Chasing Down The Latest NBA News
Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m not much of a soccer (um, football) fan. I play a lot of FIFA 2012 and vaguely follow La Liga, the top Spanish league, through various podcasts and columnists. And every one contains basically the same message: it’s fun to follow La Liga, you can find interesting narratives and characters in and around every team, and it will always, always, always come down to FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, the two 800-pound silverback gorillas of Spanish soccer. Currently Barca stands second in the standings to Madrid, and one of these two clubs have won 23 of the last 27 titles.
Both teams have their share of superstars, although Madrid rely on a tough defense and a transcendent scorer in Christiano Rose- er, Ronaldo, while Barca employ at least three all-world players in Xavi, Iniesta, and the most popular player in the world, a man who sells jerseys on every continent, LeBron- oh, um, sorry, I meant Lionel Messi.
It shouldn’t be difficult to see the parallels begin to form between the historical situation of La Liga and the current situation in the Eastern Conference. While the West has become a morass of parity, with a handful of rising young teams and fading veteran teams meeting each other halfway between dominance and putridity, the Eastern elite have sealed themselves off in a gated community, drinking wine out of fancy glasses while their doormen (definitely Joakim Noah and Udonis Haslem, if only for the comedy of those two in butler uniforms) keep the riff raff safely outside of the walls.
During the 2011 regular season, the upper class was thought to contain four teams, with Dwight Howard muscling his Magic into the conversation and Rajon Rondo lifting the Big 3 back into contention after an injury-ravaged 2010. This year, however, Howard seems to have wearied of the Herculean, some would say Sisyphean, task of lugging these Magic up the mountain just to have Otis Smith pile on more and more baggage (do you have any idea how much Gilbert Arenas’ corpse weighs?). The Magic may well make the playoffs, and could conceivably go semi-deep with continued contributions from Redick and Ryan Anderson and retro performances from Jameer, Richardson and Hedo. But they are always one Dwight Howard tantrum, or front-office drunk dial, away from replacing sweet daydreams of a repeat trip to the Finals with PTSD flashbacks of their franchise big man flying away to Los Angeles (sound familiar?).
The Celtics, meanwhile, have entered what I like to call the Spurs Continuum, that area in which NBA teams have no idea whether to tear down or try to improve on the fly to make one more run. While the San Antonio has predictably handled this conundrum with grace and dignity, Boston has, also somewhat predictably, flailed a bit when faced with their own mortality. I’m not saying that they’ve been the Suns or anything (by the way #FREESTEVENASH), but the bizarre Jeff Green trade followed by spending the off-season shopping Rondo while telling everyone that they weren’t certainly raises some eyebrows. As it is, they are starting the desiccated remains of Jermaine O’Neal at center and are an injury away from utter disaster, as we saw in their three games without Paul Pierce.
So we are left with Chicago and Miami, the Madrid and Barca of the Eastern Conference. Both teams stand at 7-1. Both were unanimous choices of every pundit to win their divisions, and they stand at 1 and 2 in most everyone’s Power Rankings. They played an incredibly competitive Eastern Conference Finals last year, and everyone expects to see a reprise this spring. Every game they lose this year will surprise viewers and send their fans flocking to the message boards.
Full disclosure: I’m a huge Bulls fan. I’m actually wearing my Bulls sweatshirt while I write this. And I was wearing this same sweatshirt when I went and saw the Bulls lose to the Warriors in Oakland in their second game of the season. As my parents and I got on the train after the game, my Dad turned to me and said, “Well, that team sure can’t beat the Heat.”
For both teams, this season will solely be about measuring themselves against the other powerhouse in the conference. If the Bulls lose in Boston on Friday, it won’t make me worry about the Celtics come playoff-time. Instead, it will make me worry that we won’t be able to handle the Heat. The current injuries to Wade and James matter not because of the teams Miami is playing now, but because any losses increase the chance that Game 7 happens in the United Center instead of in South Beach. When the Bulls go to Miami on January 29th, it will be the biggest game of the year until the Heat venture north to Chicago on March 14th. These are the only teams that matter in the Eastern Conference; everything else is window dressing.
[Of course, everything that I’m writing now is probably a gigantic jinx, and will lead to Boozer breaking his ankle, Noah getting arrested for looking like a dude who grows pot in his mom’s basement, Rose spontaneously combusting while filming a sneaker commercial, and Deng shattering into four thousand little pieces while Thibodeau yells at him to run faster. I’m knocking on every piece of wood I can find.]
This situation is temporary, just like everything else in the NBA. As someone I follow on Twitter pointed out recently (and I cannot for the life of me remember who, so, sorry), the Bulls, Heat and Thunder picked 1st, 2nd and 4th in the 2008 draft. All three are now title contenders. Next season could see the Bucks, Pacers, Knicks, Nets, or some other wildcard team step into the spotlight. This season, however, will come down to the rest of the Eastern Conference cowering as two behemoths slam into each other over and over. May the best silverback win.