The NBA story lines are as long as a Stephen Curry 3-pointer.
With a superteam in the West, a megastar in the Midwest, superstars all around the league, its global popularity at an all-time high, more revenue than ever and labor peace looming, this season has the potential to be like no other the league has ever had. Yes, rivaling the Celtics’ run in the 1960s, possibly topping Magic-Bird rivalry of the ‘80s and Michael Jordan’s run of the ‘90s.
LeBron James is holding the title in Cleveland and Kevin Durant has settled in Golden State, so the NBA Finals could be headed for the same destination again next June.
But what a journey it should be getting there.
“I think there is somewhat an inevitability of this Cleveland-Warriors meeting in the finals again, which can sometimes make you overlook how enjoyable the regular season can be if you love basketball,” ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. “So I think they’ll meet in the finals again, but that doesn’t make the regular season uninteresting to me.”
A summer spending spree created new contenders and enticing questions for a global audience that will begin being answered Tuesday when the new season opens in the places the last one ended.
The record-setting Warriors will be must-see TV again with Durant, the former scoring champ and league MVP, sharing shots with Curry, the current scoring champ and MVP.
James is on a Jordan-like run, looking for a seventh straight trip to the NBA Finals and hoping to build a dynasty where there was once just despair.
There’s Dwyane Wade in Chicago and Dwight Howard in Atlanta after both went home.
Derrick Rose left home, traded from the Bulls to the New York Knicks.
Former commissioner David Stern used to say the NBA was in its golden age.
Under Adam Silver, it may be even shinier.
“There are a lot of charged-up players in this league,” Silver said. “There are a lot of teams, young teams in the development cycle, where I think they would even say realistically they’re unlikely to win the championship this season, but they’re on the road to winning a championship.”
He will give James and the Cavaliers their rings before Tuesday’s season opener, and Durant joins Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson in the expensive and explosive Warriors lineup later that night against San Antonio.
Their teams are heavily favored to meet in the NBA Finals for the third consecutive year, a rivalry that could turn into something like the Celtics-Lakers, or before that of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
But this is no two-team show.
“It’s tough,” Green said. “But at the same time I’m almost certain that it’s a goal of (Cleveland’s) to get back to try to win a championship. With that being said, there’s a lot of great teams in this league. And they’re not saying we’re going to watch the Cavs and the Warriors in June.”
Like Russell Westbrook and Oklahoma City being defiant, not devastated by Durant’s departure the way the Cavs were when James bolted for Miami in 2010.
Or young stars like Karl-Anthony Towns growing up into the spotlight, now that Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, titans for so long, have grown old and retired. And yet another batch of unmatched international talent, led by No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, an Australian whose debut will be delayed as he recovers from a foot injury.
It’s what the league sought to create during the 2011 lockout, when more revenues were shifted from players to teams in hopes the clubs would then distribute them better and chip away at the gulf between the big-market haves and the little-market have-nots.
Money really started pouring in with the extension of the league’s national TV contracts, which kicked in this season to the tune of about $2.6 billion annually. The TV deal has sent salaries soaring so much that owners and players are poised to agree to a new labor agreement soon without the type of fight that led to the last one.
The wealth of talent, and the wealth to acquire it, has emboldened teams to spend now where they once may have stood pat.
Durant, Al Horford and many more switched teams during the dizzying days of July free agency, with the Spurs putting Pau Gasol alongside Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge into the frontcourt spot that Duncan for so long had anchored.
A third of the league changed coaches, with clubs like Minnesota (Tom Thibodeau) and Houston (Mike D’Antoni) turning to proven winners to steer them through the rough Western Conference waters.
The Spurs or Clippers could emerge as the toughest test out there for the Warriors. Things look easier for James in the East, where he has emerged as the champion for six straight years. But he never thinks about what happened in the past.
“There are going to be so many more challenges, so many different obstacles that we’re going to have to face this year as a ballclub,” James said. “We have to be mentally focused, mentally prepared for it all. I think we will, be but it will not be easy and it shouldn’t be.”
Silver, who should definitely like what he sees, summed up the anticipation:
“I’m looking forward to the season.”