Today, the NBA season begins. It's a fact that is borderline miraculous when you consider where the game has been the past few months. This offseason was filled with questions nobody wants to think about; Will there be an NBA season? Will players sign contracts overseas? Will the league contract NBA teams? Is the rift between players and owners so large that desperate action will take place? Will the league cease to exist? Instead of free agency and drafts and summer league, we were all forced to deal with these questions, or else to ignore them.
Then, over Thanksgiving weekend, we were given something to be thankful for. The league and the players reached a deal, and agreed to be back to their real jobs by Christmas Day. With the agreement came a whole slew of new questions; Is the league trying to do too much with this compact 66 game season? Did the new CBA do enough to deter star players from attempting to choose their own destination prior to free agency? Can teams really be ready for the season with a two week free agency/training camp bonanza?
And then Chris Paul was a Laker, for about 3 hours. And then he wasn't. That event raised far more questions than anything else in this jumbled offseason; Did the small market owners collude against the Lakers because they are angry about LA's success and inherent advantages? Did David Stern really nix the deal in the best interests of the Hornets, or was it to stick it to Chris Paul and let the players know that the owners are in charge? In getting Chris Paul traded to the Clippers, did the NBA ensure Chauncey Billups would end up in a Clipper uniform to make sure they'd be more willing to let go of the assets that Stern wanted in the deal? Is the NBA's credibility and integrity even valid anymore, or is the NBA the closest thing to the WWE among real professional sports?
And as a result of that failed deal, the Lakers were "forced" to trade Lamar Odom away for nothing, and are now left with their own tough questions; Can the Lakers really challenge for a title having addressed so few of their weaknesses from a season ago? Can Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy combined provide what Lamar Odom gave to this team? Can the Lakers really run a more traditional offense without a single playmaking guard outside of Kobe Bryant? Can the team deal with whatever chemistry issues are sure to exist, between players wondering if they will be traded, if they are wanted, or, in the case of one specific superstar, wondering just what the fuck the front office is doing to one of his last remaining years in his prime? Will a preseason injury to Kobe's wrist make a bad season even worse?
So. Many. Questions. It's enough to make your head spin, enough to make your brain hurt. That has been what we've lived with, lived through, for the past seven months. And now, it finally comes to an end. There will be no more questions. Now we get answers. Game by game, week by week, we'll find out whether this Lakers team has what it takes to set aside all the distractions and play to their peak potential. Month by month, we'll figure out if the Lakers have another league altering transaction to play. Season by season, year by year, we'll find out whether the CBA will transform the league to be closer to what the owners want it to be. We still have to wait for the answers to reveal themselves, but we no longer have to ask the questions and ponder the answers. Because we finally have a distraction. There's basketball to watch.
Finally, we turn our attention to the first opponent of the season, the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls were last year's breakout team, with a ferocious defense led by the immense power of coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive mind, and the mildly controversial MVP Derrick Rose, the Bulls ended up with the league's best record, 62 wins out of 82 games. Nobody saw it coming. The Bulls weren't supposed to be this strong, to gel this fast. Rose wasn't supposed to develop this quickly. Instead, with a consistent effort that would make Lakers fans weep with joy, the Bulls were everything they could be. They lost to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, but that took nothing away from what was a spectacular season for a young team.
The Bulls enter the season poised for greatness. Every question that plagues the Lakers has a simple and encouraging answer for the Bulls. The Lakers are a year older, which puts just about all of their players one year further down the hill that every player slides down on the tail end of their career. That same year gives most of Chicago's roster that much more time to ascend. Where the Lakers have been plagued all offseason with rumors about who's heading where, and the departure of a player that cannot be replaced, the Bulls have their top 7 contributors back from the previous season. Where the Lakers have clear weaknesses that were not addressed, the Bulls went out and strengthened the one position which was a true burden for them by acquiring Rip Hamilton to be their shooting guard.
What can we expect to see in terms of matchups? Well, the Lakers struggle with quick point guards, and Derrick Rose is the quickest in the league. He should have no problem abusing whoever the Lakers have to defend him. The Lakers will win games this season because of their great size, but the Bulls have plenty of size to push back with in Joakim Noah and Omer Asik off the bench, and Andrew Bynum will be serving the first of a four game suspension anyways. The Bulls have tremendous depth, with 11 players who played nearly 1000 minutes or more last season. Nine of those players have returned, and Rip is sure to be number 10, so the Bulls undoubtedly go at least 10 deep. The Lakers might be forced to play that many players as well, but it's hard to imagine the Laker bench being able to stand up to their counterparts today. Which means its up to Kobe and Pau
and Drew. The one area the Lakers have an advantage over the Bulls is in sheer star power. If Kobe can be the dominant force he is accustomed to being, if Pau can be the incredibly efficient post presence we always need him to be, the Lakers will have a good chance of victory. It is for those reasons, with another 7 feet, 300 pounds worth of reasons yet to come, that will make the Lakers have a good chance of victory at all times this season. But a good chance is a far cry from an expected result.
By record, the Bulls were the best team in the league last season and another year only helps the roster that was assembled only a season ago to gel. Another year's experience for Rose, another year knowing Tom Thibodeau's defense from the start, and no glaring hole in the roster, now that they have a legit offensive threat manning the off guard spot ... there can be no doubt that the Bulls got better. There can be no doubt that the Lakers got worse. The only question to be asked now is whether all those facts will come together, whether the Bulls can take their intangible improvements and turn it into a tangible result. For the first time in years, we can honestly say the Lakers will start the season against a better team. Does that mean the Lakers will lose?
Finally, we have a question that won't take so fucking long to answer.