The National Basketball Association’s 71st season begins tonight in the sports city that is the envy of all America. Flame will shoot from four torches attached to the giant overhead scoreboard inside Quicken Loans Arena (aka “The Q"), an arena that was somehow big enough to fit both the talent of LeBron James and the ego of Donald Trump in a summer to remember. Every seat will be filled, every lung will be empty when the Cleveland Cavaliers get their championship rings.
It will be a celebration unlike any other in Cleveland, so expect lots of wine and plenty of gold, along with diamonds and also Silver, as in Adam, the bespectacled commissioner with an approval rating bigger than President Barack Obama’s. He will pass along the bling to the players and coaches, who’ll never buy a meal in that town again, with coach Tyronn Lue sniffling through tears to accept his. The loudest applause will be for LeBron, who remains the toast of the town -- unless the World Series upstages him in the building next door.
Yes, this is how the 2016-17 season will begin, with the annual ceremony for the team that was king last season. This scene is set in stone. But how will the season end in June? If you conduct a poll, ask around, take the temperature of a basketball nation, follow your gut, chart the astrological forecast and believe in the gospel of one Alvin Gentry, a certain ending will also be set in stone eight months before it arrives.
“If they stay healthy?” Gentry asks.
“Then, yeah, I’d say they have a pretty good shot at winning it all. Who do you think is stopping them?”
Yes. That is the question of the year, maybe the next few years: who’s stopping the Golden State Warriors?
Gentry knows the team well, after a season spent next to Steve Kerr on the Golden State bench when they won it all in 2015. He’s now coaching the New Orleans Pelicans, who are giving him gray hairs. Still, Gentry is gushing about a team that set an NBA record for wins in a regular season and added Kevin Durant, and he says to obey what your eyes are telling you.
“I get a kick out of people saying they’ve got to learn how to play together,” Gentry said. “Look, there are no negatives in that situation. Durant fits in perfectly to what they’re going to do. I wish we could be that negative.”
Before we dive too deeply into the Warriors, who qualify as The Main Topic of the season, let’s list a few other subjects that will define what 2016-17 will be all about:
The Homecomings: Will They Be Happy Or Haunting?
NBA players usually want nothing to do with playing for the hometown team. Too many demands, drama, distractions, ghosts they’d rather not revisit, and to be honest, certain family members are best avoided. That’s why this season represents a twist: Dwight Howard, Jeff Teague, Joakim Noah and Dwyane Wade are all back in their old stomping grounds.
And with plenty at stake in each case.
Howard left high school in Atlanta as the No. 1 pick in the 2004 Draft and returns as a veteran center trying to put the breaks on a career fade while doing image repair. He’s on a team with a first-time starter at point guard and questionable scorers on the wings, but the Hawks haven’t had a low-post presence like his since Dikembe Mutombo.
The Pacers took Tyler Hansbrough over Teague (Pike High School) in the 2009 Draft and finally corrected that mistake this summer; without playing a game he’s already the best point guard Paul George ever had. The Pacers are the dark horse to reach the East finals.
Noah was a child of privilege growing up in New York and attended preppy schools yet his game remains strictly blue collar. If he and ex-Bull teammate Derrick Rose stay healthy, the Knicks will be in the playoff mix. Wade wasn’t a big high school recruit in the Chicago suburbs and likewise by the Heat this summer when he asked for more than they were willing to give. If his body cooperates, Wade will be a solid, though short term, help to the Bulls.
Kia MVP: LeBron Or The Field?
If he has the typical season that we’ve come to expect, is that enough for LeBron to cash in for the fifth time, tying Michael Jordan? Hard to predict voter sentiment, although there’s always a nudge toward someone who hasn’t won it yet, AKA “his turn.” Assuming that previous winners (and now teammates) Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry cancel each other out, that leaves Russell Westbrook over Paul George as the biggest threat to LeBron because Westbrook seems ready to explode without Durant around.
The one speedbump for Westbrook: OKC might not win enough games. See, that’s one of those unwritten rules regarding the MVP, although here’s a quiz: Has anyone won MVP on a losing team?
Yes: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the 40-42 Los Angeles Lakers in 1975-76. They didn’t even make the playoffs. So there’s precedent.
If Russ puts up big numbers -- he’s more likely to pull a Tiny Archibald and lead the league in scoring and assists than an Oscar Robertson and average a triple-double -- then it’s “his turn.”
Up-And-Comer Of The Year: Utah Jazz Or Minnesota Timberwolves?
The Wolves boast a new coach (Tom Thibodeau), a new rookie (Kris Dunn) and a beast-in-the-making (Karl-Anthony Towns) and are the people’s choice to make a strong move this season. But they might not be the young team to watch in their own division.
The Jazz, built primarily through the Draft much like Minnesota, are a more mature version of the Wolves and appear to be a playoff fixture. There’s plenty of developing talent and maybe an All-Star (Gordon Hayward) and a good coach in Quin Snyder. Point guard play will make or break them, though.
Go with the Jazz for now, ask this question again in two years.
Down-And-Outer Of The Year: Dallas Mavericks Or Miami Heat?
They met in the 2011 Finals but only Dirk Nowitzki, J.J. Barea and Udonis Haslem are still around on their respective teams. The Mavericks haven’t won a playoff series since, as they’ve tried and mostly failed to rebuild on the fly. Here’s the cold reality: There’s no future star to take them into the next phase, no “next Dirk” or anyone close. They lost Chandler Parsons in free agency, never had DeAndre Jordan and you wonder if they’ll regret paying Harrison Barnes franchise-player money.
Without the Big Three the Heat are lacking personality. The loss of Wade could have Goran Dragic feeling as frisky as he did in Phoenix three seasons ago. Hassan Whiteside, should he keep trending upward, might be the next premier big man. Otherwise, it’s all about giving playing time to Tyler Johnson, Justise Winslow and Willie Reed and see what shakes loose. That might not put them in the playoffs, but it’ll put them above Dallas.
The Second-Best Off-Season Addition
Ben Simmons to the Philadelphia 76ers, although we won’t be able to tell anytime soon, if ever this season.
Who Are The Anti-Warriors?
You don’t want to be in Brooklyn, where the Nets aren’t built to win and it doesn’t pay for them to lose. They won’t own their own first-round pick outright until 2019, or the year before the next presidential election. There is slightly good news: Jeremy Lin will never look this good since he was with the Knicks, and maybe Brook Lopez can fetch something in a trade should the Nets dangle him. Otherwise, whatever happened to the, ahem, glory years in Brooklyn? Jay-Z had the good sense to bail early. Yes, even Hova knew it was over.
The West's Playoff Teams:
Golden State Warriors: Steve Kerr said they won’t go for 75 wins. Suppose they get close? Will they play to lose?
LA Clippers: They know they’re a poor matchup with Golden State. Only hope for Doc Rivers is somebody knocking off the Warriors first. OK.
San Antonio Spurs: For the first time, Gregg Popovich doesn’t have selfless Tim Duncan or David Robinson. LaMarcus Aldridge will get Pop wishing he did.
Utah Jazz: They once made the playoffs for 20 straight years, but Karl Malone and John Stockton ain’t skiing down that mountain again.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Does Steven Adams know how good he can be?
Houston Rockets: In a long-overdue shift, James Harden is now their point guard. Also, Ryan Anderson should get plenty of open looks in Mike D’Antoni’s system. So will opposing defenses.
Portland Trail Blazers: Did you know Portland gave $185 million this summer to three guys who’ll likely be backups? Man, this league.
Minnesota Timberwolves: The graveyard is filled with dunk artists who never developed the rest of their game. The hunch says Zach LaVine avoids the funeral.
The East's Playoff Teams:
Cleveland Cavaliers: If the best record in the East is up for grabs come April, when contenders start resting up for the playoffs, will the Cavs press the gas pedal or put it in park?
Toronto Raptors: They have a Big Two. It’ll take three to beat LeBron.
Indiana Pacers: Not to put too much weight on the kid, but Myles Turner must be this team’s second-best player if the Pacers plan to see the East finals.
Boston Celtics: Danny Ainge needs to keep pestering Vlade Divac about getting DeMarcus Cousins from Sacramento. Celtics are a plate of fancy hors d’oeuvres, no main dish.
Chicago Bulls: Putting Wade, Rajon Rondo and Jimmy Butler together will be very good, or a disaster. No in between.
New York Knicks: Rose is playing for money, which could mean lots of hero-ball, which could create problems with Carmelo Anthony. And look, Kristaps Porzingis has range, but there’s something unsettling about a 7-3 guy doing work 25 feet from the rim.
Detroit Pistons: Stan Van Gundy made two fantastic trades which should pay off this season: Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris.
Atlanta Hawks: Dennis Schroder is now the starter at point guard and is in a contract year. What could go wrong?
And So, Once Again: Who’s Beating The Warriors?
Uh, Draymond Green?
Well, even if he implodes yet again, the Warriors have enough star power to deal with it next time. Plus, tough guys Zaza Pachulia and David West are around to apply a headlock if necessary.
Might as well recognize: Golden State is set up to win big.
“You know you’ve arrived when you’re the most hated team in the league,” said Gentry. “What does that say?”
It says we know how this season is going to end.
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