At the start of every season, there's always the "this year is going to be better than any other" rhetoric. It's a natural part of the buildup, but it seemed particularly loud before the NBA tipped off last week — LeBron James has finally tapped his full potential, there's something of a dream team assembled in Los Angeles, the Thunder are in their prime, the Nets just moved to Brooklyn, where Jay-Z is rescuing them from irrelevance — the storylines seemed great.
But there was one element to the excitement I didn't quite understand: Much of it hinged upon the assumption that one of three teams, the Lakers, Thunder or Heat, would win the championship. And when the ultimate results seem like a virtual lock, it takes away from some of the buzz.
But once the season began, it turned out the joke was on us. We’re barely a week in, but I'm ready to say that if the surprises of the past seven days are any indication, this season is going to be even more fun than imagined.
The Lakers are 1-3; the Nuggets are 0-3 — both are in last place in their respective divisions. With a snap of Thunder GM Sam Presti's fingers, James Harden went from star sixth man to the face of a supposedly struggling franchise that started 2-1. His former team started 1-2. The Knicks, deemed talented but nearing AARP membership, beat — nay, trounced — the unbeatable Heat 104-84 en route to a 3-0 start. Charlotte snapped its 23-game losing streak against a solid Pacers team, and the Bucks beat the venerable Celtics in Boston.
There was one moment on Friday night as I watched the Kings nearly mount a successful double-digit comeback in Minnesota that I glanced down at my computer screen and thought to myself that 80 percent of the scores I was seeing made no sense. I loved it. That's what makes a season fun, when there's some element of uncertainty and room to believe that the best can be toppled and the underdogs have a chance.
I'm all for good basketball, but I'm also for a bit of equity, and that's what we've gotten so far. Whether it's because of a perverse desire to see LeBron lose or the piteous hope that the Bobcats might string two wins together, a hint of uncertainty might be more fun. What else caught my eye:
Eric Gordon, I just don't get it
Gordon's comments about his injured right knee this week were downright flummoxing. He waffled about its severity and seemed downright disinterested in giving any true indication of his status, though the official word for now is that the Hornets guard won't undergo microfracture surgery and will rehab for 4 to 6 weeks.
But beyond that, Gordon is still chafing about the fact that he's even in New Orleans after hoping to escape to Phoenix during free agency. That didn't work out and really, at this point, you'd think he'd be rejoicing. With Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers and the rest of a revamped lineup, why wouldn't Gordon want to play in the Big Easy? Especially when the alternative is a Phoenix team whose biggest names are Jermaine O'Neal and Michael Beasley.
Give Mike Brown some time
So now that Brown's Lakers beat the Pistons, is he allowed to keep his job?
It took one Lakers loss for the trolling to begin, and two additional losses later, the "fire Mike Brown" chatter has yet to die down. With a lineup like his, he's expected to deliver immediately, and when he doesn't, his flaws loom so large. He's a bit passive, a bit young. His stars can overshadow him in terms of perceived authority.
None of that works in his favor, but watching the Lakers start 0-3, it was easy to see plenty of culprits for the losing besides Brown. For that matter, the preseason was full of red flags that this team would not begin the season firing on all cylinders.
A new offense, an injured point guard, stars learning to play together — blame all that. Let's not blame Brown, at least not yet. Give him a few more games to sort through his riches.
Grim prognostications surrounded the Bulls, who will be without point guard Derrick Rose until who knows when. But despite the doom and gloom, Chicago opened the season 2-1, losing only to a New Orleans team that's also exceeded expectations early. The Bulls' 115-86 drubbing of Cleveland on Friday was solid proof that they can score without Rose, even if it was against Cleveland. The only possible explanation: Coach Tom Thibodeau is a wizard.
Before the season, the Nuggets got some press as fringe title contenders, but after this week, it's apparent that George Karl's squad needs to time to jell. It's 0-3, and the offense has hardly been firing. In their first two games against Philadelphia and Orlando, the Nuggets scored just 75 and then 89 points, shooting just 37.8 percent.
Best of the week
Team: The Spurs, who sit atop the Western Conference and are the only team with a 4-0 record. Gregg Popovich & Co. opened the season at New Orleans, where they eked out a 99-95 win, and followed that with a buzzer-beater to beat Oklahoma City. And since? A 10-point win over Utah and a 101-79 drubbing of Indiana on Monday. They're winning in typical Spurs form, with Popovich already parsing minutes, and it's working. Even a Thunder fan would have to admit Tony Parker's perfectly timed winner on Thursday was fun to watch.
Player: Harden, who finished with 37 points and 12 assists in his first game as a Rocket. Two nights later, in Atlanta, Harden scored 45 points and went 14 of 19 from the field, setting such a high bar that when he scored "only" 24 points Saturday it became news. And get this: His combined 82 points on Wednesday and Friday are the most for a player in a team's first two games since Michael Jordan scored 91 in 1986.
Debut: Davis, who scored 21 points in his first game as a Hornet. The No. 1 overall pick also had seven rebounds, a steal and a blocked shot. But perhaps most important, his team lost by only four points to the Spurs in his first career game. Two nights later, though, The Brow suffered a mild concussion, and now he'll be out for the near future.
Worst of the week
Team: The Lakers, who opened the season with losses to the Mavericks, Trail Blazers and Clippers despite their lauded lineup of Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. The Princeton offense isn't clicking, Nash is injured and the bench has been a relative nonfactor. A rout of Detroit on Sunday was the team's first sign of life, but there's a long way to go.
Player: DeMarcus Cousins, who can't be a nonfactor on a team with as little talent as the Kings. With Cousins, you want to believe this will be the season he grows up, when he gets it. But three games into the season, it looked like he hadn’t, piling up personal fouls and turnovers as the Kings started 0-3 — all games on the road. But on Monday night, the big man had game-highs in points (23) and rebounds (15) as Sacramento won its home opener over Golden State. Hopefully that’s a good sign for a team that so badly needs him to at least get close to his potential.
Tirade: Hornets coach Monty Williams' rant about the league's concussion protocol a day after Davis was sidelined with one. Williams said that "they (the NBA) treat everybody like they have white gloves and pink drawers" and that basketball is a "man's game." Excuse me, Monty, but this is serious. Basketball isn't football or even hockey, but head injuries are a real concern across all sports, and this kind of rhetoric isn't doing any good at all.
Stats of the week
10,000 points: The Thunder's Kevin Durant scored his 10,000th career point on Thursday night in the team's season-opening 86-84 loss to the Spurs. In doing so, he became the second-youngest player (LeBron James the youngest) to hit the mark, at just 24 years, 34 days old. It was Durant's 381st career game; only 14 players in league history hit the mark in fewer games.
23 games: The Bobcats had lost 23 in a row, dating back to last season, until they beat the Pacers 90-89 on Friday night. It was tied for the third-longest losing streak in league history.
25.3 assists: The Bulls are third in the league in assists per game without Rose. The other team missing its high-profile point guard, the Timberwolves, had just 17.5 assists in their first two games without Ricky Rubio. Edge, Bulls.
What we heard
"The most important thing was to kill the elephant, and that elephant was that losing streak. We had to get that off of everybody's back. It's just one of those marks you want to clean off the board."
— New Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap after his team won its season opener against Indiana on Friday night. Charlotte lost to Dallas the next night, 126-99.
"Yeah because I've won, so I can. Mike (Brown), it would be a little tougher for him to say that. So I'll say it for him: Everybody shut up. Let us work."
— Kobe Bryant’s response to criticism after the Lakers lost their first two games.
"Just knowing a lot of people here and knowing what they've been going through with no power, no water, no food . . . to me, it just seems like there's bigger things to be concerned about than a basketball game."
— Dwyane Wade on his belief that Friday's Knicks-Heat game at Madison Square Garden should have been postponed. Wade donated his pay from the game (approximately $210,000 before taxes) to charity. And the Knicks won by 20.
Brooklyn at Miami, 7:30 p.m. ET, Wednesday: This will be the first test of how the Nets shake out against an elite team; they enter the game having faced only the Raptors (107-100 win) and Timberwolves (107-96) after their season opener was postponed due to Hurricane Sandy. In the Heat, they'll get a team that's gone 35-5 in its last 40 games at home, perhaps the biggest challenge possible in the league this season.