The Football Informant: The end, and the beginning

It is done. Finished. By the time you read this page, the next competitive football game will be more than six months in the future. For a while at least, we football fans must resign ourselves to other games, other interests. Although your informant will return next week for one final run in the Super Bowl recap, this has now become The Football Informant: On Stranger Sidelines.

Yet fear not, dear reader, for there is hope. You may have heard something about a winter professional sports league involving some kind of silly hoop that was having a bit of a labor dispute over the past few months. Yes, the NBA is in session, and it is in the midst of an unusually compelling season. The lockout – bitter, protracted, probably necessary, and yet ultimately pointless – has given way to a condensed season which has thrown a monkey wrench in an already wide-open championship hunt. Before the season, the presumptive favorites were the self-proclaimed Heatles of South Beach fame. Of course, as you may have heard, this team is led by the great LeBron James, a verifiable superstar whose signature talent thus far in his career is the ability to not win championships. Fair or not, it is undeniably true, as he has underperformed his Cleveland and Miami teams to disappointing playoff exits in a number of painful ways, most notably this past summer’s collapse to the heavy-underdog Dallas Mavericks in the Finals.

But beyond Miami, the rest of the league was in turmoil as well, as the old contenders of the past decade, notably the Lakers, Phoenix, Boston, and Detroit, were in varied states of decline. The Texas Titans, San Antonio and Dallas, both had impressive campaigns last season, but they also gave off the feeling of being farewell runs of aging superstars. The Spurs went down in disgrace in the first round of the playoffs, while the Mavericks pulled off a title run with an infusion of young talent then promptly traded that talent away in the offseason. Meanwhile, new contenders were rising to take the place of the old vanguard, as Oklahoma City, Chicago, the Knicks, and the Grizzlies had seen their expectations soar through a combination of success and hype. Indeed, the Thunder, the most improbable team in the NBA, one which owes its existence to Hurricane Katrina, of all things, opened the season as the Western Conference favorites.

A changing of the guard for the long term is unfolding this season, and this is the peak year where the old will meet the new. Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and Dirk Nowitzki are regrettably on their way out, if not now, then soon. Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and Ricky Rubio are poised to be the superstars of tomorrow, and this is now their time to shine.

And all of this is ignoring the single biggest non-lockout story of the season so far – the tale of two trades that unfolded within a week of each other in the drastically shortened preseason. The New Orleans Hornets were seeking to trade the soon-to-be free agent Chris Paul, who had expressed little interest in remaining in New Orleans following this season. As much as I hated the situation (Chris Paul, a legitimate superstar, was the only thing separating the Hornets from anonymous and irrelevant teams such as Milwaukee and Toronto), I could not fault either side in the proceedings. One of the most eager suitors of Paul happened to be the Los Angeles Lakers, who were desperate to stop their slide into the post-Kobe era. The trade had been set, and Paul was headed for the purple and gold, but then the unthinkable happened. David Stern, the NBA commissioner and arguably the chief executive of the league-owned Hornets, blindsided both organizations by flat-out negating the trade, supposedly at the behest of several vocal team owners who objected to the creation of another “superteam” after the LeBron-to-Miami debacle. The veto was corrupt, it was arbitrary, it was a conflict of interest on the league’s part, it was a serious transgression against the rights of the players involved and the authority of the Hornets’ general manager. In short, it was one of the worst decisions David Stern has ever made.

Selfishly, however, I cannot complain, because I avoided the awkward situation of my favorite player joining my most hated team. What happened next was a stunning turnaround that led to the complete upheaval of basketball in Los Angeles. The Lakers came unglued, as Lamar Odom, one of the pieces in the proposed Paul trade, became disgruntled with the team that he felt had backstabbed him. The Lakers were forced to trade Odom to Dallas essentially for peanuts, in the process dropping a talented player that they really could not afford to lose. Pau Gasol, the team’s second man, also reportedly wants out. Phil Jackson, the long-time head coach of the Lakers, had retired following the team’s playoff defeat last spring, taking with him the precise, insanely difficult, almost unstoppable Triangle offense. The results have shown this season, as the Lakers have reverted to their pre-Gasol scheme of “Give the ball to Kobe and get out of his way,” a tactic that has sent them plummeting to near the bottom of the league on offense. The Lakers are heading to a middle playoff seed, a likely early-round exit, and plenty of questions for the future.

On the other side of the coin, Chris Paul was still available for trade, with the caveat that such trades might be randomly shot down. There was no consensus if the league would even permit Paul to be traded, but the Los Angeles Clippers, the anonymous little brother of the Lakers, decided to roll the dice, sending Eric Gordon, a budding prospect with a high upside, to the Hornets for Paul. The new Clippers trio of Paul, dunk machine Blake Griffin, and veteran Chauncey Billups, architect of the early-2000s Pistons, was the equal of any in the league save the Miami Big Three. They quickly proved their worth, sweeping the Lakers in the preseason and weathering early growing pains to rush out to one of the league’s best records. With regular-season wins over the Lakers, Heatles, Mavericks, and Thunder, these Clippers are a real threat to win it all, joining a cast of unlikely contenders across the league.
The top of the NBA standings right now contains a surprising jumble of favorites and unexpected contenders. Oklahoma City lead the West, while Denver is sitting in second after avenging a loss to the Clippers. Chicago and Miami are setting the pace in the East, but they are being trailed by Indiana and Philadelphia in the third and fourth spots. This unlikely crew shows some of the effects of the lockout. Teams that experienced little offseason turnover were far better prepared to deal with a shortened preseason than those that overhauled the roster.
The shortened training camp has also given an unusual advantage to teams that play at altitude, namely Denver and Utah. The upshot of this is that the no-name Nuggets, cobbled together in the aftermath of last year’s midseason Carmelo trade, have a legitimate title shot this season. A different player leads the team in every major statistical category, from top scorer Danilo Gallinari to defensive dominator Nene, and although this team lacks star power, they are solid in a season where stoic consistency is the recipe for success. Ty Lawson, Al Harrington, and Andre Miller may not be household names to most, but they currently play for a team only 3 1/2 games behind the best record in the NBA. Admittedly, basketball does not really become interesting until the brink of the playoffs, but it has been a promising start. As Dallas proved last season, anything is possible in this league, and these Nuggets have as good a chance as any to bring home the hardware for the first time. Regardless, it will be fun to watch.

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