- Michael Wilbon, Pardon the Interruption co-host
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It's difficult to make the argument that professional basketball will be the beautiful game this season. A rushed free-agent signing period, an abbreviated training camp, scant preseason competition, a seriously compressed schedule and next-to-no practice time adds up in all likelihood to an uneven, unpredictable and even perhaps aesthetically unappealing regular NBA season.
Fortunately, the NBA operates in a culture that values theater more than artistry, and this season's league will have plenty of the former. There should be no shortage of drama, not with the dominant teams of the recent past -- the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs -- struggling to remain relevant; not with LeBron James entering Year 9 of his pursuit of a first championship; not with the Knicks threatening to contend; not with the Clippers threatening to overtake the Lakers for the affections of Los Angelenos; not with a team from Oklahoma City front-running in the West; not with all that residual contentiousness from The Lockout needing to come to rest somewhere.
It's almost impossible to believe that the season won't pick up where it left off: with a larger-than-basketball obsession with the Miami Heat and whether they're a reality show or a championship club. Because the Mavericks are now without two of their important contributors in last spring's playoffs, Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea, certainly Miami is the favorite going in, even with point guard and center just as unresolved as they were for the Heat last season.
The difference between this year and last, if anything is going to change for Miami, is LeBron and a couple of small but fundamental changes he decided to make over the summer/fall. His acknowledgement of the need to have a better post-up game is the critical basketball element. Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley have been pointing out for years that LeBron has to take his talents down to the low post, the better to use his 260-pound frame to not only punish defenses personally but also to balance the offense and help Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh be more effective. If LeBron plays in the post, the Heat will find themselves, organically, in something akin to a triangle offense.
Almost as important is LeBron figuring out after one season in Miami that he should stop messing around with playing the part of the villain. It didn't suit him and, as he essentially admitted it consumed him, it probably threw him off his game.
Bottom line is, LeBron, Wade and Bosh will be better collectively now that each better understands his role. There shouldn't be any feeling-out period with Erik Spoelstra the second time around. No way the Heat will get off to that slow a start again, or lose that many close games again.
And the only team that can stop Miami is Chicago.
Forget about the teams out West. The Mavericks made a nice recovery getting Lamar Odom for nothing, and Rodrigue Beaubois might just make up for the loss of Barea. But as Dirk Nowitzki said at the All-Star break in February, Chandler and his defensive tenacity were the difference between last year's Mavericks and all the other Mavs teams that came up short in the playoffs. I didn't listen to Dirk then, but I'm hearing him now. Chandler's departure is going to hurt.
Thing is, everybody out West is flawed. It's hard to pick Oklahoma City until we know whether Russell Westbrook is going to concede that Kevin Durant is the best player on the team. If not, the Thunder will falter again. The Lakers have so little margin for error; they'll have to finally get a career-defining year from Andrew Bynum (including playing at least 60 of the 66 games); an MVP-level season from Kobe Bryant; and really, really strong support performances from Derek Fisher, Steve Blake, Metta World Peace and coach Mike Brown.
I'm kind of quietly rooting for the Spurs on some level, just to be able to savor an encore performance. They were never appreciated as much as they should have been at their championship best. But it's unlikely, given how little tread is left on the tires, that they can successfully navigate a schedule that has them playing two back-to-back-to-backs and 17 back-to-backs and reach the playoffs healthy enough. Tim Duncan is 35, Manu Ginobili is 34, and Tony Parker in his 11th season. Gregg Popovich is probably the coach most likely to come up with clever ways to rest his stars, even if it means banning them from the arena at opportune times. Still, that sounds more like nostalgia than championship basketball.
The Clippers -- despite being must-see TV, what with CP3 throwing those lob passes for dunks to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan -- aren't even close to being ready to do something like reach the conference finals. Perhaps Memphis is, though. Anybody else with a roster this complete, we'd take seriously. After all, probably the only thing the Grizzlies missed last season was a reliable scorer from inside and out, preferably a high-flying finisher such as, well, Rudy Gay, who is healthy now and back in the Memphis lineup. Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Gay might be a little less potent than Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Chandler in New York, but they certainly seem a worthy match in the category of Best NBA Frontcourt.
Still, the more we flesh this out, the more it sounds like Dallas versus Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals again.
And in the other conference, Chicago looks best equipped to wrestle with Miami for the right to represent the East. Stability will be critical in the confines of this condensed season, and the Heat and the Bulls will have barely a ripple. Yes, Rip Hamilton makes that big a difference in a seven-game series with Miami, and Derrick Rose has shown an ability to make dramatic improvement in every year of his basketball life, from state champion in high school to Final Four to rookie playoff records in the NBA to league MVP and conference finalist. The only thing separating Chicago and Miami in May was a wingman for Rose; now he has it in Hamilton, a player so polished and confident the other Bulls can hardly believe how lucky they are to have him to start the season.
More than in any season ever, depth is going to matter in the NBA. Miami helped itself by signing Shane Battier, but Tom Thibodeau played 10 in Chicago last year and will again this year. With so few practice days -- some coaches are guessing that teams will have fewer than 25 practices between now and the playoffs -- familiarity is another factor. Change, at least this season, isn't good.
The Knicks will be better, but they start the season wildly overrated if for no other reason than their uncertain guard play, which could make Anthony the team's best playmaker. Among other things, the East will be noticeable for this reason: the evolution of young teams such as the 76ers and Pacers who are short on star power but have pieces that fit and are well-coached. Like it or not, folks are simply going to have to get used to hearing a lot more about players named Paul George and Jrue Holiday.
Playoff teams in the West: Thunder, Mavericks, Lakers, Grizzlies, Spurs, Clippers, Trail Blazers, Nuggets.
Playoff teams in the East: Heat, Bulls, Celtics, Knicks, 76ers, Pacers, Magic, Hawks.
A pair of conference finals rematches awaits, series that would pit the best and most stable teams, ones that will be rewarded for playing to their strengths while making subtle changes. Beautiful basketball may be the delayed gratification at the end of a season that was in serious jeopardy just six weeks ago, and the drama could make even the game's biggest critics forgive and forget the past five months of shenanigans.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can email him here and follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.
The NBA season will be fast, furious and frenetic. (Beautiful? Maybe not so much.) And as it opens, the spotlight shines on LeBron James (doesn't it always?) and the Heat. Again.