82 games to go. Hope springs eternal at the start of every NBA season that, like last year, there’s always the chance of going from worst to first a la Boston Celtics. If Tampa can reach a World Series, is it so improbable that we might see the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Finals next June? OK, some things remain beyond even the realms of fantasy.
While for the title challengers there is pressure to end up as the last men standing, for the likely bottom-feeders a different burden looms. To win enough to escape ignominy. To entertain enough to lure the ticket-buyers in. To surpass expectations. Or, at least, not to disappoint.
NBA owners make Daniel Levy look patient. And in these uncertain times losing is bad for business, not a good thing if you’re, to pick a random example, the New York Knicks and still on the hook for a league-high $97m in salaries this year ($21m alone going to the unwanted Stephon Marbury) and with no real prospect of making the play-offs until the next decade at least. Empty seats don’t look good on the television or on the bottom line.
Luol Deng, now installed as Chicago’s $71m man, is expected to deliver and help transform last term’s Horri-Bulls into Respecta-Bulls. The Great Britain forward has an assist in the shape of No1 Draft pick Derrick Rose but, having seen his team disappoint massively 12 months ago, is he feeling an extra weight in relation to his burgeoning bank balance? “Not really,” he says. “I think that everybody that plays basketball loves to be in the position I’m in. I’m just happy that the Bulls organisation has so much trust in me. I’m just excited I can focus on my game and try to win.”
Bravado goes a long way. Chicago, at best, may be looking to sneak back into the post-season but there is little prospect of anyone emulating the Celtics’ instant overhaul, not following a summer when Elton Brand’s flight from Clipperland to Philadelphia was the only transformatory trade.
The Oklahoma Thunder, in its inaugural campaign since quitting Seattle, will get time to settle while reigning Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant matures and the honeymoon with their new-found devotees last. Others have no such leeway. Larry Brown’s recruitment as head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats may buy Michael Jordan some time but how many chances will he get to prove he is even remotely talented at general management? Winless in pre-season, he must know reputations only last so long. While Randy Wittman, in Minnesota, must effect some semblance of improvement to cement his shoogly peg back into the wall.
No coach, you feel, is on a hotter seat than Marc Iavaroni in Memphis. 22-60 in his first season in charge, and with some internal dysfunction, he needs victories despite the lowest employee tab in the NBA. “Of course there was speculation because of the record,” he admitted this week. “That’s the way it is in this league. When you have a record that people look at in black and white and don’t go into the intricacies of why the record, then they start speculating and that was fine.”
Others will get time to learn the ropes. Miami, just two years removed from a title, have turned the keys over to Erik Spoelstra. Yet his predecessor (and still boss) Pat Riley, sporting a championship ring on each finger, will sit a few rows away, subconsciously second-guessing every move. Spoelstra, though, insists he won’t let it wear him down. “I feel extremely fortunate to be in the situation I’m in and blessed that he’s still here in the organisation,” he said. “Pat and I have worked together for 13 years so we get on fine. We’ve been through winning teams and some tough losing years. That’s strengthened that bond so we have a trust that’s built up between the two of us. I look at it as a bonus to have a Hall of Fame coach, a mentor to me, as a resource down the hall.”
Miami, as they demonstrated during their pre-season trip to London, are well short of returning to the heights of 2006. They, like so many of their fellow strugglers of last season, remain a work in progress. Building a champion – with rare exceptions – takes time.
For 82 games, the heat is on to show that the bus is driving in the right direction. If not, someone, somewhere, will pay the price. The only question is when, not if, hope will overtake despair?
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, Cleveland. The Cavaliers have a much better squad than the one that made it all the way to the 2007 Finals before banging up against their ceiling. James, still just 23, is the rock that it all sits on but his Olympic experience may finally have drilled home that balance between supporting the load and lending his weight.
Rookie of the Year: Rudy Fernandez, Portland. With Juan Carlos Navarro scuttling back to Barcelona, the world champs keep up their NBA quota with the arrival of Fernandez, a mainstay of Joventut Badalona’s regular silverware hauls in recent years. He proved in the Olympic final that he’s ready to match all-comers.
Sideline Story of the Season: The End (Maybe) of Shaq. Ok, The Big Diesel hasn’t quite confirmed he’s ready to bow out but with one season left on his current deal in Phoenix, and with that super-sized body breaking down, enjoy him while he lasts.
Champions: Los Angeles Lakers. The return of Andrew Bynum, who missed the entirety of the Lakers’ play-off run of last spring, is like acquiring a new All-Star – for free. Pau Gasol will be more established in situ as well. As long as Kobe Bryant’s ill-advised decision to avoid finger surgery doesn’t backfire, it could be a Hollywood ending.