There are those who will tell you that the 2017-18 NBA season — which, as you might have heard, tips off tonight — is a formality, perfunctory, preamble. That it’s just something we have to sit through until we get to the part that actually matters: namely, the part where the Golden State Warriors, winners of two of the last three NBA championships and overwhelming favorites to take a third, renew unpleasantries with LeBron James‘ Cleveland Cavaliers for a fourth straight summer.
They will look at the Warriors, who should be even better this year with a full year of continuity after adding Kevin Durant, and they will find themselves agreeing with Draymond Green. They will look at the Cavaliers, featuring a retooled rotation that may or may not leave them better equipped to break back against Golden State, and think they still look good enough to get there, because it’s not like anybody else in the East has LeBron.
“The toughest thing for me is I have to get on TV and fake it for seven months that it’s not going to be the Warriors and Cavs in the finals again,” Charles Barkley told Marc Stein of the New York Times.
They will look at all that, and at the “garbage” it leaves behind, and they will tell you that all the things they shout between now and June are about distracting you.
To that, I say: sing it, Kyrie.
oh if ur very much woke there is no such thing as distractions pic.twitter.com/VsQ6pWURTE
— yaBOOsele (@jackhaveitall) September 18, 2017
Stories aren’t only about their final pages, journeys aren’t only about their destinations, and sports aren’t only about who wins. There’s more to this than who lifts the trophy at the end, there always has been, and as we launch into a new round of forced debate and take-pardoning, you can reject the notion that there isn’t. You can — you should — remain open to the idea that there is something in this sport, in this league, and in all its teams, to help sustain you every night.
There are big-picture chemistry experiments in Houston, Oklahoma City and Boston to monitor. But those wide frames contain miniature galaxies. How it feels when James Harden starts to cook, and how Chris Paul keeps the world on a string. The way reality seems to bend when Russell Westbrook lifts off, the teleportation of Paul George navigating every freaking screen, and Carmelo Anthony proving that the jab-step is a sharper weapon than any point of a triangle. Kyrie Irving‘s disappearing dribble and unfathomable finishing, Marcus Smart‘s irresistible amplitude, and “Gino Time.”
There’s the staggering array of young talent on display every night — Giannis, and Kristaps, and Towns, and Embiid, my God, Embiid. There’s LeBron and Jokic and Manu making passes that remind you how much fun it can be when everyone’s involved, and Lonzo and Milos on their way to join the party. There’s Kawhi bullying, and Draymond bullying, and Rudy bullying.
There’s John Wall‘s end-to-end sprinting and left-hand thunder, Anthony Davis being everywhere at once, and DeMarcus Cousins‘ face-up drives making you wonder how the Hulk also got to be Spider-Man. There’s Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, always outnumbered but never outgunned. There’s Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and Erik Spoelstra’s Miami Heat, who will grit their teeth and pulverize their way to where they need to be, and take their chances with the favorites come April and May. There’s Andre Drummond trying to prove he really can shoot free throws now, and Reggie Jackson trying to prove he’s not the kind of player who makes his teammates want to kill him, and your semi-regular reminders of just how freaking massive Boban Marjanovic is.
There’s Atlanta, Brooklyn, Chicago, Indiana, Phoenix and Sacramento, all featuring some pretty watchable players — Myles Turner, D’Angelo Russell, Zach LaVine (when he gets back from an ACL tear), Devin Booker, Dennis Schröder, De’Aaron Fox, Caris LeVert, Skal Labissiere, and more — and all entrenched in reconstruction efforts that will alternate between remarkable and repellent depending on the night. There is Kemba Walker-as-Diet Stephen Curry, and Dirk Nowitzki back for year 20 to rage against the dying of the light.
There’s Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood and Ricky Rubio trying to help keep the Jazz afloat after Gordon Hayward shipped out. There are connections with communities, and relationships that go beyond winning percentages and hardware; there’s Zach Randolph and Tony Allen getting their jerseys raised to the rafters of FedExForum, and Mike Conley and Marc Gasol trying to prove there’s life after grit-and-grind.
There will be things that are ridiculous and sublime, things that make us laugh and wince, and — this year, especially — things that make us pause, and think, and consider who we are and what we believe. There will be J.R. Smith, perfectly and naturally, encompassing it all.
There will be a lot, is what I’m saying. There will be so much, and we can make room in our heads and hearts for all of it. Or, if we can’t quite, at least we can try.
You don’t need to reduce this unbelievably fun and ludicrous league to the one team that’s going to win and the one or two others most likely to give them a run. You don’t need to spend seven months listening to disingenuous commentators burning calories trying to trick you into caring or distract you from the stuff they say doesn’t matter. Not when you can make the choice to treat it like it all matters.
It’s never a bad idea to take grace where you find it. If you look hard enough, you can find some trace of it in the NBA — in a pass, in a finish, in well-timed help, in a gym rising as one in rapture in the late seconds of the shot clock — just about every night. The search starts anew tonight. See you out there.
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