Happy returns, NBA!
SUBJECT: OPENING NIGHT!
J.A.: Israel, the only thing that might top my exuberance for the return of the NBA is my happiness to be back on BBM now that BlackBerry has made its messaging service available for iPhone and Android. And since we're on the theme of returns, I'll ask you: Which return will we end up discussing at the end of June: Derrick Rose's return to action, Oklahoma City's return to the NBA Finals or LeBron's return to the makeshift on-court stage to accept more championship hardware?
Israel: Slow down on that jump to June. There are too many other returns that will be forgotten by then. Although I will say the most intriguing return so far has been by a player who'll likely be playing into June, and that's Greg Oden.
J.A.: Can we start with Oden playing into the second half of a game? As great as it was to see him back on the court, I think he's got a long way to go. But Rose is ready right now. And he's playing at a speed that most teams in the league -- including the Heat when they're in cruise control -- can't match. That alone will be worth extra regular-season wins for the Bulls.
Israel: OK, I'll stay away from Oden until we're sure he can survive a handful of games. But I will say I've never watched four minutes of preseason ball more intently than I did Oden's four minutes.
As for Rose, I think the league needs him. He's everything you love about basketball (explosive, unpredictable, amazingly quick) wrapped in a point guard's body. He's LeBron's East Coast nemesis, and he's wildly entertaining to watch. We all want to see whether this smallish powerhouse can knock off a potential soon-to-be G.O.A.T. I don't think he can do it ... yet. But if the preseason is any indication, he'll be more fun to watch this season than ever.
J.A.: You know who can be as fun as Rose? John Wall. Not as good, but as fun. Certainly as fast -- if not faster. And, as with Rose, that speed will lead to easy baskets, which will lead to more victories, which will lead to playoff basketball in D.C.!!! (Sorry about all the exclamation points, but when a franchise has been to the playoffs only six times since 1989 even the thought deserves bonus punctuation).
Israel: It's cool. Something about that franchise and playoffs creates inexplicable levels of excitement, which results in shirts being made celebrating reaching the second round. But Wall's return, although it will be entertaining, isn't in the same realm as Russell Westbrook's pending comeback.
He's the primary reason, assuming he returns healthy and looking like his normal self, I have the Thunder back in the Finals this season. They may not have the best record at season's end, but with Westbrook and a combination of Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb, the Thunder still have enough. But that's why Westbrook is so critical. He's the difference between a potential first-round exit and a trip to the Finals.
J.A: I wish the presence or absence of Rajon Rondo and Kobe Bryant could create as wide a range as Westbrook. The problem is it doesn't feel like even full-fledged returns by them could get the Celtics to the playoffs or the Lakers past the first round.
Do you realize that if the Lakers and Celtics both miss the playoffs, it would be the first postseason without either of those franchises since 1994? Oh, and David Stern could claim the Best Timing award for taking the commissioner's job four months before a Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals and leaving three months before a playoffs devoid of the league's two most historical teams. That's even better than Mark Twain's birth and death coinciding with Halley's Comet visits. Because even a "timely" death still involves dying.
Israel: Kobe's return from his Achilles injury might be the most pre-June intriguing, just because he's such an interesting narrative all by himself. He wants so badly to return from this injury as though he'd never been hurt. But historically, Achilles injuries are difficult to recover from. And Kobe, for as tough as he is, hasn't ever had to come back from this type of injury. That's why the reaction to his 25th ranking in our #NBArank and to the GM survey was so funny to me. Is it really a stretch to believe that this upcoming version of Kobe would be the 25th-best player in the league? Or that without a healthy Kobe, that the Lakers could be the 12th-best team in the West, which was also predicted? It wouldn't be an indictment of Kobe's career if that happens. It would be just the reality of age and injury. I still have the Lakers snatching a final playoff spot. But Kobe's role in that run will be fascinating to watch.
J.A.: Kobe has reached the point where he's fascinating even without playing. What he says, tweets or posts on Facebook is just as interesting as what he does on the court. He hasn't played a second of the regular season, playoffs, summer league, preseason or even practice since April 12. Yet he's in the news every week. In the 17 years since he came into the NBA as a skinny teenager, one thing hasn't changed: With Kobe, we're always intrigued by the possibility of what he might do.
Israel: OK, so let's skip ahead to June. (Has anybody mentioned Kevin Love is returning, too, by the way? I feel like he has been entirely forgotten.) The Bulls seem to be the trendy pick to upset the Heat and win it all. I'm not ready to go there yet, in large part because we're making too many assumptions there. We're assuming the Bulls will be a well-oiled machine with an improved Rose and a still-great defense.
We're assuming the Heat are not better than they were last season or the season before that. And frankly, they are. This is the best, deepest Heat team since LeBron arrived, and Dwyane Wade is as healthy as he's been in a few years.
We're also assuming that the mental fatigue will be too much for the Heat, and really this team appears as prepared for that as any that has gone through similar pressures. On top of that, I think the Pacers remain better-suited to beat Miami (although if the Bulls and Pacers meet in the playoffs first, I think the Bulls would win that series).
So yes, I think ultimately the final return will be LeBron returning to that podium celebrating a third straight title.
J.A.: Here's one more return we haven't discussed: The return of the Spurs. They're the team that keeps returning and returning after we've written its obituary.
Last season the Spurs returned to the Finals for the first time since 2007. This season they'll get back and finish the job. Not even the versatile Heat could figure out what to do with Kawhi Leonard. He'll carry the Spurs to the Finals; then their old cast of familiar faces will bring it home.
In the end, the biggest return will be the longest: seven years in the making.