Glorious way to get it going
We interrupt this increasingly interesting NFL season to inform you that the Los Angeles Lakers begin defense - what? The Celtics won? I think that's going to come as news to some of the pundits. So scratch that. The World's Greatest Basketball League begins its 62d season tonight, and the Boston Celtics are the defending champions, you betcha.
The commissioner will be here to dole out the rings to the champs, and he will be able to hold his head higher than in the past few years since the American-born players from the league over which he presides have actually won a major international championship for the first time since 2000. Of course, as the Big Cheese of the NBA, David Stern can take great general pride in the fact that 26 of the 36 players who stood on the podium in Beijing to receive their golds, silvers, and bronzes perform in the National Basketball Association.
But about those Lakers. They are indeed the chic pick to win the 2008-09 title. The only rotation loss from the team that reached the 2008 NBA Finals was Ronny Turiaf, who sought more playing time in Sacramento. And to that mix they welcome back 21-year-old center Andrew Bynum, who, when you weren't looking, was quietly inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in a private ceremony last September.
But there are many NBA folks who are making it seem that way. They keep pointing to how well he was playing when he sustained a season-ending kneecap injury last January, and they say that he, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza, and Luke Walton will constitute the NBA's No. 1 frontcourt this season.
I grant you, the Bynum numbers are impressive, even more than I thought. I've been going around telling people his entire reputation was based on six games played just prior to his injury. Mea culpa. That's just not so. It's more like 17 games, during which the Lakers went 14-3 and in which he averaged 16 points and 7 rebounds while shooting 68 percent from the floor. And he just tossed in 23 points during a 29-minute exhibition outing against the Oklahoma City Thunder (nee Seattle SuperSonics, which is another story we'll get to) the other night.
The league's general managers overwhelmingly selected the Lakers to dethrone the Celtics, and all I can say is that among them are people who have made some drafting decisions that do not exactly qualify them for a basketball Mensa chapter, so take that for what it's worth.
But it's great to have the Lakers in the championship discussion, just as it's great for the NBA to have the Boston Celtics back on top. History is history, after all, and between them these two franchises have created a disproportionate amount of the league's highlights while providing the world with a disproportionate amount of the league's greatest stars. And I am including, of course, the glorious run of the Minneapolis Lakers, the dominant team of pro basketball's first decade.
There are three reasons why someone would doubt the Celtics' chances to repeat, and only two of them are valid. The first reason is injury. Ray Allen is 33. Kevin Garnett is 32. Paul Pierce is 31. You've got to be realistic. Something could happen.
The second reason is the loss of James Posey to the New Orleans Hornets. He is a unique auxiliary force. There just isn't anyone like him. There is no other midsized player who not only can guard a variety of star players but who also enjoys it, and who makes big threes and who thrives in playoff situations, and who has no problem coming off the bench. If James Posey were still here, does anyone doubt the Celtics would be something approaching overwhelming favorites to repeat?
The final reason is motivation, the possibility that the Celtics could adopt a been-there-done-that mentality.
With Kevin Garnett as the team's spiritual guide? Next question.
On paper, this should be a great year for the league. The West remains strong, with Portland and Houston perhaps moving up, even as Dallas, Phoenix, and Denver begin to slip. It's not going to happen for any of these three teams, not as currently constituted. Dallas coulda/woulda/absolutely shoulda won in 2006 when it was up on Miami, 2-0, and in possession of a nice lead in Game 3. Sorry, Mavs. It's over. It's likewise over in Phoenix. Mike D'Antoni is gone, Steve Nash is getting up there, and Shaquille O'Neal is a toothless lion whose roars are ignored. Denver? Traded away Marcus Camby. The Nuggets plumb gave up.
Don't ignore those San Antonio Spurs. As long as they have Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili (assuming he recovers from ankle surgery), they'll win 50 and they will be the proverbial tough out next spring.
The East is getting better and the Celtics know very well there are a couple of feisty foxes in the henhouse in Philadelphia and Toronto. The aggressive, athletic 76ers lost no one who mattered and added Elton Brand, a 20-10 machine. The Raptors picked up a newly motivated Jermaine O'Neal to go with Jose Calderon and the sinfully underappreciated Chris Bosh. Any questions about how good he is should be addressed to "K, Coach," in care of Durham, N.C. It'll get there.
Detroit is not winning any more titles with that group, either, and no one knows it better than that wily Joe Dumars, who is remaking the Pistons as a younger, springier bunch behind future star Rodney Stuckey. But attention must still be paid.
The great soap opera that is the Knicks will take on a new look with D'Antoni as coach. The Knicks will not make the playoffs, but they will score points and every once in a while they'll nail a biggie. Come on, we need the Knicks to be good. It quadruples the fun.
Now, for the first time since the 1966-67 season, there will be no team in Seattle. This is a sordid tale that all comes down to one thing: luxury boxes. Key Arena isn't plush enough for the swells who are the only ones of import as far as modern owners are concerned. The NBA has abandoned one of the five best cities in America because of an unsatisfactory arena, not because Joe Fan didn't care.
The King County taxpayers built palaces for the Mariners and Seahawks, and now they're tapped out. It's totally understandable. But the NBA should feel ashamed. This league entered the Pacific Northwest amid great fanfare in 1967, and this has been a very substantial franchise. Don't ask me what, but something should have been done and I mean no disrespect to Oklahoma City, which rallied around the relocated Hornets in the awful post-Katrina days and deserves a shot at the major leagues. This is a bad exchange for the league.
Where were we? Oh, the Cavaliers are here tonight. That means LeBron James is in town and he is the most riveting player in basketball. Can't think of a better way to start a season myself.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.