By Jim Brighters, NBA Editor, The Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) – As we are set to embark on another 82- game marathon, this season really leaves little in the way of fascinating story lines.
Sure, there is one huge one and there will be more on that later. It’s not a big surprise that it involves someone referred to as LBJ and it’s not the man who ascended to the Presidency after the Kennedy assassination.
Last season, the commissioner left. Paul Pierce was traded from the Boston Celtics. The Miami Heat were headed for history. The Philadelphia 76ers ruined professional sports as we know it. And some of the best players in the NBA were headed to free agency.
Less than a week away from the new season, we have one gentleman who returned home, a few broken bones in valuable body parts, an angry superstar and an ownership mess made by, among other things, an overly African-American cheerleading squad.
There’s not a lot of sizzle to the start of this season, although reality is three of the top superstars in the NBA over the last 20 years are at the forefront.
Let’s start with the biggie.
LEBRON JAMES RETURNS HOME
LBJ put a premium on saving his hometown over winning another title. Actually, that turned out to be false as Kevin Love came to town and now the Cleveland Cavaliers are NBA championship contenders.
If this was professional wrestling, James’ decision would cement a full- scale, slow-burn face turn. He went Hulk Hogan NWO when he went to Miami, now he’s back and that’s the biggest story of the NBA this season.
The best player in the world shifting teams is noteworthy enough, but the reason James did it makes this a potentially wonderful story. Professional athletes seemingly run away from the slightest bit of unnecessary pressure. James is trying to put a city on his back. He’s atoning for the mistake of “The Decision.” It’s noble and different than what we’ve sadly come to expect from the elite of the sports world.
It also helps that he is in the prime of his career, fresh from four consecutive NBA Finals appearances. James is clearly the best player in the league, but this free agent decision is about so much more than sports.
If LeBron does this, if he goes back to his hometown and brings Cleveland its first professional sports championship in 50 years, how do we even analyze it properly, especially in the context of sports? James is potentially revitalizing an American city. Local and federal government struggled with such tasks. And remember, he asked for this. He wanted to do it for Cleveland. He’s making up for four years of anger, disappointment and betrayal.
Face turn complete.
HOW WILL THE CAVS WORK?
Super teams are the rage and the Cavaliers are one. Love is a top-10 player in the league and Kyrie Irving is 22, a two-time All-Star, the MVP of that game in 2014 and the FIBA World Cup MVP.
James proved that Big Threes can work quickly. He, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh went to the Finals in their first season together. They lost, but you see my point.
James, Love and Irving should coexist easily. The main difference between the Miami Big Three and the Cleveland one is that, from the beginning, James is the man with the Cavaliers. It took almost two full seasons for Wade to don the Robin costume and let Batman be. They won a title, you see my point. James is clearly the best player on this team and Love and Irving won’t mess with that. James also has the pedigree with his two rings to provide leadership.
Cleveland has warts. Love and Irving have zero playoff experience. New head coach David Blatt has no NBA head coaching experience. Defense will be problematic and the Cavs are about as deep as the subtle undertones of a Three Stooges episode.
But the Cavaliers will be fun to watch. Offensively, they can do anything. Watching Love throw 80-foot chest passes to ignite the break will make ESPN very happy.
James’ warning that it’ll take time for the Cavs to succeed will prove false.
Kevin Durant broke his foot and acknowledged he will take his time to return. The injury has a high reoccurrence rate and Durant wants to stay healthy for the Thunder’s title run. And, his impending free agency in the summer of 2016.
If Durant returns timely enough, OKC can still contend for a title. If the Thunder falter too badly, they could fall to sixth or seventh, run into a stud Western Conference team and get bounced quickly.
One season after winning the MVP, Durant inked a huge endorsement deal, then abandoned his country in favor of rest. Maybe his foot already hurt, who knows. Maybe he got scared off after Paul George’s leg snapped like beef jerky, but Durant will now have months off to prepare for a title run.
FREE AGENCY … DELAYED A YEAR
Thanks to an obscene TV deal the NBA signed with TNT and ESPN, the salary cap will sky rocket in the summer of 2016. What will that mean for free agents after this season? Chances are, those players will opt for one-year contracts to take advantage of the money available a year and a half from now.
This summer’s free agent class includes: Love, who will stay in Cleveland; Rajon Rondo, who, I don’t know what’s going on with him; Marc Gasol, the best all-around center in the league; and possibly LaMarcus Aldridge.
Omer Asik, Rudy Gay, DeAndre Jordan and Paul Millsap are also available on the market. This group won’t have the luxury of waiting a season to truly break the bank. They don’t have the bargaining power as the other’s.
It should be a very slow summer on the free agency front.
HAWKS OWNERSHIP DISASTER
The majority stake of ownership in the Atlanta Hawks is up for sale because Bruce Levenson got caught making some crazy racist remarks.
Actually, he first disagreed with racists claims on fan sites about Philips Arena, then accused his own team of having too many African-Americans in the cheerleading squad, demanded more white music as if the arena was some ordinary dentist’s office, and, in his own words, “even bitched that the kiss cam is too black.”
So, yeah, Levenson has to go.
Suitors lined up from former players Chris Webber and Dikembe Mutombo to really wealthy men. The deal will probably get done during the season and Levenson will get paid handsomely. The Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers went for astronomic figures, so Levenson gets to espouse any idiotic beliefs he wants from his $900 million pool.
The sale of the Hawks will have some ramifications on the court. If the person or conglomerate wants to pinch pennies, that would be understandable considering they will probably fork over 100 billion of them to buy the team. That could mean a trade of someone like Al Horford, which would cripple the team this season.
THE ROOKIE CLASS OF ROOKIE CLASSES
This summer’s draft class of ’14 was touted by some as one of the best potentially in history. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart, Joel Embiid, Elfrid Payton and Dario Saric could all become upper-echelon NBA players.
It might take some time for this to happen. Wiggins was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves and might back up Corey Brewer early. Embiid is injured and the Sixers will probably sit him for the season. Saric has two more seasons overseas before he can become a 76er.
Payton is a great dark horse candidate for NBA Rookie of the Year. He’s going to be a wrecking ball on defense and should play for the Orlando Magic. Smart will get a nice early-season audition since Rondo will miss time with a broken hand. That injury, by the way, either occurred at a trampoline park, or in the shower. Rondo swears shower, but neither is exactly damaging it lifting a car full of nuns off puppies.
Parker is the best option to have a big impact right away. He’s versatile enough to score close to 20 points per game and will have free rein as the best offensive option with the Milwaukee Bucks.
History will be kinder to this class than this upcoming season will be.
HEAT STILL WARM
Any team that loses James will struggle some. Luol Deng is a nice replacement and Josh McRoberts has a role in the NBA.
The Heat are still decent. Sure, it helps they play in the Eastern Conference, which is better, but not great.
It falls on the shoulders of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Wade missed a lot of time the last two seasons. Head coach Erik Spoelstra could afford to let Wade rest because he had James to do the heavy lifting. Not going to happen this season. That’s a tough problem for Spo. Wade can’t survive an 82-game season, but his presence gives Miami the best chance at success.
That leaves the primary scoring up to Bosh. He never received enough credit for totally changing his game for the better of the team. During this Heat run, Bosh ran from the lane as if it was populated by snakes and clowns. He will have to mix it up a little more than previous seasons.
Miami is a playoff team. The Heat will be a group that pundits will champion as a possible upset squad come the summer since they have a championship pedigree. They could pull out a few wins, but title banners won’t be heading to South Beach again.
The San Antonio Spurs embarrassed the Miami Heat so badly, Gregg Popovich and Co. can probably take a little credit for ending that group.
It turns out teamwork, sharp passing, crisp cuts and stingy defense still actually have a place in basketball outside “Hoosiers.” The Spurs were amazing. They took my breath away in their destruction of the Heat, although it could have been the Miami humidity.
San Antonio is back together for another run (technically, Patty Mills will be out until winter with a shoulder injury). Motivation would be a possible concern for a group of mortals, but the Spurs are more than that. Their goal isn’t to further the dynasty, but rather the constant pursuit of unflagging professionalism. The Spurs won’t know any other way, but to fight for another title.
Gregg Popovich is a hero. He’s a grumpy genius. They are the best kind of genius.
San Antonio is a viable contender for another title, although the Spurs have won back-to-back championships during this 15-year run of greatness.
THE MAMBA ATTACKS
And finally, this season could’ve been a wonderful comeback story for Kobe Bryant. Instead, we have successfully bored me into caring about ESPN’s player rankings and the magazine’s story about how Bryant destroyed the Los Angeles Lakers.
For the record, I think Bryant is better than No. 40, but I get the ranking. He’s in the 30-35 range. Bryant is 36 and coming off two major injuries in under a year. His work ethic is legendary, but this is his 19th season, and if you add in playoff games, that’s a shade under three additional seasons.
Plus, the Lakers are going to be terrible. That always helps lower a player’s rankings. Great players get their teams into the postseason and there’s no way that happens for the Lakers unless some national tragedy costs us a significant chunk of the West Coast.
So, I get that ranking.
As for destroying the Lakers, there’s some validity in that he didn’t take a reasonable contract or hometown discount like Tim Duncan did for the Spurs or Dirk Nowitzki did for the Mavs. Kobe’s entitled to whatever money he can make, but that hamstrung the team. Bryant had every opportunity to take a smaller deal which could have provided the Lakers with more wiggle room.
Do I think it’s difficult playing with Bryant? Yes, because he expects everyone to match his levels of intensity and work ethic. It can’t always happen, so it make things tough. That’s not a knock on Bryant, so much as a reality.
But Bryant wasn’t the guy who replaced Phil Jackson with Mike Brown, then fired Brown five games into his second season after winning the Pacific title the previous campaign. Kobe didn’t hire Mike D’Antoni, who everyone knew would be a worse fit than George Clooney as Batman, all the while publicly humiliating Jackson, who probably would have returned, but the Lakers brass couldn’t give him the night to think it over.
That’s been the Kobe Bryant story of recent weeks. Had none of this occurred, we still would have seen a super-motivated, borderline-possessed Bryant this season. He won’t have it any other way and he has 11 different chips on his shoulder to prove everyone wrong.
He’ll score his points, but the Lakers are dreadful. Steve Nash is a cash- collecting corpse. Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, Nick Young and the rest don’t comprise a competitive team.
However, we will have Kobe. His force of determination might propel the Lakers to a handful more wins. It’s going to be fun to watch.