When the NBA season begins Tuesday, it will be the first time in more than a decade that LeBron James, the biggest star in the sport, won’t be playing on opening night. For the first time in 15 years he also won’t be part of the league’s Eastern Conference. Those firsts show just how much James’s offseason decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers shook up the entire league.
While it will probably take many a long time to get used to seeing the face of the league in Lakers purple and gold, the team’s coach understandably had a different reaction.
“It’s awesome,” Luke Walton said with a broad smile Friday night before his team’s final preseason game in San Jose.
Walton and the Lakers aren’t alone in feeling that way. Anyone associated with making money in the basketball world should be thrilled to see James playing for the sport’s flagship franchise, a team whose presence lifts all boats around it. Half the teams in the league, meanwhile, have to be excited to see him out west.
The teams atop the East finally can see daylight in a conference James has reigned over since creating a superpower in Miami eight years ago. Two of those teams, the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, will revisit their decades-old rivalry Tuesday night, taking James’s customary place in the East’s half of TNT’s season-opening national TV doubleheader.
This is the moment the Celtics have been building toward since pulling off the blockbuster trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets in 2013. With a roster teeming with young, athletic players, a gifted scorer in Kyrie Irving, one of the league’s most versatile big men in Al Horford and one of its best coaches in Brad Stevens, good luck finding something not to like about the Celtics. Philadelphia, meanwhile, has what could soon become the league’s best one-two punch in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, as well as the potential to add another max contract in free agency next summer.
But despite those plaudits, it is far from a certainty that one of these ancient rivals will be representing the East in the NBA Finals next June. The Toronto Raptors lurk somewhat in the shadows, with Kawhi Leonard again looking like a possible top-five talent, and with a roster that might even exceed Boston’s in both length and depth. There remains plenty to sort out north of the border, however, after President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri shook up the team not once, but twice — first firing head coach Dwane Casey and replacing him with lead assistant Nick Nurse, then sending franchise icon DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for Leonard and Danny Green.
The Raptors will not only be attempting to finally reach the East’s summit now that their annual bogeyman — James — is out of the way, but to convince Leonard that he should remain in Toronto once he hits free agency next July.
“There is nothing we are going to do different,” Ujiri told reporters last month of how he’ll recruit Leonard to stay. “We are going to be ourselves."
Rather than debating whether James will make a ninth straight NBA Finals this season, the basketball world is wondering if James can get the Lakers into position to have home court in the West — or, in some cases, even make the playoffs at all.
What isn’t in doubt is that the Lakers are, for the first time in years, relevant. Even in the waning moments of Kobe Bryant’s career, he was what made the Lakers matter — not the team’s play on the court. Now, with James surrounded by young talents such as Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart — plus mercurial veterans in Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and JaVale McGee — whether the Lakers are good or not, they will undoubtedly be entertaining.
“I think it’s great for the league to see LeBron in a Laker uniform,” Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, a Southern California native, told reporters last week. “For me, growing up with the purple and gold, there’s an extra sentiment there. Doesn’t mean I cheer for them, but that was my team growing up. So they’ve always had a lot of star power."
James’s arrival has even managed to overshadow the Warriors, who are trying to become the first team in five decades to make it to five straight NBA Finals, and only the fifth franchise in NBA history to win three straight. Golden State remains the favorite to win another title this year, though both conferences offer challengers.
Last season, the Houston Rockets came within poor second halves in both Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference finals of eliminating the Warriors. But after losing key defensive forwards Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency, and replacing them with Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis, the Rockets will have to prove they can stop the Warriors enough times to beat them.
The Utah Jazz, on the other hand, will look to prove its blistering close to last season (29-6 over their final 35 games) wasn’t a mirage, and that second-year guard Donovan Mitchell is ready to lead Utah deep into the playoffs. Beyond that, a glut of teams will simply be trying to make the playoffs in the cutthroat West.
James and the Lakers are just one of those teams. Golden State’s opponent in Tuesday night’s opener, the Oklahoma City Thunder, is another, fresh off successfully convincing Paul George to stay in free agency. So, too, are the Minnesota Timberwolves, though no one knows what is going to happen with their best player, Jimmy Butler, and his active trade demand. The Denver Nuggets, who lost what was essentially a playoff play-in game to the Wolves on last season’s final day, will be hoping for a postseason breakthrough this year, while the San Antonio Spurs are trying to make it back for a 22nd straight year despite Leonard leaving via trade, Manu Ginóbili retiring, Tony Parker exiting in free agency and promising guard Dejounte Murray going down for the year with a torn ACL.
That doesn’t even account for the New Orleans Pelicans, led by MVP candidate Anthony Davis, the Portland Trail Blazers, who finished third last season, or the Los Angeles Clippers, who lack star power but have as much depth as any team in the league.
All eyes, though, as always, will be on James. Just not on opening night. That officially makes Tuesday a new day for the NBA.
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