Already the roles are being cast for the NBA story of 2010-11, and we know that the Imperial Death Star is located in Miami.
The oft-repeated Heat Versus the World scenario is not entirely manageable, however, since human (read: mass-media) nature demands the elevation of a single franchise as the dramatic flag-bearer for the rest — the scrappy band of freedom-fighting protagonists just crazy enough to battle overwhelming opposition.
And I will make the case that the Bulls will emerge as the team that first earns that designation, regardless of whether they want it, deserve it, or can fulfill it.
First, I am disqualifying Western Conference teams. Several are better than the Bulls, and the eventual opportunity for Kobe Bryant to vanquish Miami will come. Kevin Durant is the league’s fastest-rising elite player, Nowitski, Duncan and Nash are not done yet, and Denver is dangerous if Carmelo Anthony stays. Memphis and Portland should be good. Chris Paul needs more help.
But the twice-annual-only meetings are more just novelty (“Could this be a preview of the NBA Finals ?!”) than the punishing, familiarizing, defining slog of conference play.
So let’s handicap the Eastern candidates for the White Hat, allowing for a rewrite if Anthony joins the Nets or the Knicks:
Orlando? Possible. They have a marquee player in Dwight Howard and the advantage of geographical proximity. Their market size works against television’s desire to sell them, though, and their overall brand value still feels meh.
Celtics? They will always have enough people who reflexively, historically dislike them to mitigate any warm fuzzies that develop, but they do have three mostly-likeable stars. And Shaq is there, which brings attention.
Atlanta? Nice team. Good players. Nobody cares.
Milwaukee? Worth a second thought, actually, before we dismiss them. Market size problems and all that, sure, but they fit the stereotype of the plucky platoon of WWII soldiers taking out Axis forces with grit, a tough leader and requisite ethnic diversity. Steel-jawed Sgt. Skiles and his men: Bogut the Aussie — back from injury, Ersan Ilyasova — the Turk with the Russian Name, Brandon Jennings — the repatriated American, and John Salmons. I got nothing for John Salmons.
Charlotte has MJ pretending to run them and little else in the way of a national hook.
John Wall will make the Wizards worth watching, but it’s not their time yet.
So that leaves the Bulls. Their best player is the second-fastest-rising NBA star, and Derrick Rose has carried himself with a quiet confidence that stands in stark contrast to the clownish Miami bombast. Their rugged new power forward was a free-agency fallback that has looked like a better expenditure in hindsight. Joakim Noah is the kind of visible, chest-pounding lightning-rod the cameras love. Floppy-haired white sharpshooter? Check. Experienced, veteran bench? Yep.
Add a new, respected tactical coach, status as the league’s most profitable franchise, world-recognized brand and top-three market position, and you have your first designated Challenger.
But it’s a long year.