REUTERS - LeBron chasing the ghost of Michael, Superman taking his talents westward, and a soft-spoken teenager ready to revitalize Big Easy basketball are just three of the provocative plotlines ready to play out in the upcoming NBA season.
Throw in a new team in Brooklyn, Steve Nash wearing purple and gold, and a new setting for Linsanity, and you have the most anticipated NBA campaign in years.
The eight-month grind to coronate a new champion begins on October 30 when LeBron James and the Miami Heat face the Boston Celtics in South Beach.
James exorcized the label of the Best Player Never to Win a Title with last season’s five-game demolition of scoring champion Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the finals.
He is determined to add another ring and start a run to approach the six claimed by Michael Jordan, the Charlotte Bobcats owner widely seen as the game’s best-ever player.
Hall of Famer Jerry West believes James should not worry about his place in history and just play the game.
”He’s the best player in the game, everyone knows that,“ West told Reuters. ”So he has no legacy to live up to. What he has to do is continue the way he’s playing and stay healthy.
“Obviously his team looks like it’s going to be there at the end.”
While the Heat are odds-on favorites to claim the East, predicting the last-team-standing in the talent-laden West is more problematic. The Thunder, the new-look Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio could emerge in the finals.
In a blockbuster four-team trade, first team All-NBA center Dwight Howard, known as Superman for his athletic prowess, bolted Orlando and landed with the Lakers.
Adding Howard to a team with 34-year-old Kobe Bryant, newly acquired point guard Nash, a former two-time NBA MVP with the Phoenix Suns, and Pau Gasol means Showtime has returned to the Staples Center.
Bryant is 34 years old and Nash 38 but both should have enough left in the tank for a run at the title, even though the Lakers had to ship All-Star center to Philadelphia Andrew Bynum to land Howard.
The Thunder, a young squad featuring Durant and fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook, will be primed to make another run at the franchise’s first championship.
It would be foolish to dismiss the four-time champion Spurs, who still have Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and coach Gregg Popovich, “who does more with less than anyone in this league,” said West, an adviser to the Golden State Warriors.
New Orleans may not make a title run but they do have top overall draft pick Anthony Davis, the 6-foot-10 inches (2.08 metres) college Player of the Year last season who led Kentucky to the national crown.
He is just 19 years old but is enormously athletic, a shot-blocking machine and has the wingspan of a pterodactyl. West says Davis will need time to reach his enormous potential.
”People can go fight a war at 18 years of age,“ he said. ”They can be brave, be courageous and do some remarkable feats of courage. Davis is going to be instantly good.
“But you can’t judge a rookie by his first year. You judge a rookie after his third year. When a young kid gets into the NBA I don’t think they understand just how grueling an 82-game schedule is.”
The Dallas Mavericks won the championship in 2011 but, despite having 11-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki, may not have the depth to reach the top of the wild West.
“The West is stacked, especially at the top,” said the 34-year-old Nowitzki, the 2007 league MVP. “So it’s going to be tough to crack that top two or three up there.”
Free agent Jeremy Lin took the money and ran from the glare of Broadway and the New York Knicks to Houston but the young Rockets do not have the talent to make a deep playoff run.
Over in the East, Brooklyn now has a team, the first major pro club in the New York borough since 1957 when Major League Baseball’s Dodgers left for Los Angeles.
The ex-New Jersey Nets, having left Newark, signed three-time All-Star guard Deron Williams to a five-year, $98.7 million deal in the off-season and have a new $1 billion arena but will not have a contending team. At least this year.
Indiana and Philadelphia will be solid playoff teams but if anyone is going to give Miami a scare, it will probably be Boston. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo have one more run in them but the Celtics will miss veteran sharpshooter Ray Allen, who left town for Miami.
Chicago had the best record in the East a year ago but without point guard Derrick Rose, it is doubtful they can challenge Miami. Rose, the NBA MVP two seasons ago, is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and a timetable for his return is still up in the air.
”Derrick Rose is so important for them, particularly in close games,“ said West. ”A player of his capabilities, they don’t come around very often.
“His health is going to determine large what they do because of his importance to the team. If he’s healthy, they’re going to be a very dangerous team. Without him, they’ll be good.” (Reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington; Editing by Julian Linden)