The NBA season opened last night, with a whiff of the inevitable in the air. There were three contests on the slate to start the season, but all will be forgiven if they only cared to watch two of them. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards technically got the season started, but theirs was the kind of check-your-local-listings 0.2 Nielsen rating kind of game that dominates an NBA schedule. Who knows? Cleveland and Washington may go on to have successful (by their standards) seasons, but in the face of what succeeded it, you couldn’t blame even the most ardent NBA fan for thinking that the Cavs and Wiz were just rounding out the exhibition season.
For what succeeded was a made for national television double-header that featured all of the NBA’s important storylines for the 2012-13 season. And I do mean all of them, because on the surface, this upcoming campaign felt like a long, slow trudge towards the inevitability of the finals matchup between Miami and Los Angeles.
But a funny thing happened on the way to an early coronation. Miami certainly did their part, but that was to be expected. For who thought that the Heat would do anything other than show up, get their incredibly gaudy championship rings (219 diamonds!), raise their terrible looking banner, and then rub it in the face of the increasingly irrelevant Boston Celtics (we took your Ray Allen). No wonder Rajon Rondo resorted to a petulant flagrant foul on Dwayne Wade as time ran down. We may be seeing just the tip of the frustration iceberg from Rondo, who perhaps knows more than most that the Heat cannot be challenged in the Eastern Conference.
What happened in the late game is of interest. The Lakers, with their shiny new Dwight Howard and their shiny old Steve Nash, seemed to be the only thing going in the West. That position was further bolstered earlier in the week when the Thunder traded James Harden to Houston, thereby weakening the only team that might have a shot at taking down the latest Los Angeles super team.
But the game was a different story. The Lakers’ performance on Tuesday should be seen as a major red flag. Forget the fact that the Lake show has a bunch of new personnel, and that they say that they are instituting a new offensive scheme for Mike Brown. The bottom line is that the Lakers appeared to not know that they were in a competitive game on Tuesday night. They were slow, uninspired and completely out of sorts. They were beaten by a Dallas team that is in the midst of an identity crisis at the moment. They have zero players on their roster who are on long-term contracts, and the only foundational player on their team, Dirk Nowitzki, was of course absent through injury. This grab-bag collection of NBA journeymen a cut below the upper echelon of player (Elton Brand, Eddy Curry, O.J. Mayo) then proceeded to manhandle a team that could easily feature four of the five Western Conference All-Star starters.
How did they do it? Simple. The Mavericks did the one thing that we assume our athletes should do at all times. They showed up and played like they gave a rat’s ass that they were professional basketball players, whereas the Lakers sleepwalked. Every put back from Brand, or Shawn Merian was met with chest-bumping, high-fiving, and general enthusiasm rarely seen in the emotion-bereft regular season in the NBA. The Lakers response was to set a meager pick to (sort of) free up a jump shooter, who would casually pop a shot, shrug his shoulders when it didn’t go in, and slowly slog towards the defensive end of the court.
This has to be the fear for the Lakers. While no team in the Western Conference appears capable of beating them, they may turn out to be more than capable of beating themselves. Their roster appears to be built perfectly. Howard is meant to the dominating inside presence, with Gasol operating in the space he creates. Nash is meant to be the distributor, while Kobe does his Kobe thing and Metta World Peace operates as the ultimate (and I do mean ultimate) wild card.
On Tuesday night, none of those players did any of those things. Howard looked lackadaisical, Gasol looked lost. Bryant looked bored, Nash kept running down blind alleys with the ball and World Peace looked like his “wild card” idea of the night was to try and be a scorer, which he did to the tune of three points on 1-8 shooting.
Of course, this is only one game. The Lakers should be fine. But I’m backing off my stance that the NBA season is a foregone conclusion. The Lakers can be taken down this year, but only if they do it themselves. They’ve already done it once.