2010-2011 NBA Preview, Part One: Welcome To The Year Of Good Vs. Evil

KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 8: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks to drive past LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat before the game on October 8, 2010 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2010 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

The NBA season is back, and 2010 could be one of the most memorable seasons in years. It's the year of Good versus Evil, and before Tuesday's look at the team everyone loves to hate, today we preview the Western Conference and the player good enough to steal Thunder from the Heat.

For the past month, whenever someone's asked me about the 2010 NBA season, it's been the same response: "It can't come soon enough."

Then they ask: "Why?"

Then I say: "Because this year's NBA has everything we ever want from sports."

Then they say: "Oh yeah?"

And I explain. Think about the way the NBA looks right now. We have a handful of teams at the top, with elite talent, great coaches and layer upon layer of intrigue. We have no idea what to expect when those teams play each other, and neither do the players. So, all year long, when teams at the top face off, it'll be a playoff atmosphere. Guys will be jockeying for a mental edge. You think that's not in play when the Heat visit Boston on Tuesday night? It starts now.

Beneath the upper echelon, we've got the middle of the pack—competitive, generally entertaining, but not good enough to skew the hierarchy at the top. And past that, there's a group of bottom feeders that will spend the year getting annihilated, giving us all the highlights we crave and generally staying out of the way. It's all laid out pretty plainly. We don't need caste systems in the NBA, but it helps keep things coherent, and ultimately, it makes things resonate in a more meaningful way.

That's what NFL fans have begun to realize over the past few years. Parity is great, but taken to the extreme, it just produces a league full of slightly above-average teams. "But everyone has a chance!" they say, and it sounds good in theory. But in practice, it's a mess. Suddenly, coaching, luck and injuries swing entire seasons, and winning becomes as much a function of circumstance as any greatness that we might remember. The NFL has a formula to keep people interested, and it's lucrative. But it gets stale after a while.

With extreme parity, everyone has a chance ... at what? Getting hot at the right time? Surviving the season without losing any key players? Being the best good team? What's memorable about that?

I grew up with the '90s Bulls, and I'll remember those teams for the rest of my life. How will a 12 year-old remember the past five years in football? The Steelers-Colts-Giants-Steelers-Saints? You know what team was most memorable from the past five years?

The 2007-08 Patriots. They cheated, they used their critics as motivation and they ran roughshod over the NFL's regular season unlike any team we'd seen in decades. And we hated them for it. HATED them. But we watched every game, because whatever happened, you knew it was history. Every week was a new chance to see the Patriots loss that we'd always remember. And just as important, it was fun.

So, to review: relevant, immediate and fun. Isn't that what we want from sports? It was Good vs. Evil, and whoever played the Pats was Good with us. And ... well, welcome to the NBA in 2010.

Witness the Year of Good vs. Evil.

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The Miami Heat have arrived to polarize a nation of fans, and whether you like them or not, we all have a reason to watch. When the Heat play the Lakers, it may be a false dichotomy, but we'll be looking at Kobe Bryant as the white knight for the first time in his career. When the Celtics play Miami Tuesday night, suddenly KG's whole routine will be endearing. And just wait: while Miami emerges with one of the most impressive regular seasons we've seen in decades, 1,500 miles away in middle America, Kevin Durant and the Thunder will be coming into their own, winning 60 games and giving America the perfect counterpoint to the Heat.

The NBA may lack parity—the Magic, Celtics, Heat, Thunder, Blazers and Lakers look like the only teams with a true shot at the NBA title—but instead, we've got greatness. Greatness that you either love or hate. Who needs a level playing field when you can turn the basketball court into the stage for one, big morality play?

In 2010, we have villains (the Heat, the Lakers) and heroes (the Magic, Thunder and maybe Boston). It's a childish way to look at things, but when sports work best, they turn us all into little kids. Whiny and wide-eyed, with nothing to do but watch. Because kids can't step back contextualize something they've never seen before.

And we've never seen a team quite like the Miami Heat before. Or a player like Kevin Durant. Or a league with this much talent concentrated at the top. We can contextualize things later, but for this year, all we can do is watch. And root against the Heat, of course. Welcome to 2010.

Star-divide

And you didn't think we'd let the NBA season begin without rolling out a massive preview, did you? In the spirit of the 2010 season, let's run down the league in black-and-white terms. Good vs. Evil. Today, a look at the Western Conference in Part One, and tomorrow, the East in Part Two, along with picks for the title, MVP, etc.

But before we get started, this seems like the Preview-ish thing to do. Remember the caste system mentioned earlier? Here's what the West looks like in those terms (and since SB Nation's NBA blogs kick ass, the relevant team blog is in parens):

Elite

Upper Middle Class

Peasants

So, who will be good and evil in the 2010 NBA? Without further ado...

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GOOD: DeMarcus Cousins. Just know that I flip-flopped on this one for about 15 minutes. On the one hand ... people have spent so much time worrying about exactly this question--whether Cousins is ultimately "good" or "evil" as a basketball player--that we've all forgotten that Cousins may be the most dominant big man to enter the league since ... who? Pau Gasol in 2002? Amare in 2003? Dwight Howard in 2004?

And he's more ready now than any of those guys. Players like DeMarcus Cousins have become extremely rare and incredibly valuable. So it's not just that the Kings found a diamond in the rough, but they found a weapon that's simply not available to most NBA teams.

How many teams have a true low-post scoring option at this point? Orlando (Howard), Los Angeles (Gasol), Miami (Bosh), San Antonio (Duncan), Utah (Jefferson), New York (Amare) and Memphis (Zach Randolph). Maybe Portland (Aldridge), Boston (KG), and Chicago (Boozer). What's the common thread there? Except for Memphis and New York, those are all playoff teams. And not just playoff teams, but real contenders.

So how could Cousins possibly be evil? Because if you had to compare him to any of the big men mentioned above, wouldn't Zach Randolph and Amare Stoudemire be the safest bet? He rebounds better than both of them, but all three bring some very real baggage to the table. Z-Bo and Amare spent their career teasing people into big investments, setting them up for disappointment. Is it coincidence that Memphis and New York are the only two teams on the list that aren't contenders?

All of which is to say that DeMarcus Cousins will look great this year in a no-pressure situation in Sacramento. He's got the tools to become a star early on, and along with Tyreke Evans, he represents a seriously bright future in Sacramento. He'll make the 76ers, Nets and T'Wolves look foolish for passing on him, and along with Blake Griffin, he's sharing pole position in the race to rule the paint for the next decade. But he's still the guy that starred in this sequence when I watched him in NBA Summer League:

  1. He gets beat on defense for a layup.
  2. He walks up the floor, glaring at the Kings bench for some reason.
  3. Crosses halfcourt, walks to the three point line.
  4. Takes a step inside the three-point line, calls for the ball.
  5. Gets ball, launches flat-footed 22-foot jumper.
  6. All net. 

See, he's really, really good. But sometimes, players like that can be the worst kind of evil.

EVIL: The arena situation in Sacramento. Remember a few years ago when you could see the foundation of what's now become the best young team in basketball in Oklahoma City? They played in Seattle back then. They had Kevin Durant, tons of cap space, and the blueprint was in place. Watching it happen elsewhere has been cruel. And I'm not saying that could happen with Sacramento, but ... the blueprint is in place, they have the young superstars, the flexibility, the hope. And it would be pretty terrible if the NBA allows it to happen elsewhere.

GOOD: The Phoenix Suns' continued awesomeness. It seems like every year, the Suns get weirder and weirder, and every year, Steve Nash manages to make them the most entertaining team in basketball. Contenders? No way. But they keep things competitive, keep fans entertained and make basketball seem beautiful. And that last sentence would be a perfect way to eulogize Steve Nash's entire career, except it shortchanges the one thing that really makes him great.

He brings the best out of his teammates. In a very tangible way. Players come to Phoenix, and all of a sudden, they magically have a breakout season. Jared Dudley magically turns into a legit NBA player. Grant Hill magically rejuvenates his NBA career. Channing Frye magically evolves from a lottery bust to one of the league's best bargains. You get the idea. The lesson? Steve Nash is magic. If we remember him for nothing else, it should be the crappy players that he turned into stars, year-in and year-out, keeping the Suns competitive.

This year's candidates to just magically turn into NBA stars again? Josh Childress and Hedo Turkoglu. They're part of a Phoenix roster that would be a complete joke if not for Nash. Childress, Turkoglu, Dudley and Hill all play the exact same position. And when you look at Frye and Hakim Warrick, honestly, despite being listed at center and power forward, they basically play small forward too.

The Suns are like the Hawks of a few years ago, when Atlanta just kept drafting small forwards expecting a team to just magically appear. And it would have worked, too--if they had a Steve Nash.

Because Nash always finds a way. That's what I've learned, year after year, expecting the Suns to fall apart. No matter what, Nash turns them into a terror. You say "six small forwards, Robin Lopez, and a point guard," Steve Nash says, "spread the court and watch us destroy you from the perimeter." Of all the great players in the twilight of their career right now, Nash is the guy that we'll remember with the fondest memories. He's just ... Magic.

EVIL: Dirk Nowitzki's teammates. You know that whole thing about Steve Nash magically turning his teammates into stars? His friend Dirk Nowitzki can't do that. But that doesn't mean he's not a great player, and someone we'll remember for a long time. It just means that our memories of Dirk will be tainted by questions like, "What if he had teammates that weren't four years past their prime?" Or, "What if he had a coach smart enough to use Rodrigue Beaubois as much as possible?" Or, "What if he'd gone to Chicago in 2010 and teamed up with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to challenge the Heat?"

But he doesn't, and he didn't. Dirk's too loyal to have fled to Chicago, and he'll spend the next five years surrounded by the wreckage of Mark Cuban's quick fix attempts, leaving us to wallow in "What ifs." When something's cosmically unfair, we call that evil.

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GOOD: The Clippers look competent! ZOMG have you seen him? He's got the poise and eloquence of Barack Obama, but the sex appeal of Sarah Palin. In the post, he dictates like Caesar, but if he's doubled, he delegates like a young Abe Lincoln. He exploits his gifts like a modern-day Boss Tweed, manipulating his opponents, then he stops. Why? So that we all can consider his promise of a better tomorrow. The world radiates in his brilliance like he was a young JFK. He always stays out of foul trouble too, avoiding contact whenever possible, striking the perfect balance between resistance and restraint. It's as if Gandhi were alive and well, playing power forward for the Los Angeles Clippers.

(Sorry. Just had to go a few steps further with all the Blake Griffin hype.)

Anyway, if Griffin is half-as-good as Abraham Lincoln mixed with Julius Caesar and Karl Malone, the Clippers could be a credible threat in the West. And if Baron Davis decides to try, if Eric Gordon shows the same promise he did at the World Championships this summer, if they stay healthy ... there's a lot of ifs with this team, but if there's one team that Vinny Del Negro was meant to coach for eternity, it's the Los Angeles Clippers. That means he'll have to be successful at least once, so it may as well be this season.

EVIL: Donald Sterling is an evil bastard. Obligatory inclusion in any NBA column involving the concept of evil. And I would go for synergy here by providing political analogies like I did for Blake Griffin, but the only historical figures that could be used in a Donald Sterling analogy were horrible, horrible people. So use your imagination.

GOOD: The Blazers and karma. Here's how the world should work. If a team loses half its roster to catastrophic, biblical-style injuries and continues giving 100 percent all season long despite the built-in excuses for failure, then the following season, that team should have a great year. Greg Oden's back, Marcus Camby remains, and with LaMarcus Aldridge, those three form a pretty insane combination up front. Throw in Brandon Roy's quiet brilliance in the backcourt, Nicolas Batum as the preeminent Posey of his generation, and you've got yourself quite the nucleus in Portland. And with Nate McMillan and the best fans in the NBA, chances are they'll get the most out of their potential.

EVIL: Karma doesn't exist in Portland. Here's how the world does work. When people are injury-prone, they get injured. Last year it was Greg Oden. This year? I'd pick the Blazers to make the Western Conference Finals, but I just feel like Brandon Roy has been flirting with ligament-related disaster for the past five years. Is this the year that the bad luck finally catches up with the Blazers? Oh wait, that's every year.

Brandonroy_medium

(Note: Does predicting a season-ending injury make ME evil? If it makes Blazers fans feel better, I sincerely hope Brandon Roy's TBD-catastrophic-knee-injury happens to Chris Bosh instead).

EVIL: Daryl Morey's master plan. The Rockets seem pretty unremarkable this year. Luis Scola, a decaying Yao, Aaron Brooks, Kevin Martin. Just a generally ho-hum bunch. What are they? A seven-seed at best? It's reeeeeal quiet in Houston. Too quiet.

EVIL: Carmelo Anthony in Denver. You know how draftees sometimes have to wear the hat of the team that drafted them, even though they know they're going to be traded? That's pretty good theater, but it's a thousand times more entertaining when said draftee doesn't think he's getting moved, but wants to be. And that's where we are with Carmelo Anthony, who will be dedicating this Nuggets season to Steve Francis at the 1999 NBA Draft. It should be a fun year in Denver.

GOOD: Chris Paul is back. With all the talk about Carmelo moving, it seems like everyone forgot that there's a better, younger superstar in New Orleans with more legitimate gripes underpinning his trade demands and a much brighter future ahead of him. And I love Carmelo. It's just ... Chris Paul is really, really good.

And whether it's in New Orleans or elsewhere, it's a joy to watch him play. The Hornets probably won't make the playoffs this season, but don't bet against it. CP3's closer to Steve Nash than you think, and before his injury last year, he was averaging 21 points, 11 assists, and two steals for a team that was five games above .500. People seem to have forgotten he's the best point guard on the planet. If not a new home, this season should get CP3 back into the conversation with the best players on the planet and one of a handful of superstars that single-handedly make any game worth watching.

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EVIL: The Lakers are better than ever. This one's pretty self-explanatory. The Lakers return just about everyone from last year's team ('cept for Adam Morrison, *sniffle*), and they're the undisputed favorites in a conference full of good teams, but without any truly great challengers.

It's funny; had it not been for the Miami Heat this summer, we'd be sitting here asking ourselves, "Can anybody beat the Lakers this year?" And they would be the team that everyone unites against. Instead, we're in this weird space where it's not clear whether anyone other than the Lakers can pose a serious threat to Miami, so we have to pretend to embrace Kobe, Pau, Phil Jackson, etc. Basically, everyone on the team other than Ron Artest is difficult to cheer for. The day after their Finals victory, I successfully wrote an entire column about it without mentioning any other Laker by name.

Nobody really likes the Lakers beside Laker fans. But they're also not Miami. Right? They're not Miami, right? We're sure about this? Kobe, Pau, Lamar Odom, Sasha Vujacic, Matt Barnes, Andrew Bynum, those fans ... okay, so maybe they're closer to Miami than anyone wants to admit. But at least Kobe never left L.A. to team up with Tracy McGrady.

GOOD: Utah quietly becomes a contender. There are two teams with the ability to challenge L.A. We'll rhapsodize about the Thunder in a second, but first, there's Utah. In Al Jefferson, they upgraded over Carlos Boozer in the post. They quietly stole Raja Bell, a move that'll pay off big come playoff time. Andrei Kirilenko and Paul Milsap form one of the most vexing frontcourt duos in NBA history—with Jerry Sloan, those chess pieces only become more valuable. And Deron Williams has all the bonafides of a true NBA superstar.

I'm not saying the Jazz will beat the Lakers, but if they could pick up another shooting guard before the trade deadline, wouldn't they have as good a shot as anyone else? All the pieces have been (quietly) put in place, and after a few years of good-but-not-great, this might be the year that it all comes together in Utah.

Especially because of Jefferson. You can't underestimate two factors with him. First, it usually takes two years to recover from a major knee injury, meaning he should be better than ever this season. And second, going from a team that wins 20 games to a team that wins 60 games is like ... well, as Al said this summer, "I go from being in a Toyota to a Bentley. It’s a beautiful thing." He's been off the grid in Minnesota for the past few years, so it's hard to super-impose him on a contender, but just watch. He and the Jazz will be better than you think this year.

THE GREATEST GOOD: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In the year of Good vs. Evil, we already have the Evil wrapped in a nice bow. The Lakers, as noted, don't quite fit as our heroes. So ... Kevin Durant's obviously going to establish himself as the best player alive, Russell Westbrook will build on a quietly excellent summer at the world championships, the complimentary young players (Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Thabo Sefalosha, Eric Maynor) will continue to improve, the Thunder will have the second best record in the league (behind Miami), and we'll have one of the greatest Good vs. Evil battles in NBA history. Obviously all those things will happen.

Except ... it really might play out that way. You realize this, right? You see why this could be one of the most entertaining seasons ever? We're not talking about hacky columnists comparing Durant to LeBron and cooing about the irony of it all. On the court, Kevin Durant's not hype. He was head-and-shoulders above anyone in Turkey this summer, he's finally grown into his body and he's about to steal the show in a season that was supposed to be all about the Heat and Lakers.

The Thunder have all the elements of a great team, and Durant's the catalyst that will make them great. Because he's that good. Better than that, even. Because he's not just a great player now, but he's historically great, only people haven't quite caught on. And that's the way it's supposed to happen.

Everything about LeBron James has been shrouded in hype and historical comparisons. Dating back to high school, we've asked whether he could be the greatest player in the history of the sport. But even in the internet age, when high school kids grace Sports Illustrated once a year, greatness still happens organically. It's impossible to predict. And even with a 22 year-old Durant poised to lead the league in scoring for a second straight year and catapult the Thunder into another stratosphere, you don't really hear people asking themselves whether we're watching one of the greatest players in NBA history.

2010 is still the year of Good vs. Evil, but the Greatness I mentioned? It won't just be the Miami Heat. Kevin Durant will be just as captivating, just as dominant, and soon enough, we'll all be following the Thunder for the same reasons we followed the 2008 Patriots and the '90s Bulls and for the same reasons we'll follow the Heat. Because in sports, good or evil, we want to watch history unfold. And it's happening just the way it should. Even in 2010, it's organic.

With all the media over-saturation out there, we've heard a lot of "Can the Heat win 72 games?" But as America prepares to welcome maybe the most dominant team in a generation, nobody on Around The Horn is asking, "Is Kevin Durant the best player in basketball at 22 years old? Can KD be better than MJ? Are we witnessing history here?" Even in 2010, we're missing the big story.

That's about to change, though.

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