1. The League’s Two Most Interesting Guards Now Play For The Same Team
James Harden is the bearded pick-and-roll savant with the dead-eye shot and ball-handling skills as good as any two-guard’s in the league. Jeremy Lin is the fan-favorite floor general who’s the basketball equivalent of a running back, barreling down the lane for incomprehensible layups. Together, they’ve turned the formerly moribund, personality-devoid Houston Rockets into the league’s most charismatic squad, that one team that will make you say, damn, I wish I was a Rockets fan. The fact that Houston’s not even necessarily a playoff team makes them even more exciting — beyond Harden and Lin, the roster’s filled with untested rookies (Royce White, Terrence Jones), three-point specialists (Daequan Cook, Carlos Delfino), and unconventional bigs (Chandler Parsons, Marcus Morris). Nobody knows how this experiment’s going to end, except that we’ll all have a hell of a lot of fun on the way.
If the Lakers, a flock of basketball ubermenschen assembled at great cost and with huge fanfare, do not win the NBA Championship this year, their season will be considered a failure. Steve Nash is 38; Kobe Bryant is 34; Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace are 32; the window for these four guys is closing fast. Plus, the combined weight of their salaries means that the Lakers are paying a tremendous amount in luxury tax to put them all together. When you factor in coach Mike Brown’s questionable-ness, Dwight Howard’s mental inconsistency, and the fact that the Heat appear to be even better than they were last year, you start to wonder: does the Lakeshow even have that great of a shot at winning it all in 2013? Of course they do. It’s just going to be far from easy. After all, they’ve lost ten games in a row (two real and eight preseason) — they should try winning a game first.
Few sports towns in the United States are as bedraggled as Cleveland, and that was before LeBron James stepped out for a pack of cigarettes, came back home with his cigarettes, and then left and never came back. But, like any put-upon population, each moment of hope carries enormous weight, and this time around, it’s Kyrie Irving. After going to the Cavaliers as the first pick in the 2011 draft, Irving immediately made the team a playoff contender before being sidelined with an injury. Rather than rush him back, the Cavs erred on the side of caution and tanked for a better draft pick, and now Irving has more support and a better shot at making Cleveland relevant. His first game of the season didn’t disappoint: Kyrie went 11-20 for 29 points and 6 rebounds, including 3-6 from three-point range. A bang-up shooter with dizzying handles, Irving just needs to improve his assist : turnover ratio a bit and he’ll be one of the five best point guards in the league. (Did I mention that he’s only 20? He’s only 20.)
Every season, in every sport, stat wonks and prognosticators crown by consensus a dark-horse title favorite. This has happened even more aggressively than usual for the 2012-13 season; pretty much everyone and their mother thinks the Denver Nuggets are the one squad that has a prayer of fracturing the Thunder/Lakers/Spurs hegemony out West. Long story short, the reason for this is because the Nuggets’ high-octane offense of last year remains intact, and the defense has been enhanced by the addition of Andre Iguodala, one of the league’s very best perimeter defenders. Before Denver can book its ticket to the Finals, though, coach George Karl needs to finish solidifying a deep but unconventional rotation, and essential players like Danilo Gallinari must stay healthy. If Denver can establish itself as a league-average defensive team, the sky’s the limit despite the glaring lack of a superstar; if not, another first-round exit probably awaits.
Anthony Davis is a once-in-a-generation athlete. He could be the most versatile player in the game of basketball since Kevin Garnett. He could turn the New Orleans Hornets into a dynasty. All these things have been said about Davis, and multiple times over, but one other thing is true: he might not even win Rookie of the Year. Of course, it’s impossible to tell this early, but Damian Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers’ new point guard from Weber State, could steal that title. Lillard had an impressive first game for Portland, dropping 23 points and 11 assists on the way to a 116-106 win over the Lakers, and though Davis also had a solid showing — 21 points, 7 rebounds — the transition for big men can be tougher than it is for scorers. (Not that running the point as a rookie is easy.) Lillard also benefits from having a better supporting cast, meaning that his performance could at the very least seem better than Davis’.
The New York Knicks — and more specifically, owner/megalomaniac James Dolan — have always treated the city’s fans like they were a guaranteed commodity: no matter what the Knicks did, or, more significantly, didn’t do, the city’s residents had to fall in line. That’s no longer the case. Brooklyn’s new franchise — Jay-Z’s new franchise — has not tried to hide the fact that it wants to be the city’s #1 team, and while that must start on the basketball court, preferably with wins, it will carry over onto the front pages of the city’s tabloids and the hats New Yorkers wear. For every tyrannical gesture Dolan makes, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov will open his arms a little wider, and Jay will flash that All-American grin that says look — you don’t need to put up with shit anymore. Just get on the subway and cross the river. We’ll be here.
Man, the passion of the Celtics’ hatred for the Heat is something else. The Celtics hate like they’re on a reality show. Like they don’t have a championship of their own to fall back on, one that’s only a few years old. No, the Celtics don’t care, and in particular, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo do [pause] not [pause] care. Every LeBron James basket is an insult, every Dwyane Wade block, every goofy Shane Battier defensive stop, and especially every Ray Allen three — I mean, every Ray Allen three is like a loogie hawked into the Celtics’ eye. It’s beautiful, the intensity of Boston’s hate; in fact, it’s almost purifying, in that it creates the first likeable Boston sports team outside of Boston since the Red Sox were plucky underdogs that came from behind and shocked the world and inspired women to wear pink hats. After all, Boston went out and remade their lineup — they brought in Jared Sullinger, Jason Terry, and Courtney Lee — largely because of how they’d match up against the Heat. You can’t hate a team that tries so hard, except when it’s your team they’re trying hard against. In which case, there’s nothing worse.
Before his excruciating ACL tear in the first round of last year’s playoffs, Derrick Rose was one of the NBA’s most defining players, He was an MVP at 23 years old and the best player on a top-five team. His injury literally changed the landscape: all of a sudden, the Heat were relieved of what was expected to be their toughest roadblock on the way to the Finals, and the Celtics went on an unexpected run. Rose’s rehab and return to the league has been as much of a story as the development of any healthy player, and whether he can return to full strength — and more importantly, full speed — means a whole lot to a huge number of interests, including the Bulls, Adidas, and everyone who wants to see the Heat stopped. Not to mention that, if the NBA never regains its most explosive and exciting point guard, the game will be deprived.
In terms of winning percentage, the 2012 Bobcats were the worst team in NBA history. Owner Michael Jordan seems like he’s trying to ruin his legacy with the work he’s doing in Charlotte. They hired, as a head coach, an NCAA assistant. And even the ping-pong balls wouldn’t cut the franchise any slack, gift-wrapping the New Orleans Hornets Anthony Davis and making the Cats to a bridesmaid. Charlotte’s upcoming season will be interesting because, though the team has improved on the mismatched and rudderless collection of 22-year-olds it trotted out last year, this is still a squad devoid of anything resembling an All-Star. For the Cats to win even 20 games, much less 30 — we’re not even going to discuss the possibility of Charlotte cozying up to .500, because it’s essentially science fiction —Ramon Sessions and Kemba Walker will need to settle comfortably into their point guard roles, Gerald Henderson must show why he was a lottery pick in 2009, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has to be in the Rookie of the Year discussion. Any less, and 2012-13 Charlotte could approach last year’s level of woe.
Sure, Kevin Durant and Russ Westbrook are the true stars on the Thunder, but all you have to do is look through pictures of the pair before you notice something: James Harden was always there too. Without Harden, the Thunder lose their best ball-handler and most reliable three-point shooter, not to mention a guy who savaged all of the second units he had the luxury to play against. But Kevin Martin can score fast and in a variety of ways (even if he plays defense like a lace curtain), and Jeremy Lamb has significant potential as well as a low floor. Neither of them is James Harden, but considering the complications the Thunder would’ve dealt with to keep Harden around, they could’ve done a lot worse in losing him. What this really means is that Durant and Westbrook — and especially Serge Ibaka, who Oklahoma City essentially chose to keep instead of Harden — need to continue improving and show that they are good enough on their own to be the core of a championship-winning team. Last night’s close loss to the Spurs shows that they’ve definitely lost a step, but it’s also important to remember that it’ll take a minute for Martin to jell with the rest of the squad and Westbrook and Durant to adjust to Harden’s absence.
Andrew Bynum is the second-best center in the league. That’s not really a controversial statement, and yet, when you think about it in comparison to the second-best at every other position — according to NBA Rank, that would be Rose at the point, Kobe at the two, Durant at the three, and Dirk Nowitzki at the four — it seems laughable. Nobody instinctively puts Bynum on that level, which has less to do with his talent and more to do with the fact that he’s an oft-injured and unpredictable clown who makes Dwight Howard look stable. In Philadelphia, Bynum will finally have the chance to have his own team but an entire city, and, though the Sixers are hardly the league’s deepest team, they’re not without talent. He’s no worse off than Dwight was in Orlando. It’s time for Bynum to decide what the hell his career is going to mean, if anything. That hair’s a good start.