December 7, 2011
Countdown: NBA is Back! Top 10 things I'm looking forward to this season!
The NBA is (pretty much) back, baby!
After it was all said and done, the 'nuclear winter' of the NBA came to an end before the real winter began. The NBA Lockout unofficially lasted nearly 149 days, 149 days of despair, destitute, cluelessness, and existential crises. 149 days of NBA players going international, going ballistic in charity games, or going plain crazy. 149 days of the average NBA fan (yours truly included) nearly losing his NBA religion and thankfully, finding it again.
But it's back, yes it's back. NBA players still have to vote for the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, but this remains as a mere formality. I was tentative to celebrate at first, but the signs around me were encouraging. NBA.com finally replaced photographs of Billy Hunter in a suit with those of LeBron James in a jersey. December 25th - Christmas Day - was chosen as the 'return of the NBA', with five games slotted for opening night. And soon-after, entire schedules for a shortened, 66-game season, were released for all the NBA teams. Even before teams and players were allowed to talk to each other, we were already hearing trade rumours and free-agency news.
So what if there remain some questionable red flags about this whole ordeal. The lockout came to an end, but not before one of the worst series of official debates and negotiations in sports history. Plus, as Dave Zirin wrote in his excellent SLAM article,, the NBA players got 'played' by the new deal.
Another issue is going to be with the new-look schedule: teams will play 66 games in about 120 days, means, there will be several back-to-back-to-back games, and several teams will be playing five or six games a week.
But that said, it truly is a Christmas miracle for hopeless NBA fans that there will indeed be a 2011-12 season, and that it is going to begin in about 18 days (!!!). Gifted with sudden optimism after months of the 'dark ages', we now have tonnes of basketball-related (and not money/negotiation related) things to discuss, watch, appreciate, criticise, and experience again.
So without further ado, here is my Top 10 Countdown of the Things I'm Most Looking Forward For the 2011/12 NBA Season:
10. Where will the Free Agents end up?
Free Agency is usually the first order of events during any NBA off-season. This year, with the official 'off-season' lasting just about two weeks, the free-agency period is expected to be crazier than usual. The 2011 Free Agents do not have the star power of 2010 (LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Amar'e, Joe Johnson, Boozer) or the star power of 2012 (Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Deron Williams), but what it does have - in buckets - is the NBA's most precious commodity: size. With solid post players becoming rarer and rarer in the NBA, I'm expecting the current crop of free agents to be rated highly and paid generously.
Amongst the bigs, the free agents include Nene, Marc Gasol (restricted), David West, Tyson Chandler, Glen Davis, DeAndre Jordan, Samuel Dalembert, and Carl Landry. Other free agents of note are Jason Richardson, Jamal Crawford, Thaddeus Young, Grant Hill, Tayshuan Prince, Jeff Green, Caron Butler, and JJ Barea. Oh, and by the way, there are the guys in China - Kenyon Martin, Wilson Chandler, JR Smith, and Aaron Brooks - who may or may not be able to return to the NBA before March.
I love it when a team comes together, especially when the starting five fits neatly, and each player is capable enough for his position and a good fit for the team as a whole. This current crop of free agents may not have guys who could revolutionise a team's system, but there are several who can 'complete' a starting line-up. With salary caps and trade scenarios, it's hard to predict who will end up where, but over the next few days, I can't wait to witness the shifting around.
9. John Wall
There is one player every year who breaks out and improves more than we expected him to improve. This season, I'm predicting that the player will be John Wall. The Wizard's PG will come into his second year with his role clearly defined, with the keys to his team's offense clearly in his hands, and with the sky as the limit! In a shortened season with games crammed in close together, expect the younger, fitter guys to perform better: Wall, with his speed and athleticism, is going to outrace almost everyone else on the basketball court. I'm expecting him to clearly be have an All Star season and for the Wizards to become one of the most exciting (but still relatively unsuccessful) teams in the league.
8. Watching early morning live games in India
Last season was a golden period for the NBA fan in India. Thanks to the Ten Sports and Sony PIX deals, four live games were shown weekly here, and by the latter part of the season, the number was increased to six a week. Live in India means tip off usually between 5:30-8:30 AM - for a geek like me, this meant that I was up at the crack of dawn six days a week out of seven. The lazy boy in me complained at first, but the NBA lover in me soon shrugged off the complaints and got accustomed to a cup of hot chai, a comfortable couch, and early morning NBA action. I can't wait to become a morning person again.
7. The 2012 Draft-Class Tank Off
You know what the lockout did? It forced several up-and-coming basketball stars who would've been top picks in the 2011 draft to stay in college for another year. 2012 was supposed to be a big year regardless, but now, it seems that it could be one of the best draft classes ever (probably the best since the LeBron-Wade-Melo-Bosh class of 2003). If the 2011 rookie class turns out to be a little underwhelming, have no fear, because 2012 is on it's way. Between the likes of Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger, Perry Jones, Bradley Beal, Jeremy Lamb, James McAdoo, Michael Gilchrist, and Austin Rivers, there is enough talent here for NBA teams to build around for their future.
Which brings us to the upcoming NBA season: a lot of non-playoff teams will clearly have an eye on the draft, especially in bagging someone from the big three of Davis, Drummond, or Barnes. While the draft lottery is supposedly a fair system that should prevent NBA teams from 'tanking' (losing games on purpose to get a higher probability of a top draft pick), a lot of teams may sneakily do it anyways. So, as the season gets to it's last 10 or so games, watch for some of the worst teams in the league (Raptors, Cavs, Pistons, Bobcats, etc) to enter the 2012 Draft Sweepstakes a little early.
6. Ricky Rubio
Few players have gone from underrated to overrated to loved to hated to just ignored all before their 21st birthday, all before a second of NBA experience. Former Spanish teenage Phenom was the world's best teenage player at 15, gathered up success, accolades, and incredible YouTube highlights before he turned 18, had memorable Olympic performances, got drafted into the NBA, never showed up to the NBA, and then buckled under the pressure of his young fame to perform at a high level. But he's finally here: Rubio will start the new NBA season finally with the Minnesota Timberwolves. At 21 years and 2 months old, he already has wealth of international and professional basketball experience. But can he run with the best of the world night in and night out in the NBA.
I've always had a soft spot for Rubio, and despite his recent failings, I predict him for NBA stardom in the future. Like most international players, it will take him a few years before getting into his stride, but when he does, this intelligent and exciting point guard is headed for big things. Currently, he will start as the motor that runs a young Timberwolves squad, who will surely be most fans' favourite-bad-team. Rubio, Kevin Love, rookie Derrick Williams, and Michael Beasley (if he stays) will make a strong nucleas for this team. I can't wait to watch them run!
5. A full season with Melo & Amar'e in New York
If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'd know that I haven't exactly kept my Knick-fandom a secret. The Knicks have been my favourite team since the dawn of my interest in the NBA, and for the first time in over a decade, they actually have a squad that could challenge the NBA's best contenders.
Carmelo Anthony was brought to New York a little too late last season, and didn't really get a chance to gel with the Knicks' other All Star, Amar'e Stoudemire. They both had their moments of brilliance, though, and left us fans excited for much more. Melo may not be in the elite class of superstars like LeBron, Durant, or Wade, but he is an unquestionable offensive talent. This season could be his perfect year: if he can get his act together, become a better leader, and play a little more defense, he could be looking at a career year. I'm hoping that Amar'e provides consistent support from the post, Chauncey Billups keeps the team running, and the role players step up, and all added together, the Knicks could be a force to reckon with.
If Carmelo Anthony was ever going to have an MVP-caliber season, it's now.
4. The extended Dwight/CP3/Deron melodrama
Unless you're a fan of the Magic, Hornets, or the Nets, this point will rank high on your list, too. Three superstar players - Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Deron Williams - are all set to become free agents next season. Now, free-agents-to-be can take three routes of dealing with a situation where they don't want to remain with their current teams:
1. Openly refuse the contract extension before they become a free agent.
2. Do the Carmelo thing, which means, make it clear to their team that they won't resign, so that the team can then sign and trade them somewhere else and get back some value for them. Carmelo Anthony wanted to leave the Nuggets, but he got them a lot of good value (Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton) in return from New York.
3. Do the LeBron thing, which means, not give the team any clues to his future all season, and when free agency comes, surprise the team by leaving them and getting them nothing in return. LeBron did this with a spectacular fail otherwise known as 'The Decision'.
The drama is about to start for Dwight/CP3/Deron: will they stay, will they go, where will they go, who will they be traded for, who will be heart-broken????? Even before the players' CBA agreement was to be signed, we already heard of several rumours, including Chris Paul wanting to play for the Knicks, the Celtics offering New Orleans Rajon Rondo in exchange for Paul, Deron Williams turning down the extension offer from the Nets, the Mavericks targeting Williams for next summer, the Bulls considering a trade package to team up Dwight Howard with Derrick Rose, and the Lakers offering everyone in their team not named Kobe Bryant to acquire both Chris Paul and Dwight Howard.
The rumours are going to get crazier and crazier. YES!!
3. Young squads - Bulls & Thunder - take the next big step
Led by two of the best young players in the league in Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant, the Chicago Bulls and the OKC Thunder are similar teams since they have been both on 'the come up' over the past year. Both teams arrived till their respective conference finals before losing out to more experienced squads. This season could be very different. A couple of shrewd trades or free agent pick ups will make the supporting roles around Rose and Durant stronger. A shorter but more dense season will help squads with young legs. With experience on their side now, we could be looking at the future of the league in these two teams. Rose and Durant are also both humble, hard-working players, who have strong organisational support behind them to help them in their success. Could one of these teams make the NBA Finals. With Miami in the East, Chicago's way to the promised land looks much tougher. But this may be the Thunder's year to finally breakthrough to the NBA Finals, especially in an ageing Western Conference (and especially if the Lakers don't pick up Chris Paul and/or Dwight Howard).
2. Metta World Peace
I'm sure - no, I'm convinced - that I'm not ranking this too high.
A few months ago, a player named Ronald William Artest, Jr. who is a Small Forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, a tenacious defender, an occasional big-shot hitter, a part-time rapper, and a part-time nutcase, decided to legally change his name to Metta World Peace.
Why does this matter so much to me? Because I'm already imagining the flurry of changes we can expect from this historical move. 'Lakers - World Peace' jerseys will be flying off the shelves, commentators in NBA games will have to blame World Peace for taking bad shots, the name 'M. World Peace' will be on NBA programmes, World Peace will make a rap album, World Peace will stop a potential altercation, and World Peace will be called for technical fouls.
And, if my ultimate dream comes true, some genius somewhere will use his or her powers of persuasion to make sure that Metta World Peace is picked as the designated defensive stopper for USA's Olympic Basketball team at the 2012 London Olympics. The jersey will say USA in the front and 'World Peace' in the back. If that isn't diplomacy, then I don't know what is.
1. Christmas Day (Or, because of the time difference, the morning after Christmas)
I'm by no means a person who gets into the 'holiday spirit': Christmas hasn't necessarily been anything more special than another day off school (in my childhood) or work. But Christmas 2011 is looking to become my favourite once, since, well, ever. That is the night that, 54 days later than expected, the NBA season will begin.
Five games are already scheduled for Christmas night, or for us in Asia, the morning after Christmas: Celtics @ Knicks, Heat @ Mavericks, Bulls @ Lakers, Magic @ Thunder, Clippers @ Warriors.
Boom! That means that, after an extended lockout, we get to see Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e, LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Nowitzki, Rose, Kobe, Gasol, World Peace, Dwight Howard, Durant, Westbrook and Blake Griffin all on the first night! We've been presented with a rematch of the NBA finals, an exciting match-up between the Celtics and the Knicks at the Madison Square Garden, a face-off between powerhouses Bulls and Lakers, and Blake Griffin vs. an awful defensive team so that we see as many incredible dunks as possible.
The NBA's past, present, and future are all there together on opening night.
The lockout - an ugly period where green bank notes threatened to kill the soul of the beautiful, orange, bouncy, basketball - is over. There will be no nuclear winter this year. Time to get hyped again. The NBA is back!