Tonight marks the 30th time I have lived through an opening night to the NBA season. (I am aware that the first few years I may not have been totally aware of what was going on – The Fo Fo Fo Sixers, rampant cocaine use, Jack Sikma’s hair – but do have real memories that beautifully begin with the 1986 “greatest NBA team of all-time” Celtics.) In honor of this triple decade milestone and the number of important ways the number 30 seems to play in NBA life (30 NBA teams, the number Olden Polynice wore as a member of the 1994 Los Angeles Clippers), I will numerically countdown the major stories, players, subplots, and trends in my most beloved professional sport.
30 – The number of years of David Stern’s tenure as NBA commissioner when he retires in February of 2014
As announced last week, David’s Stern’s 16 month retirement tour has begun. In delaying his exit for over a year, Stern will pass Pete Rozelle as the longest serving commissioner in American professional sports history (it does seem like Bud Selig has been around a longer time). Although often criticized for his Machiavellian control and ruthless tactics, Mr. Stern has guided a league that showed NBA Finals games on tape delay to an international juggernaut whose signature players represent some of the most recognized personalities in the world. Although his tenure timing was impeccably placed with the rise of Magic, Larry, and MJ in the 80s, Stern’s creative initiatives, marketing brilliance, media-savvy decision-making (the NBA continues to be ahead of its time with on-line access), and guiding problem-solving skills during crises (two major labor disputes, the fact that Jamal Magloire was an all-star) have fostered the Association’s remarkable rise to preeminence. David Stern will be missed (and we have over a year and half to reminisce as successor Adam Silver waits in the “I have to handle second round of draft duty booing again?” wings).
29 – The number of NBA teams chasing the Miami Heat
For the foreseeable future (and not since Shaqobe’s 2000 Lakers behemoth), there is the Miami Heat and then everyone else (especially after the OKC/James Harden breakup this weekend). The Heat are the definitive league alpha dog and as chants at Sunday’s Celtics open practice can attest, it is all about “beat[ing] the Heat.”
27 – 28 – The ages of NBA royalty
In the year 2013, the following is a list of just some of the players who will at some point be either 27 or 28 years old: LeBron James, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Carmelo Anthony, Andre Igoudala, Rajon Rondo, Zaza Pachulia, and Dwight Howard. Beyond Zaza (who feels like he has been around longer than 28 years), this is a healthy portion of the leagues elite, Olympic Gold Medal-winning, modern superstar class. 27-28 also marks the years in which many of the best all-time have made the ultimate leap. Jordan won his first of six championships at 28. Bird was in the middle of three consecutive MVPs. Magic’s Lakers won back to back championships, the first team to do so since Russell’s Celtics. LeBron has already reached the mountaintop (more on this later). How will Rajon Rondo and his Olympic brothers fare?
26 – The number of points per game that Kevin Love averaged in 2011-2012
Considering that the NBA’s best classic power forward has seen his points per game average rise an incredible average of 5 points per game over his first four seasons (a truly amazing statistic, albeit with relative minute per game increases), what is in store for Mr. Love and his Timberwolves this year? A recent push-up accident has sidelined Love for several weeks to start the season and with Ricky Rubio’s offensive wizardry expected to miss some early season time as well, the T-Wolves have their work cut out for them early on. In an injury-less world (especially one that features the potential of a 2009 Brandon Roy), they are a playoff basketball team. Due to injuries, I see Minnesota as the least predictive preseason pick.
25 – The legacy of Benji Wilson
30 for 30’s awesome recent documentary, “Benji,” chronicled the life and tragic shooting death of early 80s Chicago High School hoops star, Benji Wilson. In the fall of 1984, Benji and his Simeon Vocational High School team were coming off an Illinois Basketball State Championship and Benji was ranked first among all prep players in the country. According to Nike guru, Sonny Vaccaro, Benji was destined to be a surefire NBA star. Although I had heard of him, I knew very little before watching the doc. I was moved by his story and was surprised by the scope of his basketball influence and legacy. Adorning the number 25 for Simeon, Wilson inspired future Simeon star Derrick Rose and current high school phenom (if you have not heard of him, you will by 2014) Jabari Parker to wear number 25 in Benji’s honor. Mr. Rose will spend most (if not all) of the 2012-2013 recovering from last spring’s nasty ACL injury (a major NBA story that did tip the Eastern Conference balance of power) and Parker (a high school senior) is still a few years away, but the NBA “what could have been” story of Benji will not soon leave my mind.
24 – Kobe Bryant’s number
The Black Mamba, now entering his seventeenth season in the Association, has his best supporting cast since 2002. (Speaking of 2002, I was watching an episode of Alias that originally aired in 2002. Sydney’s friend Francie was all excited about going to a Laker game to see Kobe. If you had told me that the least dated thing about an Alias episode from ten years ago was seeing Kobe, then a six year veteran, play for the Lakers, I would have believed you not.) Much of league banter (and a portion of this column) centers on LeBron James and his ascension to the league throne. What is often lost (although Laker hype has been real) is just how amazing Kobe’s career has been (to the point that outside of LA, he may be a little underrated). He is currently fourth all-time in points and will, barring injury, probably pass Wilt sometime after the All-Star game and pass MJ early next year. He has five rings and the best chance for a sixth this year (an even better team than when he won in 2009 and 2010). Let’s say (gulp, god forbid) the Lakers put it all together and win it all in June. Kobe is inarguably moved ahead of Jerry West and Oscar Robertson as the third best guard of all-time (behind MJ and Magic), but I could argue that with six rings (stretched over 13 seasons to Magic’s 5 in 12 seasons), he has to be strongly considered as the best Laker of all-time (and subsequently only behind Michael for guards). Considering his suffering through the wasteful Smush Parker/Chris Mihm/Kwame Brown years, Kobe’s career (at age 34) is already transcendent, but could even have more life in it yet (thank you to German modern medicine!) and if the game’s best center and top 3 player loves LA (as I think Dwight will), crafty veteran Bryant could win more than just one more (LeBron will have a lot to say about this) and then how do we see him historically? Kobe Bryant may never be considered the best player of all-time (Jordan sneers in disgust of the mere thought), but his ceiling could be the best career of all-time.
23 – The average Brooklyn Nets win totals from the last two seasons
In case you hadn’t heard (wait really? Are you sure?), Brooklyn has a new basketball team. They are really from Brooklyn (like the Dodgers, Jay-Z, or Streisand) and are ready to dominate the NBA apparel market (if you have been a media cocoon and haven’t noticed, trust me – you will). Despite the Barclays Center/”welcome home”/best borough/monochromatic onslaught, there is still basketball to be played and the Nets have averaged 22 wins over the last two seasons (and I know last year was only 65 games, but they had only 12 wins the year before so it all evens out). After losing out on the media catastrophe that was the Dwight Howard sweepstakes, they acquired Joe “something is suspicious when your old team rejoices in unloading their supposed best player” Johnson, resigned the rebounding-deficient Brook “not your most eloquent public speaker” Lopez and Kris “I am so excited to be another year removed from the whole 72 day marriage to Kim Kardashian” Humphries, and were able to keep Deron “has yet to have a significant NBA moment” Williams only because Mark Cuban was absent from the Dallas Mavericks’ sales pitch on account of Shark Tank filming obligations (an amazing program) in LA. Throw in some journeyman bench veterans (Reggie Evans, Jerry Stackhouse, Keith Bogans, Josh Childress), some foreign players (Teletovic, Shengelia), one savvy move (C.J. Watson, a steal from Chicago), serviceable returnees (Gerald Wallace, MarShon Brooks), and the NBA’s great enigma (Andrae Blatche), and you have yourself a professional basketball team! On paper, they are certainly intriguing, but in actuality, I question their defense, their ability to find chemistry, and the potential for their best player to be a best player on a contending team. Could the Brooklyn goodwill and honestly positive franchise momentum (the New Jersey Nets, besides a brief Jason Kidd glory period in the early 2000s, were a eastern conference trouble spot) lead them to a 3 or 4 seed in the conference? Possibly. Let’s just not raise the banner yet, people.
22 – The number of games over .500 the Knicks will be (and the Eastern Conference 3 seed at 52-30)
One of my big bold 2012-2013 predictions is that the Knicks are going to be good (I mean really good). With Jason Kidd’s steadying force (more on that in a bit), the Brooklyn over-hype as motivation, an amazing collection of the leagues oldest veterans, some defensive possibilities with Ronnie Brewer, Iman Shumpert, and Tyson Chandler all playing at the same time, and Carmelo Anthony ready to make the ultimate leap (this is going to be most important), I think the Knicks will finally get over the underachieving regular season hump be a force to be reckoned with. Carmelo is the obvious key and if his permanent move to the 4 (Amare must accept a role off the bench, they simply cannot play Melo, Chandler, and Amare at the same time) works for all parties, watch out. I remember his three-point barrage game in London against Nigeria when on this night, Carmelo was the best player in the world. He has this in him and now that LeBron has reached the NBA land of glory, his old rival Melo wants a piece. Knicks will be the three seed in the East. You read it here (and probably only here, tough) first.
21 – Seasons since Larry Bird last played
There is not an NBA moment that goes by that I don’t miss watching the Legend play. For the first time in my lifetime, Larry Bird will not be an active member of the NBA (stepping down last July as Pacers general manager). I already feel the loss. We miss you, Larry.
20 – The age Anthony Davis turns in March
Believe the hype. Anthony Davis is a legit physical specimen, gained essential knowledge (especially in work ethic and game preparation) and confidence playing with Team USA this summer (thank you Blake Griffin injury), and is primed to be a star in this league. I love the New Orleans situation for him – great, young player’s coach in Monty Williams, a stud scorer on the wing (Eric Gordon), some promising young character guys to grow with (Austin Rivers), and some freedom to find his game in a low pressure, high upside team. He will win the 2012-2013 rookie of the year (he is going to get major minutes – often a necessity for ROY, Portland’s Damian Lillard will be the runner-up) and will be a highlight machine for doing things that no one else can (“run the floor, big man!”, the Western Conference version of Rajon Rondo). Welcome to the league, big fella.
19 – Current over/under on Bobcats wins going in to the season
I will take the under. Despite my genuine enjoyment of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s everything and my adoration for Gerald Henderson’s dad’s Celtic years (“Henderson stole the ball”), this is a painful team to be any part of who need to get even worse (is it possible?) before they can get better. For 41 nights during the year, season ticket holders in NBA arenas across the country will be looking for seat takers when the Bobcats come to town. The idea that Michael Jordan (the NBA’s ultimate modern era winner) has anything to do (he has everything to do with this team) makes me feel a little sick.
18 – The number of seasons played by Grant Hill (in fairness he was injured for one) and Jason Kidd entering 2012-2013
It is incredible that the two co-rookie of the year winners from 1995 are still here and almost twenty years later, will continue to be key contributors to their respective (and new) teams. Both are noteworthy for their “U2 in their first twenty years like” reinvention and subsequent preservation. Hill went from being the heir to the Michael/Scottie wing player throne to a devastating and potentially career ending injury-plagued stretch in Orlando to become a stalwart and efficient scorer and great on ball defender in his recent Steve Nash Phoenix years. Now, as a wing off the bench in LA for the Clippers,
he will be a major piece in the defend Kevin Durant/Kobe Bryant/LeBron James sweepstakes (something they severely lacked) and will likely play crunch time minutes next to CP3 and Blake. Jason Kidd was the league’s best point guard for many years (especially in his back-to-back Finals runs with the Nets), but was able to reinvent himself as smart distributor who can shoot wide open threes (he is third all-time!!!) with the Mavericks (finally winning a championship in 2011). Now as the Knicks backup point guard (backing up Ray “I have only been out of shape once in my career” Felton), he will play manageable minutes for a 39 year old, but could see lots of crunch time as the calming energy next to Carmelo, Amare, and JR Smith (especially in need of a calming force). My hat goes off to both of these two.
17 – The number of championships won by the Boston Celtics all-time
16 – The number of championships won by the Los Angeles Lakers franchise all-time
Although an admitted and unabashed loyal Celtics follower, I think this is a legitimate competition despite Laker naysayers always pointing out that five Laker trophies were handed out in Minneapolis before 1955. In Lakers defense (or no offense to the Celtics), since Bill Russell’s retirement in 1969, the Celtics have won six championships and the Lakers have won eleven. The competition for all-time NBA team supremacy heats up even more this year with a both teams doing some essential retooling in the world of LeBron and everyone else that place them both in the title contender conversation. The way I look at it? In a current league in which one team careers are more rare than a Andris Biedrins made free throw, I know how lucky I have been to watch Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce represent these two storied franchises since 1998 (Kobe arrived in 1996). Other players have come and gone, but Pierce and Bryant have managed to survive their own trade demands, lousy teams (although Kwame Brown is one thing, Pierce has had his own slew of awful teammates), and life-altering moments to become the signature players of the post Magic and Larry eras of their respective clubs. It continues to be a privilege to enter an NBA season with a Kobe-led Lakers team and a Pierce-led Celtics team competing for an NBA title and historical bragging rights. May the best (Celtics) team win.
15 – My take: Kyrie Irving will be one of the top 15 players in the NBA this year
Here are my picks for the All-NBA Teams for 2012-2013 (and since the all-star voting now is sensitive to the movement away from true centers toward “bigs”, I will follow suit):
All NBA First Team – LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo
All NBA Second Team – Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, Chris Bosh
All NBA Third Team – Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Deron Williams, Andre Igoudala, Kevin Garnett
14 – The teams that are not making the playoffs
The following teams will not be making the 2013 NBA playoffs:
East – Bobcats (awful), Magic, Raptors (close, but not yet), Wizards (more professional, equally bad), Cavaliers (Kyrie is a lone bright spot in this group), Bucks, Pistons (a valiant effort)
West – Blazers, Kings (the NBA’s most combustible team), Jazz, Suns, Hornets (one of the most fun teams to watch), Rockets (ditto), Mavericks
13 – James Harden’s number, the new Houston Rocket alpha-dog
I think I have a pretty good handle of the NBA and certainly revere its history, but to say I understand the machinations of its economic system would be a gross overstatement (I leave this to the experts – I am looking at you Zach Lowe, Adrian Wojnarowski, Bill Simmons, and competent NBA GMs). My understanding is that James Harden is a Houston Rocket (and is about to sign max deal extension) because the Harden wanted max money and the Thunder did not want to pay a higher luxury tax. This forced the team with most credible threat to LeBron’s kingdom (more on this later) to send their 23-year-old budding star packing. What does this mean for oh great bearded one, Mr. Harden? I am of the camp that thinks Harden is legit and will be a top fifteen player in the league as soon as this year (see my All-NBA selections above, making the Thunder decision to trade all the more baffling). The Rockets went from a bunch of weird parts plus Jeremy Lin and Omer “defensive genius” Asik to a very intriguing team (especially if Royce White gains some NBA comfort) that will have cap flexibility down the line and a star player in Harden. Despite some win-loss induced growing pains, Harden could very well lead the Rockets toward the mix for the 7-8 seeds in the Western Conference playoff picture. I wish Coach McHale the best of luck.
12 – The 12th man, the chemist
All things NBA master Bill Simmons recently developed the idea of the NBA chemist (detailed here) that depicts the importance of that glue guy at the end of an NBA bench whose intangible contributions (quality of handshake and towel wave, card playing prowess) and energy on the court (in limited minutes) and off the court help to create a winning NBA team environment. Some of these all-time chemists (Jack Haley, M.L. Carr in later years) and more recent chemists (Brian Scalabrine) foster success and can be indispensable on winning teams. From my sixteen playoff team picks, I selected the most likely chemist (had to be out of the probable top 9 rotation) on each and ranked them for who will create the most chemistry.
East – 1. Nate Robinson (Bulls, when DRose comes back), 2. DeShawn Stevenson (Hawks), 3. Mike Miller (Heat), 4. Jerry Stackhouse (Nets), 5. Rasheed Wallace (Knicks), 6. Leandro Barbosa (Celtics), 7. Miles Plumlee (Pacers), 8. Arnett Moultrie (Sixers)
West – Chris Duhon (Lakers), Jose Barea (TWolves), Patty Mills (Spurs), Ronny Turiaf (Clippers), Josh Selby (Grizzlies), Reggie Jackson (Thunder), Timofey Mozgov (Nuggets), Jeremy Tyler (Warriors)
11 – This year is the eleventh season of the Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili era and San Antonio
It has hard to believe that these three NBA warrior winners have been together this long. It is now almost six years since their last championship and I am not sure if they have the defenders to stop the neo power 4s (LeBron, Durant) or more athletic guards (Westbrook, Rose, Rondo) in a playoff series, but after two straight seasons atop or tied for most regular season wins, we can not count out the Spurs as long as Misters Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili remain healthy and Greg Popovich commands the sidelines. The goal for them must be to find ways to neutralize the Lakers and Thunder defensively and this could require some of R.C. Buford’s midseason trash heap acquisition magic (last year Stephen Jackson and Boris “I ate too much during the lockout” Diaw were a credible solution). With players like Rudy Gay and teams like Sacramento (all players) likely to be available, let’s see if the Spurs brain trust can strike gold one last time. Again, never underestimate the heart of this champion.
10 – Steve Nash’s new number on the Lakers
The Suns got close (and were kind of robbed by some bad luck and bad officiating), but the 2012-2013 Lakers are the Steve Nash team that has the best shot at a title. Is it hard for Suns fans to see this NBA Peter Pan still dominating as he approaches 40 for the Lakers? Absolutely, but like the great Raymond Bourque for the Avalanche in 2001, no one was more loyal to a team and no one in the league deserves a championship more than Steve Nash. If he gets one as a Laker (as long as it is not at the behest of the Celtics), so be it.
9 – Rajon Rondo’s number and basement for his ranking of the best players in the game
I intentionally slipped in my Rajon Rondo selection for All NBA First Team several numbers ago (did you notice?), but can no longer pass up what becomes more and more clear season by season (and may have reached its most overt apex during the Miami series last spring). Rajon Rondo is an incredible basketball player that does things on the court that have never been done before. He is an original, a unique blend of freakish athleticism and freakishly high basketball i.q., a player who can picks his spots night by night to find exactly what his team needs, and a growing leader who is ready to take the leap as the de facto motor of the only Eastern Conference team that can beat the Heat in a seven game series. A US Olympic team outcast (he had some personality clashes in the 2010 worlds and may not be well-suited for the international game), the most underrated story of basketball in London may have been that one of the ten best American players was healthy and not in uniform. So, what is his Rajon’s 2012-2013 ceiling and how can he reach it? Rajon Rondo can be a top 3 MVP candidate and the best point guard in the game. Three things are paramount in order for this to happen: 1) He must be assertive on offense, unafraid to take it to the basket and score. He is a weapon on his own and although he can lead the league in assists in his sleep, his ability to take over games as a scorer must come out more. 2. Along those lines, Rajon must shoot effectively from 15 feet and beyond. This includes the foul line (he must get there at least 6 times a game, last year he was often afraid to create free throw opportunities) and must excel at that nifty elbow sweet spot (that will be his to have) that looks like he worked on while his NBA peers were in London. 3) He has to improve his on the ball defense. When playing the elite points in the game, Rondo shows too much off the ball aggressiveness and his gambles result in too many easy buckets. I have read some Jason Kidd/Rondo comparisons this offseason and I can dig it. Rondo can be the best point guard in the game and is already a top-nine player. (Indisputably, LeBron, Durant, Dwight, Kobe, and Chris Paul are in the mix. The next group features Wade, Love, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo, Dirk, Blake Griffin. Rondo is at least better than 3-4 of these guys). What is my “ok, I will suck it up and go out on a limb” homer prediction? Rajon Rondo will be the runner-up for the 2012-2013 NBA MVP.
8 – Jeff Green’s number
Welcome back, Jeff Green! Although the preseason is not always the best indicator of future success (I love when Laker haters think there is something to their 0-8 record this year), I think Jeff Green gave a representative preview of what is yet to come. When Celtics nation (and Rajon Rondo I might add) overly mourned the loss of Perk after the 2011 deadline deal, Jeff Green was in a tough situation and may have balked under this initial pressure. Last year’s very serious heart situation (and the Celtics admirable and loyal handling of it), may have shown new employee number 8 that he belongs, that the Celtics brass do want him, and that his time is now. James Worthy comparisons aside (and admittedly, I can see it), the aggressive, lane runner, slasher, driver, three-point specialist, high energy Rondo running mate was a revelation this October and could be the elixir of hope that the Celtics desperately need going into their likely future Miami playoff battles. Consider that at a minimum, Jeff Green is a MAJOR upgrade over Mikael Pietrus (who played serious minutes in the Heat series and is now no longer in the league) and is smart enough to know that he will flourish offensively playing with the league’s “best point guard.” He creates match-up problems for opponents (as a true 3/4 tweener) and will give Doc some incredible versatility from night to night. Welcome back, Jeff Green.
7 – New Celtics in their potential main rotation (Jeff Green Courtney Lee, Jason Terry and Jared Sullinger are locks. The Jason Collins, Darko Milicic, and Leandro Barbosa group will get minutes)
Add this group to a returning bunch of KG, Pierce, Rondo, Bradley (back by January), Brandon Bass, and a healthy Chris Wilcox and you have your deepest, most versatile, most talented Celtics team of the KG era. If all can buy in to the winning culture (when KG is around, this seems to be seamless), the Celtics are going to cause serious issues for the rest of the league. Danny Ainge (a shoe-in for 2012-2013 executive of the year) was not going to allow the Pietruses, Marquis Daniels, Keyon (his amazing locker room presence will be missed), and Greg Stiemsmas to ever be on the floor in a big playoff game again. Think about Courtney Lee (maybe Danny’s shrewdest find, Celtics fans are going to love him) and Avery Bradley matching DWade or Jeff Green spelling PP on LeBron. Defensively, these are some real upgrades and offensively, all of these guys can score better than last year’s pu pu platter. Jason Collins was a tough defender last year in the Atlanta series and he is the kind of six foul monster that will be essential against someone like Roy Hibbert and Andrew Bynum in the East. Darko is amazingly only 27 and we can all entrust his game’s improvement to KG and the motivational factory that he is. Finally, there is a Jason Terry who will be discussed at no. 4 along with the Ray “elephant in the room” Allen situation. This is an excellent Celtics team and is primed to attempt a full dethronement of the Heat next May/June. Look for the Celtics to win over 55 games in the regular season and lock up the no. 2 seed (behind the Heat) in the Eastern Conference by the end of March.
6 – How many deep the Lakers can reliably go
The Lakers can count on the starting five of Kobe, Dwight, Nash, Pau, Metta World “I focused on basketball for the first time in eight years this offseason” Peace, and Antawn “wildly historically underrated” Jamison off the bench. Two to three in the mix of Steve “how he had an NBA career and Bobby Hurley didn’t is beyond me” Blake, Jodie Meeks, Earl Clark, Devin Ebanks (nothing notable to say about his game), Robert Sacre (had never heard of him before he began starting at center for Dwight in the 0-8 preseason), Jordan Hill (the most likely contributor, a rebounding/defense energy guy), and Chris Duhon (I think he will be in the rotation before the season’s end) must contribute and must do so consistently in order to spell some of the older (Nash, Kobe, Jamison), recovering from an injury (Dwight), and insane (Metta World Peace) top six. Like many championship teams discover, sometimes it is the Steve Kerrs, Robert Horrys, and Shane Battiers that are the difference to winning and losing championships. The Lakers, in order to get to the Finals, must find these guys from this bunch or through future trades. I fear (and the league should as well) that they will.
5 – Legitimate contenders to win the 2013 NBA Championship
They are: Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Boston Celtics, and San Antonio Spurs. Going into the season, there is not another team that comes close to cracking this group. My two most likely candidates: the New York Knicks and the Denver Nuggets.
4 – Jason Terry’s number and where he ranks all-time in career 3 point shots made
Yep, Jason Terry makes three pointers. For anyone who for a second was worried about how the Celtics were ever going to replace Ray Allen’s historical three point prowess, think again. Jason Terry is a glue guy, a Heat hater, an indispensable shot creator, competitive as they come, a fun-loving presence on and off the court, a sixth man who takes pride in the role, and perhaps most importantly, is so excited to be a Boston Celtic. The Jet is going to infuse the Celtics locker room with the leadership and team-building of a Keyon Dooling, but has the on court game (at this stage of his career) to back it up (the last time the Celtics had this mix was in 2008 chemist pioneer, James Posey). Likely to fill most Celtic crunch time lineups (depending on situations and defensive needs along with KG, Pierce, Green, and Rondo), Jet knows how to play the game of basketball (to Ray, basketball is a job that requires meticulous attention, mind you of which he is super-skilled) and the Celtics need someone who is this combination of fun-loving and competitive. And again, Jason Terry will make three pointers (and lots of them).
3 – New playoff teams in 2012-2013
The Magic (an ugly roster with Dwight gone), the Jazz (competitive, but make some cap related deadline moves that hurt their second half success), and Mavericks (Dirk’s injury lasts longer than expected and they consequently dig too much of a hole to crawl out of) will be out of the playoff picture. In as replacements are the Brooklyn Nets (just not as good as expectations seem to dictate), the Minnesota Timberwolves (the whitest team since mid 80s Celtics), and Mark Jackson’s Golden State Warriors! The Warriors are surprisingly well-constructed, will be very fun to watch, have great depth at most positions, can shoot the basketball (Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry are two of the league’s best), have a good mix of veterans (Richard Jefferson, Jarrett Jack, David Lee) and younger players (Thompson, Curry, Harrison Barnes), and could be very good defensively (Andrew Bogut’s health remains the biggest if). It could be a transition year in the Western Conference (especially with playoff stalwarts Jazz, Mavericks, Rockets, Suns, and Blazers likely out of the mix) and look for the T-Wolves and Warriors to make the leap.
Eastern Conference Playoff Teams: 1. Miami 2. Boston 3. New York 4. Atlanta 5. Indiana 6. Brooklyn 7. Chicago 8. Philadelphia
Western Conference Playoff Teams: 1. San Antonio 2. Oklahoma City 3. LA Lakers 4. LA Clippers 5. Denver 6. Minnesota 7. Memphis 8. Golden State
2 – The two best players on the second best team: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook
Although I can grasp the financial benefit, it is hard to remove myself from the fact that a 2012-2013 Oklahoma City Thunder team with James Harden is significantly better than a 2012-2013 Oklahoma City Thunder team without James Harden. It is equally hard to comprehend that Sam Presti and the OKC brain trust could possibly (and unnecessarily) break apart a team that was primed to compete for league supremacy for many years to come, especially when Harden was under contract and would have been a restricted free agent next summer. Why help the financials of the 2014 or 2015 Thunder when the 2013-2016 is a LeBron James away from being the league’s best team (and mind you their best four players are all 24 and under!!!)? If the skill replication (and actual defensive liability when the big three were on the floor at once last season) was the issue, find a taller wing player or a stud and inexpensive big to take Harden’s place. The Kevin Martin (a great scorer but bad on defense), Jeremy Lamb (unknown commodity rookie), and Toronto 2013 first rounder that came back to OKC at best do Harden not as well as Harden. This leaves OKC with the Durant/Westbrook tandem (not a bad place to be in, just better with Harden as the third amigo) as the make or break duo (Serge Ibaka is going to have to raise his game too) of the franchise. Durant is at worst the third best player in the league and Westbrook is at worst the tenth best player in the league. How these two at times Stringer Bell/Avon Barksdale metaphoric models continue to grow together (so far so brilliant) will determine if LeBron’s arch rival has a real chance. The new Thunder team is going to be one of the most interesting subplots in the Association.
1 – LeBron James, the one to rule them all
This week LeBron James let his true motivation out of the bag, “I plan to be the best player of all-time.” The scary thing – after the Year of LeBron 2012 (NBA Championship, NBA Finals MVP, Olympic Gold Medalist), the destruction of past doubts, and the discovery of how to consistently dominate (something that had before only come out in shorter spurts and inconsistently in the playoffs), let it be known that LeBron James could become the best player ever. His journey continues in 2012-2013. My predictions: He will win his third straight MVP (4 out of the last 5), will lead the Heat past the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, and will defeat the Lakers (who beat the surprise Nuggets in the WCF) to win the NBA Championship in six games. A storm is coming, NBA, and you are all in the destructive path of King James.
David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company. His weekly X Factor column appears on Afterbuzztv.com and his weekly THE CHALLENGE: BATTLE OF THE SEASONS Power Rankings can be read on Derek Kosinski’s ultimatechallengeradio.com.