The staggering amount of star player movement alone would lead one to conclude that the race to the Larry O’Brien championship trophy must be completely wide open.
The truth is that everything in the N.B.A. has changed. And nothing has changed.
When Cleveland and Boston meet Tuesday night on the Cavaliers’ floor to tip off the 177-day, 1,230-game regular season, Golden State will be lording over the rest of the field as the most overwhelming title favorite of my N.B.A. reporting lifetime, which dates to the 1993-94 season, during which Michael Jordan tried to transform himself into an outfielder.
The former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, now an ESPN television analyst, shares that view. Referring to the Bulls of the late 1990s, whom Jordan led to a second burst of three consecutive titles after ending his dalliance with baseball and returning to the sport he redefined, Van Gundy said, “I don’t think they ever started with the kind of talent advantage that the Warriors have.”
The prospect of Golden State losing four games in one playoff series, Van Gundy said, “seems almost impossible to me.”
“Minus a major injury,” he continued, “I just can’t see how a team could score well enough against them by putting offensive players out there and still have enough defenders to be able to guard them.”
The inimitable Charles Barkley sees it much the same way. Looking ahead to his broadcasting duties with Turner Sports, Barkley didn’t hesitate to voice his frustration with the perceived gulf between the Warriors and the 29 other teams, even after all the summer shuffling.
“The toughest thing for me is I have to get on TV and fake it for seven months that it’s not going to be the Warriors and Cavs in the finals again,” Barkley said.
“Yes, it is.”
These are not the most uplifting forecasts for fans who prefer a little suspense in their sports viewing. Yet it must also be said that the N.B.A., for all the valid criticism it absorbed after delivering such a sleepy postseason last spring, consistently manages to generate drama and intrigue for its ever-growing audience.
There is no denying that the 2017 playoffs were a serious letdown; combined, Golden State and Cleveland lost just one game on the way to their third successive N.B.A. finals showdown. But those playoffs were sandwiched by a thoroughly absorbing regular season — thanks largely to the wild Most Valuable Player Award race won by the triple-double machine Russell Westbrook — and a few months of transactional bedlam.
So tune out at your own peril. There should be lots to savor and dissect between now and April, before even factoring in a Warriors team flush with an extra year of continuity and a seemingly deeper bench.
While the Knicks seek to establish a new identity after the departures of Anthony and Phil Jackson, Oklahoma City will watch Westbrook, George and Anthony learn to coexist with only one ball to share.
Two more noted ball dominators — Paul and James Harden — will undertake a similar experiment in Houston.
The tantalizing young duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, provided they can stay healthy and thus stay on the floor, are finally poised to join forces in Philadelphia.
And then there is LeBron James, who turns 33 in December and, as he enters his 15th season, still spawns story lines as if he were a league unto himself.
We shall see if the Cavaliers live to regret trading Irving to their foremost conference rivals, the Celtics, who also managed to sign the All-Star forward Gordon Hayward to counter the departure of Isaiah Thomas. How much the seasoned Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose have left, as they join James, Thomas and Kevin Love in Cleveland, counts for two more major curiosities.
No mystery, for that matter, looms larger than King James’s future. He will be a free agent July 1, amid considerable speculation in the ether already about a potential move west to join the Los Angeles Lakers, whose fading profile has been significantly enhanced by the arrival of the promising pass-first rookie, Lonzo Ball, and by the presence of Magic Johnson for his first full season as the team president.
There is plainly something for everyone from a league that, according to the N.B.A.’s latest data, attracted more than a billion global viewers last season — or one of every seven people in the world.
Even if it does all start, and almost certainly end, with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and the rest of the Warriors, so what? Why protest loudly if the teams actually straining to catch up haven’t surrendered?
Leave it to the popular sports columnist and podcast host Bill Simmons, one of basketball’s most fervent followers, to remind us that Golden State’s majesty is a force to behold. Not lament.
“I can’t wait for this season,” Simmons said. “I’d always rather watch an all-time team on a quest for true greatness over any other scenario. Can they win 75 games? Can they go 16-0 in the playoffs? What’s the ceiling for this team? I don’t think we’ve seen it yet.”
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