The NBA is back to its normal 82-game grind, now that players and owners aren’t firing $100 bills at each other, and the timing is all wrong.
Do we really need eight whole months to see how and where this ends, when everyone knows, barring a seismic shock, it’ll be in South Beach, Bricktown or Tinseltown?
This season isn’t shaping up to be terribly suspenseful. The league is caught in a super-team squeeze at the moment, with the Lakers, Thunder (yes, even with James Harden gone) and Heat sitting at the top, where it’s awfully lonely. Those teams have lapped the field without starting their engines. There are 10 former Olympians on the three rosters and most, if not all, are headed to the Hall of Fame someday. That’s clout.
But all’s not lost. We’ll get some drama, one way or another, and a good portion will be generated by the league’s 25 Most Intriguing People for 2012-13, as voted on by … well, me.
25. Michael Jordan, desperate owner, Charlotte Bobcats
Why: Because there’s only one way to go from here.
The Scoop: Seriously, when’s the last time The Greatest Player Ever was this vulnerable? When he was shown the door in Washington? When he was shagging fly balls in Birmingham? Jordan owns a franchise stuck in rebuilding, thanks to bad luck (losing the Dwight Howard, draft lottery) and bad moves (where do we start?). He went beyond his inner circle of execs to give control of basketball operations to Rich Cho, and yet we know where the buck stops. Jordan turns 50 this season but still looking to age gracefully from an ownership standpoint. This will happen if rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist becomes the star the Bobcats never had.
24. Royce White, rookie, Houston Rockets
Why: Logistics and other issues.
The Scoop: Stricken with anxiety, White will travel by bus when possible this season. If he doesn’t suffer from bus-lag he could help the Rockets. Eventually, he must overcome his fear of flying or the Rockets will wonder why they ignore the red flags that spooked other teams on draft day.
23. Brandon Roy, comeback player, Minnesota Timberwolves
Why: He has miraculous healing powers.
The Scoop: His knees were so shot that doctors in Portland advised Roy to give up the game or else be prepared to spend his life walking like a catcher. Roy’s retirement lasted a year. Then he underwent platelet-rich plasma therapy, which involves injections to rebuild tissue. Kobe Bryant has had this done twice. And now Roy, who is meniscus-free in both knees, is without pain. At least right now. Wait until he discovers he plays for Minnesota.
22. Donald T. Sterling, owner, L.A. Clippers
Why: Only he can screw up the Chris Paul signing.
The Scoop: The socially awkward oddball is all that stands between Paul and a contract extension next summer. Paul wants to return and described his relationship as “great” with an owner accused of racism and once screamed insults from his courtside seat at the guard Paul replaced, Baron Davis. Sterling has laid low lately, and didn’t bungle the Blake Griffin negotiations this summer. But you know Sterling. Can he disappear until Paul signs?
21. Danny Ferry, architect, Atlanta Hawks
Why: He might be the miracle worker the Hawks need.
The Scoop: Ferry arrived and immediately moved mountains, in the form of Joe Johnson and the remaining $88 million of his contract. The seven Hawks fans were so thrilled they nearly built Ferry a statue. Dumping Johnson was a plus because he wasn’t a superstar or a franchise player. He was just paid like one, and now the Hawks are suddenly cap-friendly next summer for free agents and potential trades. Bu does anyone want to come to Atlanta? Besides Ferry? At least he did. That’s a start.
20: Paul George, up-and-comer, Indiana Pacers
Why: He’s supposed to be the next star.
The Scoop: His first and last name suggests he’s halfway to being the Beatles. The Pacers aren’t projecting that kind of greatness from him, but they do want and need him to be an All-Star here in his third year. At times last season, he looked the part. Then the playoffs came and George wet his shorts against Dwyane Wade. The talent is there; George averaged 12 points and six rebounds as a third option. Now the desire must follow. If he becomes elite, so do the Pacers.
19. JaVale McGee, shot-blocker, Denver Nuggets
Why: They just paid him a ton of money.
The Scoop: The JaVale blooper reel will make you slap your knee in laughter, which would be OK if he was Kevin Hart. The Nuggets gave him $44 million over four years hoping he left his hijinks behind in Washington. McGee is only 24, long and athletic and hyper. The NBA will always take chances on 7-footers who can use their hops and quickness to overcome a lack of fundamentals. McGee spent his summer at Olajuwon Academy after a strong playoff series against the Lakers. He can be Tyson Chandler with a jumper, a top-five center in a league that’s light on good big men.
18. The Maloofs, still in charge, Sacramento Kings
Why: They’re broke.
The Scoop: Just a decade ago the Maloof brothers were frolicking frat boys with a love for Sacramento and basketball. Today, people are using Maloof and goof in the same breath. And that’s when they’re speaking nice about the owners. The fun times are gone, along with money and any plans to build a new arena in Sactown, which leaves the franchise in limbo. Either someone buys out the Maloofs or they move the team to Seattle when that arena is built in two years or so. Until then, the Kings are stuck at the renamed Sleep Train Arena while Sacramento dreams of new ownership.
17. Blake Griffin, dunker, L.A. Clippers
Why: He wants to take the next level up.
The Scoop: Griffin spent all summer working with a shot doctor, which was terrific news for Kendrick Perkins and Pau Gasol. It reduces the odds of Griffin giving them another Spalding tattoo and a YouTube guest-starring role. If Griffin erases that hitch in his jumper and finds a sweet spot from 15 feet away, as Karl Malone eventually did, he’ll be the best power forward in basketball. That would force his defenders to pick their poison, and you can guess what choice they’ll make.
16. David Stern, lame-duck commissioner, NBA
Why: He needs a smooth exit strategy.
The Scoop: Stern made the right call by putting a stopwatch on his tenure, set to expire in 14 months. What he needs to do now is cede most if not all control to next-in-command, Adam Silver. Maybe this is already happening, seeing how often Silver has a say on all important matters. The NBA world needs to hear and see Silver a bit more so we all know what we're getting when he takes control in February of 2014. Does he have his own ideas, or is he Stern II?
15. Deron Williams, guard, Brooklyn Nets
Why: Hello, Brooklyn.
The Scoop: Sure, the face of a reborn franchise wore a perpetual pout. But that was last year, when the Nets were stuck both in Newark and in reverse. It’s a new team, new digs and a whole new ball game, and yet the Nets would be thrilled with the same old Williams, especially if he can convince fans to buy tickets when the Pistons are in town. In order for the Nets to be the best team in New York, they need to have the best player in New York. And so, who will go deeper in the postseason, Williams or Carmelo Anthony?
14. Mark Cuban, owner, Dallas Mavericks
Why: He’s got something up his short sleeves.
The Scoop: With the goodwill of an NBA championship in his pocket, Cuban can safely buy time until he rebuilds the Mavericks, who’ll have money to spend next summer. They’ll also have a pick in the lottery if Dirk Nowitzki, ahem, somehow takes longer than a month to heal. Anyway, the roster reeks. Laugh at Cuban now, but you know he’ll get the last one.
13. Anthony Davis, rookie center, New Orleans Hornets
Why: He’s No. 1.
The Scoop: Here’s the list of big men taken No. 1 overall in the draft since Tim Duncan in 1997: Michael Olowokandi, Elton Brand, Kenyon Martin, Kwame Brown, Yao Ming, Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut, Andrea Bargnani, Greg Oden, Blake Griffin. It’s a very mixed bag, and with the exception of Howard and Griffin, none became franchise players; Yao and Oden were saddled with injuries. What does this have to do with Davis? Well, the bar isn’t high based on this fraternity. Already a solid rebounder and shot blocker, if he can develop a few post moves the Hornets will consider themselves lucky.
12. Mike Brown, coach, L.A. Lakers
Why: Because if it fails, it’s on him.
The Scoop: Brown is a nice guy who’s amazingly unaffected and professional. You’d want him to marry your daughter. But coach your team? Well, the stakes once again are soaring in L.A., where the fortified Lakers are on the clock to win a championship before Kobe calls it quits in two years. As usual in such cases, where talent is abundant, the coach can only screw things up. Or so says the perception. Brown will use the Princeton offense in order to make full use of his collection of future Hall of Famers. And if it doesn’t work, his next coaching stop will be Princeton.
11. Andrew Bynum, center, Philadelphia 76ers
Why: Shaq said he’s the best center in the league.
The Scoop: The Sixers jettisoned Andre Iguodala, a player they wanted to trade for years, for a legitimate center and also a legitimate concern. Can Bynum stay healthy enough to convince Philly he’s worth a major contract extension? After his knee joints required greasing, the Sixers sat him most of preseason and he’s expected to miss up to a month to start the regular season. After that, h could go through the year without any serious issues, but it’s about the long-term and whether Bynum is worth rolling the dice.
10. Steve Nash, guard, L.A. Lakers
Why: Because Smush Parker isn’t available.
The Scoop: He’s the great point guard Kobe Bryant never had … and also capable of falling off a cliff in a hurry. Nash is 39 and needs to hold up through May and June. Along the way he must defend Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook and/or Chris Paul. He’ll either win his first championship, or turn old trying.
9. Rajon Rondo, guard, Boston Celtics
Why: The Celtics are finally his team.
The Scoop: Does it matter that Rondo isn’t the most loved player in the locker room, that he often clashes with the most player-friendly coach in the game, and that management has considered trading him about a half-dozen times? Not really. He’s a diva, but Rondo causes more headaches for the other team than his own.
8. Jeremy Lin, international celebrity, Houston Rockets
Why: Because we get to see how much was hype.
The Scoop: The feel-good story of the season has moved to Houston, which is where it ends. Lin won’t recapture the magic or mania he had in New York, but that’s probably best for him. Now he can play without commotion or Carmelo. And maybe the basketball world will be too busy to notice that Lin is just a decent player on an average team.
7. James Harden, max-contract player, Houston Rockets
Why: He chose money over Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
The Scoop: How much is $7 million? Apparently, a lot to Harden. That was the difference between staying in OKC and going to Houston, where the Rockets were more willing – and able -- to give him a max deal than the Thunder. By refusing to re-up with the Thunder, Harden wanted the money and the chance to showcase himself as a star, both of which would’ve eluded him in OKC. Look, Harden’s a solid player; he can create his own shot and owns a deadly jumper. But a max player? He wasn’t in last summer’s Finals.
6. Carmelo Anthony, gunner, New York Knicks
Why: It’s now or never.
The Scoop: The Knicks are built around a player who’s a superstar as a scorer only. In that regard, Melo’s only peers, when he’s hot, is LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Defense and the little stuff aren’t Anthony’s strengths, so you wonder how far he can take the Knicks. If they don’t get past the first round without a good excuse, Melo could get the A-Rod treatment in New York, especially if the Knicks become the No. 2 team in town.
5. Derrick Rose, guard, Chicago Bulls
Why: He’s on the mend.
The Scoop: He’ll return from knee surgery at some point and it won’t take long before we know if Rose lost any of his lethal quickness that made him MVP two years ago. No player means more to his team than Rose, so the franchise is at stake here. You don’t need to be a Bulls fan to root for a full recovery. Basketball isn’t better off with a gimpy Rose who can’t cut on a dime.
4. Kevin Durant, MVP-in-waiting, Oklahoma City Thunder
Why: He’s the best player without a ring.
The Scoop: The sight of Durant crying on his mother’s shoulder after losing the NBA Finals was heart-wrenching, if only because Durant’s talent is matched by his character. He’ll have another chance, or six, to rectify that. At least, that’s the general feeling, considering the makeup of the Thunder. Is this the year he makes it all happen? It would be a crying shame if he doesn’t come close.
3. Dwight Howard, center, L.A. Lakers
Why: We get to see how serious he can be.
The Scoop: The jovial big man took a PR hit for his messy final season in Orlando. But as LeBron will tell you, performance and a championship is the ultimate memory eraser. Besides, Howard needs to satisfy only Kobe, the Buss family and Jack Nicholson. Should the six-time All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year win a title and sign on long-term, the Lakers will throw him the keys.
2. LeBron James, ex-public enemy No. 1, Miami Heat
Why: Is he really better than Jordan?
The Scoop: Nobody boos anymore. We’re just in awe of LeBron, what he just did and what he’s still capable of doing. His weaknesses all but minimized, LeBron is the best show in basketball. It’s all about his place in history now, and that will depend on number of championships won. Until he gets at least six, we should give Jordan and Bill Russell their respect and shelve our short-term memory.
1. Kobe Bryant, thirsty former champ, L.A. Lakers
Why: His championship clock is ticking.
The Scoop: When he has a good shot at a championship, there’s no athlete more locked-in than Kobe, so as he chases title No. 6, this should be thrilling to witness. The ego in Kobe says he’s still the best player (not quite) on the best team (very debatable). That ego also says the next trophy is his (probably true).