It was touch-and-go there for a while, but the NBA’s back. Really, truly back, and actually playing games that aren’t in Rucker Park (though Kevin Durant scoring 66 isn’t out of the question here either). The season starts with a bang, too — five games on Christmas day, all of them fascinating.
We’re all going to be ignoring our families on Christmas and watching the quintuple header, and we can only assume you will be too. So with that in mind, here’s what to watch for as the NBA season gets underway.
12:00 ET — Boston Celtics at New York Knicks
The NBA couldn’t have picked a better game to lead off with. Two rivals. Two cities that hate each other. What a great way to spread Christmas cheer.
Both the Knicks and Celtics come into the season on the short list of NBA title contenders. Both teams, however, are complete opposites in almost every way. The Celtics have an aging nucleus of superstars that probably have one more legitimate chance to bring a title back to Beantown. The Celtic starting lineup is still one of the best in the league, rolling out a Big 4 of Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett. They have been through everything together, good (an NBA championship) and bad (getting smoked by the Heat last spring). The experience that this group has together can’t be taught.
The problem with the Celtics is what comes after the Big 4. Rajon Rondo will continue to excel, creating open looks for Allen, Pierce, and Garnett. But what happens when these aging stars can’t make it through this shortened, grueling season? Pierce is already doubtful for opening day and Garnett hasn’t played a full schedule of games since 2004-05. Will Rondo be able to carry this team when his brilliant passes are being made to Brandon Bass and Marquis Daniels? Yes those are the first two guys off of the Boston Celtics bench. Gross. It gets even worse when you realize that Rondo’s backup is something called “Avery Bradley”. Even with all the questions, the Celtics should be in the hunt for a top 4 seed, and if healthy, will be a very dangerous playoff team.
The Knicks are on the opposite end of the spectrum. This is the first season in years (feels like centuries) that the Knicks are a legitimate threat in the East. The Garden will be absolutely ROCKING on Sunday afternoon. Knicks fans (Full disclosure: I’m one of them) haven’t been this excited since Patrick Ewing was ruling the blue paint in old MSG. The Knicks have two bona fide superstars in Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. These two alone were not enough to get even a game off the Celtics in last year’s playoffs. The problem with them is they are all offense and no defense. Enter Tyson Chandler. The last time Chandler walked into a locker room of a bad defensive team, they won the NBA title. Melo, STAT, and Chandler are the best threesome in the NBA without a nickname. (Side note: how uninventive is the media these days? Every team is a Big #. So Lame. In honor of Clyde Frazier, I’m calling the Knicks Big 3 “The Fearsome Threesome”).
The Knicks supporting cast is also a little suspect in Landry Fields and Toney Douglas. The Knicks are counting on Toney Douglas to run the point until Baron “B-Dizzle” Davis returns from back problems. From what Douglas has shown last year and this preseason, he is obviously not ready to run a team ready to compete for a championship. Landry Fields was also very suspect in last year’s playoffs and was even replaced by Roger Mason (a Celtics sweep soon followed). The Knicks bench is thin with players like rookie Iman “Shump Shump” Shumpert and Jared “I can’t hit layups” Jeffries. However, the Fearsome Threesome should be able to support the thin bench and get the Knicks franchise its first playoff win in over a decade.
The Knicks will be out to prove that last year was just a minor speed bump and that they are ready to compete with the big dogs of the Eastern Conference. The Celtics will want to show that they are still the top team in the Atlantic Division and have enough to make one more run to the Finals. So open up your presents, settle in on your couch, and get ready for an electric atmosphere at The World’s Most Famous Arena.
— Justin Honovich
2:30 — Miami Heat at Dallas Mavericks
The tension is obvious in this matchup. The defending champs are without Tyson Chandler, a defensive anchor who thrived playing next to the offensive-minded superstar Dirk Nowitzki. Caron Butler, injured during the championship run, signed with the Clippers. In their stead the Mavericks brought in Lamar Odom, stolen from the Lakers after the Chris Paul fiasco, and Vince Carter, who should have something left in the tank. Dallas might also miss J.J. Barea, who became the last victim of David Kahn’s point guard fetish in Minnesota. They’re hoping Roddy Beaubois can replace his production. Beaubois was injured last year as well and has shown potential. These guys could all produce, but it remains to be seen if the Mavericks can produce the same type of defense they brought with Chandler. That puts a lot of weight on Brendan Heywood’s shoulders as the new starting Center. Still, with Dirk, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion still in the fold, the Mavericks will be willing and able to defend their title.
Miami in many ways had an extremely successful season last year. This seems like an obvious statement to make about a team that made the NBA finals, but Miami has deservingly garnered an immense amount of pressure since acquiring LeBron James and Chris Bosh. James and Dwyane Wade managed to overcome some redundancies in their excellent games. The bench was even thinner than expected. Mike Miller never overcame thumb injuries from the beginning of the year and Udonis Haslem was only active for a handful of playoff games. Chris Bosh caught a lot of criticism, but really was effective outside of his well-known decencies as a paint presence. This year they get all of that talent back, healthy, with a year of experience under their belts. Free agent acquisition Shane Battier adds depth and provides a player that can take pressure off of Wade and James on the defensive end. Second round pick Norris Cole has looked solid in preseason as a backup for the sufficient Mario Chalmers. We know what the Big Three will bring to the table, and with a full season under their belts the chemistry should be much better.
Miami still craves a consistent paint presence on both ends. Eric Dampier and Joel Anthony have their moments but fell short last year and have little hope of improving. They will need improved production from somewhere inside.
Prediction: Miami will have to suffer through a championship banner ceremony in Dallas. Their finals lost will still be a fresh memory. These are obviously two of the most talented teams in the league, but expect Miami to play with something to prove after being shamed. Factor in the fact that Dallas will be integrating several new pieces and I think the Heat will come out on top.
— Kevin Phelan
5:00 — Chicago Bulls at Los Angeles Lakers
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the Bulls come into this season as at worst the second best team in basketball. They led the Eastern Conference in wins last year, and come back this year even stronger. Richard Hamilton has underproduced the last few years, but to me he’s exactly what Derrick Rose needs and hasn’t had since coming to the NBA: a guy who can catch and shoot, create his own shot when needed, and destroy teams that leave him open to double Rose. A starting five of Rose, Hamilton, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer is as textbook a lineup as you’ll see, from creating point guard to banging big man.
The team’s biggest weakness is its depth — there’s not a lot of support behind the top 5, especially at the guard position (Kyle Korver’s not high on my list of guys I’d want to rely on in crunch time, and it’s only mostly because of his hair, and any roster with Brian Scalabrine on it makes me nervous), but as far as I’m concerned it’s the Bulls’ East to lose.
I can’t say the same for the Lakers. They were a breath away from getting Chris Paul, at which point everyone in the league should have just forfeited and given the Lakers the next two titles; with no Paul, the Lakers’ weaknesses are still here — namely, that the team is composed of a banged-up Kobe Bryant, a constantly banged-up Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol (who’s awesome), and exactly no one else. In a compressed 66-game season, their big three is going to lose a lot of games to injury, and missing even a couple weeks of time is much more crippling than in a typical season. Of course, everything changes if and when the Lakers mortgage the team to give Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant a couple of years together — when those guys are your big two you don’t need much else. But for now, the Lakers don’t look like a team I’d be afraid to play.
The Lakers are going to be the less-exciting LA team for the first time in as long as I can remember, and it’s going to start on Sunday. Derrick Rose should dominate his point guard matchup — partly because he’s Derrick Rose, and partly because his opposition is the ghost of Derek Fisher — and as he goes, so go the Bulls. This game should show the Lakers from Day One that they’re not the league’s powerhouse anymore.
— David Pierce
8:00 — Orlando Magic at Oklahoma City Thunder
The word to describe the beginning of the Orlando Magic season has to be “awkward.” Awkward that Dwight Howard is still on the team, despite having made it clear that he really, really wants to leave. Awkward that rather than rebuild around him, the Magic just continued its strategy of bringing in past-their-prime wingmen and average role players to work around Howard. It’s a matter of if, not when Howard leaves, and until he does it’s hard to imagine the Magic not imitating the Nuggets last year, who played terribly while embroiled in the saga surrounding Carmelo Anthony leaving, and then found their game again when he left. For everyone’s sake, Howard needs to leave Orlando sooner rather than later. It’s going to keep being awkward until he does.
Unless Orlando gets some big pieces in exchange for the big man, though, I don’t see them having the revival the Nuggets had last year, because the team around Howard has just been masked by how good he is. The Magic have the same problem the Celtics do, which is that once you get past their name-brand guys, there’s no there there. When you’re relying on Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Jason Richardson, and Larry Hughes for big-minute production next to Hedo Turkoglu (who I’m pretty sure is secretly not good at basketball) and Jameer Nelson, that’s not a pretty picture. I also forgot to mention that once Dwight leaves, Big Baby is the Magic’s most legitimate threat in the paint. Ask the Celtics how that worked out for ‘em.
Meanwhile, the Thunder seem this year to have gone from Cinderella to legitimate contender, a featI like to call “pulling a Gonzaga.” How the combination of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will continue to work out is anyone’s guess — both are top-20 players, and neither’s willing to be anything other than the go-to guy. Kevin Durant’s the only go-to guy the Thunder want or need, though, so it’s on Westbrook to fit in or he’ll be out. A lot of people talked this summer about how good James Harden looked, too, and if he can be a dangerous swingman he makes the Thunder as scary an offensive team as any in the league. If he makes strides, and Oklahoma City gets a full season from Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder could make some noise in the playoffs. They’re very young and surprisingly deep, two huge advantages in a compressed season.
The Thunder’s biggest problem is that Perkins or no Perkins,they don’t have a guy who can bang with Dwight Howard (no one does, which just might be why everyone’s trying to pull him from Orlando), so this game might be tougher than most. Serge Ibaka threatens to be the freaky-athletic guy every once in a while, and this could be the season where he makes the leap — or, of course, it could be the season where we figure out he’s just a long, athletic guy who’s going to come up with an insane block every once in a while. I’ve got the Thunder making a big run in the playoffs, but if they can’t win a game like this one it’s going to be tough.
Two teams, both near the top now but heading in opposite directions as the season’s trading schedule starts to shake out. This is a good game now, but won’t be two months from now.
— David Pierce
10:30 — Los Angeles Clippers at Golden State Warriors
Let’s be honest, while the Golden State Warriors are a young and exciting team, people will be watching this game for the new look LA Clippers. Of course, Stephen Curry still draws crowds after his cinderella college run at Davidson and Monta Ellis is one of the game’s premiere scorers – but the Warriors’ inability on the defensive end renders them a non-contender until further notice. In the short offseason, they were able to nab Kwame Brown and Brandon Rush. Big moves. On the other hand, with Lamar Odom now playing for the defending champion Mavericks and CP3 to the up and coming Clippers, it could be a different story in Los Angeles for the first time in….forever. Of course this wouldn’t have been possible without the help of David Stern.
The decision made by the commish was controversial to say the least, but who isn’t happy (besides the Lakers) that CP3 is on the other Los Angeles team? In fact, it turned out to be a better deal than the one previously agreed upon and it gives the Clippers the chance to retain Blake Griffin when he becomes a free agent instead of losing him to yet another big team market. There will be people who say this trade tarnishes the league’s credibility and perhaps it does but David Stern made it a point throughout the collective bargaining agreements that he was not going to allow big name free agent to dictate where he wanted to go.
The Clippers gave up Chris Kaman, Eric Gordon and Al-Farouq Aminu in addition to their unprotected 2012 first round draft pick for arguably the game’s best pure point guard and two future second round draft picks; a good trade for both parties. Chris Kaman is a former All-Star and Eric Gordon is one of the game’s emerging shooting guards, while the sky is the limit for 21 year old Al-Farouq Aminu who was drafted 8th overall in 2010 out of Wake Forest.
It’s a hefty price for one great player, but if you watched any of the Clippers’ preseason, it could legitimately mean a title run for the other team in Los Angeles. Deandre Jordan is a freak athlete with tremendous length and leaping ability. These two dunks from December 21st victory of the Lakers says it all -
The funny thing is, he’s probably the second best dunker on his team behind last year’s Rookie of the Year Blake Griffin. We all know what he’s capable of after posting a gaudy 22.5 points, 12.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists a game, and with CP3 dishing out lobs, we could be in for quite a show. Anybody else salivating?
Los Angeles isn’t just about the newest Big 3 (yes you heard it here first). Newly acquired clutchman Chauncey Billups will be starting at two guard while Randy Foye and Mo Williams give them great depth in the backcourt. Caron Butler could be a huge spark to this team if he’s able to stay healthy. The talented small forward hasn’t played more than 29 games in each of the past two seasons.
As long as this team stays healthy, Vinny Del Negro shouldn’t have to do much but put the keys in Chris Paul’s hands and let him drive.
— Doug Wong
Stay tuned for our full NBA preview, which we’ll be posting before you know it.
(Photo via Werner Kunz / Flickr)