Say what you want about The Decision, LeBron James' widely disparaged ESPN special in which he dumped his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, on national television in front of a bunch of little kids who served as props for his enormous ego. But you have to admit this: thanks to LeBron's histrionics, fans were obsessed with the NBA in July, normally a quiet month for pro hoops.
That buzz lasted throughout the summer and will carry over into this year's regular season, which begins Tuesday night, Oct. 26, when James' Heat visit the defending Eastern Conference champions, the Boston Celtics, who have added Shaquille O'Neal to their roster. Yet whether the love-'em-or-hate-'em new Dream Team in South Beach lives up to its All-Star billing is just one of several good story lines fans will be watching and gabbing about all season long. Here are 10 of them.
Can Anyone Beat the Heat?
If you've somehow escaped all the Heat hype, just tune in to one of Miami's 30 national-television appearances this season. Or click on the Heat Index, ESPN.com's Web page dedicated to coverage of the team. Yes, we're coming dangerously close to suffering from Heat exhaustion, and the season is just starting. But if LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (the other famous free agent who signed with the team this summer) click on the court, the Heat could challenge the NBA record of 72 regular-season wins held by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.
Miami's season, however, has not started smoothly. Wade hurt his leg three minutes into Miami's first preseason game. He sat out the rest of the exhibition season, though he will play against Boston. Further, Mike Miller, the sharpshooter president Pat Riley recruited to complement his three stars, is out until January with a broken thumb. Despite the early hiccups, however, don't be shocked to see the Heat emerge as the favorites come playoff time.
The Year of Kevin Durant
No one had a more stellar off-season than Kevin Durant, the spindly scoring machine for the Oklahoma City Thunder. After leading Oklahoma City to a strong first-round-playoff showing against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers L.A. prevailed in six games Durant quietly signed a five-year, $85 million contract extension in the midst of the summer free-agent frenzy. That token of loyalty to the small-market Thunder, and the understated way he delivered the news via Twitter ("Extension for 5 more year wit the #thunder.... God is Great, me and my family came a long way . . .I love yall forreal, this is a blessing!"), earned him major popularity points among fans still annoyed with LeBron's Decision.
Then in September, he torched the world at the FIBA basketball championships in Turkey, scoring 38 points (an American record) in the U.S.'s 89-74 semifinal win over Lithuania. He dropped another 28 points including seven three-pointers in the gold-medal triumph over the host country and was named MVP of the tournament.
With a young, talented cast surrounding Durant, the Thunder can contend in the Western Conference. And if he isn't already there, Durant is on the verge of joining James and Kobe Bryant in the "best player on the planet" debate.
The NBA Gets Technical
In an effort to cut down on rampant whining, the NBA has instructed its referees to whistle quicker technical fouls on serial complainers that means you, Dwight Howard. The refs can now penalize a player for "excessive complaining," even if it's done in a civilized way. During a New York KnicksBoston Celtics preseason game, for example, the refs called four techs in 16 seconds, including two on Boston's hotheaded forward Kevin Garnett, who was ejected.
No one likes to see a millionaire moan after a ref calls a foul on him, especially since, most of the time, said millionaire committed a blatant violation. But fans don't dish out hundreds of dollars for NBA seats to see prime players like Garnett get sent to the showers. If refs levy too many quick technicals, expect a backlash against the new rules from both fans and players.
Where Goes 'Melo?
After Denver forward Carmelo Anthony, one of the best all-around players in the league, turned down a three-year, $65 million contract extension from the Denver Nuggets, his message was clear: Blast me out of the Rockies, fast. Since Anthony will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and Denver won't let him go for nothing, he'll almost certainly be traded this season. According to media reports, the New Jersey Nets almost pulled off a deal for Anthony in September. Given the big-market ambitions of his new bride, actress and television personality La La Vazquez, the New York Knicks seem like a logical landing spot. But can New York offer enough trade bait to lure Anthony to the Big Apple? And is he just an overrated scoring machine who won't actually help any team go deep in the playoffs, as many detractors claim?
If the league's owners and players can't agree on how to share their riches, any positive impact generated from a dramatic 2010-11 season will be gone in an instant. The current collective-bargaining agreement between the NBA and its players expires next June, and posturing has already begun. Last week, NBA commissioner David Stern, who claims that teams have been losing hundreds of millions of dollars the past few years, said owners would have to cut salaries by a third in order for some struggling teams to sustain themselves. Stern even insisted that the NBA might have to contract teams, a measure that would outrage fans in cities wiped off the NBA map and a players' union that would insist on fighting for those jobs. "If the owners maintain their position, it will inevitably result in a lockout and the cancellation of part or all of the 2011-2012 season," Billy Hunter, head of the union, responded. "The players and union will prepare accordingly."