Well well well. Here we are again. After a four-month period that felt like several millennia, the NBA regular season begins tonight with two games featuring four of this season’s expected biggest draws: at 8 p.m. Eastern, the new-look Boston Celtics face the relatively old-look Cleveland Cavaliers, and following that, the Chris Paul-James Harden era begins as the Houston Rockets take on the current proprietors of the universe, the Golden State Warriors.
The question isn’t “Did you miss it?”; it’s how much you missed it, and in an age in which every single day is a testament to human will, the slightest reprieve can provide the biggest impact. If everything is bad, fine, but there is some reason to believe the smallest hints of light can fight back all this darkness. Best of luck to all of these teams, except for the Warriors, whose organization’s luck is such that two of its four (!) All-Stars could sustain injuries, and the team would still be favored. 2017 is such a crushing time. Unless you’re a borderline Eastern Conference playoff team, which everybody is. Congratulations: we’re all borderline Eastern Conference playoff teams.
- Atlanta Hawks: It is truly astounding that this team won 60 games three seasons ago and has fallen to these depths. Dwight Howard led the team in Win Shares last year! They’ll miss Paul Millsap, and with Dennis Schroder now running things, coach Mike Budenholzer is going to have to pull some serious tricks out of his Spurs arsenal to get this team back to the playoffs. The problem is, in the East, that’s entirely possible.
- Boston Celtics: I’m not as sold on the Gordon Hayward/Kyrie Irving combo being enough to push them past the Cavs as some seem to be, but it should be a marked improvement over last year, at least as far as the regular season goes. Expect another empty one-seed on the way to a closer, but ultimately similarly fruitless, Eastern Conference Finals run.
- Brooklyn Nets: D’Angelo Russell is ready to break out, and this team could be his platform for doing so. Although, he’ll have to contend a bit with Jeremy Lin, who had perhaps his best season last year while finally settling with the Nets, his sixth team in seven years in the league. The Nets have perhaps the widest margin between ceiling and floor in the league.
- Charlotte Hornets: Dwight Howard, the NBA’s biggest ass clown, has never fully embraced his destiny as a hulking pick-and-roll dynamo; Kemba Walker should be his perfect partner in this, but many before him should have been as well. Steve Clifford will have the Hornets playing tight defense, and Cody Zeller will be starting by January.
- Chicago Bulls: I shudder to guess who might lead this team in scoring, at least before Zach LaVine returns from his torn ACL. The Bulls continue to pay for having once had Michael Jordan.
- Cleveland Cavaliers: The toast of the lesser conference until proven otherwise, Cleveland now has to fear LeBron’s impending free agency all season. Bringing in Dwyane Wade is a show of support for their all-conquering king, as was getting (arguably beyond) fair value for Kyrie Irving. Isaiah Thomas will likely never again have a season like last year, but if he’s somewhere around 90% of that, the Cavs should be fine. Jae Crowder is going to become Super Jae Crowder under LeBron’s guidance.
- Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki, 39. Wesley Matthews, 31. Harrison Barnes, 25. Dennis Smith Jr., 19. The age discrepancies between the past, present and future of this team is truly astounding, and that’s before bothering to take into account an injured Seth Curry and whatever it is that Nerlens Noel is going to be. Never count out a Rick Carlisle team.
- Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic will average 18, 10 and 5 in his age-22 season, something that only Oscar Robertson has ever done previously. Like Big O, Jokic will throw a few triple-doubles in there for good measure. Add in a revitalized Paul Millsap, and mark the Nuggets down for the Western Conference playoffs.
- Detroit Pistons: Avery Bradley is roundly lauded by his own peers as one of the best defenders in the NBA; many believe he should’ve been First-team All-Defense last year, as in the season prior. His steady presence will provide a nice counterpoint to the occasional buffoonery of his back court mate, Reggie Jackson, and the Pistons will have trouble moving Andre Drummond’s sizable contract.
- Golden State Warriors: Feuding with lesser squads. Spitting beer in the championship locker room. China Klay Thompson. Kevin Durant’s fake Twitter accounts. Curry children at the podium. The ever-imminent move to San Francisco. Draymond’s temper. Steve Kerr’s back problems. Nick Young desperately trying to hang onto the Swaggy P moniker. All of it is a smokescreen meant to distract from the fact that this may be the greatest non-Dream Team basketball squad ever assembled. Other teams have to hope for injuries; it’s the only way anyone can truly hope to upend this beyond-video game-fantasy juggernaut, already immortal and with plenty of time to add to its trophy case.
- Houston Rockets: The biggest question the Rockets will face is who spends more time off the ball between Chris Paul and James Harden. The former is the acknowledged Point God; the latter was an MVP candidate last year in his first season officially initiating the offense. Mike D’Antoni has a sizable proposition in trying to corral them, and whether this team has enough defense to keep up with the Warriors is dependent on Paul’s savvy, Clint Capela and Luc Mbah a Moute. As with most non-Golden State teams, depth is the issue here.
- Indiana Pacers: Trading Paul George was a necessary evil, but a necessity nonetheless. In a vacuum, the move made sense, but that the Pacers’ front office waited so long to do so, and got so little in return in comparison with what had reportedly been on the table at the trade deadline, was supremely dunderheaded. Myles Turner as the focal point will be the reason to watch this team, at least beyond Lance Stephenson’s bad attempts at impersonating Dion Waiters.
- Los Angeles Clippers: With Chris Paul gone, more point forward seems in store for Blake Griffin. The issue with him, as always, will be health, and even with DeAndre Jordan sticking around to anchor the defense, Griffin’s going to have to be rock solid on both ends of the floor for Los Angeles to justify having let Paul go. Sindarius Thornwell is a tremendous representative of the 803 area code, and I wish him nothing but the greatness he deserves to achieve.
- Los Angeles Lakers: Lonzo Ball had a mega Summer League, but it was just the Summer League. Kyle Kuzma, the same, although he has the benefit of much lower expectations for an otherwise spritely squad of youngsters poised for postseason runs a few years down the line. Brook Lopez will help the kids rip the training wheels off. They’ll need it, knowing they have only one season to prove they can hang in order to lure LeBron James, Paul George or any of the other potential 2018 free agents. Stuff Andrew Bogut on a raft slightly smaller than his body and ship him back to Australia.
- Memphis Grizzlies: Grit-N-Grind is dead, long live Grit-N-Grind. The Grizzlies haven’t missed the playoffs since 2010, a season in which Allen Iverson played three games for them. It’s tough to bet against Mike Conley, Mark Gasol and David Fizdale, and far be it from me to rook them. Still, it’s difficult to figure a way into the playoffs in the West this year, barring injury. Be well, Memphis, and the spectre of Tony Allen may reward thee.
- Miami Heat: Dion Waiters and Hassan Whiteside will make for one of the most entertaining sets of teammates in the league. Erik Spoelstra is as smart and cunning a coach as they come, and he’ll put those gentlemen to work. I’m interested in Tyler Johnson’s development, but I’m more interested in Justise Winslow’s potential status as a trade chip.
- Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo is a legit MVP candidate, and he’ll need to be. Jabari Parker won’t be back from a torn ACL until around the trade deadline, and he and the Bucks failed to agree on a contract extension prior to the deadline. Maybe that’s for the best. Thon Maker could end up being a ton of fun if and when his frame fills out – he’s 7’1”, yet he weighs roughly the same as defending Rookie of the Year and noted 6’5” basketball man Malcolm Brogdon.
- Minnesota Timberwolves: If the Nets own the widest window between ceiling and floor in the East, perhaps Minnesota has that locked up for the West. Ideally, Jimmy Butler continues to be about that life, staring down all comers with half his jersey untucked; Karl-Anthony Towns finds himself on defense will continuing to be a dominant offensive force; Andrew Wiggins succeeds his third-fiddle expectations; and Jeff Teague pulls the strings on the whole thing, with Tom Thibodeau instilling a sense of faithful duty without grinding his starters to a pulp. They’re probably still a year or two away from optimization, but the pieces are in place.
- New Orleans Pelicans: Oy vey, does Alvin Gentry have a job ahead of him with this team. Pro Kentucky Baloncesto has two extremely fiery players in DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo as well as an erstwhile next-in-line best player in the league in Anthony Davis, who is still his game at 24. The Pelicans better hope they right this ship, lest one of Cousins or Davis gets antsy; making a trade for another shooter is absolutely critical to New Orleans’ playoff hopes. If Gentry can’t manage these guys, he may see the door.
- New York Knicks: I recently moved and, in the process of doing so, switched my television package from one that included MSG to one that doesn’t. I don’t feel badly about it for this Knicks season. Having finally moved on from Carmelo Anthony, these clowns will likely win just enough games to grab a low lottery slot, a perfect place to draft another unnecessary big man. James Dolan paid Joakim Noah’s skeleton $17 million a year and POTUS $125,000 a fiscal quarter, and I pause when considering which is worse.
- Oklahoma City Thunder: Not only will Russell Westbrook never have another season like last year’s furious MVP campaign, but none of us are likely ever to see anything like that anomalous charge again. After acquiring Paul George, Westbrook figured to stay, although he waited until, naturally, Kevin Durant’s birthday to sign the contract extension making him the highest-paid player in league history. Carmelo Anthony, finally free of the shackles the Knicks placed upon him simply by virtue of being there, has the opportunity to be Olympic Melo, should he accept it. At 33 years old, that seems like an easy proposition, but there will be an adjustment going from assumed first option to third leg of the tripod. Kudos to Sam Presti for salvaging a situation that seemed primed for disaster; he should garner significant consideration for Executive of the Year, particularly if these guys reach their Western Conference Finals ceiling.
- Orlando Magic: Many of these players are still young, but some – paging Elfrid Payton – must make the leap for Orlando ever to reach its first post-Dwight era of relevancy. Aaron Gordon is as close to must-watch television as this team gets, and his progression beyond simply being a vessel for stupefying dunk theatrics will be a point of contention for the team.
- Philadelphia 76ers:
Joel Embiid for President.
- Phoenix Suns: Tyson Chandler and one of, if not both of, Brandon Knight or Eric Bledsoe deserve to be flipped for useful parts, and Phoenix will no doubt listen to calls for them. Devin Booker is already at the precipice of being a real-life NBA star, but most of the rest of these Suns have plenty of time to rise and shine.
- Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum form the league’s most bomb-happy back court this side of the Bay area, and Jusuf Nurkic’s post-trade form breathed life into a mostly-feckless rest of the roster. Watching the Blazers push teams from all sides is going to be a blast.
- Sacramento Kings: After years of Boogie-era ineptitude, Sacramento may finally have won draft night and will be rolling out up to seven rookies on its fifteen-man roster. All of the tykes will have the benefit of drawing from the endless wells of wisdom that George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter will provide. The KANGZ might finally be a decent League Pass choice.
- San Antonio Spurs: Off the court, Gregg Popovich is our nation’s greatest political operative. On the court, Kawhi Leonard, WingStop coupons and all, may very well end up being this season’s MVP, depending on a) how he returns from injury, and b) how much Pop chooses to play him. I’m siding with Zach Lowe on this one: if Kawhi gets over 70 games and is as effective as last season, he’s your prize winner. The late contract extension they gave LaMarcus Aldridge is…surprising, among other things, but he’s better at 32 than many other, younger options, and his game figures to age nicely.
- Toronto Raptors: The clock is ticking on the Raptors, who hit the wall with such consistency every April that you’d think they were a bunch of disgruntled Canadian accountants. Still, keeping Lowry and DeRozan together was the right choice. So much will depend on how DeRozan’s alleged attempts at mustering a legit three-pointer have come along, but they should still snag a top-four seed in the East.
- Utah Jazz: All hope is not yet lost for Quin Snyder and co. Rudy Gobert is an absolute monster (and likely Defensive Player of the Year favorite), post-EuroBasket Ricky Rubio is needling passes through dumbfounded defenses and Rodney Hood appears primed for a leap of his own. Add in more Joe Ingles and some quality Derrick Favors minutes, and the Jazz could top 45 wins again, just enough to push themselves back into the playoffs.
- Washington Wizards: Give me all of John Wall, Brad Beal and Otto Porter, as well as menacing Marcin Gortat and the occasional Markieff Morris outburst. Yes, the Wiz talk a lot about victories they’ve yet to actually achieve, but being about it is the half of the battle that makes it all worthwhile. Is it strange that Kelly Oubre, Jr. might seriously be a harbinger for how good the Wizards can actually be? Memo to Scott Brooks: slide Porter up and play Oubre at the three for a tantalizing in-between lineup.
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 Combined with its savvy, foresight, timeliness, yadda yadda, they’re a fantastically-run franchise full of excellent, if somewhat haughty, personnel from top to bottom – still, they’ve gotten immensely lucky.