As the 2017-2018 NBA Season opening night approaches, it’s difficult to find anyone willing to predict a champion other than the Golden State Warriors. Some people will probably go for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even fewer will mention the Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. But that’s about it. Four months after the end of a dominant playoff run, hardly anyone sees the upcoming season as a competitive race between a few equally good contenders.
Super Teams, despite what Michael Jordan said this week, aren’t necessarily bad. It’s probably easier to make the playoffs seem interesting from a marketing standpoint when it’s a bunch of juggernauts heading towards a collision. From that aspect, the NBA has some interesting prospects.
The Warriors have their talented group of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson headlining the show. The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas at some point, but also Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, who might not be as good as before, but are still big, popular, fan-drawing names. The Boston Celtics have Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward and an exciting rookie in the form of Jayson Tatum. The San Antonio Spurs were never about stars, but it’s hard to deny the appeal of Kawhi Leonard. The Houston Rockets with James Harden and Chris Paul. The OKC Thunder with Carmelo Anthony and Paul George joining Russell Westbrook. The Minnesota Timberwolves might even be a mini superteam with Jimmy Butler joining young stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
But speaking to Marc Stein of the New York Times, Charles Barkley said something many people think as the season approaches. Barkley, not a big fan of the Warriors style and the team in general, had this to say: The toughest thing for me is I have to get on TV and fake it for seven months that it’s going to be the Warriors and Cavs in the Finals again. Yes it is.
He has a point. While the Celtics can and will pose a challenge for the Cavaliers in the East, it’s still their crown to lose. The Toronto Raptors have taken a step back, the Washington Wizards seem to have hit their ceiling, and that is where the list of contenders ends. The Atlanta Hawks have fallen apart. The rest aren’t good enough to compete with the Cavs and Celtics, if they’re trying to compete at all.
In the West, there’s ambition, even if it’s not going to be enough. The Spurs could have 15 workers from McDonald’s on the roster and we would think Gregg Popovich will coach them to 50+ wins. The Rockets will try to take their formula from last season, which was fun to watch and overloaded the stat sheet, and apply it with two players who want the ball all the time. The Oklahoma City Thunder have three players who need the ball on every possession. Good luck with that.
It’ll be a season of trying to find joy and interest in smaller stories. The Philadelphia 76ers trying to look good and aim to win and not the lottery for the first time in 5 years. The Chicago Bulls finally hitting the reset button. The Minnesota Timberwolves trying to play defense that matches their offensive talents. Milos Teodosic bringing some chic and extraordinary passing to the league. The Brooklyn Nets with Jeremy Lin running the show, hoping not to get injured. The New York Knicks finally without Carmelo Anthony. Giannis Antetokounmpo taking another step in his trek to become the best player on the planet. The interesting, but probably doomed-to-fail ‘twin tower’ approach in New Orleans.
There are things to look forward to in this season. But the regular season is always something of a filler. The playoffs? To a certain point, there will be exciting moments. But any surprises as to the identity of the finalists? Or a finals series that lasts more than 4 or 5 games? From where we’re standing right now, it’s hard to see it happening.