But first, LeBron the aggressor.
Whose Chamber of Fear Is It Anyway?
The thinking, common to the year 2010 in its middle months: LeBron James's move to Miami was a sign of complacency. Most charitably, it was a consolidation of power; a return to the buddy-buddy idyll of Bron's Akron days; or the ultimate in NBA war games, a career move that, however tawdry, certainly represented the shortest route to victory.
Any way you slice it, LeBron's flight -- as we have been over a thousand times already -- wasn't in keeping with the great American tradition of rugged individualism. We couldn't paper it over with those rags, which almost always mask a complex system that, eventually, is appreciated for what it truly was. Totally butt-kicking dudes like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson told us that James copped out, showed his true colors, and already ceded his place in history. Fellow writers, take notes; the currents of history almost always flow in the opposite direction.
Even those most sympathetic to (or maybe just open-minded about) the 2010-11 Heat expected a muted, more cerebral LeBron. One greatly underrated aspect of this team: as with everything else, the Big Three has basketball IQ in spades. You would expect a Steve Smith preseason interview with James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh to consist of nothin' but fluff. Smith gave it his best shot, but the Axis of Awesome had trouble keeping their canned responses under control, instead foaming at the mouth and talking over each other about defensive switches and triggering the break. Even when it comes to pap, there's a zone waiting with their name on it.
Yet what if James and Bosh responded to their new digs, and the summer uproar, by coming in with something to prove?
They know what the world's saying about them; their respective legacies in Cleveland and Toronto have been beaten into oblivion. To some degree, that's their own fault; James and Bosh bolted, loudly implying that all was lost and the ceiling had been touched. At the same time, the backdrop of their careers is now strangely blank. Who is LeBron James? Some zip-lined, telepathic hulk who wandered in from space to join the Heat. We heard nearly a thousand times last night from the NBA-TV crew that James can do anything if he put his mind to it. I can't tell if this is the new vein of anti-Bron criticism to mine, or a strain of awe that the marketing folks would call a "reboot." For what it's worth, Bosh strangely reminded me of his Georgia Tech days.
When Wade went down, it was last weekend's Eagles-Redskins tilt repeated like plague. At the same time, while watching this three superstars together brought a non-stop thrill of discovery -- even on a possession that burned through the shot clock -- James and Bosh alone were themselves a holy terror. No, I'm not putting much stock in the preseason, or the Pistons. Yet these two players known for passivity and muddle, working in a totally irrelevant setting, refused to stop swinging. Hard. James barreled into the paint, moved the ball at light-speed, and effortlessly hit the open man every time. This was the last player on Earth whose heart or missions statement you would ever question. Bosh, too, had blessed little drift or slouch to him. Newly muscled, he played with purpose. I know, that sounds like a cruel joke to Raptors.
Mighty as the Heat are, Bron and Bosh are rolling into this year with something to prove. In sports parlance, I believe this is also called a chip on the shoulder, which in acutely collective situations, can be shared between individuals. For James and Bosh, it's time to come back in and prove why they were so coveted in the first place. Together. Just not as chess pieces, professors of the game, or toys for Pat Riley's ego. The Heat are a Trojan Horse, a stratagem. They may play, move, and think as one, but the hounds on the prowl are growling more fiercely than ever. Even Mike Miller. Do not forget -- the man is not just a spot-up shooter, or one of those nickel-and-dime pick-ups. He is not afraid to join the big boy's club on occasion.
That a team could be so stacked, and yet so rife with, dare I say, the fervor of the underdog or the man who has lost it all (calm down, I know they're still rich), is freaking scary. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. But the parts are never content to be mere sum. There's your frightening paradox to kick the Heat hype up even higher.
The kind of redemption they seek -- one that no one ever bothered Kevin Garnett with -- depends on striking this balance between group dynamic and individual fireworks. The secret of this Heat team, though, is that these two elements aren't at odds. The more monstrous James, Wade, or Bosh plays, the sharper the interplay between them. And, as you know well, they will all make each others' lives easier. Factor in a vendetta straight out of one of those Kurosawa movies I never get around to watching, and suddenly, the league seems to have more important things to worry about than how much of a punk LeBron James is. (BS)
The Works Season Previews: Indiana Pacers + New Orleans Hornets
Nobody has the entire National Basketball Association at his fingertips, and believe it or not, the brains of Msr. Ziller and Msr. Shoals are not connected by tape and electrical wire. To get prepped -- and pumped -- for the upcoming season, we will interrogate each about the darkest corners of this league. For each team, some questions. And for each question, some answers. Fiist, the Pacers.
BS: No one can seriously argue that Darren Collison is the same caliber player as Chris Paul, and yet both Collison posted similarly eye-popping numbers in New Orleans. How will his play translate to Indiana, or is he really that good?
TZ: What Collison lacks in comparison to Paul is quite a bit of the court vision that allows CP3 to choose between a lob pass or a kick-out; no one made more passes for three-pointers than Paul during New Orleans' all-too-brief heyday. I haven't seen that level of savvy from Collison yet, and I'm not sure if the Danny Granger-centric offense in Indiana will allow for a replication of Paul by Collison. Paul really was/is the only planet with gravitational pull in New Orleans; Collison hasn't asserted himself ahead of Granger or even Roy Hibbert, an offseason focus of the Pacers, as of yet.
And that's a potential problem, because to allow Collison to be at his best, he needs the autonomy and freedom to make decisions off the dribble. Part of the reason he had such a marvelous rookie season is that he, as someone with talents similar to Paul, fit right into Paul's vacancy. It's like doing a production of Othello, and the dude playing Iago goes AWOL. Collison was equivalent to Paul's understudy; if you bump Othello's understudy up into the role of Iago, that's like Carlos Arroyo backing up Mario Chalmers last season. There's just no consistency, and no simply translation of skills. There's dissonance.
While Collison may be similar to Paul, there's a dissonance in the systems D.C. will have played in. It's up to Jim O'Brien to adapt for the good of his team, and possibly for Granger to sublimate his own All-Star game. We'll see if that comes close to happening. More like Collison will adapt, and he (and the Pacers) will be lesser for it.
BS: The most interesting thing about the Pacers might be their decidedly non-Pacers-y rookies: Paul George, Magnum Rolle, and Lance Stephenson. Will any of them be a factor this season?
TZ: George is the least Pacer-y Pacer in years; one could argue Lance Stephenson just came to the team six years too late, and Rolle isn't an anomaly for just Indiana, but for the league as a whole. So, George.
He was pretty efficient in college, which made his 33% shooting at Summer League weird. When folks compared him to Tracy McGrady, I hope they were talking young T-Mac, not the old, sleepy version. At Summer League he seemed to play like the old sleepy version. He screams project player, which is too bad, because O'Brien is in the last season of his coaching contract, and there's no real sensible veteran for George to learn from. It feels a lot, honestly, like DeMar DeRozan's start in Toronto, rudderless and a bit sad. DeRozan is looking like he'll start to produce regardless, but George's timeline might be longer.
Or it might not be. He's a huge question mark. It could click for him in November and he could end up being one of Indiana's bright spots. Some players are just built for the NBA, and George's athleticism, size and skill set seem to point more toward the pros than mid-level college basketball. He'll be an interesting player to watch for Pacers fans and others; there are quite a few mysteries from this draft class, just as there are every single year. But George is perhaps shrouded more in darkness than any other prospect.
BS: Will Danny Granger have something to prove after being effectively disappeared during Team USA's time in Turkey?
TZ: Does Danny Granger ever have anything to prove? Two straight top-10 scoring lists, an All-Star berth, a few legendary games (hard to pull off on a bad team), a Most Improved trophy. I mean, Granger is a pure scorer. Most of Team USA's scoring came from Kevin Durant or on clean-up duty. Granger can't actually believe he's on Durant's level, and he's clearly not a garbage player. That Lamar Odom was an effective garbage player is somewhat surprising, but Granger in that role would have been an all-out shock.
So, in a way, Coach K did a favor by keeping Granger on the bench -- it allowed people to forget how much better than all other small forwards (besides You Know Who) Durant has become, and it helped elevate the image of Danny past simple role-player.
And now, the Hornets:
TZ: Is Trevor Ariza the answer? Can a true point guard like Chris Paul save his soul?
BS: Call me monster, but I think the addition of Ariza -- a player more functional than transcendent, but darn good at what he does -- might be the straw that puts the Hornets back in business. It won't solve their problem in the middle, at least not until Emeka Okafor can become as deadly on offense as Tyson Chandler was catching Paul's alley-oops. Yet break Ariza down to his core components, acquired over the years like a junk collector or wandering apprentice, and you get the following: freak athlete, consistent spot-up three-point shooter, and long, dynamic defender.
Add CP3 to that mix, and you get a new break-mate for Paul; a guy who can knock down the shot when the defense collapses on penetration; and the ideal defender to create turnovers and get the team off and running. It's a marriage of convenience: Paul is exactly what Ariza needs to look his best, and gives Paul just enough to make this team relevant again. That says a lot more about the Hornets' PG than their new wing, but it's nevertheless good news for the Hornets -- and anyone addicted to watching Paul on League Pass. (BS)
TZ: Dell Demps and Monty Williams -- two guys who had no relationship with Paul -- have been able to do what Masai Ujiri and George Karl were unable to pull off with Carmelo Anthony. Does that speak more to personality differences between 'Melo and CP3, or some sort of magic in New Orleans?
BS: Well, Paul's situation is different. He had to be placated; 'Melo actually has some leverage just on the horizon, and in the NBA, that horizon creeps closer and closer every year. That might also explain why New Orleans made some moves with the express purpose of making this team more vital, while it's hard to see how Denver's addition of Al Harrington does anything to fill Carmelo Anthony with confidence in his team. If anything, that's a piss-poor way of preparing for life without him. It's also worth noting that, while 'Melo is very, very good, Chris Paul just might be the best player in the league. Certainly, he can single-handedly turn a rag-tag bunch into a playoff team. If the Hornets can't give him a little to work with, and succeed in alienating him to the fullest, what are the chances they get another shot with a talent of his caliber? They saw what happened up in Cleveland.
Again, though, Anthony is on the brink of being traded, lest his team lose him for nothing. If not now, maybe this spring. As much as Paul may or may not have lobbied for a trade, it may have been as much a cry for help as a real threat. Unlike 'Melo, he was at least a year away from having to be taken seriously there. Bringing in a new regime whose express goal was to calm Paul down was a viable project in the Hornets' case. Given how close 'Melo is to leaving, and all the other questions swirling around Denver -- for one, are they even a top-tier team out West anymore? -- there's really only so much it made sense to do. With Karl recovering, Chauncey Billups aging, and Ty Lawson their most attractive trade bait and brightest hope for the future, it's just not that simple for the Nuggets. (BS)
TZ: What miracles must be performed for this team to get back to where it was three years ago?
BS: You are assuming I still fully understand how the Hornets played that well three years ago. Again, the easy answer is, another big man who makes an impact defensively and can serve as a weapon for Paul. Paul, Marcus Thornton, Ariz, and David West (who should benefit from the added help) are a nice foursome, but Chandler was arguably the second most important player on the 2007-08 squad. Here's my answer: Emeka Okafor must sell his soul to the devil, but in a good way. (BS)
Of Batmans and Robins
If a nerd can step into the John Wall-Gilbert Arenas relationship for one second: In Chris Tomasson's Arenas follow-up from Tuesday's nights preseason opener, Gil said that he's stepping aside so that Wall can flourish, much like Larry Hughes did for Arenas back in the day. Then, Gil said Wall is the Batman to Gil's Robin. But that's where things break down.
The Batman-Robin moniker fit Arenas and Hughes, because no one ever counted on a Hughes-led team to be anything but terrible. Hughes always needed someone better than him, and preferably four or five players better than him. When Gil arrived, I don't remember a sense of "he's taking Hughes' spot." That sense is certainly there with Wall-Arenas.
As such, there can be no Batman-Robin relationship for Wall and Gill. It's more like a Wolverine-Cyclops relationship, only if Cyclops had a bushy beard and Wolverine's general worldview. (Not to say Gil is more deserving of Wolverine's general coolness and don't-give-a-hump attitude, but, well, he sort of is.) I think this makes Andray Blatche Jean Grey, and I swear that's a major compliment. (TZ)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.