The Warriors and Cavs remain supreme. The Spurs and Clippers are world-beaters. But there are other teams in the league that will draw us in despite sometimes flying under the radar.
NBA training camps open in weeks. Weeks! While watching preseason basketball is worse than watching no basketball at all, our long national nightmare is almost over.
The return of our beloved Association is now officially on the horizon, and the sounds of sneakers squeaking and twine swishing will soon be here once again.
Unfortunately, the upcoming season looks like it may be largely academic.
Barring major injury, the Golden State Warriors team that won a record 73 games then replaced Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant looks like it will walk to the NBA Finals. While the Eastern Conference is a bit less clear, no team appears to have improved enough to really challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Only fools care solely for the end game, however.
In a basketball season, as in life, the joy is in the journey, not the destination.
A Finals rematch for the third straight time is likely in the cards again, but there will be plenty to watch and enjoy all year. Outside of the juggernaut in each conference, there exists a type of team that flies a bit under the radar but will prove highly compelling.
Dictionary.com tells us this means, “having a powerful and irresistible effect” or “requiring acute admiration, attention, or respect.”
That is what these teams are. Not all will be must-watch — and one is must-not watch — but the outlook of their organizations is uncertain and their strategy, or lack thereof, will continue to prove intriguing.
These are the most compelling teams for the 2016-17 season.
Sam Hinkie is out. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are in. Someone will get traded. An errant jumpshot could kill a fan.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ current roster is an experiment of a mad scientist bent on watching the world burn. It is the product of a cynical, brazen outlook that placed a stunning value on future hope, with no concern for the decorum and tradition of competition in the league.
None of that matters anymore.
The new-look Sixers will soon be on the court, and the show will be must-see. In addition to the other-worldly passing talent and athleticism of Simmons and the massive size and potential of Embiid, the squad is also getting Dario Saric. The high-flying, 22-year-old Croatian impressed in flashes at the Olympics in Rio de Janiero and adds just one more element to a team where everyone is at least 6-foot-10 with a top-10 pick pedigree.
The guard quality means that the on-the-floor performance will be very ugly at times. That will be part of the charm, where the highlights will be as high as the lowlights are low.
There has never been a team remotely like this.
The Sixers are chock full of upside, and it will be glorious to watch the seeds of the future all start to germinate.
The Utah Jazz will be a joy to watch. In a basketball dork sense, this is the squad that the who’s-who of the Association cognoscenti will be discussing and telling you to check out on League Pass.
And for good reason.
The Rudy Gobert-Derrick Favors combination down low is the league’s best kept secret, while Gordon Hayward headlines a seemingly limitless collection of useful to high-level wing players. They even managed to add in old favorites Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw to complement all the younger folk.
Reason number two is that the Jazz of today, like the Memphis Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers before them, stand in contrast to the team-building strategies common in the league.
Tank-for-picks or assemble-like-Voltron are the two dominant methods now employed by front offices. While you can say Utah bottomed out after the Deron Williams deal, they also generally have made moves with an eye towards getting players who can play right now and can meld together. The have not been just buying lottery tickets on the wings of a hope and aprayer.
This doesn’t necessarily make them morally superior. It just is what it is. They are a mom-and-pop store that has found some unlikely success and now have to try to compete with the economy-of-scale behemoths that have slick McKinsey-inspired operational optimization strategies and personnel-acquisition methodology algorithms.
The presence of the Warriors means there’s likely no room for another contender out West. And there’s no saying whether the Jazz can hit on their ceiling to actually run with the likes of the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs.
But now that the Jazz have drafted well, developed their talent to higher levels than most expected, and picked up veterans who can help make everything click, it will be fascinating to see if this can actually still work in 2017.
What the hell are the Orlando Magic? The team continues to flip some of its best talent for pieces that don’t seem complementary to one another. They don’t make a lot of sense.
Reaching for Serge Ibaka, while giving up Victor Oladipo, is reasonable in some contexts. But it is harder to defend when you go out and sign Bismack Biyombo and Jeff Green immediately thereafter.
This is made all the stranger still by these people all needing time in a front court that features, arguably, the team’s best player, Nikola Vucevic, and quite-literal rising star Aaron Gordon.
Even if you understandably presume that Green was just an opportunity pickup on a who-cares one-year deal, the paint is too crowded. And this isn’t an overcrowded jambalaya concoction you’re curious to sample, like with the 76ers.
It’s just too many people, people.
Is a trade coming? Will Aaron Gordon somehow get the short end of the minutes stick? Is Bismack Biyombo even that good? Can Serge Ibaka regain some of his earlier-career form? Will Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris make huge strides for other teams and continue making the Magic look like their long-term plan is unknowable?
Lots of questions — with no promise of any answers.
The Sacramento Kings are the Kardashians of the NBA. Even though you really don’t care or understand what they’re up to, the things they keep doing always somehow make their way into your news feed.
And after so much comical and unfathomable behavior, you are left with no other choice but to watch.
Not the games. Oh, good lord, don’t you dare watch the games. There’s no reason to do that, outside of seeing a talent like DeMarcus Cousins, who seems equal parts throwback and the future.
Following the Kings should be done like listening to a podcast about a TV show you have never seen. The actual product isn’t interesting or something you need to be all that familiar with.
The discussion surrounding the team is what compels.
You have to care about the Kings if only to live in a world where the anticipation of their next head-scratching move can only be trumped by the even-more-head-scratching move they actually make.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook plays like a man shot out of a cannon on an average Tuesday night during a back-to-back in Milwaukee.
What on god’s heavenly earth will this man do now?
Welcome to Deathwish: The NBA Season.
This isn’t just one of the most compelling storylines of the 2016-17 season. This could become a scientific study in the bounds of human aggression.
Future generations may look back upon what Russell Westbrook did over the next eight months as the origin of how intelligent life learned to unlock the full potential of our physical frame in order to push society towards a civilization of super people.
Westbrook may give birth to the next evolution of mankind, in the process teaching us the secrets we need to learn if we ever hope to achieve interstellar travel and leave this dying rock to continue our uniquely human quest to understand the universe within a different solar system with a longer timeline for inhabitability.
Russ is going to do things this season that have never been done.
We will watch, but we will not understand.
Then we will watch again.