|1||The 2011-12 version of the Miami Heat|
What a shame to waste this kind of villainy. How often can the whole country pull against one team and feel so good about it? It took the Yankees decades to build up this much animosity; the Heat did it in a matter of days.
And now, in Season 2, the Heat will be even more compelling. We have LeBron James' failure, Dwyane Wade's frustration, Chris Bosh's humanity and the specter of Riles. Most intriguing is how the team will adapt on the court. Will Erik Spoelstra finally install an offense? Will James finally develop a post-up game? Who will fill spots 4-12? Will we finally get a Kobe-LeBron Finals?
It would be a shame not to find out. -- Chris Ballard
|2||Stan Van Gundy|
I don't want the NBA back unless Stan Van Gundy comes with it. Put a provision in the new CBA that guarantees him a lifetime job. It just wouldn't be as entertaining a league without the Orlando Magic coach. Van Gundy is both a visual and verbal treat with his delightfully pained expressions and his unflinching candor in interviews. It doesn't matter how well a game is going for Orlando -- if one of his players dribbles the ball off his foot or misses an open cutter with a pass, Van Gundy's face portrays instant agony. He cringes and winces as if someone is slowly driving an ice pick through the palm of his hand, or he sits down and massages his temples like a schoolteacher in a classroom full of third-graders on sugar rush. Van Gundy often looks as if some minor mistake on the court is causing him excruciating physical pain, and that's just fun to watch.
It's just as fun to hear him answer with honest opinions instead of the usual clichés coaches spout. This is Van Gundy on commissioner David Stern: "Like a lot of leaders we've seen in this world lately, he doesn't really tolerate other peoples' opinion or free speech or anything." And this is Van Gundy on the Miami Heat last season: "I do chuckle a bit when they sort of complain about the scrutiny they get. My suggestion would be if you don't want the scrutiny, you don't hold a championship celebration before you've even practiced together. It's hard to go out and invite that kind of crowd and celebration and attention, and then when things aren't going well, sort of bemoan the fact that you're getting that attention."
Agree or disagree, no one can accuse Van Gundy of being afraid to say what he thinks. Because coaches are forbidden to talk about the lockout while it's in effect, Van Gundy is essentially muzzled. That must cause him to sit at home with a doozy of a pained expression. I want to see it. -- Phil Taylor
|3||Derrick Rose's crossover|
He stands at the top of the key, shoulders slumped and eyelids heavy, as if he might doze off for a few seconds. His head falls to one side. His mouthpiece spills out over his bottom lip. He looks exhausted and disengaged, more interested in nibbling the mouthpiece than dribbling the ball. Then, just as you start to wonder if this is truly the NBA MVP, the most transcendent driver in the league, the most captivating point guard in an era full of them, he sucks in his mouthpiece, rolls back his shoulders, and throws down one thunderous crossover, with the speed of Iverson but far more power.
The rest is for the highlight reels: the blinding first step, the headlong rush into the lane, the way he cradles the ball in the crook of his arm like a tailback, hurtles himself into three men at least six inches taller than he is, and contorts his body up, under and around each one. He was never the least bit tired or removed. It was all part of the Derrick Rose hustle, and as another layup rolls in over a wave of so-called shot-blockers, he doesn't change expression. He could not appear less impressed with what he just did. -- Lee Jenkins
|4||The All-Star Game|
I won't miss the rest of All-Star weekend, but the All-Star Game itself remains a treasure. Like so many things, it is no longer what it used to be -- it's less competitive than it was in the 1980s for sure -- yet it brings the biggest stars together for one radiant evening. Their personalities come through in each other's company: Shaquille O'Neal was an entertainer in his day, while Kobe, as recently as last year, was a cutthroat winner, and all the other stars operate somewhere in between.
It would be a loss that could not be redeemed, because each year the mixture of stars changes based on their comparative roles within the NBA hierarchy, and as the All-Star Game plays itself out it provides a different perspective on that hierarchy while revealing who is really in charge of the asylum. Of all the singular non-playoff games or events that could be canceled, the loss of the All-Star Game would be noticed the most and create the most harm. -- Ian Thomsen
|5||Continued rise of the Thunder and Bulls|
There are some things that are just better in the NBA than any other sport, and maybe the biggest is this: It is more fun to track the rise of teams from the crap pile to the championship stand. The Thunder and Bulls each used lottery luck (they snared Hall-of-Fame talents with top-two picks) and deft decision-making to become must-follow teams. Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant and Chicago's Derrick Rose may be the two most likeable young players in the league. They can win MVP awards, and Rose just did, but they will measure their careers by whether they won titles with their original teams. They are trying to will their teams to titles, and it is fascinating to see whether they pull it off.
Will the Thunder's Russell Westbrook develop from freak athlete and All-Star player into championship point guard? Can the Bulls find the slasher to go along with Rose, Joakim Noah, and Luol Deng, and lift Chicago past Miami? Or are these two teams destined to join the Mark Price/Brad Daugherty Cavs, Alonzo Mourning/Tim Hardaway Heat and Karl Malone/John Stockton Jazz as long-time contenders who couldn't finish the job? I don't have the answer. But the question is riveting. And that's why this is the best time to watch these teams. Greatness is thrilling. Teams reaching for greatness are even more compelling. -- Michael Rosenberg
|6||The Dan Gilbert-LeBron James rivalry, continued|
This feud should continue to be spicy for oh, say, the next 10 years. Gilbert's stance on LeBron has not softened much since he called his former franchise player's defection to Miami a "cowardly betrayal" and accused James of quitting during the 2010 playoffs. James will be making regular trips to Cleveland over the next few years -- if the season starts on time, his next appearance will be Nov. 18 -- and Gilbert will likely be in his usual seat along the baseline, staring him down.
Miami-Cleveland isn't much of a rivalry -- one team went to the 2011 NBA Finals, while the other finished with the second-worst record in the league -- but the Cavs do have two talented prospects in top overall draft pick Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, who give Gilbert some hope of becoming competitive. Interestingly, Gilbert is one of the owners pushing hard for a very owner-friendly new collective bargaining agreement. That's undoubtedly to help level the playing field for his small-market team. But one byproduct of that kind of deal is that it would be difficult for a capped-out team like Miami to add pieces to its roster. Take that, LeBron. -- Chris Mannix
|7||The three most exciting new pick-and-roll combos|
It's strange to think that a pick-and-roll involving two of the three best all-around players in the league might be the least effective of these three super-exciting combinations, but that may end up the case, considering the similarity in skill sets between LeBron and Wade. Neither is an elite three-point shooter nor a post-up beast comfortable working from the block regardless of the matchup. Their ability to punish defenses who have the right personnel to simply switch this play is questionable, but the sheer ability here makes this something the Heat almost have to experiment with more next season.
There are no such overlap issues with Oklahoma City's Durant and Westbrook, poised to rank among the greatest point guard/small forward pick-and-roll combinations in modern league history. And with the improved handling and passing Clippers guard Eric Gordon showed last season, he and Blake Griffin should be able to slice up defenses from the left side for the next half-decade. Enjoy. -- Zach Lowe
|8||Ray Allen's shooting|
Here's the funny part about wanting to see Ray Allen shoot: I've never enjoyed his once-in-a-generation form more than when I couldn't see it. On April 29, 2005, Seattle rolled into Sacramento with a 2-0 series lead in the first-round matchup. The Sonics had done it without the best Allen had to offer, as he had hit just 16 of 38 shots to that point (42.1 percent) while scoring a combined 54 points.
As he worked alone before Game 3 on the Arco Arena floor, I watched with amazement from a courtside seat as he made one of the hardest tasks in sports look so incredibly easy. The rhythm was unreal, the consistency uncanny, the shot that was on display from so many different spots a sight to see. And then the place went dark. Lights out. Confusion all around. Employees scrambling. Reporters chuckling. But what was that sound? Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish. Yep, the shooter had just kept firing. And hitting.I couldn't see the rim from just outside the right wing, and Allen would later admit that he couldn't see it either. Until later, of course, when the lights came back on and he scored 33 points on 10-of-21 shooting in Seattle's only loss of the series. His 45 points in Game 4 and 30 in Game 5 would help the Sonics finish the job.
Yeah, I'd miss seeing that. -- Sam Amick
|9||Marv Albert calling games|
|Kirby Lee/US PRESSWIRE|
YES! One word, three letters. Is there an announcer in sports who is more associated with a catchphrase than Marv Albert is with "YES!"? (For the record, the "YES!" is made even better when Albert follows it up with "AND THE FOUL!")
Albert, however, isn't about catchphrases and gimmicks. He's about calling a basketball game as well as it can be called. And he's been doing that since 1967. What's most amazing about him is that, despite turning 70 this past June, he's still at the top of his game. He hasn't lost one mile off his fastball. In fact, he's so good that CBS just hired him to call NFL games this season. Think about that: In this day and age, when the only thing that matters is youth and the young demographic, Marv Albert is still getting jobs at age 70.
One of the reasons for that is because when you hear Albert's iconic voice, a game becomes an event. His call of the game is sort of like adding a third team to the contest. You watch for the two teams and for Marv. That's why I'll miss Marv Albert more than anything during this NBA lockout. It doesn't matter if it's a Pacers-Timberwolves game in January or a Celtics-Heat Eastern Conference Finals. You'll always get an A+ broadcast with Marv behind the mic. He's like that old friend you can always rely on, and he will be missed. -- Jimmy Traina
|10||Talking about the NBA|
The NBA is a conversation. Training camp ushers in talk of possibilities. The first half of the season brings chatter about breakout performances and how Free Agent X has matured into an MVP candidate. All-Star weekend ramps up gossip of trades, while the dog days of the late season are saved by debates over playoff matchups. Legacies are argued over in the postseason before everyone weighs in come late June on what draft picks will become stars or busts. Even in the summer the NBA doesn't recede from our consciousness completely, or at least not before the prospect of free-agent shopping gets fans and teams giddy with hope.
That will all be gone if games are canceled. Who cares how Mike Brown will connect with Kobe if they're not even allowed to work together? The potential of the Thunder with a full season of Kendrick Perkins is pointless to consider until Durant has the chance to play for more than a Rucker League crowd. Without a season, we'll be left to ponder words like Basketball-Related Income. And is there any phrase more frustrating than "another round of bargaining talks are scheduled"?
The NBA is a conversation, and without it, most of us will be left speechless. -- Paul Forrester
Crazy Zach Randolph floaters, a meniscus-free Brandon Roy hitting threes, graybeard Jason Kidd D-ing up Kobe -- last spring provided the most thrilling playoffs in ages. The clustering of talent on top teams may have watered-down the regular season, but it made the postseason more competitive (one reason why a 50-game slate wouldn't be the worst thing in the world).
When 21 of the 25 NBA All-Stars are in the playoffs, as happened last year, it means plenty of teams are stacked, which in turn leads to better series and -- when they occur -- more dramatic upsets. -- C.B.
|12||Blake Griffin's dunks|
I'm a little bit of a dunk snob. I've been spoiled, because I can remember Dr. J throwing them down during his ABA days, as well as Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins in their primes. Everything since then has pretty much been just imitation, as far as I'm concerned. Don't even get me started on the contrived piece of business the All-Star Slam Dunk contest has become.
But Griffin brought me back to the dunk. His throwdowns are so sudden and vicious that I'm drawn to the TV when he plays. I'll even sit through commercials if I know that a Griffin slam is coming up next. His best dunks are the ones in which he does awful, awful things to some poor defender, like the one over 7-footer Timofey Mozgov, on which he elevated so high that Mozgov's face was below Griffin's waist. That one should be marked NSFW.
Griffin already missed his rookie year with a knee injury, depriving us of who knows how many memorable dunks. It would be almost criminal if he -- we -- were robbed of another season of his ferocity. Griffin needs to come back soon, or I'm going to forget how to love the dunk again. -- P.T.
|David J. Phillip/Landov|
A consistent gripe you hear about pro basketball -- as perennial as "games aren't decided 'til the last two minutes" and "they don't really try 'til the playoffs" -- comes from people who, in so many words, protest that they can't relate to the players. That's why last spring's emergence of the Mavericks' J. J. Barea could have been such a lasting boon to the league. He's Everyman. He's 6 feet, if that. He comes from a Caribbean island known primarily for producing shortstops. He scores with the kinds of dinks and spins and angles that you and I have tried playing Ping-Pong in the basement. And, eliminating Los Angeles from the playoffs, he so bamboozled the Lakers' burliest frontliners, Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum, that each, on separate occasions, wound up getting suspended for taking out their frustrations on him.
If Rajon Rondo plays the point like an option quarterback, Barea does so like a shortstop -- moving east-west as much as north-south; scuttling into the hole that is the lane; emerging suddenly to make a play where none seemed there. Regardless of where Barea plays during a lockout, I'll be surfing YouTube for highlight clips. -- Alexander Wolff
|14||The trade deadline frenzy|
The social media news cycle has made the trading deadline more important than ever. Like the buildup to the annual NBA draft, it is a world unto itself, and in recent years many big deals have been made to send Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks, or to unite Kobe with Pau Gasol in transforming the Lakers as champions. It arrives in mid-February, shortly after All-Star weekend, when teams fully understand whether they have a chance to contend for the playoffs or the title, or whether they need to break up the roster in order to hasten a roster overhaul. The cottage industry of trade speculation makes the long NBA regular season manageable for a lot of fans who would lose interest if it weren't for the rumors, proposals and wish-lists that encircle the league.
If the owners and players are able to reach an agreement in time to save the season, then the 2012 deadline might be the most interesting of them all, because it will occur under an entirely new set of collectively bargained rules that management and agents will still be trying to understand. It's likely to be very difficult to predict the long-term ramifications of some trades while the experts are still trying to grasp the loopholes and penalties of the new CBA, and that will make this deadline even more contentious than normal. -- Thomsen
|15||The Grizzlies' grit, grind|
The Grizzlies were on national television six times in the 2010-11 regular season despite one of the most dynamic frontcourts in the NBA, a promising point guard in Mike Conley and a delightfully unstable wing in Tony Allen, who famously described his team: "All heart, grit, grind."
America was introduced to the Grindhouse in the playoffs, when the Grizzlies upset top-seeded San Antonio and pushed Oklahoma City to seven games, with Allen diving over the scorer's table for loose balls, Zach Randolph dancing during timeouts, and Darrell Arthur catching ally-oops thrown three feet over his head. For the first time, Memphis witnessed the NBA at its best, crowding Fed Ex Forum as if John Calipari was back in town, and celebrating afterward with players at Beale St. blues bars.
Memphis has the smallest TV market in the NBA, but with Rudy Gay returning from shoulder surgery and Marc Gasol emerging as an elite center, the Grizzlies will be a sleeper pick in the Western Conference. They are even scheduled to grind on national TV a franchise-record 13 times. For their sake and ours, they should make those dates. -- Jenkins
|16||Shaq behind the mic|
Can this really miss? TNT is known for letting its on-air talent shoot from the hip and Shaq has never been shy about voicing his opinion. He'll ruffle a few feathers along the way -- big men, specifically Dwight Howard, beware -- but the Shaq-Charles Barkley combination should provide plenty of laughs.
Comedy aside, Shaq has the potential to be an insightful analyst. He will stumble a little bit at first but remember, O'Neal played for six teams, 12 different head coaches and with hundreds of teammates over a 19-year career. Great players don't always make great analysts, but Shaq brings a lot to the table. -- Mannix
|17||The last run of the Celtics|
You almost have to admire Wyc Grousbeck's reported willingness to sacrifice the 2011-12 season to wring more concessions from the players, because ditching the season means robbing the league's fiercest veteran group of one last go-round. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett will be free agents next summer, and even if the Celtics convince each other to return on cheap one-year deals, there is no guarantee anymore that either guy will be productive past next season. The declines can be sharp and sudden when guys reach their mid- and late-30s. Even if this group is intact for longer than expected, the roles and minutes will shrink and new help will arrive. It will be different. This team has been fun to watch for four seasons, with the yapping, on-a-string defense and all that shooting around Rondo. Let's hope we get a fifth. -- Lowe
|18||Monitoring Kobe Bryant's daily level of annoyance|
Don't get the wrong idea here. The notion that I'd enjoy seeing Kobe stare holes through Mike Brown after the latest loss or start calling Gasol the "White Swan" again isn't rooted in some lust for drama. But the interest can tend to wane during the course of an 82-game season, especially when it comes to the championship-or-bust Lakers.
They can't really prove anything until the playoffs, and we all know Kobe saves his best for last. Along the way, however, we could have been tracking his happiness level on a daily basis considering the changed landscape in L.A. You know, sort of like we did following the summer of 2007 (trade demand/Andrew Bynum found under the bus).
Phil Jackson is a tough act to follow for Brown, especially when the increasingly influential Jim Buss decided not to consult Bryant before hiring the former Cleveland coach. That's not to say Kobe isn't on board with Brown, as the word is the two of them are just fine. But transitions can be tricky with any star and a new coach, let alone the most ruthless player on the planet after he loses his favorite mentor. And that, whenever it actually takes place, will be interesting to watch. -- Amick
|19||The development of future stars|
The game's superstars are easy to appreciate. LeBron's combination of explosiveness and vision. Kobe's tenacity. Dwight's power. All are traits seen in only few, traits that mark particular players no matter the uniform. But none arrive with iconic skills in place. There's a process of development. In that process, elite talents become more than stars; they become benchmarks to eras. The lockout could short-circuit NBA history, robbing not only a prime year of the ascendant James-Howard-Wade era, but delaying the growth of the next. How might Rose's loss in the East finals have spurred him to improve? Would Westbrook and Durant find a way for both to thrive and avoid a battle for team leadership? After a year learning the league, would John Wall find a way to better his teammates as much as himself? And will Kyrie Irving remind fans of Chris Paul or any number of good-but-not-great point guards?
The athletic life of a pro is short. Games missed are opportunities lost to watch a player change. Stardom is a fun destination but the journey -- the heartbreaks overcome, the 15-foot jump shot added over the summer -- is what makes players part of the NBA's ongoing saga. -- Forrester
|20||The social consciousness of the Suns|
With so many athletes and teams content to retreat into their bubbles, the Phoenix Suns take bold, sometimes risky stands, individually and collectively. As an organization the Suns tick off more than the usual community-relations boxes, having donated $1.3 million to charity last year and sponsored a wheelchair team for more than two decades. As an individual, Grant Hill champions everything from childhood literacy and education, to the Special Olympics, to the campaign against inner-city food deserts, where defunded recreation programs and a lack of fresh produce compound the obesity epidemic. Meanwhile, is there a cause that Steve Nash hasn't embraced? He not only wears the Nike Trash Talk shoe, made from recycled materials, but he jawboned the company into introducing it.
The Suns go far beyond merely adopting the movement of the moment. They're out front, leading. They wore their Los Suns jerseys within days of Arizona's passage of its law targeting Hispanic immigrants. And Hill and teammate Jared Dudley didn't hesitate to play starring roles in the NBA's "Not cool!" spot urging kids not to toss off anti-gay slurs, a PSA that received heavy rotation during last spring's playoffs.
A silver lining to the lockout: Hill, Nash and all the Suns will have more time on their hands to make a difference. -- Wolff