It's been a rough off-season for the NBA, but then what off-season isn't? There were the usual nightclub-related lawsuits and arrests, more than the usual superstar griping, and a spectacularly unusual betting scandal involving a previously unknown referee named Tim Donaghy, who first attracted the suspicion of investigators when he called a traveling violation. (Talk about previously unknown!) But now all is well, because the regular season begins Tuesday night, when the champion San Antonio Spurs with center-of-the-moment Tim Duncan take on the Portland Trail Blazers with center-of-the-future...uh...Joel Przybilla.
Whatever. It's just the regular season. It means about as much as Isiah Thomas swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It's an 82-game stretch of coaches trying not to get fired and players trying not to get microfractures. So don't worry, Portland fans, Greg Oden will be back when it counts his contract year.
Oh, we kid because we love. Nobody ever called the NBA the No Fun League. The season hasn't even started, and it's already the best drama on TNT, with a Jason Kidd groping allegation, Chris Kaman cutting off his caveman hair, Stephon Marbury getting busy with an intern in a truck, and a Gilbert Arenas blog post titled "Man, I'm Shooting 4-for-24." (The best lines: "Truthfully, I'm playing like terrible trash right now. I don't want to make an excuse, but the rims are broken in every arena I'm playing in.") At the dawn of a new year in the NBA, you never know which teams will jell, which stars will shine or which broken-down power forwards Isiah will sign to max contracts. That's part of the fun!
So here are just a few of the storylines to follow when the season tips-off tonight:
1. Escape From L.A.
The NBA's best player, Kobe Bryant, is making history as he tries to do to his Lakers team what Marbury did to that intern. It's not just that he's demanded a trade. He's also blocking a four-for-one deal with Chicago that he thinks would leave the Bulls too weak to win a championship. In other words, he's demanding a bad trade.
The ugly details of the Donaghy gambling scandal still haven't come out, and when they do they could spark a debate about "the integrity of the game," or at least they would if basketball had more George Will types writing about it. But some fans may start questioning every call by every ref, a privilege previously reserved for Rasheed Wallace.
3. Tim Duncan Is Really Good
For all the whingeing about NBA players' bad behavior and bad fundamentals, it has some terrific teams that play hard and work together. Duncan, Tony Parker and the Spurs aren't fancy but they win; the same goes for the somewhat overrated Mavericks. The run-and-gun Suns should be even better now that Grant Hill is joining Steve Nash, Amare Stoudamare and Shaun Marion. Houston should be vastly improved as well, if Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming can stay upright. None of this is funny, but it's worth keeping in mind when people complain about the league.
4. Boston Three Party
On the surprise scale, the Celtics landing Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce was Kid Rock getting into a brawl at a Waffle House. But the Celtics landing Kevin Garnett was Paris Hilton joining a convent. Suddenly the C's have the strongest Eastern Conference lineup, which may be a bit like being the tallest Munchkin, but it's still amazing for a sports town that seemed cursed for so long. Still, on the surprise scale these individual moves are dwarfed by the possibility of the Celts, Red Sox and Patriots celebrating championships at the Romney White House. That's Mark Madsen winning Dancing With the Stars-level insanity.
5. More Than Zero
"I'm sorry," as Arenas likes to write, but I'm not done with his score-settling, trash-talking, philosophical-waxing Agent Zero Blog, which is not only the best sports blog on the Web, but the best blog, period. Here, for your enjoyment, is more recent Gilbertology: "Can you please take the hockey teams out of basketball arenas? Basketball is not supposed to be played on ice. I'm sorry. I don't know if it's just me, but I hate going to arenas where it's 60 degrees outside and 50 degrees inside. That is not a sport. Ice Basketball is not a sport." Here's Gilbert on the upcoming Wizards showdown with the Celtics: "You might as well just cheer for me, because Boston isn't winning in Boston for the season opener. I'm sorry."
6. Doubting Thomas
The Knicks still have more shoot-first guards than Blackwater USA, and it's always fun to guess which ball hog Isiah will overpay next. But here's something you didn't know about the coach/GM/sexual harasser who's lost with such extraordinary consistency despite the league's highest payroll: Isiah wrote a management book! It's called "The Fundamentals." I'd make a joke now, but my head just exploded. By the way, where's the book explaining why the best players Thomas, Kevin McHale, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan are the worst executives?
Lebron James dragged a mediocre Cavaliers team to the Finals last year, but they might not even be mediocre this year. Once Kobe wriggles his way out of L.A., Bron-Bron-out-of-Cleveland will be the next big NBA saga. We all saw him wearing that Yankees cap during the Indians game; only a monumentally incompetent Knicks executive would be unable to lure him to New York. Hmm...
8. Heat Strokes
OK, so their defense is worse than Phil Spector's. But he got away with it, so why shouldn't the Miami Heat? They looked awful last year, but they won it all two years ago and this year's team is better on paper. If Shaq and Dwyane Wade can stay healthy, the Heat should be able to play with anyone. Of course, that's like saying that if their leaders can behave rationally, the U.S. and Iran should be able to keep the peace. It's obviously true, but not even Tim Donaghy would want to bet on it.
9. AI Caramba!
The implosion-in-waiting is the Denver Nuggets. Carmelo Anthony is upset he's the third-best player in his draft class. Allen Iverson is upset he's the second-best player on his team. George Karl is upset he's the worst big-name coach in the league. Nene and Chuckie Atkins are upset because they're hurt. Kenyon Martin upset for the sake of being upset. Your 2007-08 Nuggets combustible, but balanced!
10. The Known Unknown
Something totally unexpected a betting scandal, a riot, an Eddy Curry assist is going to happen this season. Why? Because something unexpected always happens in the NBA. Yi Jianling could defect. Darko Milicic could justify the hype. Ron Artest could punch out a ref, or vice versa. If the NFL is the No Fun League, the NBA is the Never Bet Against it league. What too soon?