching staff and a franchise-operated basketball court requires immense self-discipline. With no end in sight, how many employees said, “To hell with this work stoppage and game shape”?

    Those imprudent ballers will not like what happens when they report to training camp Dec. 9 with excessive body fat and rust. Getting a groove back will prove difficult, even for those who spent the summer living in a gym. Imagine the pain and scorn that awaits the ones who vegged out while the labor parties sparred in boardroom session after boardroom session.

    I would bet everything in my bank account that Luis Scola, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Martin and Dirk Nowitzki could suit up tonight and play 36 minutes. Manu Ginobili and Shane Battier love the game too much to disgrace it by slouching. A significant segment of players, though, will huff and puff more than the big bad wolf. The only thing they’ll blow down is their own reputes.

4. Inside the NBA with Sir Charles

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    Enjoyable as the NBATV round-table shows with Charles Barkley and the other TNT players-turned-analysts have been, nothing beats the Ernie-Kenny-Chuck trifecta on one of the best sports programs ever.

    The greed-infested lockout was turrible. The prospect of no season and no Chuckster to offer animated, hysterical commentary was even worse. Now, NBA fans get the Barkley entree with a delectable new side dish in Shaquille O’Neal. If the two former interior greats duke it out for top dog status on the studio set, that just means more priceless entertainment for hoops hungry consumers.

    I, for one, cannot wait to see another riveting edition of “Who He Play For,” the game where host Ernie Johnson asks Barkley to place benchwarmers and aging role players with their current squads. I also would not oppose another Kenny Smith-Barkley diaper changing competition.

3. Veterans Can End Careers on Own Terms

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    A cancelled season threatened to prematurely murder the careers of at least a dozen veterans, many of which should expect Springfield enshrinements five years after retirement.

    The work stoppage’s pending resolution allows Tim Duncan, Ginobili, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to dictate when they leave the game that would have been different for the worse without them. Only those players know how they would have reacted to a torpedoed campaign, but logic suggests a one-year layoff would have been catastrophic for at least a few of those enduring names.

    Stern was no doubt sincere when he lamented throughout the labor mess that the deadlock could cause the league to lose some of its finest citizens. He knows what Duncan means to the sport. He understands that Nash, even in his mid-30s, continues to sell tickets and move jerseys.

    A healthy Big Ticket alongside Allen, Pierce and Rajon Rondo keeps the Celtics relevant if not in the title conversation. Don’t count out Boston, San Antonio or Dallas in the championship chase.

    Those fanbases must still prepare for an eventual season that does not involve one or more of those first-ballot Hall of Famers. This way, though, they can put off the inevitable grieving period, at least a few more months.

2. Western Conference Playoff Chase

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    The San Antonio Spurs’ Big Three includes two aging fixtures nearing career exoduses. It seems like half of the Denver Nuggets roster signed deals to play in China through February. The Dallas Mavericks still boast the league’s oldest team in both average age and core membership. The starting point guard turns 39 next March. The franchise star turns 34 next June.

    Amar’e Stoudemire’s defection to New York coupled with Nash’s age threw the Suns' franchise into an undesirable stuck-in-the-mud phase one year removed from a Western Conference Finals berth. The Lakers bowed to the champion Mavs in a sweep that exposed them as a disjointed, dysfunctional, flawed bunch with an abundance of 30-somethings.

    All of that means securing a playoff spot in the still superior Western Conference will be as facile as ever, right? The opportunistic Houston Rockets and ultra-talented L.A. Clippers will just slide into vacated lower slots while the supposed elderly squads fade into oblivion, yes?

    Not so fast. Wrong.

    Anyone who expects the Spurs, Mavericks and Lakers to win less than the equivalent of 50 games and miss the postseason is mistaken and delusional. That abrasive transition will come soon enough but not now—provided the numerous All-Star contributors stay upright. George Karl-coached teams may not routinely challenge for Larry O’Brien trophies, but they rarely quit. Wait until the free agency dust to bury the feisty Nuggets.

    Rockets and Clippers followers will not enjoy my assessment, but they better get used to the truths I just presented. We may yet witness the closest conference playoff pursuit in the association’s history.

    At least 13 of the 15 West squads can set sights on late April games. With Rick Adelman chaperoning the Timberwolves and the Kings up to their arms in talent with upside, is it ridiculous to suggest that dates with Minnesota and Sacramento no longer count as sure-fire blowout victories?

    All 15 outfits must answer legitimate questions, some bigger than others. I invite you to dispute my claim. Tell me why, on talent alone (discarding all other factors), a certain team cannot at least compete for the eighth seed. I think I’ll be eating a well-marbled steak instead of crow when the season ends.

1. The Memphis Grizzlies

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    Forget the Chicago Bulls, Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder. No developing team fascinates me more than the one that plays within an earshot of Beale Street. The Grizzlies stunned the 61-win Spurs and finished one victory shy of the Western Conference Finals.

    The squad sported the eighth-best record in its conference, but there are not seven other teams in the entire league with Memphis’ defensive and interior capabilities. Much maligned owner Michael Heisley opened his wallet to keep Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay and Mike Conley off the market, just as he promised several years ago when pundits derided him as a cheapskate. He parlayed Pau Gasol—once seen as a lopsided donation to L.A.—into one of the NBA’s best frontlines.

    Decision time arrives again for Heisley. Will he pony up to keep Pau’s younger brother Marc, one of the best pivots with further room to grow? What to do with 33-year-old glue guy Shane Battier?

    Heisley and Wallace must first figure out how to afford this promising core. If they can succeed there (and I do not blame anyone who doubts the feasibility of that), the Grizzlies merit mention in the title conversation. The following number matters a lot more than the 46 wins and eighth-place designation that caused many to pigeonhole Memphis as a flavor-of-the-month mirage.

    Four. As in, the Grizzlies were outscored in the paint four times the entire year. That includes the pre and postseasons. Think about that for a second. Memphis again led the league in inside production, an impressive feat.

    Coach Lionel Hollins all but gunned for a matchup with the Spurs by sitting some regulars, including Randolph and Conley, in the final two regular-season matches.

    The Grizzlies also dropped a deplorable number of contests to last-place teams. Also consider that Memphis beat more plus-.500 teams than Miami, the team that represented the East in the Finals.

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