Football has become America's Pastime. The NFL dominates the professional sports landscape in the United States. No other sport can approach the NFL's TV ratings. Baseball is still licking its wounds from having been surpassed by football. It continues to lean on its history, tarnished records and all, which works for the already converted but doesn't bring in new fans the same way football attracts pretty much everyone. Hockey is...hockey. I love hockey. But it is the fourth sport; we can all agree on this.
That leaves basketball, probably the most star-driven pro league. In recent years TV commentators have taken to promoting "Kobe versus the Magic!" or "LeBron takes on the Bulls!" instead of focusing on the team unit. This pattern has served the NBA well during the David Stern era. Magic and Bird drafted the blueprint. Michael Jordan took it to the next level, and his legacy is still the grandest of any basketball player, not just in terms of championships and greatness (Magic and Bill Russell might have a thing or two to say about that) but for his magnetism, his marketability, for making the NBA a billion dollar enterprise.
Since Jordan's retirement there have been pretenders to the throne: Shaq, Kobe and LeBron are probably the most notable "celebrities" of the bunch, but none of them has impacted the NBA and pop culture the way Michael Jordan did. And the NBA's peak popularity has not been seen since.
Still, the NBA is popular and has a large, devoted fan base. More than ever, it feels like you either are or are not an NBA fan. You don't dabble in it like so many football fans, or baseball fans who just like to go to a game once in a while or whose interest is now limited to their rotisserie squad. In many ways the NBA fandom now feels like a bigger version of the NHL. That might not be a good thing for the NBA owners, who see many franchises struggling to maintain decent attendance. But devoted NBA fans enjoy seeing the casual observers fade away. [Archie Kranz is the newest hardcore fan; we watch highlights on nba.com on a regular basis. He loves the Orlando Magic, a result of Dwight Howard's Superman dunk routine]
Another consequence of the post-Jordan void is that from 2002 to 2009 we had a different champion every year. In order: Los Angeles, San Antonio, Detroit, San Antonio, Miami, San Antonio, Boston, Los Angeles. The Lakers, having won titles from 2000-2002 and the past two seasons, have supplanted the Spurs as the team of the decade. Kobe has elevated his legacy in the process, as has Phil Jackson. And the Lakers have looked very good in the early going this season. Still, nobody would be entirely shocked if another team hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June, whereas that trophy was the property of Michael Jordan 1991-93 and 1996-98.
It is a great time to be an NBA fan. There are so many stars whose careers are in peak form, so many teams with talent and intensity to burn. [and if you haven't seen Blake Griffin's best dunks this year, you really need to drop what you are doing. BG is primed to become a top 10 all-time dunker) In the end, however, there can only be no more than 4-5 teams who have an honest to goodness chance to win the NBA title. Even though I have been impressed with the early play of so many teams - Chicago, Indiana, Utah, Oklahoma City and New Orleans come to mind - I think the NBA champion will be one of the following five teams, so in this post I will only talk about the contenders and not the pretenders:
Los Angeles Lakers At times the Lakers have looked like they are clearly the best team in basketball. The passing and scoring game has clicked in large spurts of play at a level of efficiency we don't get to enjoy very often. Matt Barnes and Steve Blake were savvy additions to the rotation. Shannon Brown has elevated his game. And LA is still waiting for Andrew Bynum to get healthy. If Bynum shows up and stays healthy through the rest of the season, I think the Lakers can win their third ring in a row. I don't think anybody can play basketball at top gear quite as well as LA can do it. But the Lakers are relatively old and could wear down, especially with their currently short rotation in the front court. Still, they are my favorites with 20 percent of the regular season completed.
Boston Celtics A few weeks ago a TV commentator pointed out that this year for the first time, Rajon Rondo always brings up the ball for the Celtics. It's about time. In the two Celtics-Heat games played this year, Rondo was the best player on the court, anticipating steals, dropping dimes and dunking on people's heads like he was Miami 6 rather than Boston 9. RR is averaging 14.2 assists a game. That his an historic pace. Rondo's athleticism and smarts are the difference maker for the C's. Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have been solid, and Shaquille O'Neal has been remarkable. Shaq leads the team in PER while averaging 12.3 ppg and 7 rpg in just 22 minutes a game. Glen Davis has played like a sixth starter, and Nate Robinson has made a big contribution, especially when Rondo sat for three games. Boston is clearly the most dangerous defensive team in the league as well, an honor previously held by the Pistons and Spurs this decade - two teams that won a title or three by shutting down its opponent. The Celtics are capable of doing the same this year. They are old and it's still not clear whether a returning Kendrick Perkins and developing Delonte West will eventually give them needed depth. But right now it's pretty hard to bet against them in the East. I don't think Orlando can summon up another upset like what they pulled off in 2009, and I don't think Carlos Boozer will put the Bulls over the top (I could be wrong on that one). Boston is a threat.
Dallas Mavericks I don't think this team is deep enough to get it done in June, but right now the Mavericks are playing great basketball thanks to its two superstars. Jason Kidd continues to dish and score and steal the ball like the all-time great point guard that he is. Perhaps my favorite statistic of the season has been that Kidd now ranks 5th all time in 3 pointers made. Not bad for a guy who can't shoot. [Can you name the other five active players who rank in the all time top 10? No peeking. It's pretty tough.] Once again, Kidd sits among the league leaders in assists and steals. But Dirk Nowitzki drives this team. He is scoring 26 points a game on 54% from the field, 40% from 3 and 85% from the free throw line. His PER ranks him seventh in the league. And Dirk is always ready to take the big shot down the stretch. I love what he is doing this season and hope he continues to play at this level. However, unless Caron Butler and Shawn Marion return to their All-Star caliber levels, this team just doesn't have the guns to win the title.
San Antonio Spurs As it turns out, one of the biggest storylines of 2009 turned out to be one of the biggest storylines of 2010 instead: Can Richard Jefferson help the Spurs return to the NBA Finals? Yes he can. Jefferson is scoring 15 ppg. The Spurs are third in the league in scoring. Last year they finished 15th. Big Jeff, big diff. Factor in the addition of Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal and James Anderson, and the continued growth of George Hill, and the Spurs can beat you in a lot of different ways. But not if Manu Ginobili isn't on the floor, and his health is always an issue. Bill Simmons recently said that Ginobili's ankles are in much worse shape than most people know and that Manu will not last the entire season. If that is true, the Spurs will not beat the Lakers in the playoffs. With Manu healthy? I think they have a great shot, and at 14-2 it's hard not to love what the Spurs are doing. [btw, here is another great stat: Matt Bonner, 212 minutes and 0 turnovers. It helps that he can't dribble in the first place.]
[ducks to avoid thrown objects]
Miami Heat I know they are barely over .500, can only beat bad teams, lack depth, lack rebounding, lack intensity and mojo and seem totally ill-equipped to win the NBA title this season. I know that LeBron just threw Eric Spoelstra under the bus today, further cementing his reputation as a selfish, immensely talented baby. I know that Chris Bosh's double digit rebounding totals in Toronto look like they must have been calculated as Canadian rebounds, which have to be adjusted for American rebounds, and expectations for Bosh similarly have to be adjusted. I read the papers too you know. And LeBron's stats are down, no question. His assists are close to what they have always been but his points and rebounds are down. And at times his shoulders sag and he seems to be tuning out. And Wade and LeBron both need the ball to be effective. And Haslem is out for the season. And a team that relies heavily on Eddie House CANNOT win the title, can it? I know, I get it.
But the Heat still have two of the five best players in the world. They are still trying to figure out how to play with each other. When I have watched the Heat play I have seen a lot of discussion and instruction between players, like they don't even know exactly where to be. Which tells me that the unspoken communication, the intuition that can be formed only after you have played together for a while, just isn't there. However, we have only played 15-20 games. What if the Heat eventually develop a rapport, understand each other's games? And now I am really talking to the "Big Three," who I am no longer even sure would win a theoretical NBA 3 on 3 tournament. I think eventually LeBron and Wade will get familiar with each other, that Bosh's offensive game will be an asset and he will start to assert himself more on the boards. Then the Heat will recruit another big body before the trading line, and suddenly I don't think a Boston-Miami playoff series looks all that one-sided.
People are loving to hate the Heat. I don't get it, especially if you weren't a Cavaliers fan, which most people mercifully are not. LeBron chose to play where he wanted. NOT a crime. Miami's early season swoon could prove to be cathartic for the Heat, who no longer have to be concerned with claims that they have stacked the deck in their favor. 10-8 is not stacking the deck, not even a little. The Heat are thin, brittle, and perhaps ill-conceived. If they turn things around and get to the Finals, they will have earned their stripes.
The LeBron-Wade-Bosh pairing was good for basketball either way. If the Miami Thrice succeed, it shows that a team has to enjoy playing with each other and must play hard on both ends of the court to have a chance. If the team fails, people can point to the Heat and say "three superstars will never beat five good players who play well together." Lesson learned. Or not. And that's the NBA in 2010: It's easy to predict exactly how the season will play out. Not.