The fabric of a league rarely differs all that much on opening night from what it was the year before.While minor changes come in the form of regular operations like free agency, draft picks, retirements, and coaching hires, earth-shaking developments such as franchise expansion and rule changes are rare. When it’s all said and done though, not only is this year’s NBA an exception to that statement, but the developments that have taken place in the buildup to its 2014-2015 season have been overwhelmingly positive, providing plenty of excitement for the league’s future.
Any discussion about the positive direction of the NBA needs to start with the person at the top of its food chain: Commissioner Adam Silver. Since replacing David Stern in February, Silver has become one of the most respected figures in sports. While Stern should certainly be applauded for his admirable success in expanding the league domestically and internationally, he was also known in league circles as an authoritative and monomaniacal, and his handling of certain league affairs—like the Seattle Supersonics’ relocation and the Chris Paul trade veto—were dubious to say the least. Silver, on the other hand, operates with a gentle authority, and has drawn praise already for improved transparency and a willingness to entertain progressive ideas for lottery reform and other changes to the game.
Most importantly though, when TMZ released the infamous tape containing Donald Sterling’s racist remarks, Silver responded swiftly and decisively, banning Sterling from the NBA for life. By acting in the manner that he did, Silver gained the trust of players and personnel across the league, and sent a firm message that the NBA does not tolerate such behaviour. While some might argue that it was an easy decision for Silver to make, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s timid handle on football’s league-wide domestic violence problem is proof that we shouldn’t take Silver for granted.
Sterling’s departure paved the way for former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to purchase the Clippers for a record $2 billion this summer. Having Sterling gone and watching his long-pathetic franchise fetch such a price is a dream scenario for the NBA, but it wasn’t even the only one that fell into its lap. While suffering through a campaign that would produce last year’s lowest NBA win total, Milwaukee Bucks fans were saddled with the added weight of rumours that their team would be the next to relocate. This past May, however, the franchise was bought by an ownership group that paid $550 million and vowed to keep the team in Milwaukee. To put that in perspective, arguably the least valuable NBA team is still worth more than all but six NHL franchises—on par with the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins—according to Forbes. On top of all this, the NBA recently signed a lucrative $24 billion TV deal that will increase revenue league-wide and raise the salary cap.
None of this would matter though if the NBA didn’t offer a strong on-court product, and there have been a number of positive developments that promise to make this season one of the most exciting in recent memory. It all starts with LeBron James’ Cleveland homecoming, where he’s already changed the Cavs’ toxic franchise culture. His return also gives superstars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving a chance to finally taste post-season basketball. Elsewhere, a talented Hornets team is moving past the train wreck that was the Bobcats era, while Phil Jackson and Stan Van Gundy are bringing the promise of stability to the Knicks and Pistons, respectively. Derrick Rose is returning from injury to play on his best Bulls team yet, Minnesota—and, more importantly, Anthony Bennett— is starting fresh after last year’s disappointment, and it’s one of the most promising rookie crops ever. Omer Asik is free from Houston’s bench, Utah’s bench is free from Tyrone Corbin, Dirk Nowitzki has been reunited with Tyson Chandler in Dallas, and Jeff Hornacek has a third starting-caliber point guard to unleash in Phoenix. Finally, a polished Bruno Caboclo is ready to lead the Raptors to a championship. Perhaps that last statement was a bit of a stretch.
From its head offices to its locker rooms, the NBA is a vastly different league than it was heading into last season. It boasts an excellent first-year commissioner, new owners that were willing to pay top dollar to join, and a flurry of positive basketball moves—apologies to the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, and especially Kobe Bryant. For all the change though, don’t be surprised if the season ends the same way it did last year: With Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, and the San Antonio Spurs being crowned as NBA Champions.