The 2016-17 season is here. Basketball offseason is over. Everyone knows the big stories about the NBA year to come, but there's so many more reasons for people to invest themselves in the NBA this season. The style of play has never been more fun, the athleticism never higher, the star power never brighter and the narratives rarely as combustible.
There are so many reasons to be excited for the start of the NBA season, we thought we would give you a list. Every year I write this column, and every year it gets me in a place where I can't wait to pore over box scores, wonder about trades and marvel at some of the greatest athletes in the world.
Basketball's back. Let's get excited.
1. Russell Westbrook's Righteous, Unholy Revenge
There is no more compelling story this season than Russell Westbrook. You can keep your super-teams and defending champions. For something to be truly compelling, to draw you in and keep you there, there has to be real risk, real stakes, real danger.
With Westbrook, every daring rescue comes with the risk of self-implosion, every surge with the possibility of a burnout.
Westbrook is not on his own, that's a myth. There's real talent on this Oklahoma City team; he's not in the same spot he was in 2014-15 when Kevin Durant went down with a foot injury and Westbrook went bonkers on offense while fading out of the photo on defense like Marty's siblings in Back to the Future. He has help, but that doesn't mean he'll engage himself.
There's so much opportunity for Westbrook now. There's no balance he has to maintain, no plays he needs to take off on offense. "Defer" is no longer a directive for Westbrook. In that there's freedom, and there will be nights when Westbrook will look to transcend what seems possible for one player. His approach has always been that of man unleashing weather, twisting tornadoes and sending them spilling over the court.
Now he has motivation. Westbrook will talk about not caring, about how he doesn't think of Durant's defection or the way sources close to the Warriors and their new star buried him in the press. But beneath that is the glare in his eye when he talks about the decision, or words Durant has spoken. There's the way Durant left, in a text message. There's the Air Jordan commercial, and more than anything there's Westbrook's inherent nature.
Those frustrated by Westbrook's carelessness will be driven to madness this season. Those excited by his superhuman athleticism will be thrilled to euphoria. The Thunder will be inconsistent, brilliant, reckless, physical and divine, all week by week.
Westbrook is that gunslinger left in the desert for the snakes. He has wandered back into town, and hell hath followed with him.
2. Golden State's New Acropolis
The Warriors are going to destroy everything. They won 73 games last season, and that was the defining characteristic of that team. They won ... until they didn't.
They, like Icarus, flew too close to the sun. From pursuing 73 wins at the expense of rest -- whether that actually impacted their finish or not -- to snarling at every perceived slight, to finally daring to mock LeBron James after his altercation with Draymond Green, the Warriors laid claim to the favor of the basketball gods, and eventually, the wrath came for them in the form of a collapse after leading the Finals 3-1.
However, hidden in that incredible win mark was a little-known secret: They weren't as good. The defense, which had been the best in the league in '14-15 despite leading in pace (a combination never before achieved in league history), had slipped down the ranks. They won more games, but weren't as solid of a team. By the end they were frayed, and reliant on making all those incredible shots. When the shots didn't go down, they pouted and scowled. Sometimes redemption arrived, like in Game 6 against OKC, and sometimes, the shots ran dry and the Warriors bled like other humans.
But now? They're better. Kevin Durant makes this team the first in league history to feature four current All-NBA selections. If you love hoops, truly love just the way basketball is played, beyond storylines and narratives, parity and competition, then the Warriors are for you. They are a basketball purist's fever dream, a vision come to life.
They've fortified the ranks, learned from their mistakes and added Kevin freaking Durant. They will dazzle with how good they are every night, marvel with highlights and stats. This team will, in all likelihood, set the bar for team greatness that all teams will attempt to reach in the future.
Greece was a culture built upon trying to instill virtue. The Warriors believe they've built a team that stands as a testament to basketball virtue: sacrifice, commitment and incredible shotmaking. They will capture the imagination of fans like nothing else.
3. The Third Reign Of James
Like Caesar returning from conquests abroad, LeBron James has the world at his feet. We've never seen a LeBron like this. His Finals performance means that he no longer is chasing a place in the pantheon of the league's greats. It's him vs. Jordan. That's it.
What does this version of James look like? Will he coast, abandoning pursuits of individual glory in favor of resting to get his body right for the playoffs? Will he continue his onslaught on the Warriors and the idea that he isn't the best player in the league by chasing his fifth MVP? Jordan, Kareem and Russell each have five (Abdul-Jabbar finished with six). Will he remain on edge with his teammates and their regular-season foibles, or enjoy the ride, comfortable in the knowledge this team can overcome even the toughest of predicaments as it did in last season's Finals?
James remains a freight train with eidetic memory and supernatural vision. He is a supreme defensive force, and when his back is against the wall, his jumper comes calling like a finishing move in a video game. He is one of the game's truly great players. Maybe the weigth being off of him means we truly get a lesser LeBron.
Or maybe it just unleashes him.
4. Kevin Durant and a beautiful restraint
Maybe Durant was always meant for this, not to be set free and unleashed, but to be slotted in, structured within and around, a great piece of a much larger puzzle. There's true excitement for what this Warriors offense can afford him. Sure, his volume will decrease and it will be harder for him to find those nights of dazzling box scores, but Durant was never about those anyway.
Durant has always been about efficiency, chasing scoring titles while shooting 50-40-90 (Stephen Curry was the first to do so last season). Durant is most dangerous coming off a screen, catching and shooting. His instincts were to hold the ball, isolate, create and knock down the shot, and the Thunder gave him what he thought he wanted. But now, he's not reliant on inferior players -- only superstars -- and if he doesn't get a shot out of his movement, it's because another All-Star will.
In short, everyone's waiting to see what Durant does in a "real" system. This may be unfair to OKC. Scott Brooks took that team to three Western Conference finals, Billy Donovan to a fourth, and he did pretty OK in college, too. But the sense is that putting Durant's unbelievable shooting stroke and length into that system is only going to create more moments of basketball magic, where the ball moves seamlessly until it finds Durant, open and able to knock down jumper after jumper.
K.D. no longer has the wheel -- that's Steve Kerr, who loans it generously to Stephen Curry. But maybe that will get the best out of K.D., being a beautiful gear in a wonderful watch. Durant always said he wished his nickname was "The Servant." Well now he serves the best system in basketball.
5. The Timberwolves, where the wild things are
Let the wild rumpus start! Karl-Anthony Towns might as well have talons and giant spikes on his back, with a huge prehensile tail. He is somehow able to defend in space and hit 3s, beast inside and snatch boards, play good defense, generate good offense and make the right play 90 percent of the time.
Andrew Wiggins is still coming into his own. And while there's a reason to be afraid he'll wind up another wing who puts up jumpers and gets a few dunks and that's it, there's still so much potential there.
Zach LaVine is some sort of flying squirrel, leaping through the air, dashing between defenders on pick-and-roll splits, gliding from end to end and then zooming around predators.
The Wolves also have Kris Dunn and Gorgui Dieng; there's so much here in terms of raw talent, and we can't forget about a great passing point guard in Ricky Rubio to bring it together. The Wolves brought in Tom Thibodeau to get the most out of this roster, but he won't try and contain this team, he's going to unleash it. Who knows what will happen when they gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes and show their terrible claws.
6. The Clippers' Last Stand
Yes, they can re-sign everyone next summer and bring the band back. But old legs don't last forever. Blake Griffin, J.J. Redick and Chris Paul will all be free agents next summer and if they don't make a run this year, and I mean a serious, Western Conference finals, "they could have beaten those guys if not for [X]" run, then you have to think about changes.
This group became normalized fairly quickly. It never came together in a way that sparked hot takes and overreaction. They just got better year over year over year, until they had an offensive unit that was better than even the Warriors' starting unit offensively, and just as sound defensively.
This has been one of the best teams in the league the past three years, but something always gets in their way. Their own heads, in 2013 vs. Memphis. A few bad decisions and calls in 2014 against the Thunder. Josh Smith making 3-pointers randomly in 2015. And devastating injury after devastating injury against the Blazers.
Chris Paul is the Point God. Blake Griffin has looked like an MVP candidate at times. They have a better bench. They have played together, through the hard times and the good. It's time they make us celebrate them. It's time they make us praise them like we should.
7. The Spurs, Post-Optimus Prime
It hit me like a ton of bricks when this analogy popped into my head. The Spurs are like the Autobots after Optimus Prime dies in whatever Transformers medium you prefer. Yes, there's Bumblebee (Tony Parker), Grimlock (Kawhi Leonard), Jazz (Manu Ginobili) and Ironhide (LaMarcus Aldridge). But without Prime (Tim Duncan), they're in trouble. He was their spiritual leader.
This team is still full of transforming robots, but they have to write their own story, and that's going to be fascinating. Can they really win the day without Optimus Prime? The Spurs had successful seasons before Duncan, back in the olden times of yesteryear, but it has been two decades since they had to try and make a run without him. It's time for Leonard and Aldridge to fill the gap of a legend.
8. Chicago's Deranged Circus
Hey, not everything to be excited about is good. The Bulls are a glorious mess trying to make things work on the fly. Dwyane Wade is shooting corner 3s after shooting 16 percent from deep last season. Rajon Rondo is looking to space the floor. Jimmy Butler is the "alpha," after veterans basically said he was too big for his britches last season.
Their bench is a mishmash of talented players with untapped potential. Nikola Mirotic, the shooter who never seems to make shots consistently despite a nice percentage. Bobby Portis, all ability and no skill. Cristiano Felicio, Jerian Grant ... the list goes on.
This team could be a colossal disaster, or it could be a surprising squad that makes a run. But it's going to be weird the whole way. Buy a ticket, take the ride.
9. Joel Embiid, the Modern Monster Movie
You know how in Jurassic World they just threw different stuff into the Indominus Rex to make it scarier? "Cooler?" That's Embiid. "Here, let's take Oden's frame. Now give him Olajuwon's footwork. And Duncan's range. Make him strong. And fast. And powerful."
If only they had made his feet the right size. But Embiid has made it through preseason -- knock on wood -- without any setbacks. And he looks like a total monster. Godzilla, tearing apart Tokyo. He's Cloverfield and Oogie Boogie and the Iron Giant combined. The Sixers have been a horror show for years.
Now they have a monster.
10. D'Antoni's Frankenstein and his Bearded Beast
Mike D'Antoni is back in the league, and he finally has a team that seems ready to embrace who he is and what he does. Yes, the Rockets have hired Jeff Bdzelik as defensive coordinator and will try and be decent on defense.
But let's face it. Offense is a drug and these guys are ready to indulge.
James Harden in this system, bought in, fired up, is like the all-syrup Squishee from The Simpsons. It's going to be absolutely dizzying at times. Harden is an insanely good passer, and D'Antoni will have him on the break, making buckets constantly. Harden has followed up good years with bad years and bad years with good years.
This is going to be a monster season for D'Antoni and the Beard, defense be damned.
11. Isaiah Thomas, the Expletive
There's a certain curse word reserved for players that have a killer instinct and scoring ability that transcends all the nuts and bolts of the game. It's not about running a pick and roll perfectly, or defensive call-outs. It's about buckets, and getting them and finding them and creating them.
Thomas can flat. Out. Ball. He makes something out of nothing, and the chip he carries on his shoulder is as big as anyone's, no matter his size. There are a lot of gifted players in the league, but Thomas is a guy who leaves opponents shaking their heads as he takes it to them. He's a (expletive).
12. Toronto's Brick And Mortar
You have to absolutely love the fact that when the Raptors traded Rudy Gay for an amalgam of assets two and a half years ago, we thought "Oh, this is a cute story." It seemed like a nice short respite from their bigger-picture rebuilding efforts.
Nope. Here they are, still plugging away wins. They found a model with Dwane Casey, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. GM Masai Ujiri keeps searching out young talent to fill in the gaps and make leaps (to the point where he's resistant to short-term fixes that have firmer ceilings, right or wrong). There's a real effort here not just to win with this core but to really build something.
This team is good. It will plug away wins yet again this season, be in the top four in the East (at least) again, be a team that looks dangerous but you're also concerned about when the playoffs begin. Lowry is a free agent this summer and a potentially massive step-back hangs in that decision. But in the meantime there's so much solid all-around play here. Patrick Patterson, stretch four putback dunker, Cory Joseph, firebug pest and Norman Powell, disruptor.
The Raptors are worth watching night in and night out. No, they are not a blaze that can be seen from space, but neither are they a flare in the night. They are a steady-burning pyre, lighting the way for a future of possibilities, always finding kindling wherever they can.
13. Damian Lillard's List
Every NBA player feels doubted. Stephen Curry even loves to play that card, and he's the son of an NBA player gifted with the greatest shot ever known. Most of the time, those players are exaggerating that feeling of disrespect.
It's genuine with Lillard. For a guy his age, Dame has checked off a lot of boxes. Got out of the first round in 2014. Improved his game to manage the floor better. Led his team to the playoffs after his All-Star fellows departed. And quietly last season was better on defense. Not good. But better.
Still, he's searching for that validation. (I mean, he was selected to the All-NBA team, but he doesn't count that, apparently.) He wants to be an All-Star, wants the recognition as one of the best in the league.
You want to watch Lillard this season because he's insatiable. He's high voltage, and all the things that make him feel disrespected are just accelerants and conduits for the electricity to spread. Just don't be surprised when he shocks you.
14. The International House of Nuggets
An Italian, a Bosnian, a Serbian, a kid from the Congo Republic and a youngster from Indiana walk onto a court. A gangly boy from Spain, a kiddo from Canada, a man from Baltimore and a Manimal from New Jersey are nearby.
This is how you make the most international team in the league, and yes, we include the Spurs. Denver's styles are disparate, versatile and well-rounded. Nikola Jokic was a fantastic rookie class' best-kept secret last season. Emmanuel Mudiay was regarded as the "worst rookie" but that ignores the impact he had in his good games beyond his poor shooting percentage. Gary Harris has the profile of a guy who will be making big shots in the playoffs sooner rather than later as opposing fans ask "Who's this guy?"
Jusuf Nurkic is just a mean, nasty player, and we haven't even gotten to the veterans, like Wilson Chandler and his versatile chill, or the fact that Danilo Gallinari somehow is able to wear jorts and pull it off (I saw it with my own eyes at a charity event this summer).
The Nuggets have long been weird, but this season they're also very skilled. There will be growing pains, but there's also potential. If they put it together it's going to look unlike anything else in the league.
15. Paul George's Aerial Assault
For years, George has led a group of tanks. The Pacers were big and slow, ground-bound. Now with Nate McMillan and a revamped starting unit, George is going to get altitude more than ever in the way his game is played.
Efficiency has always been a challenge for George, but production has not. He fills the box score and is a terrific defender. It's not crazy to throw out George as a dark horse for MVP, though the Pacers are unlikely to win enough games. But George really believes he can be considered one of the best players in this league, and to do so he has to up the offense. He'll have that chance this season.
16. Kristaps and Joakim
The Knicks are still messy, with big names and low impact all over, but this combination is exciting. We've seen the Carmelo Anthony show enough times to know how it ends. Derrick Rose looks nothing like the Derrick Rose of old, nor does he look like some advanced, adapted version to fit his circumstances.
But Kristaps Porzingis remains the one name that can give Knicks fans glee, and Joakim Noah presents a unique opportunity for spiritual leader and icon to rally behind. If Porzingis is the mental embodiment of what fans love in a player -- the range, the athleticism, the size, the rap video -- then Noah is spiritual bubble gum.
These two roaming the paint, Noah pumping the youngster up when he makes a block, Porzingis finding Noah underneath for easy buckets, that's a combination that you can find joy in. It's not superiority, it's victory by emotional force. That's a better dream for Knicks fans than a super team.
17. John Wall Unhinged
John Wall has been a good basketball citizen for a long time. While the Wizards toiled, sending first-round picks for gap-fillers, he has been patient. While the fans have cheered louder for free food than anything he has ever done, he has been patient. While Bradley Beal has been unable to stay on the court due to injuries, the team couldn't bring Paul Pierce back, the team couldn't build a successful offense, Wall has been patient.
Wall is starting to get impatient. That could be bad for the Wizards, but good for the rest of us. Frustration can breed mistakes, but it can also fuel energy. Wall being impatient with forcing guys to do what they need to can have good consequences; look at how Chris Paul handles his teams. Wall's career, like DeMarcus Cousins', is starting to slip. He's tired of waiting.
This is the first season he'll be fully healthy in three years after multiple knee surgeries. There's a little bit of buzz with some of the youngsters starting to ripen on this team. And for all the gripes about Scott Brooks ... that guy has won games.
Wall has been the good leader, but last season there were gripes from the veterans about his attitude. He needs to take it further. This is his team, and to make it his league, he needs to force the issue. Wall spent years getting his game under control. This might be the season he lets it go.
18. The Muppet Lakers
The jokes in all the Muppets movies and shows aren't great, dry humor. It's silly and over the top and bouncing with energy and joy. That's the Lakers. It's not going to be good. It's going to be fun. And that has to be enough for a franchise that has fallen so low.
It's hard not to enjoy watching these kids, even when they're getting split apart. D'Angelo Russell is going to show he's the real deal this season. Julius Randle is a Tazmanian devil. Brandon Ingram drifts between twig blowing in the wind and a praying mantis about to devour its prey.
Luke Walton will have them playing together and the veterans on this team will seem lovable, instead of just in the way. The Lakers are always going to be on your TV, and they'll lose a lot of games this season, but at least for the first time in a long time it'll feel like the games are headed toward something, that there's a point. And in the meantime, while you wait for whatever they wind up becoming, there's the Muppets.
19. Still Nowitzki After All These Years
If losing K.G., Duncan and Kobe taught us anything this summer, it's to appreciate these guys while they're still around. Dirk Nowitzki still carried a team to the playoffs last season. That's incredible. He's ageless, and that one-legged fallaway is still poetry in motion.
More than that, though, Nowitzki has endeared himself to basketball culture. He's funny, affable, a competitor, a champion. He's what you want from your aging stars, and watching him school youngsters who think they can handle him will never stop being fun to watch.
20. Utah's Jazz Fleet
The Jazz aren't trying to break you with a Death Lineup, they're pounding you into oblivion with a Death Swarm. They're everywhere, and when you wake up from the pounding, they won't even have the decency to trash talk you. They'll just be on to the next battle.
21. Oh, Yeah, Anthony Davis Is Alive
The Unibrow has been forgotten, lost, abandoned as Karl-Anthony Towns is exalted. But Davis remains a singular talent, a transformative figure. Yes, he needs a bounce-back season even with great stats in '15-16, and yes, he needs to actually make an impact on the defensive end that resonates through the entire team. But this is still one of the most gifted men in the league today, and he's only barely scratching the surface of what he's capable of. He's just 23. There's so much basketball ahead of him, and as he gets older, he'll get stronger, and as he gets stronger, he'll hold off injuries more often.
Maybe this is the year for Davis. Maybe it will take all eyes being off him for that Unibrow to force us back, to recognize how special he truly is.
22. Grit-Grind Learns To Hand Jive
Grit-Grind is dead, long live Grit-Grind. The Grizzlies are finally being forced into a modern offense, and it's either going to crash and burn, taking this core with it, or they're going to be fearsome. Marc Gasol is shooting 3-pointers in preseason, and knocking them down at a pretty astonishing rate. JaMychal Green is starting, with Z-Bo reluctantly coming off the bench. Mike Conley has the keys to the car, and whenever Chandler Parsons can get his knees in the vehicle, he'll be hanging out of the sun roof, winking at random people.
Can you teach an old group of dogs new tricks? The Grizzlies are betting new coach David Fizdale can, and if they add efficiency and precision to their physical brand of defense, this team will once again be in a high playoff spot, only this time people won't blanch at the thought of watching them for once.
23. I Still Believe In Boogie
Every year on this list, DeMarcus Cousins, the Cthulhu in Waiting, is high. He's not this year. Which is just a testament to how the Kings have robbed him of relevance and how Cousins has simultaneously never lifted his team with leadership and never done what was probably the right thing for himself and demanded out. So he just sits there in basketball purgatory (or hell, as Rudy Gay called it apparently). Dave Joerger is going to get a lot out of Cousins. But really, it gets exhausting asking and hoping for something new.
But maybe this is the year Cousins gets dealt, and then magically "gets it" as has seemed pretty obvious was always going to happen. It's not fair to Kings fans, and hopefully they'll get something back that surprises everyone with how good the return is. But Cousins being this leviathan every night is overshadowed by the ineptitude that has surrounded him. Ty Lawson is starting at point guard this week. Omri Casspi may legitimately be the Kings' fourth-best player.
I want to believe in Cousins. Maybe this is the year it all comes together for him, Joerger is the coach that gets the breakthrough or maybe this is the year he gets dealt to a playoff team and we see him 100 percent engaged. As always, Cousins will be worth watching, if for no other reason than watching the seconds of his patience tick off.
24. Detroit Oil
The Pistons will probably lie in the weeds a while as Reggie Jackson returns from injury. But very quietly, Stan Van Gundy has put together a better team than last season. Tobias Harris has been integrated. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope seems ready for a breakout. The bench has been reconfigured and now has a Boban and Jon Leuer. There's so many more parts that look like a Stan Van Gundy team, and Andre Drummond down low, still hammering the backboard.
Detroit's best chance at being a great team is that it's not reliant on any one player outside of Drummond. They have options, and fluidity. The whole car runs together, and when it runs, it's going to purr.
25. Kemba Walker's Stepback
26. The Great Unknown Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis Antetokounmpo could be anything. He could be a point guard, or a center, or a traditional forward, or a floor spacer, or a postup guy, anything. The Bucks are fascinating only so far as Antetokounmpo goes this season. (Though I think Jabari Parker might be in for a massive season.) There's just so little we know about what the Greek Freak is and can truly do. That makes for debate. He'll have nights where he struggles at point guard and nights when he carves teams up. But all through it, he'll cover the court in two steps, he'll boggle the mind with his athleticism and he'll remind us constantly of where this league is headed, toward the near-mutant-gifted physically with ubiquitous skills.
27. The Nets ... Stop Laughing
It's not just that Jeremy Lin is really good at this point, or that Brook Lopez remains a very valuable center. Combine the new management that was put in place last year and the new coaching staff, and they actually have a plan. There's a culture being instilled, and that culture often has impacts that we don't see when we look at the roster on paper. (Note: Do not look at the roster on paper, it can cause temporary blindness.) The Nets will not be good. But for those who follow the league nightly, there will be some joy in their growing pains.
28. The Redemption of Dwight Howard
It's unlikely, sure. But imagine if Howard really did come back to his 2011 ways. What if he looks healthy, and is locking down the paint, snuffing pick and rolls and finishing dunks on the other end? What if he keeps his mouth shut, plays with focus and avoids calling for the ball in the post? What if this whole ordeal has taken him to the bottom so that he can find his way out? It's not too late for Dwight Howard. If Mike Budenholzer can do with Howard what he has done with every other Atlanta Hawk, get the most out of him, we could see Howard come full circle. What a story that would be.
29. Devin Booker, Firewalker
This young man is special, and it does not take a lot of film work on him to see it. Get ready for him to invade your Vines, highlight shows and aggregation clips. Might as well call the kid Clickbait.
There are so many unstable scenarios in the league. Rudy Gay wants out, DeMarcus Cousins is on the verge of a blowup and the Bulls seem wobbling on a table with three legs. The Magic have a logjam, the Kings have no point guard and while everyone knows they can't touch the Warriors or Cavs, that's not going to stop them from setting themselves up better for the future. The NBA's best discussion point is trade talks, and there will be a lot of them this season. The elites are pressing down on the league, for sure, but that might only mean we get more unpredictable decisions, not fewer.
And Let Us Not Forget ...
Dunks, crossovers, coaches throwing their players under the bus, buzzer-beaters, scoop layups, Snapchats, advanced metrics, sneakers, the dunk contest, fake fights, players-only meetings, blown fast-breaks, the extra pass, Steven Adams, mustaches in general, Nicolas Batum on handoff plays, Jamal Crawford shots, Tom Thibodeau screaming, Hassan Whiteside putbacks, Michael Beasley, bad tattoos, mean tweets, technical fouls, comeback stories, surprise teams, fantasy basketball and a hundred million dribbles and shots that decide a championship.