By Michael Wilbon
Monday, October 25, 2010; 10:59 PM
Christmas Day is usually about the right time to join the NBA season, though some would say the February all-star break, and cynics might suggest the beginning of the playoffs in mid-April.
There is precious little must-see professional basketball in October and November. But this season isn't like the others, not the start of it anyway. Not since Michael Jordan's return to basketball in 1995, when the Chicago Bulls cultivated a celebrity and a season of winning previously unknown in the sport, has a team generated so much fascination before playing its first game.
So it's entirely appropriate that the new and newfangled Miami Heat will open the 2010-11 season against a team of old Celtics in a city that loves its basketball tradition. There's every reason for hoops junkies and celebrity sycophants alike to pay close attention from the very first tip-off. It's hard to imagine, in this day of the 24-7 news cycle, of Twitter and video beamed 'round the world in an instant, that any team will be watched with more anticipation than the Miami Heat of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, a stacked grouping that leaves virtually everybody with an opinion about them.
And what should sustain that interest over the long haul is that Miami figures to have serious, serious challengers, from Boston, where the Celtics will try to hold on to their Eastern Conference title; to Los Angeles, where Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson will be trying for a second Lakers three-peat. For Miami to even reach that point, the Heat will have to navigate a rather contentious group of contenders in the East, including finalist once-removed Orlando, the restocked Chicago Bulls, a completely unknown but potent team in Milwaukee, and even some irritants in Atlanta and Charlotte.
Keep in mind that while Jordan's Bulls, who with an entirely different cast except for Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, had won three championships to start the decade of the 1990s, this new Miami team has built no professional goodwill. At the start, at least, people will adore them in South Florida and pretty much resent them, perhaps even hate them, most everywhere else. Most of that dislike will be directed at LeBron, whose newly released Nike commercial, fresh with shots at Charles Barkley, will make him even more of a lightning rod - at least until we see whether the Heat can play up to the hype.
The Miami story line is so dominant, Kobe and Jackson have been pushed to the back of the stage, which is a considerable feat since Jackson, starting his last season as head coach, is going for his fourth three-peat and Kobe is trying to tie Jordan with six championships. Way back in the shadows, at least for now, is the emergence of Kevin Durant, not just as a great player but perhaps as the league's best player. Durant, through performance and demeanor, has become the darling of purists, traditionalists, of middle-America, certainly of the red states. Much as he hates being thrust into this new role, Durant is being sold as the anti-LeBron, the guy that it's safe to root for. Durant's stock is as high as any athlete's in America and the presence of LeBron, even more than the others, in Miami makes the Oklahoma City following quite passionate.
There's another emerging talent out west, in Los Angeles: Blake Griffin. If he can stay healthy this time around, the Lakers might not be a virtual monopoly in Los Angeles. The Knicks, with Amare Stoudemire, shouldn't stink. Rookie John Wall might make the Wizards worth watching for the first time in a couple of years. Yao's return, even on a limited basis, could make Houston a threat.
But for a change, for the first time since Jordan retired from the Bulls at the end of the 1998 season, the East is where most of the good stuff is happening, and that will intensify if Denver ships free agent-to-be Carmelo Anthony east, to the Knicks. The center of the basketball universe will be in the southeast corner, Miami.
The most important question, entering the season, is whether Miami will be a curiosity or a championship team. Only the architect of the team, Pat Riley, has successfully navigated the kind of pressure the team he assembled will play with this season. Even Wade, who was the best player on Miami's 2006 championship team, had Shaq to carry most of the weight of expectations on that team. Bosh has no experience with that kind of targeting. And LeBron, fabulous as he is, wilted the last time we saw him in playoff heat.
Now, they'll find out what it is like to get every team's best, most fanatical and purposeful effort every night, starting in Boston tonight. And they'll do it without having the savvy that comes from winning a championship together . . . which is why I don't believe that Miami is going to win the NBA championship this season. Oh, they'll win three or four before this group calls it quits - but not this year. They can win 65, 66 games in the regular season and it won't help them one iota during the playoffs.
Still, that's the primary theme of the season. Will Miami or won't Miami?
The Lakers should have no such drama in the Western Conference. There's Oklahoma City and that's about it as far as serious challengers. The West is impossibly wide open and impossible to predict, 3 through 8. The Lakers, Thunder and it's anybody's guess after that. I'll take the Mavericks, Trail Blazers, Spurs, Jazz, Suns and Clippers, in that order. Picking the Clippers to make the playoffs is always dangerous business, but Griffin is such a beast. The team I think I'm worried about selling short is Memphis. Oklahoma City, still an incredibly young team, would have trouble finishing second in the West this year if the conference was any good, but it isn't. And my dismissing of Denver has more to do with the presumption that Carmelo will be traded and the team dismantled than anything else.
Conference finals: Lakers over Thunder.
The Eastern Conference is so much clearer. I'll take Miami narrowly over Orlando in the regular season for the top seed. The Celtics have no business finishing any higher than third. After that it's the Bucks, Bulls, Hawks, Bobcats and Knicks. Could the Wizards finish eighth? Possible, but doubtful. The question is whether Andray Blatche develops into an every-night player and a reliable teammate, which is something I've got to see over an entire season to believe. Why Milwaukee over Chicago? Because Carlos Boozer will be out for a month, because it'll take some time to incorporate him into what they do which will help result in a slow start, and because the Bulls don't really have a reliable two-guard.
But the top six teams in the East all have enough talent to think they can beat Miami on a given night, at least as the season begins.
Conference finals: Heat over Celtics.
Just around the corner the NBA faces a lockout and a work stoppage, which the league hasn't had since 1999. There are serious economic issues facing professional basketball, which will produce plenty of forecasts of doom. But this year the NBA should be looking at higher ratings, any number of marquee games and people with one eye on their own team and the other on Miami. Whether the Heat is celebrated, reviled or everything in between - it's the kind of team that night after night after night makes you, if nothing else, pay attention.