LeBron James has a ring. Oklahoma City has tasted the same bitter tang — a failed Finals — that powered Miami last season. Kobe Bryant has added some historically great teammates.
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This NBA season — now less than a month away as training camps get under way — has the makings of a special kind of greatness. The NBA Renaissance that began when LeBron took his talents to South Beach and turned a blazing and angry eye toward him and his team has mushroomed into an NBA Golden Era reminiscent of the 1980s, where the storylines and stars clustered so perfectly together that it captured the imagination of the country.
Like Magic and Bird, LeBron and Durant are players who transcend their respective positions, players who can make the game stunningly beautiful, and players so dangerous they’re capable of carrying teams to championships. Like Magic and Bird, they could meet several more times in the Finals this decade, sparking a rivalry of both teams and legends.
Except, now, there’s a third team capable of grasping league supremacy.
Like the ’83 Sixers, the Lakers have the talent to mesh into one of the greatest teams of all time. In 1983 it was Moses Malone joining a squad that already featured Dr. J, Mo Cheeks, Bobby Jones and Andrew Toney.
Now it’s Kobe, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and Dwight Howard forming a starting lineup could make a run at the best of all time. Whether or not they live up to that massive talent — possible roadblocks include Nash and Kobe’s age and Dwight’s maturity — will be as compelling an NBA narrative as any this season.
This is heady stuff, and it’s been building for a few years. Last year’s lockout-shortened season was a ratings bonanza for broadcasters who coughed up about $1 billion a year in rights, and for sports fans mesmerized by what the NBA has become.
Just ask TNT. It averaged a record 2.5 million viewers last regular season. ABC did well, too, pulling in an average of 5.4 million, also a record, while ESPN drew 1.9 million viewers, the network’s second-best showing.
The playoffs were good, too. TNT lured about 5 million eyeballs a game, good for second-best in that network’s history. ESPN’s playoff coverage saw a 25 percent jump from the year before. And the 2011 and 2012 Finals pulled in big numbers, too, as the game moved from a niche sport to one captivating a growing audience.
This time around — from the start of the regular season through the playoffs — should be even better.
The Heat are chasing a repeat, the Thunder redemption, the Lakers the fulfillment of all this hype and hope. In New York, the Nets’ new digs in Brooklyn, and high-priced lineup, will kick off a battle with the talented and bumbling Knicks for New York supremacy.
Boston remains bitter (usually its best motivator), so much so that Kevin Garnett announced he’s lost Heat addition and former teammate Ray Allen’s phone number. We’ve got high school-esque sniping, too, to spice things up.
Cleveland is a young, fascinating team, the Spurs are old but very good, the Clippers will be fighting for relevancy and the renewed services of Chris Paul, the Bulls will see if they have much left without injured star Derrick Rose … on and on it goes.
Say what you want about David Stern, but his NBA has needed less than a decade since Michael Jordan’s actual retirement to recast itself as must-watch in the American sporting landscape. And now it’s more than a one-man show.
The Thunder, Heat and Lakers are good enough to chase their own kinds of history — and to disrupt the would-be histories of the other two. LeBron will inevitably chase the label of greatest of all time, even as Kobe tries to cement his place as best of his generation. Dwight needs to show all that sound and fury in Orlando were in the service of something meaningful, and Durant has to grow into a player great enough to stop them all.
Oh, and Miami, already packed, has added Allen on the wing and the magic and confidence in the locker room that comes when a team goes through battles together and emerges on the other end as champions.
“We can be better than we were this past season,” James told reporters in Miami over the weekend. “Are we better right now than we were just a couple months ago? Of course not. … But we have the potential to be better. We have the potential to be a lot better. That is scary.”
The Thunder also have the potential to be better. The Lakers have the potential to be better than any team Kobe has ever played for.