The NBA regular season is an overture. It's there for our entertainment, if not our education or to decide anything of particular importance. It's for newfangled teams to jell and familiar squads to survive. We inject a lot of misguided meaning into it. Think about every matchup between Contender A and Contender B, how the ESPN or TNT studio crew tells us we're supposed to learn something about each team, because we have to convince ourselves that one night in Oklahoma City or Miami is going to tell us a lot about a series that might happen in those cities four months from now. We crave stakes, and for the league's best teams, the regular season doesn't provide them. This doesn't mean it's inconsequential, but that if we're focused on the endgame -- which team is best? -- it's not very good for determining that, which is why we have playoffs in the first place.
The NBA regular season is good for announcing oneself. Derrick Rose did this during the 2010-11 season, when he stormed his way through the league and won the MVP at just 22 years old. The Bulls dramatically improved in concert with Rose, winning 62 games and finishing first in the Eastern Conference ahead of a newly juggernautish Miami Heat team that struggled early in the season. This sort of thing seems to happen every few years, and it's arresting: A burgeoning star learns to command his immense talents, spends the entire regular season staging an exuberant demolition of every opponent, and his team makes a leap in the standings. The drawn out nature of it is important. Sustained brilliance definitionally takes time to reveal itself. A performance over 11 games can be a blip; one over 82 rarely is.
After getting housed by Miami in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, Rose's Bulls committed to dominating again the following season. They extracted 50 wins from a congested 66-game schedule that a lot of contenders treated like an endurance test, not a showcase. The reason Tom Thibodeau and Rose were determined to do this was -- well, monomaniacal personalities -- but also because they wanted to further demonstrate their run the previous year was no fluke. (Rose's MVP carried an asterisk, since it was won during a time when NBA writers were trying to punish LeBron for his hubris.) The regular season only matters to teams who feel like they can use it to advance an argument about what they are, which is why young, unproven teams attack it with alacrity and more established crews just try to get through semi-successfully and in one piece.
The Indiana Pacers are primed to have a season that plays out like an argument. They're going to spend 82 games trying to assert themselves as the best defensive team in basketball and as fully capable of scoring efficiently enough to capitalize on that defense. A lot of this has to do with Paul George, who won't win the MVP unless LeBron misses a considerable amount of time, but who is playing with a smooth perfectness that's uncharacteristic of ascendant talents. Usually they arrive like screaming comets, but George's game has matured so swiftly, and he's so traditionally small forward-like -- as if he were made entirely of one element, Small Forwardium -- that the way he plays seems almost banal until you realize he's doing Small Forward Things better than pretty much anyone ever has. He's exciting, but not like positional vanguards such as Dirk Nowitzki or Russell Westbrook, and thus he might take longer to appreciate. Fortunately, we're probably going to get an entire season of full-tilt Paul George.
We're likely also going to bear witness to Roy Hibbert's first wholehearted Defensive Player of the Year campaign. He put on 15 pounds in the offseason and claims he's moving better than ever. The Pacers seem prepared to use him as the one-man spine of their defense. They're funneling drivers and cutters toward him even more than they did last season, trusting that he'll alter or block nearly every shot along the baseline and in the paint. Hibbert got a max deal in July 2012, and we've been waiting on him to perform as well in the regular season as he has in the past couple of playoffs. All indicators are that this is the year.
While these aggressive statements of purpose are fun to watch, why teams and players produce them isn't entirely clear. Tom Thibodeau has been criticized in recent seasons for playing Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng too many minutes for the sake of chasing wins, while Gregg Popovich's Spurs have been known to throw games away so the stars can get a rest. Approaches obviously depend upon the age and makeup of the team that's adopting them, but it seems like taking the regular season as easy as possible is the less myopic strategy, in that it makes the most sense from a cost-benefit perspective. Feeling fresh in the postseason is more important than playing at home for a few extra games.
So, if the spoils are negligible, why do teams and players exert themselves like this? I think it's about healthy insecurity. Chris Paul, for instance, knows he can command the pace and style of a game. He's done it before, so he doesn't feel compelled to prove it to himself or anyone else on a Tuesday night in Portland. He's confident that he can find his peak form when he needs it, and in fact he treats it like a finite resource that he doesn't want to waste in relatively inconsequential competitions. But Paul George is still locating his peak, which exists only in his imagination. He's not familiar with it, so he continually strives for it. It's not a known quantity to him. He cannot depend upon it. Teams and players that compete zealously throughout the regular season don't trust that they can flip greatness on and off like a switch, usually because they haven't been great yet or are just getting acquainted with what being great feels like. The difference between the Pacers and, say, the Heat is how they see themselves and the extent to which they understand their abilities.
We don't know how voraciously the Pacers will burn through the Eastern Conference. Even stars go into funks, and championship teams occasionally drop the exhausted end of back-to-backs against Bobcats-level competition. But the sheer kineticism of the way they're playing at the season's outset suggests they're going after every win within their estimable reach. The Thunder, Nets, Heat, Clippers and Spurs will traverse the regular season, not lazily, but with caution. They're engineered to peak in April and May, hiding their truest selves from us in the meantime. The Bulls are sputtering; they won't be right until Rose gets his legs under him and Noah fully heals. What we will get from the Pacers is rare: a team realizing, over a span of many months, how to play as they imagine themselves capable of playing. It's something to behold.