Following what was arguably the most entertaining season in modern basketball last year, the NBA returns today with a plentitude of storylines. Between Christmas Day devotees and hardwood-aholics alike, I'm betting nobody slept last night.
The end of the NBA lockout allowed for a 16 day pre-season, and one storyline has dominated league chatter: Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Unsurprisingly, the pairing of the league's best point guard and its most electrifying young talent, Blake Griffin, has cultivated talks of Clipper contention and a new force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference.
With this, the latest in a slew of team developments for a league that almost didn't have a season, many other league discussions are all-too-easily looked over:
Can the Dallas Mavericks repeat?
Though most are caught up with the loss of J.J. Barea and Tyson Chandler (and scoff at the additions of Delonte West and Vince Carter), these are still Dirk Nowitzki's Mavs: a team centered around the German scorer with enough talent at the point and a versatile (albeit, new) core of veterans including Lamar Odom.
Suppose this team can scrape up enough wins in the Western Conference to secure a 4, 5 or 6 seed in the playoffs. Suppose that same team, with veteran leadership and playoff-caliber role players can make an upset in the early rounds. It would be a title run unheard of since 2010-2011, when the Dallas Mavericks swept the Lakers in the first round and upended the Miami Heat weeks later to be crowned NBA champs.
How good are the Knicks?
Assuming Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony will remain the focal point in Mike D'Antoni's offence, this question can be stripped down and made a little bit simpler: how good is off-season acquisition Tyson Chandler?
This is a defensive center who has never averaged more than 12 points per game in a season, and whose best seasons came with point guard play from Chris Paul in New Orleans and Jason Kidd/J.J. Barea in Dallas. Not only does the lack of a proven point guard in New York leave room for concern, but a lot of Chandler's defensive effectiveness thrives in team defense. Who else is on this team?
Even if Anthony continues to pour in 20-plus a night and although Stoudemire had one of his best seasons last year, how long can he, his bad back and two surgically repaired knees run with the the young big men of the Eastern Conference? For the Knicks to be good, Chandler has to be great.
With the lockout creating a 66-game, four month regular season, experts are recalling the 1999 season, numbers are being crunched and fans are either overjoyed or perplexed by this dense, demanding NBA schedule.
Twenty-eight teams play four games this week. The Celtics, Mavericks, Thunder, Bulls and Heat play five games this week. The Los Angeles Lakers play six games in seven nights, starting with today's matchup against the Chicago Bulls.
Whether you're of the "young legs and skilled players" belief (CHI, OKC, MEM) or you sway towards the "veteran leadership with a solid bench" logic (BOS, SAS, DAL), it's difficult to project exactly which teams will be most negatively affected. An equally daunting task, of course, is projecting which teams may benefit from back-to-back-to-back games and a miniscule training camp (though the Bulls, Heat and Thunder come to mind immediately).
Here's to health, happiness and Dwight Howard
Trade demands are never pretty. Uncertainty abounds, emotions run high, and fans can get desperate. Very desperate.
But the situation in Orlando reflects a sort of sub-plot for the entire league. An unhappy player expressing that he wants out, and an onslaught of media speculation and trade scenarios become as habitual as pre-game shootaround and warmup drills. Josh Cohen of NBA.com explains:
Cleveland ingested it two seasons ago; Denver gulped it up last year; New Orleans opted to eradicate its turn in the rotation and now, its Orlando’s juncture to contend with the gyrating and menacing free agent saga.
Since the chances of Orlando having an offensive renaissance early this season are slim, expect to hear about Dwight Howard's happiness for at least a few months.
As for health, Brook Lopez's surgically repaired foot has quieted talks of an Orlando-New Jersey trade. This has immediately turned in to "Will Lopez's injury pave the way for Howard to the Lakers? speculation. Please stay tuned.
Rip tide in Chicago
Does Rip Hamilton make Chicago a title contender? The Bulls were this close to the finals last year, and had they fought off the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, who's to say they couldn't have done the same against the Mavs with solid point guard play from Derrick Rose and defensive toughness from Joakim Noah?
The Bulls' league-leading 62 wins in 2010-2011 stands out, and after a good showing in the preseason from Carlos Boozer (11-17 shooting against Indiana last Tuesday) and Noah (5 block also against the Pacers), Chicago's ceiling is high if they stay healthy.
In addition to a bench consisting of Ronnie Brewer, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik, the reigning MVP-led Bulls acquired Hamilton following an abysmal last few seasons in Detroit. The veteran guard is coming in to his twelfth NBA season, and while he has seen dips in games, minutes and playoff appearances, he shot nearly 40% from 3-point range last year.
With a solid defensive front, a new post game from a well-flushed Rose, and Hamilton as a decent kickout option, look for these Bulls to run all season long.
Lakers and Spurs: Put these dogs to bed?
If the rise of Oklahoma City, last year's meteoric run by Memphis or the non-usage of the term "Baby Bulls" indicates anything in the NBA, it's this: there can be a changing of the guard at any time.
LAL: Many are ready to write off the Lakers. After Commissioner David Stern vetoed their trade for Chris Paul, more attention was drawn to their weak point guard play, predominantly nameless starters and the inevitable decline of Kobe Bryant. After being swept by the Mavericks in the second round last year, Lakers detractors may not be far off. Assuming a blockbuster trade involving Orlando doesn't happen, look for this team to creep in to the playoffs and to rival the Clippers for ownership of LA and the Staples Center.
SAS: It's fair to question how the Spurs will perform this season after losing to Memphis in their first round matchup last year. What is unfair, though, is to write off the only Western Conference team to win at least 60 games last season. The compacted schedule will have a certain effect on how many minutes their stars play. Tim Duncan will be 36 in April, Manu Ginobli is already there. Fans can expect coach Gregg Popovich to shut down his stars for non-pivotal games and focus on some of his younger talent, including DeJuan Blair and rookies Kawhi Leonard and Cory Jospeph.
This league may not have parity, but the fluctuation in dominating teams, slow descension of dynasties and a few storied playoff runs give the long-tenured fan something else: the satisfaction of watching players develop, seeing player potential maximize and bottom-feeding teams find unexpected success, even if it takes a few years.
Key InjuriesPaul Pierce (BOS) will not play against the Knicks due to a heel injury
Tyrus Thomas (CHA) has been reported as doubtful for Monday's opener with a sprained ankle
Shane Battier (MIA) is tentatively expected to play in today's opener with a strained quadricep
Mike Miller (MIA) is expected to return in a couple weeks from a hernia
Brook Lopez (NYJ) will be out for likely the first half of the season with an injured foot
Bill Walker (NYK) has been called 50-50 for today's opener
Greg Oden (POR) will miss much of the season with ailing knees
Linas Kleiza (TOR) looks to make a return in mid January following a knee injury
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com