- - Monday, October 16, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The NBA season is upon us.

Feels like it never left. Instead, the action picked up as superstars packed up after the games ended.

Two of the biggest movers-and-shakers will model their new uniforms Tuesday in a doubleheader featuring conference finals favorites. Kyrie Irving leads the Celtics against his former team, the Cavaliers. LeBron James is questionable with an ankle injury, though he’d probably hop around on one leg for a chance to beat Irving.

The nightcap features Houston’s Chris Paul, the former longtime Los Angeles Clippers point guard, joining forces with James Harden to take on Golden State. While Houston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are gunning for their title in the Western Conference, the Warriors are low-key threats to approach their NBA-record 73 victories.

In the Eastern Conference, the Washington Wizards look around and notice several missing faces. Indiana no longer has Paul George, who’s running with Russell Westbrook in OKC. The same goes for Carmelo Anthony, who finally made his escape from New York and makes the Thunder a legitimate threat.

Jimmy Butler and Paul Millsap are two more All-Stars who moved from east to west, respectively, Chicago to Minnesota and Atlanta to Denver. The offseason talent drain only increased the intraconference disparity. If the NBA threw all 16 playoff teams into a single bracket, chances are the East wouldn’t have a squad that reaches the Final Four.

(On a similar note, the new, “captain’s choice” All-Star format would have a much different look if the equal representation wasn’t mandatory. About half of the East’s All-Stars would miss the cut if the NBA’s top 24 players were selected, regardless of conference affiliation. Here’s a good prop bet for Vegas: How many players will be left after a captain chooses the final Western Conference All-Star?)

Back to reality. With the current playoff system in place until further notice, the Wizards‘ goal remains unchanged: Advance to the conference final for the first time since 1978-79.

They came within one victory last season and figure to be a stronger team this season. Continued growth from Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr. are essential, as is improved play from the revamped bench. The steep drop-off between starters and reserves was too much to overcome last year, especially when John Wall and Bradley Beal sat down at the same time.

Wall and Beal are arguably the best point guard and best shooting guard in their conference. Collectively, they have a case as the league’s third-best backcourt, behind only Houston (Paul and Harden) and Golden State (Steph Curry and Klay Thompson), though the Wizards‘ super-confident duo would smirk at suggestions they’re not No. 1.

Whatever the case, they need help if Washington is to get over the hump and win 50 games for the first time since 1978-79. If starters could play every minute, the Wizards might win 60 with Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat alongside the “House of Guards.” That quintet played 1,347 minutes together last season — 467 more minutes than any other in the league — and outscored opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions.

Porter landed a max deal for his effort. His game wasn’t quite “Big 3”-level the last time we saw him, but his work ethic and steady development should bring him closer this year. Continuity will be an asset as he enters his fifth season with Wall and Beal. And let’s be clear: His value to the Wizards and the value of his contract are not the same thing.

While much has changed, the conference title still goes through Cleveland, where James is reunited with old sidekick Dwyane Wade and — eventually — they’ll be joined by former Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas. But the East is wide open after that.

Boston, the No. 1 seed last season, returns just four players, having lost much of its grit and defensive tenacity. Likewise, Toronto is without several key contributors after back-to-back campaigns of 50-plus victories. Atlanta is a mere shell of the team that reached the conference finals two seasons ago. A threat is budding in Milwaukee, led by “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Bucks figure to be a year away from serious contention.

Washington likely resides on a tier just below the four teams tipping off the NBA season Tuesday night. But Boston and Cleveland have to prove it to the Wizards. “I feel like we’re the best team in the East, I really do,” Beal told ESPN recently. “That’s how we feel coming into the season.”

They’ll have a chance to back up that belief starting Wednesday, when the up-and-coming 76ers visit Capital One Arena.

Feels like the NBA season never ended.

It’s just time for the games to resume.

Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.


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