In a couple of hours the NBA season will start. The first of the three games tonight features the two teams generally considered the favorites in the Eastern Conference, the supercharged Miami Heat, with their trio of superstars, vs. the Boston Celtics, the 2008 champions and last year's league runner-up. The two other games match the two-time champion Los Angeles Lakers against the Houston Rockets, who have Yao Ming returning after a year's absence, and two mystery teams, Portland and Phoenix.
In this year's campaigns there are a number of teams that have big question marks, and a few that are clear favorites. Miami, Boston, and the Lakers are the ones in the latter category. There are so many of the other group that I can't list them all.
In the East, Miami is the team everyone will be watching. League MVP Lebron James and top forward Chris Bosh have joined Dwayne Wade to make a team with instant title credibility and instant detestability, as well. The Celtics--their rivals tonight, and presumably in the Eastern Conference finals--will be trying not to tire out their aging stars, and they have a deeper bench than in their recent successful years. I would urge people not to forget about two other teams who could surprise both in the regular season and in the latter rounds of the playoffs: the Orlando Magic, headed by top center Dwight Howard, and the Chicago Bulls, who added reliable inside threat Carlos Boozer to a potent lineup featurning rising stars Derrick Rose and Joachim Noah.
The East has been thin in recent years; after the top few teams, there were desultory competitions among teams with losing records for the bottom three or four playoff spots, and those teams that made it into the playoffs usually departed quickly and quietly. The path to parity seems long and slow in the NBA, but I see some signs of revival for teams like the New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Washington Wizards, who drafted the top college rookie, point guard John Wall. The Atlanta Hawks have already shown us something which they may be able to build upon.
In the Western Conference, there has been much more parity in the regular season; last year's regular-season end had a furious race for playoff positions of strong teams with very similar, winning records. Unfortunately, some of those teams seem to be falling back in quality, and the Lakers stand out quite a bit more. Contenders Denver, Phoenix, and Utah all look weaker, longtime force San Antonio's key players are yet another year older, and potential challenger Portland still seems dogged by frontcourt injuries. The Dallas Mavericks, who beefed up their team for last year's homestretch but fell out to San Antonio in the first round, and the rising Oklahoma City Thunder, who gave the Lakers a first-round scare, look like the likeliest candidates to make the finals against the Lakers.
I'll find myself in the usual position of rooting--probably futilely--for someone to beat the Lakers, and joining the new consensus against the Heat and for the Celtics--or for the Magic.
Dark Clouds Over 2011-2012
NBA Commissioner David Stern put a bit of a damper on the enthusiasm for the new season with his warnings, coming out of meetings with the owners and some preliminary negotiations, that the labor negotiations after the general contract ends after this season could be ugly.
Stern indicated that player salaries needed to be cut by 1/3--some $750 million--or that there would be "contraction"--some unprofitable teams being eliminated. Very ominous words, suggesting that the owners are looking for a fight, and may well be planning a lockout.
Stern's stake in the ground, or line in the sand, is what I used to call a "stake in the air", or "a line in the water". He's trying to set down a negotiating position, but those positions are indefensible. The NBA is a highly successful league with an enviable worldwide following, and a lockout would be like killing the golden-egg-laying goose.
No doubt there need to be improvements to make the weaker teams more financially viable, but I would suggest that the biggest problems the owners have are their propensity to give middle-level players, especially ones with a history of injuries, excessively large long-term contracts, and, secondly, a developmental issue. Too many players with long-term potential are being drafted too young for too much money--these developmental projects are often 3-4 years away from being valuable NBA players, and by that time the drafting team is already losing their rights to keep them (or they've long since traded them away). A key to success would be improving the "minor league" CBA, and figuring out how to better utilize it to bring those 19-year-old 7-footers up to NBA speed.