By Dan Bernstein —
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) Forget all that garbage about the NBA’s predictability being some kind of negative, the idea that it’s in any way anathema to the concept of sports to have a pretty good idea which teams are going to be around for the conference finals.
That’s the way it has always been in basketball, the game with just five guys on the floor at any one time and the opportunity to give the best players the ball whenever you want. There’s no taking turns, other than the other team getting the ball after you score. The squads with the All-Stars will be be good because of the All-Stars, and the ones with future Hall of Famers will compete for the jewelry.
It holds true even — and maybe especially — after an unprecedented upheaval between the middle of last season and the start of this one saw eight participants in the 2017 All-Star Game moving to different cities. And that list doesn’t even include such notable names as Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, D’Angelo Russell, Brook Lopez and others. The transaction frenzy was its own drama in and of itself over the summer, solidifying the league as year-round interesting, as its business booms with so many eyes paying attention, meriting the national television deal that’s making everyone abundantly wealthy.
The Western Conference turned into a feeding frenzy among those girding themselves for a shot at breaking the hegemony of Golden State. Houston came right at them opening night with a one-point win, attempting 41 3-point shots in the manner of Mike D’Antoni-coached teams that was ahead of its time years ago and entirely mainstream now.
Oklahoma City did what it could by placing Paul George and Carmelo Anthony alongside Russell Westbrook. And the Timberwolves have banked on Jimmy Butler catalyzing their growth to relevance along with Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson. The Nuggets became a tougher out with Paul Millsap in a formidable frontcourt with Nikola Jokic and Kenneth Faried. And even the Pelicans now start a season with DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis together. This is before we even mention the certain credibility of the Spurs, Blazers and Jazz.
Last year’s two best teams in the East had the guts to make a historic deal with each other, moving an oddly disgruntled Kyrie Irving from Cleveland to Boston in a trade that could conceivably make both teams better. The Celtics’ other major move was the signing of Gordon Hayward, only to see him suffer a gruesome leg injury Tuesday night, one that will change the calculus of the season and potentially alter his career. The odds of LeBron James getting back to another NBA Finals for a puncher’s chance against the Warriors — in what’s all but assured to be another final season for him in his hometown — changed in an instant, having nothing to do with the eventual outcome of their opening game. If the Raptors, Wizards or Bucks prove prepared to stop him, we’ll have the story of the playoffs on that side of the bracket.
Even fans of the tanking (sorry, “rebuilding”) franchises across the NBA are watching the competitive teams, because the sport isn’t bound by the regionalism of its counterparts. We know the famous faces and want to watch them in action, regardless of how our given city’s team may be performing. The coaches are thoughtful and gregarious, willing and now even eager to opine on issues beyond basketball, no matter the pained howling in response. Players blow up social media regarding news and entertainment, too, increasingly willing to put their names toward more than selling products.
There’s even already front-page news for the league’s worst team, as the Bulls didn’t even wait to open the season before embarrassing themselves. Bobby Portis sucker-punched Nikola Mirotic at practice Tuesday, breaking his face in multiple places after an apparent skirmish over which of them will ultimately be the more disappointing forward drafted in the first round.
In the NBA, it’s always something, and here it is again like it never left.