Last May 12, I fell out of love with the NBA. The league that I had loved in the mid-nineties was gone.
Bird and Magic were a distant memory, of course. But that era was full of surprises: Reggie Miller’s killer three point shots and taunting of super-Knicks fan Spike Lee; Hakeem Olajuwan, the classy Houston center who played through his Ramadan fast (and played better than anyone, really); the punishing defense-first teams of Pat Riley, first in New York and then in Miami; the explosive combination of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp in Seattle; and the durable one of John Stockton and Karl Malone in Salt Lake. And, of course there was Michael Jordan’s Bulls — dashing all their dreams.
As the ’90s turned into the ’00s, the NBA lost something for me. Maybe it was missing a generation of stars that were claimed by drugs (Len Bias) or let their egos ruin their game (Kemp, Coleman). The dominance of the San Antonio Spurs also diminished my enthusiasm. They have a power-forward, Tim Duncan, whose game managed to be flawless and completely uninspiring at the same time. Tony Parker speaks French and is married to Eva Longoria. Enough said.
I watched the playoffs out of duty. I remember little, save for a few last second heroics by Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, and LeBron James. Last May, I was determined to enjoy the series between the veteran and able Spurs, and the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns. But then some truly awful and baffling refereeing happened in game three. Bill Simmons would call it the worst-reffed playoff game in memory.
The one-sidedness of the calls emboldened the Spurs and flummoxed the Suns, until a violent collision in mid-court precipitated two Suns players leaving the bench, and being suspended for the pivotal game five. I didn’t watch any more playoff games that year. In fact, I resolved to give the NBA the cold shoulder and make do with the NHL and football.
BUT MAYBE THAT call was too hasty. After all, the ref in that infamous playoff game, Tim Donaghy, was nailed by the feds for mafia connections and tossed out of the league for good. And now, as we ready for the 2008 NBA playoffs, the league is more stocked with talent than ever before in its history.
Consider: there are fully nine teams in the Western Conference who would be worth watching in any playoff year, from the streaky Denver Nuggets to the surprisingly mature New Orleans Hornets. And they even have that modern must, compelling story lines. The Rockets are missing their prized Chinese giant, Yao Ming, and have the best record in the league since Christmas. Can Tracy McGrady exorcise his playoff demons and lead them to the Western Finals?
The Utah Jazz: Can Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer usher in an era of playoff dominance in Salt Lake City similar to their predecessors, John Stockton and Karl Malone? Will Andrei Kirilenko find his place between them and make them a championship contender? Is New Orleans phenom Chris Paul the league’s best player if he leads the Hornets deep into the playoffs for the first time? Can Avery Johnson rally his veteran team for one more deep run and redeem the Mavericks from their humiliating Finals defeat in 2006?
The Eastern conference is of course much more shallow in talent. Where the top ten teams in the West have winning records, only the top six do in the East. But there are at least four near-great teams to watch. The Detroit Pistons are making their last run at glory after a period in which they should have been a dynasty. Not far from them is the Cavaliers’ LeBron James, who proved against Detroit last year that he can take over a close game. He is the greatest athlete in the NBA, a 6’9” slashing small forward who can create his own shots and carry a team on his back. He has done what no one thought he could do: live up to his own hype.
The Orlando Magic have Dwight Howard, the biggest-hearted big man in the game and the most talented and creative dunker since Dr. J.
And then there are the Boston Celtics, who have rebounded from one of the worst seasons in recent memory by acquiring two championship-hungry veterans from the West: Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. They have made basketball relevant in Beantown for the first time since Larry Legend retired. And they may meet their historic foe in the Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant is a pathological headcase, who chased Shaq out of town and almost alienated a city when he demanded a trade during a sports-talk show before the season started. But with Paul Gasol added to the lineup, Bryant may have finally found the supporting cast he needs.
The games are now well-reffed, the teams are running smart controlled offense, the league is stacked with more talent than it has had in two decades and we have the prospect of a Boston vs. Los Angeles Finals matchup. I’d say the NBA is back.