LOVE & BASKETBALL

2014 NBA Preview: Skinny LeBron and the Racist Ghost of Donald Sterling

The King returns to Cleveland, a battered Kobe battles in the West, and the Zen Master is christened the savior of New York. Here’s what to watch for in the 2014-15 NBA season.

Adam Silver probably couldn’t have asked for a better opening nine months to his tenure as NBA commissioner if he’d scripted it himself. Not only has he been lauded for his handling of the L’Affaire Donald Sterling, turning what could have been an ugly, drawn-out battle into a quick and decisive purging of a venal bigot.

Silver’s rep has also indirectly been burnished by the NFL’s ongoing problems and Roger Goodell’s buffoonery. You make your own luck, to be sure, but the revelations of disturbing, racially tinged comments by members of the Atlanta Hawks’ front office and ownership group were relatively ignored, landing at the height of the Peterson and Rice controversies.

On court, the league is bursting at the seams with delicious storylines, heralded homecomings, and unbelievable talent, though there’s a labor war on the near horizon that could take some of the steam out of this era of good feeling and accompanying massive profit. Let’s take a look at some of what the 2014-15 season has in store.

LEBRON’S COMING HOME

As recently as June, the idea that James would be once again spreading his massive wingspan to embrace the entire state of Ohio sounded like a fantastical scenario dreamed up by the world’s most devoted Cavs fanatic, the kind of guy or gal that refused to burn James’s jersey in effigy, but rather has been wearing it each and every single day since his talents were taken to South Beach like it was Miss Havisham’s fading, yellowed wedding dress. There were just too many real-world roadblocks, including the fact that James had been to four straight finals with Miami alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and the assumption that there was still a great deal of unresolved anger over owner Dan Gilbert’s parting gift, a Comic Sans-penned slam book.

Of course, that’s exactly what occurred. Fences were mended, secret flights to Miami for clandestine meetings were booked and before anyone could calculate the seismic shock that was delivered to the NBA landscape, James inked a $42 million deal and unpacked his heart to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins.

“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart,” James wrote. “People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”

There’s no doubt that James’s emotions are genuine and were a huge motivating factor behind The Decision II, but it’s also worth noting that Miami was completely outgunned by the San Antonio in last year’s finals, with Dwyane Wade in particular looking like he’s in serious decline, and an aging, complementary cast of role players unable to provide much support. In Cleveland, however, he’ll be joining the most talented squad he’s ever suited up with in his career. They engineered a blockbuster trade for the Minnesota Timberwolves’ disgruntled All-Star power forward, Kevin Love, shipping out the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, and Anthony Bennett, who has underwhelmed thus far, but was also snagged with the first selection in 2013, as well as a protected first rounder in 2015.

James will also be lining up alongside a dynamic point guard for the first time in Kyrie Irving, who—that’s right—is also a former No. 1, to form a new “Big Three,” and that’s before we even get to Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson, fourth overall picks respectively, a feisty rebounder in Anderson “Sideshow Bob” Varejao and a slew of cagey vets on cheap, short-term deals like Mike Miller, Shawn Marion, and Brendan Haywood.

There are still serious questions about how this team will defend night-in, night-out, and the total number of high-pressure playoff games the young core has played in comes to... checks math... zero.

But on offense? Look out. David Blatt has over 20 years of experience internationally, winning 17 titles in Israel, Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Russia. He’s a basketball lifer and a grinder in the mode of Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, and he’ll tweak his Princeton Offense to fit James’s singular skills, leaning heavily on what’s going to be an unstoppable pick and roll combination in James and Love. LeBron even dropped some serious weight this summer—though he won’t say exactly how much—to prepare for an increase in minutes at small forward. “I had no sugars, no dairy, I had no carbs,” James announced with pride. “All I ate was meat, fish, veggies and fruit. That’s it. For 67 straight days.”

In the somewhat watered-down Eastern Conference, the only team that looks like they have a shot of impeding the Cavs’ triumphant march to the finals is the Chicago Bulls. And while Tom Thibodeau can craft a defensive scheme capable of throttling anyone on any given night, despite adding a skilled low-post scorer and passer in Pau Gasol, and a duo of floor-spreading forwards in Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott, they’ll only go as far as Derrick Rose’s twice-surgically rebuilt knees can carry them.

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Barring injuries, (yes, there will always be awful, unpredictable injuries that swing the title odds. See Durant, Kevin and George, Paul.) wagering that James will be back in the finals for a fifth consecutive season looks like a solid bet. It’s hardly the only or definitive measuring stick, but if he can pull it off, he’ll join Bill Russell and other members of Red Auerbach’s Celtics dynasty in an oh-so exclusive club, one that doesn’t happen to include Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, or Magic Johnson as members.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Alas, the only sure thing is that this dandy new, 10-story-tall banner will be dotting the Cleveland skyline for one year. Really. James has an opt-out clause at the end of this season. Now, it’s not that he’s planning to pack up his bindle again and hit the road, looking for yet another moribund franchise to lift to the rafters. Rather, NBA salaries are about to spiral completely out of control as a result of the $24 billion that ESPN and TNT will fork over in exchange for the exclusive broadcast rights starting in the 2016-17 season, close to three times the annual amount of the previous deal. And while the owners may be dancing a collective jig, they’re also well aware that league’s collective bargaining agreement can be terminated in that very same season.

Currently, the players’ salaries and salary cap are derived as a percentage of basketball-related income and falls between 49 and 51 percent. That figure represents the serious cut that the players took to settle the 2011 lockout, when it was slashed from 57 percent.

The massive infusion of TV cash means that the salary cap could break $90 million per team, meaning that James could possibly be in line for a raise somewhere in the neighborhood of $31 million a year. (A player can earn up to 35 percent of the total cap.) The reigning league MVP, Kevin Durant, is also set to hit the open market that summer. James and NBPA head Chris Paul have already suggested that it might be time to get rid of salary constraints altogether. Since no one knows exactly how much money will be available and which teams will have the space to woo an All-Star with a serious case of wanderlust, you’ve got a group of very skittish billionaires, all of whom made their financial bones by avoiding exactly the kind of risk and uncertainly that could be unleashed.

As a result, there’s serious pressure to hash out a new collective bargaining agreement long before this hoops-centric gold rush begins.

James, for one, is well aware that that the Players’ Association absolutely took it on the chin to settle the prior lockout, and is already staking out his turf.

“The whole thing that went on with the last negotiation process was the owners was telling us that they were losing money. There’s no way they can sit in front of us and tell us that right now, after we continue to see teams selling for billions of dollars, being purchased for $200 million, [selling] for $550 [million], $750 [million], $2 billion,” James said. “And now [Mikhail] Prokhorov is possibly selling his majority stake in the Nets for over a billion. So, that will not fly with us this time.”

Silver, of course, countered James’s power play by declaring that, “My preference would be to have a harder cap, where teams couldn’t elect to spend so much more than other teams.”

There’s always been the tendency among sports fans to take the side of ownership over players in these kinds of labor disputes. But the sticker shock of the price tag that’s being attached to franchises makes that bit of spin harder and harder, as is selling the notion that owning a team isn’t a very profitable venture. Even without the various tax breaks and other accounting shenanigans that can easily turn a profit into a loss, as Zach Lowe reported, “Only nine teams lost money on basketball-related activities last season, per league documents reviewed exclusively by Grantland, and eight of those teams lost $13 million or less.”

Hopefully, all the parties involved can agree that there’s more than enough cash to line everyone’s coffers, and possibly even kick back a few ducats to reduce, say, ticket prices? Yeah, you’re right. That’s totally ridiculous.

WILD, WILD WEST

The battle to emerge from the Western Conference is going to make the Bataan Death March look like a stroll in the park. The San Antonio Spurs will be back to defend their crown, quietly going about their business, re-upping noted wine aficionado Boris Diaw, and extending the finest NBA head coach in all the land, Gregg Popovich. Yes, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili all have another year on their odometer, but we’ve been saying “this is the end” for years now, but like the aforementioned fermented beverage, they seem to just get better with age.

The Los Angeles Clippers were pried from Donald Sterling’s gnarled fingers for (pause for the Dr. Evil close-up) $2 billion that were forked over by ex-Microsoft honcho, Steve Ballmer. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul will lead a dunk-tastic, highlight-, Vine- and Tweet-ready attack, and while there’s absolutely no way of knowing if Ballmer’s stewardship will have a tangible impact in terms of wins and losses, he certainly won’t hesitate to spend whatever it takes to win. If nothing else, he’s going to give Mark Cuban a run for his money for the title of the League’s most visible and demonstrative owner.

Kevin Durant’s early-season absence will make for rough sledding in the early going, but the thought of a rested Durant running wild when the playoffs roll around means they can’t be counted out. The Dallas Mavericks added Tyson Chandler and Chandler Parsons to an efficient, Dirk Nowitzki-led offense, the Golden State Warriors hired Steve Kerr to install elements of the Triangle offense and truly unleash the already-devastating long-range shooting of Stephen Curry, to bolster what was already an underrated, stout defensive team. And that’s before we get to the lockdown, grit ’n’ grind Memphis Grizzlies, the up-and-coming Portland Trail Blazers, the Houston Rockets with James Harden and Dwight Howard, the surprising Phoenix Suns, the arrival of Anthony Davis as a devastating force on both ends, and on and on. Brutal. Just brutal.

KOBE'S LAST STAND

Meanwhile, there are the Los Angeles Lakers, once the NBA’s glamour franchise and the destination spot for every marquee free agent. They were shunned by each and every superstar seeking a shiny new home this summer, leaving a roster that’s a pretty much bereft of top-shelf talent. Now that Steve Nash has been ruled out for the season and is probably heading into retirement, there’s not much left but journeymen wings and overpaid, limited bigs.

There is however, Kobe. If the tumultuous events of the preseason are any indication, he’s going to be a season-long font of hilarity and spattered moments of brilliance as he attempts a comeback from a major injury at age 36, in this his 19th season after missing all but six games last year.

He hasn’t missed an opportunity to vent his spleen at the indignity of landing at No. 40 on ESPN’s NBA Rankings.

In case you thought that might be a singular, offhand comment, it came up again, oddly enough, in response to a question about Steve Nash.

Bryant has always been known as a stern taskmaster and near-impossible to please teammate, but Henry Abbott in ESPN The Magazine took it a step further, writing that Kobe’s prickly personality and the $48.5 million two-year extension he signed has kept the next Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal from donning purple and gold, and led to Dwight Howard taking less money to play in Houston. The piece’s subtitle says in no uncertain terms that, “the greatest player in the history of the Lakers’ franchise… is also destroying it from within.”

Lakers’ President Jeannie Buss was quick to retort, saying, “Any free agent that would be afraid to play with Kobe Bryant is probably a loser, and I’m glad they wouldn’t come to the team.”

Fair enough, but given that after Nick Young injured his hand playing against Bryant, Kobe seemed to lack a certain amount of empathy when he grumped, “You reach, you’re going to get hurt.” When Kobe was asked what it means to be mentoring prized rookie Julius Randle, you could practically feel the simmering rage: “It means he can’t f--- it up. If you f--- this up you’re a really big idiot.”

Well, then. It’s going to be fascinating to see if he can, in fact, defy Father Time and wring one or two more years out of his legs or hear his unfettered feelings about head coach and ex-Showtime star Byron Scott, who seems grim-facedly determined to return to an era when short shorts were still in vogue, eschewing the league-wide trend toward three pointers. I assume he thinks Chuck Taylors are still as the sneaker of choice and supports the idea of grabbing a quick smoke before tipoff.

THE ZEN GARDEN

Kobe’s agita might not be nearly so pronounced if the Lakers had re-hired Phil Jackson when he was pining for the gig back in 2012. As you may have heard, the old Knick packed up his leather saddlebags filled to the brim with sacred texts, and trundled back east to see if he can revive the moribund Knicks. He appointed his former floor general, Derek Fisher, as head coach to install the Triangle offense, and signed Carmelo Anthony to a shade under a max contract (five years, $124 million) to see if he, like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan before him, can expand his game beyond his otherworldy scoring ability and thrive in a motion, cut, and pick-based system. Granted, the Triangle has never worked unless Jackson himself was the man holding the clipboard and patrolling the sidelines, but for the first time in ages, there’s a sense of cautious optimism, and a long-term plan in place in Gotham outside of “Praying that James Dolan is too busy breaking Kazoo records to meddle.”

DRAKE

And last but certainly not least, will there be Drake? Yes, there will be Drake. The Toronto Raptors minority owner and chief fanboy will be around to troll opponents with a lint roller (really), help out at the Slam Dunk Contest, try to sneak into the occasional locker room, attempt to recruit a free agent or two, despite whatever fines might be levied, and even hoist up a couple of jumpers during warm-ups. It’ll be awesome.