MICHAEL WILBON: NBA Tips Off In Its Most Compelling State in Years
It's been years since the NBA opened a season with such a high approval rating. For too long it was one embarrassing episode after another dominating the news approaching opening night. Just last year, the start of a new season was obscured by a referee scandal.
In 2006, the league hastily introduced a new basketball, then clumsily removed it. Then some Indiana Pacers became entangled in a legal mess related to after-hours gunfire.
There was a controversial crackdown in 2005 on players' off-court attire and on-court behavior.
The 2004 U.S. Olympic debacle in Athens left a trail of ill will all the way back home and the infamous brawl in Auburn Hills gave the game a black eye.
And of course, five years ago one of the league's greatest stars, Kobe Bryant, was in the news 24-7 for entirely the wrong reason.
But the 2008-09 season begins with an infinitely brighter mood. It would be difficult for the NBA to be better positioned to start a season than it is tonight. Much of the credit for that goes to the members of the U.S. Olympic team, who endeared themselves to the American basketball public by winning the gold medal and behaving like ambassadors for the sport. Beyond that, the league has its best stable of stars, particularly those 25 and younger, since the early 1990s. European, Asian, South American and African stars -- themselves Olympians -- aren't just tolerated; they're warmly received and firmly established.
The two most important franchises in the league, the Lakers and Celtics, are championship-quality. Probably the NBA is in better shape than at any time since Michael Jordan's last season in Chicago, 1998, yet it isn't utterly dependent on any one player.
Worthwhile story lines are everywhere, from Boston, where the Celtics hope to repeat, to Los Angeles, where the Lakers think a young 7-footer named Andrew Bynum will allow them to improve enough to take back the championship. That said, it's hardly like the 1960s or 1980s when the Celtics and Lakers seemed to have insurmountable advantages over the rest of the league in personnel and coaching.
The San Antonio Spurs, even though injured Manu Ginóbili will miss at least the first month of the season, hope to continue their odd-year dominance. The Houston Rockets, perhaps the most loaded team, think a run of good health and one calm season from Ron Artest are all that stands in their way. The impatient New Orleans Hornets, led by the irrepressible Chris Paul, want to disprove the long-accepted notion that only greybeards win NBA championships. The Detroit Pistons swear they have one more run in them. The Cleveland Cavaliers think they got just enough help in point guard Mo Williams to get LeBron James over the hump.
There are all kinds of up-and-comers who are convinced that this is the week they'll take that critical first step in the multi-year process of building toward a championship, from Portland to Philly to Orlando to Toronto to Chicago to Milwaukee to perhaps even the Los Angeles Clippers, for crying out loud. There are a couple of teams that are impossible to forecast, teams that could go up or down or just flatten out and become irrelevant, and that group includes the famously star-studded but ancient Phoenix Suns and the too-often injured Washington Wizards, who will start the season without Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood.
Certainly, there are plenty of stars to follow: Oldies hoping for one more run like Shaq and Steve Nash and Grant Hill in Phoenix, Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen and (perhaps surprisingly) Ginóbili in San Antonio, Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace in Detroit.
But there are newbies, too, like Portland's Greg Oden, the aforementioned Bynum, Philadelphia's Thaddeus Young, the Clippers' Al Thornton, and if the Wizards are lucky, JaVale McGee, who might be carrying the league in two or three seasons.