Season rides on league's newest (and welcomed) wave of conflict

Tuesday October 26th, 2010

Around this time of year -- no, not the opening of the NBA season; I mean election season -- you hear it all the time from politicians:

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most important election of your lifetime!

Their implied message is: If you don't vote for me, the deficit will go up, wild dogs will run amok in the streets and the earth will turn into an arid wasteland.

But at the risk of sounding like a politician, and with some trepidation, I announce the following: This is the most anticipated NBA season of ... well, I can't quite bring myself to say ever. But let's say almost ever.

There was a lot of anticipation, after all, when Michael Jordan returned full time to basketball before the 1995-96 season. There was a lot of anticipation when Shaquille O'Neal moved from Orlando to the Los Angeles Lakers before the '96-97 season, and again when he changed into a Miami jersey in the summer of 2004. It's always fascinating, in fact, when MVPs transfer their talents, as was the case with, among others, Wilt Chamberlain (traded from Philadelphia to the Lakers before the '68-69 season), Oscar Robertson (from Cincinnati to Milwaukee before the '70-71 season) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (from Milwaukee to the Lakers before the '75-76 season).

More recently, of course, the NBA was abuzz in the summer of 2007 when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce in Boston.

But I would submit that, for pure, unbridled expectation, the season that begins Tuesday night surpasses all of the above. And the reason is one understood by novelists, screenwriters and anyone else who's ever sat down to concoct a piece of fiction: conflict.

When LeBron James and Chris Bosh signed on to join Dwyane Wade in Miami, and did it with the kind of fanfare that normally attends the goings-on at, say, Buckingham Palace, they created conflict. Heat fans in South Beach and points beyond -- we can safely assume there is now a Heat Nation -- can't wait for the beginning of what they see as a potential 70-win season. And with just as much fervor, the anti-Heat forces -- which, to a large degree, can be defined as the anti-LeBron forces -- can't wait to see how many ways this load-up-the-roster strategy can run off the tracks.

With all this heated conflict in the air, some perspective is necessary. LeBron's supposed villainy has become so acute that it's easy to forget what should and should not be held against him, at least in my view.

James had every right to exercise free agency and leave Cleveland. He is not the first superstar to actively ring-hunt. He remains a Hall of Fame-bound player despite his partial flameout in the 2010 playoffs against Boston. Any true fan should be excited to see how he will try to become the second coming of Magic Johnson, a supersized quarterback who will sublimate his own scoring for the good of the team.

At the same time, however, James brought much of this criticism upon himself with that embarrassingly clueless we-did-it-for-the-Boys-Club TV special and the subsequent we-are-the-world chest-banging he's done with Wade and Bosh.

Because there has been such a backlash against LeBron -- his chorus of detractors included the immortal troika of Michael, Larry and Magic, all of whom gave a variation of the I-wanted-to-beat-that-guy-not-join-up-and-play-with-him theme -- there's also been a backlash against the backlash. LeBron feels put upon by the criticism, and the us-against-the-world mentality will be a major part of the Heat's mojo this season, particularly with such an "us" master as Pat Riley pulling the strings behind the scenes.

The NBA, of course, divorces itself from highlighting the conflict inherent in this season. That's why it slipped the first Heat-Lakers game into the inconsequential slot of ... well, what do you know? Christmas Day. That's the same place it scheduled the first meeting of Shaq and Kobe Bryant after the two parted on unpleasant terms in '04.

Speaking of the Lakers, could there be a better foil for Miami than the two-time defending champs? The Purple and Gold limped through a 4-4 preseason, all the while giving off a maybe-we'll-get-serious-around-February vibe that contrasted sharply with the amped-up atmosphere in Miami. The Lakers will be playing the us-against-the-world card, too, their variation sounding something like this: Here we are, going for Phil Jackson's third three-peat, and all we're getting is an earful about the Miami Heat.

There are other alluring subplots to the season. Will Kevin Durant and his young compatriots create a viable Rolling Thunder Review in Oklahoma City? Will Gilbert Arenas be able to deal with the cold hard fact that backcourt mate John Wall is already better than he is? Can Blake Griffin stay healthy and make the Clippers respectable? Will Amar'e Stoudemire be joined by Carmelo Anthony in the Big Apple at some point? Can he lift the Knicks to the playoffs? And will Amar'e be able to concentrate from the free-throw line when fans hold up his nearly nude photo from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue?

But if you're looking for another major reason that 2010-11 presents itself as a most intriguing season, I'll take the Boston Celtics. If the Shamrocks remain healthy, they will join the Orlando Magic as the chief rivals for the Heat. And the Celts will not do it quietly, not with Shaquille feeling comfortable as the Hub's new favorite son. He's already posed as a statue in Harvard Square, a truly inventive form of performance art for a pro athlete, but it's certain that he will not be as silent as one during the season. O'Neal has steered clear of anti-LeBron comments to this point, but steering clear is generally not his driving strategy. So although both teams will likely utter the predictable exchanges of mutual respect after their season opener in Boston on Tuesday, there will be a charged atmosphere by the third Celtics-Heat meeting, on Feb. 13.

But, then, there's going to be a charged atmosphere wherever and whenever the three Miami stars touch down this season. They brought all this attention upon themselves, and to watch how they handle it is the highest form of athletic drama, one that should keep us engaged right through June.

Unless they don't make it that far.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.