There's been such a long drought of interesting stories involving the NBA and its players, each new Google search makes me feel like a Hollywood groupie digging through some famous actor's dumpster. I've read 74 different stories about the Starbury Ones, I actually got excited when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar started throwing trash on his neighbors' lawns, and I was positively giddy when I discovered the headline "Ron Artest's Baby Mamma Drama." Suffice to say, this is my lowest point since that time in 4th grade when I traded a pair of my sisters panties for a G.I. Joe that was missing one arm.
So yeah, I'm hungry for some good, meaty NBA news. That said, there are certain storylines I'm already sick of...a full month and a half before the season has even started. You know they're out there: the fluff pieces that will follow us all season long. Here are a few of the stories we'll all learn to hate throughout the coming months:
1. The Heat Repeat: When a team wins the NBA title, the subtext of the next season revolves around whether they can recapture the magic and win another title. The subject usually gets stale before the preseason even starts, but it's going to be even worse this year because this Heat team is rife with subplots:
1a. Shaq's Future: Once an NBA legend begins his slow and ineluctable decline, the questions begin: How much does he have in the tank? Can he still be the Shaq of old? How long before he retires? What will be his legacy? On and on an on. Here's all you really need to know about Shaq. His averages will fall. He'll miss 10 to 20 games. He'll occassional submit a dominant performance that will fool people into thinking he can turn it on at any time. He'll lean on Dwyane Wade most of the season, and then he'll do the same in the playoffs. But he's popular enough, and the center position is wasting away in the NBA, so he'll still get voted onto the All-Star team and make All-NBA first or second team. But we'll all know...he's not the Shaq he once was.
1b. Dwyane Wade's MVP Candidacy: As Shaq's decline continues, Wade will have to pick up more and more of the slack, and his averages will go up (although only marginally). He'll be one of the top 5 players in the league, and everyone will openly wonder whether this will be his MVP year. He won't be, because Shaq and the other veterans are going to put it on cruise control for most of the season, so the Heat will be lucky to win 50ish games this season. But that won't stop the Heat fans from chanting MVP, and maybe we will be too...while watching some swashbuckling scoring duels between Wade and the Kobes and Lebrons of the league.
1c. Pat Riley: Riley is 61, and he has nothing left to prove. So the question is: will he continue coaching after this year? The question will be posed by sportswriters all season long, and he'll continue to avoid the subject by giving vague answers like, "It would be nice to spend more time with my family, but coaching is in my blood, although it is a wearying undertaking, even though the pursuit of greatness motivates and defines me, but...." We won't get a straight answer until sometime next summer, but we'll still have to read the question about 506,721 times.
1d. The veterans: Alonzo Mourning. Gary Payton. Antoine Walker. Will they retire? Will they move on? How do they feel? What are they thinking? Isn't Alonzo brave for playing with a bum kidney? Are you impressed by how Payton has accepted a lesser role? Can you believe Walker is only attempting eight three-pointers a game? They're courageous, mature, and motivated...we all get it. We don't need to keep reading about it.
2. The Lakers continuing mediocrity: The Lakers have a true coaching legend in Phil Jackson, and one of the league's best-ever scoring machines in Kobe Bryant. This means that, on some level, everybody expects the Lakers to be better than they are even though they're a flawed team with little-to-no chance of actually contending for anything...other than (maybe) a first or second-round playoff exit. As a result, the year will be full of highs and lows, and the following storylines will follow the team all season long:
2a. Worse than expected: They'll go through a rough stretch, which might include a protracted losing streak. Critics will be divided on whether to blame Kobe (who is too selfish and self-absorbed to lead a team), his teammates (who won't be "doing enough to support" Kobe), or Phil Jackson (who's coaching philosophy and desire to coach a selfish superstar and undertalented roleplayers will be called into question). People will begin to openly wonder how long Kobe will be patient with his underachieving teammates, and/or how long his teammates will put up with Kobe's selfishness, and/or how long Phil will put up with the whole mess before throwing up his hands and retiring.
2b. Better than expected: They'll go on a tear, which might include a protracted winning streak. Loyalists will point to Kobe Bryant (his maturity, his talent, his overall greatness), and/or the improving productivity of his teammates ("That Lamar Odom," some will say, "is really fulfilling the 'Scottie Pippen' role on this team), and/or the genius of Phil Jackson (who preaches good defense and relies on the infallible Triangle). The team will generate a lot of buzz and sportswriters will use terms like "sleeper," "darkhorse," and the ubiquitous "nobody wants to face these guys in the first round."
2c. So-so: They'll hover around .500, losing a few games here, winning a few games there, but never really establishing any continuity or a team identity. They'll get by on some big scoring outbursts by Kobe, the occasional virtuoso performance by Odom (or some other Laker), and sold coaching decisions by Jackson. But no one will no what to make of them until they miss or make the playoffs, at which time they'll be labeled either a disappointment or a possible darkhorse.
3. Ron Artest: The dude is straight up crazy. This can only lead to one of two things:
3a. The sleep: He'll either keep his mouth shut or say all the right things off the court, meanwhile he'll play really well on the court. Some will praise him for his developing maturity, while others will proclaim this is a new, kinder, gentler Ron Artest. The critics will openly wonder whether another outburst is inevitable, but will praise him for his "dedication and effort," which is shorthand for "he hasn't killed anyone yet."
3b. The explosion: He'll snap and do something terrible. He'll throw his team under the bus (probably figuritively, maybe literally). He'll hang his coach out to dry. He'll demand a trade. He'll kidnap a cheerleader, or punch a beat writer, or set a hotdog stand on fire. Everyone will say they knew this was going to happen, he's an animal that needs to be caged, and how could anybody have taken a chance on this guy ("The Maloofs should have known what they were getting into..."). Maybe he'll be suspended, maybe he won't. But the real losers will be the Sacramento Kings. Somewhere Larry Bird will be laughing.
4. The Spurs: The will continue to daunt the basketball world by being one of the best teams in the league and a legitimate title contender. Mass opinion about them will be divided into the following categories:
4a. The fans: These people see the Spurs in white hats. They will proclaim that the Spurs play basketball "the way it's supposed to be played" and will laud Tim Duncan for his relentlessly fundamental play and all-time greatness (these same people will get all huffy when critics label Tim as a boring player). These folks love Bruce Bowen's tough, gritty defense and his inspiring "come from nowhere" backstory. They also love that scrappy little Tony Parker and think it's awesome he was able to land a hot babe like Eva Longoria. They'll be able to sit back and enjoy as the Spurs win upwards of 60 games and cruise into the playoffs with a virtual guarantee of making the Western Conference Finals and maybe even the NBA Finals.
4b. The haters: These people see the Spurs in black hats. They're sick and fucking tired of these guys and just want them to go away. They hate San Antonio's plodding half-court game and are sick of watching boring old Tim Duncan perform his four or five post moves to near (but annoying) perfection. They think Bruce Bowen is the dirtiest player in the NBA ("All he does is clutch and grab!!"), they dismiss Tony Parker as a whining little Frenchy, and they absolutely despise any and every mention and/or camera shot of Eva Longoria (the dirty whore).
5. Lebron James: As the latest in the long line of "Next Michael Jordans," and given last season's individual and team improvement, even more will be expected of Lebron James this season. He's going to need to score more, make his teammates better (or better-ER), and improve his defense (which is the one flaw in his game that people like to nitpick about). His team (and some people will actually forget he even has a team) will need to win at least 55 games, which absolutely must be followed by an extended playoff run (probably nothing less than a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals will suffice). Anything less than that will be viewed as a major disappointment, and some people will rush to question his resolve, his motivation, his teammates, his coaching, etc. If he and the Cavs do manage to fulfill these expectations, everyone will note that Lebron took his game to the "next level" on his way to the inevitable NBA championship he is destined to win (but not this season; the Cavs aren't good enough). But between now and their eventual playoff exit, his every exploit -- whether success or failure -- will be chronicled and scrutinized in painstaking detail by pretty much everybody. Unless he loses a limb, he's a mortal lock for the MVP race.
Part 2: Coming soon...