Charlotte Hornets

Why the top 10 storylines to tip off NBA season start with LeBron vs. Kyrie

Kyrie Irving, right, was clearly tired of being a sidekick to LeBron James, left, and now Celtics-Cavs should be the best rivalry in the Eastern Conference.
Kyrie Irving, right, was clearly tired of being a sidekick to LeBron James, left, and now Celtics-Cavs should be the best rivalry in the Eastern Conference. TNS

Kyrie Irving sure did make things more interesting for Tuesday’s NBA season opener.

On Wednesday, Irving – traded at his request from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Boston Celtics – told a couple of reporters how much more cosmopolitan Boston is than Cleveland (reasonable observation). Then, he added he’s so happy to be playing in a “real, live sports city” like Boston.

Whether or not Irving meant it that way, that stings Clevelanders, who supported the Cavs passionately, and celebrated lavishly when that team won the championship over Golden State two springs ago.

Tuesday, the Celtics play the Cavs in Cleveland on national television, and it should be quite the scene. Irving was clearly tired of being a sidekick to LeBron James, and now Celtics-Cavs should be the best rivalry in the Eastern Conference. That’s one of 10 strong storylines for the 2017-18 season. Nine others worth noting:

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Looking to keep superstar guard Russell Westbrook, left, interested in staying long-term, the Oklahoma City Thunder managed to trade for two name players in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. David Zalubowski AP

OK see-me?

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s fans felt dumped when Kevin Durant chose to sign with the Golden State Warriors in the summer of 2016. OKC has been a huge small-market success for the NBA, after the move from Seattle.

Looking to keep superstar guard Russell Westbrook interested in staying long-term, the Thunder managed to trade for two name players in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Westbrook signed a contract extension, and now the question becomes if those three will share the ball efficiently enough to make the Thunder a worthy challenger to the Warriors in the Western Conference.

Finally, time to start over

Anthony’s departure from the New York Knicks should finally send a signal that franchise has frequently ignored: Sometimes you have to stop treading water, and get worse to get better.

Now-departed basketball-ops chief Phil Jackson did draft a blossoming star in Kristaps Porzingis. The Knicks generate so much revenue that it emboldens whoever is in charge to make impetuous decisions. Derrick Rose is gone, but this franchise is stuck with a big contract for a receding asset in Joakim Noah. Play the kids and design a real plan for the next three to five seasons. Stop chasing shiny balls every free-agent period.

The mass migration

The Western Conference has been stronger, and often deeper, than the East, and somehow that became more pronounced this offseason. George, Anthony, Jimmy Butler (Chicago to Minnesota) and Paul Millsap (Atlanta to Denver) all added to the strength of Western Conference teams.

No wonder there have been calls for doing away with conference alignment to seed for the playoffs (an idea that, while intriguing, would be a logistical nightmare).

Charlotte Hornets center gives an envisioned NBA Finals press conference at the start of a Q&A session during the team's media day

The blue-and-gold behemoth

The Warriors have set off a new round of debate over whether so-called “super teams” are good or bad for the NBA. I don’t get the buzz about this: You don’t hear that the New England Patriots are bad for the NFL or that Kentucky is bad for college basketball.

The other aspect that sometimes gets marginalized in this is that, for the most part, the Warriors improved organically. They were awful for a long time, and their fans still supported them loyally. That franchise drafted Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Durant joined up after the Warriors were already good.

I think if there’s resentment toward the Warriors’ success, it’s about envy, not sincere concern for competitive balance.

Boston baked basketball

Danny Ainge has done a brilliant job of putting the Celtics back in contention. Now it’s coach Brad Stevens’ job to oversee a lot of change: They traded for Irving, signed Gordon Hayward away from the Utah Jazz, and used a high draft pick on Duke’s Jayson Tatum.

Anyone would love to coach all that talent, but blending these newcomers into a unit, with immediate expectations to overtake the Cavaliers in the East, will be challenging. Remaking the roster involved trading away dynamic point guard Isaiah Thomas to Cleveland and rugged defender Avery Bradley to Detroit.

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The buzz around Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball – some of it justified, some of it contrived – is considerable. Ringo H.W. Chiu AP

Laker Nation

Los Angeles is a star culture, and not just in the movie industry. The Los Angeles Lakers lost that when Kobe Bryant retired. The buzz around rookie Lonzo Ball – some of it justified, some of it contrived – is considerable.

Ball, the second overall pick, was the first major move after Lakers icon Magic Johnson took charge of the basketball operation. Ball has a father who, to put it kindly, sure loves microphones and has a rather high opinion of his three sons. Hopefully, this doesn’t interfere with Ball’s learning curve in the NBA, because he’s fun to watch without all the marketing puffery.

Still the city game?

New York was once viewed as the mecca of basketball. The city hasn’t produced many stars the past few years (the Charlotte Hornets’ Kemba Walker is an exception) and both local franchises are hurting. Beyond the Knicks’ self-inflicted troubles described above, the Brooklyn Nets don’t offer much of an alternative to Madison Square Garden.

Maybe the Nets’ trade with the Lakers for D’Angelo Russell will be the start of something better. It’s not good for business when both the Knicks and the Nets stink.

The process

Are the Philadelphia 76ers finally ready to stop tanking and start competing? They signed Joel Embiid to a huge contract extension (a wise investment if he can stay healthy). They will get top pick Ben Simmons’ rookie season a year later than planned, due to injury.

Point guard has replaced center as the NBA’s most important position. Rookie Markelle Fultz, the top pick in June’s draft, can bring all this rebuilding together if he’s all he’s purported to be. Philadelphia is a demanding sports town, and the Sixers have strained their fans’ patience for a half-decade.

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Will LeBron James still be a Cleveland Cavalier after the 2017-18 season? Phil Long AP

Another decision

James has made so much money that his relationship with the Cavaliers is more like a partner than an employee. He structures his contracts, not for maximum security, but for the option to go somewhere else if he doesn’t like the team’s progress.

If James decides to break ties with the team he grew up watching, as he did once before by signing with the Miami Heat, he’ll still be impactful enough to set off a frenzy. As mentioned above, the Lakers are a star culture like no other in the NBA. How much would Johnson love delivering James to the Staples Center?

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell

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