Congratulations to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers for their Super Bowl triumph over Pittsburgh on Sunday. It cannot be understated, nor should it be ignored, how talented, disciplined, and focused an individual must be in order to star on the sitcom The Office AND lead an NFL team to the championship while earning MVP honors.
It is now time, I’m happy to say, to turn our attention to the most exciting NBA season in some time. While the Western Conference features the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, along with six or seven other conference contenders, including the league-leading San Antonio Spurs, the Eastern Conference is ripe with four teams that have legitimate Finals championship aspirations. And one trade can make it five teams.
The impetus of this league-wide alteration was the much-hyped 2010 free-agent sweepstakes. Much like the top prize of the class, the drama matched the hype, and we all witnessed the decision LeBron made when he took …
The backlash toward LeBron, and more specifically the Miami Heat, has morphed into a national phenomenon, a collective conscious feeling betrayed because the most talented player in the league decided to head to one of the most hated cities in the country, not because he “betrayed” Cleveland. Not because he joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Cleveland fans have a right to feel this way, but every other city cried foul because:
“Okay, he didn’t sign with Cleveland, no big deal, but how could he go to Miami!?!”
“He’s going to Miami?! I HATE that place!”
New York may be the more infamous city, but if LeBron decided to grace the Big Apple, the backlash would focus on New York, not just James, and certainly not with the same venom.
Most of the critics, “haters” if you will, of this year’s Heat would blush at how great it is for the NBA for the Knicks to be relevant again. The anticipation of a Lakers-Knicks Finals encounter would have the league abuzz at all times, especially with Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer in Chicago and Wade and Bosh in Miami on improved teams with their own expectations.
Just imagine the feelings of anxiousness, mixed with concentration, peppered with some anger, wrapped in awe, which have undoubtedly crept into your personal space during this season. Now put it in a blender, add some sugar, and serve. This is what you would get:
“Yeah he left poor Cleveland, and I can’t stand New York, but boy, this is great for the NBA!”
“Knicks-Lakers is gonna be awesome!”
What if he decided to fly into the Windy City? Would it be as patriotic to boo and hiss the Bulls with the same sense of togetherness and no purpose as it is currently accepted to loathe the Heat this year?
The answer, of course, is no.
This year’s critics and haters would be floating in their loafers. Lakers-Bulls. Inspires images of Magic-Michael. Kobe-LeBron. Reaction would be similar to this:
“(laughing inside just a little bit) I can’t believe Cleveland’s poor luck. First the Shot, and now he’s going to Chicago? Wow, the Bulls are stacked. This is great for the NBA!”
“I can’t wait to see Bulls-Lakers. It’s gonna be awesome!”
Yeah, it would be great for the NBA if the king descended upon these teams, but it’s quite a different story when you talk about MeAmi, I mean, Miami.
The truth behind this tidal wave of unguided, unbridled, and expected negative emotion toward LeBron has everything to do with Miami as it has to do with the Heat and/or LeBron.
Everyone loves South Beach, but no one likes Miami. That’s a fact.
Make no mistake, though. The Heat, and yes, the city, love this animosity.
While the team was initially taken aback by the hostility they encountered when the season started, LeBron, D-Wade, Bosh and Co. have embraced their villain status. And all I can say is, “I feer sowwy foe yo muvver.”
Now, the Heat vs. Lakers, or more appropriately, the Kobe vs. LeBron, long-anticipated Finals match-up is closer to reality. While both teams have significant work to do in order to secure this ratings booster, the smart money is on this being an epic summer.
Smart money, however, isn’t always smart as it is sometimes wise. And no one likes a wise-ass.
The Top 7 Reasons Why There May Not be a Heat-Lakers 2011 Finals Match-Up
7. Mark Cuban
There is no person in the entire world that would cringe at the sight, sound, or feel of a Heat-Lakers Finals. The Heat is the team that supposedly stole his championship in 2006 and the Lakers are…the Lakers.
This is not to suggest that Cuban will lace ‘em up and take the floor during a game, although I would not put that past him, but he will put more of an emphasis on making the Finals this year than any other year.
Whether it be through another roster-shifting trade or a team-wide ultimatum, from the last player on the bench to the first executive in the front-office to the valet parking attendant at the practice facility, making this post-season a Finals or bust summer, Cuban will not stand for Phil Jackson, Kobe, LeBron, Wade, and Pat Riley receiving the championship attention.
The Mavs beat the Heat twice this season, but in order to flip the script on David Stern and NBA nation, they will have to find a way to beat their nemesis in the West. I thought they would do it last year, but a year later and one more season under their belt, Dallas can easily crash the party.
6. Chris Paul
New Orleans started the season as the darling pick to emerge from the West. Along with the formidable frontcourt of Emeka Okafor and David West, Paul and the Hornets have the core to be a successful NBA contender.
While Paul was a top scorer in the past, he has improved upon his already stellar play-making abilities, sometimes playing too unselfishly, in an effort to enhance a team first mentality among his teammates.
This effort cannot be overlooked since they do not have a player who can consistently dominate a match-up every night. In order for the Hornets to put a thorn in the side of all that is expected, CP3 must continue to strike the balance of a Rajon Rondo play-maker and a Derrick Rose scoring threat.
5. Jeff Green
Oklahoma City was the sassy pick to challenge the Lakers in the West. With the core of a team that took the eventual champs to a six-game series in tact, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Co. faced expectations that seemed a couple of years away from being realistic.
The Thunder, however, have not disappointed as they continue to display the athleticism that caused problems for the tall, bulky, and aging Lakers last season. Durant and Westbrook have increased their production, but Jeff Green seems to have hit a wall.
If he can accept his now number three role in the offense, and continue his pestering defense, he will be the difference between Oklahoma City striking like lightening or sputtering like a drizzle.
4. Orlando’s 3-point shot
The comparisons of the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Houston Rockets of the mid-nineties and the current Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic are fair. Except that the current Magic squad is more similar to the Shaq-led Magic that was swept by these Rockets in the ’95 Finals.
Surrounding a superstar scoring Center with deep sharpshooters can be a solid blueprint for success, but this is only the case when the shots are falling.
Dwight Howard is nowhere near the offensive force as the Dream, not yet at least, but he is capable of commanding the double-team, which is the one weapon that allows this formula to work. Since Orlando does not posses the slasher it thought it had in Vince Carter, a la D-Wade with Shaq, the Magic are handicapped by their ability to shoot the deep ball.
No matter how inconsistent they may be the rest of the regular season, Orlando just needs to heat up at the right time in order to beat ANYONE in the playoffs.
3. Boozer and Noah
Derrick Rose is a popular pick for MVP this season, and for good reason. The Chicago Bulls sport the third-best record in the top-heavy East, and they have yet to experience an extended run with their complete roster.
The Bulls are the Hornets of the East, on steroids.
The offensive-defensive presence of Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah down low, along with the Chris Paul-Dwyane Wade hybrid that is D-Rose roaming the outside, is as scary as it is perfect for a deep playoff run.
Add Luol Deng and a live person at the 2, and you have as good a starting five as there is in the league.
If Boozer and Noah can play enough games together to mesh in time for April, the entire NBA, not just the East, better take heed.
If Kevin Garnett was healthy in ’09 and Kendrick Perkins didn’t shred his knee in last year’s Finals, we may easily be referring to the Celtics as the three-time defending NBA champs.
That’s a lot of ifs, and not that many, all at once.
Entering last year’s playoffs, the regular-season allergic Celts were not expected to do much. Some analysts had them losing to the Heat, sans LeBron and Bosh, last season in the first round.
But Boston showed us why they call the playoffs the second season, the real season. They also showed us flashes of their ’08 championship run which was fueled by their shutdown D.
Adding depth along the front line in the form of the “O’Neal Twins”, Shaq and Jermaine, along with the unquestioned arrival of the fourth wheel of the now Big 4- Rondo- has the Celts as the consensus best team in the East, if not the entire league.
If the Heat expect to advance to this summer’s super series and a shot at the pot of gold, they must find a way to ruin the luck of the Irish.
1. San Antonio
Like a favorite piece of clothing you cannot find the nerve to burn, the Spurs are still relevant.
Sure, the headband around the neck made a fashion statement on the court a few years ago, and it will surely make a comeback sometime in the near future, but you just don’t want to take a chance at embarrassing yourself by picking that headband out of the back of your underwear drawer and risk never being picked to play a pick-up game again.
We all see the Spurs atop the standings, yet no one has the gall to declare them a serious threat out West. How could a team whose core won a championship as early as ’03 (and, of course, ’05 and ’07) still pose a threat to the top teams of today?
As San Antonio continues to defy the odds, their confidence continues to rise. You would think that a veteran group with three rings led by Coach Gregg Popovich doesn’t necessarily need a psychological boost, but if you saw the end of last weeks’ contest in the Staples Center, where Pop ak chewa lee cracked a smile after a buzzer-beating tip-in to win the game, you can tell that these Spurs feel as if this is their year, again.
That hasn’t been the case the past few years, when Boston’s Big 3 was formed and Pau Gasol arrived gift-wrapped to the Lakers.
While the depth of the West and the presence of the Lakers may be too much to overcome, do not tell that to Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan.