With the NBA tipping off its 71st season on Tuesday, here are 71 reasons to watch in 2016–17, in case the possibility of the Warriors and Cavaliers becoming the first teams ever to face off in the Finals for three straight years wasn’t enough for you.
(As always, a hat tip to veteran NBA writer Steve Aschburner forthe inspiration.)
1. The people who refuse to care about the NBA because the Warriors are winning the title. "The season's already over," they say. These people are the best. These people are everywhere. And it's important to remember, these people never really liked the NBA in the first place. "The season's already over" is the new version of "the league is rigged" and "they only play defense in the regular season", a distant cousin to "in college, they actually play with fundamentals." All of them are offering a helpful clue that you would never really agree on basketball anyway. Will the Warriors win the title? Yes, almost definitely. But the NBA's about a lot more than the title. There are arguments, there are jokes, and a hundred different subplots that emerge within any year. You think people spend 10 months just to see how this unfolds in June? Come on. I'm here to watch the Warriors disembowel teams, but also to see Damian Lillard trying to take over the world at 1 a.m., Giannis Antetokounmpo playing point guard at 6'11", KristapsPorzingis trying to survive the Knicks, J.R. Smith playing peek-a-boo with reporters... All of it. Let boring people watch the NFL. It's time to get stupid. Basketball's back.
2. #TeamKD vs. #TeamRuss. The NBA’s version of Jay-Z vs. Nas. Please, basketball Gods, give us Warriors–Thunder in May so we can enjoy a postseason dose of Russell Westbrook’s “Ether.”
3. The deep list of kamikaze MVP candidates. Westbrook. James Harden. Damian Lillard. Blake Griffin. Paul George. Anthony Davis. All six stars have a shot at crashing the MVP conversation through a combination of overwhelming will and crazy numbers. Turn them loose!
4. Joel Embiid making his NBA debut. After two seasons lost to injury, the 76ers center will finally hit the NBA hardwood for the first time on Wednesday, a staggering 853 days after he was selected with the No. 3 pick in the 2014 draft. He’s earned the standing ovation that’s coming.
5. The Pacers and the year of Paul George. "What happens to George could affect the balance of power throughout the league, and it'll probably depend on what happens this season."
6. Another eight months of Melo hats.
7. Devin Booker is starting all year. He can pull-up, he can spot-up, he's always under control. It won't matter if the Suns lose another 50 games this year. His game is a living testament to how Sydney Dean says "so pretty" in White Men Can't Jump.
8. Dwyane Wade in a Bulls jersey. His basketball fit in Chicago might be questionable, but Wade made the perfect pick when it comes to uniform aesthetics.
9. LeBron James racing up the record books. James enters his 14th season in 11th place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 26,833 points. The four-time MVP needs just 114 points to move past Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon, so he should crack the top 10 by early November. But that’s just the beginning of James’s ascent, as he has a strong chance to move past Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone and Shaquille O’Neal and into the list’s No. 7 spot by the end of this year.
10. Boston’s delicious trade deadline possibilities. Danny Ainge’s asset cache is the number one thing standing in between LeBron James and his seventh straight Finals appearance. The time has (finally) come for the Celtics to buy, buy, buy.
11. People on the internet taking Charles Barkley way too seriously.
12. Charles Barkley pronouncing "Dellavedova." We need to get the Bucks on TNT more.
13. The new Hack-a-Shaq rules. The NBA’s new rules regarding intentional fouls stopped short of eliminating the practice entirely, but they should cut down on some of the most egregious and repetitive instances of the practice. Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan and fans of going to bed early all rejoice together.
14. Expensive off–season signings get a chance to make their case. Remember all those marginal talents who cashed in huge this summer thanks to that massive salary cap jump? You know, Timofey Mozgov, Harrison Barnes, Evan Turner, and Ryan Anderson, among others. After months of second-guessing, the ranks of the “overpaid” will finally get their chance to validate those investments. With so much money handed out in free agency, someone is bound to shed the criticism and live up to his major dollar figure. Right?
15. Stan Van Gundy and the full spectrum of human emotion.
16. Golden State, going where no team has gone before (again). The 2016 Warriors set new records for regular–season wins (73) and three-pointers (1,077), while Stephen Curry set a new individual three-point record (402) and Draymond Green posted a record plus-minus (+1,072). The sky is the limit for the 2017 Warriors, who could become the first team to win 67+ games in three straight seasons and the first team to win 70+ games in back-to-back years. While the arrival of Kevin Durant might have a muting effect on the individual stats of Golden State’s stars, the team stats have a chance to be out of this world. The all-time record for point differential is +12.28, held by the 1972 Lakers. The all-time record for offensive rating is 115.6, held by the 1987 Lakers. Look for Golden State to make runs at both.
17. Watching D'Angelo Russell and trying to find the right comparison. Poor man's Steph? A younger, less physical James Harden? Slower-but-craftier Damian Lillard? Gilbert Arenas? We have the next six months to find an answer here.
19. James Harden and Dwight Howard, free of each other and in seemingly better places. After their superstar marriage faltered, who will win the divorce?
20. Zaza Pachulia’s unlikely and amazing All-Star candidacy. Last season, Pachulia pulled in an astonishing 768,112 All-Star votes, thanks in part to strong support from his native country of Georgia. That vote total left him less than 15,000 votes from bumping (the far more deserving) Kawhi Leonard out of a starting frontcourt spot for the Western Conference. Now that Pachulia has moved from the middle of the pack Mavericks to the top of the ticket Warriors, it’s hard to imagine that his support will diminish. Indeed, there’s a reasonable chance that Pachulia somehow joins Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant as Golden State’s three starters in New Orleans come February. Want to take this scenario even further? Imagine if all five Warriors starters wound up getting voted in as All-Star starters. With a coordinated push from Golden State’s passionate fan base and, say, Reddit, the NBA could be looking at a “Warriors versus the World” showcase in mid-February. That could actually be perfect.
21. Steven Adams establishing himself among the elite quote-givers. While Oklahoma City’s mustachioed center should make a major leap on the court, he’s also on track to become one of the league’s true cult heroes thanks to his quick wit. Adams, who hails from New Zealand, brilliantly deploys his comedic secret weapon: adding “Mate” to the end of every punchline to make it five times funnier.
Steven Adams: The NBA's Next Top Model
22. Eighty-two games worth of courageous chaos from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Please let this be the year. (Yes, we say this every year.)
23. Wesley Matthews, another year removed from his Achilles injury. Even with an entire summer of reflection, it’s still inconceivable that Matthews played a team-high 2,644 minutes mere months after tearing his Achilles in March 2015. His stats took a predictable hit in 2015-16, under the extraordinary circumstances, which only sets him up for an easy-to-root-for bounceback.
24. Uncomfortable anti-smoking ads on NBATV. You're not a true basketball fan until it's 11 p.m on a Monday night and you're confronting the darkest possible consequences of decisions you made in college.
25. Brooklyn’s Kenny Atkinson and Philadelphia’s Brett Brown going head-to-head to see who can give more optimistic and enthusiastic quotes in utterly hopeless situations. God bless both of them.
26. Warriors Twitter and Cavs Twitter burying each other in relentless disrespect for the next nine months.
27. Upcoming stars shining on Christmas Day. Kristaps Porzingis, Jaylen Brown, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Kris Dunn, D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram all taking the court during the league’s annual quintuple-header showcase? Slow clap for the schedule-makers.
28. An All-Star Weekend that won’t be sidetracked by sub-zero temperatures. Brass bands, beignets and big body, candy-painted sedans bumping Lil Wayne. Yes, yes and yes. New Orleans 2017 can’t get here soon enough.
29. Brandon Jennings turning Madison Square Garden into his own mega-church and preaching, one floater at a time.
30.Space Jam 11s hit the hardwood. Jordan Brand is set to drop the Space Jam 11s in December in what is perhaps the most coveted holiday retro release since the Concord 11s in 2011. How many NBA players will lace up Space Jams during a game this year? Fifteen? Twenty? Fifty?
32. Porzingis Instagrams.As good as it gets.
33. Giannis Vines.He was built for the platform.
34. The fascinating rock-paper-scissors race for the Northwest Division between the Blazers, Jazz and Thunder. Sure, divisions don’t technically matter that much, but the Northwest will be home to great contrasts this year. Oklahoma City will take shape around frenetic superstar Russell Westbrook, Portland will pursue a smooth offense-first approach, and the Jazz will try to gunk things up with their superior defense. Meanwhile, all three teams welcome key additions, from Victor Oladipo to Evan Turner to George Hill. These three teams could wind up finishing in any order.
35. Sacramento’s new Golden 1 Center. While sarcastic cynics might snicker that the Kings need a new owner, a new GM and a new roster, the organization at least put the finishing touches on a brand new arena. After years of political jockeying and a near relocation to Seattle, DeMarcus Cousins and company will have a new state-of-the-art building to call home. This baby looks good.
36. PSA: The Celtics are going to be the one-seed in the East. Actually, not sure this is a reason to be excited. As long as they're still receiving Nets picks, all Celtics good fortune is upsetting.
37. DeMarre Carroll, take two in Toronto. Thanks to injuries, one of 2015’s biggest signings never hit his stride with the Raptors last season. With Bismack Biyombo and Luis Scola gone, and Jared Sullinger on the shelf, Carroll will be asked to play a vital role as Toronto tries to back up the best season in franchise history. The Junkyard Dog still has plenty of bite left.
38. LeBron subtweets. Most of this year will be a victory lap for the Cavs, but Da Vinci Code LeBron's gotta surface at some point. For old time's sake.
39. Gregg Popovich without his security blanket. For years (decades, really), San Antonio’s legendary coach has made sure to pass on every last ounce of credit for his organization’s success to Tim Duncan. Now that The Big Fundamental has retired, Popovich’s own abilities will take center stage. The Spurs are facing a long list of complications: Their frontcourt was totally overhauled during the summer, LaMarcus Aldridge’s name has popped up in trade rumors, Danny Green is on the shelf, and a number of key contributors—from Tony Parker to Manu Ginobili to Pau Gasol—are all years removed from their peaks. And yet trust in Popovich and the Spurs runs so deep that they are widely expected to cruise to their 18th straight 50+ win season.
40. Nikola Jokic putting people in the torture chamber. Turnaround hooks, jumpers, flawless footwork, passing. So many ways to terrorize helpless big men. Don't sleep on the Nuggets.
41. Aaron Gordon’s Slam Dunk Contest revenge mission. After unleashing the greatest runner-up performance in Slam Dunk Contest history last year in Toronto, Gordon absolutely must get another shot at Zach LaVine in New Orleans. How will he top the Butt Dunk?
42. Kevin Durant’s return to Oklahoma City. Circle the date: February 11, 2017. There will be blood.
43. Dwyane Wade’s return to Miami. Circle the date: Nov. 10, 2016. There will be tears.
44. Riding along as Karl-Anthony Towns settles into his spot on the superstar totem pole. Nothing gets the pulse racing quite like a young player with a massive ceiling. That’s Towns, who claimed Rookie of the Year honors and looks perfectly suited to success in the modern NBA. Where, exactly, will he rank at the end of this season? Top 25? Top 15? Gasp. Top 10? Could it be? Top seven? The 2015 No. 1 overall pick was recently tabbed by NBA GM’s as the player they would most like to start their franchise. This should be great.
45. Stopping strangers on the street to make them watch Karl-Anthony Towns highlights.
46. Abusive Kemba Walker crossovers and gorgeous pull-up jumpers. The worst part of the Heat winning that series was that Kemba Walker in Game 6 was forgotten by history.
47. TNT’s Craig Sager, still refusing to give up. Sager’s son reported on Twitter last week that the beloved sideline reporter was recently cleared to leave the hospital for the first time in months as he continues to battle cancer. His fight has been an inspiration for the entire NBA community, including USA Today writer Jeff Zillgitt, who is bravely fighting his own battle with cancer months after brilliantly covering the NBA playoffs.
48. LeBron sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber, Tony Allen sleeps in a barbecue smoker. This joke, like the Grizzlies, will never die.
49. PSA: The Hawks are about to mess around and win 53 games. Prepare yourselves.
50. The Spurs leaning heavily on Kyle Anderson. As one scout explained: "This is probably the year we see Kyle Anderson emerge as sort of a mutant Boris Diaw off the bench." APPROVE.
51. President Barack Obama, Chicago Bulls super fan, will officially be out of office by the time the trade deadline rolls around. With any luck, the American people will have unfiltered access to his dream trade scenarios through his Twitter account. Donald Trump ranting about beauty pageant contestants at 3 a.m. is a hard pass. Obama trying to float Rajon Rondo deals in the middle of the night during a tough losing streak? That’s a whole different story.
52. The NBA's coaching carousel paying off. Remarkably, 12 teams either hired new coaches or promoted interims this summer. That’s a ton of turnover, obviously, and there will be some mistakes in the bunch. But all that movement led to some strong pairings between coaches and personnel. The Rockets found an offensive maestro in Mike D’Antoni to deliver on a potentially explosive vision. Orlando hired the no-nonsense Frank Vogel to guide a defensive-oriented group. The Lakers poached the happy-go-lucky Luke Walton from Golden State’s bench with the hope that his player-friendly style would help get the most out of its young prospects. And Minnesota gave the keys to Tom Thibodeau with the knowledge that he has the experience and drive to push the organization’s young stars to greatness. All four teams should take meaningful steps forward under their new bosses this season.
53. Everything Jamal Crawford represents. Screw analytics. This is a 27-foot pull-up three, and it's going in.
54. Chris Paul's routine brilliance, at 12:25 a.m. ET, one Wednesday night in March. There is something wonderful about spacing out late in the year during a meaningless game, then coming to your senses thinking, "Wow, Chris Paul is DOMINATING this game right now. Like, top to bottom. He is just destroying this team." Then you realize that Chris Paul's been doing this all year, every year, for going on a decade. Then you watch the rest of the game because you remember he's one of the five best points guards ever.
55. Referee Billy Kennedy, undaunted by homophobic slurs, is back living his dream one call at a time. This profile by ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz is a must-read look at Kennedy’s love of the game and his courage during a regrettable controversy.
56. Virtual reality viewing is here. The NBA announced this week that it will broadcast at least one game per week in Virtual Reality for fans with Samsung VR headsets and smartphones. What does this mean? We’re not exactly sure, but there’s probably some life-changing potential here.
57. Raptors fans claiming they don't get enough respect. In fairness, this is generally true.
58. Rodney Hood and Gordon Hayward polishing their closing skills. With more complementary shooters surrounding them and another year of reps, Utah’s strong wing duo should make big strides in crunch time.
59. Kobe Bryant sightings. We won’t know when and we won’t know where, but there’s little doubt that Kobe Bryant can avoid the headlines or the Staples Center sidelines for an entire season. Documentary film? Helicopter tours? Crazy memorabilia auctions? In-game trash-talking with LeBron James? Shoulder-rubbing with Spike Lee and Jack Nicholson? Bring it on. Bring it all the way on.
60. John Wall fast-breaks.Perpetually headed for a major highlight or a major collision.
61. Russell Westbrook throwing himself at the rim.
63. The greenest possible light for Buddy Hield. Anthony Davis needs help. A lot of it. Shoot your shot.
64. The Raptors’ beautiful blue alternate jersey. In a deep ocean of regrettable alternate jerseys, Toronto delivered a winner with this blue “Huskies” inspired throwback look. Money. (In case you were wondering, the Huskies were a short-lived professional basketball team that played in the BAA, which later evolved into the NBA, in 1946-47.)
65. J.J. Redick with his feet set. The Clippers guard averaged a blistering 1.52 points per possession on spot-up attempts last year, per Synergy Sports, which is precisely 1.52 points per possession more than all other NBA podcasters combined. A walking, talking fire emoji.
66. Mike Breen, back in his official role as cool step-dad of the NBA. And Jeff Van Gundy is back in his official role as grumpy uncle of the NBA.
67. NBA TV’s “The Starters” will take their irreverent banter straight to Twitter for a weekly live show at 11 a.m. ET on Tuesdays. Just when you thought they had maximized fun and interactivity, Skeets, Tas, Trey and Leigh go and raise the bar again.
68.Justise Winslow doing the little things so frequently well and so well that he derails Miami’s tank efforts. After losing Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson and Luol Deng, the Heat’s best play is to race for the bottom. But Winslow, still just 20, is the type of competitor who won’t go quietly, regardless of the changing circumstances around him. Whether you know it yet or not, the second-year Duke product is about to become one of your favorite players.
69. Dirk on one leg, forever. Eternal.
70. LeBron James with nothing left to prove. Think about Dirk here. Before he won that title, there was a near-constant debate about his place in the NBA. Is he good enough to build a team around? Is he one of the best ever? Then he took down the Heat, and it was all over. Everyone could just enjoy how fantastic his career had always been. That's where we are with LeBron. After those Finals, he's answered every question and delivered on every promise. There are no more stupid legacy questions here. It's time to appreciate this: He's one of the five best players ever, and he's still in his prime, and we get to watch him go after the craziest superteam we've ever seen.
71. The very real possibility of labor peace. All signs, including this recent Yahoo Sports report, indicate that the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association are closing in on a new labor deal that would prevent a lockout next summer. What’s the only thing better than 82 games of hoops? Eighty-two games of hoops played free from any cloud of a future work stoppage.