After two years of speculation over where LeBron James ultimately would take his talents, it's difficult to recall a tipoff to an NBA season more anticipated than this one. If you adjust for inflation -- that is, as far as the size and scope of the TV markets and sports media -- a sound argument can be made that the 1979-80 debut of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird was bigger.
But that is the essence of what LeBron going to Miami has done to the NBA landscape. He has put the modern game back on the map, put himself and Dwyane Wade and superstars from markets big and small in the conversation with what previously was the NBA's golden age
"Interesting times," said Lakers guard Derek Fisher, he of the five championship rings.
Beginning Tuesday night, when the Heat face the Celtics in Boston, the team Pat Riley has assembled in South Beach will be followed around the country in much the same way Riley's Showtime Lakers were. But what we are about to experience will be on a much grander scale, thanks to how intensely and boldly the sport is covered today -- from the pages of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to every titillating click on TMZ.com and all rollicking corners of the blogosphere.
"I think it's great for the game," said Fisher, who will serve the dual purposes this season of trying to guide the Lakers to a third straight title and avert a postseason lockout as president of the National Basketball Players Association. "Obviously, people can debate over how it happened with LeBron. But at its most basic point, you look at their roster and it's one of the most exciting things that [has] happened to NBA basketball in a long time. ... They have three guys on their roster now that entire teams and conferences plan for. In the Eastern Conference, you plan to play LeBron James. You plan to play Dwyane Wade. You plan to figure out how to cover Chris Bosh. And now all three of these guys are on the same team."
But those aren't the only three guys, and despite the disproportionate attention focused on Miami, the Heat aren't the only team to be swept up in the tsunami. In New York, Chicago and L.A., in Orlando, Oklahoma City and three cities in Texas, and even in New Orleans and Portland, there is buzz surrounding this NBA season like none other since Michael Jordan won his sixth and final championship in 1998. Appropriately enough, the league is facing its most challenging labor fight since those weeks and months after Jordan's last title-winning shot. If it's possible to cloak this season in any more tension and drama, the threat of a lockout will hover over everything -- from the collision of Big Threes on Tuesday night in Boston to what I expect will be far and away the most-watched Game 7 in the history of the Finals come June.
Which brings us to my humble contribution as the curtain goes up on the 2010-11 NBA season: My predictions. Sorry, there's no hour-long live TV event to unveil them, but here they are, anyway.
MVP: LeBron James, Heat. I don't buy into the theory that LeBron won't be able to win a third straight MVP because his production will go down and he will have to cede some of the spotlight to Dwyane Wade. With opening night upon us, we've still only seen three minutes, 17 seconds, of LeBron and Wade playing together. But what I saw that night was a message from LeBron that he didn't go to Miami to play a secondary role. The Heat will be the best team in the regular season, LeBron will be their best player and he'll stuff more than enough box scores to pull off an MVP three-peat.
He won't average a triple-double, but that's an unrealistic standard by which to judge him. My guess is that LeBron's talents on both ends of the floor with shine even more with superior talent around him, and it'll be impossible to ignore his impact when people like me cast our MVP ballots.
P.S. I also don't buy the notion that LeBron's popularity decline -- particularly among media members like me who were disgusted by "The Decision" -- will result in voters punishing him in the MVP vote. I've made my opinion quite clear about the way LeBron left Cleveland, but I'll happily give him my MVP vote if he deserves it.
Rookie of the Year: John Wall, Wizards. DeMarcus Cousins may very well put up better numbers, and Blake Griffin will deserve plenty of consideration; if healthy, Griffin will be borderline dominant. But I'm going with Wall for two reasons: 1) We will be reminded of his talent on a nightly basis via spectacular highlight clips that will be impossible to ignore; and 2) He will singlehandedly restore respectability to this franchise only one year after it hit rock bottom. That's a pretty big impact for a rookie. I'll say this by way of caveat: If Griffin somehow gets the Clippers to the playoffs, then that would change things.
Coach of the Year: Jerry Sloan, Jazz. Come on, people. It's time.
First superstar traded: Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets. There was too much momentum and there is too much to be gained for the Melo saga to fizzle. Tony Parker and Chris Paul are on the radar, but Melo's situation has the most momentum. Fearless prediction? He gets his wish and goes to the Knicks after Dec. 15, when a suitable package becomes easier to assemble with players signed over the summer becoming trade-eligible.
First coach fired: Jay Triano, Raptors. Not making the playoffs with Chris Bosh clearly is more of a sin than struggling without him. But these things catch up to coaches one way or another.
Playoff teams: East
1. Heat: Barring injury, LeBron and Wade will wreak devastation wherever they go.
2. Magic: When Dwight Howard says he's on a mission to be meaner, I believe him.
3. Celtics: Age, injuries and the Heat will keep the Celtics from having a regular-season record that lives up to their talent.
4. Bulls: They finally have a low-post option in Carlos Boozer and will be noticeably better defensively under first-year coach Tom Thibodeau.
5. Bucks: Brandon Jennings and Scott Skiles will keep the deer appropriately feared.
6. Hawks: All their rivals got noticeably better, but the Hawks stood still.
7. Bobcats: There's enough talent and athleticism on this roster to get in, and Larry Brown will figure out a way -- even if it means trading half the roster.
8. Knicks: Mike D'Antoni finally has some athletes to run his offense, but it won't be easy. The Knicks will battle to the end with the 76ers, Wizards and Pacers.
Playoff teams: West
1. Lakers: Phil Jackson will let the defending champs coast just enough to keep Kobe Bryant healthy for the playoffs and push hard enough to get the No. 1 seed, because the Lakers understand the importance of home-court advantage as well as anyone.
2. Trail Blazers: It was silly how many injuries the Blazers had last season. They can't possibly be that unlucky again, and their talent and versatility will shine through.
3. Spurs: San Antonio's Big Three isn't done yet, and the biggest of the bunch -- Tim Duncan -- will get some much-needed rest in the form of Tiago Splitter.
4. Jazz: Of all the teams that lost marquee free agents this summer, the Jazz are the only one that filled the void. (Unless you count Hakim Warrick in Phoenix as filling the void.) Al Jefferson will keep Deron Williams from having to do it all.
5. Rockets: It's all about Yao Ming. If he can stay on the floor, the Rockets will need to be dealt with.
6. Thunder: After all the pub Kevin Durant got this summer, the Thunder aren't sneaking up on anybody. They're still potent, but it will be harder this time.
7. Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd have one more hurrah together, and Tyson Chandler will make a big difference on both ends.
8. Hornets: This was by far the most difficult pick, because the Suns, Clippers and Nuggets (depending on Melo) will be in the mix. But don't forget how much better they are when CP3 is healthy.
Eastern Conference finals
Heat over Magic: The only reason I'm putting Orlando here is that I'm afraid that age could catch up to Boston. Otherwise, I would have the Celtics beating the Heat. My problem with the Magic is the same as it has been since Hedo Turkoglu left: Who scores when you need a basket late in a tight playoff game? Howard is good enough to get the Magic to the brink of the Finals, but his limited offensive game and foul shooting won't get them past Miami.
Western Conference finals
Lakers over Mavericks: The West seedings above will be up in the air until the final day or two, and the first two rounds could be filled with upsets. It won't be about seeding, but rather matchups, and I like the Mavs advancing this far because of their size and front-court versatility. I like the Lakers beating them because of, you know, that guy who wears No. 24.
Lakers over Heat: This is the dream matchup everybody wants, and unlike the nation's unrequited yearning for all the pageantry and puppetry of Cavs-Lakers in the Finals, we'll get our Kobe vs. LeBron fix a couple of years behind schedule. Why will the Lakers win? Their size, with Pau Gasol and a (presumably) healthy Andrew Bynum taking the focus away from the perimeter, where LeBron and Wade clearly will have the advantage. But with Ron Artest, the Lakers are a rarity in that they have a player capable of going toe-to-toe with either of those guys. With Bryant's thirst for a sixth title and Artest's one-of-a-kind mindset, the Lakers won't be intimidated by Miami's Big Three. Plus, I love the addition of Matt Barnes and Steve Blake to L.A.'s bench, which could be the difference in the series. But you won't tune in to watch Barnes, Blake, Theo Ratliff or Sasha Vujacic. (Maria Sharapova in her courtside seat at Staples? That'll work.) But this is about Kobe, LeBron and Wade, who will have a legitimate chance to give the NBA its highest-rated Finals ever.
Which brings us to one final prediction before Wade pulls his hamstring again on opening night: Will there be a lockout or not?
The mere threat of a lockout won't be enough to get both sides to budge from their polar-opposite positions, so the league may very well have to shut down for the middle ground to be found. Here's a prediction: With player salaries down and revenue likely to hit record levels this season, the players' share will fall below their guaranteed 57 percent of the pie for the first time under the NBA's current economic model. That means when the season is over, the players will get fat checks to cover a refund of their escrow contribution, plus more money to make up the difference. That will give them the added dough they need to endure a work stoppage -- but it won't last long. Both sides will recognize how devastating it would be to shut down the league on the heels of this historically golden season. So cooler heads will prevail with an 11th-hour settlement in September, just in time not to lose any games -- and to watch the Lakers open their title defense against the Heat, with Pat Riley on the Miami bench.