The NBA wasn't supposed to have a season. The owners pushed the players too far, and we were supposed to be handicapping legal scenarios this week. And, uh, every week until next August.
So even if there's all sorts of resentment underpinning the NBA right now -- everybody hates David Stern, basically -- and even though everyone's predicting sloppy basketball and tired players and general anarchy from start to finish of this year's 66-game schedule, let's not forget what's important.
WE HAVE BASKETBALL THIS YEAR.
Whatever happens over the next few months is a thousand times better than what was supposed to happen. So with that in mind, let's dive in to Part One of our NBA preview. We're keeping it conventional this year, breaking teams down by conference. Today we get things started with the East. Brace yourself, though. Things are pretty ugly at the bottom here.
15. Charlotte Bobcats: "Avert Your Eyes"
Their best player (Corey Maggette) is pretty much the prototype for the "great-stats-terrible-team" franchise player, and beyond that they've got ... Tyrus Thomas and Boris Diaw? Kemba Walker?
They've made the playoffs once in franchise history, they've never finished better than fourth in their division, and the only true "star" they've ever had is Gerald Wallace. Not exactly a storied history so far in Charlotte. And it all comes back to those awful, awful uniforms. Sure, you can blame shoddy ownership, shoddier management, their market size ... whatever.
Bottom line, as the creamsicle Bucs proved long ago, it's hard to for any pro sports succeed with orange as the dominant color. The only success stories are the Flyers, but that's hockey, and the Denver Broncos, but they didn't win a Super Bowl until they ditched their old uniforms. Beyond that you've got the kinda-successful Suns (more purple, really), and the '86 Mets (way more blue), and then teams like the Bengals, Bucs, Orioles, Islanders, Oilers, Tigers ... it's pretty brutal from top to bottom.
And the Bobcats' color isn't even totally orange. It's like, muted orange. Clay orange. If you swallowed a bunch of clementines whole, and then vomited, the result would be the Bobcats' signature color. Not only are the Bobcats awful this year, but their uniforms pretty much guarantee mediocrity every year. And yes, this was all an elaborate way of avoiding actually talking about the most depressing team in the NBA.
14. Cleveland Cavaliers: "Maybe Next Year... But Probably Not."
It still makes no sense that the Cavs took Kyrie Irving. They could have flipped the pick with Minnesota or Utah, or, at worst, taken Derrick Williams first, traded down from No. 4, and taken Brandon Knight at like, No. 6. Instead they've put the entire franchise on the shoulders of a point guard who enters a league with Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook and John Wall, all smack in the middle of their primes. As a No. 1 pick, Kyrie inherits enormous pressure, not many teammates to help out, and eventually, expectations that he'll be among that elite point guard group. If he's not, Cleveland goes nowhere and Irving gets labeled a bust. Kind of a rough deal for everyone involved.
13. Toronto Raptors: "When Keeping It Real European Goes Wrong"
Is Drake the Andrea Bargnani of rappers, or is Andrea Bargnani the Drake of big men? Either way you're talking about a lot of talent that will ultimately drive you insane and leave everyone miserable.
12. New Jersey Nets: "BROOK-LYNNNNNN ZOO"
Non-stop rumors, players who know they're getting shopped every single day, fans who know they're losing their team next year, an owner flying in-and-out of the country while he wages war against the Kremlin ... quite a scene in New Jersey this year. Amid all the chaos, I hope the Dwight Howard trade happens for three reasons.
- When the Nets move to Brooklyn next year, a legitimate Knicks-Nets rivalry would be the gift that keeps on giving. Especially since Mikhail Prokhorov will provoke the Knicks at every turn, and watching a Dwight/Deron tandem while Amar'e hobbles into oblivion will slowly drive every Knicks fan insane.
- Dwight Howard on the Lakers would make me hate Dwight Howard, mostly for the deluge of horrible movies it would spawn.
- If Mikhail Prokhorov is going to own an NBA team, we should all be rooting for that team to be as relevant as possible. Mikhail Prokhorov isn't going to celebrate a win by taking Brook Lopez and Anthony Morrow on a $100,000 trip to a strip club, but Dwight Howard and Deron Williams? That can't happen soon enough.
Unfortunately, the whole thing seems too good to be true for three reasons.
- The karma surrounding the Nets move to Brooklyn is not good. The scheming from Bruce Ratner, Jay-Z's token role in selling the whole thing, and even the way the team's ditching Jersey after years of putting together a horrid product. It all feels kind of shady, and even if it's all legal, that doesn't mean they'll get away without getting burned.
- I know the Nets have been working on pulling in other assets from a third team, but if you're Orlando at the trade deadline and you're choosing between Brook Lopez and Andrew Bynum and/or Pau Gasol, what possibly compels you to choose Lopez? Bynum's injuries are a concern, but at least he has a chance to be the foundation one day. Lopez, not so much.
- They are the Nets. Nothing good ever happens to the Nets.
Anyway, I'm hoping for the best because a Nets dynasty would be fun -- and if they do land Dwight in the next few weeks, then vault them eight or nine spots up on this list. But don't hold your breath.
11. Detroit Pistons: "We Need More Amnesty Clauses."
Greg Monroe is one of the most underrated big men in the league. Brandon Knight is still pissed off about draft night and will spend the next three years taking it out on the entire league. And ... if they hadn't spent so much money building their team around Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva (and now Rodney Stuckey), there could be some real hope here!
10. Milwaukee Bucks: "We Must Protect This House!"
The Bucks are sorta the Under Armour of NBA teams. Not bad, exactly, and it's kinda fun watching John Hammond try to cobble together a contender from spare pantyhose. But if you're looking for them to corner the market, it may be a little while. Even when he fails, watching Brandon Jennings try to single-handedly take over will always be enough to keep you interested, but it's probably not enough to get them to the playoffs, and definitely not enough to be challenging the Nikes of the world anytime soon.
9. Washington Wizards: "New Traditions"
That's the actual slogan on the team's website today. I'm a diehard Wizards fan, so excuse me if this gets personal for a second. Feel free to skip to the playoff teams. As for the Wiz ... There really needs to be a question mark after that slogan. "New traditions?"
A smart team would have gutted this roster last summer, put the ball in John Wall's hands, built the team around low-cost veterans and rookies, and slowly put together a winning foundation. Instead the Wizards were hoping they could magically conjur competence from Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee, they hung on to Rashard Lewis this summer, and they're sorta stuck in no man's land. On one side of the team you've got mediocre veterans, and on the other, a solid core of young guys (Wall, Jordan Crawford, Trevor Booker, Chris Singleton, Shevlin Mack, Jan Vesley and his girlfriend) without enough playing time.
A smart team would play the young guys exclusively, get rid of guys like Blatche, risk another horrible season, and at worst, end up near the top of the lottery, where you can land John Wall a running mate for the next 10 years. At best, you've got a cheaper roster that overachieves, and gives you the flexibility to get even better through free agency.
Deciding not to amnesty Rashard Lewis is a microcosm of the problem. Ostensibly they did it because they didn't want to spend money on lesser players to get up to the salary flloor. That logic was debunked, but only after they'd made the decision to keep Rashard, which means that A) they lost out on an extra $10 million in cap room to take a risk on a few young guys (Kris Humphries?) and B) now there's a washed up stand-in at small forward, keeping guys like Vesley, Booker, and Singleton off the court.
The reason they're this high is because John Wall is even better than everyone realizes, and probably good enough to take them within an inch of the playoffs this year. It's gonna be fun. But as someone who's grown up watching the Wizards make shortsighted decisions to prolong their mediocrity almost as a rule, it's hard to buy into New Traditions just yet. But yes, that's more than you ever wanted to know about the Washington Wizards. Let's move on.
8. Boston Celtics: "An Orthopedic Surgeon Is Walking Through That Door"
The Celtics would've been picked low on this list even before we found out Jeff Green's going to miss the season. The team's old, this season will be murderous on everyone, and between resting the big three sporadically and playing them out of necessity, you already had a recipe for an underwhelming regular season. Without Green as a young linchpin, the problems are exacerbated. Throw in a miserable Rajon Rondo who's got every reason to complain after being openly shopped for each of the past three summers, and it's not looking good for Ubuntu.
This core has had some bad luck, too. The Perkins injury in the Finals two years ago may have cost them a title, and then his slow recovery last year probably forced Danny Ainge's hand in the trade market. Even then, if Rajon Rondo never gets injured in last year's playoffs, there's a chance they could have taken out the Heat. And then this shortened season, which probably costs them one, last title run. If a few things had happened differently, we might have remembered this Celtics team very differently.
On the other hand ... they still lucked into Ray Allen and a historically one-sided trade for Kevin Garnett, so let's not get too emotional over any heartbreak for anybody in Boston.
7. Philadelphia 76ers: "Hip Hop Is Dead, But Lou Williams Is ALIVE"
Because every NBA preview needs a chopped and screwed freestyle from Lou Williams.
6. Orlando Magic: "Maybe Dwight Thought It Was Inappropriate"
Dwight Howard's gift is his curse. That freakish superhero frame that's made him impossibly durable over the course of his career is why everyone expects him to be Shaq. It's not a reason to feel sorry for him, since so far he's enjoyed the endorsement benefits of being treated as if he is Shaq, but when people freak out and call him a CLOWNFRAUD from Shamsville, they sort of miss the point. Dwight Howard is David Robinson. It doesn't matter whether he has "what it takes" on his own. Put him next to another superstar, and he'll be fucking murderous. He will win multiple titles. On his own, with a team ravaged by Otis Smith's panicked moves, he's not quite dominant enough to do any real damage. So wouldn't you leave, then? And given the NBA's clumsy loophole for prospective free agents, wouldn't you demand a trade?
Let's stop arguing about this and focus on what really matters.
5. Atlanta Hawks: "But Maybe If ... No, No. I Guess You're Right."
There's nothing more miserable for fans than a team that's kinda good. If your favorite's team awful, at least you can have a sense of humor about it. Trust me, the Wizards have been bad, but it's always fun. If your favorite team's kinda good, though, you just have to sit there year-in and year-out, desperately trying to talk yourself into Matt Ryan and Joe Johnson, the guys making a combined $190 million to captain your teams to the second round every year. Yeesh.
4. New York Knicks: "LeBron In Three Years Though? You Know He Loves The Garden ..."
The Knicks scheme to build a dynasty out of thin air almost worked. They'll still be fun this year, and Tyson Chandler single-handedly makes them about 180 percent better on defense, but Amar'e is due for a season-killing knee injury any day now, Baron Davis is a longshot, and it's tough to imagine Carmelo suddenly unleashing an MVP season after the past few years. They'll be a terrifying team in the playoffs if everyone's healthy, but "scary" and "deadly" are different things.
3. Indiana Pacers: "This Is Weird."
I don't know how it happened, either, but the Pacers have the best young core in the East. If they land Eric Gordon in two years, maybe they become championship contenders. As it stands, they've got David West, Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger, George Hill, Darren Collison, Tyler Hansbrough and Paul George. That's probably the most well-rounded rotation in the league, and David West is the oldest player at 31 years old. They're not the third best team in the East, but they'll sneak up on better teams all year long, their youth gives them a better chance at handling the insane schedule than most of their counterparts, everyone loves Frank Vogel, and... When nobody was looking, the Pacers put together a great team? It still sounds weird.
2. Chicago Bulls: "[Derrick Rose mumbles something, dunks over three people]"
The best part about the endless summer of pickup hoops was the absence of Derrick Rose. While everyone else spent the lockout playing in All-Star games all over the country, I picture D-Rose joyless, shooting thousands of jumpers a day, still pissed off about the Heat series.
So yeah, things will get vicious in Chicago this year. Also this is still adorable.
1. Miami Heat: "Ixnay Off My Dicks-Nay, That's Pig Latin, Itch-Bay"
Last year there were so many words written about the Miami Heat that I think everyone's still fighting off a little hangover. Thank God the Clippers are around to distract us this year. So in the interest of brevity, let me keep this simple. The Miami Heat are the Watch The Throne album.
We were promised something revolutionary. Something that would expand our minds of what greatness looks like. More than just basketball or a rap album. This would change the whole industry.
It would have been impossible to live up to the hype, because we didn't even know what we expected. Because regardless of how many quotes we got from Kanye or LeBron about making history, it's still just a rap album. Or a basketball team. Making matters worse, Kanye and Jay didn't have as much chemistry as they promised. Their best solo albums were better than what they produced together, and watching them trade off verses felt uncomfortable. You would hear a song and say, "I kinda wish this was just a Kanye song." This is the Miami Heat's offense.
When the Heat failed failed, they couldn't point to the hundreds of millions they made for the NBA, the history they did make -- ratings records, jersey sales, generating more arguments than any team in pro sports history -- because all that mattered was that we were promised something more than all that, and we didn't get it. The Mavericks won, and Watch The Throne couldn't touch The Blueprint.
But then, if you go back through 2011, Kanye and Jay are still making the best music of anyone out right now. Together. Even if it doesn't totally work, it works better than anyone else. And if you go back and re-watch the Heat in the playoffs, it worked pretty well for them, too.
Miami's not a revolutionary mind-bending juggernaut, but they are a juggernaut. Defensively they have the potential to suffocate anyone they play, and on offense, they've got two of the greatest scorers in NBA history. It may not totally work on that end, and it may never totally work. But if you're looking at the East this year, in a short season where chaos reigns and teams will sprint to the finish line, who's better?
... And tomorrow, we look West, make picks for awards, and predict the 2011 title.