|Kobe Bryant, here in front of Dwight Howard, again has big talent to back him up in L.A. (US Presswire)|
Media days are mercifully over, sparing us any more overconfident quotes, coach-speak clichés and players who will never log a minute this season posing with menacing faces in front of green backgrounds. Also, no more radio guys asking players to do PSAs, as in, "This is Player X, and you're listening to WGRL the Growl, home of the Bobcats," and whatnot.
At least until Tuesday.
Tuesday is when the work begins -- actual practices, two-a-days in some cases, and the pleasing sound of basketballs bouncing and sneakers squeaking in October as opposed to heels clicking and clacking on marble floors in Manhattan hotel lobbies, which gave me lockout nightmares for months. So regardless of how silly and tedious media days and the NBA's mostly cosmetic five-day training camps can be, it's a welcome change from the gloomy fall of 2011.
At this time last year, you were reading my missives on how easily the owners and players could settle their differences, divide up all the money fairly and create a system that would give the world a better basketball product. Almost none of it happened, at least not as soon as it should have. Lots of crucial issues were left dangling, some of which -- like the age limit and making better use of the D-League -- still haven't been resolved. The players' association is in sheer chaos, and the owners are taking notes from their NHL comrades in preparation for the next lockout in 2017, but at least we have basketball. Basketball is much better than the alternative.
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So rather than break down BRI or rail about greed and ignorance, I thankfully can bring you the storylines I'm looking forward to as the 2012-13 season gets under way -- as well as some things I could do without and others I'll miss. Having no bargaining sessions to cover or Jeffrey Kessler quote-bombs to transcribe has put me in an optimistic, nostalgic mood.
Things I'm looking forward to
Seeing the Lakers: No team comes into the 2012-13 season with bigger star power or higher expectations. This has a very real chance to be the best team Kobe Bryant has been a part of; he said it himself.
By the time I get to stroll onto the Lakers' practice court in El Segundo, Calif., on Tuesday and Wednesday, it'll probably be the usual end-of-practice free-throw shooting and standing around, and Dwight Howard won't be on the floor for this team's preseason debut Sunday.
But even without Howard in full go mode as he recovers from back surgery, the Lakers will be a study in psychology, with Bryant's determined chase for a sixth championship colliding with Howard's chronic happy-go-lucky-ism. I know what Steve Nash eats -- no sugar -- and so I'm thinking his 38 is like most men's 28. And Metta World Peace is always worth the price of admission, especially when he's down 18 pounds and talking about getting up and down the floor so fast that he'll have time to play bodyguard for Howard and get to the rim on offense. LeBron James and the Heat have reloaded for a chance at a repeat, but it's simple, really: There will be no show in the NBA this season like the Lake Show.
Heat vs. Celtics: It's only training camp, so the Oct. 30 opener in a rivalry that went from hot to scalding with the defection of Ray Allen to South Beach is as dramatic as basketball theater gets. If Howard is ready when the Lakers' season tips off against the Mavericks, the strongest of arguments can be made that Dallas is the place to be on opening night. If not, it's hard to say that Celtics-Heat isn't the marquee game when the NBA opens for business.
Allen's former teammates already are freezing him out with icy-cold quotes, perhaps forgetting just how cold-blooded their ex-'mate is. James and Dwyane Wade playing with the best 3-point shooter in NBA history? I'll grudgingly endure the "Dos Minutos" guy and cacophonous drum section to see that in person.
New York's basketball rivalry: Truth be told, nobody knows yet whether the Knicks and/or Nets are going to be any good. On paper, both should be right there at the top of the Eastern Conference playoff chase. If so, all the star power on both sides -- particularly on the Manhattan side of the river -- will make this as compelling a pro basketball season as New York has witnessed in years.
I'm still undecided about where I'll be on Oct. 30 -- Dallas or Miami -- but you can put me down for Knicks-Nets on opening night at Barclays Center on Nov. 1. This will easily be the second-best event I will have witnessed in the new arena, after Rush's "Clockwork Angels" concert on Oct. 22. Frankly, with some of their long-in-the-tooth signings this summer, it's a little surprising the Knicks haven't agreed to terms with Geddy, Neil or Alex by now.
A normal schedule: When the lockout ended last November, I shifted gears from covering the daily developments and calamities of a very nearly botched $4 billion negotiation straight into the whirlwind of an abbreviated free agency and then, boom, five games in six nights for four months. There was just no time. So I'm looking forward to getting to some of the arenas that time and travel schedules in the regular season last year simply didn't allow. Among the teams whose arenas and cities I'm most looking forward to visiting again: the Thunder, Pacers, Nuggets, Wizards (once John Wall returns), Grizzlies, Cavaliers (believe it or not, I miss Cleveland), Rockets (just to see if Daryl Morey is really a genius or not), Sixers (great basketball city and vibe when the Sixers are good, which they will be if Andrew Bynum gets healthy), Hornets (for obvious reasons, and to watch Monty Wiliams coach some talent), Timberwolves (when Ricky Rubio is back), Warriors (if Stephen Curry's ankle holds up, the Warriors could be fun to watch, as basketball should be in the Bay Area) and last and also least, the Kings (before they move somewhere else.)
Things I could do without
Throwback jerseys: Enough already. Why do they have to be so putrid? Why must I turn on NBA League Pass on an innocent winter night and have my eyeballs permanently damaged by unfortunate '80s color schemes? If I wanted to see people dressed like they did in the '80s, I'd just go to a Rush concert -- or a hipster bar in Brooklyn.
Howard, CP3 and their impending free agency: The NBA's silly season is year-round.
Drama over the Oct. 31 extension deadline: It's not that big of a deal. The way it's supposed to work is that the players who deserve long-term deals get them, and those who need more time to prove their worth -- or whose agents try to get them max deals when they're not deserving -- don't get them.
The biggest name is Oklahoma City's James Harden, and I wouldn't hold my breath for the Thunder to buckle and give him a max deal by the end of the month. There's common ground to be found, though, and I trust Thunder GM Sam Presti will find it one way or another. If there's no deal, Harden would become a restricted free agent next summer, and the Thunder would still have the leverage -- except to the extent that a team with cap space comes along and backloads an offer sheet, as the Rockets did with Jeremy Lin.
Flopping: The idea that fines are going to end flopping is wishful thinking. It's easy to see, though, that there really isn't a better solution. Adding a subjective judgment call to the refs' already full plate, and/or putting fake contact under the slow-motion scrutiny of instant replay would turn basketball games into interminable baseball games. It would be nice if players would just stop trying to buy and sell calls, but they're too smart for that. And as a result of their cunning, the game suffers.
Fire-breathing backboards and smoke alarm-tripping pregame pyrotechnics: The NBA should be better than that.
The last three weeks of the regular season: Playoff spots are mostly locked up, and it's all over but the tanking. This is one of the areas where the old competition committee (before coaches and owners were added to it) had started to make progress. Then there was a lockout, and everyone was too busy fighting over money and trying to figure out how to get Howard to New York or Los Angeles under the new CBA to bother with it anymore. Something needs to be done add meaning to April in the NBA where increasingly there is next to none.
Things I'll miss
Derrick Rose: While I won't miss promotional videos exploiting Rose's comeback from an excruciating knee injury, the NBA won't be the same until one of the game's most dynamic talents and fiercest competitors is back on the floor. Hopefully, sooner than later.
Channing Frye: I don't particularly love Frye's game, but it's hard not to root for a guy who's endured what he has recently. First, his infant daughter has undergone operations on both eyes after being born with cataracts. Then, Frye was diagnosed with an enlarged heart resulting from a virus and likely will miss the entire season.
The number of players diagnosed with heart ailments before tragedy strikes -- such as the Celtics' Jeff Green, who is back after missing last season with an aortic aneurysm -- is a testament to the advancement of medical testing that modern athletes undergo. Thank goodness for that, but it doesn't make Frye's ordeal any easier.
Newark: Just kidding.
Allen Iverson: If nostalgia is a crime, then I'm guilty as charged. But if Kobe can still keep it going at an All-Star level, and if the Knicks can sign Jason Kidd (1994 draft class), Kurt Thomas and, soon, Rasheed Wallace (both '95) and Marcus Camby (same '96 draft class as Ray Allen, Kobe and Iverson), then it's a shame A.I. couldn't hold it together for a couple more years. I don't think the game will ever see another talent or personality quite like him, and yes, I miss watching him play and hearing him talk.
Pastafina: What? Pastafina is the little pizza joint with the huge menu from whence we scribes often ordered our nightly rations while camped out on some Manhattan sidewalk during the lockout. When negotiations were at the Lowell, a boutique hotel on 63rd Street with a lobby too small to accommodate loitering reporters, we'd simply have them deliver to the nearest front stoop. (Thanks, by the way, to the friendly residents of 27 E. 63rd St. for allowing us to sit on your steps and eat chicken wraps.) In fact, I still have the receipt from the media's last lockout supper, which a bicycling delivery man from Pastafina was kind enough to transport to the cement area between the Apple Store and the law offices of Weil, Gotshal & Manges on the night the lockout finally ended. To me, that's a little piece of basketball history.
That's all I'll miss from those days, though. Games -- even practices and the dopiness of media days -- are much better.