15-Footer, 10/29/13: Welcome Back, My Friends

You know those cutesy videos of a mama bear and her cubs emerging from a long winter’s hibernation? Those videos with the wholesome narration over the top that tries to downplay the fact that there’s a half-ton of predatory instincts and solid bear spouting forth from the earth, preparing to devour any and all things that may cross their path?

We are all those bears today — fresh from the darkness of an NBA offseason, ready to tear apart the bounty laid before us. We are all those bears.


Orlando Magic at Indiana Pacers (7:00 PM)

If you forgot (or just plain didn’t know) that there was an undercard to tonight’s double main event, you are forgiven. The marquee games on TNT will get their fair share of the limelight, but true NBA diehards will have settled into their familiar rhythms more than an hour before the Bulls and Heat tip-off.

But there’s more than a dash of intrigue in this game. It’s our first chance to see Victor Oladipo in a regular season contest, and his ball handling skills will certainly be put to the test by a stout Indiana defense. The Pacers’ own issues with dribbling the ball, however, may very well give Oladipo a chance to flash the defensive panache for which he’s already starting to develop a reputation.

Roy Hibbert has something of a reputation as a defender as well; he played so well in the playoffs, particularly against the Miami Heat, that many have slotted the Pacers as a top-3 team in the Eastern Conference. But Hibbert’s performance brings its own questions along for the ride. He averaged just under 29 minutes per game in the regular season last year, and if Indiana is going to meet such lofty goals, they’ll almost certainly need for him to take a significant leap in playing time. His offensive game was limited by a wrist injury that healed over the course of last season; now that he’s healthy, whether or not Hibbert can combine his defensive prowess with improvement on the offensive end becomes one of the biggest unknowns for the Pacers.

Unfortunately, neither team will be at full strength tonight. The Pacers are without Danny Granger, a clause with which we’re all too familiar at this point. We knew that Granger’s long-term future in Indiana is up in the air; for his short-term outlook to be cloudy as well bodes poorly for both him and his team. The Magic will be without Tobias Harris, their frontcourt spark plug who gave Magic fans hope and Bucks fans heartburn last year after being traded from Milwaukee to Orlando.

The Pacers are the clear favorites tonight, but that’s about all that’s apparent with these two teams on opening night.

Chicago Bulls at Miami Heat (8:00 PM, TNT)

A funny thing happened for LeBron James on his way to two championships with the Heat — he got to dictate his own terms. With his collection of jewelry off to a nice start, James no longer hears the whispers about his competitive drive and clutch genetics. Instead, it seems that all but the most outspoken of his detractors have shut the hell up and learned to appreciate the greatness unfolding before us.

That sea change in perspective is most apparent in the reaction, or lack thereof, to the news that James would welcome Rose back before the game tonight. James is happy that Rose is back, as are we all; the game and the league are just better with a player of Rose’s caliber healthy and able to bring it on a nightly basis. Yet before Miami won two consecutive titles, such an act would have been met with caustic derision and denigration. It would indicate that LeBron is too soft, that he doesn’t have the fire burning inside that Kobe and MJ and Rose have, that he’s just too damned nice to ever win a championship. Nice guys don’t win championships; it’s an a priori part of the basketball legend.

A posteriori, we know that’s not the case. Those two rings are a powerful rebuttal to such an inane argument. LeBron James is a champion, nice-guys-finish-last demons and all. He is, as our own Jared Dubin called him, the sharing superstar. James will give you your piece of the pie, but remember — it’s his pie. If he doesn’t want you to have any, then you’re going to your room for the night without dessert. So of course James is happy that Derrick Rose is back on the court and at 100%. The NBA world’s a better place with Rose in it, and James likes it when the NBA world’s a better place. And on the competitive side of things, having one of your main rivals back at full-strength simply stokes the fire. Better to beat your opponent at his very best than to take advantage of weakness. James will welcome Rose back, then he’ll be presented with his second championship rings. When you’re LeBron James, you can have your cake and eat it too.

But tonight will be anything but a cakewalk for the Heat. The Bulls are more than game to take it to Miami and ruin their ring ceremony the same way the Heat did to the Mavericks two years ago. With a healthy Rose and the emergence of Jimmy Butler, Chicago is a drastically improved team compared to last year, while Miami is counting on the continuation of greatness.

The Bulls are particularly poised to exploit the Heat’s collective inability to rebound the ball. Last year, Chicago was a top-5 offensive rebounding unit, and they thrive on capitalizing on the chaos created by their second-chance opportunities. Per nbawowy.com, the Bulls eFG% on attempts following an offensive rebound was 50.9%, almost 4% higher than their 47.0% average. They shot slightly worse on 3-pointers after an offensive rebound than they did on all 3-pointers combined, but 8% of their 3s came after an offensive rebound. Chicago will look to take advantage of every extra possession they can get their hands on, and their defense will give the Heat fits as it always does. Never bet against LeBron, but when Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah are on the other end, it’s worth considering a hedge.

Los Angeles Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers at Los Angeles (10:30 PM, TNT)

First things first: the Lakers are staring Shawne Williams tonight. The Swagtime Lakers are fully engaged at this point; their phasers are set to “thoroughly entertaining for all the wrong reasons.” And after the kerfuffle about the Clippers covering up the Lakers’ banners during Clips home games, I sincerely hope the Lakers roll a giant spotlight out to center court and shine a beacon on the rafters during their starting lineup introduction, just for fun.

You’d have to be insane to have even the slightest expectation that the Lakers will win tonight. The Clippers have a new head coach with some actual gravitas in Doc Rivers, and they’ve added offensive firepower to their wings with J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. They’re looking for Blake Griffin to continue to be Blake Griffin and for he and DeAndre Jordan to take a big step forward on defense. If all the pieces fall into place for the Clippers, they’re championship contenders; if all the pieces fall apart for the Lakers, they’re Wiggins contenders.

But call me crazy, because I have a fever dream in which the Lakers run Steve Nash/Pau Gasol pick-and-rolls on every single play — even when both are on the bench — and feast on the still emerging defensive positioning in the middle for the Clippers. I imagine a scenario where shots won’t fall for the Clippers. I envision a world torn asunder by chaos, where after the first game of their seasons, the Lakers are undefeated, and the Clippers are in question. A million voices rise up as one and proclaim the supremacy of Lakers Nation, even if it’s just for 24 hours. Banners wave and flaunt their grandiosity. And somewhere, Kobe smiles.

It won’t happen, but tomorrow’s going to be a lot of fun if it does. Enjoy the games, friends. Enjoy the season.

Andrew Lynch

When God Shammgod created the basketball universe, Andrew Lynch was there. His belief in the superiority of advanced statistics and the eventual triumph of expected value-based analytics stems from the fact that he’s roughly as old as the concept of counting. With that said, he still loves the beauty of basketball played at the highest level — it reminds him of the splendor of the first Olympics — and the stories that spring forth from the games, since he once beat Homer in a game of rock-paper-scissors over a cup of hemlock. Dude’s old.