The NBA’s season will begin Tuesday night with two games featuring four teams.
Golden State (Save us, Steph Curry. You’re our only hope.) vs. Brooklyn (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant make – a borough of – New York relevant again); Los Angeles Clippers (What’s Kawhi Leonard done now?) vs. LeBron James (He also plays for the Lakers).
This is one of the things you have to love about this league – it never leaves you in doubt about who the cool kids are. None of this, “We love all our children equally,” junk other leagues try to sell you.
So that’s it. That’s all you really need to know – that the NBA is close to achieving its medium-term goal of making sure its employees in America’s largest media markets are capable of bouncing a ball without knocking themselves unconscious. The New York Knicks couldn’t manage it, so the league turned a smidge to the east.
How do we know these teams are good now? Because people think they are. They’ve got the sort of big names that generate excitement in a league that does that better than just about anyone else. That’s all that matters when you’re selling the ad space. So congratulations, NBA. Despite the pandemic, your 2020-21 season has been an undeniable success.
What? Yes. Yes, they still have to play it. But you know how this goes. A lot of noise and then the Lakers win again. That’s what it says in the script anyway.
If there is a general trend in the NBA over the past few years, it is the gradual perfecting of its already pretty perfect star system. Players no longer need a few seasons to settle, or to have achieved anything of particular note. They just arrive, have one or two meme-able moments and bam. They’re featured acts.
The league also does great parallel work charting the decline and occasional implosion of former favourites. This is the NBA’s real talent – a conveyor belt of talent that runs all the way from draft night to humiliation via media.
So who’s on the up this year? Curry, obviously. Once the NBA’s golden child, he missed nearly all of last season with injury and guess what? He wasn’t missed. Everyone who’d prospered during his long run on top forgot about him and moved on. That’s not a sports storyline. That’s The Count of Monte Cristo.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is having a moment. He just signed the biggest deal in league history, but made the mistake of signing it for a team no one cares about. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had some good years on the Milwaukee Bucks, too. But no one remembers them because it was the Milwaukee Bucks. If Antetokounmpo doesn’t want the same problem, he is going to have to win a title, and quick.
LeBron James is trending because he always is. Once it’s all done, it may turn out that James’s greatest talent was his ability to remain relevant in a league always scrabbling not just to unearth the new, but to bury the old with the dirt they’ve dug up. James has been cresting the lead wave of American culture since Mark Zuckerberg was in college.
Luka Doncic is the new Curry – boyish, charming, a little bit foreign. It’s not hard to figure out that the NBA’s top-line, long-term goal is building the game into a challenger to soccer for global attention. It will never manage it, but it’s good to have targets. Doncic will play a big part of the European leg of that expansion over the next decade.
Then there are the villains. No. 1 on the hit parade is Houston’s want-away superstar, James Harden. Harden’s trouble has always been the beard. Yes, a great, great offensive player, but whenever you look at him, all you see is the starburst of facial hair. He’s like a muppet with muscles.
As a result, no one’s ever given Harden the person that much thought. Once they did – after he’d begun a self-destructive campaign to get himself traded – they didn’t like him very much. It goes to show: No one will begrudge you turning weasel on the team that nurtured you if – and this is a huge if – you figure out a way to leave. That’s how you turn the page. If you fail to do so – as Harden apparently has, at least for now – you must remain wallowing in the old storyline. Then you are a figure of fun.
If Harden wants to see how it’s done right (and then wrong), undertake a detailed study of Kawhi Leonard. He managed to leave Toronto without creating much hard feeling. There was a moment there in the summer of 2019 when just about everyone agreed Leonard was the most impactful player in the NBA, as well as the craftiest. Rather than winning his title with Toronto, that was the real mountain top.
Then Leonard made a mistake – he lost. Once the Clippers went down in the playoffs, the jackals circled. A lot of questions were and are being asked about the financials of his move to L.A. The latest embarrassment arises from a lawsuit filed by a Leonard bagman claiming Clippers board member Jerry West (the guy whose silhouette adorns the NBA logo) reneged on a multimillion-dollar deal to use him as a go-between. Oh dear.
Leonard’s reputation is going from silent assassin to successful shakedown artist. But the NBA knows how to use that, too. Cue the redemption arc, but also keep the dunking stool ready. Both work well for the purposes of prime time.
The Toronto Raptors? Since Leonard left, they’re not part of this game within the game any more. Not unless Kyle Lowry wants to go ballistic at some point, which he seems quite capable of. He’s the only Raptor capable of commanding the attention of an audience outside Canada. Come to think of it, that’s something they might want to work on.