Consider this the year of LeBron.
Not because he and his Heat team are a lock to repeat as champs in 2013. Au contraire, the new & improved Lakers will have a thing or two to say about who dons that crown come next June.
Rather, it’s because this’ll be the first time in his 10-year NBA tenure that Mr. James can actually enjoy himself on a basketball court.
Having garnered that elusive championship-ring by confounding the over-matched Oklahoma City Thunder in the Finals of a strike-shortened ‘11-12 NBA season, LJ effectively bumped that proverbial primate off his back, placed there by fans, media, owners and himself.
Now he can relax, a little.
That could be a good thing. It could free-up LeBron to attain new heights of excellence, or, it could be impetus to trouble, inviting the 2012 MVP to revert to old form, thinking himself like Dirk Nowitzki and capable of draining jumpers from anywhere & everywhere on the court.
If he chooses the later he’ll be applying for membership in that exclusive club of great under-achievers, a/k/a, under-achievers that were great. That’s popular perception, anyway. Men and women who, though talented and holders of a victor’s laurel or two (Wilt Chamberlain / Mary (Decker) Slaney), never met the great expectations their special abilities created in the minds of fans & scribes.
Over his career James has taken more than his share of flak for being hesitant & detached in crunch time, but no one has ever accused him of being short on brains. He is certainly one of the most articulate men in the NBA and should know full well what made the difference this time around. Like Nowitzki in the ‘11 Finals, LJ ditched the tres as a child out-grows a toy, played to his strength and embraced the inside game. He and his team controlled the tempo by dominating under the boards and won’t soon forget it.
Neither will Eric Spoelstra, Heat guru who could‘ve used a flak-jacket himself these past two long & trying years.
And the Heat team? Choosing them as anything less than ‘favorites to repeat’ would be...“uncivilized?” I think Mr. Right Guard Sir Charles (Barkley) might agree.
Both have a tendency to drift to the perimeter but when James and Chris Bosh work in the paint there is no better tandem in the game today, even with the Lakers dreamy up-grade. Though often excluded from the Wade-James cliché, on the court, Bosh made himself a leader, the glue holding this team together in good times & bad.
Dwyane Wade has been a rare talent in the Ass’n with two rings to prove it, but he’s oft-injured, past prime and has a propensity towards juvenileness (‘11 Finals). Finding his eventual replacement(s) is key for Miami maintaining its top-perch.
Los Angeles Lakers
Commissioner Stern must be on cloud nine: an East Coast champ (a bit lower on the map than most prefer) with a West Coast contender in LA who’s loaded-for-bear.
My only complaint Mr. Buss: What took you so long? Sure, the Dwight Howard thing had to play out in Orlando, but Steve Nash? The 2-time MVP might’ve been coaxed out of Phoenix years ago, given that his talents were being under-appreciated by an inactive ownership. Lakers believe Stevo still has some gas in the tank. I think they’re right.
And the retention of F/C Pau Gasol (Lakers’ Mr. Dangerfield) through all the deal-making was the cherry on top. This future Hall of Famer is a key component in keeping continuity with what worked in the past, while helping Coach Mike Brown and Kobe Bryant facilitate a transition with the Lakers’ new-look roster.
A pro since ‘04, Dwight Howard is still part-unknown. Terrifically talented in the vital rebound department, Dwight‘s been afforded consideration for playing most of his career on a non-contender. Like Kobe, this Atlanta native has the mind (NBA’s Age of Enlightenment?) and thick-skinned, resilient persona to handle the babies & brutes under the boards. But can he handle the pressure that will build on an expectant winner throughout the ebb & flow of a long NBA season? More importantly, can he find comfort on a team of stars as a not-quite-as-large-a-fish in a bigger pond? Sure, why not.
San Antonio Spurs
I fell for it last season. I’m not doing that again. The fade-away San Antonio pulled in the Western final last June against up-start OKC (2-4), a squad clearly not-ready-for-prime-time (Heat / 1-4), was the biggest story of the PS and nothing short of pitiful. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich forged one of basketball’s great dynasties. Thanks for the memories, fellas.
Oklahoma City Thunder
“Surprise, surprise, surprise!” It’s like Gomer Pyle was running the 2012 post-season. The way OKC breezed through the West, tossing aside powers LA Lakers (4-1) & San Antonio, it looked like nothing would stop Kevin Durant & Co. from grabbing the first in a long line of titles. Unbeknownst to America the Miami Heat had other plans. Kevin proved to be, if not a paper tiger, certainly not as advertised. He seems destined to hoist the hardware one day but OKC’s failure to acquire a proven, dominant force down-low, along with KD’s insistence in making the talented but high-maintenance Russ Westbrook his cause-celebre, puts that day off for a spell.
The surprise here was that green gang got one win away from the promised land in PS ‘12, then failed to close the deal in G6 vs the Heat (98-79) in of all places, the Garden. Because these guys play with passion they just might get close again, but it’s doubtful. Like the Spurs, key Celtics Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are long in the tooth (Terry / 13-yr) while gifted Rajon Rondo seems determined, but ill-advised, to keep trying to carry this club. See; Westbrook.
Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer comprise a nice one-two punch inside but it’s former MVP Derrick Rose who makes the Bulls a contender. Chicago hopes to stay classy until that time Rose can return from a knee injury (ACL / Rubio) suffered in last season’s 1st-round playoffs (76ers). This explains the Bulls (other teams) dipping deep into the foreign b-ball market hoping to find the next Gasol, Nowitzki, Kukoc or Drazen Petrovic, evidence it’s not just soccer / futbol covering the globe in athletic glory.
New York Knicks
Had Knicks’ ownership seriously pursued coaching great and former NYC player Phil Jackson to work his Magic on this talented but underachieving roster, I’d have this team near the top in Eastern Conference potentiality. But as game as stars Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler can be, and laudable their efforts versus the Heat last spring (1-4), reaching the next level to ‘challenger’ should be the realistic goal here.
The Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz will give their fans hope in NBA '12-13.